Friday, 23 October 2015

Free & Untorn

In 2011, my tuition was R 35,020 for one year including a registration fee of R 3200 but not any of the books, stationary or living costs. Ok, I lived at home, but then again my sister was completing her Masters at the same time as I was finishing the BA, so for 2011 my mother probably had to pay around R70000 to the university. Without achievement bursaries and family waivers and my mother's hard work as a tour guide we probably would not have had the privilege of higher education.

For about a week now my FB feed has been flooded with student protest from all around the country. Friends at different universities repost and provide commentary of what is going on, giving a broader overview than the media has been able to. Yesterday I had a long Skype session with a friend about why the protests are happening now, what the problems at the heart of them were, what this means going forward. Six students in Cape Town have been arrested and accused of high treason as thousands of others today march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to call for a meeting with President Zuma on the shocking price increases of tertiary education.

I am too far away and have been unaffected by any of this as for the past two years I have payed €500 in total as Germany doesn't have tuition fees, just a student contribution. I have profited from a system that highlights education and even provides financial aid through BAföG (a law that allows for a monthly stipend of up to €650 where half is an interest-free loan that has to be repaid 5 years after completing the degree) to those whose parents do not have the financial means to support them. Naturally, the two countries are vastly different and Germany has one of the strongest economies, thus having the funds to support tuition-free learning. For many of the students currently protesting, they might be the first in their family to even get to university, the first to have a chance at something better. And is this not what everyone wants: for those who come after us to do better and to have it better? Instead there is global warming and ISIS and corruption and #BlackLivesMatter and Alaskan oil fields and billions in mismanaged funds and and and.

But this protest back home, man, it stirs something inside of me, somehow the hope that change for the better may come from this, that somehow there has been a small shift in people's attitudes that simply said: no more. We have ignored this up to now, we have laughed about a president that cannot even read his party's membership numbers, we have accepted the crime rate, we have accepted Nkandla, we have accepted the xenophobia, we have accepted the fear of one another, we have all said that something must change but what and how and then gone back to our braai and watching the rugby/cricket/Isidingo/7de Laan.

So perhaps this, this could be it. This, more than petty politics between the ANC and the DA. This, more than bridges collapsing on the M1 or grandmothers still using the 'K' word or Marikana. This, because the born frees have had enough. This could be our June 16, 1976.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Ich will keine Schokolade

There are essential choices to be made in life.
Cats or dogs.
Pants or skirts.
Blond, brunette, red or black (or any other colour, really).
Vanilla or chocolate.

Today, we chose chocolate, all the way.

The day started out with a marvelous sunset above the city roofs before heading into the Musée d'Orsay an hour before opening to see the Misère et Splendeurs exhibition again, this time without the masses and the space to notice the details or contemplate with the other interns the practicality and positioning of a special intercourse chair made for a corpulent king whose name I can't recall but who was a frequent visitor to the higher-end Parisian brothels before being crowned. In glass counters we discovered century-old condoms, business cards for the ladies of the night touting Swedish massages and multilingual abilities as well as small pamphlets for brothels that look identical to the ones handed out now also in the North of the city for marabouts that can cure any ailment.

A rare sight: the Musée d'Orsay, empty. 
Manet's Olympia, where no photograph could do its beauty justice.  
From the exhibition we headed across the Seine to Angelina, an eatery famed for its hot chocolate and Mont Blanc patisserie. By coincidence (or rather Instagram scrolling) I had found @desserted_in_paris, a pâtissier who posts daily photographs of beautiful sweet indulgences. I started making a list of places to stuff my face at and Angelina happened to be one of them. The four of us ordered the hot chocolate and two pastries to share. Postcolonialist me shuddered at the calling a hot chocolate "L'Africain" or the one pastry a "Negresco", but this did not distract from pure chocolate overkill. The hot chocolate is basically melted dark chocolate in what I suspect to be half-and-half, with the Mont Blanc consisting of a mound of chestnut vermicelli resting on a meringue and cream base. The Negresco is the perfect combination of meringue, light dark chocolate mousse, dark chocolate icing and dark chocolate shavings to round it off. Had we not shared them I think I would have gone into a blissful but necessary chocolatey coma.

Hot chocolate and Negresco. 
Their signature patisserie, the Mont Blanc. 
Right next door to Angelina is the Galignani bookstore, which focuses on art and fashion books and has an admirable English book selection at the back with two comfortable leather reading chairs. They have a copy of Ondaatje's The Cinnamon Peeler which I am waiting to buy at the end of my stay here, kind of as a reminder of this city and a reward for finishing the thesis (one can hope and pray and actually sit on one's behind to make this happen).

From there we trotted back reluctantly to sit at our computers and do menial work of unimportance.
What a day.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

No More Losing The War

Things packed, 
Bag slung over the shoulder, 
coat on, I intended to say: "Have a nice evening."
But she interrupted 
asking whether I was ok, that I hadn't looked it these past days, if everything was alright?

For two seconds 
my brain ran the gamut of answers
all starting with no. 

No, because I fear I won't make this deadline,
mostly because of my own self-sabotage 
and laziness. 

No, because the man in front of me is tip-toeing through his day 
and I want to shout at him to use his ENTIRE FUCKING FOOT
as I, elephantine, stampede through the concrete jungle
embarrassed by this bad analogy. 

No, because the darkness I see when I go to sleep is all
sharp edges and steely blue-black shards,
not the comforting velvet fur of a black cat disappearing into night. 

No, because He interfered with my plans
and I hate having to bow, to bend, 
to compromise when it is none. 

No, because I feel fat and 
there aren't any good mangoes to be had
and all my clothes are shades of black and blue,
so I wear my nightmares to work. 

No, because I am paralysed by a fear of 
yet unmade decisions
so I make none. 

No, because my new shoes hurt so much that
yesterday I was shuffling home,
outpaced by a woman in her 90s. 

No, because all of this makes life feel beyond my control,
just here for the ride, 
like that one time I went on Space Mountain
and hated it. 

No, because the air is getting heavier and heavier
and I can't breathe. 

Instead I answer with a "thank you, but it's just tiredness"
and close the glass doors
shutting out as much as they are shutting in. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Take Shelter

Upon skim-reading some article on design in SA, a friend asked whether I agreed with the statement that one designer made: that design is a Western concept, and design-thinking not really relevant to the non-white population.

What bullshit. 
Design is relevant to every one, all day, every day. 
Irrespective of where you live and what you do, design is relevant. Everything is design, in some way or another. Let me just list what I encounter daily: 
- Android/Apple system on my phones
- OS X Yosemite on the MacBook
- the electronic Passe Navigo to take the metro
- the Metro's Art Nouveau signage
- the city's grid, conceived by Haussmann at the request of Napoleon III between 1853 and 1870
- the design of my shoes, my jeans, my shirt, my bag, even my underwear or my bedding 
- my building's design, and all of the buildings that I encounter on the daily passage through the city
- packaging design for food items
- restaurant and other signage
- advertising all over the city
- graffiti on city walls

It might not all be good or efficient design, but irrespective of who you are, your world is surrounded by design. Even the uncontacted tribes of the Brazilian rainforest employ design in the way they construct their huts or make a bow and arrow. 

The assumption that design-thinking is not relevant is ludicrous, and insulting. Just looking at Instagram accounts such as @trevor_stuurman, @yetudada, @yoliswa_xo or @iseeadifferentyou prove that at least in the middle-class there is a definitive design and style consciousness and a willingness to play around with possibilities. Add to that websites like Superbalist, The Pretty Blog, She Said, Lucky Pony and Skinny Laminx's fabric design, and you'll see an interest in design permeating every social and digital medium. 

Sure, most of the population does not have the same awareness of design influences in their lives because they have not been educated on it or possess the vocabulary to express it, but I would argue that it is a design-consciousness that is missing, not the relevance of the concept itself. Whether you buy Iwisa maize meal or Pick 'n Pay's no name brand already involves a design choice (if one omits a price and taste difference, but if I recall correctly Iwisa may have even been cheaper than No Name?).
Housing outside Johannesburg
Housing on the Western outskirts of Pretoria. 
If you live in an RDP house, you are confronted with a failure in design and city planning that has far-reaching consequences. In Anton Harber's book Diepsloot, the author asks a worker in city planning why the RDP housing consist of single plots of land with tiny houses on them (think a very low-budget version of the opening sequence of Weeds) that stretch over kilometres when it would have been more effective in terms of electricity and water access, as well as use of space, to build high-rise housing? Her answer was that initially the RDP houses, as they are, are cheaper and quicker to build, and that apartment buildings would be more affordable over the long run, but would not keep in line with the promise made by the ANC in 1994 to provide 'housing for everyone' since culturally the expectation is of a piece of land of one's own.

Housing in the middle of nowhere, I think in the Western Cape. 
However, the way the RDP houses are constructed are a secondary form of Apartheid homelands: still far out of the cities, still stretching over vast spaces, still far from jobs, still somewhat of an upgraded township. If one drives along the N1 from Johannesburg to Cape Town, these settlements spring up in the middle of nowhere all over the country. If where you live is so far away from where you work and there is no efficient transportation system in place, how are you supposed to get there? I find them to be depressing places where what housing could be has been corrupted by the desire of the government to pad the statistics. But statistics are worthless when the design that went into the original concept is more harmful than efficient (e.g. this infographic on suburban development costing almost three times as much as urban development does). 

Again, housing on the Eastern outskirts of Johannesburg. 

I am no designer. I crop things in MS Paint. I download templates and adjust them because I wouldn't know which design programs to use or how to use them. But I have kind of being studying how to look at things and humans and culture for years, and sat through numerous classes on design alchemy, so I am not entirely ignorant on the topic. And as I said, design is relevant to every one, all day, every day. 

(Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh also offer a great Q&A on their website, or check out Sagmeister's TED Talk on designing happiness).

Saturday, 3 October 2015


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Au Moulin Rouge (1892-95)
Until mid-January, the Musée d'Orsay is hosting an exhibition entitled Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution, 1850-1910 which delves into the lives of prostitutes as represented in art in the early 20th century. The museum's employees were striking, so on the day that I went the museum was overrun with people. The prostitution exhibit was overcrowded and hard to enjoy as everyone bumped past one another. What I got from it was a) to return another day because what I did see was excellently curated, b) that black and white porn films from 1909 are awkward when viewed with about 40 other people with a median age of 60 and c) that in the past 100 years, things have changed as much as they haven't.

By coincidence I live in the area that the exhibition centres around. Montmartre housed most of the brothels and bars where the girls could work, as well as offering cheap housing for artists like Manet, Degas and Picasso. The exhibition also details the world of higher class escorts who catered to the extremely wealthy and mostly managed to marry someone with a title, thus ensuring their livelihood. But for most women, prostitution was what they had to do to survive: in addition to being washerwomen, maids or bar ladies, they had to supplement their income by selling their bodies in order to survive in the city.

Now, a century later, the street between the Moulin Rouge and Anvers consists of sex shops and tourist stores. To the left of my door is the what seems to be the gay leather sex-wrestling outfits store, and to the right the dildo one. Then there is the Sexodrom with various floors (and their are urgently looking for a sales person, judging by the sign that I have walked past daily in the last weeks). All of them somehow have signs that just read 'Sex', so I am not sure about the specific customers that they cater to. It can't just be tourists that get lost on their way from the Sacre Coeur to the Moulin Rouge. These shops must survive because there are actually enough people buying 50-Shades-of-Gray branded handcuffs and pleather suits and porn on DVDs.

There is a certain seediness to it all. As with the red-light districts of other cities, it seems like something to poke fun at, something where tourists can enter and as a joke buy a little somethin-somethin. But just as in the 1900s there must be a social and cultural undercurrent now that accepts the need for prostitution. What is that need though? Is sex really a need, something that should be pencilled into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or added to the Ten Commandments or whatever system of belief it is that humanity adheres to? What are the implications when ever increasingly the body comes at a price? And here, I am not just talking about literally paying for the sexual services of a person, of money exchanging hands. No, what are the consequences of when social media become sexual media? As much as apps such as Grinder, Tinder and here, adopte un mec (jip, "adopt a guy") are used to simply connect with other (mutually interested and interesting) people, one cannot deny that most of them are also used as hook-up apps.

I find it all disingenuous. Everyone searching for easy accompaniment, for no-strings-attached, for emotional uninvolvement and not knowing anothers names, and yet everyone somehow seeming so damn lonely all the time.

Friday, 2 October 2015


For a while there everyone seemed to be talking about food trucks, with it culminating in the food-truck-film Chef about a chef losing his restaurant job and going on the road throughout select cities in the US. The only time I remember eating something truckishly was a childhood holiday to the Virgin Islands, where we stopped to grab the best frozen yoghurt ever from a turquoise caravan. All I can remember is hundreds of hundreds-and-thousands, which at that time equalled happiness.

However, this gaping hole in my foodie history was filled last week as we first went to Le Food Market, located between the Metro stations Menilmontant and Couronnes. Various sellers offer dishes from all over the world and in between the food stands there are benches to sit at and enjoy your meal. The aim is to make the market a monthly event and to promote good quality food at reasonable prices. All of the dishes were priced between 6-12€, which is about equal to what you would pay for a 'petit plat' at lunchtime in a restaurant.

We queued at the Cafe Chilango to get tacos filled with beef and chicken, and one of the girls had a burger from Burgers de l'Amour. We also grabbed some pasteis de nata for breakfast the next morning before heading to the absolute highlight: the ice-cream rolls. I had seen videos online about people on an Asian vacation (Thailand perhaps? I can't remember exactly) getting ice-cream rolls. Luckily, the trend has travelled to Paris so BOOM ice-cream rolls at Le Food Market. You choose your flavour (chocolate-pear, thank you kindly), which gets squirted in different layers onto a freezing plate. By quickly scraping together and then spreading apart the mixture, the liquid becomes solidified quite quickly. The last step is then to said scraper to create four or five individual ice-cream rolls, which are then topped with either chocolate or caramel sauce and a choice of nuts or pralines.

I had expected the ice-cream to be more of a novelty and not necessarily to be particularly tasty. The assumption was that the rapid freezing would perhaps cause more ice crystals to form and thus the ice-cream to be crunchier than expected. It was not. It was delicious. Easy as that. Delicious. 

Saturday evening was spent at an actual food truck event, where the Carreau du Temple had local trucks outside and French-Korean food inside (in light of it being the French-Korean year). It was difficult to decide what to get, but I ended up with great grilled cheeses and L had a Mexican wrap. No ice cream this time though.

Most interesting is the astounding lack of vegetarian options at both events. Even the grilled cheeses only came in poulet or boeuf (chicken or beef), which I find a bit difficult. Certainly, one could probably ask for a vegetarian version (it's grilled cheese, so...), it was just rather evident that the majority of trucks and stands simply did not offer it on their menus. After bringing this up with the other interns, all of them agree that being vegetarian or vegan in France is much harder as products are difficult to come by and/or excessively expensive. Whereas in Germany one can easily find soy and other substitutes at more or less affordable prices, the supermarkets here rarely have soy mince or rice milk or whatever it is you'd need. Even the two vegans in the group are ordering steaks and burgers here, stating the lack of options both in the supermarkets and when going out. So for now I have entered into an uneasy compromise with myself: eating out means eating everything, eating in means meat-free dishes. I think the best solution to this would just be living off of ice-cream rolls.