On Carnivals and Gardens

The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and home to Cape Town.
The Oresund Bridge which takes me home to Malmö and back home to Cape Town.

When you live in a country like South Africa, which has experienced – and continues to experience – change on a massive scale and where the disaster zones of many other African countries ruled by liberation governments hang over us like a panga ready to strike us into economic oblivion, conversations about where it’s good to live versus where it’s not so good to live become commonplace. And even more so for those of us who are thinking about leaving or thinking about coming home or have come home already or never want to see South Africa and Mrs Balls chutney again. And these debates go back and forth led by words like ‘lifestyle’ and ‘crime states’ and ‘education’ and ‘future’, and they are discussions which can go on endlessly without ever reaching conclusion because fundamentally they are personal and emotional, and more often than not our decisions are based on instinct and circumstance and what feels right for us versus what doesn’t.

But something I have been thinking about lately, and which is not often taken into account in these conversations – but which I believe to be true – is that different places/countries have a different energy (to be a bit shoo-wow and tie-dyed of a morning) which either resonates with ours or doesn’t. And we’ll insist on being practical and citing ‘facts’ as to why we live here versus there or there versus here but I think it boils down to something else. Like we pick partners and friends who ‘click’ with us, we choose the place we call home in much the same way. I have only lived in South Africa and Sweden, but since it would be hard to find two countries more diametrically opposed, I think they’re pretty good examples to use. I’m negative about Sweden sometimes because I was unhappy there, but I also love the country and larger Scandinavia in the way one does when a place has been your home. You can’t live somewhere for a long time and not have it become a part of you.

And I’m also more critical of it than is fair – out of defensiveness – because so many people are aghast that I left a place where everything is ‘perfect.’ And it is kind of perfect in a lot of important ways, but it wasn’t perfect for me. To employ a metaphor, Sweden is like a magnificently manicured garden full of beautiful flowers. There are water fountains, comfortable places to sit and good things to eat. People speak politely in muted tones and the air smells of freshly brewed coffee. You’ll never get lost because there are clearly demarcated paths, and the garden is ringed with stylishly decorated, very high walls that you’d never be able to scale. You are safe and you are secure. You are also walled in. For some people, the walls are a small price to pay for all that comfort. Why would you need to leave when everything is right there at your fingertips? It’s very nice there; very nice indeed.

South Africa is more like a huge, gaudy amusement park where nobody has checked the safely standards of the equipment in a long time. People climb on the rollercoaster and they feel the sun and the wind on their faces and it fills them with a delicious kind of joy, knowing that an any given moment the little car they’re strapped into could careen off the tracks and go sailing into the ether, taking them with it. But, damn that ride is fun. And it seems to go on forever. And everyone is smiling as they go around and around, and life is uncontained and open-ended and there are no barriers and the possibilities are endless. The amusement park smells of dust and oil and boerie rolls and beer, and clowns fall off barrels and people laugh and it’s colourful and in-your-face and totally unpredictable.

And I can understand why people choose the manicured garden. It’s a great garden, as gardens go. But the amusement park has a wildness which can be quite irresistible. Because you might fall off, but you also might not, and in the interim you are having such a damn good time. And objectively, it’s impossible to say which place is ‘better’. South Africa is awesome for some things, and other places are awesome for others. It’s just about what works for you, and where you feel comfortable and ‘right’. Once, about half a year before we moved back to South Africa, I was given a voucher for my birthday to visit an astrologer/healer. He was an African-American who must have been close to 80, and he’d been living in Sweden for most of his life. From his small, warm apartment in the suburbs he read to me my chart, and then out of the blue (not knowing I was leaving) he said something interesting and surprising. He said, ‘I have to tell you something – if you stay in Sweden you’re going to get sick.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. The country’s energy and I were not a good match.

Now when I go back on holiday I’ve learnt to wear one of those ‘balancing’ bracelets (whether they work or not is anyone’s guess) because, even though I’m really happy to be back and seeing good friends and swimming in the warm sea and enjoying the long days of summer, I experience odd physical symptoms – dizziness, disorientation and a vague sense of not getting enough air. I never feel this way in South Africa. And maybe it’s psychosomatic, but I think it’s something else. It’s the walls and the safety and the lack of spontaneity and madness. I’m just more a clowns and rollercoasters kind of person. And we’re all different like that. And sometimes I envy the garden folk their sense of belonging and wish I shared it because all that tinny carnival music can get noisy when you’re feeling tired, and you’re so busy dodging coloured balls there isn’t much time for reflection. But mostly I love the chaos and the freedom it affords. And that, if the mood takes you, you can fly right up to the sky.

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Cafe Mozart, Church Street

Cafe mozart sign

So, me and Aunty Lorraine’s next Kiff Coffee stop was Cafe Mozart in Church Street which, as locals know, is something of an institution, having been around more or less since P.W. Botha. I never visited in the olden days so I don’t know how much it’s changed, but it’s quite blinged up now, with lots of fake roses adorning its small picket fence (which unsuccessfully keeps out buskers), and fun brick-a-brac-y things lining its walls. It’s totally unpretentious, and sometimes you’re just in the mood for unpretentious. And what’s cool about this cafe is that it’s located on a pedestrian street lined with antique stores and stalls where the same people since I worked on Greenmarket Square in 1992 arrive to arrange their hodgepodge of treasures on probably the same blue velvet cloths. It looks like they still haven’t sold anything.

fake flowers

Since we’d both had breakfast and it’s just wrong not to eat, we decided to share a toasted croissant with bacon, lettuce and tomato. It was so yum we had to have another, and the coffee was pretty good, too. Not that I’m an expert, as I’ve explained. My friend, Alison, and I had lunch there not too long ago and they do a very cool and madly inexpensive buffet. For R42 you get a glass of wine, soup with home-made bread, a full buffet (which that day included lamb stew, cauliflower bake, lasagne and several salads) and dessert. It’s a good deal whichever way you look at it.

Sometimes you just don't mess with a good thing, and a BLT is one of those things.
Sometimes you just don’t mess with a good thing, and a BLT is one of those things.

bric a brac

My mom and I laughed about how, as a child, I hated tomato (I still kind of do unless it’s on a BLT croissant or in a pasta sauce or they’re teeny and exceptionally sweet) and every time we were in a restaurant I’d take my tomato off my burger and every time my mom would ask me if she could have it and for some reason – knowing full well I wasn’t going to eat it myself – I’d say no. I have no idea what that was about, but just about every time we’re in a restaurant now she reminds me of that betrayal. I guess I’ll never live it down. That, and the time I ate dagga cookies on the afternoon of my 16th birthday and, in my deeply stoned state, had to sit at the dinner table with my parents’ best (quite posh) friends and eat a roast dinner, trying to stay on my chair and not completely die of hysterics when my best friend and partner in crime forewent the roast potatoes and lamb and gravy and only dished herself peas which she then found quite impossible to keep on her fork. It was a long dinner (sorry, mom, you cooked good food. I hope I’m still seeing you next week after reading this).

cafe mozart blackboard

After a second cup of coffee we wandered around Greenmarket Square which is quite boring and same-y now, but we did watch a woman demonstrate 13 ways to wear a cardigan which was pretty impressive. And it was made of bamboo, what’s more. And then we congratulated ourselves on coming up with such a fun and clever tradition as regular coffee meetings. Talking in real life – as opposed to all this cyber stuff – is really very lovely.

The Kiffest Coffee in Cape Town (A New Thing)

So, if your husband – like mine – is straight and over 30 it’s probably not his best to sit and la-la in cafes and coffee shops, awesome as they might be. In fact, sometimes I think if I left my husband to his own devices instead of dragging him by the trouser leg to ‘events’ he’d never leave the house again, bless. So, quite by accident, I’ve embarked on a New Thing. Since my mom is DIVINE beyond and the only time I chat to her is for three seconds when she arrives to babysit and I should have been somewhere ten minutes ago, and as she also has the problem of a husband who is straight and over thirty, we’ve decided to meet for coffee every Tuesday morning. Which is so fab, actually, and so fun.

This Tuesday was our first meeting and we went to one of my favourites, Haas in Rose Street. I hadn’t decided to blog about it yet so I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s their website with loads http://haascollective.com/. It’s completely cool, and the waiters wear top hats and they do this savoury muffin (in truth, the real reason I go there) made with spinach, sweet peppers and melted cheese which they serve warm with home-made jam. It’s so big even I (greedy guts) can only eat half, and so divine you have to stop talking for a while. Haas is also part shop/gallery which sells stylish, rather beautiful artwork and knick knacks. So, it’s really quite win-win. And their coffee, of course, is great.

I read somewhere that they sell this rare, super-expensive coffee made from the poo of some exotic animal which lives in a tree on an island far away. (I’m not sure if they actually serve poo coffee – probably not – but what I have is really good and doesn’t taste anything like that).

Not that I’m a coffee connoisseur by any means. In truth, and if I was left to my own devices and wasn’t afraid of being ridiculed, I wouldn’t buy the Jacobs for a gazillion rand, I’d get that huge tin of Ricoffy white people buy for their maids and be happy as a banana. But since I’m married to a Scandinavian where coffee drinking is something of a religion (and who can blame them – without those hourly pots of jet-fuel-strength brew to keep them buzzing through the interminably long winters there’d be a lot more hara kiri going on, in my opinion), it’s become a bit of an indispensable part of my life. But I’m not going to be all blah-blah-these-coffee-beans-have-a-clean-nose-and-top-notes-of-veldskoen-and-chewing-tobacco, I’m going to talk about how fun it is to sit there and what you can eat and who you’re inclined to see. Because there are so, so many amazing cafes in this town that I just never get the chance to go to.

And we’ll go to fabulous places, and we’ll go to places that are fabulous for different reasons. And I think this new year’s tradition is going to make 2014 quite a fun one. I’m excited. Watch this space!

My new coffee shop buddy, Lorraine Hayden. The kids will not be invited, obz.
My new coffee shop buddy, Lorraine Hayden. And the girls when they were very little.

On Not Getting the Memo

My cute new diary - see, I'm not making this stuff up.
My cute new diary – see, I’m not making this stuff up (I can’t make it be upright).

So, I’ve reached a very troubling realisation in the first week of the new school term, and I plan to take it up with the relevant authorities immediately and right away. What I have realised is this: it is not because I am trying to get past level 13 on Candy Crush (I will get those fucking cherries to the bottom, fuck them) or spending several hours finding the most flattering filter for my new fabulous-on-holiday profile pic (Amaro wins again) that I’m the only Grade One mom in the universe who didn’t get the memo about going to the school the day before to hang a small, fabric bag on the back of my child’s chair and making sure it contains the relevant (marked) stationary. No. It is because there is a conspiracy going on between the teachers and the parents to not give me any info, ever, and it’s really rude to say the least because I’m deurmekaar and stressed out at the best of times.

But I’m onto them now. While it might look like the other parents are just giving each other happy-new-year-how-was-Plett hugs, I know what’s actually going on – they’re like ants. You know how ants put their heads together for a millisecond and then go their separate ways and it looks like they just didn’t see the other one coming but actually they’re exchanging Very Important Information? This is what these wily parents are doing. They’re telling each other things about tackie bags and meetings in code, like aliens, leaving me to be the only doos who doesn’t show up and whose child (in accordance with the new School Tackie Law) isn’t allowed on the jungle gym at break because she doesn’t have the requisite footwear. It’s just not cool, man, being secretive alien ants and leaving me out of the loop. This shit’s got to stop.

But seriously, I’m aiming to be better at knowing what’s going on this year, and to that end I went to CNA yesterday and bought a diary with real pages and a bunch of pens too because I’m over signing homework with a blunt purple crayon which is regularly the only writing instrument this writer can find in her house. And yesterday I sat down with one of those pens and wrote down all the important things I could think of, like my children’s birthdays, and that made me feel reassured because the calendar thing on my iPhone actually just doesn’t work for me. Why must I tell it to alert me? Surely the fact that I’m punching in dates in the first place is testimony to the fact that I won’t remember to remind my phone to alert me? Fuck’s sake. Hence, too many missed things in 2013 than I care to think about.

But, thanks to my nice new diary, this will be the year that I don’t RSVP to parties only to be accosted very early on a Monday morning by an indignant 6-year-old wanting to know why we didn’t show up. This will be the year of not driving hell for leather to the Spar at 7:52am to buy stale cupcakes in primary colours for the 10am cake sale. No – this year I will be like those other, together moms who get up 20 minutes earlier and put Pick n Pay cheese puffs in the oven, and I’m going to serve them on a tray with little bits of shredded lettuce and everything, just watch me. I’m going to show up at meetings on time, and not – like last year – just as all the other parents are filing out of the hall clutching 17 pieces of paper that contain top secret school information which I’ll never be privy to and they’ll take with them to the grave. And I will definitely not forget to fetch my child from aftercare because I had meningitis from drinking Sauvignon Blanc the night before and needed to take a small nap.

2014 is going to herald a whole new me, and I’m excited about these changes. I will be on top of things. I will be that mother other mothers phone when they’re not sure what time ballet is. The one they look towards for guidance when Waltons didn’t deliver the retractable crayons and they’re confused about swimming cap policy. With my diary and a pen in my handbag, I’m appointing myself the new go-to parent, and I’m seriously going to rock. You’ll see. Happy new year, everyone :-)