The Irishman

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to a nightclub with a group of Frenchman I’d met that night. We were dancing up a storm and having a ball when I noticed a sad sort of thing against a post off to the side of the dance floor. 

He was as close as you can get to a white Erkel (how’s that for a blast from your sit-com past?): patterned knit sweater with the starchy white collared shirt, square glasses one size too big, ironed slacks and a bad haircut.  He was holding his glass like it was a life preserver.  He sort of swayed to the music beside an older guy and looked around with a hopeful look on his face.

I took pity.  It turns out his Irish accent was so strong nobody else in the bar could understand a word he said, and to be honest, I did a lot of smiling and nodding. 

He said he was just is South Africa for a couple of weeks and the other guy was his boss.  I assumed he’s in IT.  Then he started rambling about cars and I sort of tuned out and people watched for a crucial few moments.  He looked at me and said, “you obviously don’t follow Formula 1 races.”  To which I replied, “car racing?  Have you ever been to Monaco?”  Grasping at conversation straws much or what?

“Monaco?  I live there.”

Que?

“I’m a formula 1 car racer.  I’m here testing out the new MBWs.  Do you want to come try out the new Z5?”

Yeah I do.

He was kind and funny and ended up buying the most scantily clad and available girl in the bar drinks and dancing with her. (Just to clarify – NOT me. Stop laughing Shaadi.)  So the geek turned out the be the nicest and coolest guy in the bar.  Lesson of the night: don’t judge a boy by his cover. 

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Long Overdue and Hardly Coherent

For those of you who have been checking this thing (Gio), I am sorry. At first there was just too much to write, and then I had trouble separating my observations from what people have told me about this place – much of that shocking and, well, foreign. There was just too much to sort through. Which stories do I tell and how do I make them interesting? Then I thought, “sod it. I’m gonna write quickly and without wit or brilliance and there is nothing to be done about it because if I stress over style or substance nothing will ever get posted.” So here you are….

 

I watched the World Cup final at Jo’burg’s Alliance Francais surrounded by dozens of Frenchmen and France supporters. There are few things sadder than a skinny Frenchman without the will to even take a drag on his cigarette; they’re sulky and moody enough on a good day. But oh those accents! And at least one of them knows how to actually dance with a lady.

 

I could have written a witty tale of the tour through Johannesburg an hour after my 35-odd hour trip: through dynamic areas like Soweto; cultural spots like the traditional medicine markets where snake and alligator skins hang above dried herbs and various animal bones; beautiful areas like the urban forest Nelson Mandela now calls home; simply dangerous areas like Hillbrow where the migrants from the surrounding troubled places like Zimbabwe and troubled people from farther places like Nigeria live and wander the decaying streets of downtown Jo’burg. Tall glass buildings sit empty save for squatters – picture Woodward’s in the Wall Centre. (Don’t worry fam – we stayed in the moving van)

 

In areas like this the crime stories you have heard are real; I was scolded the other day for pulling out my cell phone on the street. People here are killed for less. Seriously. Everyday you hear a story—sometimes through the grapevine, often in the news, and regularly firsthand from a victim—of violent crime. Crime here is just violent, and some of it is just so damn sad and stupid: recently there was a burglary of all the shoes and belongings from an AIDS orphanage.

 

But this city is huge and millions live here happily without being rapped or stabbed or killed. People who refuse to hide in their own prison, either of tall gates and mortar or of the mind. The coolest people I’ve met are aware of the dangers but refuse to live in fear; they’d rather live in their dynamic and hopeful city. There are amazing stories of humanity everywhere you look. I work with at least two people who fought in the underground movement against Apartheid: one was forced into exile and the other lost here young husband to it when their daughter was just five months old. And those are the only two who I’ve spent one-on-one time with. Now they teach kids of all races to not only speak English but to learn their rights: the right to a name being the first on the list.

 

The people here are the nicest I have ever met. I honestly think every South African I have been introduced to would give me the money in their pocket and have me move in to their homes. I have been brought into a group of lovely people who really care about me; I met my hostess the day I got here. Doreen has brought me into her life and says I can say as long as I want. Today another remarkable woman offered her family’s home to me.

 

South Africans have not merely survived a harsh history, they’ve come out of it with a warm spirit and a wicked sense of humour. Ads here are just so much better than the crap we produce. People are honest and as open with you as you are with them. The race thing is huge – everything seems to be defined by it; but once you get over the shock of that and accept where the dynamic comes from you can see where it’s going. Those barriers are breaking down and things are changing. While most restaurants in the richer areas aren’t mixed, the dance clubs in the same areas are, for both the staff and party-goers.

 

Which reminds me of one more story …. Someone remind me to tell you about the Irishman at the bar. It’s a good one.