Tuesday, 13 September 2016

For a minute there/ I lost myself/ I lost myself

I haven't written in over two months.
Not for lack of something to write about, more because of a lack of time and the sense that the right words would come, that they could not be forced.

Time was consumed by a new job, at first. Then I moved into a new apartment, which absorbed all the energy I had left, mainly because schlepping things and going to Ikea are exhausting tasks. At about the same time, a new person came into my life, and the getting-to-know this newness was equally time-consuming. All of these things were good, they were little signals of life finally settling into a recognisable form and me not always seemingly on the hunt for whatever comes next.

But I knew the fates would think of something. Good never lasts long. Good gets a few weeks of being blissful, before something wrecks whatever was going well. This time it was a routine check-up on a random Friday at the gynaecologists. I had gone a few weeks before and been told I had a cyst that needed to be monitored, but that it was probably nothing, that this was just something women got.

Turns out nothing was two pomelo-sized tumours hiding on my ovaries and pressing on my bladder. This situation was made even more fun because the gynae thought that she should inform me of this development while I was still in the torture chair, half-naked and with my vagina out. She told me to get a paper from the reception, and that the operation should happen ASAP. My hearing only honed in on 'tumour' and 'reception', so I went there, got a piece of paper, was told to call the hospital, and left.

I took my bike, rode to the station, got on a train, and stood there, holding onto my bike and crying. Then I went to work and ignored the news, mainly because I was not sure what it meant and also what I was supposed to do now. Normally I'd call my mom because she'd know, but she was far away and I didn't want to panic anyone.

After work I had made a Skype date with my mother, and told her the news. It was strange, being alone in a room and her equally so, with thousands of kilometres between us, when all I'd instinctually want to do is hug it out. Luckily a friend had said to come by for dinner, so I could unload on her and sit crying (again) in her kitchen. Luckily we also had wine.

On the Monday I called the hospital, got an appointment with the operating doctor on Thursday and was sliced open by Friday. One week. One has to admire the speed of it all.

But it was strange and, above all, frightening. The gynae had not told me anything besides it being a tumour. For a week I was told to wait and see, that things would be fine, but at the same time being fed Wikipedia-knowledge about my ovaries also being taken out and with them the possibility of having children. These were not questions I wanted to ask myself. This was not what I wanted to debate. The Monday evening I cracked, and told my sister to come. This was not something I felt I could do alone in a country that has yet to feel like mine. She said she'd get on a plane.

Two girlfriends and I had brunch and cycled to the hospital. They brought snacks and sat with me for hours as we waited and tests were done. On the Friday I took my suitcase and check in alone. Another lady was there for a similar operation, something to investigate her ovaries because she was trying to get pregnant and it was not working. I got some pill that was wonderful and relaxing, and was wheeled into the operating room. The anaesthesia was ice cold and hurt my arm.

I woke up and fell asleep repeatedly. There was a man wheeling me to the room. I spoke to him at length about cake, mentioning 'melk tert' and how my mom has an easy one that she makes. My one friend had been there, but the operation took longer than expected. The tumours were larger and could not simply be sucked out. The muscles had to be cut open and the the tumours extracted, but because of their weight they sucked onto the lining (or something) and it took even longer. This is what the doctor said on Sunday, and afterwards I made the mistake of googling what dermoid tumours are. Here's the description: "an abnormal growth (teratoma) containing epidermis, hair follicles, and sebaceous glands, derived from residual embryonic cells". Jip. Hair, teeth, skin, all wrapped up neatly and growing inside of you.

During the night I found out I was peeing into a bag and struggled to sleep on my back. Breakfast was served early and consisted of white bread with spread. Lunch was unrecognisable vegetarian slop throughout, and dinner (again) bread and spread. The stereotype of hospital food being horrible was being fulfilled, but makes no sense to me: would sick and recovering humans not profit from a better diet? From food that looked and tasted like food, instead of being without consistency and nutritional value?

My sister arrived on Saturday. It was a relief hearing her, because I knew that I could trust her with anything. She helped me wash myself and combed my hair when I could not, and helped me up to take a walk. It was almost incomprehensible: having a young, relatively strong body one day, and not being able to walk the next. Friends came by, brought food and entertainment. People walked at a snail's pace with me, or sat around, or told me what had been happening in their lives. It was good: the world was brought to me.

After 5 days I became restless - my sister could only stay for a week and I did not want her to waste her time on just coming to the hospital. There were things to be seen and shopping to be done. Wednesday they said I could go. The greater challenge still lay ahead: getting up four flights of stairs. She carried my bag and I carried myself, slowly, but we made it.

The next few days were recovery on speed. We went to a beer garden, we went shopping, we went to a friend's garden. We even ran to catch a train, me holding my stomach and her holding the door. Her being here helped immensely, but the last days were equally exhausting, at least in part because I sort of emotionally blackmailed her into building two chairs with me (one of my idiotic ideas to reupholster two old chairs that was more of a mission that expected). The my sister got on a flight back to South Africa, and I was left to languish for two weeks.

This thing man, it shook me. It turned out not as bad as expected, and the scars will fade (mainly because my mother thoughtfully keeps sending me ointments that will help in making them disappear as much as possible), but the week of fear. That remains a memory. The fear of not knowing what will happen, of not being in control at all, of your body being the thing to rebel against you. The fear instilled by this lack of knowledge and half-truths inhabiting your thoughts. The fear of being alone in a place, and not knowing what to do, really.

But it also gave me a wonderful sense of community. People on three continents wrote, called and rallied. People came to check up on me, people asked if I needed anything, people brought the equivalent of 'People' magazine. Even people I did not know cared: an older lady in the same wing of the hospital and I would walk together at times, her having had a hysterectomy, and both of us carrying our bags of wound juice (or whatever it is that one calls it). She stopped shuffling forward when I recounted my operation, and started crying. Afterwards, every time she saw me in the hall she'd squeeze my arm and walk on.

I realise this wasn't such a big deal, that there are others with much larger issues and that all I had was one horrible week. One week that made me go from being fearless to merely undaunted.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Dodged a Bullet

Next to me lies a pile of documents I have wanted to post about.

Flyers given at the Karneval der Kulturen, where I pressed my body against other bodies with the intention of going nowhere really and ate spicy, fatty chicken from an African vendor because he said it was "lecker, lecker, lecker" and it smelt like home somehow. The map from the photowalk I partially did with the C/O Berlin, where we walked through Stephen Shore's exhibition and then tried to photograph the city in his style by collectively creating a visual diary that didn't feature any spectacular views, memorable moments or key locations, which we then posted on Instagram using the hashtag #BerlinSurfaces. I left after we had ice-cream somewhere near Bellevue, as there was something else happening that day and I felt I wouldn't be able to do it all, despite Nike telling me to 'just do it' and Sheryl Sandberg saying we should 'lean in' and society saying that we can 'have it all'. Another factor in quitting the walking tour might have been my hangover and lack of sleep, but we'll never know.

Also #BerlinSurfaces
Some pamphlets from Berlin's Gallery Weekend further form part of the pile. I remember we were both late, meeting up near the Museumsinsel and checking out extremely expensive art placed lonelily in large, high spaces. Even one of Hirst's spot paintings hung in one corner.

Hirst in space. 
We then went to grab coffee and lay in the sun in front of the Dom, before exploring the works of Daniele Sigalot in one of the galleries. He makes paper planes from aluminium that make you want to return to childhood afternoons spent in gardens and pretending to be something fantastical.

The last station we visited was Spruth Magers, where everything was a bit weird and hovering in the realms of art categorisation where people say "I don't really understand it". Alexandre Singh had a fun installation titled The School for Objects Criticized AE where ordinary household objects such as bleach, a toaster, a slinky, a stuffed skunk and others that I can't recall have conversations ranging from art criticism to sex to God and death, with new characters being illuminated by a spotlight when they enter a scene.

Alexandre Singh
Now the stack of papers has been worked through, digitalised as memory, and the move tomorrow can begin. My own place, my own space, maybe to hang up Hirst in a corner. Or, alternatively, something I could actually afford. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

I'm no good next to diamonds

The past few weeks have been laced with exhaustion. I would ask myself what fresh hell the fates could come up with, how much shit I'd have to wade through to get to some point far off in the distance that signalled an end to whatever this limbo was. And I'd wallow in the apparent hardship of things not working out quite as planned, also because I had not in particular planned anything.

But the tides have turned somewhat. May the odds be ever in your favour, and all that.
One of the reasons is that I get to see JR on a daily basis. The new job is situated in an old industrial area that is being gentrified to seduce startups and other exciting medium-sized enterprises to use the tall stone buildings as bases. One of the towers features an image that was part of JR's 2013 project Wrinkles of the City  where the portraits of an older generation on buildings that have equally stood the test of time indicate how people grow and change with the hardships and joys that their cities experience.

I wonder if this will be true again in 50+ years when a portrait is created of this generation, a generation that is constantly on the move and wanting to experience the world. Do we all have a home? A place we cling to, a place we can return to, when all else breaks away? Or do places and spaces become increasingly irrelevant as concepts of what home is in a time of crisis have to adapt to people being driven by the hundreds of thousands out of the cities that were once theirs?

Questions for another day.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Patience is not a virtue that I have in spades. In contrast to the other six it is the hardest one for me, as it involves sending the good in you out into the universe and waiting on a response. Maybe it is a chance for introspection and contemplation, or it is a time to go stir crazy by feeling trapped in limbo.

In times like these I try to find distractions, whether these by activities such as the Karneval der Kulturen that was on this weekend, or watching the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time, or thinking about what to do with two stalks of rhubarb that have been lounging on the kitchen counter without purpose. As rhubarb is not very common in South Africa, before coming to Germany I hadn't really considered cooking or baking with it, and don't know what one traditionally does with the reddish stalks. Last week I made Jamie Oliver's Stewed Rhubarb, where all you do is cook the rhubarb with some orange juice, ginger and sugar, which I then ate with yoghurt as a breakfast alternative to post toasties.

Rhubarb compote with orange and ginger. 
Previously, I had delved into rhubarb syrup and a wonderful rhubarb panna cotta tart, but this not being my home and not really having and kitchen utensils (people, it is soooo much easier working with cups and teaspoons than it is with grams and scales) I kind of winged a little something something with the two rhubarb stalks.

Preparations and a random Tidal playlist since I still have a week of free music left. 

Taking this Rhubarb Buckle recipe from the BBC as inspiration, I used fairly random measurements as the scale's batteries no longer work and I improvised with a coffee cup. Also, I added a slab of dark chocolate and used orange juice instead of an actual orange because I didn't have one.

The four parts: base dough top left, then chocolate, oat crumble and rhubarb with orange juice. 
What it looked like before it went into the oven for 45 minutes.
It all seems fairly simple, and assembling the various layers really is not a difficult task. The problem arose (literally) when I noticed the bottom dough had completely swallowed up the crumble layer. Also, a knife inserted at about 30 minutes came out clean, so I took the cake out for fear of over-baking it and ending up with something that tastes like eating a desert and not a dessert. Haha.

What a slightly undercooked piece looks like.
But then the taste test (read my gluttony) revealed the cake still being overly moist. It went in again, and now it is still moist enough (thanks rhubarb) but not undercooked as the previous piece had been. The dark choc also works really well, but somehow I think the recipe needs a bit of tweaking, or me actually using the correct measuring utensils and not winging the exact science that is baking.

I'd say not a complete flop but it you want to impress the people at work or a weekend barbecue I'd rather say make this celebration chocolate mousse cake:

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Muscle & Bone

Outside the sun shines as green leaves are tickled by the slightest of breezes.

Inside, I wait to head out, feet frozen because wearing shoes inside will never be normal for kaalvoet kinders. Today may be the day I find my own place and move out. What a difference space makes.
And it is desperately needed - earlier on I was skyping with a friend and had asked which room would be best, where would I least disturb, where could a conversation be had behind a closed door. I asked, I adapted, I offered to change if/when needed. In the middle of our conversation about politics he busts in, fumbles around behind me, listens in, mumbles approvingly at some of the things my friend is saying. I ask whether he wants to work, if I should change rooms because I'd like to speak in private and not have my entire conversation surveilled. He goes off on a tirade about how we share space and that he has the right to enter where he wants when he wants. Which is true, this space belongs to them, and I am a tenant of sorts, a presence that one has to tolerate because it is what familial expectations dictate. But is privacy not also a right? Is having a moment to talk to a friend on my own without the hearing ears of others not also just a sign of respect? It is a constant challenge navigating these waters.

Yesterday I was again skyping (thanks Skype for being such a lifeline to sanity), this time with my mother. At some point she made the thumbs-up sign and said "Shap". How easy that was. Shap Shap. All good. Everything's ok. The reassuring sign of my mom indicating that everything was as it was supposed to be.

Focus Sabine. It's all good. This is nothing.
How you doin', you good? Ja man, hundreds.
I'm hundreds.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Oft gefragt

I have forgotten what's good in these uncertain times.

When nothing in sure, it is easier to have your attention drawn to weaknesses in yourself and in others than to look for fleeting moments of life being ok. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the thing about life is that it goes on. There is no use in dwelling upon hardships and despair because all this overthinking will do is pull you deeper into the darkness.

But man, it is hard to stave it off when your sword is a stick and you bunked on the day there was an introduction to fencing. So now all you can do is go tilting at windmills, ever forward, always getting back on your horse.

Enough with the literary braggadocio - this weekend was good. From Thursday on, it was good. Good came back swinging. Good showed up at the group exhibition of What The Weekend Is Gallery at Urban Spree when the music was jamming and some of the art seemed like you'd want to put it up on your wall. Good continued on Friday with the Yemeni Film Festival, which introduced the parkour scene in the bombed city of Aden as well as the importance of hip-hop and breakdancing in Cambodia, Uganda, Yemen and Colombia through the Shake the Dust documentary, and then at the opening of Hans-Peter Feldmann's photographic exhibition at the C/O.  Good persisted throughout the night with Critical Mass riding by, crashing an architecture-meets-art party because I needed the bathroom and staying to enjoy free wine and a lady playing at a white piano whilst an elderly man fell asleep on a chair holding his Chardonnay, and then checking out a Russian grocery store with bottled tomatoes, meringues and sweets whose wrappers looked more enticing than their content.

Good did not give up after an already solid couple of days. In sauntered into Saturday whilst strolling through Mitte for Berlin's Gallery Weekend, where we mainly didn't understand the art and made dozens of gifs of ourselves with light installations. We continued on to a second-hand market where I bought pants that look like a dress and are wonderfully airy for the hopefully impending heat of summer. Aww jiss.


After a nap we pre-drank nasty-ass Mexikaner (shots made up of Vodka or Korn with tomato juice and Tabasco or something. It is like downing a tiny Bloody Mary) and danced to the glorious music of the Backstreet Boys before going to a club where we hip-hopped into May. I am pretty sure my dancing skills are not great, but just shaking all the negativity off through the beautiful sounds of 90s hip-hop was close to sublime.

Good hit another six on Sunday with warm weather, a neighbour-barbecue and meeting a friend with her friend, the two of whom were in town for a concert. We hadn't seen one another in more than a year, so catching up on the details in person filled in the blanks between Skype sessions and phone calls. As they went to Yann Tiersen I headed to the May-1st-demonstrations because I didn't want to return home just yet and protesting in SA usually means people toyi-toying and destroying things, so I gathered that this could be equally interesting. More interesting than the clad-in-all-black crown of protesters and gawkers was the clad-in-all-black police: their uniforms look like the armour of ants, and their synchronised drills made the whole protest run smoothly. When I left, no cars were burning, no one was fighting, but to my dismay no one was really chanting their dissatisfaction either. Weirdly some of the officers also had what appeared to be video cameras on their helmets, to what purpose I am unsure of (identification of possible threats? recording all attendees? state surveillance?).

And then good had to prove one last time why it is aspirational: Monday meant writing applications that actually were responded to and then meeting up with the friends from Sunday before they left the city. We got ice-cream at Hokey Pokey and just chilled in the park for hours before they departed for the train station and I got to enjoy some time in the sun before another friend showed up and regaled me with his tales.

I shan't forget again - something good is always around the corner.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Al lê die berge nog so blou

Freedom Day.

Whilst people at home celebrate the first democratic elections of 1994, I did yoga, cleaned the apartment and went to the market. When people yell supposedly cheap prices at me I cannot retain the semblance of self-control and end up buying 3kg of grapes for 2€ that I will never be able to eat by myself. Luckily tomorrow we are meeting up for a brunch at a friend's place, where a fruit salad will come in handy share some of my purchases (mangos! watermelon! strawberries!). This meet-up is a bit of a ruse as well: I am apartment scouting, as one of the rooms is freeing itself up in June and it might be an opportunity to move.

Always moving and living out of suitcases and boxes. I think my grandmother emigrated to SA with one large crate of things, and that was it. A life encased.

What is it that makes us want our things, want our clothes, want our spaces to belong to us? What is it about having and owning that drives us?

Waiting for my flight to Berlin in March I noted in my diary:
On the way back.
Say what you will, but this remains home. Maybe it is the people, maybe it is those still here; what remains is binding.
I couldn't lessen this, because this is simply part of what moulded me.
Despite my whiteness, despite other influences, I'll always be South African.
A strange thing to write.
This clinging to nationhood in far-away places. The taking along of reminders of home.
Peppermint Crisp. Marula Jelly. Cushions.
Things my mother gave me.
The boys in the queue behind me doing the same: brandewyn, chutney, aromat, sweet chili sauce.
The tastes of home we take with us. Rooibos. Baking powder in a metal 'blikkie'. Spray 'n Cook. 
The tastes of home ringing true - I went to Galeria Kaufhof yesterday just to buy Mrs HS Balls Chutney.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Future People

Tomorrow marks a month of having left the motherland. Having left the mother, who sends me images of recipes she is going to try out and FaceTimes with me while I sort through my books. Having left the friends who communicate through words on screens. Having left the sun, as here the cold holds on tightly to the days and the nights. Having left having to drive. Having left Afrikaans being spoken. Having left a strange sense of belonging.

Berlin offers up bureaucracy. I have never signed my name to so many papers in all of my years. Paperwork left and right, that is what uncertainty means here. But Berlin also offers up hope in many forms: that spring may come soon, that summer will be good and that somehow, somewhere, things will start falling into place.

Monday, 4 April 2016

That there/ That's not me

Suddenly what was supposed to be dinner
erupts in sound.

Loud yelling
something about driving him up palms
and not provoking him.

I pretend Radiohead is playing,
I pretend to float through walls,
I pretend to be far away.

The body remaining
not me. 

Friday, 25 March 2016

Growing Up

I like closing my door and being by myself. Call it me-time, call it loneliness, call it isolation, but not having had a room of my own in the past six months and two weeks the politics of space are weighing on my sense of contentment.

For a week I am occupying a friend's apartment as she and her roommate have both left over Easter. It is the greatest feeling, just walking around in my pyjamas and refusing to leave the bed. Elsewhere, my bed is a couch in a room that needs to be used by other people. As grateful as I am for the couch and the accommodation, I miss not having to behave like an eternal guest. The guest has to remain polite, avoid confrontation, be clean and tidy and offer to help (whether this be with the dishes or the washing or going grocery shopping or whatever), whereas in your own space you can be wholly yourself. There is no stringent adherence to the polite rules of being a visitor, there is no obligation of feeling grateful and adjusting to the daily flow of a home that is not your own.

I miss not being a reduced version of myself. I miss organising my day according to my own desires and rules, and not having to coordinate every movement. I miss my own bedding, the futon mattress in storage five floors under the couch, I miss not looking for underpants in one box and winter coats in another.

Since coming to Berlin, I have felt a dreaded darkness that descends slowly when things aren't working out as quickly as I had hoped, when life is stagnating and I don't know how to kick its ass back into gear. I factored homesickness, a lack of sunshine and the insecurity of my current situation into the encroaching darkness, but my friend Des added that space is another element contributing to feeling out of place here. The inability to unpack my things somewhere that feels like home correlates with the other aspects. Basically, I miss having a door I can close.

But is this experienced lack not also a form of privilege? Had I grown up in a shack in Khayelitsha, in the slums of Delhi or a Brazilian favela I might not have the same need for square metres that belong to me, that I can occupy all by myself and do with as I please. Perhaps representative of a middle-class sense of entitlement, I grew up with the large houses with large gardens and swimming pools in suburbia that needed gardeners and cleaning ladies from rural areas to come by each week and maintain the property. The neighbours were inaudible presences behind tall walls that separated their lives from ours unless we wanted these to meet at an occasional braai or when someone's dogs had to be taken care of during the holidays.

Here, people literally live on top of one another. I can hear the muted voices of men or people shuffling furniture above me. Still, I think no one makes an effort to know their neighbours beyond short chats in the hallways. Even here, people need their space.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Both Sides Are Even

The last Saturday in Pretoria was action-packed. We woke up, dropped off the rental car I had hired for two days, headed to an instawalk hosted by Fujifilm South Africa and At Photo in Hatfield, met up with Mia at +27 Café, bought a shwe shwe skirt at the market in the 10 minutes before our parking ticket ran out and then braved the inner city on a Saturday for the Market at the Sheds. We parked at the State Theatre and walked over to the market, which offers quite a contrast to the buzzing inner city trade happening on the streets right outside of it. After paying the R50 entrance fee we explored the stands in the large hall and tasted some spring rolls as well as a bobotie jaffel (a round toasted sandwich filled with curried mince meat and raisins) whilst listening to the band in the background.

Notice relics and vocal entertainment.

After ambling past all the vendors and their stalls we headed across the courtyard to the African Beer Emporiums trial day. Also situated in a large hall, the space is simplistically decorated with wooden benches and tables, as well as succulents places on the tables and hung from the walls as decoration. We first had the Soweto Gold Apple Ale, which was absolutely wonderful and I wanted to immerse myself in a bathtub full of it as it combined the not-too-sweet taste of a Hunter's Dry with a slightly more apple-y flavour. Then I tried a Pretoria Steam Beer and wished to go back to the sweet sweet taste of the apple ale. But when in Snorcity one has to taste what it has to offer, right?!

Xander Ferreira (previously of Gazelle) was behind the crate-decks on music while a steady stream of people filled up the benches and enjoyed a selection of 7 beers on tap and more on the menu. We walked around some more and then went on our way, stopping at Aroma's Gelato on the way home. The rest of the day was filled with preparing dinner for some friends that came over later and then getting our dance on at Etc. in Centurion.

A great last day in the capital, I'd say.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Wilder Mind

The email from the event company stated that Mumford & Sons were coming to South Africa. I was still doing an internship in Paris, but assigned my sister the task of buying us tickets as the Pretoria date coincided with her birthday, for which I would be in the city. On the day, I asked whether she had gotten the tickets, but she had forgotten and by the time she looked they had been sold out. Well, they had been sold out in three minutes, so the chances of getting some had been steep in any case.

Then another email came, saying additional dates in Cape Town and Pretoria had been added. I changed shifts and coordinated with a friend at home to both try and buy some tickets. At 9.00 we logged in, and miraculously minutes later I received a confirmation email for three tickets. The friend also got three, so now we were locked and loaded for the concert. 

Months later, the day of the event had arrived. I had been lucky enough (or stalkerish enough) to recognise the band members of John Wizards on my flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg and proceeding to observe them at a distance to come up with a brilliant plan for trapping them in a conversation with me, the results of which I hoped would be some backstage tickets or a shout-out for my sister's birthday or something. Sadly I am too chickenshit to actually follow up on stalking semi-famous people and never talked to them. Also, my bag was the first one that came out, and I didn't want to appear weird whilst waiting for them. Stalker mode not on fleek (which I guess is  a good thing). 

The concert was held at the Amphitheatre near the Voortrekker Monument, which showcased Pretoria's city centre as a backdrop and also had enough space for the audience to spread out across the steps from which everyone had a good view of the stage. We arrived in time for John Wizards and then really enjoyed The Very Best, before Beatenberg played as last introductory act. The Saturday performance had been cut slightly shorter due to a highveld thunderstorm, but Sunday's show had perfect weather and the crowd seemed exceedingly excited to be there. Marcus Mumford appeared during Beatenberg's show, playing the drums and singing along, as well as Senegalese singer Baaba Maal being featured during The Very Best's set. 

From starting out with Little Lion Man to newer hits such as Tompkins Square Park and Wilder Mind to bringing out the boys from Beatenberg, The Very Best and Baaba Maal for a jam session, this concert was one of the highlights of my homecoming trip (if not one of the best concerts I have been to). Somehow the synergy between the audience, the beautiful setting and the great music worked together to make everyone enjoy the show. At some point I looked up and saw the Voortrekker Monument gleaming to my left, Orion right above us and the Southern Cross behind us as the capital loomed in the background, and it made me appreciate the wonder of that very moment, the pleasure in being able to gather with friends and strangers under a cloudless sky on a warm summer's night and simply enjoy the music. 

There is a TED talk by Alain de Botton where he speaks about Atheism 2.0 and how some of the values and actions of organised religions still translate well to human behaviour even if some do not believe in a higher power. After the talk, he was asked by the moderator that this talk made it sound like he did believe in something more, but de Botton answered that it is a moment of looking at the universe and realising our smallness in contrast to its immensity that already creates a sense of mystery which he gets through basic observation and a belief in science, not necessarily in a belief that there must be something more. 

I felt a similar exhilaration at the concert, being surrounded by the natural beauty, the man-made constructions in the distance and my friends around me. At times we just need to appreciate a moment for what it is, not expecting more or being disappointed in a perceived lack. 

After the show we had one last drink before taking one of the last buses back to where the car was parked. It was a few minutes before midnight, so my sister's birthday was rolling in as we were stuck in a traffic jam. One friend got the last few beers out of the boot, I went over to the car in front of us to ask them to play something more birthday-sounding and we had an impromptu dance party in the parking lot. Turned out the guys were DJs at a Joburg club and were more than happy to oblige and play some of their mixes. Even the car guard came over and joined in the celebration. 

We dropped one friend off and then returned home, tired, somewhat sunburnt but genuinely happy. 

Monday, 29 February 2016

21st century heartbeat

10 days left in the motherland.
Yesterday I arrived back in Stellenbosch, tomorrow we embark on a little road trip past Gansbaai to Cape Agulhas and then on to Waenhuiskrans. The names of places ring bells for being where one goes to shark cage dive, the southernmost tip of Africa, and the town where Madel Terreblanche in the soap 7de Laan had a beach house. More than that I do not know.

Europeans have often asked me how many African countries I have visited, probably presuming that going from Kenia to Ghana to Swaziland is equal in distance and ease to travelling across their own continent. But Africa is an enormous continent with unequalled diversity and cultural differences, and travelling here means accepting hours (if not days) in the car or bus just to get from one side of the country to the other. When we were little my mom would drive the 12+ hours from Pretoria to Jeffrey's Bay all by herself while we would count different coloured cars, play I-spy-with-my-little-eye, suck on Dirkie condensed milk tubes and wait to see who could spot the ocean first.

Much of long distance driving to me still holds the fascination of looking out of the window and seeing another world go by. I know the golden afternoon sunlight in the Free State, the sudden spot of green as one approaches the Orange river, the soccer statue on the back roads in the small town of Richmond, or where the speed cameras between George and Wilderness are. My mother has taken us on a road trip to Swaziland, Lesotho and Kwa-Zulu Natal, where we stayed over in a monastery, ate cup a soup and drank wine after having gone up on Durban's Moses Mabidha stadium. In Swaziland we walked through the woods or saw hundreds of schoolchildren walking along the roads. To get up into the mountains of Lesotho we clambered into a Land Rover and held onto our seats whilst driving up the Sani Pass.

Other trips have included detours to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda or visiting Sutherland's Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) to see the stars of the African sky (but then having the visit cancelled due to a magnificent display of clouds at sunset that sadly prevented any real star gazing). We've gone up Table Mountain, we've traced the history of our family at Franschhoek's Huguenot Memorial Museum or surveyed the land in the Valley of Desolation.

Once, my mother and I took the train from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth and got stuck somewhere in the middle of the Free State, which turned a 20-hour trip into a 36-hour adventure. After a midnight arrival in P.E. we stayed over in a hotel before heading off to the Addo Elephant National Park and then visiting my grandmother in Jeffrey's Bay.

Tomorrow we embark again, to see the world in one country.

Sunday, 10 January 2016


I've been home for a month now, and that is what this place is: home. Driving into Pretoria after a two-day trek up from the Cape, I knew coming over the hill by the Delmas offramp that we were in my hometown, that the house was not far away now. I knew the shortcuts, the menu at Kung-Fu Kitchen, the dry smell of the highveld air on hot summer's day. Everything here is easy in its familiarity.

For a week I have been stuck at my sister's place owing to the fact that I don't have a car and thus couldn't really go anywhere. Therefore, we decided to organise a braai on Saturday and invite a couple of friends over to hang out. One half were childhood friends, people who knew where everything was in the kitchen at the old house, who knew our dogs, who know all the intricacies of lives lived as webs spun in entanglements. A university friend came with her husband, my cousin showed up, boyfriends were brought along to this comfortable congregation.

The salads and snacks, pre-prepared, were waiting in the refrigerator (the one imposing the pungent smell of garlic on the entire kitchen), the plates and cutlery had been laid out and everything was ready. The clouds had gathered across the sky, but we expected it to pour down for 15 minutes in a typical highveld storm and then resume our barbecuing. We even performed a rain dance with a rain stick that my mother had bought more than a decade ago in Mexico. But the dance proved too effective and the rain never seized. We gathered inside, waiting it out, realising at some point that this braai would have to move partially to the kitchen. The boerewors was thrown in a pan, the chicken grilled in the oven whilst two guests braved the rain and barbecued the rest whilst huddled under an umbrella.

The meal was consumed and conversation flowed as everyone had tales to tell of small banalities and big events. By 10 PM the rain finally stopped and most went home, with only four of us enjoying the last bottles of red wine whilst sitting outside and smelling the crisp nighttime air. More than the city this was what I had missed: a contentment found in the congeniality of old friends, of people you needn't ever explain your life to because they had been there for so much of it already.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Terrible Love

They wanted to separate us. They have brought us together.
"We don't need to go into work if we're afraid because of the raid" came the message in our intern-WhatsApp-group. I had just woken up and was unclear what the others where talking about. What raid? Where? And why would I not go to work because of a raid? Huh? Turns out they were talking about the raid by police in Saint Denis yesterday, during which the cousin of the alleged mastermind behind Friday's attacks blew herself up and numerous others were apprehended or killed. 

Friday night I had met some friends near the Centre Pompidou for drinks and dinner, and just as we were deciding on pizza or thai food a message came through about there having been attacks at the Stade de France. I didn't even know really that a football game was happening, so I thought it might just be soccer violence. The others whipped out their phones as well and as the news began getting progressively worse and the sirens of police vans increased we all decided to head home. Once there, I spent the rest of the evening with the couple I am staying at, all glued to the TV and watching as the death toll went steadily up. Friends kept messaging if everything was ok, that they'd just heard the news. When the death toll reached 80 people and the siege in the Bataclan was still ongoing, I decided to go to bed, that this could only get worse.

Change. Love. 
The next morning I woke to dozens of messages and Facebook asking me if I was safe. It was strange to find out that we had been to one of the restaurants, Le Petit Cambodge, a few weeks ago because it features on a Buzzfeed list of places to eat at in Paris. Or that at 19 I had been to the Bataclan to see TV on the Radio, or that friends couldn't get home because the whole area had been cordoned off.

I packed my bag and walked to work, thinking that the thesis waits for no terrorists. The Marais, usually brimming on the weekends, was empty, the city deserted. Somehow, after unusually sunny November weeks winter had come in this night of terror. At a pedestrian crossing a siren could be heard approaching and for a split-second the man next to me and I looked at one another, a moment of dread in thinking "what has happened now?".

Fight hatred with this thing we call love. 
Even at work somehow I could get nothing done, sifting through report after report on what had happened. A friend was at the office as well, recounting how he'd been in the 11th and how they'd remained in a restaurant until the early hours of the morning, telling morbid joked to pass the time. People were posting #PrayForParis and changing their FB photo to the Tricolore whilst others were critiquing that the Beirut bombings had been ignored and that the whole attack was because of an extreme belief in one religion. On Instagram, "430 million interactions–that’s posts, likes and comments–were created in these first 24 hours, with people in more than 200 countries participating".

Saturday we were supposed to go to a concert, now cancelled, so we gathered at a friend's place, ate together and drank wine while discussing the events. Somehow after tragedy strikes one needs others to make sense of how this could happen, after 9/11, after Charlie Hebdo, after increases in security. Who was behind all of it? And what was the aim?

The Other is your friend.
Sunday marked the beginning of a certain defiance in the city of being told to remain indoors, of being afraid of when the next attack might come. The sun was shining and everyone was out, walking on the banks of the Seine, talking and laughing. For the past week, I have seen the same spirit in the roads of the city: people in cafés, people in restaurants; a father explaining during an interview to his young son that they might have guns but that we have flowers, and that flowers will always be stronger; graffiti stating that this event has brought us closer together; and an article by Andrew Street following the words of Vonnegut in stating "if we fight each other, we create fresh hells for ourselves. The enemy can only win if we do the fighting for them. We're a whole lot smarter than that. God damn it, we've got to be kind".

On Monday, the office had a general meeting to discuss the weekend's events and ask if anyone wanted to say anything. It was odd and awkward, thinking that anyone would want to talk about their feelings in front of 30 colleagues. Instead, people stood in office doors and huddled over lunch, explaining where they were on Friday and whether they knew of anyone who had gotten hurt. Some were saying that the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year felt markedly different, because one could easily say "That has nothing to do with us, that is not our fight". But now, it was an attack on society itself and the values it guards most closely. It was an attack on the freedom to go have a beer after work on Friday or see the prostitution exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay or enjoying a night of head-banging with your friends. This time everyone was affected because it was a terror that goes against our very way of life.

Perhaps because of this life goes on. People are opposing statements against this being "the fault of the refugees" or "the muslims" or other hateful thoughts that creep in and make you not see the other as human and equal and as having the same rights as you. People seem to be wanting to be kind, because despite the governments bombing ISIS and the media whipping itself into a frenzy, there is no way other than trying, at the very least, to be kind.

The silence of pain is at times stronger than the cry of hatred.