Filed under: Daily life
This’ll be a long one, and it’s been a long time in the writing. But I’ve added asterisk separators, like an old Bantam paperback, so hopefully it’s at least manageable. Too bad the page edges aren’t colored red or yellow and the last one isn’t an order form.
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Well, where was I? I had just arrived at Lynda’s, I think, when I wrote my last real update. We had had an exciting political conversation on the way from the airport, and I had slept like a bat. (Right through the next day.)
The long flight, the anticlimactic panic of passing customs and my interest in impressing my new acquaintance all prevented me from being very observant. But one can’t help but notice some immediate similarities with the US–the magazine racks packed with sports and Hollywood celebs, for instance, the parking garages packed with SUVs, the wide freeways, the cookie-cutter urban sprawl, the fried chicken places.
Lynda lives in an eastern Joburg suburb called Edenvale, two cloverleaf interchanges and three stoplights (or about 20 minutes) from the airport. It’s a quiet, middle-class neighborhood, with single-family homes on big lots, numbered streets, lots of trees, a park with swing sets, the works. Homeowners and car-drivers are mostly white, but almost everyone walking on the street–maids, gardeners, handymen, service-sector employees–is black. City-slicker Joburgers sneer at Edenvale like Chicagoans probably sneer at Gary; most white folks there are conservative and boring, they say.
There is some culture in Edenvale, though. There’s a semi-famous, rip-roaring hard-rock bar called The Doors and a nice library with skylights in a big postmodern concrete block. Across the street from The Doors is a yummy bakery called De Bakkery, with–as if its name didn’t get the point across–a towering Dutch windmill replica on the roof.
And Edenvale, like many a white-middle-class suburb in the US, is becoming more cosmopolitan all the time. When I wanted some fish balls and sesame seeds, I went to one of the two Chinese grocery stores. When I wanted a short-wave radio, it was a Sudanese-Serbian guy who sold it to me, from the back of a shop so cluttered with piles of grubby electronics that customers squeeze single-file along one wall. His life story and 9/11 theories came free.
All these shops are located along Edenvale’s four-lane Main Street equivalent, between car dealerships, supermarkets, banks, and other staple businesses. Several Protestant churches are clustered a couple blocks away, of which a Dutch Reformed Church* is the only unusual one to American eyes. There are half-a-dozen small strip-malls within walking distance, and there’s a big glitzy mall up the hill, which is the real place to see and be seen. The only recognizable store in that mall is, bizarrely, Build-a-Bear. But change the signs on the department stores and cell phone shops, and the whole gargantuan complex could have been transplanted, bleached-blonde people and all, straight from SoCal.
For cheap eats away from the mall, there’s delivery pizza, Chinese take-out, McDonald’s and KFC. The corner convenience store has six-packs and 40s in the coolers, potato chips and beef jerky (biltong) on the shelves, and cigarettes in an above-counter rack. The Shoprite supermarket has the exact floor-plan of Grinnell’s Hy-Vee and Milwaukie’s Albertson’s, and Lynda’s three-bedroom ranch-style house is as generically American as they come. The backyard grass is mowed and landscaped, and a plum tree and flowering bushes occupy the curvy perimeter soil. In the living room, for the 16 hours of the waking day, either 94.7 Highveld Stereo is playing Beyonce and Madonna, or e-TV is showing WWE wrestling and Judge Judy.
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Before you suspect that I accidentally stepped off the plane in Texas (or Hoboken–thanks, Elizabeth) rather than Africa, I should say that if the food, language, customs or dress in South Africa didn’t startled me, other things did. The other things weren’t personal culture-shocks but rather big-picture “social justice” sorts of issues–race, class, gender, yada yada.
For the first couple months at least, they occupied my thoughts like an army in Baghdad. At restaurants, I’d count the number of black clients and white staff–and make a judgement, of course. When I’d see some rich guy give a waiter a 30-cent tip, I’d leave 30 percent. Disappointed in all the (as I saw it) “elitism” in the news, I started recording interviews with immigrants, homeless folks and night-shift security guards. I felt like Che Guevara at a Cambodian sweatshop, Jerry Falwell at a swingers party, Richard Simmons at a…. You get what I mean–indignant and self-righteous.
But however new any of this stuff felt, none of it should have been any newer than Beyonce or Build-a-Bear. Income disparity, racism, xenophobia/immigration–what are more American than those social issues? (Back home, ya know, the “Negroes” are getting “uppity” and the “Mexicans are invading.”)
Being an American living in SA has the same out-of-body flavor as being a kitten looking in a mirror. Okay, it’s a bit of a fun-house mirror–sometimes the doilies and morés are more 1950s-America, the hair more ’90s, the tea-sipping politeness more British, the ketchup more vinegary. But I cannot imagine a parallel universe with more deep-down societal similarities–and more to teach us about, well, (the) US–than has South Africa.
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Back to real people now–Lynda, for example. She’s a successful 40-ish businesswoman and works from home for her two-woman marketing company. She’s driven and punctual, but she’s also fond of movies, her dog, travel, New Age music and philosophizing. She wants, I think, to write a book someday on cross-cultural symbolism–after recently seeing a building near Madurai (south, south India) with both a swastika and star-of-David on its front façade, I suggest those as starting points.
For the two months I lived at Lynda’s house, she treated me like family. She threw me a birthday party the week I arrived, and her siblings and their kids all came over. In fact, not only did they come over, but they brought platters of home-cooked appetizers, two cakes, plenty of alcohol and presents–presents!? I have never felt such complete hospitality anywhere.
Not to be outdone by their daughter, Lynda’s parents essentially adopted me as a grandchild. They did all the things grandparents do–fed me delicious dinners, told me stories, gave me advice and took me to art and theatre shows.
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After two months, I decided to move closer to the two newspapers where I was working. I found a great little backyard room in Joburg’s only real hip neighborhood, called Melville–beautiful tree-lined streets, four jam-packed used book stores in a square-half-mile, ethnic restaurants, lots of foreigners, artists, journalists.** My room was part of a “commune” and had its own bathroom and a sliding door opening onto a tree-shaded pool and patio. A “commune,” in SA lingo, is just a collection of rooms on one property–so no full-moon drumming, rainwater plumbing, sitar strumming or naked Fridays, unfortunately–but the people there were great.
There were some quiet Congolese guys on one side who were always lifting weights on the patio, and a Coloured guy and his girlfriend. He eventually got a job at the Shell station down the street. Tshego (guttural “g”) lived across the pool from me–an easy going, skinny kid from Pretoria who popped the collars on his polo shirts. He worked in a call center doing loan collection for a big bank, but he wanted to start a TV travel show. He had a sweet computer and called me “Captain America,” and we were good friends. Tryphina and Tumi were, too, and their boyfriends were pretty chill and always around. Tryphina got a job as a secretary at a burn-survivors charity, and Tumi was working on her degree–in history or something useless. Brian, a big tall guy from Cape Town lived in the back, but I think he got kicked out at some point for not paying rent. I dunno.
A 30-something Turkish guy named Okan owns the place. He also used to own a lingerie shop, and he apparently keeps two loaded shotguns under his pillow at night. He’s really a jolly fellow, and tubby enough to be called “jolly,” but the shotguns and the lingerie are usually the only two ways I describe him. He also liked thrillers and 9/11 conspiracies–person number two now–and another friend of mine said he plays a mean traditional Turkish flute. He was thinking about going back to Turkey because his father is sick, but then he traded the lingerie shop for a bakery called “De La Crème,” and I don’t think he’s going back anymore. He’s a nice and casual guy, but he was never the most attentive landlord. He forgot to pay the electricity bill for a few months, so they shut it off one day and my meat rotted. From week to week the pool would morph from blue to brown to hot-green.
My room always smelled a little funny, too, but I chalked that up to the bed frame and took it outside a few weeks after a moved in. When the rains started, however, I realized I had probably put the mattress on the floor for nothing. Drips of water dropped on the edge of the bed, mold seeped from the carpet, little spots grew on the bathroom walls, and my paradisaical room became a hazmat zone. The mold got bad enough that I started sleeping in the bathroom with the door closed. Then I moved to sleeping on the back seat of my rental car and entered the room SWAT-style to get underwear.
Eventually the rain became less intense and my car less comfortable, and I went back home. I decided the mattress was more of a problem that the bed frame, so I took the mattress out and brought the frame back in. I got a couple of big pillows to make it feel less wooden and achy, and I positioned it so that I could sleep with my head out the door–for fresh air, see. At about 8:30 each morning, when Tshego would start up his thumping subwoofer, I’d pull my head in like a turtle and close the door.
I never got Okan to patch the leak or clean the mold, but I still think he’s a great guy. He let me sleep on the couch in the Big House for periods of several weeks in the months after I moved out and leave my junk in box in the corner, and he’s an excellent cook. Once, when I mistakenly thought my car had been stolen–long story–he went looking for it with me downtown at night, with the requisite shotguns tucked in his sock and belt.
After I left, a Dutch journalist (we’re everywhere) moved into my room, and she finally got Okan to fix the roof. But when I was packing up my stuff for India in early March, she was moving out in a huff. He’d apparently forgotten to pay the electricity bill again.
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After a week in Lesotho around Thanksgiving, I decided to get out and travel more; Joburg was getting tiring and too much like real life. In responding to my first progress report, the Watson folks had agreed; “get out of the office, already” was one particularly memorable line. They liked my second report better, and it continues the narrative from here.
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* The “Dutch Reformed Church” (DRC) in this case, I believe, is more specifically a Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NG Kerk), which–although these two names are synonymous in South Africa–is actually among a family of denominations whose roots go back to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Among these is the Reformed Church in America and several southern African denominations, including the predominantly Coloured and black URCSA and the arch-conservative Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk. The NG Kerk is the largest of these, and it is a generally conservative, Afrikaans-speaking denomination, perhaps best-known internationally for its moral justification of apartheid. Calvinist religion was once the backbone of the Afrikaner community (one example), and South Africa remains a very religious country across all ethnic communities. While I was driving through small town after small town across the interior of the country last month, I couldn’t help but notice that a beautifully preserved NG Kerk church was usually a town’s most prominent feature. The main street, almost always called Voortrekkerstraat, would dead-end into or pass around an advent-calendar white church–whose designers seem invariably to have overestimated their towns’ populations.
** For an enjoyable, albeit over-rosy, overview of Joburg city life–including mentions of new fashion, new music and hip spots like Melville–check out this enjoyable Travel and Leisure Magazine article.
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