She came into the kitchen, clearly distressed, and asked, “Do you vear licenses?” pointing at her eyes.
“So could I pliz have some of zat liqvid to clean mine?”
Then the penny dropped. Lenses. Contact lenses. I had taken a flyer and thought that our Ukranian house guest was talking about prescription spectacles. This was after her first breakfast in The Sandbag House. Each day, it consisted of fresh fruit salad, homemade meusli, yogurt and honey. Snuggled in the wax wrap is a muffin – for later.
Languages and learning languages
I’ll come back to the breakfast, but that exchange about the contact lenses got me thinking about languages. I am a pretty proficient English speaker and writer. At school I was compelled to learn a second language – Afrikaans – then South Africa’s only other official language. It was not a language to which I had any exposure: neither parent spoke another language fluently having been born and brought up in the UK. My mother had a smattering of French and my father, having worked in the Parks’ Department in Kampala, was at one time, relatively proficient in Kiswahili. That I managed, somehow, to scrape through Afrikaans with a passing grade at school and, subsequently, a one year course at university, is nothing short of a miracle. I have dabbled with learning French – an opportunity offered by the Alliance Française, a million years ago. I picked up less than a smattering of isiXhosa when I lived in the Eastern Cape doing community development work. I learned a smidge of Spanish from having spent three weeks in the Old City in Palma de Mallorca.
Returning to Afrikaans: a prerequisite of my teacher’s qualification was oral proficiency in that language. I was automatically credited with written proficiency (ha!) by way of having completed that one-year, watered-down university course. Four years later, I had to do an oral exam in a language that, to be frank, I had rarely heard spoken, let alone understood. Preparation had been a weekly group discussion in which, I suspect, I was largely silent. Unless required to speak. Because I couldn’t. The appointed day arrived and I presented myself. The panel consisted of the local school inspector and our tutor. She also happened to be a family friend which makes what transpired all the more mortifying, and which is why the entire episode is etched in my memory.”Goeie môre Mejuffrou Cameron.”
Burble, mumble…um… Good morning!
Pleasantaries done, the serious stuff of working out whether I could “praat die taal” ensued.
“Sê my, hoe bak jy ‘n sjokelade koek?”
Let’s not get stuck on the stereotypical question by a man of a young female student, because my response:
I’ve never baked a cake, let alone a chocolate cake. Besides, I don’t like chocolate cake.
“Sê my, wat van motorbestuur?”
Oh, good, I could answer this!
“Ek bestuur nie motor nie, maar ek is van plan om in die volgende tyd, my leuenaars licensie te kry…”
So you don’t drive? You need to get your learner’s license?
“Ja, seker in die volgende paar weke, sal ek my leuenaars toets gaan doen…”
And I warbled on happily about my leuenaars liensie until I took my leave.
It was only a looong time after I left that room that it dawned on me that I was was not planning to get my leerlings lisensie but rather, my liar’s licence…
Needless to say, I scored the lowest possible grade in Afrikaans proficiency – an “a” as opposed to an “A”. It allowed me to qualify and to teach only at an English medium school.
That is a lesson that lives with me. Learning, let alone becoming proficient in, a language not one’s mother tongue when you are not immersed in it, is inordinately difficult. My Afrikaans is much improved – because of where I live – it’s the mother tongue of most folk in the community and people who work with and for us. Improved proficiency, however, hasn’t given me the confidence to hold an entire conversation in the language, let alone read and write it with any comfort.
English, is a complex language with many equally confusing words. Having not only trained as an English teacher, but having been an online writing tutor where many of my students were second language English writers, I have great empathy with the struggles of speakers and writers of second languages.
Ukranian diplomat poet
Returning to our Ukranian guest: she was in McGregor for the seventh edition of the annual weekend of Poetry in McGregor. Through our conversation I learned that she’s been in South Africa for only a year. Her work as a poet and academic, had put her in touch with some South Africans and her proposal to the Ukranian government, earned her a diplomatic role.
She fell in love with McGregor – and my scrambled eggs – which brings me back to breakfast. Her three-night stay was punctuated by Saturday and the only morning I make it clear to guests that there will be no cooked breakfast. A continental breakfast will be set on a tray and/or put in their little fridge. The first morning:
“How would you like your eggs?”
“Oh, any vay. Vot iss easier for you? Boiled, scrambled…”
I’ll scramble eggs any day. As it so happens, eggs, scrambled is one of my favourite ways of eating them. I confess that I’m fussy. I like them the way my father ate them. I loved sitting on his knee and insisting on eating them off his plate: creamy on buttery toast and with a good grinding of black pepper.
Our guest enjoyed her scrambled eggs so much, she contemplated no other choice for her last breakfast. And –
“How do you make them?”
Fiona’s Mum’s creamy scrambled eggs
First, I don’t do scrambled eggs in the microwave. Nor do I do them in a frying pan. I do them in a small saucepan.
Second: making scrambled eggs is not a quick exercise.
Thirdly, it’s a study in concentration: take your eye off them and they spoil.
2 eggs per person
2 generous knobs of butter – even if you’re using a non-stick pan
a dash of milk – proportional to the number of eggs, of course
salt and pepper
- Beat the eggs.
- Add the milk if using (I always do).
- Season to taste.
- Heat a saucepan with a good quantity of butter – it must coat the base.
- When the butter is sizzling, pour in the egg and stir.
- Continue stirring frequently until the egg mixture begins to cook – it sticks to the sides and bottom of the pot.
- Now it is essential to stir continuously, making sure you move the cooked egg into the middle of the pot, agitating the mixture all the time, so that it doesn’t stick.
- Do not overcook them otherwise they go watery,
scrambled eggs continue cooking in the hot pan after you take them off the heat.
- Once they are creamy and lumpy the way you like them, take them off the heat and add a knob of butter.
- Serve either on their own, or use some of the ideas below.
I cobbled this breakfast together a few years ago, the morning after we had returned from a short trip and we hadn’t had time to shop. I ferreted in the fridge and wandered round the garden and discovered eggs, bacon, spinach and tomatoes, as well as fresh chives and parsley. After a week of hotel breakfasts, I wanted something different. I made a thick, rich tomato sauce starting with onion sautéed in the fat from the crisply fried bacon which had been set aside to drain. Once the bacon and sauce had been sorted, I wilted a small bunch of young spinach leaves and made a batch of creamy scrambled eggs.
While all that was going on, plates were happily warming and waiting to have the breakfast bits piled on them. First the wilted spinach and then a dollop of the tomato mix, followed by the scrambled egg and, finally, the crispy bacon. Before garnishing with a sprig of parsley and a fresh chive flower, I chopped some and sprinkled chives over everything.
And when I expressed my appreciation for both on Facebook, her riposte:
I wrote this in August 2019, before the pandemic was imagined and before Russia invaded Ukraine. Needless to say, she, her family and the people of her country have been much on our minds the last two days. The original went the way of so many of my 2019 posts and I thought that given the events of the last few days, appropriate to share it again.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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- and “re-capturing” nearly two years’ worth of posts.
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