Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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A is for Africa

Africa defines me. It is my foundation and my firmament. When I write, I recall the smell of sugar-cane being milled, of rain on hot tar, of the spices on East Street, of the cold morning veld just before the sun rises. I remember the sound of the hadeda raucous in her brown housewife’s coat, the incessant chanting of the Christmas beetles, the crashing of lorry gears on Town Hill, the mynah birds greeting dusk in the trees of the Old Supreme Court, Zulu hymns at night. I think of lucky beans, bright drops of blood in their pods, yellow winter grass under the Drakensberg, and grey vervet monkeys picking off the chickens one by one like a suburban Mafia.

Africa is my past and my future. It winds through me like a dust road, spooling out memories that stop me in the civil tracks of my northern European life, memories that punch the gut.

For how can you ever leave a land where acacia trees spread out like table-tops for the giraffe? A land where beyond the rose garden zebra dot the hillside? A land of canyons and mountains, forests and plains, deserts and beaches that stretch beyond memory. A land of poverty, disease and war, where people laugh with their bodies, shout across streets to greet their friends and cook strangers the very best food in the house.

As a journalist, I visited women whose husbands had died in mine shaft collapses, I went to funerals, I visited crime scenes where there were still slicks of blood on the wall, I sat in hushed court-rooms and listened to people detail murder sentence by sentence. I hovered on the outskirts of demonstrations, visited townships made of tin and learned the rank smell of burnt flesh. But I found the hardness of Africa offset by its beauty, by the willingness of people to laugh and to party. That is the trade-off.

My personal trade-off is that I will educate my children in Europe. One day I hope to occupy a small corner of Africa again. A tiny bit will do, just a place where I can smell spices, see buck on the hillside, invite my friends in for laughter and food, see a bird whose name I know and trees whose leaves form the pattern of my childhood. I don’t live for that future, and neither do I live in my past, but both form a backdrop to the life I have now – a richly textured backdrop that makes me who I am. I am an African.

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I’m joining the challenge set by Courtney and City Wendy to work through the alphabet in short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.


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Home Again, Home Again

Although I had a dream holiday in South Africa, I am so happy to be home. Usually I have a six-week depression on getting back to Germany – everything here makes me cross for being unAfrican, from the weather to the people to the landscape. Somehow this time, I seem to have avoided the crossness. I hate to admit it, but I think a little bit of Germany has crept into my soul.

South Africa is looking wonderful. The amount of work that has gone into getting the country ready for the Football World Cup is astonishing – the new Green Point football stadium is glistening, Cape Town is all shiny, the rail networks are working, the road infrastructures are better than ever. Any football fan who is lucky enough to have tickets for a match in the Western Cape is in for a great time.

And my God, it is beautiful. And funky, vibrant, exciting and alive. What a country. I am so proud to be South African.

So here I am, back in Germany, my South African soul just vibrating with images, memories and ideas from my beautiful homeland and I am not sad. It helps that my mother is living in England at the moment so that I feel close to her and not further away. It helps that the sun is shining and Germany is a sprightly green. It helps that I saw and had time to connect with all my special people in South Africa. It helps that everyone made incredible efforts to travel and be with me in the places I chose to be. It helps that I am going to a family wedding in Greece in four weeks’ time to see some special people. It helps that I have wonderful friends here to come home to. It helps that my children were thrilled to be back and are already rushing off on playdates so that they can be with their friends.

So instead of my usual deep sadness, I am calm, I am happy, and I am just so grateful that I am fortunate enough to be a South African.

And just a little bit German.


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Giving Thanks

Today my daughters dragged me to church. I have religious beliefs, but they are private ones, and I don’t feel the need to worship communally. I also have a suspicion of organised religion that stems from the days when my family used to go to church with another family whose mother my father ran off with. That didn’t seem like very Christian behaviour to me. I’m also not keen on the concept of a Christian God who presides over a Christian Heaven to the exclusion of everyone else, and neither do I like being lectured to. However, D had received an invitation to an Erntedank or Harvest Festival service at the Evangelical church (that’s the Protestant one) here in the Burg and with, the fervour of a new schoolgoer, believed that it was compulsory not optional. L likes singing and “being in God’s house”, so we went, the two girls with joy in their hearts and mother sulkily kicking at lamp-posts along the way, saying “Do I have to go?” in a whiny voice.

Of course, when I got there, I enjoyed it. The reverend, or whatever Anglicans call their leaders, is young and kind of vibey and didn’t lecture. The church was filled with people I know. I sat next to a woman whose kid was in the same kindergarten class as L, and who has a voice like an angel, so I enjoyed listening to her sing. Since it was a children’s service, the hymns were easy and rousing, and although I didn’t know most of them, I managed to sing along. The church was prettily decorated with pumpkins, apples and other produce from neighbouring farms, and with bread baked by local bakers, while the sun streamed in through the stained-glass windows. Apart from the moment when D spoke loudly to me during a prayer, it was a pleasant hour and a half.

Later, I delivered D to a birthday party. All the attendees were little girls with whom she was first at kindergarten and with whom she has started the big adventure of school. We went to scout a local restaurant as a party venue for our fortieth at the end of the year, where the manageress is a friend of our babysitter. Later I went for a run, passing a family I know flying kites in a field, and towards the end, coming across the partygoers hunting for treasure at one of the playgrounds. After my shower I went to fetch her, but the party was running late, so I went upstairs to another friend for a cup of tea while we waited for it to come to an end. As D and I were trying to leave, the parents were flooding in to collect their kids and three of them stopped me to arrange play-dates.

Today in the church, we gave thanks for the harvest, for having enough food to eat, clothes to wear and roofs over our heads.

I also want to give thanks. I am grateful for community. However much I might see myself as a foreigner, alien to the Burg and various German habits that I find touchingly odd, it turns out I belong.

We have made friends, a place and a life for ourselves right here in this little Burg, and I give thanks for that. I am also grateful for my wider community in Germany, my community of expats and past and present work colleagues whose broad world-views I inhale eagerly. I am grateful for my friends and family around the globe, in South Africa, England, Dubai, the USA, Canada, Scotland and Ireland, who provide a backbone of support and the knowledge that while we may be far away, we are still loved. I am grateful for my online friends, some of whom I have already met and others whom I am about to meet, who are just as real and just as wonderful.

Today as we came away from the restaurant, L said, “You want to have a party for 120 people? You have a lot of friends.” I said to her, “Well, we are nearly 40, so we have had a long time to make friends. We have also lived in lots of countries, where we have met lots of people. And we like having friends.”

It’s true. I love my friends. Thanks to each and every one of you, near and far, who make my life so special.


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To Fest or Not to Fest

This weekend the Burg celebrated its annual Fest. This is not the Burg’s only Fest – there is at least one per weekend – but it’s the big Fest, the one where residents don’t dare drive anywhere in their cars for two days for fear of losing their parking spaces, where we go to sleep to the thrumming sounds of bass, and where we can’t get into our favourite shops because there are stalls in front of them selling large piles of tat. The Big Fest is looked forward to for months before and is talked about for weeks afterwards. This year was my sixth Big Fest, and it occured to me, not for the first time, that all German Fests exist so that people can drink booze and eat sausages.

Whether it’s the Oktoberfest, or the Dürkheimer Wurstmarkt (which is actually a wine Fest where they serve wine in beer-mugs accompanied by, you guessed it, sausages), or any Fest in any German town on any given weekend, the Hauptthema is alcohol combined with pork. In itself, this is not surprising. Germans are committed to their booze and pork products and show great loyalty to them.

After years and years of going to Fests, be it Christmas Fests, Easter Fests, carnival Fests, autumn Fests, balloon Fests, dragon-boat Fests, school Fests, work Fests, tennis club Fests – you name it, I’ve fested it – I can safely say that the two most remarkable things about German Fests are:

a) they are identical

b) Germans are adorably fervent about them

I love the enthusiasm with which people look forward to the Big Fest, which is exactly the same as last year’s Big Fest, and the ones before that. There is an almost innocent anticipation of pleasure and fun, even though the fun is no different to the fun they had last year and the twenty-five years before that. No-one says, “Stuff this Big Fest pork and beer thing. We’re going to show arthouse cinema on outdoor screens and only serve absinthe and herring. That should get the populace going.” No, there is a formula and we stick to it.

GHT and I took a walk around the Fest on Saturday night. It was my first nighttime visit to the Big Fest, since the previous five years I was either breast-feeding babies or protesting too loudly that it was his turn to go out. However, we have MIL in situ, so I had no excuse. Since it was a Big Fest, I was pleased to see there was not only pork on offer, but also fish, doners, Chinese food, Italian and other Mediterrranean delights. Since it was a Big Fest, there were two sound stages, and every street bar had its own music playing. There were many other alcoholic options outside of beer. There were lots of teenagers in shrieking groups saying things like, “I’m going to puke! Right now!”, but there were slightly older people, like us, and there were much older people, all out enjoying themselves. There was a pleasant, non-aggressive atmosphere of a community celebrating together and many different generations all enjoying the same party.

I lasted an hour.

Perhaps you have to be German to get into the swing of all getting sloshed in the street together. Perhaps I didn’t drink enough. Perhaps I have Fest jaundice.

All I am saying is that as a tourist you really don’t need fly to Munich for the Oktoberfest. Pick any German town on any weekend, and you will find a version of the Oktoberfest happening right there, complete with sausages, beer, loud music, puking teenagers, jolly pensioners and people of the middle years all out together having a lovely time.

As for me, pour me an absinthe, won’t you? I’m staying in with a Bergman film.


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Join the Club

Germans love their clubs. If you want to play football, raise canaries or walk Nordically, and you live in Germany, you automatically join a club, known as a Verein. That gives you instant friends, a place to go on a Saturday night if you’re feeling lonely, and it adds meaning and purpose to your life.

As parents, we have already joined an athletics club so that our children can run around a track with other kids and attend gymnastics classes. We believe that we will be joining a football club in the next year so that our small fellow can run aimlessly after a ball with others of his ilk. If any of our kids wanted to play tennis, hockey, rugby or netball we would have to join a club. This means paying a modest yearly fee, and getting involved on some level, whether it’s tending the herbaceous borders at the tennis club, lift-clubbing small hockey players to away games or turning up at various fests and ordering alcohol (my speciality).

We are broken, though, that there are no cricket clubs in Germany, except the casual one that takes place in our garden most weekends. It’s fairly relaxed, and closely tied to our regular weekend barbeque. There is no joining fee, no pruning involved and the requirement is the ability to hold a bat, however badly, and occasionally make contact with a ball. We are a small island of cricket in the large German sea of football.

Today, after a long bike ride, we stopped at a restaurant for a bit of lunch. We were lucky enough to be sitting next to the Sunday meeting of an unusual club.

The facial hair Verein. Twirly moustaches everywhere. We giggled, tried not to stare or do this:

We have to be careful. People take their clubs – and their facial hair – very seriously here.


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10 Things My Kids Love About Germany

One of the posts that consistently gets hits here is 10 Things I Love About Germany. It contains reference to cake, walking, coffee shops and great holidays. Today, while sitting in a coffee shop and eating Schwaebsiche Apfelkuchen, I asked my children what they love about Germany, and this is what they came up with:

1. Berlin. The best city in the world, even better and prettier than London (where two of them were born).

2. Swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter.

3. The coffee shops serve very LARGE slices of cake.

4. Being able to speak two languages.

5. Lots of Italians live in Germany, so you get really good pizza and extra good ice-cream.

6. Having lots of friends who speak different languages (English, German, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Greek).

7. Going ice-skating in winter.

8. Our friends P and M who are kind and funny and let us sleep over at their house.

(Please note that the grown-ups love P and M too, for exactly the same reason.)

9. Kika – the children’s TV channel.

(The grown-ups love Kika too. It is advert-free and age-appropriate.)

10. There are lots of different sports you can do – cycling, walking, skiing, swimming, gymnastics.

Germany – the land of outdoor living, great food, wonderful friends and big cake. How can you not love it?


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Cold Comfort

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In September 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.


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If I Were the Chancellor of Germany …

… here are some of the rules I would impose:

1. On-the-spot fines for public spitting.

It’s gross and I don’t like it. If you have to expectorate, do it in a tissue or into a toilet, but not on the street where my children and I have to (a) listen to your revolting noises and (b) step in your revolting fluids.

2. Doubled salaries of teachers and carers.

Having just spent two days in hospital with a child, can I just say that nurses are wonderful? Teachers are wonderful too. They should be well-paid so that they are happy and continue being so wonderful.

3. Compulsory charitable donations of 15% of yearly income for anyone who earns over €2 million per annum.

It’s ridiculous! Who needs so much money all to themselves?

4. Immediate cessation of movie-dubbing.

The Scandinavians speak perfect English because they watch English movies in English, but the Germans dub every film into German. Leave the movies in English, which will allow children to learn English easily and quickly and allow me to enjoy films once again. All out-of-work voice-over artistes can be compensated out of the Spittoon Fund. Or they can become teachers.

5. Mandatory provision in all supermarkets of the following products:

Marmite, self-raising flour, Golden Syrup, baking powder in sensibly large containers not those ridiculous little packets, Maldon salt, silver balls for cake decoration, coriander, lime leaves, ginger biscuits, biltong and Nik-Naks.

6. Immediate cultural acceptance for people who want to pack their groceries into their own bags (brought from home) While Still At The Till.

I’m all done with packing my bags at the car in driving rain or icy snow. I want to do it inside. That’s not so strange is it?

7. Immediate cultural approbation for shops that consider having one till open to be acceptable business practice.

Open more tills! Let the people shop! And while you’re at it, let them pack their bloody bags before they pay.

8. Have my state inventors concoct a Pause Button for the Elderly.

I have developed a reputation in my street as a gimlet-eyed, clenched-jawed fury because just as I emerge from my home en route to getting someone somewhere on time, having wrestled a just-awakened toddler into a snowsuit, dragged two other people away from their homework or very important craft project, we get accosted by an old person who wants to air their opinion on Lily’s new haircut. If I could only pause them, and return later when things are calmer to enjoy the conversation and all its nuances, I would be so much happier and the Elderly would be so much more fulfilled.

This post is written in honour of Angela Merkel, who is my new hero for publicly taking Robert Mugabe to task for human rights abuse at the Lisbon Summit. Go Ange! You tread where no African leader has yet dared to tread.

It is also written with thanks to Chantelle of the Quiet Room who had the idea first.