Getting a grip

March 17, 2015

Recently I haven’t had time to write blogs because every spare moment has been taken up reading the edible book Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I couldn’t put it down. It’s so well written, it’s delicious. I’d never heard of Louise Doughty before so now I’m seeking out her entire repertoire and inhaling her every word.

Truly SAI head to South Africa soon. I haven’t been back in three years and I miss it. I’ve noticed that I can survive for max two years without going home and after that I crave a good dose of the tonic that is Africa.

The other day I called the embassy and it reminded me how much I am looking forward to being in my tribe, with my peeps, in the hood again. Just for a break, I want to be around people who think and act and talk like me.

I rang the South African embassy in Geneva to book an appointment for Al’s passport renewal and to ask why the hell I haven’t yet received Megan’s passport. I applied for it over a year ago. The last time I enquired, I was told the delay was possibly because of the distance between Switzerland and South Africa. How strange. If this is truly the case, I imagine the passport is traipsing through Africa towards Europe strapped to the back of a donkey or they dispatched it using SpacePost and it is in the process of orbiting the earth. I’ve given up because Megan already has a British passport which arrived three weeks after I applied for it in 2012. I love being South African. Most of all I love being a South African with a British passport.

Before I called the SA embassy, I rang the Swiss passport offices to ask some visa related questions for my mom. I dialled the number and got the answering machine saying in French, ‘You have reached the Swiss passport office. Press 1 for … press 2 for … ’ Within a few seconds I was transferred to an organised, officious lady who answered my questions pronto.

I struggled to get my point across initially. Whenever I call Swiss government departments I fluctuate between nervous flippancy and overly solicitous respect and feel I need to prostrate myself before them in penance for not speaking French properly and in gratitude for letting me live in their country.  I am cap-in-hand, Oliver Twist, yes-sir-no-sir-three-bags-full-sir.  It’s stressful and awkward.

After phoning the Swiss authorities, I wiped my forehead and then dialled the South African embassy expecting an answering machine and the same sort of bureaucratic formality.

Instead, someone answered in a deep and sleepy voice. ‘ello,’ they said.

I asked if I was through to the South African embassy or was this the wrong number.

‘Ja, it’s the embassy,’ he replied.

I explained my situation and then this fellow put me on hold. I think he shoved the phone under his armpit because I heard crinkling of paper and muffled voices. A woman came on the line and said, ‘You need to send us an email. We will investigate your query when you send us an email.’

‘But I have sent about three emails over the past few days and you haven’t replied!’

She said, ‘That’s because our email has been broken for three weeks.’

‘Well then how am I supposed to send you an email if you can’t get them anyway?’

familyI thought the interaction was typically South African and it was my happy moment for the day. Hilarious, what a laugh!

Calling the embassy is like ringing home. The conversation felt easy and familiar – a bit like a comfy old slipper. When I questioned the delayed passport and the send-an-email-which-we-won’t-read instruction, it was like I was speaking to family, and when I complained, it was as if I was moaning at, say, my mother.

I love the way I could speak boldly and bluntly because they understood me. I said, ‘Hey man! That’s ridiculous!’ and they didn’t take personal offence. They just shrugged. Well, I’m not sure if they shrugged as it was a phonecall but I imagine they shrugged because they said there’s nothing they can do about the delayed passport, they just work here and it’s Pretoria’s fault. Pretoria is always to blame. Pretoria sits on documents, Pretoria never communicates and Pretoria will let me know when it’s done (I think this Pretoria person sounds positively useless).

Whenever I go to the embassy, I waltz in there like I own the place. It’s not that I’m rude or bolshie. It is just that it feels as if I belong there, like it’s a home away from home. When I’m around South Africans or in South Africa itself, I feel my rights and I act with a confidence and boldness that comes from being on my home turf, on the soil where I belong, in the place that has framed my life story and the country where people I love live.

During my trip, I’m most looking forward to seeing family and dear friends. I’m excited about hot weather and heat that warms me through to my bones. I can’t wait for good customer service where, when you ask for help, people don’t look at you as if you’ve just jumped out a birthday cake. I’m looking forward to toasted chicken mayonnaise sandwiches and Woolworths and chargrilled steaks and an unlimited supply of rusks. I want to wander through Pick n Pay to check out my old favourites and buy a bottle of Mrs Ball’s chutney without forking out R100 for it.

Part of me is not looking forward to going home. Why? I’m a bit scared. News24 creates an impression that South Africa is like the Wild West. I’m concerned I may be hijacked in international arrivals.

bedI’m not just scared of the crime – I’m petrified of the roads. Apparently South Africa is high up on the list for road fatalities and I’m not surprised. I remember when I lived in Johannesburg and I listened to the traffic report one morning, they said there was a double bed lying on the N1. The last time I was in Durban, I drove behind a bakkie with a giant tractor tyre on the back and it was going full speed on the freeway with almost no support. I’m not used to that kind of backwardness anymore. That would never be allowed in Europe. Even though I find that people in Switzerland drive like bats out of hell, there are certain basic road rules that are enforced and respected.

Possibly the reason why I’m fearful is because I am taking my babies, my two little chickens, home with me for the first time. I want to protect them and keep them safe, always. I know that although I want to, I cannot gather everyone I love and stow them safely under the bed. I must take my brother’s advice. When I told him of my concerns, he said, ‘Get a grip’.