When I ventured out that July day, the first thing that struck me was the heat.
People say, as an African, I should be used to heat. But I had never known anything like this. In South Africa it is a dry heat. It is a heat that makes the buildings seem to shimmer, and the roads appear wet from a kind of mirage. There is a stillness to that heat, a drawing in on yourself to hold it at bay. Sounds seem to come from far off; there might be just the buzzing of a fly nearby. And the heat is entirely driven by the sun, baking down on the powdery, dry soil. When you step into the shade, the temperature drops immediately, and your pupils don’t adjust quickly enough to avoid a momentary blindness. On the Highveld, around Johannesburg, you can almost set your clock by the 4 p.m. thunderstorm that cools things off for the evening. In Cape Town, the summer South Easter blows away the city smog, and, though the wind tries the nerves with its relentlessness, it’s called The Cape Doctor for good reason. Durban, on the East Coast, has the most humidity, but nothing like the opaque heat of that July day. This heat was like a living thing. It gripped me as I stepped outside. It instantly made my sandals stick to my feet and my skin prickle with moisture.
When I went out on that day, the voices were a wall of sound.
Throngs of people, not as oppressed by the humid heat as I was, were out enjoying the summer day. I listened to the speech around me, and I heard a foreign language. Except it was not foreign; it was American. I was walking down Prince Street in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. But the voices sounded strange to me, as if I couldn’t speak the language. Not quite Babel, but close. It wasn’t so much the words, although that was a part of it. It was the rhythms and inflections. The sentences turned up at the ends.
I went into a stationery shop; I already had so much to write about. I asked the shop attendant to put my purchases into a packet. He looked at me questioningly, groping for a meaning. A bag. A bag was what I wanted. The more conscious I became of language, the more it seemed to splinter into a thousand possibilities—like all the threads that make up English. American English and African English have the same source, after all. But any amateur Henry Higgins can clearly pick up countless English dialects—in America, the musical drawl of the southern states to the flattened twang of New York; in Africa, the heavy, weighted consonants from Afrikaans to the shortened vowels from the black languages. So, it was not just the rhythms and inflections that sounded foreign to me on that July day, it was also the dialect.
The pronunciation is the easy part. It’s not that hard to learn to pronounce the words; to learn to say “loo-tenant” rather than “leff-tenant”, “bro-CHURE” instead of “BRO-chure”, “aluminum” in place of “aluminium”, “skedule” not “shedule”—or to ask for a bag instead of a packet. The accent is much more intricate because it’s a part of you, like a gesture or a walk, and it’s bound up with the timbre of your voice. I was expecting the obvious distinction of the American “a”. Americans “cann’t” do something, and the English “cahn’t” do it. But I learned that the “o” is distinct too. Americans buy fresh “prohduce” from a grocery store, whereas I buy fresh “prodduce”. And, for me, Bach is not a “Baroke” composer, but a “Barock” one. In America, I heard the suggestion of a Northern Irish accent. In South Africa, English sometimes still has remnants of the old-fashioned, 19th century language that our ancestors brought from Britain. But, more often, the English there takes on the heavier overtones of the other ten official languages—from Afrikaans to Zulu.
When I ventured out into the wall of sound that July, the seasons were upside-down.
In Africa, the seasons blend into one another, as day does into night—there are no long-drawn-out twilights there. In March, the trees turn subtly in the autumn, and Cape Town has a chill, damp winter in July. In Johannesburg, the sun shines brightly through the winter, and, though temperatures dip below freezing at night, the days are warm. Spring comes to Johannesburg in October with a purple canopy of jacaranda trees, and, in Namaqualand, north of Cape Town, the semi-desert is transformed, briefly, into a carpet of absurdly bright colors as the wildflowers bloom in late winter and early spring—late August and early September. Time is measured there in months rather than seasons.
On that hot, July day, it was hard to imagine any other season. But I had been in New York City for the blizzard of ’96. When I had heard Americans say, “In the winter I did such-and-such” or, “next summer we’re going to …” it seemed like a quaint turn of phrase. I didn’t realize, then, how the cycle of life is measured by the clearly demarcated seasons. Suddenly the rejuvenation of spring coinciding with Easter made sense. I came to learn that the long, slow, lazy days of summer were neatly bracketed by Memorial Day in May and Labor Day in September. My own summer holidays in Africa had always centered around Christmas, but now all the Dickensian images of carolers and freezing snow and steaming Christmas dinners would come to life in a northern hemisphere winter.
When I walked out onto Prince Street that summer day, my internal compass was awry.
As people came towards me on the sidewalk, I wanted to step left instead of right. It was a precursor to learning to drive on the other side, banging my left hand on the driver’s window as I instinctively reached to change gears. I would pull out into traffic, having carefully ascertained that nobody was coming on my right, and there would be a wildly gesticulating driver screeching to a halt inches from my left, because I was inadvertently turning onto the wrong side of the road in front of him. I trained myself to look left and right, and left and right again, before I dared to walk across the street. My orientation was still set for the southern hemisphere that July, and when I went into Washington I couldn’t tell where north was. The night sky was disorienting, too. The Southern Cross was not where it should have been. And bathwater ran out of the plug anti-clockwise … or clockwise … anyway, the opposite direction from the southern hemisphere.
When I ventured out that day, it was like Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa in reverse.
There was a confidence, an openness, a frankness in the people around me that was disarming and baffling. A perfect stranger happily embarked on her life story—yet that, it seemed, was that. The promising start came to nothing. It began with a crescendo and the rest was diminuendo. I had been used to exactly the opposite trajectory, where friendships grew, gradually, over years and cups of tea. One of my oldest friends has translucent, light blue eyes and a whispering, silvery voice that surprises you when it turns into a belly laugh. She is funny and fey and intuitive and kind, and she has such empathy that I feel as if I’m talking to my soul. And I love her, and I left her, in a cold, dry, wintry Johannesburg.
When I ventured out on that July day, it was my first day as an immigrant in America.
I had come from everything that was familiar to everything that was not. I hadn’t yet understood how difficult it would be to make new friends. I hadn’t yet found where I would live or work or play. I had never yet celebrated Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. I couldn’t yet tell the nickel from the dime. I hadn’t yet learned to turn the light switch up for on. I hadn’t yet discovered that I could feel patriotic. I didn’t yet know if this could feel like home, when I ventured out that day.