Hanaa emails: Does it feel like ‘home’ yet?
No, not yet.
I am Pretoria. I have not yet got to Cape Town. That’s for Wednesday next week (February 16th).
And I am still working on what is ‘home’ to me, a subject of another blog.
But inching closer....
Are you Australian? Asks the petrol attendant -- after I have stopped to buy petrol for the red Ford Focus I have generously been lent; after I have accelerated wildly into the petrol station which is suddenly there, through the exit lane so my car is facing the wrong way; after I have been unable to locate the lever to release the petrol cap; after he points out he needs the car key to open it; after I have been unable to find the lever to release the hood which he points out... yes.. the car key; after he fills the tank and hands me the credit card slip to sign. I smile and say, no I was born here (I thicken my South Africa accent which sounds fake because I cannot remember what my South African accent was). I have been living in New York. He smiles back at me and I hand him the six rand that have been clutched in my sweaty palm – it’s a hot day – waiting to be dispensed as a tip which I only remember to dispense when he politely stays next to the car. I drive off, this time through the exit.
I am, I guess, grateful that he didn’t think I am American.
Australia is closer.
I go to the Pick n Pay supermarket. I walk through the aisles. Matabela. Curry powders. Masala. Marmite. Provita. Biltong. Mrs. Balls Chutney, Tinned youngberries. Cape style multi-grain bread. Koo apricot jam. Lunchbars. Crunchies. Lemon creams. Ginger biscuits. Rooibos. Shelves and shelves of South African wine. I add biltong to my cart. And Provita. And as a greedy afterthought, a Lunchbar.
I am barely out of the store before I rip open the plastic package of biltong and stop to savor the sliced dried game meat. The flavor is warm and fills the mouth. I have to chew hard but it only increases the flavor. Later I eat a Lunchbar and close my eyes to the mix of chocolate and nuts and caramel. Sigh. Delicious.
When I get back to my friends’ house I fight with the package of Provita to release the 1 ½” by 3” whole wheat crackers and spread butter, then Marmite. I always have Marmite in my kitchen in New Jersey, but it’s not as mellow as the south African variety, and certainly never with Provita. The combined flavors crunch in my mouth. I eat two more. Aaah.
Yes, I am inching closer.
I add Rajah Hot Curry Powder to the onions I am browning for the evening meal of prawn coconut curry: Whoosh! Its pungent aroma blasts out of the pan and travels deep into my nostrils and startles to the memory part of my brain. I breath it in again, and again.
I sit on the veranda with my computer. Leitmotif of incessantly cooing doves, so that it is fixed in my head like a recurring tune. Twittering of small birds. Cawing of large, charcoal crows.
The air soft, the sky high and light blue, above the forever clumpy cumulus clouds.
Rebecca and Anna, the domestic staff who come a few times a week to clean and iron seem genuinely pleased to see me. Anna chatters to me in Afrikaans which I can more or less follow except when she talks very fast. She refers to John as “Oupa”! (Grandpa). I manage to dredge my memory for appropriate words while she helpfully fills in the blanks.
I quickly adapt to driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. I chant my mantra. “Driver in the middle. Driver in the middle.” And when ready to turn it’s “Tight Left” or “Far Right”, and not once do I make a mistake until I am once again driving without having to think about it.
Slowly familiarity is seeping in.
Alan and I walk the dogs. Three. Two German Shepherds, Dusty and Rex who greet me as if they remember me from my previous visits while barking furiously. Which they do a lot. I take it as a welcome. I know them and their barking ways. I wait for them to calm so I can greet them with fond strokes and head pats and ear scratches. Mojo the two-year old Golden is new. He is easy to adore. We walk past the houses which have high fences, walls topped by electrified thin wire, signs that declare “Armed Response”. As we near each house a cacophony of sound erupts and dogs of all sizes but mostly large and fierce looking, rush to the fence in a whirl of frenzied barking. I have no doubt if given the chance they would tear me limb from limb. They continue to bark as we pass, then fade as the dogs ahead pick up their fury.
And oh yes, I also found avocados imported from Spain. One step back. It’s not avo season which is winter.
A friend tells me she is having trouble sleeping. Have you tried sleeping pills? I offer helpfully, thinking I can give her some of the ones I brought to aid getting over jetlag. “No, I can’t. I need to be able to wake up alert in the middle of the night if....” and she trails off her incomplete but very clear sentence.
I drive to Joburg. On the other side of the road there is a bad accident. The cars stretch for miles behind it. On my side, the traffic has not slowed down one even by one km/hr. People are so used to accidents that there is no rubbernecking. Except for me, although I make sure I don’t slow down.
Someone I knew as a teenager is mourning a friend who surprised a burglar and was killed. I find myself indulging in a strange math. The number of friends who experienced direct violence: a riend being tied up in her bathroom which her house was removed of all valuables; a friend who thought she heard something at night but ignored it, only that her living room had been emptied of all electronic equipment. Luckily they were not disturbed enough to investigate. The friend who’s brother was killed in a carjacking. The friend who’s father was killed. If they themselves didn’t experience violence, they can relate terrible stories, more than one, of friends who were stabbed in bed, held up, robbed blind, murdered. Just one degree of separation. True for everyone I meet. The lists of both go on and on, and will be added to weekly if not daily.
Don’t drive alone at night, I am cautioned.
Don’t leave your handbag on the seat next to you, I am cautioned.
If you do drive at night, don’t stop at red traffic lights, don’t even slow down unless you have to.
In disassembling the notion of ‘home”, nostalgia demands a space. What is nostalgia? A longing that defies sense? One that plays havoc with smells, and sounds and tastes that are hard wired into one’s brain, and then tantalizes the selective memory. Nostalgia for the past in South Africa? It goes far beyond smells and sounds and tastes. Can it be divorced from the memories that come with a deeper, harsher more overriding reality: apartheid?
Hanaa, you will have to wait for an answer.
Other than, I am getting there.
Other than, I am so content, so looking forward to being in South Africa and Cape Town for the next three months that life at this moment feels sweet.
I am trying my best to hang onto to this.