You have to love small-town newspapers and news reports. You know the ones I mean. They often use the words, “CHAOS!”, “MAYHEM”, “PANIC” or my personal favourite, “TERROR” in their headlines, and often in capital letters too. The ones with photographs of scowling parishioners or a man-hole with traffic cones in the middle of a single lane road, with a high-vis clad gentleman standing on the side of the road, arms folded.
I attended a town meeting once: my baptism into the small-town community and how they deal with things. The town had recently lost its main artery of life-giving through-traffic and pleasantries, when our faithful tunnel that covers the main road into and out of Beaminster collapsed after a particularly rough rainy season, unfortunately resulting in the death of two people who were passing by at the time.
The tunnel, which had now been out of action for several months, was on everyone’s agenda and the council were faithfully trying to provide open and transparent updates to all affected, and openly invite questions and feedback from anyone who had something to say.
The town meeting, held in the Town Hall, which can accommodate 240 seated guests in the main hall and an additional 80 in the adjacent room, was heaving. Townsfolk had turned out in droves, with queues of people heading out of the hall and into the street – all with the aim to hear what the authorities in charge of the tunnel restoration had to say. My Englishman and I were part of the few youngest there by about 20 years, but we felt determined to be part of this community – and be part of change. And more so, to hear what our local future held for us – with local businesses in dire situations and nearing the end of their “savings for a rainy day” purses with many struggling to keep their doors open.
As the council engineers and representatives methodically went through their PowerPoint slides, the townsfolk listened intently while every so often individuals scoffed and shook their heads. It was only towards the end of the presentation and the invitation for questions when the event truly became comical. Armed with invisible pitchforks and flaming torches, those who had voices wanted them heard. Despite heated debate, a few dramatic exits complete with Final Word Declarations, a few guffaws and a hand-clap or two, the meeting adjourned, and just like that, we all went back to our own lives and own routines.
Walking home, while munching on a chili stick we’d bought from a local Biltong supplier, my Englishman and I pondered the almost Shakespearean scene we’d just witnessed. And although comical and emotive which actually had us more amused than frustrated, we appreciated the determination and upset of the local residents. We understood their annoyance, but most of all, we felt compassion towards the businesses in the town who relied on the passing trade and it was in that moment that we made the decision that we would do something to become actively involved to promote the town for what it DOES have, and not focus on what it DOESN’T.
The air was slightly cool, with a slight hint of wisteria following us all the way up North Street. And amused as we were, we felt somewhat proud to be part of a community who were so determined to make something work. The proof of the pudding would naturally lie in what happened next. Telling would be in the difference between the Talkers and the Do-ers, and in the determination to get stuck in to turn a dismal, truly chaotic event of mayhem, and panic, into one of empowerment, productivity and most of all, triumph.
Now THAT’s a headline I’d like to read.
Hopefully I still will.
In the meantime, I’ll endure the continuously newsworthy articles of stolen teddy bears and car wing mirrors.
A little while ago, I wrote a piece. I didn’t quite know where I’d use it or if I actually ever would. But today we stand with a heaviness on our hearts as we pay homage to a true icon, an example of real humanity, a gracious leader but most of all, the symbol of our Freedom as South Africans – no matter where we find ourselves in the world.
My days seems to be a complete blur of words at the moment. Press, Social Media, Emails, everything – everyone is trying to use their words to capture a person who, quite simply, was so large that words, just simply, cannot explain or define.
I woke up this week telling my Englishman, “This is when I miss being home, the most”. I want to grieve alongside my people. I want to share in that Ubuntu. And even as I sit here and try to make sense of my thoughts and the words I’m trying to formulate, I’m muddled with sadness, pride, humility, anger. I stream my favourite South African station while I try to work.
As the day unfolds, and my mind makes sense of the expanse of messages and words of sympathy flooding my visual world from every corner of this Earth, it hits me that I am anything but alone in my solitary world – and that the embodiment that is Madiba, touched hearts of nations – and at once, I do feel part of a cause between these 4 white walls of post-it notes, empty coffee cups, empty printing cartridges and a heater that is working overtime to defrost my toes. And I am filled with admiration at a life that didn’t mean to become anything more than he was, but in doing that – became one of the greatest examples of grace that this world has ever known. And my sadness at being away from home melts into a heated pride.
So here’s what I wrote – my attempt to make sense, using my words.
Last night, I lay awake. Husband snoring next to me, cat taking up 75% of my side of the bed, iPad resting on my chest. Twitter page open and, as if robotic, as if programmed, the old familiar swiiiiish PLOP sound keeps me company as I read one tweet after the next, that capture 1 single search term:
Father of our nation. Democratic Giant. Fighter of our Faith. Hero of our human rights. Peace-maker. Peace-keeper.
Like most other South Africans in this world, and I’m sure not only South Africans, but supporters all over the world, I spent most of last night with my eyes fixed to news reports and social media discussions. How I longed to be in my home country and feel that same communal spirit we felt as a united people – the day Francois Pienaar held that Rugby World Cup trophy in the air… the day we all, black, white, pink and blue, took to the streets dancing, singing, holding on to each other; for what that trophy represented, was so much more than just the win at a rugby match. It was so much more than supporting our boys in their green and gold. It represented that for the first time, since our first steps as a democratic and free country, we could stand together – united – legally – and we could celebrate. We could recognise our differences, we could praise our similarities, but most of all, we could celebrate in the knowledge that, as a nation, we had faced what the world had deemed “brink of civil war” and we had stood up, shoved it in the face of the doom-sayers and said, “We are South Africa. Hear us roar!”.
I lay awake reading the tweets. Tears streaming down my already damp cheeks.
So in this quiet moment of turmoil, and feeling a million miles away from the nation I love, the culture I drink up, my family, my friends – in this quiet turmoil feeling completely alone and insignificant, I took solace in my Twitter community who, where the prognosis was nothing but despair, echoed my dreary heart and broadcasted words of wisdom, celebration, praise, and most of all, gratitude.
And I feel loved.
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.
“He not only freed the oppressed. He freed the oppressor. And that makes him incredibly powerful.”
THIS morning I was given the middle finger by a little grey-haired lady driving a Nissan Micra who had mistakenly read my flashing lights letting her pull into the gap in front of me, as something else.
I must hand it to her – She couldn’t have been a year younger than 80, could barely see over the dashboard, but there it was, sure enough, this little wrinkly hand that slowly reached up to the rear-view mirror with her middle finger outstretched, all the while scowling back at me.
I just smiled, and waved. As one does.
The pleasure of living in the countryside brings a wealth of amusing anecdotes that daily remind me that we all share a common humanity and need to feel accepted and respected. And the Micra-Driving-Old-Gal was no different.
Not too long ago in our village, I’d heard that our neighbour across the road had passed away and once the dust had settled, I decided to venture over to pay my respects to her children who were busy clearing out her home. I’d hardly spoken my first few words, and was rebuffed with a slight nose-turned-upwards, “Oh, we’d heard there was a Polish lady living in our street”. I didn’t have a chance to finish my sentence, but smiled, wished them well and calmly walked back home, as they continued to load the Welsh Dresser into the back of their Land Rover Discovery.
Pondering these interchanges, while sucking the Rooibos tea from my dunked Ouma rusk, it puzzles me. I want to understand why I find myself slightly ebbed at being referred to as an immigrant (because, technically, I am). But it’s the tone… immigrant. The “come-to-take-our-jobs” immigrant. The “living-on-benefits-while-I-foot-the-bill” immigrant. That awkward silence that falls on conversation when someone makes an immigrant-based comment and then realises that you’re sitting in the room.
I start to think about the tiny one-horse-dorpie in the middle of a well-known, much-visited wine route in the Western Cape where Mom and Dad live. I think about the English-Afrikaans language barrier and I think about the “other side of town” that nobody really speaks about, or visits, except out of necessity. And I realise that this little interchange is no different. As foreign as I feel, it becomes clear to me that any little town, which has an intense focus on its local community, where everyone knows everyone (and subsequently everyone else’s business), is the same – regardless of where you travel to, or live. I experienced the same in the little town of Yuanlin, Taiwan, where I lived for 2 years. I experienced the same in the tiniest dorpies of South Africa, and now I am discovering the same in the UK. It is, unfortunately, the trademark of a small town: a tight-knit community who likes things as it is, and may not be keen for non-members to make changes to the idyllic part of their perfect picture. I understand that. And I accept that.
But I am stubborn, and I want to belong.
So as my personal little mission continues to try and scrape through the heavy outer crust of the All Things Bright And Beautiful community, through the layers of Who-Dunnit and What’d-She-Say, hopefully (just hopefully), I’ll find that precious gem that lies beneath. That little piece of truth that Maslow called Self-Actualisation, and finally be able to plant my own roots in this little community that I am learning to call home.
It rained today. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is that I don’t find myself shielding my face and running & hiding as if the stuff that’s falling from the sky is some unknown acid liquid ready to burn out my eyes and bleach my hair. It’s just rain. And for the longest time, while adjusting to life in the UK, I marvelled at how people just continued on, despite the weather. The dog still gets walked. The kids still walk to school in the rain – hair drenched; blazers sodden. People still stroll into town to get their daily supplies. But the thing that amuses me most when it rains is the resilience of festival-goers. I’m not talking those Woodstock-esque festivals where Wellies are the popular outfit of choice, tents are pitched in mud baths, and revellers come away slightly weather-worn, but with a look of gratification on their faces, and I know that I’ve missed out on something special. I’m talking about the little country fairs and markets that take place in the Dorset countryside, over summer. Those little country fairs with merry-go-rounds and candy-floss machines, dog shows and pony rides, little exhibition stands of carved wooden planting boxes, hand-painted porcelain jugs and historic photographs of towns in and around Dorset.
I suppose resilience may not really be the right word, as much as “way-of-life” would be. Growing up, if it rained, we’d wait it out because it would probably be over in about half an hour. Either that, or if it did continue for a day or two, we simply wouldn’t venture out. Certainly not to a country fair or for a walk on the beach. It was as simple as that. But in the UK, what has struck me most is that life just continues onwards – rain or shine. It must, I suppose. Rain is not an anomaly, it’s a guarantee. And I’ve realised how a little thing such as weather-dependency has been such an overlooked privilege for those of us hailing from warmer parts of the world.
Arranging a Bring & Braai on a weekend was as easy as pouring the sauce over your pap, and people pitched up with beer, boerie and chops. It was a regular thing – a dependable thing. But not quite so much in the UK – where the sun may shine at 10, and wash out any good intention by 2. However, for those of us who are still adamant that summertime beans braai-time, and the abundance of BBQ gear (albeit instant barbecues), outdoor loungers, beach huts and pop-up swimming pools over the summer season, it is quite clear that this the UK is also a nation that enjoys a good meal outdoor, and I’ve often wondered why the concept of the Stoep, has never quite caught on. Especially with the vulnerability of weather-independence. Perhaps it’s just a seasonal thing – like turkey for Christmas, pancakes on Shrove Tuesday – perhaps if it rains, people simply just don’t braai. And perhaps that’s actually ok?
Regardless, our house will probably be the only one in town with a Stoep – perhaps even a replica of my brother’s karoo Soeperstoep that stretches for what seems like miles, and is littered with habitable places, eclectic cacti, candles and lanterns of all shapes and sizes. And ours will have a shelter for a braai, and it will allow for outdoor dining, even if it rains.
And perhaps that, in a sense, is my version of rainy-day resilience.
And I’ll be ok with that.
The dreaded Christmas advert. They seem to get better and better each year. Not better in a good sense, but better in a cynical, somewhat sarcastic sense where one tries to outdo the other on levels of emotive guilt-ridden tear-jerking images that bring to mind the true meaning of Christmas. After all, the true meaning of Christmas is absolutely about a giant truck delivering sugar-filled carbonated drink to every town to the ends of the earth. Isn’t it?
I project. Naturally.
It’s usually this time of year, when the leaves turn orange and gold, and the morning chill seems to tickle my earlobes in a creepy “I’m coming” kind of way that my mood seems to take on a slightly sour twinge. When my favourite plants seem to droop under the evening frost and the moss seems to form a new layer of hazardous green on my paved driveway that I walk a little slower, become a little quieter. The shops have hardly packed away the ghoulish ghosts and witches and red-eyed Halloween pumpkins, that they now laden their shelves with light-hearted, warm and fuzzy, mushy Christmas decorations of angels, snowy village scenes and twinkling lights.
My first Christmas in the UK was a magical spectacle. For the first time, Frosty the Snowman actually did make sense and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire actually were roasting on an open fire, and not on the braai. Hang on, they weren’t roasting on the braai at all. We were lying on the beach, in the sun, dribbling watermelon juice down our chins and getting suntan lotion in our eyes.
I remember observing the frosty South African Christmas vibe from a new perspective, the first time My Englishman spent Christmas in South Africa. Walking around the Somerset Mall in shorts and flops, and pointing out the fake snow on the shop windows, and the icicle lights hanging from the ceiling, I recognised the slightly ridiculous sight we portrayed to people who actually did come from a snowy Christmas. But I didn’t really care. It was my Christmas.
But now I am in the UK, and my Christmas’ are cold, and snowy, and chestnut-roasting. All that should seem beautiful in its perfection and idyll dreamed about on years of Christmas cards and dressing up games now appearing like something foreign and unfamiliar. I want that fake snow, and I want to hear Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly – while smelling the snoek baking on my dad’s braai, and my mom humming along to Dean Martin’s Let It Snow Let It Snow Let it Snow.
Of course. I still project.
For me, regardless of fake or real trees, fake or real snow, fake or real chestnuts, Christmas is so much more than a commercial excuse for credit card debt accompanied by a mad frenzy to feel satisfied and accomplished with the best Christmas lights adorning the house, and the biggest, most glittery tree. For me, Christmas is about having my mom in the next room, and Pa at the braai outside. It’s about knowing that my brothers and their families will soon be arriving, where we’ll eat until we cannot move any more, where we’ll roll ourselves into the family room, where Papa will put on the Father Christmas hat, as he always does, and with his Ho Ho ho, hands out each of our gifts, much to the delight of us all – as we polish off Ma’s frozen triangle cheesecake, that she makes every year, for Christmas.
And as many of us sit in far-away lands, many having forged new Christmas traditions and customs, and many who, like us, will be spending Orphaned Christmas with other friends and families who find themselves in similar positions, my prayer is for love and peace and happiness for you. But most of all, for a little bit of fake snow and the smell of a braai – somewhere in your Christmas season.