A week from today I will be going “home”. I will get onto a plane at Dulles International Airport, fly to Johannesburg via Dakar and, after a two-hour lay-over there, fly on to Cape Town.
I will be leaving behind the heat wave of the East Coast and touching down in the chill of mid winter. Cape Town has a mediterranean climate, so it will be wet and rainy and long dark when I arrive at the airport at about 9 PM, after about 24 hours of travel. The thing is, one is travelling across two hemispheres – not only north to south but also west to east – so as well as its being a change of season when I get to Cape Town finally, I will be jumping ahead into their night-time; I will have lost six hours. Curiously, I find this more difficult than flying the other way and just having the day go on and on. But, jet lag is jet lag, whichever way you look at it.
My home away from home in Cape Town has become dear Erica and Peter. I’ve been staying with Erica, one way or another, for almost 20 years now and she has a way of making one feel that she just lives for one’s visits. She is a bundle of energy with an agile mind and we always have about six conversations going on that we pick up and leave off when we see each other. I haven’t had a true family home since I left Africa. My mother and brother both live in tiny apartments with no accommodation for guests. But then, some friends, over time, begin to feel like family and catching up with them when I go back is like having my batteries charged.
To say that I am going “home” this time next week does require inverted commas. My true home is in America, where I live with my husband and my cat, where I earn my living, pay the mortgage, own a car and feel part of the day-to-day business of the social, political and cultural life. But where do I belong? I will travel on an American passport and I will return to all of those things that ground me here. Yet am I really of this country? I feel passionate about it and thrilled to count myself amongst those millions who have become naturalized Americans. I feel more proud of it than I did of my native country. That is to say, it did make me proud that South Africa managed the transition to a democratic country in the 1990’s without violence erupting as so many had feared, and to share one’s nationality with an icon like Nelson Mandela is certainly something to be proud of. But there will always be (and always should be, lest we forget) the haunting stain of apartheid. Here, notwithstanding elements like the Tea Party, the endemic obesity, the flaccidness of Congress and the rampant consumerism, I do feel proud to live in a country that matters, that is at the center of things, that can make a difference.
Of course, once I get to Cape Town and walk out of the airport building, I will inhale that utterly unique smell and feel I’m home. I will hire a care and, after a momentary readjustment to driving on the left side of the road, I will find my way to Erica’s house along familiar roads as if I drove them just yesterday. I will visit Woolworths, or Woolies as we fondly call it, and wish again that America had that fabulous chain of stores, which are like a combination of Crate and Barrel, Whole Foods, upmarket Target and Gap all rolled into one. I will have a history there, albeit now with a 13 year break. And when I speak, I will not immediately be an outsider.
But that particular topic, how speech identifies you, is the subject of another blog.