Saturday, 28 November 2009

Melting in the Rain

Christmas Market in Trier

South Africans even after years abroad, melt in rain. Well, unless they are from Cape Town.

We met up at the Christmas Market in Trier last night with with some ex-Zimbabwean, South African friends living here. We hardly had our mugs of warm glühwein in our hands or the skies opened.

While my German husband was still standing sipping, we began to move. "Where can we eat, where can we go indoors?" The Germans stood thick on the market: not moving, sipping and talking or calmly taking out umbrellas.

We thought nothing of it to march into a café with our untouched mugs of glühwein in our hands. We unceremoniously plonked them on the table and then peeled off our dripping wet coats. We told the waitress we intended eating there too.
No-one said anything about us drinking glühwein not coming from their café.

We had a pleasant evening watching the rain through the large windows; first sipping our glühwein before moving onto drinking wine and beer and eating a lovely meal. And we laughed and talked of Africa!

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Culture Shock - Germany viewed by a South African

Address on Intercultural Perceptions and Culture Shock

held at the Goethe Institute, Johannesburg - June, 5 2009, Johannesburg

Lady Chair, fellow panellists, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to start off by thanking the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg and especially Ulla Wester for making it possible for me to be here tonight in Johannesburg my former home town.

Home is a difficult concept to pin down, but for more than 30 years, this city and its sounds and Highveld smells was the place I called home. And yet Johannesburg was never a homogenous city. The Afrikaans suburbs of Randburg where I grew up in the sixties and seventies were very different from the fairly homogenously Jewish Greenside of the 1980’s where my parents then moved to and where the only Afrikaners were dissidents like my parents, and Beyers Naudé. Where orthodox Jews walked to Schul on Friday nights.

There were forays into Hillbrow, then the multi-cultural Sodom and Gomorrah of Johannesburg with its Cafe Zurich and Café Vienna, with its delicious Schwarwälderkirschtorte and European newspapers. And Fordsburg on the other side of the city centre and later the Oriental Plaza for bargain shopping and samoosas.

No, Johannesburg always had its culturally defined corners, but we thought we were very cosmopolitan. We had segregated suburbs and where apartheid did not segregate us, we segregated ourselves. And we had no television to see how the rest of the world lived.

Yet, even with a father working for the liberal English press and who regularly brought his colourful contacts home, I only met people of my age of different religious and cultural backgrounds when I went to Wits: Apartheid divided us.

My friends at University were Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Muslim and Hindu and many were first or second generation immigrants. We hung out in Hillbrow and Berea, and Yeoville, saw foreign films, visited Exclusive Bookshops on Sundays, and later after we finished our studies Yeoville and the cafés of Rocky Street, the Market Theatre, the jazz clubs of Jamieson’s and Kippie’s with the African Jazz Pioneers or Mango Groove - became our hunting ground. That is before we headed back to the northern suburbs where we originally came from - still just in time to enjoy the fruits of democracy and the good life.

By now Melville had become the in place for us in the media. That is the Egoli, Joeys, Jo’burg I left behind in 1995. And that is the young, multi-cultural vibrant city, I as an aspiring but failed, Jo’burg kugel mourned in my first years in Germany.

Today I live in Trier on the Moselle. Home is an old house, in a quiet cul-de-sac leading to a wine farm, surrounded by steep vineyards, in the wine suburb of Trier, Germany’s oldest town. I, born a Calvinist, now live in a predominantly Catholic town. It is the birthplace of Karl Marx and the phrase: “Religion is the opium of the people”, can only be truly understood by living there in the late 20th century.

Trier: Reading from book: Roman(tic) Trier

Two lives and two cultures that sometimes cannot be more different. As far as cultural perceptions go the Moselle area is a melting pot of ancient heathen and Catholic traditions and influenced by frequent occupation by unloved foreign rulers – be it in recent times Napoleon, the Prussians, Hitler or the Americans. For me coming from this young city of gold with its new money aura to a city dripping with two thousand years of history, was a culture shock.I had studied German at University, read Faust One AND TWO, read Handke and Boell and Grass, never finished Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks – this is a confession tonight as my former German professor, Reingard Nethersole is here in the audience. I had watched and analysed the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Leni Riefenstahl. And I even liked bratwurst. Yet adapting to Germany was so infinitely more difficult than I had ever imagined.

The High German I had learnt, proved utterly useless in going about my daily chores. The dialect is close to Letzeburgisch the language of Luxembourg. As wine connoisseurs, their dialect is heavily affected by their love of wine: they continue to speak the morning after, where they left off the night before – that means there is a lot of “shh” in it –Maedschen and like the French they do not pronounce the "e" at the end of a word: Kaes, instead of Kaese; Hos instead of Hose. The cuisine is very similar to Alsace and Lorraine in France across the border. And for centuries these areas swapped rulers between France and Germany. Paris is a mere two and a half hours by fast TGV train, Berlin eight hours. Many people in our region prefer to go on holiday to France. Most would be as unfamiliar as most of you with the North or East of Germany. They struggle with being on time – in fact they are mostly NOT on time, and they have more in common with their French neighbours than with the Prussians in the former East-Germany.

Therefore we have a regional cultural identity and a bit like true Capetonians the locals are dubious of any newcomers - and that is anything or anybody coming from more than a 150 kilometres away. My Bavarian husband had serious problems adapting to the region – his accent, his work ethic and his love of his beer did not go down too well there.

Having left a young city with no memory but a lot of flexibility, I was living among two thousand years of history, where local tradition and seasonal festivals are part and parcel of daily living and resistance to change is ever present.

There are many aspects of German society I still struggle with: the convoluted red-tape, the arrogant teachers, the inability of 80 million people to queue and not crush into a bus or train or for that matter, a plane.

Our own perception plays a role in how we perceive others and how we are perceived by others. I think both Germans and South Africans share the difficulties in being perceived by others as either the unloved big brother or worse still the school ground bullies.

Some of this perception has to do with their economic standing – both are the economic motors on their respective continents.

And yes in adapting to Germany and in dealing with German red-tape officials and in my book and in my perception of the Germans ,my arrogance at times certainly matched theirs. That made me a very uncomfortable “Ausländer”, or foreigner, but probably it was the only way to survive.

Both my countries share a burdened past. Ten days ago I visited the Reichsparteitagsgelaende in Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer and forever forged in our memories by the glorifying documentary of Leni Riefenstahl on Hitler. From the rubble of that fascism has risen, in sixty years one of the strongest democracies in the world.

Last Friday evening, I was in Erfurt at the German Children’s Media and Film Festival Awards – Der Goldene Spatz - started 30 years ago in East Germany and continued today in a united Germany. Two decades after the Fall of the Berlin Wall walking through the beautifully renovated city centre, there is hardly anything that reminds one of Communist rule.

Both countries had gone through enormous social, cultural and political change in the last two decades. My book is very antipodean contrasting these two worlds. In living away from Africa, I discovered my Africaness. After nearly 15 years in Germany I still live between two cultures, and borrowing from the Turkish-German poet Nefvel Cumart poem Two Worlds - sometimes I am seeking to be a bridge between the two cultures and sometimes I am being torn apart by being in the middle. There are some of us here tonight who had or still experience living between two cultures.

The city I am visiting this fortnight is a city; where I still encounter familiar places and smells, but also a lot of unfamiliar new images. It is a city whose social fabric is in constant change while some things remain the same: The smell of a cold smoky Highveld winter evening and the food – the koeksisters and milktart and samoosas and Mrs. Ball’s chutney.

It is a city where the interaction with family and friends is much easier-going and more relaxed than in Germany. But it is also a city where I as an expat am no longer at ease. Where I fear crime, where I make sure I know where the panic buttons are, where I keep on looking over my shoulder. Where I am paranoid about car doors and house doors not being locked. And carjacking corners! In Germany I cycle with my handbag in the bicycle basket, I have little security, but for that my own watchdogs – my neighbours!

Reading from book on neighbours: A Nation of Know-Alls

Today I am the one fretting about police sirens going past while my brother-in-law calmly continues watching television. I have gone from being a Jo’burg Rock to being a Kraut.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

South African Election: Thoughts From Abroad

It is with mixed feelings that I sit far away from my homeland on the eve of what is going to be the fourth free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.

Mixed feelings as I had a sense of doom these past few months as the inevitability of the outcome of these elections loomed so large. And depression, yes, that the wonderful dream we had for the new South Africa 15 years ago, has turned into a favours and crime orgy.

There is still a glimmer of hope for the country, as long as a person of the stature of the Arch - Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu - openly speaks out against what he sees as injustice in our country. In an interview he said that he will be ashamed to call Zuma his president as long as the US has Obama. And that is the great tragedy, there are such capable and strong leaders in South Africa. Yet they were side-lined after 1994, when the former ANC exiles and their tightly knit old boys’ (nad old girls') network took over the reins of the ANC.

Many of those capable leaders from the old United Democratic Front have now been brave enough to form COPE, but whether that will bear fruit we can only really see at the next elections. IF there are going to be free and fair next elections. Zuma growling at the Constitutional Court is not exactly beaming a message of democratic hope to South Africans and the world at large.

And I think back of that night now more than 15 years ago when months of negotiations finally bore fruit. In 1993, I was the Reuters night-watch at those multi-party talks. Day in, day out, and evening and often night after night, I kept a watch. Only when there was big action – like signing agreements, did the Reuters big wigs come in to report and postulate. I could file copy and landline video, from our interim offices of the World Trade Centre near the airport, where the talks were held. Our Johannesburg offices were near the SABC and in those days’ we had to then go up to the SABC and send our video stories by satellite to London.

It was in the early hours of the 18th of November when all the parties reached an agreement. Our Reuters office in Milpark was still open and filing story after story. I dutifully, high on adrenalin, filed some pictures to go out on the satellite before driving the half-an-hour back to the offices to drop the original tapes for the early morning feeds. That drive from the airport to our offices in the quiet dark of night - up and down the hilly roads of Observatory, and Yeoville, - I was in an buoyant mood. Mango Groove was playing from my cassette deck “Another country”

For us who had followed those talks at close quarters and spoke to the politicians on a daily, informal basis, there were also many times we doubted that any agreement would ever be reached. We had reason to believe this as negotiations had once already broken down. And now driving through the sleeping suburbs of Johannesburg, I knew what most South Africans would only find out when they woke up – we had averted a civil war and there were to be free and fair elections.

When I got to the offices at about four that morning, my television colleagues, much to my surprise, were waiting for me and celebrating – most of them were South Africans or Zimbabweans. Geoff Chilton, the Reuters Television head hugged me as I walked in and handed me a glass of champagne. Everyone looked tired but happy. All of us have in some ways covered this story for years – whether it was the township unrest, demonstrations against the apartheid Government that turned violent. Government and Mandela press conferences. Or like me sitting for days and nights on end while politicians filibustered their way to an interim Constitution. And let us not forget one of the keys to that Interim Constitution was a Constitutional Court.

Despite most of us having worked for nearly 20 hours by then, we were toasting each other in our disbelief that this day had finally come. It was as if a big burden fell off our shoulders.

Afterwards I drove the short distance home - around the kopjes of Melville and along the Greenside Golf Course. An orange-red bright African dawn was breaking over Johannesburg, and over the country: a new dawn, a new era. Apartheid was truly dead and the new day breaking was bringing a fresh beginning. Today, 15 years later, the euphoria of that early morning of 18 November 1993, is still so vivid in my mind. But then I was also not there post-1994 to see the delusion set in.

Despite my current pessimism about these elections and whether those about to be elected really intend to uphold that Constitution: let us not forget the vast potential that South Africa and its people have. Let us not forget what can be possible! Don’t let Zuma and his cronies ruin that!

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Things I Miss About South Africa #2

April has turned wet and cold and the rainworms are having a field day on our lawn. And on grey days like these I miss our Highveld kikuyu lawn in Johannesburg. I wrote about it in Chapter 1 of From Rock to Kraut and this week again wrote a few lines on kikuyu grass in my new manuscript. Here's the extract from my book:

"As I waited there on the dirty veranda, freezing physically and emotionally, I was in turmoil, but felt absent. Fifteen hours before, we had still been in the South African summer and now Cape Town and Table Mountain and Camps Bay and Glen Beach, where I lived as a kid and where we had been at the beginning of that week, seemed a lifetime away."

"The contrast to my parents’ 1920’s Herbert Baker designed, colonial-style double-storey house, across from the Golf Course in Greenside, with its lush, dark-green kikuyu lawn and well-cared for garden in full summer bloom, could not have been greater. Herbert Baker was the eminent colonial architect, responsible for the Union Building in Pretoria and the Government Buildings in Delhi."

"In the years to come, I would often yearn for the strong smell of a freshly mowed kikuyu lawn, late on a summer afternoon, after it had been watered, mixed with the dizzyingly sweet smell of katjiepiering (gardenia) and yesterday-today-and-tomorrow shrubs in bloom. That smell accompanied my childhood and student years and reminds me of that wonderful time we spent outside in the garden in summer just before an early dusk, before it cooled down and we had to return to our desks for homework or assignments. The hot exam months I associate with the jacaranda trees in full purple bloom."

"Having moved countries and continents, Louise and I were about to start a very different kind of life from our previous one."

(c) Anli Serfontein - From Rock to Kraut 2008

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Things I Miss About South Africa # 1

Easter in Germany! Despite having an awesome amount of chocolate Easter eggs to pick and choose from, what do I miss? Marshmallow Easter eggs in their colourful wrappers.

The Easter decorations and chocolate Easter eggs that one finds in Europe are so much more classy. But I am boorish and miss my marshmallow eggs!

In The Netherlands I once bought some pottery Easter bunnies - classy - still have them. But I only want my marshmallow Easter eggs.

France has the most class when it comes to Easter eggs and I have over the years spent three Easters in Paris. The perfectly copied face of Mona Lisa on a huge Easter egg remains vivid. Yet those Easter eggs offers something for the eye of the beholder, but me: I want to pig out on my marshmallow Easter eggs.

One Easter in Vienna we visited their colourful Easter market with their hand-painted eggs! Artistic! And what did I want? Marshmallow Easter eggs!

In Germany we have to decorate our houses in the weeks before Easter with mostly yellow and green decorations. Brightly coloured eggs, wooden bunnies, and then in my case fresh daffodils from my spring garden. Spring is in the air! Easter is here too!

Yet no amount of chocolate Easter eggs can keep this chocoholic happy. I yearns for a box of soft marshmallow Easter eggs so that I can sit and stuff my face. I am jealous of anyone today eating marshmallow Easter eggs and will happily swop my Lindt Easter eggs for them. A fair swop?

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Zuma and the Afrikaner-loving muti drink

Was this the braai that set off the smooching between Zuma and Afrikaners? Makes one wonder whether they spiked his drinks with some special "Afrikaner-loving" muti.

His (unexpected) declarations of love for Afrikaners came very soon after this.

It smacks of election opportunism. And rightly insulted other groups in South Africa, as one can see from the debates in online-forums this week.

Just wondering how long the muti will last. Only until the 22nd of April?

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Voices of Reason - South African Firebrands

It is just amazing reading the Johannesburg Sunday Times this morning about the visit of the ANC Youth League firebrand Julius Malema to the white only town of Orania.

I watched the video and expected a firebrand. Yet Malema actually sounded like the voice of reason. huh????

As I watched the pics of him and Carel Boshoff junior negotiating their way through Orania, I believe both sides handled it brilliantly. I had to think back to the two times I filmed in Orania in the early 1990's.

And I had to think of one plane trip I took from Upington to Johannesburg with Carel Boshoff junior in 1994, shortly before the first multi-racial democratic elections in South Africa. Although he is the grandson of murdered Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd the architect of apartheid, he is such a reasonable and intelligent person - no hardline rightwing talk from him. Very affable, very likeable! His demeanour raised a lot of questions in my preconceptions of what I expected. He does not seem to have changed one bit in 15 years.

And for a few minutes, while watching the video, I felt as if there may be hope for the country. Two leaders from differing sides of the South African political spectrum treating each other with respect.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Bring back Pik!

For those reading Afrikaans this is vintage Pik. This is his no nonsense approach to dealing with the international diplomatic crisis around the invitation to the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference in South Africa. The invitation was withdrawn after China complained. South African Nobel Laureates FW De Klerk and Archbishop Desmond Tutu then withdrew too, along with the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

Pik wrote an article in Beeld newspaper telling the world how he would have dealt with it, had he still been Foreign Minister: by inviting the Ambassador of China for a cup of tea. Between the lines one could read, he would have dealt with it rugby scrum style - slight pressure applied. Metaphorically "We are not going to hurt each other or?" Afterwards he would then have told his President it is all sorted out and to go ahead with the conference as planned.

Pik Botha was the former Foreign Minister of South Africa in the De Klerk and Botha eras and South Africa's longest-serving Foreign Minister. He after 1994, when Mandela became president joined the ANC.

From Rock to Kraut

And so started my book:

"This book tells the story of my journey from South Africa to Germany; from one continent and vibrant young multi-culture to an old continent with a culture dripping with traditions spanning thousands of years; from a megalopolis in Africa to a small town in Europe.

It is the story of adapting and adopting, without forgetting where I came from and who I am. It is the story of two traditions merging in one family, who are walking a tightrope between not forgetting one culture and not letting the other culture dominate. Like anyone who has ever lived in another country, I have had to wrestle with the question of where and what home is. Home and at home have taken on a new meaning.

Although my roots will always be in Africa, I am a cosmopolitan now. I’ll never stop missing Mrs Balls’ chutney or peppermint crisp chocolates, but I can get just as excited about Italian cuisine or films, or French joie de vivre or the thought of my mother-in-law’s home-made pretzels and Obazta waiting for me when we travel to Bavaria. More than in Africa I live the seasons: sitting with friends in a city square in summer sipping a Sekt, then meeting up at the Christmas market, dressed warmly against the cold, to drink a quick Glühwein, before we go to a warm restaurant for dinner.

Home is a difficult concept to pin down, but one thing is for sure, it should be the place where one feels the warmth of others. I am lucky that there are many places in Europe where I feel at home. But these days, Trier, and especially the wine suburb of Olewig, where we live, is where I call home.

Like my ancestors before me who left Europe to go to Africa on a journey into the unknown, I, too, came on a journey that held so many more surprises than I could have ever bargained for."