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A Nomad's Life (4)

by Nomad Mon Jul 14th, 2008 at 06:05:30 PM EST

(1) Pierre, Tom & Sharon
(2) Nina & Henri
(3) Cape Town with Dagmar & Leon - Part 1

File under: My life needs to be insane all the time.

Reading time: 11:37

2003, Andalusia, Spain, with seven other geologists on the MSc. fieldwork. Sharing a unique time, unique housing - a redecorated olive mill. No electricity, communal cooking, long nights of candles and gas lamps and lots and lots of hand scribbled notes. Four weeks of independent mapping: the geologist's crucible, where future designs are made or broken.  I was coping - swung between the joys of the field, the harsh hills, the physical and intellectual challenges that would come close to break me in week 4 and swung back to the dark signs brooding on the future horizon. Inexorably and unwilling to acknowledge that, my life was racing to a focal period of irreversible change: my father had entered his last 6 months, the relationship with what I thought was my great love was already splintering apart in front of my eyes, my first dog, companion out of my youth, died without my farewells or blessings. The memories of living in "The Mill" form an unbreakable, bittersweet highlight of warm camaraderie, physical exertion, Spain - a glorious, unifying edifice of studying geology - and of emotional extremes and ambiguity.

Sarina was the girlfriend of Marc, had just received her degree in acting, and was in dire need of a break and her boyfriend. Already I had heard a lot about her before we met: Marc's field-partner had actually hooked them up and she was as a lioness so proud on that achievement. I soon understood why: it's a rare sight and a real treat to behold a couple that could blend so perfectly: the soft-spoken but blunt Marc with his relatively boorish lifestyle matched Sarina's brazen frankness and bursts of spontaneous hilariousness stroke for stroke. They matched to perfection; their discussions were like a match of Chinese ping-pong. Bam-bam-bam-bam!

She arrived at the mill one evening, looking gaunt and exhausted in the frail candle light, and I, being exhausted, forgot to introduce myself by name. Then, in the morning, I did the very same thing again - I got sidetracked this time by Sarina's seemingly random angles of introductions. When I was slathering my tostada with jam, she shouted at me, "Can you finally tell me your name now?" Her absolute disregard of any kind of decorum was resoundingly established that evening when I was shaving in the bathroom and Sarina needed the toilet. I said, "I'll be ready in two." Sarina said, "I don't care." Next she undid herself of the panties underneath her skirt and sat down on the toilet-seat. I darted out - remains of shaving foam on the cheeks hiding my embarrassment - to the cajoling hoots of the other women in the bathroom.

Chatty, sociable and filled with tons of attractive anecdotes from the social sciences (a rather welcome distraction from the rigour of rocks), Sarina was a welcome addition to the crew. She showed off her motherly side when we'd return exhausted out of the field and would find a cornucopia of tapas had been readied for us; she'd wrestle a number of us into the inflatable swimming pool, and next teach us how actors learn the rolling "r". She and Marc shared being cooking freaks, trying obscure combinations that most of the times turned out to be divine. It was her ubiquitous frankness, in combination with an almost scorching honesty, that from the start established a connection between us - a connection that would linger through the years. She's the only friend I allowed to kiss me on the mouth in greeting and parting - because at the end of our stay at the Mill, we could look at each other, and both understood where we were standing. Kissing on the cheek is bleh anyway for her.

Sarina also harbours the travel bug - but wilder, more daring and more hands-on than I could ever manage. She travels to recharge herself from the general drag in the Netherlands, I travel because I fold to the beckoning of distant horizons. There are always commendable projects she seems to get involved in. A television production in South-Korea (where the total lack of individual initiative drove even the gregarious Sarina loopy), the next year rebuilding houses in Bosnia. We shared ice-cream in the summer of 2004, sitting on the brickwork of the sluices of Utrecht's canals and Sarina would outline her next projects. More and more, her work had become focussed on directing and coaching theatre productions done by teenagers, instead of acting. She seemed to immensely enjoy working with teenagers; I suspected it kept her quirky mind even more youthful.

Inevitably contact petered. Partly because her relationship with Marc came to a dramatic closure - tripped by his decision to travel through Asia for six months after his graduation and not including her. Demises of relationships caused by travelling and global separation form a red thread in these epistles, I'm afraid. Last time I talked to Sarina was by mobile phone in July 2005 when I missed out on her birthday, as I was caught up at a wedding party at another corner of the country. And that would have been the end of it, because another recurring theme is how friendships and people weave in and out of my life.

Sarina became a welcome exception, because her summer project of last year brought her to Mamelodi township, a huge township in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. Working for a Dutch NGO, she was charged to set up a theatre production with a HIV/AIDS theme, to be performed by teenagers living in the township. And while she did that, she learned bits and pieces of seSotho language in the process, was accommodated in the house of a devoutly Christian family living in the township where she shared her bed with one of the family's children. Ultimately she experienced all the ins and outs of township life - something I even haven't done properly. Because drinking alcohol was frowned upon by the family, she had to sneak out and drink her glass of whiskey behind the garage. When one afternoon her bag got snatched out of her car, she chased the kid in first gear and made enough noise to attract the attention of bystanders who grabbed the culprit and made him return the bag to her. Sarina then prevented the kid from receiving township justice and so rescued him from getting beaten into a bloody pulp. As a crowning achievement, her theatre show won a national award a few months later.

Those who connect with Africa and its people, are changed persons when they leave. It was no different for Sarina, who cherished a real love for Mamelodi after she returned to the Netherlands. And so I was not surprised when I got the email with the announcement she's coming back - this time, with 17 talented Dutch teenagers in tow. For one week, last year's play would be repeated in Mamelodi - but this time with a mixed Dutch-Mamelodi cast and a live soundtrack. Something Sarina had been wanting to do for a while was going to happen: exposure of Dutch teenagers to the South African townships, and intercultural mixing.


I can see a white car already waiting in front of the entrance to Wits campus when I come dashing down the declining road. When the doors open I know it's the right one. Sarina catapults out, slips underneath the boom of the entrance and literally jumps me, smacking me on the mouth with old-fashioned zest. I shake hands with Clement, the facilitator from Mamelodi and Sarina's colleague, and then we set off. I have an afternoon filled with attempts of finding rental instruments and baby toys in Pretoria's malls, interspersed with Sarina and I catching up on the past year.

African time and closed shops work against us, and the sun sets before we get to Mamelodi. Damn. Also, my plans to travel back to Jozi by taxi fall through as the only ones making for the city go straight to Noord taxi rank - the one area in Joburg I've been very consciously avoiding after nightfall. A new plan: let's see if I can stay over at the guesthouse where the troupe is lodging. When we arrive, Sarina's bladder is at red alert with demands for a toilet, the gate of the guesthouse doesn't open for Clement's car and no one seems to appear the following minute. I see her standing in the headlights, one hand pressed to her stomach, a pained look on her face and can almost predict what's coming. To the uproarious laugh of Clement, she dashes off the gateway and merrily lets it clatter behind a shrub. Vintage Sarina.

The hostess of the guesthouse, which is already bulging at the seams with 17 hormones loaded teenagers, finds me a sleeping couch in one of the boys' rooms and I settle down and meet the kids.

Teenage fun goes on wild display that evening: the boys decide to have a bared-chest-meeting, hence excluding the girls - unless, of course, they opt for topless. The girls retaliate by taking off their bras underneath their jerseys, chain them together, and dump them in the meeting, challenging the boys to guess whose bra belongs to whom. They then burst into the living room where the staff (and me) is relaxing with a cup of Rooibos tea, and they flawlessly execute their spontaneously composed "Ode to Tits" on the (fitting!) melody of George Micheal's "Freedom". The astonishment of our hosts reaches a crescendo when the boys now troop in wearing the bras to great success, showing off moderate cleavages and sprouting inchoate chest-hair. This is the daily bread of Sarina and she laps all the stunts up joyfully, eyes sparkling, offering her own mad suggestions. She's the youngest of the staff (six people strong) and she forms the obvious connection between the older generation and this astonishingly creative bunch.

Later on, two of the boys lose all of their hair and I'm given a gentle haircut (17 years old and perfect clipping!). When everyone is chased inside bedrooms at half past midnight, Sarina and I end up ensconced on the couch in the quiet atmosphere of the friendly living room, the both of us cherishing a glass of Scottish whiskey. Inevitably at this hour and perhaps empowered by the sudden privacy, the conversation turns deeply personal. Her last relationship went on the rocks a few months ago. She reveals to me that Marc is finally dating again - but not with a girlfriend. Not that homo- or bisexuality bothers her in the slightest, but I can't help detecting a modicum of spite when she now talks about him. Realistically, how would I feel if I'd find out my ex changed teams after me?

I regale my own last half year and heartbreak to her. We reminisce about Spain. In hindsight, I should have caught the bleeding obvious what was happening between two close friends both spurned by their lovers. The conversation is spiralling towards the inexorable, step by step, but as blind as I was in 2003 for what was to come, I'm as blind now. Because suddenly there is that defining silence that drops into the conversation, that is too long and jolts me in realizing how the air is charged between us, marking a point of no return. A heady rush of disbelief at what place we've reached, a place that's both conformable and extremely unconformable. I don't even dare to look up, too afraid of meeting her eyes, too afraid for what will happen. But Sarina, being Sarina, simply asks, "Can I kiss you now?" and I look up after all and she finds the answer.

But why here and why now and why with someone who'll be back in the Netherlands within 2 weeks?

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

I think I'll keep the resolution for the book version...
by Nomad on Mon Jul 14th, 2008 at 06:16:05 PM EST

...and a curtain of propriety was drawn upon the scene...

great writing, nomad!

you have such a detailed memory-

'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 Mon Jul 14th, 2008 at 08:59:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's not fair, unless your book comes out very soon!

Great reading again and as usual, hope it continues.

by Fran on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 01:44:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
an actual book is only a somewhat distant dream at this point... And I suspect I can only write it when I'm finished with South Africa. Thanks for the kind words Fran (and everyone else)!
by Nomad on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 06:33:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I just love reading your Nomad's Life; sharp, incisive, colorful.  Kudos!

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 06:18:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"fuck" is such a great word.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 01:10:55 AM EST
Yeah. I'd be at a loss if I'd write this in Dutch.
by Nomad on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 06:28:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My mind jittered on bam-bam-bam-bam. Was it a stuck CD unable to play wham-bam and thank you ma'am in its entirety? Was it even connected to the simile? Or, horrors, was it sub-woofer onomatopoeic? Because the full sound spectrum of thin tense hollow plastic meeting rubber dimples required imo more fricative use of consonants.

But then I realised that I needed toast and access to the new jar of ex-mother-in-law-made marmalade that I picked in Palikais Gård last Friday.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 03:05:04 AM EST
I am starting to suspect that you may have an alternative to working as a Geologist after you get your PhD!  Your writing is wonderfully compelling and evocative.  Thanks.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 11:24:15 AM EST
Thank you! And in all honesty, I've actually been toying with the idea for a while now...
by Nomad on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 06:26:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good.  Just don't take care about raising it with anyone in your department until all of the "i"s are dotted and "t"s are crossed on your degree.  Never know what some old geezers such as myself might be thinking. :-) (He's not going to be a proper academic!)

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 08:55:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
delete "don't."

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Jul 15th, 2008 at 08:56:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So enthralling, I couldn´t tell for sure where it was leading.  Sweet and bittersweet!  Some day, you´ll  tell us...

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sat Jul 19th, 2008 at 04:53:48 PM EST

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