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A Nomad's Life

by Nomad Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 05:07:26 PM EST


The other day, Pierre drove me to the university. On the road before the gate to the campus, the Metro police was pulling over cars to check for licenses and whatever illegal stuff they could find. Pierre didn't have his international license on him - so they fined him for 100 Rand. He gave the ticket a casual look, and threw it on the backbench when we drove off. "I'm not paying that - they spelled my name wrong." Pierre is leaving in two weeks anyway.

Pierre is French, and it is not a secret. He shaves once a week - but with stubbles he's looking even more charming. He's a post-doc, here for a year, although his PhD done in West Africa is nearly identical to what he writes about South Africa. In some two weeks, he will leave for France to apply for a lecturer position, which, if he'd be awarded with it, will be for life. Who doesn't love France?

Pierre drives a wreck. The kind of car that wouldn't be allowed on the road anymore in a reasonable European country. The other day, before the police incident, his wreck didn't start, so Pierre shares a car with other people for two weeks before he calls someone - who promptly comes over to give him a new car. All right, a new wreck: a Ford Laser zapped out of the stone age, without seat belts on the backseat and the interior in a shade of brown ugly enough to permanently damage your retinas.

Pierre is hardcore. Pierre sleeps in the pink room (which will be mine when he leaves), on a bed from someone else, with a mattress that is so thin the wooden planks of the floor stab straight into your back. He doesn't bring over his girlfriend Paula very often. I don't think they would enjoy having sex on that bed.

Paula would be his South African girl - a professional psychologist with a stunning figure and an appetite for adventure. "A fucking nice chicken," Pierre muses out loud, cradling his mug of morning coffee. Nothing to fault him for. But when he shows the pictures of his other travels, you discover he also still has a girlfriend in France - who looks similarly stunning and adventurous. The stereotypes of the amorous French keep on piling up. Girlfriends happen, nothing you can do against.

Pierre doesn't really clean. On a housemate's birthday he had everyone surprised when he was collecting the shed present wrappings from the floor. That was because he needed it to wrap his own present, still unwrapped. Not that he used tape. We all suspect Pierre never washes up the dishes and only heads for the laundrette when he's out of clean clothes. Because he gets paid a French stipend, he can afford plenty of eating out.

But none of these minor irritants actually matter. Give Pierre one glance, and the guy radiates mirth. The room lights up. His smile would disarm any pessimist. "How is it my man?" - that is his custom entry. A bear hug follows, and then often a cigarette - South Africa makes people smoke. When he's back in France, he wants to quit. You secretively wonder why: Pierre is the first person I've met who makes smoking actually look good.

A huge fan of all sorts of music, he enjoys to freak with obscure jazz CDs, and he sure knows how to party. The unforgettable memory with Pierre: standing without shirt on top of one of the tables at Cool Runnings - which the present ladies had dared me to. I've lost my scruples a long time ago, but it was a pleasant surprise to have Pierre joining in with stripping his shirt off, and sharing that table.

"Crazy Dutch!"

"Fucking French!"

Pierre will leave in a few weeks - we're sure gonna miss that smile.


For over ten months now, Tom has been working here. I'm secretly slightly proud on Tom: he was my first person to mentor. Everyone fresh from Europe needs a mentor here in South Africa, especially for that dazzling first time. Tom is thriving here, and thus it feels a little bit as a success of my own making.

He was literally shaking on his legs that first night, when my ex and I took him for a cheap, but decent, pizza in Melville, and convinced him it would be much better for him to spend some time in the communal house where I then stayed. To give him a breather, to coax him into the realities of Jozi life. That next day we fed him spaghetti with tomato sauce and mince meat - and hence made him abjure his vegetarian lifestyle. Damn that British politeness. He had finished his plate when he confessed to be a vegetarian. Anyway, in a country so obsessed with eating meat, it was a sensible choice, and considering his frequent visits to Fontana (chicken) or Steers (burgers) he doesn't appear to regret the choice much.

We showed Tom the workings of the taxi-system, took him to Soweto - going beyond the general tourist stops, and to the township's emotional hearts. We shared the latest developments that never reached the news in Europe. One month later, Tom was on his own feet, and developed as a true backpacker - finding enjoyment in hardship. Not that he had choice - being British and 23 somehow makes people poor. He now tells with zest how he'd wake up one night in his bunk bed because water, condensing against the corrugated roof, would drip onto his head. And then he grins his mad grin. He also curses effectively in IsiZulu.

Tom is chaos. That was pretty easy to spot. At first, I thought he spread around his stuff throughout the entire room to make it look a little fuller. But after a month without change in this behaviour, it began to dawn on me that Tom may actually prefer to sleep amidst total mayhem - even when he says he doesn't enjoy it. I mean, he didn't have a blanket. So he bought one - but didn't want to buy the cover, because that would be too expensive. In November, during his birthday, it was high time to add that cover - but by then, the blanket was decorated by enough stains of wine, beer, tooth paste, mud, etcetera that it was more sensible to chug it completely.

I've never met another person who has such a capability to forget anything anywhere - although he appears to have improved over the months. When Tom would go back to pick up his phone at the office, he'd forget his jacket in the car. And so on and so forth.

He sure knows what work is. Tom is one of those persons who doesn't find it strange to work for 13 hours in a day, and to be available to jump back in if so necessary. At eight, he slouches into the kitchen, opens the fridge, peeks through his curls for something that can defrost quickly (because he forgot to take something out in the morning), decides he can't be asked, tosses the door and heads for his room. Thirty minutes later, he's back - too hungry to fall asleep, too tired to cook. He pries 4 fish fingers into a frying pan, makes toasts, adds the fish fingers, pours ketchup on top and devours all. Back in his room, he sets fire to his joint and dozes off into coma, listening to the Doors or something likewise psychedelic. At 6:45 in the morning, he rolls out of the bed, and tries to make porridge while he is absent in the kitchen - which is not always a good combination. Because rescuing (or forgetting about) the porridge makes him late, he pours it into a bowl (mine preferably) and then carries it, bowl and all, into the car to drop him off.

Matters aside, when he wants to cook, Tom has proven to be a damn good cook. And his work has almost become indispensable - he's an excellent crisis manager. Like Pierre, Tom doesn't shave often - but because of time constraints. Unlike Pierre, it doesn't improve his appearance - he just becomes shaggy, like his hair. The jeans that are coming apart don't really aid to this picture.

In the madness and chaos that's called Johannesburg, Tom functions as a counterweight.


I suspected relatively rapid that Sharon has ADHD - a kind of whirling muse that suddenly plunged into my life. Curiously, it was the prof responsible for graduate students who specifically requested me to mentor her for a bit. Perhaps it was a gut feeling to give some stabilising influence to someone who was even more nerve racked about living in Jozi than Tom ever was.

Thirty, like me, and like me starting a PhD at a mature age - because at the cross roads in life you cannot always choose for the motorway through the academic world. Had I chosen geology directly, I'd possibly have brought and end to my PhD by now. But as always - I wouldn't be doing the PhD I do now if I had. The vagaries of choice.

Her life sounds almost more complex than my own. She's married, and has been for nine years - but she and her husband already live separately for at least some three years. Sharon married partly because of her background (her Turkish family is strictly Islamic, even when she's not), partly because she and her husband found emotional support in each other and they wanted to be closer. It sounds like a pact born out of necessity: two souls, their spirits cracked, who find their own strength by supporting the other through a world that at times can be too black. But a pact born out of necessity is not living life - that much I know. Sharon is now building her own life, from the foundations - she must do it on her own, and she came to South Africa to do it. That appeals to me on a basic level - although still too frightened to leave campus, she did come here.

Since Sharon got a decent room on campus the film fan came out of the closet. What I've largely got with music, she has with movies. When I had invited her for self-made pizzas, it was compulsory for me to admire "Breakfast at Tiffany's" next. In return, I was invited for Turkish salad and a David Lynch theme evening. Although "Lost Highway" gave me instant nightmares.

One never really knows what is going to happen with Sharon around - one day I find a poem of T S Elliot in my email, or a black-and-white still from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal". When I hadn't heard from her for three days and called, she had erased my contact details from her phone, because she felt she was usurping too much of my time. Then she skips a night to work, sleeps for three hours, and needs two coffee breaks during the day wherein we can discuss philosophies on life, or whatever. As if all creativity and interests for poetry, culture, philosophy, movies, photography have been condensed into one springy person - who just happens to do palaeontology.

For someone who fiercely defends to be not European and decides that I behave "very European" (whatever that means???), she's more schooled into European culture than I am. And this was only two months.

Post scriptum Pierre had lend his phone to another housemate - as Pierre is leaving, he got it back and found on it pictures of said housemate in very explicit sexual acts... We can't really look this housemate into the eye any more...

. No 0%
. Yes 81%
. Only if there will be pictures next 18%

Votes: 22
Results | Other Polls
Right. I warned poemless in advance that this would be not even remotely intellectual. Don't come complaining now. If this is too ribald, even for ET, please let me know by the poll.

Somehow, writing this down, didn't make it sound as crazy as living those experiences felt to me. But perhaps that's just me. Anyway, I wrote it down mostly meant to read back and smile at for when I'm getting completely senile.

Of course, names have been replaced and details have been somewhat obscured to provide some anonymity to the people involved.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 05:16:33 PM EST
Somehow, writing this down, didn't make it sound as crazy as living those experiences felt to me. But perhaps that's just me. Anyway, I wrote it down mostly meant to read back and smile at for when I'm getting completely senile.

Reading this piece made me realize that just snapping photos of friends and places is not going to cut it to really preserve memories of nomadic adventures like these.

Yours sounds like my kind of crew  -- as long as Tom keeps the bathroom reasonably clean at least!  (^_-)

(By the way, English is not your first language, right?)

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

by marco on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 05:30:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I clean the bathrooom when it is Tom's turn because I can't thrive without a clean bathroom or kitchen - but that's ok. Communal life then demands I can make unasked use of his jam.

And you're right, English isn't my first; I'm Dutch. Was it that easy to spot?

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 06:03:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And you're right, English isn't my first; I'm Dutch. Was it that easy to spot?

Yes ... in poorly written English, it can sometimes be hard to spot (I have read student essays that would lead you to believe the student has no first language), but against the background of well written English, a few non-native phrasings stand out.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 09:01:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Superb! I enjoyed your diary a lot and I'm waiting for more...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 06:56:03 PM EST
Great diary.  Makes me recall some of the memorable characters that meandered through my life.

I once commented to a friend, during a discussion of some of the characters in our office and their odd behavior, that we all have our little idiosyncrasies. He smiled and stated "yes, and as we get older our idiosyncrasies become harder and harder to hide."

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Thu Apr 24th, 2008 at 10:32:27 PM EST
It was a joy to read, Nomad.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 12:17:24 AM EST
Thirty, like me, and like me starting a PhD at a mature age - because at the cross roads in life you cannot always choose for the motorway through the academic world. Had I chosen geology directly, I'd possibly have brought and end to my PhD by now. But as always - I wouldn't be doing the PhD I do now if I had. The vagaries of choice.
This is what I'd like you to write more about...

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 02:07:48 AM EST
That's my life man! I would write a novel instead. You'll have to settle for the kaleidoscope view for now, a perspective from the fractal point of life. :)
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 06:22:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Love the way you talk about people, Nomad. Probably because you love people.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 04:15:27 AM EST
I always enjoy your writing, Nomad - and especially your adventures and people in your life. By the way, how's the kid's  football tourney developing??

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 04:17:46 AM EST
Football is still in the works, but has suffered delays. Children of Fire has hit a bit of a crisis (there are always crises, but this one is a protracted one), it needs to get out of choppy water first. I also still don't have a camera. I'm hoping in two weeks, though, or it will be too cold.
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 06:19:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What a great diary, superb writing. I got totally lost in reading it!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 10:15:14 AM EST
immensely amusing...

what a gift for prose you have for a poet :)

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 12:35:58 PM EST
Thanks once more for a great diary, Nomad. Loved reading it, but then I always love reading what you write. :-)
by Fran on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 01:34:05 PM EST
I love this stuff!

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Fri Apr 25th, 2008 at 06:22:47 PM EST
Always excellent, Nomad! :)

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Sat Apr 26th, 2008 at 09:22:14 AM EST
Sorry Nomad - been away - came very late to this.  Great read!

"It's a mystery to me - the game commences, For the usual fee - plus expenses, Confidential information - it's in my diary..."
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun May 4th, 2008 at 04:40:02 PM EST

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