Oysters and Tsotsis

Grand Constance. Napoleon loved this stuff a lot and we totally understand why.

A few months back we went next door to our neighbour, Stu, for dinner. Stu is a dashing, 70-year-old confirmed bachelor with a mop of red hair and a racy red Porsche. His best friend is another handsome bachelor called Mauro, and when Mauro has volunteered to cook and we are lucky enough to crack the nod we are happy folk indeed. Because Mauro is an Italian man like they made them in the old days. He hunts kudu on his farm in Robertson, felling the animal with one expert shot and hanging it for ten days in its own skin. This, he explains in his accented English, makes all the difference to the meat. The kudu fillet he serves off the coals, rare, with a side of hand-rolled gnocchi and a smokey Shiraz melts in your mouth, and has none of that metallic, gamey taste you find in store-bought venison. But wait, there’s more.

Single parent Simon van der Stel looking pretty over it.

Mauro had also made kudu biltong which he traded for crayfish with a guy at the gym and then he’d gone to Atlas trading in Bo Kaap and asked the owner to mix him up the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry. If anyone knows how to make the perfect blend of spices for a crayfish curry it’s the owner of Atlas trading. While we threw back delicous wine and partook of this feast, one of the dinner guests entertained us with an extraordinary tale of how, being the wrong colour for the time, he had fled South Africa in the sixties at the age of 15 and sailed alone on a ship to Paris. With barely a penny to his name, some kindly working women took him in and for a time he lived in a brothel, though, in his youthful innocence, he had no idea that the nice ladies who fed and housed him were prostitutes. He assumed all French women wore bright red lipstick and walked around in their underwear.

We thank the Dutch tremendously for bringing WINE to the Cape.

Around 11pm, tummies full and spirits high, we went back home to our children and climbed into our cosy beds and fell asleep with the November south-easterly wind roaring about the city. The wind made such a ruccus that night that we didn’t hear the man in the grey hoodie break open our sliding door with a crowbar and for the next half hour move around inside our home stealing whatever he could find. We slept through it all. We were unharmed. But the what if scenarios as we sat on the couch early next morning looking at each other in disbelief wouldn’t stop running through our minds. We know very well what could have happened. Our children were sleeping metres away from where he prowled around. 

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Given the choice, I would take this over perpetual rain and a cross wife in the Netherlands any day.

And this is everyone’s greatest fear. Exactly this. Because in that moment you are utterly defenceless. Worse, you can’t protect your family. You are at the mercy of someone who would likely kill you for a cigarette. I looked out the window and accepted, for the first time, that our security situation was pretty lacking. We didn’t like the idea of electric fencing and the large, custom-made Trellidor we needed was going to be expensive. But I made a few calls, and in true South African style, within 24 hours we were electrified and Trellidoored to within an inch of our lives. Welcome to South Africa. 

It’s very delightful that the folk of Groot Constantia went to such extraordinary lengths to replicate Grand Constance exactly as it was drunk in Napoleon’s day. It’s actually rude not to try it.

The next day I was due to attend the launch of Grand Constance, the wine Groot Constantia made for Napoleon when he was living on St Helena. We both felt a bit weird and shell-shocked after what had happened, but we gathered ourselves and went anyway. Groot Constantia wine estate is breathtakingly beautiful, its undulating vineyards and gentle vistas making you feel like you’ve arrived in another century. In a way, you have. There is something comfortingly timeless about these old manor houses scattered about the Western Cape. The grand rooms resonate with the history of this country. If you listen hard you can almost hear ghostly voices echoing through their corridors, and you feel the traces of a bygone era held fast in the thick, cold walls. 

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Champagne and oysters, tsotsis and guns. SA is a package deal.

We ate oysters and drank champagne under ancient oak trees before being take on a tour of the homestead. I learned that Emperors and Kings such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and King Louis Phillipe of France bought ‘Constantia Wyn’ at auctions across Europe, so marvelous was the stuff we produced. And continue to. Visit any wine shop in Scandinavia, for example, and South African wines dominate the shelves. This country’s oldest wine farm is so renowned that it appears in Jane Austin’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as a cure for a broken heart and is drunk to lift the character’s spirit in Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ 

Napoleon setting off on his cat to find more Grand Constance.

In truth, we were rather broken hearted that day. As I sipped on the amber, honeycomb-flavoured deliciousness of the 2007 Grand Constance (if it’s good enough for Napoleon…), I pondered the situation of being in love with a country that doesn’t love me back. It’s not that unrequited love is a foreign notion for me. I’ve known it since Sub A when my heart was crushed by a 6-year-old boy called Matthew who spurned my timid advances. It’s just that, well, one can’t help feeling rather down in the dumps nonetheless. 

Still, after a fair amount of ‘tasting’ (I noticed I was the only one quaffing it down, oh dear), my spirits did lift and I felt rather grateful to old Simon Van Der Stel for leaving Holland in 1679 with his knowledge of viticulture and starting this whole business. It can’t have been easy, with 3000 children in tow and no wife because she’d basically kicked him out and sent him to the farthest place on earth from Holland at that time, that being the Cape. But clearly he pulled himself towards himself, and I’m sure having all that wine and brandy at his disposal would have helped enormously when someone took off in the night with some of his favourite things. I think we would have understood one another, Simon and I. Not many people know that Governor Simon van der Stel’s mother was the daughter of a freed slave which means that, according to the apartheid government, he would have been called a ‘Coloured’ and relocated to Grassy Park. And lord knows what that would have meant for our current wine situation.

The gorgeous Anna de Koningh trying to decide if the apple is worth the calories.

I also learnt that in 1714 Groot Constantia was owned by a woman of colour, the daughter of a freed slave, Anna de Koningh. Anna was an extremely wealthy woman and fantastically beautiful, to boot. History narrates that she swanned about that homestead in a marvelous array of jewellery and kept no less than 27 slaves, clearly feeling feathers for social reform. Why should a girl iron her own pantaloons? A German traveller by the name of Peter Kolbe wrote a book where he recalls the time Anna saved the life of her friend, Maria de Haese, who tried to drown herself by jumping in the fountain behind the house. The reason for her death wish was the bitter lament that her life had become ‘one of terror on account of the many scandalous acts she daily had to hear and witness.’ Which does rather remind us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Keeping our spirits up while understanding the lady who jumped in the fountain.

There can’t be a South African alive who hasn’t, at some point, wanted to drown themselves by jumping in a fountain. I get the impression that the early inhabitants of that magnificent estate would have agreed that life round these parts can be very wonderful and very terrible. I suppose it’s difficult to have one without the other. Maybe it’s a sort of a package deal: champagne and oysters, tsotsis and guns. We moved back because we love it: the beauty, the lifestyle, the friendliness, the contrasts. The good food, the good wine, the way the light hits Signal Hill at certain times of the afternoon. The noon gun, the call to prayer, Sea Point Main Road in all its grubby glory. And, of course, sitting under the ancient oaks at Jonkershuis contemplating all of life and the choices one makes and then lives with. There’s no such thing as a perfect deal. You find the place your soul has peace and you live with it, good and bad. For all the fountain-drowning moments I’ve never seriously contemplated leaving. Many do, and I get it. But for me… I dunno. It’s just where my heart resides. 

 

It’s Hard Being a Buddhist When You’ve Had Four Bottles of Tiny Aeroplane Wine

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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 and Dumber, 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.

Thanks, Donald Trump, Now I’m an Alcoholic

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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.

On Going Stone-cold Sober for a Month

A few Saturdays ago I went to a friend’s dad’s memorial at a pub in Obs. It was lunchtime and my house was full of workmen and the morning had been chaotic, and as I drove there I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to drink today; I’m not in the mood – I’ll just have a diet coke.’ I’m not a good daytime drinker – alcohol at lunch makes me grumpy and hungry, and I knew I’d have to go home and deal with painters and kids. ‘Yes;’ I thought. ‘What a good plan.’ So, in the door I walked, said hello to friends, and then was asked if I’d like a draught. And immediately I said yes. I drank it down, and then, inexplicably, had another. And worse – I harangued a friend who did have a coke because he was going surfing later. The beer made me grumpy and hungry, as I knew it would. I went home and had to deal with painters and kids. I drank water and coffee but it didn’t help; I felt blech and my day was kind of ruined.

And you have to ask, what the hell? What is this about? And I think, simply, habit. It’s a habit to drink. Sometimes alcohol is lovely and tastes delicious and improves your mood and your day, but sometimes it doesn’t. And yet it remains really difficult to just say no. It took moving to Sweden to realize that we South Africans are a thirsty, hedonistic bunch. For dinner parties at home we’d cater roughly a bottle of wine per person, only to find our friends wanted water and milk and soft drinks. Which meant we drank it all up ourselves and had a rip-roaring time, but really. I’d go for lunches in groups and be the only one ordering Chardonnay. Eventually it got embarrassing and I stopped.

But we South Africans do drink a lot. We do a lot of things a lot. I suspect it has something to do with how we live down here, and how kind of nuts and Wild West-y it is. Life is lived in technicolour – we work hard and play hard, and while I wouldn’t change it for the world and I love the spontaneity and the aliveness, I do think my relationship with alcohol could bear a little scrutiny. Why do I drink when I don’t really feel like it? Why is it easier to accept a glass of wine than admit I’d rather have a lime and soda? And then, if we want to take the argument even further, why do we need the social lubricant in the first place? Don’t we like each other enough to sit around a table and chat and catch up on our lives without being half pissed?

Last Sunday was an interesting experiment. I had lunch with two close girlfriends, both of whom love their wine. Since we’re doing Sober October together nobody was drinking. I’m sure it was the first time I’ve had lunch with either of them where alcohol was not involved. We had grapefruit ‘cocktails’, and then they had a non-alcoholic beer each and I stuck to soda water and lemon. We ate a beautiful rib stew in the sunshine, talked non-stop, shrieked with laughter and two of us literally fell off our chairs. It was a wonderful afternoon. Then we drove home without feeling sleepy from wine or worrying about a roadblock somewhere along the way. Because even if you wait till you sober up before you drive you’re never completely sure you’re within the limit.

For the past two weeks I’ve been in a vague state of panic over a birthday party I’m attending at my favourite venue this coming Friday. Because it’s one thing socializing with people who are also refraining from drinking and you’re all smug and in cahoots, but being in a smoky bar where waiters keep offering you another glass of champagne (my favourite) will be another story. Still – even though I’ve never been a huge drinker (at varsity I was always the semi-sober one who went home first), and three glasses of anything are my absolute limit – I feel that this is a good exercise to undergo. Not just to give the old liver a break and to drop a few pre-summer kilos, but to see whether all this booze is really necessary. And to observe myself in a social setting without the help of a drug. I had a meeting with a teetotal sound engineer a few months back who was telling me how much people’s voices change when they drink. Once, as an experiment, he used sophisticated sound equipment to record people speaking before they had their first drink and then as they consumed more alcohol, and he said it’s incredible how our voices get lower and slower till eventually we’re almost unrecognizable. Kinda scary.

For me, there are few things more pleasurable than a glass of good wine at the end of a long day. Or, an icy cold beer when you’re hot and thirsty and harassed. It gladdens the soul and relaxes a mind that’s been in overdrive all week long. And it just takes the edge off like nothing else. I refuse to believe that when drunk moderately and mindfully alcohol is a bad thing. It’s the other way that’s not so great – when we do it because we do it or because other people or doing it and it’s the default option. And it’s particularly bad when it’s a daily crutch or we have so much we make ourselves sick or when we become aggressive and unpleasant. And so far I’ve missed it much less than I expected. In fact, I’ve not missed it at all. After this experiment I might opt not to drink in the daytime anymore. Or, only very seldom when it’s a special occasion or I’m on a certain friend’s deck where a glass of vino and happy times just go hand-in-hand. And while I’ll never give up wine, it’s been good to give up wine for a while. Just to see how life feels without the insulation. Pretty good, actually.

I get that there are people who don’t like Facebook, but don’t bring them to my house.

I get that there are people who don’t like Facebook, like there are people who don’t like wine and chocolate and small, furry animals. But don’t bring them to my house. Because Facebook is, frankly, one of the best things god ever invented. People will say of other people – okay, me- she’s on Facebook a LOT. Like she’s on crack cocaine a LOT, or slapping her children a LOT when what ‘she’ is actually doing a lot is interacting with the world. Yes, the world.

There is no greater source of useful information than Facebook, topping google by a prettttty long margin because while google can tell me about stuff I know nothing about, Facebook fills in the gaps of the things I do. Like that seventies song, it colours my world. An example: while I know my ex-boyfriend married a model from Estonia, the best google can do is tell me where Estonia is. Facebook, on the other hand, is the true friend that tells me her ears are quite sticky-outy. And a girl needs to know these things.

I mean, isn’t it a beautiful thing seeing the nerdy guy from high school who no girl would touch with a barge pole go on to head the plastic surgery division of a major university hospital (bet he’s laughing now), or the beautiful girl who was shitty to everyone develop thighs the size of a church door? Maybe I’m unnaturally curious about people and their lives, but it’s immensely interesting to me that someone I once worked with married a gazonkazillionaire and is on honeymoon in St Barts; my next-door-neighbour from childhood has four beautiful daughters and a guy I once kissed at a party is running an ashram in North India.

And I fail to understand how social media could possibly make us antisocial. I’m in contact with waaaaay more people than I would normally be on a daily basis. I engage with people all over the continent, from different walks of life, and the overriding sense is of our sameness; our commonalities. I don’t go on Facebook instead of going out. No-one stays home from parties to post status updates. You post a pic of your drink, and then you go and talk to real people. Maybe some people are content to interact only with the three people in their immediate vicinity; can’t be arsed to take pictures of their dinner and think all this nattering about nothing is a big old waste of time. But frankly I think they’re pretty boring.