Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Where We Make Good PR

18 Comments

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.

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

18 thoughts on “Where We Make Good PR

  1. How downright odd. I love it when my neighbours have a barbeque. Kiko’s Daddy and I go out onto the balcony and inhale the smoke, it’s like a barbeque by proxy. Due to bushfire regulations, a lot of people have electric barbeques in Australia but it’s just not the same.

    I don’t see the problem Mrs Hedgehog has with closing her windows. When our neighbours have barbeques, the smell doesn’t get into my clothes and I usually leave my wardrobe door open as well as the window. Also, if her plants were dying, wouldn’t your plants in your garden be the first to go? Oh dear… it seems to me as if this poor lady is sitting in her house looking for things to get distressed over.

  2. You made me laugh first thing in the morning, which is a Very Good Thing. However, you have an element missing from the redoubled efforts: music — lots of it, at a volume everyone can hear 🙂

    I love the smell of a wood-fired barbecue, or any barbecue for that matter. Our barbecue “died” in our last move and we, like Helen, stand on the balcony just to get a whiff of other people’s efforts. The best smelling are always the wood/coal fired ones. Something about them just says summer and fun and relax. And I find it strange that other people don’t like the smell or are so loathe to shut their windows. Hang on… why were her windows open in the first place? Don’t you live in the land where fresh air is toxic?

  3. Some people just aren’t happy unless they are complaining! Too bad you don’t have the courage to point out to her that the reason the smoke is so bothersome to her now is because she had the landlord murder the trees. I guess that probably wouldn’t be good p.r. (tee hee)

  4. Compared with the way some neighbors can be (as we’ve read on Helen’s blog), having an occasional smoky braai is nothing! Mad Hedgehog Lady needs some perspective. And maybe she needs to water her plants.

  5. Heh heh, Henitsirk’s right! Mrs Hedgehog should move in here for a week. The upstairs nutters have now taken to throwing random objects out of their three-storey-up windows. The latest projectiles: 1 x glass whisky bottle, 1 x rucksack. It used to just be their rubbish but now they’ve progressed. Give me woodsmoke any day!

  6. We had to get an electric one for the same reason, we’re in a flat and even though we’re on the top floor the smoke apparently bothers some people.

    I have a solution! Get an allotment! We’re taking ourselves, and our braai down there this summer and we can actually pick the salad and eat it fresh off the plants. Mind you, it might be against the allotment by-laws …

  7. I empathise completely here. When we were living on London we tried to keep the South African flag flying with regular braais and were foolish enough to try and use wood for the fire. Unfortunately our irate neighbours didn’t like the smell of smoky clothes either. We did manage to get away with a few more by using charcoal and warning them in advance so they could batten down the hatches.

    Maybe if you only wrote about the electric braai in code and called it a barbeque, you’d escape the braai police and you’d be allowed back into South Africa! My brother in law in Australia says they spray the flavour on afterwards when they barbeque on a gas braai…he’d completely lost his fire management skills back here too..you’ll have to have surreptitious real braais every time she goes away for the weekend to keep your hand in!

  8. I always welcome the smell of charcoal in the spring, and where i’m from, the American South, the smell is usually accompanied by the smell of BBQ sauce. It’s strange to think that smell would be offensive. I spent eighteen months in South Africa and participated in many a braai. I’d forgotten about pouring beer on the flames. I was often given that duty.

  9. ooooohh, please please invite me for a summer braai? Just promise me that you will have the kids blow up swimming pool so that I can sit in it with my huge watermelon that has been injected with vodka… I can get very friendly with your neighbours! Right now for the first time in my life I would love to turn around in their direction and drop my knickers! Now THAT would give them something to talk about! We have both gas and coal braais now… gas for during the week and coal for weekend so that hubby can do the obligatory standing for hours by the braai with a beer in one hand… cremating the meat… 🙂

  10. Helen, you’re right. She’s a bundle of nerves and we are a bundle of reasons to have nerves.

    Kerryn, pleased to oblige. And yes the very loud – preferably African – music is needed in our new-style braai.

    Ms HMM, I only put the two together after she scurried from our garden. But if she ever puts her head over the fence to thank us for buying an electric BBQ then I will take the opportunity to mention the lack of trees/extra smoke equation.

    Henitserk, “get a life” is the phrase that springs to mind. Our problem is that we are surrounded by retirees who have nothing better to do all day than keep an eye on what’s happening in our garden.

    Helen, hmmm, I too would choose woodsmoke over flying objects. Sounds like true madness there in Sydney.

    Ash, I hope you enjoy your allotment braais and home-grown salads – they sound lovely.

    Yes Kit, we are worried about our fire management skills. How will my husband hold his head up next time he has to braai with his brother? I like the idea of spray-on braai smell. That’s hilarious.

    Ian, the wonderful thing about South Africans is that we are always happy to allow those from other cultures to participate in our rituals. And you were given beer-dousing! You have no idea how honoured you were … practically one of the flock.

    Tanya, gas AND coal, now that’s clever. We have kept our coal braai and if the Hedgehog lady ever goes away, then as Kit suggests we can have a genuine stinky BBQ.

  11. Oh! So sad! nothing equals the smell of charcoal when cooking out. You are good, kind people to make such a change and I hope your season isn’t diminished because of it!

  12. I guess the smoke is more a matter of burning fat than charcoal vs. electric. Electric barbecue sets often have a water container that captures the fat that falls down so it does not burn. Not burnt fat, no smelly white smoke (and no carcinogenic compounds).
    But the same can be achieved with charcoal, when the barbecue can be tilted: the coals are maintained by a grid and stay vertical, facing the meat (as in a Kebab shop). The fat does not fall on the coals but can be recycled on the meat for extra flavor. I’ve used such a method in the past, and your post just reminded me that I should find the same system for my barbecue season.

  13. Too funny!

    Kind of you to comply with their wishes. You is good peeps.

  14. braai, huh? Interesting- I learned a new word today! Second, you are a WAY better person than I to kindly acquiesce to your [clearly unreasonable] neighbor’s demands.

  15. Ah, mad neighbours. You did the right thing because you don’t want to be bothered by her neuroses for the rest of the summer. Protect your pleasures any way you can, and I’m sure when South Africa realises the saintly act you have committed, you’ll be welcomed in with open arms!

  16. That was hilarious! And such an excellent depiction of our braaing traditions…oh man I could sink my teeth into a steak and a mielie right now.

  17. Pingback: Eight Food Things « Charlotte’s Web

  18. And so she should have the right too, the south africans living below our flat keep having bbq’s and flooding our flat with fumes so much I ended up in hospital last weekand it’s not even hot! I hope you respect her this year, but you’ll probably do what our south africans do and carry on regardless!

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