South Africans love to barbeque. There is nothing we love more than inviting a few friends around, slapping some steaks on the coals, drinking very cold alcoholic drinks, and watching our barefoot children practise their trapeze act on the top of the climbing frame with no net. Except no self-respecting South African would call it a barbeque. It is a “braai”. And you pronounce it “bry”. If you can manage a good rrroll on the “r” all the better. (For details of braai culture, let me point you to the lovely Jeanne of Cook Sister! – she tells it like it is.)
Being able to braai in summer, as often as possible, makes us happy. So in April, when summer appeared, bearing with it 30° temperatures, we phoned a few friends, bought some steaks, chilled the beverages and removed our children’s shoes. We cleaned our white trash plastic garden furniture, bought the coals and the fire-lighters, amassed the salads and prepared to open the braai season with aplomb.
South Africans take pride in the ritual around the lighting of the braai, in letting the fire get hot and then allowing it to cool slightly before cooking the meat. We like to have a beer handy for pouring on should the flames get out of hand. Sometimes the fire ritual becomes so important, lubricated as it is with sips of beer, that the best of us forget to actually do any cooking and lunch becomes dinner. However, after some years in Germany, we are quite punctual and the timing was working out well on our first braai of 2007.
As we were about to sit down to a well-charred meal, a neighbour came running into our garden. We hardly know her, but have waved politely at her for four years. A few weeks previously she had made her first foray into neighbourly communications by telling Lily to make sure we barricade the outside steps leading down to our cellar “to stop the hedgehogs falling down the stairs and hurting themselves”. Friends, we have no hedgehogs. If we do have hedgehogs, they choose to remain in the bushes that cling to our fence. They are not known to party on our cellar stairs. This comment should have warned me of the madness that was to follow.
I was busy serving plates of food to innumerable barefoot childhood when the neighbour approached me. “Frau Otter, Frau Otter,” she panicked, hands waving in frantic fluttery circles. “I can’t stand it. I just have to tell you that your barbeque smoke is coming into our house. We have to close all the windows because it makes our clothes smell. And then all the plants die. We suffered all last summer, but didn’t say anything, so now that you are having your first barbeque, I need you to know it’s terrible. Terrible.”
I was speechless. I gawped. I made helpless guestures with the five plates of food I was trying to carry. She continued, “I know you love to barbeque on coal, but is there any way you could change to gas or electricity? The smoke is just so terrible.”
We managed to usher her out of the garden, and sat down with our friends to try and enjoy the meal we had just cooked on the braai which was causing such terrible and insufferable smoke. We were beginning braai season #5 and this was the first time she was complaining about it. Why had she not mentioned it before? And then it dawned on me – these were the neighbours who had asked our landlords to cut down the two tall trees at the bottom of the garden because they were “dangerous”. During braai seasons #1 to #3, the sweeping branches of these beautiful pines had prevented our smoke from entering her windows and contaminating her clothes. Now the trees were gone and our smoke was wreaking havoc in her wardrobe.
During the week, I conducted a survey with all our other neighbours. To a German, they agreed that our smoke was not bothersome. I even considered phoning the city hall to ask what the braai smoke laws were, but having read through the list of the 37 Ampts that make up our local goverment, I couldn’t bring myself to even try. I feared discovering that there were indeed braai laws, and that we might be officially restricted to one braai per summer and only with three weeks’ written warning.
So what have we done, dear readers? We have committed good public relations and purchased an electric braai. This means we can braai seven times a week if we need to with good conscience and know that we won’t be causing Hedgehog Lady to report us to the Braai Ampt. We have redoubled our braai efforts: we make sure we have a minimum of fifteen guests, we like them to stay until midnight and we encourage our children to eat intoxicating desserts and then do circus tricks at the top of the last remaining tall tree for our entertainment.
The problem is I don’t think we will ever be let back into South Africa. Oh, the shame.