“So, where are you from?”
One of the stock questions between strangers. And because, by a few months, I’ve now lived in Maryland longer than I’ve lived in any other place, my stock reply is, “Baltimore.” Invariably, the quizzical response will be, “But you’re not originally from Baltimore.” True enough. The accent is a dead giveaway. I’m from Cape Town. But even that is not the full story.
I was born in a place called Bloemfontein. The name literally means “Flower Fountain” but it’s actually a rather drab little city in the heart of South Africa. Its claim to fame is that it is the Judicial Capital of the country. (For reasons best known to itself the government is divided between three different capitals, the others being the Administrative Capital in Pretoria and the Legislative Capital in Cape Town.) Bloemfontein’s other claim to fame is that J.R.R. Tolkien was born there. Like Tolkien’s father, mine was a banker, and, like him too, I left the city as a very young child. There the similarities between Tolkien and me end. He was taken back to England to become famous, and I was taken to Namibia, where my father was to open a new bank in Windhoek.
Namibia is exquisitely desolate. The massive sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert hum and sing in the wind, and, when the wind is truly fierce, the dunes move, changing the landscape entirely. A particularly beautiful dancer from the Cape Town Ballet Company went for a walk when the company was on tour there once, and he was tragically never seen again. In the mountains around Windhoek the air is filled with fine mica dust, which is agonizing for the sinuses of a small girl.
The curious thing about Namibia is that it was once a German protectorate and it had still, when we lived there, a strongly Continental feel to it. Windhoek (“Windy Corner”), Swakopmund (“Mouth of the Swakop”), Walvis Bay (“Whale” Bay)—these are all German names. On the way to our house in Klein Windhoek (“Small” Windhoek) there were a couple of German castles, where some of the well-to-do residents lived. There was a German school, where my mother taught English (I would wait for her to come home with my eyes glued to the second hand of the hallway clock, willing the time to pass). Although the boys were unruly to teach, my mother was captivated during the annual school dance by the courteous way they bowed to my father, clicked their heels and asked him if they might dance with his wife. One of my earliest memories is of playing with a German girl who could speak as little English as I could speak German, and yet managing to find a way to communicate and play happily. I attended a small church school with fifteen pupils in each grade, I blossomed in my ballet classes, I loved the German carnival every May. I loved it all. And when I was nine years old I had to leave it all. I looked out of the window of the Continental Hotel on our last night there and wept with all the sorrow of a child feeling that her life was coming to an end.
My father had been transferred to another bank, this time in the Goldfields, a two-hour drive north of Bloemfontein. The town was called Welkom, meaning “Welcome” in Afrikaans. It felt anything but to me. The huge school was overrun with what my mother disdainfully referred to as “goms”, an untranslatable expression meaning, roughly, “lowlifes”. I was ostracized because my father wasn’t a miner. My grades plummeted from the 90’s to the 60’s. I was a miserable misfit. Dry, flat and soulless as the place seemed to me, there were just two redeeming features. One was that, although the town was dusty and landlocked, there was a body of water on the outskirts that attracted—of all strange things—flamingoes, and I will never forget their shocking pink color against the drab backdrop. The other is that I would stop whatever I was doing to listen, entranced, when the black miners passed by our house with their guitars, strumming out a rhythm long before Paul Simon discovered it for his Graceland album.
By this time my two older siblings were living in Cape Town, and I began to visit them for vacations. At first, I did all the touristy things, like taking the cable car up Table Mountain and visiting the old castle that had been built by the first Dutch settlers in the 1600s. I fell in love with the place. It became more and more difficult to leave it each time, and I felt like one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters yearning for Moscow. I dreamed of living in Cape Town, and discovered the value of a rich fantasy life; if you dream and fantasize and imagine enough, sometimes it—or an approximation of it, at least—will come to pass. I doggedly got through my high school years in Welkom, and then, like some wonderful consolation prize, I was given a coveted place in the drama school at the University of Cape Town. They say that you are not a true Capetonian until you have lived there for ten years, but I felt like one from the very first moment, and that feeling never changed over the thirteen years I was there.
It’s hard to describe the beauty of Cape Town, dominated as it is by Table Mountain. It is flanked on the right by Lion’s Head and by Devil’s Peak on the left, with the spine of the Constantiaberg running behind it down to Cape Point, where the cold currents of the Atlantic meet the warm currents of the Indian Ocean. The city has two bays; Table Bay with the dock yards in the lee of the mountain, and False Bay with its expansive beaches on the southern side of the mountain. The beauty infects you. The light, when the days are still and clear, is so intense it makes the mountain look like a cut-out. And when the wind blows (the Cape of Good Hope—more accurately called the Cape of Storms—is the setting for the legendary Flying Dutchman) it’s as if the city becomes a living creature. Thick clouds pour over the mountain, forming a table cloth.
One doesn’t merely live in the city, one becomes of the city, and one’s attachment is palpable. The late South African writer, Stephen Watson, might have been speaking for me when he wrote, “there is something about the city they left long ago … which suggests that they have never gotten over it. There is something about Cape Town … which induces a homesickness the pure force of which is almost intimidating in its longing.”
When I go back to visit Africa, Cape Town is even more beautiful than I remember, and it is such a wonderful thing to reconnect with dear and irreplaceable friends that I find myself wondering if it wouldn’t be possible, after all, to return to live there. It is so comfortingly familiar, and I know my way around instinctively the way I know my own body. Every sound and smell triggers a memory; that was the beach where I tried to gather phosphorus one night, this is the cathedral where we gathered to protest police brutality, there is the hall where I heard my first live symphony concert. The pull of Cape Town was so strong that although I spent my last years in Africa living in Johannesburg—now a truly vibrant African city with a feel to it that I imagine somewhere like Kinshasa or Nairobi might have—in my soul I remained a Capetonian. Even now, when I am spiritually and geographically half a world away, and in spite of the passion with which I have become an American, a part of me will always be bound to that southern tip of Africa.