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My (black) taxi driver is annoyed that the names of our roads are changing. DF Malan (one of the architects of apartheid) Drive, is now Beyers Naude (an Afrikaner banned and shunned by his Dutch Reformed community for calling to dismantle it) Drive. I explain that it is to honour him, and to acknowledge positive change. All he can see is that it makes it harder for him to find his way around. “Anyway, things were better for us with the previous government” he says. “Well, at least now you can choose to vote for them or not.” I reply
On the way to Michelle’s car after the lecture, she apologises for the long walk, and says: “If you don’t get here before 8.30 in the morning, it’s almost impossible to get a parking place any closer!” And she’s a member of staff, not a student. I think about the paradox that car ownership has brought with it -- particularly in cities like New York and London -- that more prestigious (and expensive, often) than owning a car, is owning a parking space.
I own “a space”. I rent it out to the neighbours who have more than one car.
I’ve been neglecting my
Winnie the Pooh
calendar a bit recently, since I’ve been concentrating on more grown-up writing (“hmm…” says Pooh). He said yesterday:
“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”
And a couple of days back:
“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
Back to Theroux: “A person becomes a writer because they're deficient. They have problems. They're crazy. They have unhappy families. They're eccentric. And not because they've read a lot of books necessarily, but on the contrary -- maybe they haven't read
books. There's a strong irrationality about the writing life. Often a writer writes just to maintain their sanity. The way an addict needs to perform a certain ritual of mainlining, a writer kind of has to do it in order to keep his or her head on straight.” Yes, I guess that accurately describes a number of us…
One of the biggest compliments you can pay me, is to call me kind. I’m not always. I can honestly say that I am never deliberately cruel, but I am often impatient, and others are sometimes at the receiving end of it. I admire people with an abundant generosity. With the ability to not sweat the small stuff. I remember someone once saying to me, “People always tell you the bad things that others have said about you, but never the good stuff.” It made an impression on me. Since then I’ve always tried to pass on the good thoughts.
“Excuse me… may I join you?” she asks tentatively.
“Sure, I’m leaving in a minute, but please do.”
She has a very thick economics book in her hand. I marvel at anybody’s ability to be studying economics. She tells me she failed it last year, but is trying again. There is a beauty about her, and a light in her eyes, that makes her seem almost painfully vulnerable to this ‘mature’ onlooker. She makes me nostalgic -- and almost envious -- for the time when anything seemed possible, and the University of Hard Knocks had not yet really kicked in.
Looking up at him, I’m reminded of how tall he is. His girlfriend at University was one of the few people I know who is shorter than me. I wonder if he felt this far away to her. “Be careful, she wants your boyfriend”, someone once said about the other woman. And she was right. She became his wife… for a while… The girlfriend and I used to be irritable with each other. She with my tendency to diminish myself, and me with her unwillingness to let a man open a door for her. We’ve both grown. If not taller.
The night before flying is always a thoughtful time. Checking lists, answering mail, watering plants... Do I have what I need? What do I really need? I imagine the familiarity that must develop if you fly often… check… check… check. ‘They say’ all you
need is your passport. Anything else you can get ‘there’. (Well, that’s if you’re flying to the first world. If you’re heading North into Africa, make sure you have enough sunscreen. You might not find it there.) This time tomorrow night I’ll be in the air. Two years since I’ve been on an international flight.
“Final and urgent call for
…” The comings and goings of international air travel. All we really have in common, amidst our different colours and accents, is that we’re rich. By global standards that is. Me smelling of my favourite perfume, usually too expensive with the exchange rate as it is, but 2/3 of the price at the “Duty Free”.
by Tommy Hilfiger, and two weeks ahead of me to not have to worry about the uneven distribution of resources, and becoming a crime statistic. Marius, heading back to Amsterdam, smokes his last cigarette.
Sitting on a park bench in Athens at 9.30pm makes me nostalgic for the time when I had this physical freedom to walk through the streets without immobilising fear and suspicion of each other. Little economic disparity here. Not too many midriffs exposed either. Relatively conservative. But if I had to choose between Scandinavia or Greece, I’d probably choose Greece. 36degress in the shade, but I like the heat. I love the freedom to wear very little and be enveloped by the warmth. The warm still water of the Mediterranean, and the relative loudness (by European standards) of the Greeks.
“So many times over the years, in the most far-flung places, I have heard people exclaim, ‘This reminds me of home’ or ‘This reminds me of’ – and name a place where they have been very happy. It might be said that a great unstated reason for travel is to find places that exemplify where one has been happiest: looking for idealised versions of home – indeed, looking for the perfect memory.” (Theroux)
Yes, I was definitely happiest in the times when I felt safe, and had a sense of physical freedom. Not afraid of or needing to guard against violent crime.
We have to remember how to get the bus back from Athens to Glyfada – the A2 or the E2 (express), so we find a mnemonic from
, and sing to ourselves intermittently throughout the morning “A2, E2, R2, D2…”
Sophia got a tattoo! - well, just a temporary one – from a Russian girl in the Plaka. But we let Basil, her stepfather, think that it was real, just to wind him up. “I can imagine what your mother will say when he tells her” I remark. “Oh, he’ll never tell her”, says Sophia. “He will be too scared to!”
Of course I mustn’t dwell on paying R35 for a cappuccino (4x the usual price at home), but I feel I must acknowledge it. It really brings home the first and third-world divide that comes with economic globalisation. I had to laugh when my virtual friend Michael said how expensive it was for him as an American travelling in Europe. If only he knew. I get the impression too, that my SA friends who’ve lived in Europe for a long time, no longer have a sense of how inaccessible it makes travel for us. It creates another distance between us.
I am struck as we dock, and I see the “Welcome to Ithaca” sign, how much this place reminds me of Kalk Bay in Cape Town, which we both love. Sophia is surprised when I tell her this. I have recently used my inheritance from my American grandmother to buy a home in Kalk Bay, and a place to be in the future. It’s strange how the place from which Sophia comes, and the place to which I will be going, bear such similarities. A symbolic point of intersection for us perhaps, in lives that otherwise bear relatively little resemblance.
It’s strange to be thinking about two completely different essays simultaneously… the one that I am researching and writing on Paul Theroux, while I am here on Ithaca. And the one that I will write about Ithaca, when I am back home in my sunny flat in Johannesburg. (Jhb which in many ways feels like a pit-stop still after 20 years.)
Says Theroux: “Often the memory of writing… overshadows the work itself. That is not an aspect of writing that has been explored… yet most novelists when asked to introduce a particular work reminisce… about the surroundings of their creation.”
I am sitting on an idyllic beach in Greece (being windswept notwithstanding) and doing my homework… reading Theroux’s “My Secret History”… the section about the ‘character’s’ (thinly veiled autobiography some would argue) time living in a Nyasaland (Malawi) township, with it’s “tin roofs, no running water, no trees”, while drinking a Bicardi Breezer, that has just cost me 5x the price at home. Of course it’s wonderful to be able to leave my ‘things’ unattended, and go off to the toilet, and come back and find them still here… I wonder if I will always be haunted by these contradictions…
Felt like I was in a Peter Stuyvesant ad today. We went out in Sophia’s godfather’s boat, to a beach that made me think of Kate’s reaction to seeing the Fish River Canyon: “This sight could turn me religious.” (That gave Sophia a good laugh.) Wonderful swimming in the warm, waveless Mediterranean…
We yawn simultaneously, and laugh. Slothfulness is always pleasant when you know you have been working hard, and that you will be again only too soon. I could get used to these afternoon siestas. “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, as they say... Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
On the beach I read: “Africa was what it was … permanently unformed… It was much better for someone far away to think about it and picture it than for that person to come here and be disappointed.”
I think of Nikos whom I met last night, who wants to go to SA to teach at a Greek school there for a few years. “What’s it like now in SA?” he asks?
“Complex” I reply
“But is it safe?” he asks
“Well you can’t really walk around the streets after dark” I say. His eyes widen. We’re used to it.
“Aunty Smiles” (as Sophia calls her) invites us to dinner. She wears the customary black of the Ithacician widows, and her home reminds me of the home of a Cape Coloured “tannie” (aunty), cluttered with mismatched pictures on the walls, family pictures, and porcelain ornaments. “Next time you come back, you must come with your husband”, she tells Sophia.
“Tell her”, I ask Sophia to translate “that these days women are less concerned with finding husbands, and more caught up in their careers”.
“Yes” she responds, “but it is nice to have a companion”.
On this we three all agree.
I ask Sophia’s young cousin, Alexi, if he likes to read. No, he says, but he likes to watch cartoons. I notice he’s wearing a
t-shirt. “What’s mouse in Greek?” I ask. “Pontiki.” Mickey Pontiki… has a certain ring.
At the bell tower I ask Alexi if he will photograph Sophia and I together. “You all go in the picture, and I will take it!” says the beautiful stranger. Turns out she’s from Prague. There is immense sadness in her eyes as we speak of the floods there. “The nature is full of our troubles”, she observes soberly.
“You speak Greek?” asks Dino in broken English.
“No” I respond, “just galtoboureka, baklava, dolmades, moussaka, houmous” (oops, no that’s Middle Eastern, isn’t it? Well, I’ll have to blame George Milaris, at whose
restaurant I learned the only Greek I know)… meze, tzatziki, taramsalata, spanakopita, tiropita, feta, haloumi, slovakia – no that’s a small Eastern European country, as Sophia points out –
is the meat on a stick!
Seen on menus in Greece: snaks (snacks), milk seik, humburger. “You want kafe (Greek coffee) or Nes café?” (sic) they routinely ask.
Food… the great communication tool. No McDonalds on Ithaca though!
5.15 am, and we are packing up the remains of the house as we prepare to leave. We open the bedroom door onto the water, and Sophia takes a picture of me in my pyjamas, with the ferry that we will get back to Athens at seven in the background.
I read: “I drove one last time to Umoja in Kenya, and picked up Jenny and her two suitcases… my life changed”. I don’t underestimate what this is like for Sophia, leaving this house for the last time. She will be back, but it will no longer be her house.
Back in Athens… In the two weeks that I’ve been in Greece, I’ve seen only six black people. “Where are you from?” I ask the vendor at the side of the road, selling sunglasses and bags.
“Why?” he asks cagily.
“Because I’m also African”, I reply.
“How?” he demands. “By what scientific means did they make ones like you in Africa?”
Perhaps I naively asked for that…
I am reading Theroux writing of “African Girls”… Of course he means
African Girls. For how many generations do we have to live in a place till we are considered to belong?
My flight leaves at 00.55 am, so this is an early morning – rather than end of the day – entry. I love this time, the few solitary hours before the plane leaves, to have a drink, write, read, reflect. There are 150 counters at the new Athens airport. In preparation for the 2004 Olympics I guess. Traitorous perhaps, but I’m glad that Cape Town didn’t get it. It might have generated some revenue for the city, but I’m not convinced that we would’ve had the infrastructure to handle it. I guess the Olympic committee thought so too. Okay, time to go!
“You help me?” he asks, holding out his
“Are you South African?” I asked when we boarded, and he responded by shaking his head vigorously, and frowning as though there was a bad smell nearby. I discover, however, that he doesn’t speak much English. I find that he speaks Greek (when my tv monitor doesn’t go on, and he calls the stewardess for me). But his accent sounds more Eastern European. Perhaps Albanian. No, turns out he’s Bulgarian.
When we get to “occupation” he tells me he has none. Am I helping a gangster into the country?
“I’ve never seen so many police in my life” says someone on the bus as we arrive at the terminal from the plane. I have to agree, he’s got a point! Is this just SA, or a more general post 9.11 approach to security? We get inside to find lots of ladies wearing the colours of the SA flag… and holding signs saying WSSD. Ah, we have arrived into the World Summit on Sustainable Development madness…
“Plenty, plenty, plenty people on the road!” says my usual taxi driver. I tell him there’s a “big Indaba” [gathering of tribal elders] happening.
Hmm… I have to admit that Naomi Klein is getting on my nerves today. In an interview at the WSSD she says (of SA): “This is a security state. It spends three times as much on private security as it does on affordable housing – just to keep the rich from the poor. This level of inequality is dangerous.” Well, yes… and it’s just a microcosm of the planet. I’d like to see the bills in the North for keeping out poor foreigners. “I’m going to move [to Argentina] for 6 months…” Easy when you can always duck back to Canada!
Strange the way you can have a lot in common with a person, but just not really connect. Chanced upon her on the Internet this evening (as these things happen) and remembered how difficult I found it to reach her. Found her flaky really. No doubt she would say she found me up-tight or demanding. Or perhaps she might say that she didn’t find me at all. That I didn’t even feature in her Universe (which seemed far from mine). And then there are those people that you hardly know, and yet it seems like you’ve known each other forever.
And now it’s all back to the virtual world and the WSSD. Of course contradictions abound, but I find opinions like “success for this summit is failure. When you have a failed model, its failure is a success” (Naomi Klein) pretty immature. I mean as long as everyone’s here (and given how much has been spent!) let’s do the best job we can. Viva 17 year old Rowenna, who spent £1800 of her own money (raised through tutoring, babysitting, drinking tap water in pubs and shopping in car boot sales), to raise environmental awareness in advance of the
“With regard to restaurants, the prices are amazingly moderate” writes Ronald Bailey of Johannesburg…er… no… it’s just that the exchange rate is so appalling it makes SA cheap for people from the North. It’s become bloody expensive for the natives! And this from the “science” correspondent of
magazine, whose claim to fame I must add is a book called “Global Warming and Other Eco Myths”. How many more floods/droughts do we need to stop being in denial? Now I have a glimpse into his ‘empirical data gathering’ process. Depends on where you’re sitting Ronnie… Ask the people in Prague…
Hmm… well so much for not focusing on economic disparity when I was away! It just made real to me – something I knew – but hadn’t experienced… the real economic divide, exchange rates being what they are, between the North and the South. Nevertheless, I’d still rather be here than most of ‘there’. I like having just four channels/brands to choose from.
“Why is it that people in Africa are always talking about being in Africa? It might be nice to [be] somewhere else, in order to talk about something else?” (Theroux) Absolutely. And I had a
holiday! Spring tomorrow…
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