Peach preserves waiting to be decanted, smallish terracotta pots on the verandah lined up waiting for planting, another chapter with footnotes to be rechecked, giant dog unable to understand the words ‘Sit’ or ‘Stay’. I look at the syrup-glazed peaches and think of eating my own bottled peaches with thick custard on a cold winter evening, look at the pots standing in a row and think of tumbling fuschias in scarlet and purple, the lively mauve of the ribbon bush, sprawling apple-mint and lemon-scented pelargoniums. One of these days the chapter will be checked and tidied up and ready for publication, the agony over. One of these days the adorable lunatic puppy will be a well-behaved obedient dog.
An American visitor from Atlanta, Georgia, dressed vividly in a red and blue tropicana T-shirt, a black sun visor, strings of local ochre clay beads dangling from her neck and wrists, stops by to ask me for some parsley. In one hasty gulp of breath she tells me she voted for Obama, she does not support American aggression abroad, she likes to think of herself as different from other American tourists, she is genuinely interested in the problems of rural Africa, she tries to contribute meaningfully, tries to show respect for cultural difference, feels she can learn from the heroic liberation efforts and staggering natural beauty etc of the Third World. Fortunately she runs out of breath and I assure her we don’t see all Americans as Ugly Americans, give her a large bunch of flourishing Italian parsley. She thanks me as if I have given her a gilt-edged credit card or a wide-eyed baby to adopt. Guilt and privilege seems an inescapable combination. And tourism worldwide lends itself to satire, exposing the increasingly homogenous ‘global culture’ where, in the search for different cultures, those exotic fascinating different cultures are destroyed. My parsley-clutching acquaintance says how she loves to meet black South Africans and listen to them talk about their dreams and hardships.
Well, I could give her a list of black South African entrepreneurs living in Atlanta, Georgia, and more than willing to talk to her about their dreams and hardships, but that wouldn’t be the same thing, would it? The writer Geoff Dyer wrote a piece on the charm of American travellers in which he comments:
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication.
The tranquillity and delightful unsociableness of our post-Christmas respite is over. There is a luncheon party on a nearby farm, the 80th birthday of the former art teacher, friends arriving for New Year’s Eve, more friends arriving on New Year’s Day. More Asian chicken salad, more homebaked bread, a watermelon, feta and black olives salad, another baked ham, a berry pavlova perhaps, jugs of lemonade with fresh mint leaves. The skies are cloudless, the nights starry and brilliant, warm and scented. If the guests don’t get heat stroke, it will be perfect.
Whatever it was — that unsteadying combination of unhappy or traumatic factors — that flipped me so off-balance in December has gone. As if we had jumped over a hurdle and now just have to turn the corner into another year. At night, I light candles on the verandah and sit there watching the moon come up over the mountains, just breathing in the silence and the spaciousness within.
We live in fragile and liminal times of collapsing economies, global conflict, shifting and threatened climates and ecologies, older nationalisms falling away along with so many older certainties — we need different and more responsive traditions, more frugality, more authentic ways of connecting from different places. Goodwill is not enough. How to become more flexible, receptive, less fearful, rigid, judgmental? I have no idea really and watch the moon whiten the fields, the stars of the Southern Cross filling the skies with brightness.