***Update, August 1: In response to the thousands of people who, after reading this entire post, decided to harp on one single phrase (“I’m no feminist”), I wrote this. If you want to know how I can say all the things I say here, yet still reject “feminism,” click the link and I’ll explain. Otherwise, carry on. Thanks for stopping by.
Our country dangles on the precipice of starting a third World War. We are on the verge of a completely unnecessary conflict where the United States will fight along side Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This, in another day and age, might earn the crown as the Most Controversial Story of the Week. But we’re in the year 2013, and this is America, so a young pop star’s dance moves on an MTV awards show have predictably overshadowed the prospect of global chaos and bloodshed. I wrote…
In order not to drive myself demented with my own company all day long, I’ve decided to go down the road to Café Neo once or twice a week. At any given time of day, it’s full of folk with their laptops, probably also saving themselves from the insanity that comes with too much solitude. And it’s cosy and quiet and a good spot for getting things done. It’s also the regular hangout of a girlfriend of mine who works from home, and on Wednesday I agreed to met her there so she could tell me the sad story of her Saturday night.
Now, my friend (I’ll call her Emma) has a smoking hot career and earns a bundle of money. She doesn’t need any man to pay her bills, rescue her or look after her in any way. But, she’d like to share her life with somebody, so she dates fairly often and is on the lookout for a life partner. This particular Saturday she invited a guy a friend had set her up with along to a ball and, as one does when it’s a ball, went to a lot of trouble getting ready. She had on a beautiful dress, her hair looked gorgeous and she was wearing sexy heels. But, when she opened the door, he didn’t say a word. Not a ‘wow, you look pretty,’ or even an ‘I like your dress’ – nothing.
And it’s not like he’s obliged to or that she’s desperate for affirmation, but when it’s obvious that a woman who’s usually quite no-nonsense and in boardroom attire goes to a lot of effort to look good, isn’t it just manners or something to tell her she looks nice? Then, on the way to the car, she had to negotiate some steep steps wearing these high heels. When he didn’t notice and offer her his arm, she asked if he wouldn’t mind giving her a hand. And instead of realizing he was amiss, jumping to her side and doing the gentlemanly thing, he pointed out that her heels weren’t that high and that surely she could manage by herself.
And this pretty much carried on the entire evening – he’d pour himself a glass of wine and forget to fill hers; his attention would wander while she was talking, and when his phone rang he took the call even though they were half-way through dinner. Wrong, wrong, wrong. While one would assume he just wasn’t that into her, he actually was, but by the time the end of the evening came and he wanted to know when he could see her again and leaned in for a kiss, she was so over him that it was all beyond redemption. ‘He’s not a bad guy,’ she assured me. ‘He’s actually really nice and smart, he just didn’t get the memo.’
He just didn’t get the memo. And that memo is a big deal. It’s not about men being dominant and women submissive, and neither does it undermine feminism or contradict the truism that women and men are equal in all the ways that count. But, when a man and woman (and a man and a man or a woman and a woman) are together in a certain context there is a particular exchange of energy that happens; a sort of dance of the yin and the yang. And when men do stuff like not fill our wine glass or hold the door so we can walk through first or they walk ten steps ahead of us, that beautiful push-and-pull gets broken, somehow. There’s a type of old world graciousness, if you will, which simply ceases to be.
Of course we women are perfectly capable of pouring our own wine and opening our own doors, and we don’t need or want men to do these things for us always; just sometimes. Because what this really amounts to is a sort of ‘seeing,’ isn’t it? A recognition of our otherness; and a metaphorical kind of hat-tipping to our femininity. While all week long Emma is the boss and makes the decisions and wears the tailored pants, now and again she feels like relinquishing that role and relaxing into a different sort of space where she’s allowed to just be a girl being taken out by a boy. And that’s completely okay. So, men, next time you’re taking somebody somewhere nice and she’s put on a dress and perfume and is looking every part of beautiful, please don’t hold back from telling her. It doesn’t matter if she’s the CEO of the world – tonight she is on a date and in her heart she’s Cinderella. It’s just your job to be the prince.
So, on an excursion to find slippers for Sophie last week, I wandered into the Pick n Pay clothing store here in Sea Point, and what do I find? THE cutest jeggings ever created in the universe. In Pick n Pay! For the people of Brakpan and all straight men, a jegging is a combination of a legging and a pair of jeans – they’re tight and fitted, but in thickish, forgiving fabric, and usually (especially when black) quite flattering.
So excited was I to have found a disco pant for the following Saturday’s party, I sommer bought two. At R149,99 you won’t be bankrupt. Jeggings are huge this spring, and as we’re still in the middle of Baroque fever they have that funky print going on. Plus, you can never have too many pairs of black pants. Wear them with a longish top, and a heel never hurt a sister.
As South African as Bafana Bafana, Lion matches and Leon Schuster.
Now that I know I’m actually Khoi San I’ve become more interested in traditional dishes, and nothing on this planet can be more traditionally South African than putu, wors and chakalaka. Bizarrely, the first time I ever ate putu, or krummelpap as it’s called in Afrikaans, was in Copenhagen at a meeting of the South African Social Club. Talk about losing your roots. But it’s delicious, and for some reason (probably my blackness) I’ve been craving it lately. For non-South Africans, putu is a type of dry porridge made from maize or corn meal which is kept crumbly by cooking it in very little water. I guess my ancestors couldn’t be arsed to keep trudging back to the river so they adapted their dishes accordingly.
In Gauteng, it’s usually eaten as a savoury side at a braai with a spicy tomato and onion sauce known as chakalaka and boerewors, a local sausage. Here in the Western Cape it’s more commonly eaten at breakfast time with milk and sugar. Though (as my facebook friends will testify) I’m breaking with tradition and this morning I had the leftovers with scrambled egg and sausage. Man, it was good. Never having cooked it before, I had no idea there were so many varieties, and I had to ask a shelf-packer at Pick n Pay which kind was best. Once he’d stopped giggling enough to speak (I guess blonde chicks in biker jackets don’t usually go around cooking putu), he told me they were all the same.
See how nice and crumbly? My grandpa Botha would have been proud.
Luckily, two sensible elderly women came to my rescue, and after a long debate between them about which brand was less inclined to burn, White Star got the thumbs up. I was mightily excited to cook this new thing, and a little apprehensive as I had invited a friend around for supper. Luckily, she is a good enough friend that if it all turned out to be a disaster we’d just laugh and drink more wine. But, it came out pretty nicely, and we all had second helpings. Well, except for my six-year-old who murdered hers with tomato sauce and then still refused to touch it. She’ll learn sense eventually. Strangely, there are no cooking instructions on the packet, but I found them on Google, followed them exactly and it turned out fine. I think the hardest part is not letting it burn, so just keep an eye and it’s kind of imperative that you use a heavy-bottomed pot. Otherwise it’s going to stick a lot and washing up will be a pain. Thank god we don’t still walk to the river for that stuff, right?
Here’s how you do it. And don’t even think about not eating it with chakalaka. That stuff is the best thing I’ve discovered, and I plan to eat it with everything, always. A heads-up: the mild version is pretty damn spicy. Only buy the hot one if you’re a sirryus chilli junky.
• 2½ cups (600 ml) boiling water
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) salt
• 2½ cups (400 gram) Maize Meal
• A knob of butter
1. Pour boiling water and salt into saucepan with a thick base and a lid. Bring to boil.
2. Add the maize meal to the boiling water and half a teaspoon of salt.
3. Close the lid, without stirring.
4. Reduce heat. Simmer gently for 5 minutes.
5. Remove lid and stir well with a wooden spoon. At this point it takes on its crumbly texture.
6. Replace lid, reduce heat and steam for about half an hour, until done, but be careful not to burn it.
7. Fluff with a fork a few times during cooking. Or don’t. I forgot this part and it didn’t matter.
8. Add a knob of butter to the pap shortly before fluffing it for the last time. Because butter makes everything better.
All cities have that one restaurant which is just THE restaurant, and if you haven’t been there you kind of suck. Just kidding, you don’t, but you do need to go there at least one time. It’s got nothing to do with how expensive it is or pretentious the waiters are, it’s just been given the ‘cool’ badge by locals because it’s awesome and vibey and consistently fabulous no matter what time of the day or night you show up in need of carbs.
In Cape Town, that place is definitely Societi Bistro (www.societibistro.co.za). And I don’t just say that because I’ve known the owner, Peter Weetman, since school. It’s the place Coldplay came for dinner two nights in a row (and God knows, Chris Martin isn’t easy to please); where Annie Lennox is a regular and anyone with vague celebrity status comes by to hang out when they’re visiting the Mother City. The reason is simply because it’s chilled, the food is excellent and inexpensive, it has a drop dead view of Table Mountain (and yes, we Capetonians are pathologically obsessed with our mountain) and the service is always impeccable.
Oh, and there’s one more reason – there’s a very tasty sandwich on the menu with my name on it. For real. And not because I’m famous, but because nepotism rules. When you go there straight after you’ve read this have the mushroom risotto or the pork belly or the fillet au poivre. Or if you want something sandwich-y, the Susan Hayden (a-hem) and the Sylvie Hurford are divine. And when you spot Annie, it’s okay to go and say hello, she’s really nice and friendly. Do book, though (021 4242100) because it’s packed every night. And there’s free wifi which means you can pretend to work while you people-watch. Punt over. Off you go.
So, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a blog idea for today, but nothing wants to ‘stick’ because all I can think of is how utterly lost and miserable I feel for no particular reason. Then late last night I got a message from my friend in Sweden saying how much she loves the ‘real’ pieces, and how they resonate for her, so maybe this blog needs to be about that. I’ll run with it see where it takes me. If nowhere, at least I’ll get a good cry out of trying.
The thing is, in this linear, scientific, cause-and-effect world we’ve created for ourselves, things need to have reasons, and that’s why times like these – when you want to crawl in a ball and have everything go away but you can’t say why, exactly – are so bewildering. You can’t ‘just’ feel stuff. You must be able to explain it. And I guess there are reasons – there are usually lots of them, but they’re not always as obvious as we’d like them to be. For me, one is definitely about not having a place to go to in the morning for the first time in quite a few years. And while I have no doubt in my mind that I needed to leave where I was and spread my wings and do something new, the reality of an empty day alone at home scares the living daylights out of me.
It’s fun to stay home when you’re supposed to be at work, but we under-emphasize how reassuring the structure of a day in the office is. I like people, and the nonsense (and sometimes serious) talk you have with colleagues – those individuals you find yourself spending many hours a day with and get to know and love. I liked making them laugh and being used as an agony aunt, and the little office rituals related to birthdays, new babies and resignations. It’s not really me to spend this amount of time alone. And, while I am working harder probably than I ever have, I’m not getting paid for much of it, which totally confuses my brain. Does it still qualify as work? By what rights do I get to sit here and talk about libraries when I should only be doing stuff that pays?
So, it’s that plus coming down from the high of starting the blog and having people read it and like it and the unmitigated affirmation that gave me, but then realizing that the gazillions of work opportunities I’d hoped would magically open up, didn’t, and then even more of a sense of what the hell am I doing? What is my next career move? Surely I need to have some sort of plan for myself; some ‘direction’ if I’m to be allowed to exist on this planet. We human beings have a really hard time just being. So, I need to try and change the focus from what the blog will do for me to the real reason I started it – for the simple, unabashed love of stringing words together.
Yesterday one of my closest girlfriends sat next to me on my couch and held my hand while I blubbered and said to me, ‘you are doing this for you. And yes, you are reaching people and making them think, but you are doing this for YOU.’ And she is right, of course. It’s a solitary pursuit and it can be lonely as hell but there is nothing else I really want to do. So, I’m going to try to remove (or at least acknowledge) the pressure I’m placing on myself, and let this process take its course.
And, maybe hardest of all, is giving myself permission to feel lost and lonely and scared without a ‘good’ reason. No, nobody in my life has died; yes, I have people who love me; no, I am not homeless; yes, I have everything I need. But I still feel fucking horrible and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, and maybe I won’t. Maybe this funk will take a while to lift, and maybe that’s okay, too. Perhaps we don’t have to feel happy and together all the time and put up a façade that everything in our lives is fabulous when actually we feel seven years old and want our moms. My name is Susan and I feel sad, and there’s no ‘because.’ That’s all.
On my very first day at university as I found my way to the library on UCT’s labyrinthine upper campus, I spotted a poster stuck just outside the door. It read, simply, ‘The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened.’ Today, those words would spark the faculties of critical thinking I was to develop during my years at that institution and I would immediately think, ‘whose culture? What does ‘culture’ mean? Who are these doors opening to?’ but back then, they stopped me dead in my tracks and I distinctly remember tears of awe and gratitude filling my eyes.
Because I had been a terrible High School student, skipping classes as often as I could get away with, doing the bare minimum of work and not taking one damn thing my teachers said seriously. While in my final year I half-heartedly tried to make up for lost time and get a university pass, it was too little too late, and I’d pretty much messed up my chances of getting accepted. But, the universe works in mysterious ways, and somehow someone in UCT’s admissions office must have thought there was a glimmer of hope for me and I got the acceptance letter in the mail (I wish I still had it – it changed my life), and then I was there, walking through those hallowed doors of learning and culture which, by some miracle, had been opened to me.
I never took that privilege for granted. While other students partied and drank, I’d had my share of that, and I knew my time had come to show them what I could do. I worked hard and got firsts for everything. I couldn’t get enough of learning. I listened intently to what my lecturers said; I ate the wisdom they dished up to us, their hungry, hopeful students. I had found my place in the world, and it was within the grey corridors of the English department where daily I would pass the offices of J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Stephen Watson; writers and thinkers who, through words alone, changed the landscape of South Africa. Those were happy years for me. I was home.
Yesterday, as I stood in Sea Point library waiting to return some overdue books, I thought of UCT’s library where I spent so many happy hours poring over mind-bendingly beautiful combinations of words; hand-writing essays (we had no laptops in those days); studying for all I was worth. Libraries smell and feel the same wherever you are in the world. There is a church-like quality about them, even when they’re shabby and low on funding and most of the people visiting them look as worn as the newspapers they sit in a corner and read. When I go to my local library I see a segment of the population I wouldn’t normally, and when my favourite librarian is there – a softly-spoken, bespectacled man in his fifties – suddenly there is time in the day to talk about books and authors. In that musty-scented stillness the bustle of life comes to a halt.
On that day, an Irish woman in her sixties was ahead of me in the queue. She was happy because the book she’d been waiting for, Freddie Mercury’s biography, had finally arrived. It was three weeks late, and every day after work she would come by to see if it had been returned. She told me she was his biggest fan, and knew all of his lyrics by heart. I told her my husband used to work close to Freddie’s home in London, and when the news broke of his death he was one of the first people to put a rose outside the singer’s door. She smiled broadly at that story.
Then, the bubbly, young librarian who was working the evening shift reminded her that she had promised to sing a Freddie Mercury song the day her book arrived. ‘Oooh, that’s right,’ she said, in her lovely, lilting accent. ‘Hang on – I was just listening to it in the car – ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man/ Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?’ And then, quite spontaneously, an old guy standing nearby in a trench coat and I joined in with, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning/ very, very frightening – me!’
We chuckled, said goodbye and I headed out into the dusk to my house with lots of rooms and noisy children and cooked a butternut curry, and the Irish woman went home to her house with her book and probably read it while she ate supper and the old guy in the trench coat went off to his life somewhere else. People say print is dead and that soon there won’t be any more books. I hope they are wrong because that will mean no more libraries, and libraries are places of magic.