Posts Tagged ‘overseas’

Saved By The Braai

July 28th, 2009 10 comments

snow“When I first realised that I was South African.” Boy, did this topic grab me by the neck and shake me.
I leapt at my computer, fingers a blur on the keys, so eager was I to express my South African-ness. To any outsiders witnessing the event I may have seemed mildly rabid. You see, I have lived in Norway for a year now and have wanted to talk about South Africa to South Africans for about 11 months of that year. This was my chance.

I should probably level with you and admit that at that point in time I had not experienced a “moment of realisation” , as such, with regard to my South African identity. However, I had so many reasons why I felt I was South African, I was smugness itself.

I typed furiously all evening and laid down all sorts of heartfelt, passionate claims. It was a great article, sure to render the cynics weak with emotion. Heck, upon rereading I even made my callous self cry.
Until I realised it was all bollocks.

That moment came when, article finished, I had collapsed on the couch to contemplate my genius. It occurred to me that the things I had so energetically listed as South African-flavoured, and thus the making of who I am today, are actually not unique to South Africa at all.

I had talked, complete with grand poetic gestures, about being part of a nation that is capable of developing tolerance and understanding between different cultures. How we, modern South Africans, have had the good fortune to witness the power and grace of a peaceful transformation from an oppressive regime to democracy. How we should be (and often are) world leaders in dealing with peaceful change.

I had rambled on about a nation so accustomed to violent crime that we have evolved and now project a supreme confidence in dealing with the effects of hi-jacking and armed robbery. Your average Joburger is so tough these days, we make the famously hardened New Yorkers look positively tame. Having had my jewellery (and my sanity) unceremoniously removed from my person at gunpoint qualifies me to write this bit. The jewellery was gone forever; the sanity eventually crawled back home.

Naturally, my article had covered the notion that South Africans are so partial to warm climates that we miserably wither and fade in colder climes. Or freeze solid, as was my experience in -25 degrees Celsius during the unforgiving Norwegian winter. Do you know that at that temperature your nostril hairs freeze instantly? For a South African, this is an entirely bizarre experience. Shove a spoonful of beach sand up your nose and walk around like that for the day: that’s roughly how it feels.

Having expressed all that and more, my smugness turned to biting disappointment as my couch-time-reflection suggested that while all these attributes are certainly a feature of South African life, they are also a feature of the lives of other nations. Thus, they are not the ingredients that make me uniquely South African. It was a rather sorry moment of un-realisation, if you like.

Before the fierce patriots among you start loading your weapons, let me explain. My travels of the last few years have taken me all over the world. In each place I have tested my sense of identity against the cultures I encountered, trying to see where I might fit in (a luxury afforded to self-aware, spoiled brats like me). I harbored a great deal of misplaced anger towards South Africa at the time and I wanted to see whether I felt more at home amongst other nations.

braai2What I learned was that there are other countries in the world that also have a history of peaceful political transformation; that crime is certainly not unique to South Africa; and that there are many other nations who have, and appreciate, a warm climate. So, pertinent as these points are to my overall identity, they do not provide me with a sense of South African distinctiveness.

Needless to say, this sudden awareness of the dangerously thin ice on which my identity as a South African rested, made me feel decidedly uneasy. For a few long moments, still lying prostrate on the couch, I reasoned that perhaps I was just a citizen of the world. A nomad of sorts who did not need a nationality to feel okay about myself. What a bummer. I had so badly wanted to write something noble and brilliant about being South African, but I was determined to stick to the brief of writing “the truth”. In that vein, my integrity would not allow me to fabricate something just for the sake of an article.

I spent the next few days going about my business, rather sullenly mulling over the fact that I didn’t feel especially South African. The lack of identity made me quite grumpy, actually. And then, as life often has it, something tiny happened that changed everything…

At a social gathering on a warm summer day, while surrounded mostly by French and Norwegian friends, I discovered (with laugh-out-loud delight) what it really is that makes me South African. It is a minute thing that is so unique to South Africans, it’s undeniable: no matter where I travel to or who I happen to be with, I am completely and utterly incapable of saying the word barbeque. My brain cannot process it, nor can my mouth form the word.

Enter my magical moment of realisation! The joys and sorrows of daily life in South Africa are mirrored in many countries of the world, but our language is unique. Nowhere else on the planet will people understand me when I call something makulu or refer to the boerewors as lekker. South African language runs only in the blood of its people, regardless of colour, creed or geographical location. That is arguably the most refreshing, comforting thought I’ve had in a moerse long time.

Who would have thought that the 5 simple letters in the word braai could make the difference between identity crisis and a sense of complete belonging?

Ja well no fine.

Categories: Realisation Tags: , , ,

Fly, South African

July 26th, 2009 16 comments

When you leave home, you never leave in one go. By the time you’ve decided to leave you’re already one foot out of the door. Then you say good-bye over and over until you actually go. I’d been saying good-bye for days.

saaI started packing the night before I left. Textbooks and trinkets disappeared into deep cardboard boxes. The packing tape strained and squawked, their fates sealed. Wiping my hair from my eyes I turned to my backpack gaping hungrily on the floor. I pushed up my sleeves, again, and studied the checklist stuck to my cupboard door. Rolling and folding became squashing and squeezing and within minutes I’d reduced my life to 75 litres. The night-time hours crept.

In the morning I was left with a quiet house and time to soak up the familiar. I wandered from room to room, to smell, touch and remember. By the afternoon I fidgeted, held captive by my departure time.

One by one, my parents arrived home and I teetered downstairs, blood racing, stomach churning, careful not to crush anything with my load. As we waited for my brother, I passed a South African flag to my mom to sew onto my pack—to be attached. My passport secretly tucked, it declared to the world that I belonged. My mom stitched, my dad paced. I sat.

packingThe telephone’s rings pierced the waiting room. My brother’s car had been stolen from campus! South Africa: your legacy, my heritage. Dad made plans to fetch Roger from UCT and meet us at the airport. Mom cut the thread. Good-bye dog-log, good-bye house, good-bye street.

I stood in the SAA check-in queue, fumbling and staggering under the weight of my bag. Eyes wide, voice small I asked for a window seat. My family huddled on the other side of the stanchions, smiling encouragements, waiting patiently. We sat at a coffee shop until it was time to go. Time to go. And the tears came thick and fast, hot on my already-flushed cheeks, tumbling into crumbled tissues. A girl divided, I wiped my nose on my sleeve.

I bear-hugged them, shaking in my Docs. Good-bye mom, dad, Rog. I slung my daypack onto my shoulder and shuffled forward with a syncopated heart. I wanted to go but I wanted to stay for just a little longer. The guard, cloaked in indifference, thumbed my passport. I smiled bravely and sniffed, and wondered whether he’d ever left home, his country.

I looked back one last time. There they were, waving, grinning and blowing kisses. I returned them all, smiled and turned the corner. Good-bye Cape Town. Good-bye South Africa.

Categories: Realisation Tags: , , ,

A Journey Of Discovery

July 20th, 2009 12 comments

I asked a couple of friends when they realised they were South African; most of them had a definitive moment (“when we won the world cup” being a popular answer), but my story is more an ongoing journey of discovery.

tubeI have been aware of my South African status ever since I was first introduced to the concept of countries and borders and I am constantly being reminded of it when I have to apply for visas. On the other hand, understanding what it means to be South African is a concept I am only now beginning to comprehend. For me, appreciating my South African nationality only started once I left South Africa’s borders. Comparing my culture, beliefs, values and heritage to other nationalities enables me to realise that I am South African.

My first introduction to my “South Africaness” occurred at Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco one rainy day just after I matriculated. I was trying to hide from a downpour in a warehouse when I heard somebody shout at me that this area is not open to the public. I apologised, but as soon as they realised that I’m a South African I got invited for coffee. I had to explain to Americans what it means to live in a young democracy such as South Africa and for the first time I started to realise that growing up in South Africa in the 80s and 90s was a unique privilege.

Not only have I realised that being a young South African means that you have been exposed to such a historical event, that you are part of the rainbow nation, but also that we, South Africans, are a unique bunch. I was traveling to work through London early one morning on a rather packed tube when I spotted a very pregnant woman standing in front of an occupied priority seat. I told the youth to get up for the lady and after a few moments of awkwardness he got up. A businessman then commented “only South Africans would do something like that”.

braaiA few years ago I found a small pub in a French village that was broadcasting the French Rugby tour to South Africa. Naturally when South Africa scored the first try I had to cheer, informing the entire pub that I was South African. We lost the game, but afterwards I got given a beer and received a huge cheers from the French patrons – “Au Sud Africains ”. While traveling through Europe I have realised that as a South African we have inherited so many traditions from other parts of the world, yet we also have such a rich African heritage, helping me to understand the European/African traditions I was brought up with. A white Christmas is so foreign, yet so familiar.

On a daily basis, while sitting on a red bus, chatting to a cab driver in Belfast, going through customs, meeting up with friends for a braai, hearing the expressions ja and now now, I am reminded of the fact that I am South African. Discovering my routes and heritage is a wonderful experience; so my only wish is that I will never stop discovering that I am a South African.

Categories: Realisation Tags: , ,

I’m A South African [and I feel fine]

July 12th, 2009 6 comments

Chapter 1

And there it fell – the square peg through the square hole.

It was lucky, because at any moment, after the years of grinding, its corners had so worn away it was almost about circular.

The problem of my low self-esteem was my puzzle.

I’d always used my father as the answer, and tried to work my way backwards as to why this was so.

But, being forced to rewind here has revealed a different solution.

Because my father was a racing driver, we never saw much of him when were kids, and that unexpectedly vaporized him from the equation.

The actual reason is this:

One day my father took us to America.

Chapter 2

tvWe stumbled off the airplane, jetlagged and disoriented, like little drunks being carried out of a bar after a Big Night Out.

We were dumped out of our cab on the sidewalk outside the New York Hilton – a hallucination of the tallest building we’d ever seen in our lives, so real our ears popped in the elevator on the way up to our floor.

We fell into our room not knowing what to do first – cry, sleep, vomit, or spinaroundincirclesanddropdownontheflooranddie!

But suddenly, something cleared all that up for us.

Everything else in the universe warped backwards into the vacuum of a giant black hole…

Out of its centre emerged a super-terrestrial object we’d only read about in comics…

We stood there in a catatonic stupor… at our first close encounter… with a television of the first kind…

That was the beginning of a six-week race for the remote control.

Which in retrospect is probably the reason we never came home morbidly obese – until then the only food we’d been exposed to was home-cooking and the Airport-Star Roadhouse before Friday night’s Drive-In movies.

We went to Hamley’s Toy Shop.

All four stories of it!

We bought so much stuff.

For so cheap!

Because two American Dollars cost one Rand.


We acted like wedding guests at a buffet.

Where had we been while all of this had been going on behind our backs???

How could the world have hidden this from us all of this time???

Chapter 3

newyorkhiltonBut I also remember seeing a fruit stall with pickings we’d only seen in illustrations of Eden.

It’s sign read: ‘…from South-Africa’


And I remember a restaurateur running to summon one of his staff that hailed from our ‘home town’.

He was from Kenya.


I remember my father’s acquaintances asking how we “got around what with all them lions and tigers in the streets and all”.


I remember the Disneyland Parade – that was really a storm cloud in disguise, which would eventually come to rain heavily down on ours.

Chapter 4

We cried ourselves to sleep almost every night back home.

And awoke every morning to the soundtrack of ‘It’s A Small World’.

But I realise now that it was not.

The only world that was small, was ours.


Now, with my self-respect restored, I realise that America’s like the A-Team – great when we were young.

I’m sorry, that’s realiZE.

I’m South-African.

Categories: Realisation Tags: , , ,

I Love The Smell Of Patriotism In The Morning

July 7th, 2009 10 comments

polandflag The thing about realising that you’re South African, is that you have to realise that the rest of the world exists, and have to understand it in a very meaningful way

As a kid growing up, the rest of the world was geography, and maybe some news. And so, although I was from South Africa, and I knew South Africa, I never fully appreciated being South African, simply because patriotism is a relative perception.

There’s a dirty word. Laboured as it is with images of gun toting mentalists running around the world killing everybody, “patriotism” has acquired a terrible tarnish. In the words of Bill Hicks “I fucking hate patriotism man. It’s a round world, the last time I checked.”

It was my first trip overseas, in August of 1995. We went to Poland, on a rowing tour, and it was just about the best introduction you could hope for to the rest of the world. Rowers from all over the world congregated for two weeks in the (as I remember it) small town of Poznan. Everybody was there with a common purpose (to beat everybody else), and this gave us a bridge across all the nationalities. Regardless, it also made everybody very conscious of where they were from.

Now I’m not a big believer in the “sudden flash” way of life. Stuff doesn’t hit you like lightning one day while you’re wandering around on Aliwal beach drinking Old Brown Sherry from a plastic packet. Stuff hits you slowly, many times over, and one day you wake up to a filthy hangover and the realisation that the stuff’s been there all along.

That said, If I had to identify the moment I first became proud of being a South African, it was on that tour. We were standing outside our residence, waiting to go to the course, and one of our guys who was still inside unfurled a massive South African flag from the window. We were one of the first teams to be competing under the New South African Flag, and I remember looking up at it and feeling immensely proud, and wanting to tell everybody how great our country is.

rowingBut I was very young, and such overt sentimentality came easily.

To say that I fully realised in that moment what it meant to be South African would be a blatant lie. I am still realising. These days, I live with a group of people from all parts of the Western world, in a small city in China. Small enough that Westerners are still freaks to be stared at. Understanding how different we are, and all of the good things and bad things that come from being South African – all of the big things like the colour of our skin (Small town Chinese people often believe I’ve become white because I stayed out of the sun), and the little things like having two ways of spelling sentence/ance – all of these understandings are making me realise day by day what it means to be South African. And it’s cool man. It’s fucking cool.

Anyway, that doesn’t matter. Patriotism is what I felt the first time I fully appreciated being South African, and I’ll admit that just once. Right, now I’m off to kill some people who don’t look like me.