Ambivalence

When I am living in America in my home with my husband and my cat, going to and from work every day, shopping at Whole Foods and following the news and affairs of this country, the sharpness of being a soul with a foot on two continents is less acute.  But going back to Africa stirs it all up.  When you approach the SAA departure gate and board the plane for the 18 hour flight, you begin to hear South African accents, with a smattering of Afrikaans thrown in.  It’s a useful transition to a country that is now at once familiar and strange to me.

After a two-hour layover in Johannesburg, I flew on to Cape Town, arriving there at 9 PM.  I had left Dulles with temperatures in the 90s and arrived in Cape Town to 40 degree weather, so that was an adjustment to start with.  As always I was welcomed into Erica and Peter’s home with great warmth and a sense that I had seen them just last week. Their house on the slopes of Table Mountain has become my home away from home in Cape Town.   We shared many wonderful meals and glasses of good South African wine together, explored their favourite haunts at the Waterfront and beyond, and I could join in their Saturday evening movie night when we went to see Mao’s Last Dancer

There was still a residue of excitement about the World Cup in South Africa.  I heard wonderful stories about the fan walk, the universal camaraderie and the pride that South Africa had acquitted herself so well.  And I could see for myself how the improved infrastructure that had been put in place for the World Cup has an ongoing benefit.  Cape Town International Airport is vastly improved and the roadways are safer and better marked.  (While I was there, some of the elation was deflated by Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s threat to muzzle the press in a way that made one think back in a disheartened way to the old Apartheid regime.  One can only hope that pressure from within and the international community will put a stop to that.) 

Through it all, Cape Town remains as exquisite as ever.  As I was leaving one morning to drive around the mountain to go and visit my mother, I had to stop in my tracks to take this picture.

It was a busy time in Cape Town as I tried to pack a year’s worth of living into ten days.  My top priority, naturally, was to spend as much time as possible with my mother.  I also wanted to catch up with my brother and nephew, I had a cousin visiting from the UK and we went for lunch with him, and I visited another cousin who is the headmaster of Rondebosch Boys’ High School in Cape Town.  I saw an old broadcasting friend from the SABC days and we went for dinner at La Perla in Sea Point (a nostalgia trip all on its own since that restaurant has been there since the year dot) and high tea at the Mount Nelson hotel.  I took a party of family and friends for tea and scones with clotted cream at the famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.  An old school friend, whom I’ve known since I was nine years old, made a special trip down to see me and we went to “Forries” (the Forrester’s Arms pub) in Newlands for another nostalgia trip.  I drove around False Bay to St. James to see an old Cape Town University friend and we went for lunch to the Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay, where my family and I had once spent a Christmas holiday.  In an earlier post, The Receiving End, I wrote about this friend in the context of where the impulse to write comes from and who ones audience is. 

A friend of mine who is a professor of English at the University of Cape Town, once described to me how he would go onto another plane of consciousness when he was writing poetry, and that he had been told he made a kind of singing tone while he was doing it.  It sounded other-worldly and quite mystical.  It was as if there was some force driving him to create, with no consideration for anything else.  Yet these poets – my friend, W.B Yeats, Walt Whitman, C.K. Williams – are all published writers and so, somewhere along the line, an audience has to come into the equation.

Well, we got onto this subject and it turns out that he does have an audience in mind when he writes; someone who is intelligent and interested in exploring new ideas without its being too academic.  That was a very satisfying connection to make. 

So, my time in Cape Town was packed – anything but a holiday from the point of view of winding down and relaxing, but it was great to catch up with old friends and very important and necessary to me to spend valuable time with my mother.  Whenever I come away, I have to wonder if I will see her again.

I lived in Cape Town for twelve years and lived in Johannesburg for thirteen and yet I feel so much more at home in Cape Town.  Especially now.  Cape Town, because of its Mediterranean climate, its scenic beauty and its more homogeneous social structure, has a cosmopolitan feel to it.  Johannesburg feels more and more African.  At this time of year, as they near the end of winter, it is dry and dusty, and it has never been a beautiful city, founded as it is on gold rather than on water.  It is really only the draw of my dear friends that takes me there.  I spent the last weekend there with my beloved Posy and her family.  Speaking to Posy is like speaking to my own soul; there is nothing I can’t say to her (or, I think, her to me) and I feel heard and understood in a way that is rare.  And it is this that brings home the ambivalence I feel when I go back.   Some of the people I care most about in the world live there, and Posy and I agreed that the missing doesn’t get any easier.  In fact, it gets worse.  Yet the country itself, with its problematic government and its isolation, becomes more and more alien to me.  I want to live in America and yet I long for the connection that I have with friends and family in Africa.  My life is no longer there, and the fact that I kept having to divide everything by 7 to convert the Rand to the Dollar is a metaphor for how I now need to translate that life into the one I have here.  Yet my heart is with those special people who live there.

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