There’s no place like home

September 30, 2010

When I travel to South Africa, it messes with my head.  Afterwards I struggle to settle back into my ho-hum routine and it takes me at least a week to recover.  Trips home always make me naval gaze and I contemplate big issues like the meaning of my life, where I should settle and raise kids and where and how I can be most happy.

This trip reinforced five unique points about South Africa:

1.  South Africans are awake

My uncle asked, ‘Julie why do you just exist in the UK when you can come home and live in South Africa?’  That’s the thing about South Africans – we don’t sleep walk through our lives.  We really live

South Africans smile more, talk more, forgive more and take more risks.  We pump it and can do in 1 hour what the rest of the world does in 3 hours (ok, I admit there are certain people in SA that haven’t yet acquired this useful skill).  We exude a warmth and spirit that other nations, particularly the European cultures don’t.

There is a special energy and contagious charisma in South Africa that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.  You have to feel it to truly understand it.  I sensed it as I walked through the arrivals hall in OR Tambo airport.  I felt as if I’d woken from a stupor, like a heavy mist had lifted.  I think the World Cup spectators were overwhelmed by this and that’s why the tournament was such a rip roaring success. 

What gives us this resilience, this optimism, this camaraderie?  Is it our hot, reliable weather or our kaleidoscope of over 11 cultures?  I reckon there are rich, complex reasons for our ‘awakeness’ and I could write a thesis on it.  Basically, every day we teeter on the fine line between life and death on our treacherous roads and in our crime riddled neighbourhoods.   We’re lucky to simply be alive.  I would parp a vuvuzela to celebrate that fact alone.

Most South Africans have guts and balls and we tend to grab life like a dog with a bone.  We’re not introverted and detached like our European counterparts.  Our dark tunnels of economic struggles, political instability and social depravation have kept us on our toes.  Scarce jobs, rising prices and affirmative action mean we can’t afford to zone out.  With the popularity of dimwit Julius Malema and his cronies on the rise, we must be more awake than ever.

For good and bad reasons, I feel alive in South Africa.  I love that feeling. 

2.  I belong in South Africa

South Africa is my turf.  It’s my hood.  It’s my tribe and when I’m on South African soil, I feel I am with my people.  It’s the port in my travels and the place I can truly refuel and relax. 

South Africa is like my family.  I believe I can criticise it as much as I want but, as soon as any foreigner or permanent SA expat does, I defend my homeland like a lioness defends her cubs.  I am also more confident about asserting my rights in South Africa in the same way that it seems natural to speak my mind, open cupboards and put my feet up in my mother’s house. 

3.  South Africa makes me laugh

Life in South Africa is complicated and you have one of two choices – to laugh or cry.  This holiday, I opted to laugh. 

  • I laughed when the fat Mama receptionist at the police station stretched and yawned while I queried how to get a police clearance certificate. 
  • I laughed when a proud mom served me in a shop and oohed and aahed about the pictures she had just printed of her daughter’s stunning matric dance dress.   She whispered ‘Guess what?  You’ll never believe this but, the dressmaker was black! ’
  • I laughed when the police said they can’t risk keeping petty cash in a safe on their own premises as theft is a problem.
  • I laughed while I organised my police clearance certificate at the Hillcrest police station.  I trotted along corridors and popped my head into random offices.  No one questioned who I was and why I was waltzing round the police station like I was in charge. 
  • I laughed at the police processing speed.  Everyone who helped me did so with movements and an expression of complete exhaustion.  Words came out with great effort and most of the cops had the agility of molasses and the flexibility of a rusted fork. 

Only in Africa!   Ha ha ha ha ha ha

4.  South Africa is expensive

I am stunned by the rampant consumerism and insatiable desire for more in South Africa.  There is a shopping centre on every corner and I feel like I haemorrhage cash in a way that I don’t in the UK.  Here a car guard, there a car guard, everywhere a car guard – and it all adds up.

There is too much temptation in South Africa.  To get into Checkers in the Hillcrest shopping centre, you have to walk past over 10 appealing shops and even the most tight-fisted people, like me, struggle against the temptation to buy something extra that we don’t actually need.

Admittedly, the obsession South Africans have with fancy malls and the shopping experience has paid off as we are more attentive to our physical appearance which makes us a joy to look at.  At Fourways Mall, I was stunned by how beautiful and well groomed everyone appeared compared to the mostly pasty Brits.

Prices in South Africa have risen to the extent that I no longer felt rich and powerful with my pounds and most prices were the equivalent of Tesco and other British shops.  On an average working day in the UK, I buy a £1.75 coffee and a £3 sandwich.  I spent far more on unnecessary, impulsive purchases when I lived in Johannesburg. 

In South Africa, when is enough enough?

5.  South Africans are so lucky to have maids

How I miss my Ennie!  She cleaned my house in Johannesburg for 18 months and, during that time, I met her once.  She arrived after I left for work and my house was sparkling when I got home.  She was like a mysterious, magic fairy.

Most South Africans pay maids in a day what Brits pay an Eastern European cleaner for an hour.  South Africans are so lucky and don’t appreciate the pain of cleaning your own house every week.  I got back from Durban on Sunday and the bath was covered in soapy grime and there were toothpaste stains in the sink.  I said a few f-words as I cleaned it.  It’s the last thing you want to do after a long haul flight but if you don’t do it yourself, no one else will.

South Africa is like the Wild West.  It has its problems and its risks.  It’s wild.  But there is also energy, hope and opportunities for growth and entrepreneurialism.  We shoot from the hip, both literally and figuratively.

There is no place like home.


11 tins of bully beef

September 5, 2010

George Bowling fought in the trenches in France during the First World War. In mid-1917 he was sent back to England and he joined a division of the army called the West Coast Defence Force.  This agency had a vague and disorganized mandate to set up ration stations (called “dump sites”) at various points on the coast of England that would provide supplies for British troops in the event of an enemy invasion.

George’s superiors instructed him to travel to the north coast of Cornwall and assess the existing stock at a station called the ’12 Mile Dump Site’.  It turned out that the only supplies at this site were 11 tins of bully beef and a shelf of books that was abandoned by officers on a previous mission to the area.

Head office wired a message to George.  It said, ‘Take charge of stores.  Remain until further notice.’

George wired back: ‘There are no stores, only 11 tins bully beef’.

He heard nothing in reply.  So he stayed put and did as he was told.

Every month head office sent official documentation asking him to do a stock count and specify quantities of food, medical supplies and building material that were in his storage facility.   George wrote ‘11’ for the quantity of bully beef tins in stock and he put ‘nil’ next to everything else.  Then he sent the forms back.  This procedure happened over and over and all the time the only stock he was allocated was the 11 tins of bully beef.  It appeared that no one read the forms or took any decisive action based on the information George provided.

George Bowling remained at the 12 Mile Dump and guarded 11 tins of bully beef from halfway through 1917 to the end of 1918 when the war was over.  During this time, George read the entire shelf of books that the soldiers had left behind. Occasionally he filled in the odd official form.

George says this was a time of ‘unspeakable meaninglessness’. He remembered the days when he was on the frontline in France, being pounded by bullets.  He imagined his mates not sleeping for three days and smelling like skunks in the trenches.  He remembered when his hands were so cold that he couldn’t even hold a rifle.  He pictured the bullets, the fire, the trenches, the screaming, the agony, the little kids wetting their beds in fright while he sat in his army bolthole next to a warm stove reading novels and babysitting 11 tins of bully beef.

George couldn’t understand why he was drawing monthly pay for a job that didn’t really exist.  The supply station concept was an imaginary idea that somebody had thought up and supposedly implemented.  No one stood up and shouted ‘The Emperor is not wearing any clothes.  He’s NAKED’.

I am reading George Orwell’s partly autobiographical book called ‘Coming Up For Air’.  George Bowling is the main character and this particular incident during the war left me rubbing my solar plexus in the spot where the punch landed.  Why?  Because this is how the modern business world works.  Every day, there are hundreds of people in London who are ‘babysitting 11 tins of bully beef’ and leading the most meaningless and pointless existences below the radar.  The working world is full of loose ends and forgotten corners.

Here’s two examples:

On Friday evening, Al was chuffed.  He had just finished drafting a very complicated Audit Committee Report and wanted me to read it and oooh and aaah a bit.  It was intense and boring.  I asked who would actually read the details.

‘More than likely no-one’ he replied.

Then why the hell is he doing it?  Because he has to.  He must do as he’s told.  There’s a formula and a procedure and he must stick to it.  It’s been done in the past and must be done in the future and that’s that.

One of my friends was very frustrated recently because she is working like a slave while two guys in her office loaf off and pretend to be busy.  They don’t tell management that they are bored and have little to do because they are scared of redundancy.  So they create an illusion of productivity.

Well, I hate bully beef.  It’s unhealthy and fake and made of brisket.  It’s not worth baby-sitting and I’m not afraid to say it!

That may be why the 2 loafers and Alastair have a job … and I don’t.

Julie in Wonderland

September 3, 2010

Some kids want to be firemen.  Some say they’ll be teachers, airhostesses, doctors, farmers or policemen.

I always wanted to be a librarian.

Libraries take me to a happy place.  When I walk inside one, I feel calm.  My whole being becomes a state of giant, relaxed exhalation.  There’s no noise, no chaos – just peace.  I love it that the contents of a small building give me the opportunity to experience a little of what it’s like to fall in love, to have a big adventure, to run a country, to fight a war, to start a business, to make a difference, to overcome tragedy, to conquer a disease and to travel to far away places like Pakistan and India and Peru and Alaska.

I remember the days when I was forced to reserve books and wait weeks (Wait?!  The injustice of it!) for anything by my favourite authors.  Any time I read a great book, I developed an obsession with the writer’s work and then sought out their entire repertoire and inhaled their every word. I loved the anticipation of galloping to a certain section of the bookshelves to see if someone had returned a book that I was longing to read.  It was always a Forrest-Gump-box-of-chocolates moment where I never knew what I was going to get.  For most of my primary school years, I adored the Sweet Valley High series and, when I saw a new one twinkling on the shelf, it gave me an instant mental orgasm.

I had a secret crush on librarians for most of my childhood.  I was in awe of their mighty power as the gatekeepers of all knowledge.  I thought it must be such a cool job to spend the day reading, touching and smelling books and whispering ‘shh shh’ on the odd occasion.

Back in the old days, before that dreadful bar code system took the fun out of everything, each customer was allocated some little cardboard pockets.  When you checked out a book, a card was placed in your pocket that was then added to a massive tray of cards that covered the entire counter.  This tray mesmerized me and was the primary reason why I wanted to be a librarian.  When I was little, I stood on a stool and leaned over the counter and watched the librarians flick through the cards.  It seemed like such fun.  I most adored one particular librarian because she had the nicest hands.  She flicked through the cards with soft, long fingers and the most beautifully manicured nails I had ever seen. Sometimes I would physically ache to get behind the counter and fiddle with the cards.

Every book was stamped with a date and a unique number.  This helped the librarian find your card in the vast tray when you returned in 2 weeks time.  They then opened every book, placed them in sequence and searched for the corresponding cards. I loved sorting my books at home while playing library-library.  I opened the covers, placed them in sequence, searched for the “card” in my makeshift tray/Floro margarine tub after creaming my hands and attaching false nails.

The arrival of the photostat machine was a highlight at the Westville Library.  I was beside myself with curiosity and, for a few weeks, spent all my pocket money duplicating my school notes and photostating random pages of the World Book, just for the hell of it.  That photostat machine has a special place in my heart as it was used for many projects and school assignments.  It was in the photostat machine queue that I had a major epiphany and realised short hair would never suit me (“Let this guy go first” someone said).

Today libraries are different.  I’m too impatient so I browse in the big electronic bookshop called Amazon.  It is has some unique perks.  Now I can buy books instead of just borrow them and most books cost the same as a sandwich. I’m creating my own little library in my bedroom.

Amazon has recently released an electronic device so you can read downloaded books.  It’s called a Kindle.  I don’t want one.  The tactile part of me wants to feel a book in my hands.  If I get a Kindle, I also won’t get any regular Amazon deliveries and these are the highlight of my life at the moment.  I love the anticipation when the postman arrives – does he have my package of books or doesn’t he?  I can’t give up that thrill.  Bookwise, I am not into change.  After all, I still pine for the days of cardboard pockets, card trays and sweet librarians.