White People Can Eat Gatsbys, Too

A steak Gatsby (she assured me you don't have to have the polony for it to be real).
Zulfa and our steak Gatsby (she assured me you don’t have to have the polony for it to be real).

A few nights back I started reading a Rayda Jacobs novel where she keeps referring to Gatsbys and I realised I’ve never eaten a Gatsby and it’s about time I did so I know what Rayda is talking about. So, I asked on Facebook where I can find the best Gatsby in Cape Town and some American friends of mine joined in the conversation and apparently in France it’s called an Americano and it’s made with burger patties instead of polony or steak or curry. But what was interesting was when I tried to explain how come I’ve never eaten this quintessentially Cape Town sandwich before, loving all things local as I do. And I kept starting and then deleting my comment because I didn’t know how to say it: that Gatsbys are coloured food and white people just don’t eat them. It’s funny trying to explain your country to foreigners and realising, anew, how mad it all sounds (how mad it all is).

But, that’s the gospel truth, isn’t it? They’re poor food; working class fair. We mlungus might go into a café that sells them, but we’ll buy a samoosa or a chicken pie and a can of diet coke. Not a Gatsby. And I started thinking about that and how, a while ago, I had to attend a conference in Bridgetown and we white people looked at each other in bemusement. There’s a Bridgetown in Cape Town? Who knew? Well, a lot of people, it turns out. The people who eat Gatsbys. Bridgetown is in Athlone, and while all the coloured people in the world will know where Camps Bay is even if they’ve never been there, the vast majority of white Capetonians will never go to Athlone. Unless they got drunk at Forries and made a wrong turn off Klipfontein Road and pooped themselves when they realised.

And it’s interesting how the apartness a lot of us grew up with is reflected in our food. Black people eat samp and pap; white people eat fish and salad. When I lived overseas people would ask me what South African cuisine was, and it’s an impossible question to answer unless you précis it with a summary of the socio-political history of our country. Because there is no ‘South Africa’ in the sense they were meaning. There are pockets of disparate people whose lives are vastly different in terms of what they can expect to achieve; the dreams they dare to aspire to, and the food they can afford to eat.

Strangely enough, the thing that helped me understand the Swedes I was living amongst was when I started cooking Swedish food. The food of a nation says a lot about their passions and preferences and who, quintessentially, they are. Northern Europeans might appear cold on the outside, but bite into a warm-from-the-oven saffron bun on a frigid December morning and you know, underneath their chilly façade, beats the warmest of hearts. And when we break bread with one another we also break through barriers. Which is, I think, one of the reasons I insist on serving chakalaka at braais. It’s my private little rebellion against the repressive norms of my apartheid childhood. (And also because it’s delicious).

And, I guess, what propels me to put my 68-year-old mother in a car and drive us to Miriam’s on Adderley Street on a Tuesday morning in search of the perfect Gatsby in lieu of our regular coffee. And I guess it’s about needing to step out of my own little pocket; trying not to be so precious and white all the time. And I don’t assume for a moment that ordering a chip roll will change the world; I just mean we must try and be mindful of where we come from and the assumptions we make, and that there are worlds of experiences out there and a wealth of lessons at our fingertips if we can remember to open our minds and our hearts to them. It’s like, if you take the courage to break through the boundaries of what you order for lunch, maybe some other boundaries will be broken down too in the process. I don’t know.

I invited my friend Zulfa along as she’d joined in the Facebook conversation and seemed to be a bit of a Gatsby expert, and every time I see her she reminds me of the time I went to visit her at her home in Athlone and, being the type who can’t find her way out of Cavendish square, naturally I got hopelessly lost. With a dead cell-phone and driving around aimlessly with two children in an area which (to my mind) could only be teeming with murderers and rapists, my anxiety increased about a hundred-fold when I realised I was being followed by a strange man in a car. Not only followed, but he was making hand gestures and seemingly trying to pull me over. While I tried my best to get away from him, my Toyota Tazz didn’t have enough power and for endless, excruciating minutes, I had to watch this man wave his arms as he threatened to bludgeon us all to death.

When, by some miracle, I finally found the right house, I was surprised to see the scary man from the car sitting at the kitchen table having a cup of tea. It was none other than Zulfa’s sweet, docile husband, Moegamat, who’d ventured out in a quest to rescue what could only be the lost and hysterical blonde chick. Shame. This is how mad this country makes us. I still cringe when I see him. But, back to the Gatsby: It was bigger and spicier and more delicious than even greedy-guts, curry-loving me had expected. And while I tried to eat it with my hands – never mind one hand as is the Muslim way – within three bites I knew if I didn’t resort to my knife and fork it was going to become a soggy mess. The steak was tender and flavourful, the chips were crisp and spicy and the sautéed onion tied it all together perfectly. It might not be the healthiest of meals, but some food is soul food and, when eaten while laughing and sharing life stories with people you love it becomes some of the best medicine in the world.

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Six Mad South African Stories

Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hon!). One of those lost-in-translation moments.
Yesterday on Camps Bay beach two guys selling cold drinks decided to have a go on our swing ball set. I wish I could have recorded their giggling and the things they were saying to one another (Djy speel kak! Slaan hom! Slaan hom!). One of those quintessentially South African, impossible-to-translate moments.

With this trial going on and on and the awful Nkandla scandal and that book that’s just come out about the crisis our education system is in it’s easy to get a bit despondent and start thinking, fokkit, Hermanus, what’s to become of us, and when that happens it’s good to be reminded that, while we live in a country where the future is every part of uncertain, the flipside of this is that hardly a day goes by without something mad/funny/ridiculous happening that makes you laugh out loud or shake your head in dismay or be warmed to the bone with the kindness and resilience of human beings. And, after all, we are not here to experience perfection; we came to experience love and humanness in all of its manifestations. Here are some true stories gathered over the past twelve months.

The Blind Beggar and the Lotto Tickets

My mom told me this story over chicken curry a few nights back. She was standing in the queue at Shoprite to buy her weekly lotto ticket (‘if you don’t buy, you can’t win’, as my dad always says), and ahead of her was a well-dressed, blind beggar – really smart in a suit and hat, being led around by a young woman who helped him empty the contents of a plastic packet onto the counter. The cashier looked horrified and like she was about to protest but changed her mind and proceeded to count out R72 entirely in brown coins. There was not a single piece of silver in the mix. With the entire R72 the two of them bought lotto tickets. That’s called faith. Or something. I hope they got at least a few numbers right.

The Naked Rastafarian in the Garden

We don’t have a fence around our property, and a while back my kids called me and told me there was somebody in the garden. I went out to have a look, and there, washing himself at the outside tap, was a young Rastafarian homeless guy in his late twenties or so. He had Tresemme shampoo and a loofah. I went over to where he was squatting and said, listen, dude, I don’t mind if you need to wash, but don’t let the tap run for so long, you make everything waterlogged. He stood up and faced me, naked as the day he was born, and nodded that he understood, but the next day he was back, and then he was coming twice a day and it started to get on my nerves. My polite requests that he didn’t come quite so often fell on deaf ears, and eventually, after a couple of weeks, I told him not to come anymore, but there he was, twice a day, and I live alone half the time and the whole situation started to get a bit problematic so we took matters into our own hands and replaced the tap with one that has a removable top. You can’t turn it unless you have the top bit, and we put the top bit inside. The next time he came he stood staring at the tap in bewilderment. Then he climbed up the steps to our deck where there is a working tap, but where all of Green Point would be able to see him washing his bum, so he just stood there for a while not really knowing what to do. I felt a bit bad and went outside and said, sorry, man, but really, it was getting uncool. He shrugged and went off on his way and I haven’t seen him since. Shame. He just wanted to be clean.

The Lady at Fruit and Veg City

All this cancer everywhere really freaks me out, so I’m trying to feed us all healthy food, and the kids and I have a little game where we each have to make sure we get 7 servings of veggies and fruit a day, and it’s quite fun, actually, seeing how many greens you can squeeze into a sauce or a soup. Or, before supper, I give them a ‘starter’ now which is cut up apple and blueberries and cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks and the kids think it’s great, and I feel like a less crap parent. Anyhow, Fruit and Veg have nice stuff lately – fancy mushrooms and tiny baby carrots and fresh, interesting salads so I try and go there more, and as the cashier was ringing up my stuff and I was looking over her shoulder thinking of something or other, she suddenly stopped dead, looked me in the eye and said, ‘where are my manners? Hello. How are you, and did you have a nice weekend?’ I was surprised, but also not, because you do get that kind of thing happening down here. I told her I missed my husband but that I have good friends who kept me busy. She patted me kindly on the arm and said, ‘it won’t be long now.’ And I walked out of a budget supermarket feeling like the world is a kind and gentle place.

The Day my Mom Got Mugged

Arriving home at about 6pm one winter’s evening, suddenly a young man with a knife appeared at my 68-year-old mom’s side and demanded she give him her bag. She said, ‘I’m not giving you my bag. There is nothing in it of value, but it is of value to me.’ He started to argue so she ordered him to sit down where she proceeded to show him her near-empty wallet, her old, worthless cell-phone and the punnet of mushrooms she’d just bought at the Spar. She said, ‘I’ll give you R100 but you are not getting anything else.’ He agreed and went on his way. When she told me the story a few days later I didn’t know whether to be proud or horrified. I still don’t know.

The Honest Granadilla Lolly Guy

Those guys on the beach are so freaking annoying with their cooler-boxes of ice lollies (a lolly to make you jolly?) when you’re trying to read your Heat magazine in peace, but a few months ago I took the kids to the beach and, just as we’d settled, I spotted a friend 50 metres away. Too lazy to go all the way over there, I phoned her and told her to join us, which she duly did. About ten minutes later, one of the ice lolly guys approached us again, this time with a fancy new Samsung smart phone in his hand, and asked us if it belonged to one of us. In the process of gathering her things, my friend had dropped her R8000 phone in the sand, he had spotted it and was doing the rounds. She gave him R50. He probably lives in a cardboard box.

The Jolly Christmas Bergie

On High Level Road about around Christmas time I was on my way to work and a bit stressed and grumpy because when you have young kids trying to get everyone fed and dressed and out of the house on time requires great reserves of patience which is not my strong point, and as the traffic slowed down there, just to my right, was a bergie going through a bin, and while there is nothing unusual about this, what was unusual was that he was wearing one of those red, felt pointed hats with the flashing lights and he had the lights going full tilt while he sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ at the top of his lungs. While you might be sifting through the trash for your next meal and Christmas will probably be a bottle of something cheap and lethal, aint no reason to be a misery guts. Big lesson to us all.

Raw and Sexy

Beatrice Holst in all her energetic, action-packed fabulousness.
Beatrice Holst in all her glamorous, energetic fabulousness.

There was a time, not long ago, when raw food was associated with odd people in hemp leggings and homemade sandals, but in the last while (thanks, in part, to Hollywood) the notion of eating food in its original form has become a lot more mainstream. And someone who seriously debunks the notion of a raw being tie-dyed-hippie-crap is ultra glamorous Dane, Beatrice Holst, a sought-after Copenhagen chef and caterer who recently arrived in the Mother City to open the sexiest of raw food outlets, Raw and Roxy in Woodstock.

The Lemon Ginger Blast containing spinach, apples, kale, celery, lemon and cucumber.
The Lemon Ginger Blast containing spinach, apples, kale, celery, lemon and cucumber.

The reason why Beatrice gave up animal products and stopped heating her food was personal. From years of carrying heavy trays she developed early-onset arthritis in her wrists and decided to treat her symptoms with food rather than drugs. And it worked. After a daily dose of her Lemon Ginger Blast which contains ginger, spinach, celery, kale, apple, lemon and cucumber – a combination which makes the body alkaline – her pain disappeared, her eyesight improved and her menopause symptoms went away completely. Amazed at the results this simple change made, she decided to go the whole hog and totally transform her diet.

Some of the colourful amazingness you'll find at 'Raw and Roxy'.
Some of the colourful amazingness you’ll find at ‘Raw and Roxy’.

Having eaten exclusively raw for a year, there is nothing you can tell this lady about how to make simple food taste delicious, and her cupboard is packed with unpronounceable things she brings back from Europe and adds to her sauces and salads. And it’s interesting to see who visits her shop in the Woodstock Co-op – she has big, macho truck drivers who eschew the burger joint across the passage and come, instead, for a cup of freshly pressed vegetable juice, knowing how much their bodies benefit from the vitamin and nutrient blast.

Spicy kale chips with
Spicy kale chips with chili, red pepper, sundried tomatoes, cashews, sunflower seeds, turmeric and garlic

I started with a fabulous glass of pink stuff called the ‘Love Elixer’ – a combo of black grapes, pomegranate juice and holy rosewater she has blessed by the Imam in the mosque up the road (hey, we must take our blessings wherever they may come from) followed by linseed crackers, cumin-flavoured guacamole and tasty dehydrated kale. For mains we got a huge plate of delicious raw lasagna, courgette pasta and the tangy, I-am-Adventurous Asian salad. We were hungry and I am one of the greediest people I know, but the meal was so filling and plentiful I couldn’t even finish it, let alone enjoy the incredible dessert of coconut-flavoured fruit salad and rich, chocolately ganache made from avocado and coconut oil (I defy anyone in this world to know this isn’t made with piles of butter, sugar and cream). Luckily, we were allowed to take it home in a doggy-bag.

Raw superfood desserts.
Raw superfood desserts.

It’s not for everyone to go 100% raw, and personally (being the unevolved soul that I am) I believe there’s a place in the world for bacon, but I love eating this way and find myself doing it more and more because it’s delicious and you feel so damn good when you do it. And if you do it 80% of the time or even 50% or even 20%, it’s a whole lot better than not doing it at all. So, go and visit this place. You can’t miss Beatrice – she has waist-length blonde hair, a huge smile and will probably be wearing an LBD and heels while she makes fresh berry smoothies and whips up lunch for 100 hungry people who know good food when they see it.

Raw avocado, cacao ganache cake on a date, almond, cinnamon crust.
Raw avocado, cacao ganache cake on a date, almond and cinnamon crust.

Raw and Roxy is in the Woodstock Co-op at 363 Albert Road, Woodstock, a black and white building just before the Biscuit Mill if you’re coming from town. Or check out their facebook page (where I stole most of the pics because they were better than mine): https://www.facebook.com/pages/Raw-And-Roxy/620032644741554?fref=ts

There are some sick, weird fucks out there – and 4 other things blogging has taught me

Today as I looked at my site stats I noticed, by chance, that to date I have written 99 blogs which means that this one you are reading marks 100. And, while I was going to write about something else entirely, it feels like I should commemorate this round number in some way. And I think the best way would be to reflect on what those 99 blogs were like to write, and what they’ve taught me about people and about myself. So, here goes:

1. They are some sick, weird fucks out there parading as normal people

Sometimes I find myself in the queue at Checkers looking at somebody who appears to have it together and is just out buying rolls and wondering if it was them who wrote me that spewy, venom-filled missive about how much they hate me and my blog and that I should go away and die forever and also that I come from hell. There are some people walking among us who seriously need a hug and a therapist, in that order, because they are so sad and angry that they hardly know how to contain it. And illogical. And harbouring more bitterness than an aloe on the Swartberg Pass. And I try to remember that it’s nothing to do with me and all about them, but sometimes I can’t help being shocked that human beings can have gotten so damaged along the way. I mean, were they kept in a cardboard box and fed ants when they were children? And I think about how bad their lives must be, and I try to understand what drove them to this point, but honestly, I can’t. And then I decide to feel sorry for them and the people who have to live with them and move on.

2. …but many more awesome ones, so who even cares about the freaks?

Over and above the vast majority of people who like the blog and write nice things and tell me their own stories, a handful have contacted me personally and I can honestly say, over the past year or so, that they have become friends. Not just ‘friends’, but friends – people I would (and will) meet with next time we’re in the same city (I’m talking primarily to you, Mark, Tanya, Johan, Jennie). Good people, kindred spirits with warm hearts and happy energy. Who knew that would happen?

3. You’ll only ever please 80% of your audience

I can write the sweetest, most heartfelt and uncontroversial piece in existence and I’ll always have that one person who cannot resist being a schmuck and posting a snarky comment. At first it surprised me and made me question myself and what I was doing. Now I expect it and am even a little disappointed when I don’t get to spam at least one person a week. So come on, Trolls, don’t let me down!

4. Only ever write from the heart because people know the difference

Sometimes I’ll write something, the honesty and revelatory nature of which makes me shudder at my own out-thereness, and I press the ‘publish’ button with trepidation and worriedly wait for feedback, and then the reactions I’ll get will be so heartfelt and sharey as people seem grateful to have their own lives/feelings affirmed and that I’ve made it okay to speak the truth about situations they know all too well. Your audience has a sixth sense for BS, so don’t insult people. Having integrity as a writer means telling it like it is even when that notion is scary.

5. We are (much) more the same than different
Underneath it all – the cost of our handbag, the texture of our hair, the kind of school our parents could afford to send us to – we are like one person with minor, pretty irrelevant details. That’s my experience, anyway. I have 70-year-old white men and 18-year-old black girls reading and relating to my blog. Which is pretty surprising, but true. We all want the same things: to be happy, to be loved, to sometimes make sense of this life we find ourselves navigating without a compass. And if we could remember that more it would help us to be kinder and more forgiving of one another, and of ourselves.

Thank you for the amazing lessons you, my readers, have taught me xxxx

Chef’s Table at the Foodbarn in Noordhoek

If you’ve ever wondered what the rich and fabulous (who made their money working for German airlines and fixing the noses of Monaco princesses before sensibly putting European winters behind them forever and settling in the fairest Cape) do of a late summer’s afternoon while the plebs of the world sit in stuffy offices, I can tell you – they gather around a dappled 30-seater, starched linen table at the Foodbarn in Noordhoek and partake of the most delightful lunch a foodie could imagine.

Warm  brioche with togorashi scallops, sea lettuce, sunflower sprouts, squid ink, chili and ginger sauce. As one does.
Warm brioche with togorashi scallops, sea lettuce, sunflower sprouts, squid ink, chili and ginger sauce. As one does.

And the people who show up at the Chef’s Table are pretty much all foodies. Having done the graft and made their gazonkazillians they are now in the enviable position of spending their days mastering the tricky art of cold-smoking Norwegian salmon and sourcing the freshest porcini mushrooms, and they know a thing or two about culinary excellence. Which is why they flock to Franck Dangereaux’s 6-weekly event because, truly, one would be hard-pressed to find the equivalent skill, innovativeness and downright gutsiness of this ex-student of world-renowned French chef, Roger Verge, and founder of top South African restaurant, La Colombe.

Risotto of truffles, aged Parmesan, Asagio, chervil, tarragon and charred Atlantic oysters.
Risotto of truffles, aged Parmesan, Asagio, chervil, tarragon and charred Atlantic oysters.

I mean, who in their right mind would serve a three-cheese risotto including a heavyweight aged parmesan with truffles, tarragon and oysters, or pair salmon with licorice, vanilla and foie gras? This latter dish I was the least convinced about, but I have to say, unreservedly, that it was the singlemost delicious plate of food I’ve ever been consumed. While the flavours were subtle, the combination had an astonishingly seductive richness and a decadence, and the textures were like layers of satin on velvet.

Seared salmon and foie gras, wilted basil, nasturtiums, vanilla jus and licorice beads.
Seared salmon and foie gras, wilted basil, nasturtiums, vanilla jus and licorice beads.

I was still dreaming about this plate of food the next day, in another, heavenly kind of realm, while I went through the motions of shopping for a birthday present for a 7-year-old and taking the kids to a party, and was probably still drunk on the beautiful Raats series of Chenin Blancs we were plied with throughout the afternoon when I decided to mail Franck and tell him that if you could put sex on a plate, that’s the dish it would be. I hope he doesn’t think I’m a loon. But I really understand what the guy opposite us meant when he never misses a Chef’s Table because Franck’s food keeps him sane.

Grilled duck, rosemary and turnip Tarte Tartin, bitter leaves and blackcurrant jus.
Grilled duck, rosemary and turnip Tarte Tartin, bitter leaves and blackcurrant jus.

It was the first time in a while I didn’t think about Reeva Steenkamp or Anni Dewani or Nkandla. I suppose, in a sense, getting drunk as a miggie on a Friday afternoon and making merry with complete strangers as you bond over plate after plate of mind-bending, taste-bud dancing culinary brilliance, is a kind of decadent escapism. But also if you spend most of your time putting yourself aside and paying your Eskom bill and being a parent and washing the car and turning off the lights during earth hour, aren’t you entitled to a few hours a year where you treat yourself a little; put on your fabulous hat and throw back a vintage wine and put extra butter on your warm, fresh-out-the-oven bread bread and dig into the soft, yellow richness of a Gorgonzola creme brûlée and go, you know what? Life is short. I’m gonna have me a beautiful afternoon.

Chapman's Peak drive. We don't live in an ordinary place.
Chapman’s Peak drive. We don’t live in an ordinary place.

And South Africa is one of the few places in the world where normal people can, actually, afford to eat like kings in incredible settings. I mean, R695 is more than what we would normally elect to pay for a meal, but in this case – given the quality of the fare and the plenitude of good wine – it’s a damn bargain. By the time the coffee cups were cleared away we were jolly as the Easter Bunny and drunk as the dominee at nagmaal and definitely in no shape to drive home to town, so instead we went to the beach and stripped off to our undies and went swimming in Noordhoek’s warm (really), friendly waves and it was so much fun, and then we drove home along Chapman’s Peak where, even if you’re used to that view, you’ll never get used to that view, and a CD called movie magic or something was in the stereo and suddenly Love Is In the Air started playing and we turned it up loud and sang along and that’s what the whole world felt like because great food and wine will do that to you.

And in the joyous afterglow of a day spent with interesting, engaging people and an abundance of all things good and the sun setting over the sea the words of the song made me think of my great, consuming love affair with this country which, for better or for worse, has in some ways become the theme of my life: ‘And I don’t know if you are illusion/and I don’t know if I see truth/but you are something that I must believe in/and you are there when I reach out for you.’

Chef’s Table at the Food Barn happens every six weeks, and the menu is formulated in collaboration with a local winemaker. This time it was Bruwer Raats from Raats Family Wines (http://www.raats.co.za/) who offered a selection of their specialities, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, and delivered an interesting and impassioned presentation about why this underrated grape results in some of the most authentic and quintessentially South Africa wines around. Find out when the next Foodbarn Chef’s Table is happening here http://www.thefoodbarn.co.za/la-table-du-chef/, get there and feel the love.

Olympia Café, Kalk Bay

Olympia cafe outside sign

Once upon a time, when I was in my early twenties, I thought I was a hippie and signed the lease on an old house set against the mountain in Muizenberg with a pokey lounge and a lemon tree and a windy view of the sea. I imagined myself wearing sarongs, taking early morning swims and spending my days writing and doing hippie-type things. In reality, I spent most of that year on the side of the M3 waiting for my rusty red Cortina station-wagon with its malfunctioning fan-belt to stop spewing steam long enough to get me to my job in the city as I battled rush hour traffic and was perpetually stressed out and chronically late for work. Reality didn’t quite live up to the fantasy, and the following year I moved back to a flat in more manageable Tamboerskloof.

But I love that part of the world, and I always have. It’s so different from the rest of Cape Town and, despite its proximity to the city, Kalk Bay particularly has managed to retain a real fishing-villagey kind of feel. One of my favourite things about living on the that side of the mountain was breakfast on a Saturday morning at the Olympia Café, home of some of the best omelettes in the universe which, despite being enormous, they have the audacity to serve with fried bread. We took the grannies there for breakfast on Tuesday, and the omelette of the day was mushrooms, mozzarella, pepperdew, avo and pesto, and it was – as always – delicious.

olympia cafe inside sign

What I hadn’t realised, as we strolled up the road afterwards, was how many fabulous new places have opened up in the last while, and we made mental notes to visit all of them in the upcoming months. It’s done itself up, that main road, and if you’re hungry you really are spoilt for choice. And the new cafes are funky and interesting and command a great view of the street and its passers-by, but despite all the newness and the fact that it was mid-morning on a week day, Olympia was still full, many of its patrons chatting away to the waiters, obviously locals who were better at doing hippie-type things than I was. Just make sure, when you go there, that you don’t have lunch plans because the meals are substantial enough to last you until dinner.

As we meandered along, we noticed throngs of old ladies in head-scarves emerging from the station and making their way to the quay, no doubt to enjoy an early fish and chips lunch. Being incurably curious, I accosted a small woman passing by and asked her what was going on. She told me that on a Tuesday pensioners get to take the train for free. ‘From where?’ I asked. ‘ From where we live,’ she answered, ‘Mitchell’s Plein.’ And while she didn’t exactly lower her eyes, when she said ‘Mitchell’s Plein’ something subtle but significant passed between us – a hint of embarrassment on her part, as she confessed to the white girl in expensive sunglasses that she is nothing but a poor coloured woman from the sticks; the vaguest hint of defiance in her tone as she (rightly) assumed I know less than nothing about what she’s lived through in her 70 years on earth, and that she’s answering me out of politeness and that’s where it ends. For me, it was the ever-present longing to take an eraser and just rub out the details of our past like we used to do in Standard 3 when we made a mistake with our HB pencils; make it that it never happened the way it did so that I could just talk to a human being on the street without all that stuff hanging over our heads all the time.

Because, of course, when she was my age, she would have had to take a special ‘non-Europeans’ train carriage and when she got to Kalk Bay she wouldn’t have been allowed to go to a ‘white’ restaurant for a calamari roll and a coke and have a swim in the sea to cool off on a hot, Indian Summer’s afternoon. While I could – and still can – pretty much do whatever I wanted. And I know it and she knows it and all we can do is try to relate to one another as normally as we can now on a crowded, sun-strewn pavement two decades later and hope, eventually, we’ll be able to move on. Or that the new generation is so different none of it will even matter anymore. I don’t know what the deal is with the free tickets, but I think it’s a great initiative. These ladies were chatting and kuiering like it was nobody’s business. Tempting as it might be, we mustn’t allow ourselves to forget the newness of these freedoms. As we were leaving the Olympia Café, we stuck up a conversation with one of the locals who was polishing off the day’s special, about 70 chippolatas served with scrambled egg and mushrooms, and she told us they’re open till 9 o clock at night, are licensed and that the dinner time fare is just as yummy as what they serve in the morning. I believe her. We’ll go back soon to see for ourselves.

I forgot I was supposed to take a pic and started eating. The fried bread is served with pepperdew and aubergine dip. Very cheeky indeed.
I forgot I was supposed to take a pic and started eating. The fried bread is served with pepperdew and aubergine dip. Very cheeky indeed.

Love, the Karoo and Route 62

Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.
Surely one of the prettiest places in the world, the Koo Valley outside Montagu.

My 80-year-old mother-in-law is visiting us from Denmark. In her softly-spoken, white-haired five-foot-nothingness this small, unassuming woman is the unmitigated matriarch and warm, beating heart of the large Rehn family. And spending long periods of time with her as we have been doing has reminded me of how much my daughters need to know these people who’ve been around for a long time and have lived in different worlds from the one we do now – worlds where things were scarce and times were tough and the fact that life was a series of hardships was nothing anyone bothered commenting on; it’s just the way it was.

On her first evening with us I went downstairs to hang up the clothes of hers that needed hanging, and as I carefully arranged the handful of outfits she’d packed to wear on her visit to Africa – each item having been washed a lot of times and smelling faintly of meadows but still good as new because, while frugality is second nature to her, everything she buys is of the best quality and made to last (nothing like my wardrobe which is full of things I wore once and lost interest in because it was too ‘fashion’/cheap/impractical) – I thought how different our disposable world must feel to her compared to her day where, if you wanted something, you worked and saved and waited and then, when you finally got it, understood its value and took care of it accordingly.

She tells a story about her own mother who fell in love with a set of candlesticks which she couldn’t afford so she made a deal with the owner of the shop that she would pay them off over 12 months. Knowing her family and their reputation, he urged her to take them right away, but she refused until she had paid off every last cent. People were different back then. And I was especially reminded of this fact when I found myself alone in Sweden with a toddler and a newborn and, despite our comfortable apartment and every convenience a new mother could want, flailing and struggling to cope in this challenging new role which was much, much harder than any job I’d ever performed and expecting, as I did, that life would always be fun. And my mind boggled at how this tiny woman managed to have five children in six years in a two-roomed flat with no help and no convenience anything, and cloth nappies which you washed by boiling them in a pot on the stove. I still don’t know how she did it.

Since my mom-in-law’s visit coincided with the start of the school holidays, we decided to go away for a few days, and – after much deliberation – opted for a cabin in the mountains on a farm outside of Montagu because we’ve been there before and know it’s nice. And it’s a bit special for us because it’s where we went on our first weekend away together when we barely knew one another but were starting to like what we saw. Driving up the steep, winding Burger Pass I remembered doing that drive 15 years back, tragically hungover from the previous night’s wild shenanigans in some hotel in Joburg with a mad music journalist and the members of a local band, trying to disguise the fact that I was dry-heaving all the way, having neither slept nor eaten since I got on the plane two days before.

How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.
How can you not stop here? We bought everything they had.

And that weekend (once I got some sleep and had a proper meal) we went for walks and looked up at the stars, but we ourselves were the brightest stars of all – young, educated, ambitious, and the future was as endless as the vistas of that valley. And while this time around the valley was every bit as beautiful as it was when we first visited it, the spaces of ourselves have narrowed to become what we need to be for the people we love. We are no longer a young couple holding hands and gazing out onto a landscape of opportunity and wonderfulness, we are two very important pillars holding up the sanctified structure of our family. Its ability to protect our children from life’s earthquakes depends on our ability to protect one another, and there is more invested in that seemingly casual brushing of a hand against a shoulder in passing than meets the eye. Being the pillars is about having the mettle to hold the inevitable frustrations which are part of married life – and life, generally – and the maturity to be kind and forgiving in the face of disappointment. Because we are now the people whose job it is to keep it all together.

And it’s not not fun and wonderful, it’s big fun, and a different kind of wonderful. It’s not escaping a function to run around a mad city in the middle of the night with interesting strangers, it’s making a chicken potjie with dried peaches and muscadel and slicing the burnt bottom off the pot bread and bumping into each other on the way out of the door with one of you holding a salad and stopping and taking a moment to exchange a look while the kids run around underfoot and then lying in bed too early because you’re so full you can’t speak and watching the firelight flicker on the ceiling and smiling because you might be high on a mountain-top miles away from where you live, but you’ve never been so at home in all of your life.

The ancientness of the Great Karoo was a good place to remember these things and think these thoughts – its tiny, forgotten train stations with names like ‘Rietfontein’ and ‘Draai’; signs against the koppies assuring us that we were ‘Karoo Befok’; dusty tea shops decorated with plastic flowers where the butter is hand-churned and cooled into the shape of hearts. And I wonder, sometimes, what people belong to when they don’t make the kind of choices I did; or when they made the choice and then stuff happened that made them unmake it. If they miss that sense of place, or just find other ways of being. My world is so that, so full of children and family and busyness it’s hard to imagine a different way.

Even though she still cycles to the market, keeps her large garden perfectly manicured and single-handedly hosts three-course dinner parties for her entire extended family, I’m not sure Kirsten Rehn will make it back to South Africa. We’ve been lucky to have her with us.

Scones with hand-churned butter in the middle of totally nowhere. The sign read 'Angora Rabbit Farm' but we only found hens and a cow.
Scones with hand-churned butter somewhere outside Ladismith. The sign read ‘Angora Rabbit Farm’ but we only found hens and a cow.