29 Jun 2015


When my sister announced she was getting married in Cape Town last year, the entire German side of the family and I, who had settled down in Germany in the last decade, were frantically scanning cheap flight websites and schmoozing bosses to approve leave.

To return to the city where I grew up was – always – a mixture of emotions.

I had been living in Germany, at that point, for three years. You see, Cape Town is my “heart” home. It’s the place, among other milestones, of many first: visiting kindergarten, school and university, where I first learned to drive, and where a boy first broke my heart.

But after three years away from South Africa, I had become used to the way things work in Germany’s daily life. The accent here really, ironically, lies on ‘work’. Everything in Germany is organised, while first mocking this cliché, I got used to it and enjoyed it. Things were as smooth as a jazz tune: I applied and received my new passport in under two weeks; public transport is punctual and is a great alternative car substitute; all my doctor visits are paid for by my health insurance; I could apply for help from the government if I lost my job; garbage is diligently recycled from toothbrush to milk cartons. Germans care about their health, the environment and that things run smoothly.

Germans are cooler and more distant – both emotionally and physically – but this is only true at first glance. If you make friends, and trust me it takes a long time, they will be your bosom buddies for life. Germans are also slightly neurotic (Roger Boyes refers to them as ‘paranoid’ in his book, My dear Krauts) and they fear that everything can cause cancer – from using a barbecue without tinfoil or from not ventilating your home enough.

What else did I get used to besides the smooth running of daily life? Well, I certainly unlearnt a few things. I arrived in Cape Town, and headed to the car rental place with my soon-to-be brother in law Carl. I stoically gave the man behind the counter my papers, passport and booking number. Luckily Carl quickly jumped in with some small talk, “Hey, how’s it going? You guys been busy?” The guy behind the counter quickly warmed up to Carl and told him all about his morning, what car I was getting, etc. I had forgotten the golden rule in South Africa: be nice if you want something!

 It’s the opposite way around in Germany. You are drilled to be forward and cut-throat to get what you want. I had become used to not exchanging a single hello, nod or smile with anyone on my way to work. So, it was quite an overwhelming experience in Cape Town when strangers suddenly talked to me. Imagine that! An unexpected conversation about something like the weather or crime or cricket with a complete stranger!

Going back to Cape Town, when I was living overseas, was always a weird experience. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I always noticed the strong presence of nature and poverty in South Africa’s capital city. The city is so green it hurts the eyes – especially after a year spent abroad in Europe’s muted summer colour. Surely, ee cummings’ “true blue” is an apt description for Cape Town’s skies. Nature allows the city to exist for now but – at any moment – the wind and storms could destroy what humans had built. Or giant jungle plants and palm trees would engulf the entire city.

Poverty too, is ever-present. I was confronted with guilt and gratitude on a daily basis – how lucky I was to drive a rental car, live in an apartment, and have the assurance that my fridge was always stocked. What would be the best remedy for every deeply unhappy European I met? The ones who complain about how their IKEA furniture doesn’t last, how their dishwasher doesn’t clean properly or how the latest iPhone design is crap… The remedy: go to South Africa and spend time with the people who are living in shacks, who are begging on the streets, who are sniffing glue to forget how bad things are. It’s poverty that pulls at your heartstrings (what poverty doesn’t?) and its intensity and in-your-face proximity makes you want to shut it out, not confront it, roll up your car window because it’s just too much to see a little child begging at the intersection. But you have to face it.

 And so, returning to my “heart land” was always a mixed bag of tricks. Driving along the winding road that curves around Devil’s Peak, was a feeling that made the uncertainty about whether or not to return ebb away. I know, one day I would return. And I did. I know too, that I will find it difficult to deal with: bad road planning, poverty and crime, rush hour or the traffic department (every South African hopes their driver’s license never expires!) or even the slowness of how things get done.

But I know that the small moments would cement the joy of returning. Moments like when a shopkeeper at the supermarket gives me a shy smile and says “welcome back” after I told her where I’d been. Or a passer-by tells my dad to watch out he doesn’t scratch his car on a pole as he was reversing, or a random lady at the supermarket points out a buy-one get-one-free special.

I love and loathe different things in each country. I’ve learnt that neither is better – they’re just two very, very different spaces.