Sunday, November 30, 2008

A quartet of names

There’s usually a gasp when I give my name over the phone. The ruder people say, “What?”; those with more manners say, “Sorry, what was that?”

So, over the years I have learned to drop my second name when introducing myself, trying to enunciate Arja clearly. So far, so good, unless the caller wants to spell it. They can’t reconcile the “J” with the pronunciation of my name, which is pronounced “u-ri-yuh”. Arja is a Finnish name, and the “J” is pronounced as in “yoghurt” the Finnish way, not as in the English “jug” or “January”.

I feel for them, these people I give my name to, or those who phone and try gamely to say this name they have never heard before. I try to tell them it rhymes with Maria, which is my second name, but then some folks start calling me Maria. And that grates. I’m no Maria. Maria seems to be a good Catholic name, I see some convent girl dutifully attending Mass and confessing her sins. This is not me. Plus Maria is the only one of my four names I have never used.

Four names?

Here we go. I was born in Spain where they give children two surnames, so I was named Arja Maria Salafranca Migdale, the Salafranca being my father’s Spanish surname, Migdale is my mother’s, changed in the 1930s from the Polish Migdalowitz. When my Jewish grandfather assimilated into South African society, he simplified his name. It must have been easier, less different and less obviously Jewish. He came from starvation and pogroms in Pinsk. Biography informs ever nuance of my names, and there’s a story to each aspect. I have conversations with strangers about all my names. I pay for groceries with my debit card and cashiers ask, “Are these all your surnames?” Some days I wearily reply yes, and leave it at that; other days I go into my spiel of being born in Spain and you get both the mother’s and father’s surnames, and that’s why I have such a long-looking surname on all my official documents like bank statements and debit cards and my ID book. Collecting my chequebook is hell. No one knows where to file it, under M or S. Because my names are not hyphenated, which would make life easier. Sometimes it’s filed under A for Arja, a simple neat solution.

The name Arja comes from an ex-Finnish girlfriend of my father’s. Again, people gasp when they hear this. “Your mother didn’t mind?” they ask in surprise. Well ... obviously not, or I wouldn’t carry this name. If it had been solely up to her I would have been Maya, not a bad name and far easier to spell and pronounce, but when my father suggested the name Arja, she switched allegiance, she liked the open sounds of it immediately. My fate was sealed.

Because your name is your fate – a Sue or Jennifer lives her life differently from an Arja or a Quintana, or so they say. I read a study recently that suggested those with unusual first names go on to have unusual lives and achieve things. I am a bit sceptical. There are plenty of Janes and Michaels who have achieved things, so I’m not sure an unusual name is the path to achievement. On the other hand, there are a lot of us running around with names like Moonshine or Tarquin whom nobody has ever heard of.

Still, name is fate. You always feel a bit singled out when you carry an unusual surname. Unless I go live in Finland, where Arjas proliferate and abound, I will always have to help others spell my name or pronounce it. And unless I go live in Spain, I will always have to spell Salafranca to others. I have become so used to it, it’s like a mantra now.

“What’s your surname?”

“Salafranca,” I say, adding quickly, “let me spell that for you. S for sugar, A for apple ...” and so I go on. “S” can so easily come out like “F” and my name becomes something else.

Sometimes I wouldn’t mind being a plain Sue Smith. There’d be no need to spell the name, no gasp of breath from the other end of the phone line, no laborious spelling of the name. Last year I had a taste of this when I phoned the Spanish embassy to renew my passport. Salafranca, I said and wondered whether I should start my mantra. It wasn’t necessary; the woman knew exactly how to pronounce my name and seemed almost insulted when I asked if I should spell it. What joy and wonder. For a time living in Spain seemed an attractive proposition, if only for the fact that people would know how to spell my name.

And yet, until I was 13 I didn’t use the surname Salafranca at all. My mother left my father when I was five, resumed using her maiden name, Migdale, and I was enrolled at school as Arja Migdale. It was easy, it meant we shared the same name, and after all, officially I carried that name as well. Salafranca then was as shadowy a part of me as Maria. I didn’t even know how to spell my father’s name when I learned to write. Yet at age 10, when we played a game at school in which you advanced by using letters called out, and if your name had many of those letters, you advanced quickly, I used Salafranca. Using all my names meant I had nine “A”s in my name. I won the games.

So I was Arja Migdale all through primary school. These were the years when I imagined I was going to grow up to be a famous movie star and I’d practice my Oscar-winning speech, after hearing that Arja Migdale had won the big prize. When I wrote short stories and articles I proudly banged out my name on an old manual typewriter and imagined being published.

At thirteen something changed. Perhaps it was just adolescence, who knows. My mother and I had had no contact with my father, the man who had given me that surname and represented the world of Salafranca to me. I remember writing a letter to him at this time – a letter that was never posted. I don’t think we had his address, though that’s easy enough to find out, I discovered years later. I must have been curious about him to pen that letter. I must have thought also, as I grew into teenage hood, that I could become someone else if I started using Salafranca instead of Migdale as my surname. At school I started using both surnames, confusing my teachers and classmates.

Seemingly overnight I morphed from Migdale to Salafranca – Migdale was the safe me, the good girl; Salafranca was someone else, who wasn’t the safe good little girl, someone who could have an exciting future, or so I thought. I wonder now if there’s that much difference between the child I was and the adult I have become. I am not a rebel, qualities I thought assuming Salafranca would bestow on me. I am not someone exotic, who speaks with a husky Spanish accent; and I am not, I don’t think, unfathomable.

But I stayed with Salafranca, even as I didn’t morph into glamour, ride sports cars or meet famous people. Instead I worked my way through the standards at school, doing what I had to, living out my South African teenage years. I liked the sound of Arja Salafranca so much better anyway, this was an interesting name. I didn’t realise it was also the more difficult name. Still, something nagged at me, there was guilt at using this name, the name of the father who had hurt my mother so much, the man whom she could not forget or stop hating. Every time I used Salafranca I flung him in her face, unintentionally, and with no malice intended.

At seventeen I decided I’d change my surname. My mother got me the forms, and I decided I would use Centauri as my surname. The name of a star or planet, I loved the way it sounded, soft, sinuous and easily pronounceable. I sent my forms away, but they were returned to me. The post office hadn’t found the address of the Department of Home Affairs! I sat on the forms, wondering if this was meant to be, that I wasn’t meant to change my name after all, and then I discarded them.

When I started writing seriously in my late teens and publishing at age 20, I had to decide finally on a name to use. The guilt still snagged at my conscience, but I just wasn’t Migdale any more. It had been too many years now of using Salafranca and having grown into that name. Could I use two surnames, as some married women, who had kept birth names and tacked on husband’s names did? Well I could, theoretically. But I already had one difficult first name and surname and the whole mixture was more confusing than anything else. So, I decided I’d publish under Salafranca. I’d be known as Salafranca and would use that always in my dealings with people. Unless I was filling in forms, or booking an airline ticket where I’d have to use all my official names, I plumped for my Spanish surname.

In time I met my Spanish family in Malaga, spoke to my father on the phone, and having met the other Salafrancas I stopped thinking of the name as only mine and an absent father’s. It belonged to a family, and when the internet came along I found out that although Salafranca wasn’t as common as Smith in the English-speaking world, Spain was littered with Salafrancas, and Finland was littered with Arjas.

Still, I live here, on the southern tip of Africa, where I know of no other Salafrancas or Arjas or Migdales besides my mother. The Migdales also do not live here: my uncles, my mother’s brothers, and my cousins, who all carry that name, also live overseas, in the US and New Zealand. The names, here, are still unique, still difficult for others to pronounce, still distinctive. They mark me out, as something else, and having two surnames confounds most people. They just don’t get it. Having grown up with two, however, I just don’t get giving a child only one surname. To make life easier? Undoubtedly, and what bliss that must be, to have someone ask what your surname is and you give just the one word, without having to say, well, it’s Salafranca but I also have another one, is this for an official document?

But I can’t choose between the two names, although I use the one for ease of use. Some respond to my explanations with, “Well at least when you marry you can have just one surname,” and I respond to that with, “Were I to marry, I wouldn’t change my name.” Or in this case, names. They are me, they are my identity now, and besides all that I really don’t understand that practice of women giving up their names after marriage. Don’t they feel as if they have lost something? Don’t they feel like they are giving something away by changing that name, seemingly arbitrarily, because the man they love, carries it? Well, I must be a minority in this, there are enough Mrs titles around to prove that most women don’t feel that way.

I further confound the issue by stating that were I to have children, they’d get both my surnames as well as the father’s. Would I really? Putting aside that I don’t want children, would I really saddle a kid with three surnames? At this I do draw the line. It seems as though you’re setting up a child for difficulty if you do this, much as naming a child Apple marks it out for playground taunting. It’s all in the realm of the academic, but I think I’d probably plump for Salafranca. It is the name by which most people know me.

Yet though I like its exotic ring, some part of me will forever wonder if I shouldn’t have remained Migdale, that strong, pragmatic name. Migdale is like my mother tongue, that is the best way I can describe it; Salafranca the second language acquired later on, not foreign, but not as cosy and maternal as the first language you ever speak. Still I accept this inevitable tug of war now, this pull between one part of me, and what I perceive as the other more grown-up part. We all have this tug, I know I am not alone in this, but most of us don’t have those two names that indicate the schism between childhood and burgeoning adulthood in such a neat, precise way.

(Published in Green Dragon 4)

Lunar landscape

El Torcal looked like a lunar landscape. The jagged edges of the rocks soared against the grey sky, my Spanish cousins moved among the rocks, well wrapped-up in ponchos and thick jackets. They were used to coming here; they had visited the mountains all their lives.

In the distance a family friend filmed us clambering over the strange hard rock formations; we waved and feigned conversations with each other for the camera. I snapped photographs: blurred and time-stained images show my family going up and down the rocks, the landscape denuded, steel-coloured; the sky a pastel grey. It was a landscape as strange and unexpected as my time in Spain had been.

The El Torcal mountains are just a few hours outside of Málaga. The name was familiar to me: my South African mother had often spoken of them and the time she and my Spanish father and a group of their friends had got lost on the cold rocks. By the time they stumbled back it was night. Waiting for my parents to return from this trip is one of my earliest memories. I was staying with my Spanish grandparents that day, but I remember the worry, the waiting; my own grandparents’ anxiety as the night grew longer and still my parents had not come home.

We left Spain when I was three: my mother, my father and myself. We arrived in Israel, ostensibly for my parents to begin a new life. My mother hoped that without the smothering influence of his parents, my father would get a life. He might begin working, take responsibility for his family, and make something of himself. It didn’t happen. He still refused to work. The kibbutz they had settled on threw them out when my father left job after job.

They moved to Tel Aviv and were put on the waiting list for another kibbutz. In the meantime they married. They had been unable to marry in Franco’s fascist Spain because my mother was Jewish and my father was Catholic. Civil weddings weren’t permitted there; nor in Israel. So they married on Cyprus, and I came along. I remember being on a big ship, the water rushing at the portholes. I remember walking along the streets at night and drinking a fanta as my mother and father exchanged vows in Greek, a language neither understood.

We left my father when I was a month short of turning five. My mother now realised he would never keep a job or become responsible. Once she caught him boiling her diaphragm in the hope that she would conceive again, but he couldn’t even support one child. It was my mother who worked doing menial jobs in Tel Aviv. We lived on my mother’s money and the money my South African grandparents sent over. Coins lined the shelves above my father’s bed at the hostel in Tel Aviv where we lived, and I thought we were rich. ‘They’re not worth that much,’ he said. Illusions were shattered.

His violent temper meant that he beat my mother. One week we moved to another room in the kibbutz. ‘I’ll kill you if you ever leave me,’ he said. Then, ‘When she’s twelve,’ he said, referring to me, ‘I’ll rape her and make you watch.’

So my mother schemed and asked her parents for tickets back to South Africa. There were arguments, recriminations. She had, after all, married a non-Jew; she had directly disobeyed them, she should live with the consequences.

Something my mother wrote must have changed their minds, because they did send tickets. My father went to Eilat for a holiday, encouraged by my mother. We stayed in Jerusalem, my mother’s fear infecting me. She was terrified my father would come storming back and discover we were planning to leave, and would let her go, but would have a claim over me and would be able to keep me.

The few days in Jerusalem passed in darkness. They seem now like scenes from a thriller, subterfuge, hiding, fear you can taste and remember decades later. But we caught the plane without my father returning early and discovering our absence. We sat on the airplane, in seats over the wing. My mother relaxed for the first time in years.

We came back to a South Africa in the aftermath of the 1976 riots. All this passed me by, but years later I found myself in a job interview being questioned as to why my mother had returned to South Africa at this time. Whites were fleeing the country, not returning. My South African uncle, his wife and children left a few months before we arrived. My other uncle was studying photography overseas, and also wouldn’t return to live in this country. So why return? The African-American interviewer asked and I had to explain, defend my mother’s position, the lack of money, the desperation, the fear, the need to gain complete custody of me.

Two years after returning, my South African grandfather offered to pay off all my father’s debts in return for an easy divorce and my mother gaining full custody. My father agreed, relinquishing any claims to me. He faded even further into the past. I had my memories, of course, but they were largely violent, negative ones. I didn’t miss a father growing up, strangely I never thought it was unnatural that I didn’t have one. I suppose the alternative –a violent, scary father – pushed out any hopes of a loving man called Dad.

I grew up. My mother never remarried or found other loves. There were dates, even a proposal, but not love, and never acceptance from me for any of the men my mother dated. In the end the dates stopped.

I grew to adolescence in a country torn apart by violence, a violence that never directly touched me, however. The black schoolchildren were burning down their schools: we all knew that in our white schools. I tried to defend their actions, but was never convincing enough. My teenage years were spent in a white government school where we were forced to sing the national anthem in Afrikaans. I refused, Afrikaans wasn’t my language and the Nationalists weren’t the government I would have voted for. A small teenage protest against the system! Early on I had absorbed my mother’s values: her open spiritual values, her nonconformism, and her disgust with apartheid. But the only black people I ever dealt with were the tellers and packers at supermarkets, the maid we employed and the gardener who was her husband.

It was around this time that I started itching to contact my father and Spanish family. It wasn’t easy. My mother still had a lot of fear and hate towards my father, and would have preferred I kept the door firmly shut on the Salafrancas. But I couldn’t. I needed to know who they were, who my father was, I needed to know about the name I was carrying, about the Spanish part of me that manifested in the name and the looks. I may not have been able to speak a word of Spanish, despite being privileged to carry a passport of that country, but I could no longer be satisfied with only knowing my mother’s side of the family: the Migdales.

So we began a correspondence. My Spanish family was warm and overjoyed to hear from me. We exchanged pictures and news. My father, now living in Sweden, wrote to me too. He was divorced from a Swedish woman; he’d had a son with her and was now involved with another. He was to have two more with her, writing me that she asked for help with the baby, ‘but I don’t have nipples filled with milk’. My mother was vindicated to learn that he hadn’t changed, hadn’t taken responsibility for any of the other children he had now sired. I was seventeen and he was writing to me about his sex life. It was inappropriate, as the adults around me said, but he couldn’t see that. Our letters became infrequent, but I maintained contact with my Spanish family back in Málaga.

I had grown up without cousins or family except for my mother and her parents who remained in Johannesburg. We were a closed, tight circle, never close emotionally but close physically. ‘Why can’t Dad accept Arie?’ my mother asked my grandmother one day. ‘Because she’s not Jewish,’ was the response. I was unaware of this lack of acceptance. In my teenager years, though, my relationship with my grandfather grew closer. He’d pinch my cheek affectionately when he came to visit, and eat the doughnuts I had made. When I was fourteen he had a heart bypass but I didn’t visit him. He asked after me, missed me. I was the only grandchild in South Africa, and despite my non-Jewish father, I believe he must have accepted me.

We all had a more fraught relationship with my grandmother. Perhaps madness ran in her genes, but her mental illness was never diagnosed. Instead it manifested in outrageous threats and tantrums throughout my mother’s childhood. My grandmother would walk around their house with hate and venom in her words. ‘You ruined my figure,’ she would scream at my mother, referring to the long vertical scar that cut her stomach in two. But the hate extended to the world. She was a woman incapable of having friends. She had cut up her sister’s dress before a dance one evening because no one had asked her to the dance. By the time I knew her she was on tranquillisers. They calmed her and stopped the rages, but no doubt that the madness still lay coiled beneath. The hate came from somewhere, the causes perhaps an unstable balance of chemicals in her brain. Therapy may have helped; other drugs too. But she wasn’t going to benefit from all that. Instead she poisoned the lives of people around her, inspiring the hate she felt within herself. Her two sons left the country and never returned. Her husband considered divorce and rejected it when he thought of the children. I absorbed these feelings, and, as I grew up, I too turned away from her, even as she phoned to sing me Happy Birthday in an old woman’s voice over the telephone.

My grandfather died alone. I was sixteen. My mother and I were out when he suffered a heart attack in the hospital he had been admitted to two days before.

When my grandmother died two years later she was in an old-age home. She had been overdosing on sleeping pills and one day entered my mother’s car with rouge dotted on her forehead, lipstick that had missed her lips and promptly fell asleep in the back seat. By the time she died, I think senility had set in, with coherence floating past her occasionally.

Now we were alone, my mother and I. Her brothers still lived overseas and there were only distant relatives left in the country. We were close, as only single mothers and only children could be. I sometimes think it’s too close, the relationship forged in the absence of fathers or siblings, but there wasn’t any choice in the matter.

I left school and started studying at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was still interested in politics and chose that subject as one of my majors. I was going to be the country’s first woman prime minister. That’s the sort of thing you dream about at eighteen. But I dropped politics a year later and majored in psychology and African literature instead. I was a writer at heart, and had been writing since I was nine.

But I had no friends when I was at university. Friendship had been an area of difficulty in my life from the time I was in nursery school in Tel Aviv. I couldn’t mix. My mother’s letters home to South Africa reveal her frustration with a child too afraid to reach out to others. And that fear continued. It meant I had perhaps one friend per school year. It meant loneliness and heartache when that friendship broke up and I had to make another. Sometimes this took months.

Whatever the reasons, they persisted throughout my childhood and into my teens. When I entered university fear had gripped me like an unknowable manacle. I longed to have friends, a boyfriend, to go rowing on the Zoo Lake as I heard others doing, to be out at night at movies or parties or restaurants. But I just couldn’t reach out and for the first time in my life I had no friends at all. Not even one. My school friends, tenuous connections, dissolved with the differences of our lives. One had to start working immediately and we could not connect. Another had a baby and had to deal with exhaustion and being a single mother. I just didn’t understand what she was experiencing.

So there I was, in first year at university, supposed to be having the time of my life and sinking further and further into myself, becoming more and more afraid and seeing rejection in every vague offer of friendship. When two people from African literature befriended me and spoke of going for coffee, I scuttled home. I simply could not believe that they were including me, though they clearly had. I felt like a freak, like something was wrong with me.

By the age of nineteen I was desperate, and overweight, drowning my sorrows in bars of chocolate that only added to the weight I was carrying. I thought of suicide. I could see no other way out. I could not go through life like this: friendless, desperately alone, aching to connect to others and yet unable to as a result of fear and a plummeting sense of self. I wondered how I could do the deed. I was always paralysed by fear and couldn’t talk to my mother about it; I was ashamed. I had no one else to confide in. And then my Spanish grandmother wrote saying she wanted to see me and would pay for my airfare.

At twenty I went to Europe alone. I was determined that this trip was going to make or break me. I was going to see my Spanish family but I was also going to see if I was likeable. If not, then I could come back and commit suicide.

I stayed with a friend of my mother’s in London. She had known my parents in Tel Aviv. She had since married, and I was absorbed into her family for the two weeks I was there. By day I saw the city, by night I ate with an English family, watched TV with them. One evening as I walked across a bridge over the Thames, watching the sun setting over the river, I had the thought that I would one day live there. At night I sometimes woke up with the fear crashing through my dreams. ‘You have no friends,’ the voice taunted me. ‘You get on with everyone here, but back home, no one likes you ...’

In Spain I was met by my grandmother, and a cousin who was staying with her. My grandmother didn’t speak English, and I knew no Spanish. My cousins translated for the older members of the family who could not speak English. They embraced me at Málaga airport that first night. It was one in the morning after a delayed flight, and the taxi raced through deserted streets. There was food, chatter in Spanish and my first glimpse of the flat I had known as a young child.

My grandparents had not moved. My Spanish grandfather had since died of cancer, and his room had been cleared of his bed, but otherwise all remained as it had been nearly twenty years earlier. I had no memories of the flat of course, nor of the city I had been born into. Driving one night my uncle pointed out ‘La Cruz Rosa’, the Red Cross Hospital where I had been born, the white building looked nondescript, but it located me.

I met the rest of my Spanish family the next day: my uncle Jésus; his wife Sole; their children, my cousins Alejandro and Déborah, all of us within the same age group. I was introduced to the Spanish custom of two kisses on greeting, of a love and warmth I felt even though the Spanish careened around the table at whiplash speed, leaving me alone with my thoughts, my cousins battling to translate. It was another world, and I alternated between feeling alienated and feeling welcomed and accepted.

As the weeks went by they took me to other Spanish towns and cities:I saw Cordoba, Seville, Ronda, Marbella, Torremillinos. My aunt Alicia arrived for a holiday and stayed with us. She took me to Pedraleja, and pointed out the seaside cottages where my parents had stayed in winter. It had been cheap then. We ate calamari by the sea shore. My grandmother pocketed the uneaten rolls in the basket on the table, the unused packets of sugar. ‘When you’ve been in a war you can never leave food behind,’ my aunt explained, referring to the deprivations my grandparents had suffered during the Second World War. My grandmother was unashamed, she had paid for the rolls and sugar and she was going to take them home with her.

We celebrated Christmas at a relative’s house outside of Málaga. A white meringue of a house, it signalled her rich status. The women served the food while I stood by until an aunt said pointedly in English that help was needed in serving the food. Then men sat and waited. It was my first taste of the male hierarchy that reigns in families, and not just in Spain. I got up to help.
My uncle Jésus tried desperately to communicate with me. We overcame our lack of common languages by writing words and drawing pictures. He’d draw a picture of a fork and write the Spanish name next to it. I tried to teach him English this way, but he wasn’t interested; clearly my duty was to learn Spanish, the language of my family. But he succeeded in teaching me words, phrases, and in his determination, demonstrating a love and acceptance. I had never been welcomed by a group as I was welcomed by the Salafrancas. Each meal, each journey shared, each hug and kiss, each snack unwrapped, brought us closer. I felt warm and loved. Some of my strangeness was beginning to melt away, some of the feelings that I was a freak, incapable of being accepted by society, were eased away.

I spent five weeks in Spain, at the end of which I could speak a few simple sentences. Jésus and I managed to argue about whether Spanish or English would be the dominant language in the decades to come; and I spoke to my aunt Sole about bullfighting. She saw it as a beautiful tradition; I saw it as an unspeakable cruelty to animals. Whether I impressed my point on her, I don’t know.

And then my grandmother, normally quiet and reserved, led me into the kitchen. She was going to teach me how to make a Spanish omelette. As I dice potatoes today into thicker matchstick-like pieces and lightly fry them, I remember her insistent voice, her slow, quiet explanations of how to make the omelette. I remember the dark dingy kitchen, the gas stove crackling, the washing hanging on the line outside the window, the table on which we sliced potatoes and cracked open the eggs.

I left Spain a few days later, hugging the Salafrancas, armed with addresses, promises to write and send photos. At six that morning my grandmother pressed homemade sandwiches into my hands. I wondered why. I would breakfast on the plane; I had a hotel room booked for later. She was insistent. I took them and said goodbye to her forever.

That night, as Paris grew dark, I sat in my hotel room trying to phone to my mother in South Africa. The malicious desk clerk wouldn’t help me, and I went around in circles trying to find the operator’s number. Too shy or too scared to go wandering around the streets to look for supper, I ate my grandmother’s sandwiches. Grilled meat with cheese on toasted bread filled my stomach, a last reminder of acceptance and love.

A few nights later, hungry to hear English spoken after over a month of Spanish, I followed the
signs in the metro and arrived at the incredibly broad avenue of Champs Elysees. It was Saturday night and it seemed the whole of Paris was out. I bought a ticket to see Thelma and Louise in the original, with French subtitles, and sat in a movie theatre in one of the greatest cities in the world, watching a movie in English. I was alone, separated from the couples and friends out for a night. But I was here. In Paris, a city I had long looked forward to visiting, alone, yet different. Capable of going to a movie by myself in a strange city while at home I hadn’t even been able to walk into a shop to buy a watch battery. Days later, watching yet another English movie, I knew my life would change, I knew it would take time, and effort, but I knew that it was going to change.

It was enough to get me on that plane to Johannesburg, to be prepared again to hear and enjoy the accents of South Africans, to be offered Appletiser again for the first time in two months, to count the hours away, to know that somehow I was going toward something.

I’d like to watch the videos made of us that day in El Torcal, but much as the future selves remain silent, I suspect the past selves are equally reticent about passing on their secrets. The past remains trapped in our memories, distorted and time-stained, denuded.

(Published in Green Dragon 3)

Málaga /Una malagueña

I was born at La Cruz Roja (The Red Cross Hospital) in the heart of Málaga, a smallish city that is the gateway to the garish Costa del Sol. My mother screamed at the nuns in English as the pains of childbirth took her, obscenities they didn’t understand. My father was around, watching the Spanish Persuaders on TV, while my aunt held my mother’s hand. In the early 70s fathers weren’t welcome in delivery rooms.

The next time I saw La Cruz Roja I was twenty and visiting Spain for the first time since leaving as a child of three. My uncle was driving, and pointed out the hospital in the distance, a non descript whitish building. I had difficulty understanding him – I spoke no Spanish, he no English. But, as I would learn through succeeding visits, you pick up the language somehow, or at least enough to get along in a vague way.

I had to wait fourteen years to return to Málaga, keeping in contact with my Spanish family through letters translated into English by those family members who could speak the language. In between came life in Johannesburg, the city where my mother was born, and where we had settled when I was five.

Saddled with the debts that seem to come with purchasing property, even in the boom times, I wondered whether I was ever going to be able to afford to see family in Spain again. I remembered Spain fondly, a memory made golden by the warm memories I had of meeting my Spanish family for the first time since leaving as a child.

We had had no contact until at the age of 17 when I had written them a letter. Years later I was to learn how overjoyed my Spanish grandmother had been: she had even hired a detective years before to find me, but he had come up empty handed.

At 20, I went overseas by myself, discovering London, and Paris, and of course, Málaga, city of my birth, a city where I discovered this vast Spanish family, was introduced to long Spanish lunches in the afternoons, and ate grapes at midnight on New Year’s, 12 grapes to symbolise 12 good months.

I stayed with my grandmother who connected me to my Salafranca past in a way that had been denied me while living in South Africa. I had the Salafranca second toe; I had the sharp incisors she had once had. I learned to make Spanish omelettes with her; I went out for lunches where she told me to “Apprende espanol!’ (Learn Spanish!) Over six weeks it was inevitable that I would start learning and one day towards the end of the stay I listened to my grandmother and her sister taking about the eating habits of their respective grandchildren and with deep pleasure realised that I had understood. It was like a window opening on a dark world.

I wandered Málaga that first time with my cousins by day; they lead me down busy roads where we had to shout to be heard. An aunt took to me to a warehouse of jeans, floors and floors of them. Flummoxed by the European sizes I simply watched her try them on. The same aunt led me through Málaga’s night streets, taking me to bars and on buses to the beachside bars of the suburb of Pedrealejo. Other nights with cousins were spent at bars, warming up for the night, before going to eat supper at ten at night.

With groups of the family I went to ventas in the countryside. These family-style restaurants boasted paper tablecloths where you could practice your Spanish; an uncle would draw the symbol for fork and then write the Spanish word and so on. In this way did we start to communicate, both straining at the bit, both of us wanting so much to communicate after all the years of silence. At the ventas we would eat large plates of paella ordered for the table, steaming huge platters of yellow rice and seafood and poultry.

Other days, on my own, I strolled through Málaga. I set off from my grandmother’s house near the city centre, walking through the huge pathway that cuts through Paseo del Parque, a green quiet oasis in the city. One night I had my fortune told by a gypsy but none of it turned out to be true. I walked to the department store El Corte Ingles; I walked to change traveller’s cheques in the banks, and I walked to a travel agent to change my ticket so that I could spend a week in Paris.

I walked to the main Larios shopping centre – a pedestrianised street in the heart of the centre, where I could use the cheap phone centres to phone home, telling my mother about discovering the Spanish, the family, the food, a sense of freedom and independence that I did not feel back home in Johannesburg. I think I wanted to stay somehow, although I had no Spanish and grew frustrated as I realised how enclosed in a bubble I was by not speaking the language.

Instead I said goodbye to this city early one morning. I didn’t know when I would be back. I had two years of my university BA to finish. I said goodbye to Europe with a sense of sadness: I had, in a sense, come home. In Spain I was mistaken for a local, I looked Spanish, European, only my lack of words, or badly accented attempts, convinced them otherwise. And yet I knew I wasn’t Spanish either, not really, not even with my Spanish passport and looks and a birth certificate that I had needed to have translated into English when I applied for my ID book at seventeen.

Years later, a press trip was offered. I would go to Barcelona, sail on a cruise ship to Palma de Majorca, return to Barcelona and then fly to Málaga to see the family I’d been writing to since leaving again at 20. In Barcelona I drank in the culture again, the late nights, the churros (doughnut-like twists) served with hot chocolate, the growl of Spanish among the Catalan.

One day I sat on a bench after walking along Las Ramblas, the famous thoroughfare, home to mime artists, pick pockets, flower sellers, tourists and others. I sat, watching the world go by, as one does in Europe. A family crossed the road, clearly from South America with their half Indian features. A Spanish woman and a friend strolled past, chatting animatedly, and I felt that I too should be able to speak the language. I too should be able to trill my r’s, distinguish that a table in Spanish is female as is a boat, (sometimes) but a car is, not so surprisingly, male.

I felt, in a sense, ashamed, ashamed when I opened my mouth and I could not ask for apples or a Coke in a flawless display of fluency. I had never felt this before, this shame at bad grammar or lousy accent, not when learning Afrikaans and French at school, and trying to speak it years later in Paris. But then I hadn’t been born in France, nor had I grown up in an Afrikaans family, it was perfectly understandable that I butchered the grammar in both languages. But Spanish ... I should be able to speak Spanish, after all, I was a Malagueña, born in Málaga.... I thought about looking for a job while I was there, becoming Spanish finally, becoming what I hadn’t been all those years.

I loved Málaga that year ... I didn’t look for or find a job, but instead fell in love with the city, the country and the lifestyle in a deep personal way. I explored the coast, I went to Gibraltar, and revelled in being able to actually ask for things in fluent English instead of stumbling Spanish. I went to Nerja, a small village where my parents had lived once. I loved the small fishing village, and I felt like I was making a kind of pilgrimage for my mother who too could not afford to visit Spain after all these years.

I became a tourist again. I climbed the stairs to the Alcazaba, a fortress which dates back to the 700s, although much of the structure belongs to the mid 11th century. I went at dusk and watched sunset over the sea and the city. I came across a Roman bath, marvelling as always as the palpable sense of history that permeates Europe.

I said goodbye again to Málaga on my last night there, ten days spent exploring the city and the villages, seeing the garishness of the Costa del Sol as I travelled to Marbella. In Frigiliana my family took me to a typical white-wished village, the lanes too small for cars, vines and plants beautifying the white-washed order.

I felt, for the first time, as though I could live in Spain. I could make a life here. Eating supper at ten at night still felt odd and I knew learning Spanish properly would be a challenge. I once more fell into a kind of rhythm of the language and could hold rough crude conversations with my aunt and uncle who didn’t speak English, but I knew that living in a place required more: required dealing with the municipality, or sending emails, or reading a newspaper in another language. But, I was up for it.

I started learning Spanish on my return. I didn’t miss a class, I got to grips with the convolutions of the grammar, I accepted that colours had to agree with the male and female nouns. I dreamed of living in Spain – I imagined my new home, a smallish apartment with a few of the Mediterranean perhaps, or a rough and tumble finca in the country. I would always speak the language with an accent and I would probably have an uncertain sense of the grammar, but in time these things would smooth out. I would discover something there – an Arja who would be Spanish, I would reclaim the person who I would have become if I hadn’t left Spain at the age of three. Spain had its problems – I knew that leaving South Africa for Spain was no easy solution. None of this deterred me. I remembered the relative safety, walking down night time streets with a camera and knowing I was safe, just strolling the streets in a way that has become impossible in Johannesburg. I wanted that. I wanted to be Spanish.

I went back again last year. For the first time I was seeing Europe in the blaze of summer, previous visits had been revealed autumn and winter. But this would be my first time of European summer evenings when the sun doesn’t set too late. I was enchanted by the long nights.

But something wasn’t right this time, something was off. I had been communicating with English-speaking journalists who work on the English language papers and magazines that have sprung up to cater for the huge expat English community. The news was dire. It was hard to make a living, and not only that, it was hard to make a decent living – a thousand euro a month they said and that was hardly a generous wage. One journalist sold houses in addition to her job; another had a job on radio in addition to being a journalist. In the village of Fuengirola, I met an Englishwoman who had married a Spaniard after her studies and was raising two daughters. It wouldn’t be a career move, she said, and I had known that. But moving to Spain had never been about enhancing my career; it had been about trying to find long-lost roots, roots that might not even be there.

This time, Málaga became a place in which I trudged through the hot streets, the air muggyish, hot, summer was beginning, but the temperatures already soared into the 30 degree mark. I spent my time on the internet. I phoned home. I phoned a friend who was going to try and change my restricted air ticket. I sat on a bench on a Saturday afternoon, the city was quiet, the beaches were packed, it was lunch time. And I couldn’t believe I didn’t want to be here. The city had become familiar, I sat on a bench in the Paseo del Parque, the Alcazaba dominated the skyline. I felt utterly alone. My cousin was at home with her toddler; her husband was out buying garden furniture, and I knew that I didn’t want to be here now, that I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to want to live in a country in which I would battle to speak the language, make myself understood, express nuances that came so easily in English. It had taken three days to get my Spanish SIM card to work, all because I hadn’t understood the salesperson and couldn’t ask the right questions. Eventually my cousin had taken it in to a mobile phone shop and been told to dial 333 and it worked. I wanted to weep with frustration, but instead of getting angry I simply felt resigned.

I felt as though the doors were firmly bolted shut and there was no entry in – no entry in to the language or the culture, a closely-knit society in which knowing the right person is your entry, I didn’t know the rules, and felt shut out. Instead of trying hard to improve my language and speak, every reach for a noun and adjective felt like a monumental effort.

Málaga had become a trap, a stranger’s place. A place where I no longer felt at home. I couldn’t even find a small snack to eat at lunch, beyond going into a bar and trying to discover what sandwich I might want the barman to create for me. So I resorted to going to an American-style chain where you could point at the sub you wanted; one day I even bought a hamburger at Burger King.

This time I was considering living in this place, making my home among this largely homogenous society, a society that would only open if I had the keys of language to begin with, but did I really want to enter this society? Did I want to eat supper at 10 every night? Did I want a long lunch, and then go back to the office from five to around eight?

One day I went into a bookshop in Málaga and asked for “Libros en ingles” (books in English). The sales assistant pointed to a pile, a substantial pile, after all I was in a Spanish-speaking country. But I could only look at the bulging shelves of Spanish books, the covers no entry to the worlds within, and imagined having to buy all my books from the internet or on trips to London, or at the villages along the Costa del Sol which have the expat communities and thus English-language bookshops,

I rode the bus home the last day before leaving, watching the blue of the Mediterranean stream past my window, seeing people sunning themselves on the gritty beige beaches. I was going home two weeks early: I wasn’t going to look for a job. I had eaten calamari at a restaurant in the shadow of the Moorish fortress. I had considered going up again, and decided against it, it was too hot.

And so I rode the bus home, eight at night and the sun was blinding white and boiling.

I remain ambivalent about Málaga. On the one hand I remember all the good times: discovering my Spanish family at age twenty, celebrating a Spanish Christmas and New Year’s and then returning all those years later and falling in love with it all over again. But I hadn’t been planning to live there those times and looked at Spain with fresh eyes when I did plan to make a life there.

I have no such plans now. I’m not going back in search of roots that should have been cultivated as a child, and yet I still wander about the other person I would have become, could have become if I had chosen to settle in Málaga all these years later. Would the Spanish persona be any different to the soft English-speaking one I have now; would I be a different person, would I even want to be?

On that last day, saying goodbye, again, to the city of my birth, I stumbled upon a garden, and flashed back on the past.

There are photos of me as a child of three, in a red beanie, posing against black and white bricks, swans gliding on a pond. I had looked at those photos, even remembered the swans, but had never known where this place was. But I found it, and although swans were no longer there, the white and black bricks still enclosed the pond. I asked a man with a child to take a photo, and posed as I had posed so long ago.

“Be careful with your camera,” he told me in a mixture of mime, I smiled back; something at least, had been completed.

(First published in Wordsetc, Number 3)