At a festive lunch in a bistro-style cafe over the mountains, looking at old white limewashed buildings, shady oak trees and above us the mountains mauve in a heat haze. Our happy convivial table ordering bowls of mussels with crisp golden frites on the side, grilled linefish, French beans with nibbed almonds, roasted baby tomatoes on the vine, smoky aubergine puree on toasted crostini, dark red radicchio with sliced fennel and orange segments… tall glasses of lime & soda, just-squeezed fruit juices, iced mineral water… ending with heart-shaped cream cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, ripe figs and peaches… Noticing the waitron was irritable and not listening, her hair lank, eyes red and hostile, impatient to get away, making mistakes.
It’s hard, this time of year. And the other diners were wary of interacting with her. Nobody wants confrontations, not the family with the sulking teen daughter, not the couple yawning and looking past one another across the table, not the solitary tourist checking his mobile phone for messages.
What I noticed too was how lightly most people eat and drink now, jugs of water and lemon, pots of rooibos tea, no plunging into sticky sugary desserts or hefty steaks, no cocktails or second helpings. It’s different of course, the festive season in the southern hemisphere with soaring temperatures and most of those on holiday ready for mountain hikes, surfing, walks through forests and swimming in private pools. Or the need to conserve stamina for shopping in city malls, beach resorts, aboard cruise liners, in international airports. The paradox of a country that seems outwardly luxurious and depends on the cheap labour of the desperately poor, the discontented, those who will never inherit or own property or drive cars or earn enough to go on holiday. The waitron in her chic black and white apron, hard lines of a discontented 45=year-old, standing smoking in a side street, possibly about to resign her job. Her story one I shall never know, though I can guess at how hard that life might be. Leaning against the faux-industrial brick wall, squinting through smoke into the glare of early afternoon, sullen, not caring who saw her.
And I had come to look at art, something I wish I could do more often, browse bookshops, galleries, hear live music under trees. The art curated and expensively framed, not very good, overpriced, predictable with ‘exotic African’ themes, a pride of lions under badly drawn trees, elongated giraffe sculptures in glossy brown and mustard, no people just the landscape and the beauty, no poverty, no reality check. Stuff tourists like, images that suit foreigners who want the invented Africa where Nelson Mandela talks about love and forgiveness rather than the struggle for justice.
Then I saw a small watercolour of an old Strandveld cottage near wind-blown reeds, the light captured exactly, a delicate and even surreal mood in that composition, beyond representational. Simplicity itself, the home of a fisherman painted by his daughter on newsprint, something honest and rendered so lovingly. Worth all the standing around, the real thing. An image that stays with me, a contradiction to all the stereotypes and fantasies.
Acorns popping and hammering down on tin roofs, eagles lazily twirling high above on eddies of cooler air, tourists sunburned and busying themselves with instant videos, snap shots, selfies. The sun casting only the briefest and blackest of shadows, smell of hot lavender from small gardens, shutters closed for siesta time, the penetrating nostalgic music of jazz trombones and flutes following us back to the car. The skies so impossibly blue, this lazy gorgeous holiday season blowing smoke in our eyes even as the history of slavery and apartheid leans in to remind us it’s not over yet, not yet past.