Wednesday, April 9 2008
Aboard MV Mozart, Danube River
Gliding through Europe on the MV Mozart, on the Danube, on another press trip. Making our way toward Budapest, the Danube greeny-grey rather than its fabled blue. I sampled Munich in two days, saw Dachau, boarded the boat, peeked into the village of Durnstein, tasted Vienna in the form of a Sacher torte. And now, gliding toward Budapest, formerly a place name on a map, now a place I’m going to be able to name, say I saw.
I’m a million miles from home, making my way through a gentle, peaceful Europe where it’s safe to walk around at night, where you catch trains and buses to go home, and they run on time. Trying to explain home to the people who share my table at night in the dining room is like trying to explain Mars to earthlings. “So do you catch the train into town?” asked Roger, the English investment banker. And how could I begin to explain Johannesburg with its chaotic roads, the minibuses going where they like, the buses that are infrequent, if they come at all? The minibuses that are not state controlled, are often not road worthy with Coke bottles attached to steering wheels to hold brake fluid and screw drivers sometimes serving as steering wheels? Every time I open my mouth I feel like I’m telling tales, exaggerating or complaining. At dinner I drink bitter lemon (called dry lemon at home) and say how much I enjoy it, and say that I haven’t been able to get it for a while as we ran out of gas to make it. Or so I assume. Because we seem to be told regularly that we’ve run out of gas when you can’t find a brand of cold drink, or even sparkling mineral water.
Similarly I can’t explain the joke the SAA pilot made as we flew out of OR Tambo and the lights were, as usual, put off before we lifted into the air: “Load shedding is about to begin,” said the pilot, and those South Africans on board caught the joke and laughed wryly. How do you explain load shedding?
And so South Africa follows me here. People are interested in what’s going on. A Swedish woman on the Dachau tour asked me if it was dangerous to go out into the “woods” or “forest”. Knowing she meant the veld or the bush, I think, I said not really, as lodges are often protected by fences, and you can take guided walks with rangers, and they often carry guns. I did speak of the dangers of crime, however, and that tourists become victims as they aren’t aware of the dangers. A tourist went running along the beach at night and was raped. You can perhaps do this in Europe, go running on a beach at night, but you can’t do this in South Africa. So I said no, the animals weren’t dangerous as such, if you keep to designated areas, stay in a game drive vehicle. It was the people – although, along with that, there is a tremendous amount of friendliness and goodwill.
But of course your country does follow you. I walked the streets of Munich at night and it was fine and safe. Of course if anyone came too close, just trying to pass, I tensed automatically. And yes, thefts happen anywhere, but you can still do this in Europe. Stroll with your bag, an ordinary, not very amazing thing to do. And yet, it’s not something I’d ever do at home. In Johannesburg we drive from mall to mall. The level of fear, of threat to your body all the time, is unimaginable to Europeans.
And so the comparisons follow me through Europe. You expect the safety, the neat, quiet orderliness of Germany, of Europe, but still you can’t quite believe it. It feels comfortable to catch a cab from Munich airport one morning and then to suddenly realise how quiet, neat and orderly the streets are. When someone hoots you turn to look around around, because it’s all so unusual, it disrupts the serenity. It actually feels odd. And you wonder why someone has dared to put their hand on the hooter. And yet, it’s only leaving Munich that you suddenly realise there are no beggars and no hawkers at every robot. Again, how unusual.
There are beggars of course. Not everywhere. One at the main train station, a Gypsy-looking woman, face creased into pleading. A man on a street corner. Another sitting on a pavement in Vienna, a young man with long, brown hair, head bowed to the ground, yet with his hands outstretched, waiting. But they are seemingly, oddities, few enough not to be noticed. A mime artist dressed as Mozart, hands outstretched as you point your camera at him. Another form of begging, you could say, and he’d probably argue with you.
Munich. Beggars and casinos and strip clubs. Kebab shops on just about every corner. And the internet shop was run by Turks. I emailed South Africa listening to Turkish music, while pecking my way through a German keyboard. The z is where the y is, and I never did find the apostrophe. The Chinese ran cheap shops where I bought a 10 euro canvas bag. And sex saloons: a winking figure of a plastic woman, red lights flashing from an interior, Abba blaring out into the street. So many of them and the casinos too, seemingly open all the time. And on Sunday, as in apartheid South Africa, the shops are closed. You can only window shop. Only the kebab shops, restaurants, internet cafes are open.
One night I saw a young woman eating in an Asian restaurant, all by herself. Forking her food in a dimly-lit place, quite self-contained. Perhaps I glanced at her for a second only, and her partner or friend was simply in the toilet. And then again, perhaps not.
Budapest. The waters of the Danube are finally beginning to look blue if you look towards the distance. We’re docked in the heart of yet another old, grand European city, surrounded by famous buildings, history, a sense of proud grandeur. It’s a film set setting; you can’t help but be impressed.
Friday April 18 2008
Back home. Each journey throws up another nuance, reveals something different to you, or about you. Each journey highlights a particular place in your life, and each journey is ultimately about you, not the country you’re visiting or the city you’re wondering through. Seen at another time your experience is altered. I loved Spain when I visited three years ago, yet couldn’t wait to leave it when I visited last June, and this time I fell in love with Europe all over again.
Sunday May 25 2008
Glancing at a newspaper article this week: 20 percent of South Africans in the 18-44 age bracket are considering emigrating – that’s the prime of the working population.
Meanwhile xenophobic attacks have plagued the country for the past two weeks. They started in Gauteng, attacks on foreigners living in South Africa, spreading from the townships to Cleveland and Hillbrow last weekend, and then KwaZulu Natal and the Cape. The newspapers are full of images: Mozambicans, Malawians, Congolese and Zimbabweans fleeing the townships, blood pouring from their wounds. Fleeing to churches and police stations where makeshift tent cities are springing up. These people have lost everything: homes, shacks, possessions. Appeals for food, soap, underwear. The Mozambican government has been sending buses to transport them home. Looting of shops and homes. On TV I watched as police fired rubber bullets, roughing up looters who pillaged for food. Two men carting a looted fridge down the road in a mad hurry, doors opening as they hurried, plastic ice trays spilling out. You couldn’t help wondering who the fridge belonged to: a foreigner chased out of his or her home, a foreign-owned shop looted?
Images of the attacks have been flashed around the world. It feels like the 1980s again: the townships on fire, mobs marching, police firing. Town on Tuesday was eerily quiet; the Indian-owned shops near The Star’s building were shut. They did open again on Wednesday.
It took Mbeki days to make a statement about the attacks. And he still hasn’t visited Alexandra township where it all started. It took Morgan Tsvangerai to visit Alex.
The attacks were sparked by fears that immigrants are taking all the jobs away from local workers because foreigners are said to work for less money. Food prices are spiralling. Life is getting harder and unemployment is still (unofficially) at 40 percent. The government has wavered between condemning the attacks, saying they are not xenophobic in nature but are the work of criminals instead. And yet it’s foreigners being targeted, hounded, raced out of their homes. And the most chilling of all: two men necklaced in scenes even more reminiscent of the 80s. And more chilling: a woman laughing as the man burned with the tyre around his neck.
Sunday June 22 2008
Today is Michael’s birthday. Obviously this has been weighing on my mind. The other night I wrote two poems about him, “I’ll always miss dreaming my dreams with you” and “You’re only ten weeks old”. And then today I wrote a short story called, “Finally, a meeting”. About all the times I have imagined bumping into him: from sitting in Trafalgar Square, imagining him being there, say on holiday from Canada; to other times when I have met men who look like him, a training course recently, or a guide at Ichobezi Lodge, to other times I have fantasised about seeing him. This story takes it further, and imagines a meeting sometime in the future, when me as narrator, is in Canada and the new older Michael bumps into her. But she is now happily married. It’s too late now, to do what she’s always wanted to do. I hope it’s good. I enjoyed writing it – a “found” story in the sense that I hadn’t been planning or pondering such a piece.
Funny, or not so funny how he still continues to haunt and dominate me. I realise that at the time of the break up I think I decided I never wanted to be so hurt again. And so, to prevent being hurt, I never did open myself up as I did then, nor fall as heavily for the other men I have known since him. So I did what I set out to do then. It’s only by opening up that you get to experience the roller-coaster of love. It was like a death recovering from that breakup, I’m afraid I won’t survive another. And yet, people do survive.
Friday August 22 2008
I entered the POWA (People Opposing Woman Abuse) writing award. The story had to be about healing from abuse, the journey to healing. I edited 'Octopus Fingers' down to 2 500 words. Cutting the story nearly in half means really paring it down to its essentials. Does it work? It ends differently, and I took out the bit about the woman (based on my mother) never healing from the spousal abuse and I renamed it 'Crumbs'. A few months ago I took another look at it and decided it didn’t work and I must take it out of my MS collection of short stories. Rereading it today, really rereading it by having to prune it, I liked it, revised my decision. But it’s hard to be objective about your own work, to really judge it. And rereading it I thought that the theme of the story is how Hazel (my mother in disguise), doesn’t heal from the abuse, the experience. That’s the whole point of it. A sad point – that some people don’t recover but remain mired in the effects of the abuse, or a bad relationship. *
Sunday August 31 2008
Thinking back to the words used in my childhood, how usage changes not just within a person’s life, but within a few decades. As a child “cookies” were what the Americans called fairy cakes and are now referred to as cupcakes. Now I haven’t heard the word cookies used in years. When did cupcakes supplant cookies? And the word still exists – it’s what the Americans call what we refer to as biscuits.
And then there’s another foodstuff: pasta. At some point we stopped saying “Would you like spaghetti or macaroni?” and asked instead, “Would you like some pasta?”Only then do you choose whether you’ll be eating fettuccine or linguine or penne or whatever. Why the change? Again, who knows.
As a child I heard my mother referring to “rouge”. By the time I was using the stuff in my twenties, in the early 1990s, I referred to “blusher”. My mother still refers to ships and countries as “she”. I do a double take when she says something like, “America is a bully, she should stay out of the war.” She? I know what she means but in my generation’s use, I’d say something like, “The boat, it’s called the MV Mozart.” A boat, for me, is an it. A country even more so. English lost all its gender cases, but for these instances, and yet they have survived in my mother’s lexicon. But not in mine. How odd. Our language stretches and bounces back like elastic. Living, breathing, dynamic.
But what were to happen if English were a dying, vanishing language? Instead of flourishing, let’s pretend there are only a handful of elderly speakers left. When they die, the rich heritage of our literature, movies, music, idioms, dies with them. It’s an unutterably lonely feeling. To think if losing the language you’ve known since birth, loved and lived in. To think that your language dies with you: its unique sounds, its hard masculine character, its flexibility. And yes, it’s unimaginable to think this of English when it’s such an alive language, with life being breathed into it every day by its millions and billions of speakers. It pulses. And yet, this language death is happening to so many marginal languages, from Aboriginal languages, to Native American, to others that are clinging, Provencal, or look at Cornish, now clawing its way back with a few determined students learning it. For English speakers it’s unimaginable not being surrounded by our language. But contemplate it, imagine it. It feels lonely; it feels like you’re the last person left on planet earth. (And there are aliens out there.)
Monday September 22 2008
Dance of friendship. The uncertainty of it. I never can take anyone for granted; friendships like balls, sparkly balls dangling from a Christmas tree. I could say or do the wrong thing. The lack of intimacy. Yes, I do talk about what matters – work issues, writing, but I don’t go further now. Say how jittery I feel about the future, not sharing deep personal stuff. So many friends don’t know about my childhood or my teen years and how that scars and cuts me up still. I feel like it’s an essential part of me, of who I am, the way I am. Seeing personal stuff as being dirty. Yet, friends do tell each other these things.
Wednesday October 1 2008
October, birthday month. “At the age of thirty-seven,” sings Marianne Faithfull in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, my favourite song, “she realised she’d never ride in a sports car in Paris with the warm wind in her hair.” I’m still hoping that’s to come. Paris, warm wind, love.
Thursday October 2 2008
I love the short story. It’s definitely my genre, whether I go on to write novels, or novellas, or anything else, I’ll always have to write short stories, be satisfied by writing them, and reading others’. Alice Munro made her name writing stories. It’s what I want to do. That and personal essays, personal travel writing, some journalism. And have the space to tackle larger projects too, when I want to.
Sunday October 12 2008
Out last night with Jenny to see Coupe, a quietly brilliant play, created by Sylvaine Strike and Sue Pam Grant and the members of the Fortune Cookie Company. Set in a coupe, a second-class train compartment, three people share the compartment, a Frenchwoman, speaking only French, a twittery nervous English-speaking South African and an Afrikaner. Each speaks only in their own language to each other, and yet they manage to communicate. A revolving coupe is the stage set as they travel overnight. A play filled with layers, levels, meaning. Nuances. The head of a gazelle affixed to the wall of the coupe becomes mirror, repository of deep dreams and desires. As night goes on and each sleep another kind of communication takes place, More unnamed desires emerge. Each caught up in their own impossibilities. A rich work that lives on, no wonder it’s won so many awards and has garnered such a reputation.
At Jenny’s you feel the passage of years, not a weight, it doesn’t feel oppressive. The photographs in frames, on the fridge, in her bedroom, her family, brothers and sisters, her daughter as a baby, a toddler, a teen, grown up, Jenny and her husband through the years. Jenny seated at a typewriter in the 1980s. The settled feeling, you feel, you know that they have created lives, histories together, a warm, satisfied feeling, a contentment is present.
Saturday, November 22 2008
Went away with Venise to Umkwali Reserve to track cheetah. As always with Venise we find ourselves discussing personal things. We spoke a bit about Michael – this haunted, unresolved relationship in my life – and at one point she commented that everything I brought about him seemed negative. That observation felt uncomfortable and I laughed it off by saying but oh he looked so good and sexy in his leather jacket with his broad, handsome shoulders. I knew what I was doing – not wanting to see that comment or dwell on the negative, that there was a lot wrong with that relationship, when I often romanticise it. And I didn’t want Venise feeling like she had to analyse me. That’s her job as a therapist, I don’t want her to think she has to bring it to our friendship, be my therapist.
But her words reverberated and I have been thinking about it, and how right she was with that observation, and it closed something, that comment. How is it that no-one else has ever said it, seen the negative of that relationship through all my talking about it? Did the therapist I saw ten years ago, ever comment like this? Have friends ever said the same? Perhaps I haven’t been ready to hear that before, if it has been said. But suddenly, somehow, I was ready to hear it, and admit that yes there was a lot wrong with it and that it wasn’t right. A door clanged quietly: I stopped obsessing about Michael, and wondering what he might be doing now. Somehow that comment made me let him go, wherever he is, whatever he is doing, married, divorced, with kids or without. It no longer mattered to me to know. I put him in the past. A door shut and with it shutting, I saw other possibilities. It was the most liberating feeling. Could it be that I am finally over Michael? It feels like it.
* 'Crumbs' was published by POWA in 2009.
These extracts were published in In Our Own Words: A generation defining itself, 2008