September Letter

Back from South Africa. Actually it’s been a week, but it’s taking me some time to re-acclimatize. I fear Scotland is getting the short end of the stick in my mind at the moment. Here’s how bad the weather’s been this ‘summer’: in March I underwent a six-hour, expensive as hell, Japanese hair-straightening treatment that is supposed to last nine months. The past month of rain has broken it; back to frizzies already.

Another thing that’s bugging me about Scotland: the drivers have no regard for pedestrians whatsoever. You think Boston drivers are rude? At least they pretend not to see you. Scottish drivers have no problem letting you know that they see you and they’d love to kill you. When I bring this up with my Scottish co-workers they give me that ‘you poor foolish foreigner, why on earth would pedestrians have rights?’ look. I might have expected this in Italy, but not Edinburgh, where everyone is supposed to be highly repressed and polite. It’s driving me insane.

But the worst thing is British toilets. Toilet designers here must labor under the terrible fear that most people would not willingly clean a toilet on a regular basis, and must therefore be forced to do so every day. So they have cunningly slanted the toilet bowl in such a way that every time you take a dump the poop clings to the porcelain side instead of going down the way it should. Every single morning one is forced to get out the scrubber before even a cup of coffee — or else not look one’s flatmates in the eyes the rest of the day. I have not brought this up with my co-workers, as I try to limit the amount of crazy American stuff I do and say per week. But I wonder if they would know what I was talking about anyway. I suppose it’s possible that American sphincters have evolved differently from their British forebears since the Revolution. Supporting evidence would be that my (Scottish) mother apparently has the same beef with American toilets that I do with British ones.

What with all of this, I’ve been in a bit of a lousy mood lately, so much so that I hit my boss on Thursday. Yup, smacked the global head of design across the face rather hard, then told him he was lucky I didn’t use my ring. The funny thing is that it seems to have improved our relationship. How come they don’t tell you this on all those career websites? He came over to my desk tonight and said my 3d model was looking good, then made some polite comments about what he’d like to change. The difference is so positive that I’m considering starting off our weekly project meeting with some bitch-slapping. Watch this space.

Anyway…  some random observations about South Africa:

It’s amazing how friendly people are. Considering myself a sophisticated urbanite I thought I looked down on such things, but I have to admit it’s kind of nice to walk into a shop and have a friendly conversation with the person behind the counter before doing business.

I’ve never seen so many people walking places, even in the middle of nowhere. They do it because they can’t afford to take a taxi, let alone own a car, but what’s interesting is that it’s full circle from where first-world nations are trying to go: industrializing nations are getting cars as fast as they can while we try to warn them of the danger. I can understand the attitude of places like China and India when we shake our fingers at them; we’ve had these things for decades, and I can’t blame them for wanting them even though we know how bad for the environment they are.

The gap between rich and poor is astonishing. There are shanty towns made of metal panels with no electricity or running water right up against neighborhoods of nice-looking houses. The government is doing what they can to provide low-cost housing, but they are still far behind the curve. The unemployment rate is something like 40 percent.

People speak a lot of languages. English and Afrikaans to start, then Zulu and Xhosa and a host of others. But Afrikaners and English-speaking people don’t seem to mix socially that much, and that’s not even starting to talk about non-whites. I’m not sure what to say about the racial situation, as I think having been there only 10 days I’m not sure I understand it yet, so I won’t comment. What’s interesting, though, is that everyone I talked to, no matter what their background, seemed to revere Mandela. When he dies there will be real mourning in South Africa.

The landscape is incredibly varied and beautiful. Not sure what I was expecting, but it reminded me a lot of California – the sea, the hills, the cliffs, the deserts. Jo’burg is basically LA in the third world with razor wire around every residence. Lots of security guards in the nicer neighborhoods. Capetown’s setting is astonishing, the architecture is great, and it’s more laid-back than Jo’burg – and you can walk a number of the streets at night without feeling too unsafe.

Safari is super cool. But don’t expect to do any exercise: they wake you up at 5:30 for a game drive, then you get breakfast when you get back around 10. You go sleep for a few hours, then have lunch at 3, then go on another game drive, after which you have drinks and dinner before falling into bed. The animals don’t give a shit about you – they’re used to the land rovers and in fact think that you are another animal that is just bigger and noisier than them but doesn’t really bother them – so you can get extremely close to lions and leopards with no bother.

I definitely recommend the train from Johannesurg to Capetown. They treat you like royalty (once again you get fed a LOT) and you see all sort of things you never would in a car or on a plane. Our train was full of Afrikaners in their sixties, most of whom had done the trip multiple times already, and who felt the need to drink wine for 25 hours straight. No joke. They were very curious about us, and we got some catcalls when we showed up in the dining car dressed up for dinner. In fact, we met a lot of curious people; South Africans do not seem to be shy about asking personal questions.

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1 comment
  1. Tina said:

    Being a native New yorker, I truly appreciate how nice people are in Leesburg. It’s not the location either, there’s something about the people here. For example, when I go to my husband’s hometown in GA no one will say a word to me. But in Leesburg I can strike up a a friendly conversation with anyone. At the very least someone here would admire how cute Lily is! 🙂

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