Last week I was shopping for food at 10 at night. With only one teller available at Tesco, and two self-service machines available, I nervously approached them and did what I had seen others do ahead of me.
Scanning my own groceries – who would have thought! I did have a minor moment of, “Now what?” when I got to the vegetables and fruit – after all they have no barcodes – but there was a friendly, if rather harassed employee, on hand to help me.
I packed my groceries into the hemp-like bag my cousin had provided me with and made my way home in the dark.
Lager louts crowded the narrow streets of Richmond, slouching in low slung jeans, women with bare arms tottered in heels; music blared from a pub and I wrapped my coat firmly around me.
I came home to Johannesburg: rubbish piled high outside my complex, potholes which I instinctively avoided, and the talk on the radio was all about the power outages affecting the city of Johannesburg. This came as winter had arrived with a vengeance, freezing temperatures and unseasonable rain.
I was exhausted and couldn’t understand why.
After all, they do speak English in London, and having watched British TV and movies, read novels set in that country you generally think you’re au fait with the norms and customs in that culture. But as a friend pointed out soon after my arrival, “No wonder you’re tired, London’s another world entirely.”
And it is. This was my third visit – and each time I spend time there I feel as if I am only peering through a tiny window, barely scratching at the surface of this vast city.
Each visit means a reacquaintance with the Underground, of course, it’s all a bit of a maze at first with west-bound and east-bound trains causing a small headache until it’s the last day and suddenly you know what you’re doing and you’re racing along like the Londoners, crystal sure of your direction and in just as much of a hurry to get there as everyone else.
And yet, it’s deceptive, this feeling, as though you know your way around or that you know the city. Take the language. They may speak English, you may speak English, but the way you talk is sometimes cause for amusement.
My Swedish cousin made her home there six years ago and is fully bilingual; bilingual enough to comment that both I, and other South Africans she has met, seem to talk a sort of antique version of the language.
We’re not just talking about stoves versus cookers here either. And although I never quite said the words “blooming marvellous” she almost expected me to come up those quaint words. In any case, when I used the word “foxed” all at the dinner table burst out in embarrassed laughter. Never quite got that.
I was foxed in other ways too. While we South Africans know all about recycling – for most of us it’s a rather academic understanding, sadly – but in the UK they have it down pat.
Getting my head around four places to put the rubbish – from paper to tin to vegetable and other organic-like matter to a plain old dustbin – was another learning curve.
I more or less got it right, but even so a banana peel sometimes landed up being flung in the wrong bin. I assuaged my shame by buying not only free-range eggs but also made sure they were organic. See, some things do rub off.
There were other out-of-this-world experiences, of course. Rowing on the River Thames, enjoying those long golden dusks, and finding the greens and the banks of the river filled to bursting with Brits catching the first rays of the season’s sun. They seemed to exhale happiness as they sat basking there.
And then, queuing, yes, queuing politely at the bar for drinks.
I had always thought the British sense of fair play and politeness was somewhat exaggerated, but no, it lives on, although I did feel a little restless and a desire to be pushy as politeness meant a wait of 10 or so minutes just to be served.
And then, on my last day, the sky as blue as a cliche, we went to Windsor Castle. Planes roared over every few minutes – the cloud of ash had at last dissipated and I realised how noisy the skies of London could be. Windsor Castle has been inhabited since the 11th century.We walked among history, marvelled, yes, marvelled at China plates displayed behind glass and Queen Mary’s massive room-sized doll’s house.
And then, leaving, we noticed groups of expectant people, smiles hovering around their faces, massed behind a rope, waiting. Prince Charles was leaving the castle – a small part of it is open to the public, otherwise today’s Royal Family still lives there now and again. I caught a glimpse of a grey head as he ducked into the interior of the car, enough of a glimpse to say that I had hobnobbed with royalty.
Indeed, another world.
(Published in The Sunday Independent, May 2, 2010)