Tue Jun 10th, 2008 at 05:37:31 PM EST
A reader of these epistles should realise that I write the entries particularly for myself for when I'm old and senility is setting in. But for as long as people find entertainment value in what's currently my daily bread and butter, I see no immediate damage to post them, except for ET's reputation of eruditeness...
Part 1: Pierre, Tom & Sharon
So far I've been able to spot two of Nina's biggest irritants: 1) a television blathering with no one watching it and 2) foodware that gets thrown away. And yet, her vegetables are always stored in plastic bags (which induce moulding) and she lets her bread go stale by leaving the bag of bread wide open on the kitchen countertop. Both elements tell a lot about her whole personality. All too often, Nina's principled life is entwined with chaos and unexpected events so that I frequently find myself binning some of her leftovers stored in the fridge we share - because at some point I'm not able to recognise them as food anymore. So I guess that would make throwing them away OK at that point. (BTW we recycle biological waste; I'm building a mini-garden.)
Sometimes one can meet a person that can be instantly categorised. It is impossible with Nina. My first impression was one of a person with great seriousness yet on social events she is the life of the party. Extremely responsible in her work while next she shirks her tasks for the communal house. Cherishes conservative values (would rather not see gay couples adopting babies) yet her pragmatic solutions are shining examples of progressive thought and expressions of her desire for equality for all. For a while I was close to thinking that Nina represents how angels would walk the earth; her heart and ambitions to do good are as wide as the universe.
Mix impulsiveness, chaos and a direct style and you have a facet of Nina to which Tom can still take a shine to - while the two are in many ways opposites in personalities. With Nina, it is her impulsiveness and her intemperate enthusiasm that results in chaos - whereas Tom defines natural chaos. When an idea has seized Nina, it becomes near impossible to grab her attention or even communicate to her there's a serious crisis happening this freaking minute. Because an idea is blazing inside her head and it needs to get out, spilling out in charmingly tumbling, haphazard English, with random phrases sometimes stacking a slightly incoherent, but always recognizable, whole.
For her work, she's a pro - (almost) always leaving on time, always smartly dressed, and especially when there is a conference to attend to. So okay, sometimes she doesn't know where the conference is held when she steps into her car and hence gets lost in the city, or she forgets her telephone on the most crucial days, but it (generally) turns out all right in the end. On other days, her rear bumper intimately folds around a tree because she's so irritated about the mind-numbing conference where all she did was sit behind a desk, smile prettily to the attendants and hand out flyers. Actually, she thought her first job quite boring: she finds humanitarian development far more interesting and, using the facilities, contacts and spare time at her workplace, has already set up two projects individually, and a third is in the making.
All seriousness leaves the building when there is time to party. Nina turns out to be a social smoker, flicking her cigarette with a very deft tap, but never drinks too much. That is, when she doesn't need to drive. On her birthday, it was suddenly decided that everyone should dress up. Within one hour Nina has found a glaring Chinese-style dress for 30 Rand in a second-hand store, continues to become ravishingly drunk during the evening and commands like a general that everyone should dance, turning the living room into a spontaneous disco. Because there were some people who would like to leave the party at some point, I was glad I had decided to stay sober so I could let people out or arrange transport - because Nina, as hostess, was not interested in these silly and capricious whims of people. This was her party in her house and she refused to budge from the dance floor. Figure it out yourselves. I loved it.
But then there is also that other, introvert side - in which she withdraws to her room for most of the Sunday, or goes swimming, or makes a long stroll through the nearby park. Typical solitary actions. She loves her sleep and has the interesting habit to doze off during the most spectacular movies. She can pout masterfully when things don't go her way.
Strict on cleaning up, she's the kind of person (like me) who sticks lists on the wall and who provides schedules of chores, to prevent our communal house from sliding into decay and chaos. But unlike me, half an hour after the kitchen is shiny and clean, she gets peckish, digs into her cupboard for flour, makes a stack of pancakes or a cake, and exits (without scruples) a kitchen rendered to another beautiful mess - which would stay that way for the rest of the week were it not for my uncontrollable cleaning habits in a kitchen. No, what matters is that you clean once in a while. Keeping the kitchen clean is another matter entirely...
She adores cooking, is a terrific cook. The whole house waits with bated breath when Nina dedicates her Sunday to communal food. Sometimes a cake gets burned a bit because she's distracted by something else. That's often the worst disaster of the entire day. We, her housemates, generally throw the cake away for her or nibble at the good bits. When we had a power outage the other day, she was so occupied to prevent going to waste the meal she had been preparing, she forgot to switch off the electrical stove. So that I, six hours later and vast asleep, wake up in the middle of the night by a persistent burning smell, to find a pot of beetroots carbonising on an incandescent stove turned to the maximum, accompanied by an acrid plume of smoke filling the kitchen with a bitter smell that would linger for days. The pot, tossed outside, remains a despondent reminder of destroyed food for a few weeks. Because the inconvenient subject is either forgotten or ignored by Nina, we finally chuck it when she's not around. Not that she has ever asked about the fate of the pot - there are more important things to occupy one's mind with.
Nina adores personal creativity, creating things with your hands for others, whether expressed in the kitchen or elsewhere, and appreciates it immensely when other people do the same for her. For my birthday she created a birthday calendar for 2008; on her last day at work she designed buttons with gallant, complimentary phrases for her colleagues which everyone should wear.
It all fits in the over-arching philosophy that one can be happy with little, that what matters is doing the things that fulfil you as a person, and that exorbitant material possession and spendthrift are unnecessary to achieve fulfilment in life. A philosophy that wholly overlaps my own. It's about the essentials; the rest is insubordinate. It's just that Nina also applies her direct approach and frankness for solving social issues and the daily problems one faces which can get her into troubles. The windscreen wipers of her cars didn't work - so she could never drive when it was raining but it beat wasting time in a garage. As long as her car worked, it was fine. Her visa had expired - which she had forgotten about - so she hops across the border to Mozambique for a weekend in Maputo and a tourist permit when she returns. She writes SMS in capitals - what does the form or etiquette matter as long as the message comes across?
Of course that directness does come with its drawbacks for others. And so we arrive at Henri's entry.
In reality, it's a sad short entry, because I've had too little time to really get to know Henri, the ebullient Frenchman with his roots in the DRC. Yet all sides that I did see emanated the characteristics of an extraordinarily enthused person, who wants to tumble from one adventure into the next. Yet the way how we met is interlaced with tragedy: a victim of Nina's impulsiveness and directness.
Nina had told me about her boyfriend Henri a couple of times: how socially adept he is, about his skills with photography and arts, how easy-going he is with people and I learned about his thorough adulation for travelling. Because he came to South Africa last year's December, I got to know him and he was exactly as described. His purpose for the visit was twofold. Firstly for a holiday. Secondly for a brief internship for a few months that would allow him and Nina to live together for a while. They would share the room in the communal house at that time, and then would move on to a private cottage. They would celebrate a holiday through South Africa during the Christmas period and Henri had immediately invited his aunt, uncle and parents to join in for an unforgettable event.
Unfortunately, by about November I began to develop suspicions that discontent was brewing between him and Nina, especially from Nina's side. She had been a little more emotional than usual the past weeks and she hadn't come home a couple of nights. She denied the latter at first. But I was visiting a mine that week, had come home at midnight and was leaving at five again and knew for certain that her car was still missing. I let it rest, not my business. Two weeks before Henri arrived, the skeleton I suspected came rolling out of the closet: someone else was involved. It was clear from the start that the electricity between the two was mutual (they're still together).
But poor Henri. My surprise was total after I had met Henri at the airport, where Nina and me waited for his arrival. At first sight, Henri and Nina's new cutesy were near identical: social, creative, easy-going, transparent, world-orientated creatures. Same built! Same height! For crying out loud: same skin and hair style!!!!
Nina didn't take any prisoners. She had already arranged a separate room for him, and apparently she bared the entire issue and had it done with that same night. After which Nina continued to live her life on a happy cloud, as if nothing else could be done (which might be true but was also done on the late side) whereas Henri stumbled in a desolately and dazed manner through both the house and those first weeks in Johannesburg. Three days after his arrival, we had our stupendous end of year-party: I'd depart to the Netherlands the next week, all renters of the house had to depart from our spacious accommodation before January - so it was as much a goodbye party as well. South Africa has always been riddled with emotional contrasts and it was not different here: for Henri it must have been a beastly painful affair that made him withdraw early to his room, while I was having the time of my life. Dancing the salsa with friends and housemates in the living room at two o'clock in the night (with an utterly exhausted Tom solidly asleep on the couch beside us), followed the next morning with a communal breakfast in the African sun while whipping up an after-party.
Our roles reversed in February. After my return to Johannesburg I was too occupied to track him down as I was roving from one location to the next. I only knew Henri was still around and frequently visiting Wits campus. A few days after my own long-distance relationship had blown up, I was in conversation with Sharon in front of the Great Hall, when a red whirlwind cannonballed into me for a mad bear-hug. Henri! He had regained his composure and, as so many people who are able to find their way in South Africa, was thriving. Miraculously, he and Sharon had already met independently. Stumbling through his English in his enthusiasm, he had organised within five minutes three things for us to do to distract me from my misery. He already had been in Maputo, seen half the country and Cape Town. In reality, he was already so immersed in his own life, it was hard to fit me in. But we managed anyway.
One thing never happened: he never, ever set a foot in the new house Nina and I are now sharing. Nina would bitterly complain he had cut off all communications with her. All friendship that had once existed between the two had been reduced to rubble. Sad, but I can fully understand from Henri's perspective, too.
Sometimes, being black in South Africa does have an advantage. Within two months, Henri had mastered the taxi system more completely than I had in a year. Henri at least could walk the taxi ranks without feeling he was standing out; while I have never before felt so white and alien. He didn't receive the cautions, as I had gotten, to be careful when visiting Johannesburg downtown and friendly Ghandi square. Of course the moment he'd speak, his cover was blown - but at least I had taught him some street slang, although he kept pronouncing it wrongly to the very last day.
A few memorable nights particularly stand out, starting of course with the Friday drinks in Melville one April evening, which spontaneously evolved into dinner for an international company of eight (!!) people who hardly knew each other but had conversation flowing as if we had been friends for years. And of course the drive that followed: cramping eight persons tightly (and illegally) into one car, driving to one of the best vantage points for watching Johannesburg by night where we'd share two boxes of freshly bought cookies from the local bakery. Or, alternatively, our last evening at Rocca where the bubbling jazz hindered most of our conversations (and if there's one thing that Henri enjoys, it is talking) but at least I understood that he will depart after the European summer to India. For two years. Silly, enthused Henri with his French character and his heart still half in the DRC: go well, friend.