Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Being Abroad

Spent most of September 2012 in the United Kingdom, visiting family and parts previously unknown to us – Scotland and the Western Isles, northern Wales, the Northumberland coast ... a fabulous trip when Mrs Kaartman and I spent only one night of thirty out of the company of excellent friends or family.
The Cutty Sark [London];
the 1400-year old Chapel of St Columba [Mull of Kintyre]
It was an absolute treat. Travel leads to interesting reflections – despite being a born and bred Suid-Afrikaner with African roots snatching back to the 17th century, I find myself strongly drawn to those northern isles. I love them, even their grotty bits (and they have ’em!) – but I could not live there. Not sure why. Too cold? I love the sun-soaked, dry interior of my country – it speaks to me with very persuasive voices. I love empty spaces, too. We found one in the UK – I’m sure there are more. Rannoch Moor is remote; in the middle of it is a railway siding that is reached by a single, dead-end road. It is the place that is the furthest from anywhere else in the whole of the British Isles. It’s bleak, lonely and lovely, but it has not the colours, the skies, the scents of the remote Karoo. It’s too different: I loved the visit, even the proliferation of dank and cheerless Scots monuments, but I could not live there.
A gloomy Scottish B&B: no toilets;
A pale and gloomy Scottish knight
You might say that it’s too cold and wet, and there are too many people, so many that to accommodate them all and their cars the motorway lanes are terribly narrow, the houses small and viewless, the supermarkets inhumanly vast, the traffic always and everywhere congested. But we did not complain. Congestion is what happens when a country has too many people (imagine China or India!), and when you know you’re merely a visitor you love the lovable, you ogle and gasp, and you embrace a bit of a branch – it’s only one of many branches, hey – of your cultural roots. It’s not your place as a visitor to complain, to criticise; you don’t live there, your four weeks are too short for you to contribute anything at all. My fierce maternal grandmother always said that the rudest, most uncouth thing a guest could do was to complain about the house and household of his host. Her name was Grace; she was not a person one easily crossed.
Good thing Poms can’t read Afrikaans;
Was that
really Mrs Gripper’s first name?
Which is why I was perturbed by an email recently received from a friend of many years standing; and why I need to address some remarks to you, John. It seems daft and improbable that we were in England, unknowingly, only a few miles from where you now live, and even more daft that when, a few weeks later, you appeared in South Africa, we were away in the desert. So sorry to have missed you, old friend, and to have missed the chance to interrogate why and when you left SA – apparently with your boys? I have no problems with your emigration, your adoption of England as a your new home. Time was when we might have done the same – the Kaartmans even contemplated Australia, until we decided that we could stay here if – a big ‘if’ of course – we could contribute meaningfully to change. But that’s our story, for another meeting. This one is about you. 
Down the ages people have uprooted themselves and moved, given the chance. Down the ages people have rejected the “take root or die” option, and sought greener pastures. It’s why human beings occupy our entire planet, after all! Without that urge humanity might, for better or worse, have remained squatting around the fading firelight in Klasies River Cave, gnawing at an endless diet of blue mussels and half-done porcupine. I have no problems at all with your re-location.
Re-located Romans:
Kaartman inspects Hadrian’s defences; apartheid failed there too!
Kaartman being sacrilegious in the Sacrum 
But having relocated of your own free choice you’re now a Brit, and you’re a guest when you visit South Africa, a guest as Granma Grace described. Yet you wrote to me (and others), “I now desperately want to get home to the UK ... ”
Why were you, our guest, so desperate to get home to the UK? Because, as you also wrote, most B and B’s you stayed in in SA were like ‘toilets’? The Kaartman’s mapping takes us all over our country; we’ve stayed in a huge variety of lodgings, but hell man, you had bad luck – none of ours were like toilets. In fact, every single one of them was as good as anywhere we stayed in in the UK – and I include the Welsh Georgian hotel at £250 per night (for the same price, in Wales you could go ‘glamping’ in a luxury tent sourced from Cristy Sports, in Diep River, Cape Town, or bathe in a Sundance pool imported from Somerset West ... but I digress ...)
While in the UK we stumbled upon a Scottish Nationalist rally in Edinburgh; elsewhere, in Bristol, it was Party Congress time; and somewhere in London a cabinet minister told a policeman that he was a ‘peasant’. A man called Miliband made a speech on TV that had the media in raptures; another man, a Prime Minister perhaps, made a speech about the stumbling economy; the Scottish Nats made speeches about Perfidious Albion. The level of fatuous inanity in every one of these politicians’ sundry utterances made George Bush II seem like an admirable orator. Later, we passed through Campbeltown in Kintyre, a filthy, shabby place that was made the worse by the realisation that all its dirty, indigent inhabitants have enjoyed the benefit of a century and a half of free education and full democracy. And while they were enjoying that, their compatriots, masters, apparatchiks and idols were busy denying the same benefits to the majority of South Africans ...
Windsor Castle: Kaartman inspects this early British Nkandla;
Rannoch Moor: no toilets there either
On neither issue did we ever complain, either to ourselves or our generous, lovely hosts. Petrol might have been R20 per litre, bus fares out of sight, house prices beyond belief, TV licences over R1700 per year, but we did not complain. We were guests, and we behaved like guests, and in our emails to our friends we thanked them truthfully and sincerely for a really wonderful holiday, filled with hospitality, leaving us with great, great memories.
So I’m sorry we missed you in Cape Town, Johnno, old friend. You clearly needed a bit of cheering up, and if WP winning the Currie Cup didn’t do it for you, mebbe we could have – in our home, of course, not in a ‘toilet’. Next time maybe we won’t be away basking in the desert sunshine, relishing its empty spaces ... ? 
London: They must have imported this vaatjie from the Western Cape;
London: a typically warm, sunny day

Kaartman, November 2012

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