As a mother of two I’m going to let you in on a secret closely guarded by the parents of the world: having kids is overrated, and you don’t have to do it. No matter how many women (it’s always the women) accost you at dinner parties demanding to know why your uterus remains a thing of emptiness, I will tell you unequivocally that the motive for their probing is rage around the following things: you – unlike them – look fresh and rested; you – unlike them – will not be going home to pay the babysitter after this dull dinner party but heading straight to somewhere fabulous where you’ll imbibe alcohol and have sexual relations and lastly (and this is a biggie) your vagina is intact. Nothing makes mothers madder than the idea of your intact vagina.
These things about you fill parents of the world with hateful, jealous fury. How dare you sleep in the nighttime and spend your weekends on the beach? Why aren’t you and your partner also having fights in the park at 6:45am and walking up and down the driveway frantically pushing a pram while its contents scream unrelentingly and trying to eat a restaurant meal holding a fractious, miniature fembot? No no no no, you look far too contented. Quick! You need to lose that contraceptive device yesterday and also be very fat and very, very tired like them. But really, here’s the thing – and I’ve done it long enough to know – in spite of what people seem hell-bent on telling you there are in fact gazillions of worthwhile ways to spend the days of your life that have nothing to do with bringing children forth into the world.
Off the top of my head I can think of 137 more interesting things than the school run, for example. If I could clock up the hours, months, probably years I’ve spent waiting for someone short in stature to finish ballet/soccer/recorder lessons I’m certain I would keel over and die of dismay. And I’m not saying I don’t like having children. I adore my girls and for me, for whatever reason, mothering was always on the agenda. But I don’t pretend it’s not a job without moments of mind-altering tediousness and that there aren’t days I want to say to my offspring, you know what? You are the two most annoying people I’ve ever met on this planet. I’m off to drink piña coladas somewhere sane like a lunatic asylum. Sayonara, midgets, and good luck working the stove.
But, unlike other job descriptions that looked good on paper, this one you can’t resign from. So instead you hire a babysitter, put on extra concealer and try to convince innocent, child-free people that they don’t know what they’re missing because safety in numbers and all. Many people genuinely love having kids and that’s cool and for (almost) every moment you go what the actual fuck under your breath there are moments that are fun and rewarding. But for those people sitting on the fence or who suspect there might be things that are better and more fun to do with their lives than being parents I say, yes! There are! Don’t believe the hype; don’t listen when they imply it’s your duty and that you’re somehow lesser of a woman/human being if you think it’ll be more interesting running a large, successful company than watching a toddler poo. Or traveling the world and living in different countries and spending your days having adventures with sexy men you don’t have to marry.
Lord knows, there are enough women out there breeding prolifically because they don’t have a choice (and, frankly, are often barking as a result). You don’t have to be one of them. You are fully, totally entitled to do something different and extraordinary with your life. And I commend singletons and couples who have the courage and insight to know parenthood is not for them. It’s not an easy choice to make, but only because the people around them make it hard. People hate it when other people make different choices. They get anxious and confused and start asking themselves questions they would rather not know the answers to. But I say, fuck everyone else and the family car they arrived in. Take your intact vagina and go conquer the world.
Even dads. With clear eyes and strong voices saying lucid, dad-like things. In retrospect, what’s really crazy is that we didn’t see it. Or saw it but refused to believe it. In truth, my dad had been dying for a long time, his chronic arteriosclerosis making walking increasingly difficult as the years went by. We saw him grow pale. We watched him get tired and lose interest in food and TV and just about everything, but he was my dad and therefore immortal. The power of denial is immense. Even when he told us, a few days before he passed, about the white feather that landed out of nowhere at his feet, we refused to listen to what he was saying and accept the inevitable – that he was old and sick and his body was finished. And because we pretend to ourselves and each other that we’re all going to live forever, when that doesn’t happen it comes as quite a shock. And I realise, as I speak to people around me, that making it all the way to 45 without having suffered a big loss makes me pretty lucky. Because people die all the time, every day, every minute. So we must love our people a lot.
2. There is No Such Thing as Death
I always kind of knew this, but the ways in which my dad has made his presence known to us and how, in the early days, he never left my mom’s side have banished my last remaining doubt, and my feeling around this whole issue is that it takes a very determined type of closed-mindedness to believe that what we see in front of us – this table, that cup of coffee – is all there is. It’s not my job to preach or judge or to convert anybody, but I can say emphatically that when people leave their bodies they do not cease to be. You hear this time and again, and I’ll say it once more for emphasis. When you look at the deceased body of a loved one it is not them you’re seeing. It might have been his face and his feet and his familiar white beard, but the body lying lifeless on that hospital bed was not Errol Hayden. The spark, the energy, the individuality that makes up the human spirit had left. This was the vessel that had housed his soul during his 77 years on earth and now it was empty and ready to be disposed of. Without question my dad was in that room that day, but he was standing beside us with his arms around us.
3. Grief is a Lonely Journey
I understood, in those first weeks, why couples who lose a child often end up divorcing. You would think grief, especially shared, would be a unifying experience which ultimately cements your bond. In reality, it is a road you walk alone. The path is different for everyone, and maybe this is why it’s impossible to explain what you’re going through and truly share it with the people who love you. Sometimes you get impatient with their well-intentioned probing. Sometimes you can’t believe the level of insensitivity. But it’s not their fault; they aren’t mind-readers. At times I would be fine and making spaghetti and then, out of nowhere, I’d be hit with the reality that I no longer had a dad and barely managing to hold it together and my husband would choose that exact second to ask if we had ice. And I’d want to say, DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW FEW FUCKS I GIVE ABOUT ICE AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME? Instead I would just cry and he’d apologise and put his arms around me and I’d apologise back and that’s the nature of this beast. For a while living is profoundly kak and nothing can make it better.
4. We Don’t Know How to Mourn
My parents are (and I speak in the present tense because my dad is more alive and well than he’s been in years) deeply spiritual but not religious people, so the idea of having a funeral in a strange church and someone who didn’t know my dad talking about him felt wrong. So we opted for cremation and a memorial of some sort. The cremation has happened but the memorial hasn’t, and I don’t really know why. Maybe we just aren’t ready. But I was made aware of the fact that having no ritual for death makes things difficult. You simply don’t know what to do, and no-one else does, either. In despair, I googled rituals of mourning in Judaism. I’ve always had Jewish envy, but now it’s really a thing. They have such beautiful, humane guidelines about what to do during this time. It’s discouraged for the mourner to leave his or her house, for example. Loved ones and members of the community are welcome to visit, but it is stressed that the mourner cannot be expected to play host and it is unthinkable that they would go out into the world and behave like nothing has happened. People bring food, they enter and leave the house quietly and pay their respects in the gentlest, most practical way possible. I found – other than a handful of dear friends who did everything right – I was having to make people feel better about my loss. I was expected to ‘get on’ with things long before I was ready. I’m still not ready. We are all different, but for me – and this holds true 6 weeks later – I want to be left alone. Don’t call me, don’t try to make arrangements, don’t ask me why I haven’t answered your messages. Just leave me under my rock.
5. The Sadness Never Ends
It is early days, but I think I can say with certainty that I’ll never ‘get over’ my dad’s death. For the rest of my life I will hear songs, taste food, see things that remind me of him and feel the deepest sadness that I’ll never see his face, hear his voice or feel his hugs again in the way one does with the humans of this earth. I know we’ll be together at some point down the line but it will be in a long time and in a different way. For now, I must adapt to the strange, new reality of not having a father. I don’t have a choice. I worry that my mom will be okay, alone for the first time in 54 years. I worry about what I’ll do when I lose her, too. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him in words. It all happened so quickly. We thought we’d be bringing him home to watch the cricket. I thought I’d have lots of time to say what I needed to say – that nothing in the past matters, that he was a wonderful man, that I felt his love even when he didn’t know how to show it to me. A while back I said all of these things to my friend Emily and she answered with four simple words that have brought me great comfort: he knew your heart. He did. Bye for now, Dad.
Recently I flew to Sweden unaccompanied. I’m not a nervous flyer. In fact, by the time I’ve found my seat and am safely buckled in and people start handing out little lemon-scented serviettes is when I start relaxing because I know I am where I’m supposed to be and from here on it’s all in the capable hands of Captain van Breda. It’s the hours leading up to that part that take years off my life. I’m racked by two irrational fears: one, that somehow the backpack which is tightly fastened to my body and also the handbag containing the 34 bits of paper you apparently still need to fly anywhere will somehow cease to be and I’ll be standing in Terminal 3 with no documentation, destined to eat at McDonalds for the rest of my life like Tom Hanks.
And the other is that I’ll bide my time in a long queue and then arrive at my gate and the man who holds your boarding pass under that machine thing will say no, you can’t get on. This is not your plane. This plane flies to Cambodia. Your Cape Town home plane to your bed and your children took off 20 minutes ago from a terminal 10km away, so even if you had rollerblades you’d still be stuffed. So I walk around clutching my backpack which (as I pointed out) is quite unnecessary since it is attached to me by straps and gripping my handbag tightly to my chest while I compulsively check the TV monitor to make sure I’m really, really in the right place. Then when I find my gate I position myself inches away from another monitor showing my flight details and I remain glued to it, now and again averting my eyes to nervously accost strangers and random airport staff and ask them if this plane is, indeed, bound for my destination.
None of this is an exaggeration, you can ask my husband. So it’s a happiness when I find myself, shoes off and backpack safely stowed in the overhead locker, with nothing left to worry about but the announcements interrupting my movie and that there won’t be enough food. When I fly with my children the latter part is sorted. Both get bad motion sickness and spend the entire flight dry-heaving into a bag like that scene from Dumb andDumber, leaving me with the chicken, beef and vegetarian pasta and all the tiny cheeses and crackers and salad dressings and it’s like an aeroplane party for one. When I fly alone I have nothing but what they give me and even when I eat all the condiments including the salt and pepper I’m still hungry.
On this particular flight I sat next to a waifish Japanese woman (is there any other kind?) who could have been 17 or 40. Like other Japanese travellers I’ve observed, she seemed to have a low opinion of Western food and (unlike me) zero interest in anything the nice Emirates ladies conjured from the happy recesses of their mobile kitchens. Instead, she took out her own box which contained an array of things chopped into microscopic morsels. These, with the help of tiny toothpick chopsticks, she dipped into a thimbleful of soy sauce and ate daintily before settling down for a snooze, leaving her hot little box of lamb Rogan Josh wastefully unattended. I eyed it greedily while licking the last, remaining grains of basmati rice from my tin-foil lid and while I wanted it desperately I knew that stealing it from under her nose would be risky and that she’d probably notice. Her bread roll, on the other hand, was another story and mere inches from my hand. Plus, I still had butter left. This theft, I figured (four bottles of aeroplane Chenin in) I could get away with. I watched her closely. Her eyes were tightly shut, her breathing even and a tiny trickle of soy-scented spit hovered at the corner of her mouth.
Eyeing my prey, and with the stealth of a ninja, I leant over three inches and quietly helped myself to the small, cold, cellophane-wrapped package. Only, my enemy move seemed to stir some latent Samurai survival instincts and instantly her eyes snapped open and she snatched her roll back and glared at me in understandable outrage. To say that I felt ashamed would be putting it mildly. She proceeded to re-organise her little tray so that the roll was as far away from me as possible while I apologised profusely and did that pray bow thing and said konichiwa several times in the most remorseful tone I could muster, but she wasn’t having any of it. To hide my deep humiliation at the whole of row 57 knowing I was nothing but a common thief I took out my phone and pretended to have a long, casual conversation even though everyone knows you can’t even do that on planes.
And I was very relieved when at last the captain announced that we were descending into Dubai airport and I could slink away and never see these people again and be left alone in my shame and the thermal pyjamas which seemed a good idea at the time but here in the desert were itchy and hot as the hinges of hell. Also, the water the red-lipped ladies neglected to bring me even though I pressed my little bell like I had Tourettes syndrome (they probably heard I was a criminal and were warned to stay away) was becoming a thing of increasing urgency as the many plastic cups of wine I’d merrily imbued began to make themselves felt in my temples. Only you can’t drink the water in Dubai because it’s wee and what South African carries a Euro – certainly not this one – so I couldn’t even purchase a Voss to wash down my Gen-Payne.
I learnt some valuable lessons on this journey: just because the booze is free does not mean you have to turn your tray table into a mini wine bar; it’s not right to steal from people even when it feels justified in the moment; and lastly, that I need to spend less time watching My 600 Pound Life and more listening to Sogyal Rinpoche reminding me not to act like a crazy person every minute of every day.
I have a friend who lives in Sweden. She is American, has a great job and is upbeat, kind and just really nice – someone you could ask to collect your grandma’s pension and also stop by the pharmacy on the way for incontinence pants size XL. I like her a lot. She is also sporty and lives an admirably healthy lifestyle, so it came as something of a surprise when she announced to her Facebook community that after the election, for the first time since college, she had been consuming alcohol for five days straight. Not that I would hold that against anyone, it’s just more the kind of thing I would do. But that only shows how much the world has tilted off its axis. The most stable, grounded people on the planet are needing to drink to cope with reality.
At around 9 on the morning of 11 November 2016 I had a friend call and ask if she should come over with a bottle of Pinot Grigio. It was a tempting prospect. Then another suggesting we all convene at our favourite bar at lunchtime and get straight into the vodka. And while I didn’t do either of those things, I was pretty unrestrained around the number of G&Ts I allowed myself before, during and after dinner. And it hasn’t really stopped since. As anyone who knows me knows I’m unabashedly enthusiastic about a cold glass of Chardonnay (or Chenin or Sauv Blanc if you have nothing else), but I’m not a particularly big drinker, and almost never drink alone. That was, however, before an orange madman became the leader of the free world. Since then, the staff at Ultra Liquors in Green Point have become ever more pushy about my getting an Ultra card so I can score points for the large purchases of booze I’ve been making of late.
Come 6pm (and sometimes 5:30. Okay, 5) it’s balls to the wall at our house. We pour ourselves tall glasses of whatever’s going and gaze at our sliver of ocean and proceed to get pretty blotto. And it’s jolly and, frankly, the only way we know how to deal with what has happened. Because anyone who is not a complete idiot knows it isn’t good. A lot of brilliant and insightful things have been written about Trump’s win and I don’t presume to have anything of significance to add, but I am chastened by how divisive this election has been, even personally. I generally try hard to understand other people’s views, but when it comes to supporting this man’s take on the world, I have had to take a long and unpleasant look at who I’ve been calling ‘friends’. Because through his politics runs a strain of indecency which is so intrinsic to his character it is beyond rehabilitation, and it runs counter to all the values I nurture and hold dear. I simply cannot respect anybody who supports him.
And while I have no doubt Hillary is capable of ruthless ambition and behaving every bit as unscrupulously as her male predecessors, she still inhabits the world as a woman which means she has a certain sensibility and whatever she would have done in her presidency would not have involved screwing the girls of the world over. Unfortunately we can’t say the same thing for the apricot hell beast (a description I stole from Twitter and hold dear). Yesterday I collected my daughter from soccer practice and we found ourselves behind a bakkie where a man sat holding onto some garden furniture so that it didn’t fall into the road. First I felt sorry for him – what a stupendously kak job – but when he stopped at a stop street we pulled up close and he looked straight at me and proceeded to do lewd things with his tongue. As I sat there in my car with my daughter right beside me. Not even vaguely embarrassed. And sadly, this is the world we live in, and this is the kind of behaviour Trump thinks is cool. It happens so often when you’re a girl you reach a point where you don’t even tell anyone anymore.
And I won’t go into how genuinely frightened my friends in same-sex relationships are and the immigrant thing and the Muslim thing which makes my blood boil and also makes me realise that I’ve been living in a bubble where I thought the world was an okay place and that, give or take the Middle East and Putin and Syria and Zuma, we were pretty much on the right track. But I hate that I have to look at this leering, ominous dinosaur of a creature and know that he has just been given huge amounts of power to make decisions that, one way or another, will affect every human on the planet, especially minorities like my daughters and I. It’s all just a bit barking.
Some years ago I sat at the bar (surprise, surprise) at Trump Towers in New York and the Donald himself came down and scanned the room with his small, watery eyes no doubt looking for a girl to ogle. In those days he was just a rich, hairy joke. The thought of him running for president, never mind winning, was ludicrous. His eyes fell on me and he did one of those up-and-down look things reserved for men who are so arrogant and smug it’s rendered them impervious to the feelings of those around them. I wasn’t pretty enough to hold his gaze for long, but it was enough to make me feel uncomfortable and diminished. I realise that my value, in Trump’s world, will be even more negligible than it was before. And so we sit here asking ourselves how this crazy thing could have happened. Anyhow. What’s done is done and clearly the world is not what I understood it to be. I don’t know whose fault this is, nor on what spectacular level we messed up. But I find, reaching answers to these complex and troubling questions is made easier by leaps and bounds when you’re completely schnockered. So till we can find a better solution I say, bottoms up.
As we had been looking forward to our weekend away at beautiful Schoone Oordt boutique hotel in Swellendam for weeks, and also because we are a real-life family and not a TV show, the first thing we did that happy morning was have a huge fight. Not to mention names nor blame anyone, but the fight was around the fact that one member of our family (hint: it’s a man) decided he absolutely had to go to gym before we left. In his defence, he based his insistence on the truism that when we go away anywhere, even for a day, it takes me about 7,5 hours to pack and get ready. He (rightly) reasoned that since a gym session takes roughly an hour he’d be home with 6,5 hours to throw his clothes in a rucksack and pace while the three girls in the family ran around shrieking like panicked banshees.
Only, that morning – fueled by a determination to get on the road early and a hefty dose of righteous indignation (something we women get down to a fine art) – I somehow managed to be ready quite quickly, and it was my turn to pace and simmer and still be hotly simmering when he appeared, sweatily, at the front door, pumping with endorphins and properly pleased with himself and the world. Needless to say, the reception he got wasn’t warm. And even though he took his usual 9 seconds to shower, throw on a short pant and get himself behind the wheel, the rest of the family was of a mind to be Still Be Cross and the atmosphere in the car as we took off down the road was like the coldest night ever recorded in Novo Sebirsk.
It took us all the way to the N2 outside Somerset West, with several men trying to shove straw hats and cell phone chargers at us through the window, for anyone to speak to anyone else and also that didn’t go well because the first topic raised was whether or not we were going to stop at the Wimpy for breakfast. For me, and I think most South Africans, the fact that a place serves just about the worst food anyone’s ever eaten is no reason at all not to eat there. I suppose it’s a nostalgia thing, but a road trip is just not right without a portion of factory-cut chips and that very cheap tomato sauce that comes in a squeezy bottle. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t share our enthusiasm and insists his cup of coffee should actually have coffee in it, so, we told him he could have cashew nuts in the car and that we’d see him in half an hour.
Happily for everyone, things started to improve after we’d eaten (there is something undeniably cheery about those red booths), and by the time we hit Sir Lowry’s Pass we were back to our normal selves. Also, every time I go over Sir Lowry’s Pass I remember the day, many years ago, my parents were driving home from Bonnievale and the brakes on my dad’s old Mercedes Benz failed. I imagine the fear he must have felt as he pumped the pedal and the car didn’t slow down but instead gathered momentum on that steep downward turn and the memory makes my eyes prickle because I love that man more than the world. Using the handbrake and carefully gearing down he managed to get them to the bottom safely, both shaky and white as sheets. And I’m grateful when I travel that stretch of road that they were lucky that day.
And this is how life is. One minute you can be safe in your car on a soggy Thursday, overtaking a truck and Johnny Clegg saying goodbye to December African Rain and the next moment everything can change. As we emerged from the clouds and dipped down towards Botrivier, the sun came out and lit up yellow, sheep-studded grasslands. I think only in South Africa are the ribbons of road this long and this desolate. Past the pink, flower-strewn vistas of the Tradauw Pass I remembered another thing: that the last time I traveled this road was in the back of a Volksie bus driven by the boyfriend of my oldest friend. He died of cancer less than a month ago. Road trips make you think about all kinds of things.
As we pulled into the town of Swellendam the rain had started up again. Kind people from the hotel appeared with large umbrellas which they held over our heads as we hurried to our room. That’s the kind of place Schoone Oordt is, big on attention to detail and the sorts of little touches that make everything better. The bathroom floor is heated (which really, really makes a difference), the bath salts have tiny, fragrant rose petals that make you feel like a bathing princess and while you’re having supper in front of a friendly fire some wonderful fairies sneak into your room and place hot water bottles in your bed. It was only the next morning, which opened bright and inviting, that we realised how pretty this old building actually is, its dining area opening onto a lush expanse of lawn which sweeps down to a blue and sparkling pool.
That afternoon, while the spring sun played dodgems, I found a pool lounger which offered just the right amount of shade for reading and rays for warming and was aware of a feeling of deep contentment as my husband and children enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek amongst the guava trees and I dipped in and out of a book which wasn’t good enough to hold my attention. And it was one of those moments in life where all aggravation is temporarily stalled and you can’t remember one annoying thing about the world which, for a time, has become the sound of your children laughing and clouds gathering and dissipating and an awareness that, at that exact moment in time, there is nothing you need and nowhere you would rather be.
For the next 48 hours we drank tea, took a walk, dozed, played scrabble, shared bottles of very good wine and had a hard time choosing between the delicious items on Schoone Oordt’s menu. My personal favourite was the rump, tasty and done to perfection, served with stywe pap and a smoky smoor, but the pork loin with sweet cabbage and green beans got a big thumbs up from everyone too. On our second evening we were getting hungry but weren’t quite ready to leave the fireplace or our Scrabble board (and were sipping a mighty fine bottle of red and also I was winning) so we ordered a cheese platter to share. A cheese platter is always a happy moment, but this one was a thing of rare beauty with warm, handmade biscuits and a homemade tomato relish off-setting a generous serving of some seriously delicious Overberg cheeses.
I was a bit bleak about leaving the next day – there is something deeply wonderful about arriving at the pool and within seconds being met with fluffy towels and the offer of a cocktail – but we were due in Barrydale at the Unplugged 62 music festival. Honestly, I was a little trepidatious about attending this event as camping and roughing it are not really for me, but I needn’t have worried because this was glamping at its finest – a comfy double bed with extra pillows, thick blankies to keep out the Karoo chill and – wait for this – while we were stomping in the dust some good and kind people snuck hot water bottles into our beds. This seems to be a tradition around these parts, and it’s a very good one. Also, it’s not quite what you’d expect in a campsite, but the Cherry Glamping people know a thing or two about creature comforts. They also provided bottles of water since the (a-hem) dancing builds up quite a thirst, and early next morning a kind man was up bright and early making tea and coffee and homemade rusks for whomever was in need of sustenance.
The festival turned out to be one of the nicest I’ve attended, probably because it’s smaller than the others and therefore less hectic. You know, for us older people. And the music line-up was impressive. I’d kind of expected a few local farmers with guitars, but my 12-year-old daughter’s eyes were like saucers when one of her favourite bands, Slow Jack, kicked off with their hit single, Love to Dream. It’s the first time we’ve taken our girls to a live music event and it was really fun being there with them, dancing up a storm on the haybales. The vibe was great, with everyone in the mood for letting their hair down and I remembered what I love about music festivals – how happy and chilled-out everyone is, and how many friendly, cool people exist in the world. And there something wonderful and uniquely life-affirming about dancing like lunatics under a star-studded Karoo night sky.
It was way past our usual bedtime when made our way across the dewy veld to our waiting tent, giggling like teenagers as we looked for the zip in the dark and tried not to wake our sleeping kids. The truth about this thing called life is that you discover, at some point or another, that whichever way it unfolds it is seldom the deal you expected, and being a grown-up can be harder at times than you ever imagined possible. Which is why it’s so necessary to grab hold of the moments that retain beauty and magic. None of us knows how much time we’ve been allocated on this planet. As I get older I begin to realise that the here and now is the only thing that really matters. Tomorrow it could all look very different, so we can’t take anything for granted. We must hug our children, appreciate our friends and notice the kindness and abundance that exists all around us if we choose to see it. And most of all, we must dance like lunatics as often as we possibly can.
So, to celebrate National Heritage Day which happens tomorrow whatever date that is because my watch is consistently wrong, our kids get to go to school dressed in clothes which honour their heritage. Lovely in theory, let’s celebrate a thing, less lovely when it’s 7:20am and you have to leave in 3 minutes and everyone is still in their pyjamas having back-to-back panic attacks because nobody knows what the hell our heritage is. Well, we sort of do, but as white South Africans sending our 9-year-old to school dressed as a colonising rapist and plunderer feels a little wrong.
Also, being white South Africans, chances are excellent that a sizable portion of our gene pool is Khoi San and while I’m much prouder of sharing ancestry with indigenous Africans than whatever skollie relatives managed to escape the doldrums of England and Germany and survive the voyage across the Atlantic with vrot teeth and dirty underwear, and I even have a leopard skin in the cupboard (don’t ask and also don’t skel, it’s ancient and inherited) and a knobkierie which would make a nice outfit for one of the girls there’s the thing of the #blackface so that’s not even an option. And as we stood there in growing dismay I was reminded of the strangeness of being a non-African African and I realised that that is why the white people call it National Braai Day – because we don’t know what the hell else to do, but God knows we understand a marinade.
And the thing about us white people, even those like me whose relatives haven’t seen a sniff of Europe in 300 years, we have to be extremely cautious about claiming an African heritage because, as we know, this matter goes much further than what a swab of saliva might reveal. Africanness is about a lived experience, a history and a past that I will never be a part of. Worse, my kind added significantly to the kakness of black lives in South Africa which pretty much precludes me from laying claim to common ground. At the same time, the first time I put foot on British soil, late into my twenties, while the place was vaguely familiar by virtue of Kathy and Mark books from Sub A and Fawlty Towers, it was still deeply foreign and I felt no sense of belonging at all. They talk funny and still have vrot teeth.
And while I am pale and blonde and look Scandinavian, that is where the similarity ends. I lived in Sweden for a long time and loved much about it, but those were not and never will be my people. But the rainy Saturday morning I walked through the town square and encountered a group of gumboot dancers who were visiting Malmö for some or other reason… well, my husband had to hold me quite firmly by the arm to stop me from rushing over to the nearest person and flinging my arms around him. Instead I looked on quietly and cried. Because, right or wrong and shared experience or not, these were my people. And the fact that every Marc Lottering skit and every Nandos ad made me howl told me that I needed to go home. And I did. And I live here now observing the daily madnesses and sadnesses and beautifulnesses of this country.
Like, a few hours ago in front of me in the queue at Checkers was what you’d call an old school Xhosa umakhulu, a granny. Someone just like her worked in our home, invisible as a ghost. She was bent and her hands were arthritic and no question she had seen her share of suffering in this lifetime. She was buying two small kerosene lamps, probably to save on the cost of electricity. I was buying a range of overpriced things from the kosher deli because it’s Friday and I can’t be bothered to cook. Just before that I’d been for a wax. I’ve become quite friendly with the woman who keeps my legs smooth. She is recently married and they are trying for a baby. She said, ‘The only thing is, my husband is dark-skinned and looks very black, whereas I’m nice and light. I really don’t want my children to get his dark skin.’
I thought about all of this as I drove home. So many layers of wrong, so much history behind it. But still I want to think that the intensity with which I love this country and how home-home-home it is and will always be for me means I’m not just a visitor and a coloniser. Even though I have no idea what to do tomorrow to celebrate my history but braai. Happy Heritage Day, everyone. We’ve come a long way and we have a long, long way to go.
As everyone in my family knows, I’m somewhat of a cheat. I believe cheating wherever possible is an intelligent way of getting where you need to be with a minimum of hassle and stress. I cheat at things like boule and Monopoly and now and again I forget to tell MyFitnessPal about the chocolate croissant I inhaled on the school run because anyway food that isn’t eaten on a plate doesn’t count. The thing is, if I didn’t cheat I would regularly lose at things which would negatively impact my self-esteem, and since I’m so kak at games of all descriptions, it’s a survival mechanism I’ve had no choice but to hone over the years.
Like this past July in Copenhagen when we went for Sunday lunch at some friends who were spending the summer in a fancy house by the sea where the rich people of Denmark live. After a wonderful lunch of steak and fried potatoes (our hostess was French where they not only eat carbs but fry them and yet remain as thin as mist), we did what rich Danish and ordinary French people do and went out onto the lawn to play boule. I’m not great at boule, and while I’m not a bad loser as such it just gets embarrassing when you’re competing against a wafer-thin French girl who wears silk lingerie and not beige broeks like me (I know this because I snooped around and found a clothes horse hung with tiny, diaphanous items of underwear, like Barbie had one hell of a night) and you’re coming totally stone last, being beaten even by young children.
So, when the players ahead of me were distracted and talking about the various merits of a la-la-Pinot Noir I would subtly use my foot to get the ball into a more favourable position, significantly hoisting myself up in the rankings. The fact that I’d had several glasses of the above-mentioned Pinot Noir which impacted my balance somewhat and made me fall over once or twice alerting everyone to my tricks we don’t really need to go into, but they were polite enough to let me pretend I really came fourth.
Also when we play Monopoly, even when I try really hard to save and make sound financial decisions and not be like I am in real life somehow I end up alternately in jail or on Regent Street at the doorstep of the hotel my husband has yet again unkindly purchased and keeps laughing meanly when I land there round after round. So you can’t really blame me for taking advantage of the times my fellow players are momentarily distracted by the loud gwang of a hadeda landing on the roof and everyone gets up to look out the window to see if it’s a baddie come to kill us and I pilfer the money of the other players and hide it under the board so the theft is not immediately apparent. Because this is the only way I’m not bankrupt and out of the game within 15 minutes. And I know it’s not ideal that the people I’m stealing from are my own children, but on the other hand they need to learn that the world is full of robbers and swindlers and nobody should be trusted, least of all their own kin. But enough about that.
This French dish (which possibly isn’t even really, but it goes with the cheating theme and it does contain French tarragonois) is so ridiculously easy and yet appears quite fancy and sophisticated when you serve it to guests, so naturally it’s a hit with the likes of me. There are one or two things you can’t cheat with, though. It has very few ingredients, so you must buy good things. Pay more for your chicken and don’t even think about buying Chorizo from a poofy shop. It’s going to ruin everything and nobody will think you’re Nigella anymore which defeats the whole object of cooking for anybody ever. This is what you’ll need.
Several chicken pieces
2 tins of butter beans
2 tins of tomatoes
dried French tarragonois
a bay leaf
Fry your chicken in olive (or any damn) oil and season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with flour if you feel like it. Remove browned chicken pieces from the pot and in the lovely, chickeny fat fry your bacon, then add your onion, garlic and chorizo not whole but sliced, obvs. When you’ve fried that for a while add your tomatoes, a tablespoon of tarragonois, chicken stock, fresh rosemary, 2 tins of butter beans and the chicken. Put the lid on the pot and let it simmer gently for a couple of hours. Serve with rice and/or crusty bread and a nice bottle of white. It’s very tasty and your friends will be impressed with your cooking skills. Also, the amazing thing about this dish is that halfway through cooking it you’ll find that you are thinner and also able to speak fluent French even if you didn’t speak a word of that language before. That surprised me quite a lot, but then life is full of surprises. Bon appetit!