As you will have noticed, I took a long sabbatical away from my blog… writes Susan Hayden from the Disco Pants Blog. I had a few reasons: it’s time-consuming; posts can take me an entire day and I don’t earn any money off it, so paid work has to come first. Then, trolls abound on this thing called the internet and it’s upsetting and exhausting being the recipient of gratuitous viciousness. But most significantly of all – and it’s hard to admit this – I started to get swept up in the bad stuff and the negativity surrounding our country, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with myself anymore. And that was a problem.
One thing about this space is that I’m not answerable to anybody; I write what I believe and I always tell the truth. Or, my truth. Which is why, over the years, people have learnt to trust me and they reach out for an agenda-less version of what life is really like in South Africa. ‘Is it okay to come here to study?’ foreign students ask me. Yes! I tell them, and they come (and sometimes never leave). Or, South Africans come back from Australia and the UK and write to tell me how the blog helped them make their decision and that they’ve never been happier in their lives.
But loadshedding has been hard on the collective psyche. Covid was a disaster for us economically, never mind the foolishness of some of our lockdown laws. Cyril and his mattress have let us down (where are his words, that Scorpio?). Crime, corruption and unemployment are rampant thanks to our useless government.
How to live with all these truisms and maintain a positive outlook without sounding downright silly became a challenge. Over coffee a while back a friend said, ‘you wrote those early blogs nearly a decade ago. Would you say the same things today?’ And I had to honestly answer, no. And answering no made me sad.
But then I went to Europe on holiday. I get that going to Europe on holiday is the domain of the privileged few, and if I didn’t have a husband whose family and work are based in northern Europe we would certainly not be able to do our annual trek. But I do, and we did.
And my word, did it ruk me right in about 14 seconds.
It’s so easy to get mired down by the problems this country faces. And I don’t mean to minimise how hard life is for many people. But there are still so many amazingnesses to life down here and we forget them because we are used to them and we think everything must be better in The Overseas because there is less crime.
But it’s not, my guys. I promise you. Especially now after Covid. They are kakking off for real, just like us. It’s easy to lose perspective and to start envying people in other parts of the world, but a month overseas opened my eyes and changed my mindset (thank G-d). Like the Buddhists say, two people can walk down the same road and have a totally different experience of it. It’s what you choose to see. And often you need to leave for a bit in order to understand how rich and joy-filled and sunny and privileged our lives here still are.
Yes, many things don’t work but so many things do and we don’t often focus on that part of the narrative. I’m not going to go into a whole story, but I will say that I learnt some important things talking to my friends who live abroad: that the schools in many parts of Europe are struggling to cope with the massive influx of foreign children from war-torn countries who don’t speak the language and are traumatised. Teachers and school staff are trying their best to integrate them, but while they do this, local children – inevitably – get overlooked. A friend’s 8-year-old still couldn’t read. Some schools in downtown Malmö (southern Sweden) have classes where the learners are 100% foreign, usually Arabic. A close friend of mine is a librarian in one of these schools. It is not easy for anyone. Swedish families don’t want to send their kids there because none of the learners speak the language. Teaching these children Swedish takes priority, so everything is slowed down. Native Swedes move away from certain areas for this reason. Just like here.
The healthcare systems are overburdened and no longer working very well (I’m trying to be fair; many people will tell you they don’t work at all). Friends in Sweden (who already pay a premium in tax) are having to take out private medical insurance at huge expense because you wait so long to see a doctor, even longer to see a specialist and years to get surgery. Trains are overfilled, late or don’t run at all because staff were laid off during Covid and have not been re-hired. It’s tough times out there, not just for us.
Europe is fantastic, has lots more money than we do and a buffer to cope with crises like our recent pandemic, but it is not the utopia many South Africans imagine it to be. I love Scandinavia deeply and miss it and look forward to going back each year, but it’s a mistake to believe everything beyond our borders is better.
The other day outside gym I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in some years. He is very negative about South Africa. I understand his reasons. He is a civil servant who finds himself on the wrong side of history. His teenage daughter just did a scholastic exchange in Germany. He wants to move to Germany. ‘It’s so free there,’ he enthused. ‘She can take public transport at night.’ ‘She can,’ I agreed. ‘One can take public transport at night. But then you have to live amongst Germans.’ I have nothing against Germans. My granny was German. I am fully one-quarter German. I love Berlin; it’s one of my all-time favourite cities. I love Rostock and its Christmas market. I play Alphaville in my car.
But what people don’t realise is that when you move to another country, you gain some things but you also lose a lot of things. More things than you understand when you’ve never done it. You are not moving to South Africa without the crime, you are moving to Germany with German weather and German traditions and German rules and German Germanness. Culture shock is real and it’s lonely AF always being the odd one out. Never getting the joke. And I don’t mean to be rude but my goodness, I have visited a few times and not eaten one single good meal in that country. Even the eisbein is shocking. They boil it, for the love of. They do it much better at The Dros in Stellenbosch for a fraction of the price.
Also, Paris. We were just there. We stayed in a very fashionable, hellishly expensive apartment in Montmartre. To call it compact would be an understatement. The whole thing was about 25 square meters in diameter. You climbed a narrow, frighteningly steep staircase to get to the seventh floor. You climbed into a cupboard to use the toilet. Everything was miniature, like a Barbie house. At 2am on a Monday morning the noise from the street made it impossible to sleep. It was hot (and due to get much hotter in the ensuing months), but if you opened a window you got eaten alive by mosquitoes. Paris is every version of magical; the entire city is like a movie set, but it’s noisy and busy and the food is expensive AF – and, frankly, underwhelming. You get better French food on Bree Street and at my friend, Marlene’s, house. I love Paris. But we live well here. And honestly, the croissants taste the same as anywhere.
Here, you go to Gallow’s Hill to renew your driver’s license and people say salaam and molo, sisi. You might wait a bit, but the people in the queue will be friendly and chatty and share their granny’s chicken masala recipe with you. Or you go to the Labia cinema on a Sunday night with your mom who has a dicky knee and can’t walk far but there’s nowhere close to park so you tell the parking attendant of your situation and three seconds later he’s whipped a couple of cones out the way and is directing you to park on the pavement meters away from your show. I mean. It’s a thing. Try that shit anywhere else, they’ll arrest you. Despite all the stuff we deal with, there is always a friendly word; a ready smile. A joke. A sense of humanity that makes you feel like you’re part of something. You’re with your people. They’re mad and they dress funny, but they’re yours.
And expensive things are affordable. To get your hair highlighted or your teeth fixed or to buy a nice steak in Paris or Denmark, or order a bottle of wine (or anything) in a restaurant and you’ll pay out your bunghole. Yes, there is good public transport. You’ll wait for your bus in a wet little cubicle with smokers, your nice shoes in a bag because you’ll have to walk a way from the bus stop to your destination. It won’t be cheap. You’ll have at least one stop on the way where you will repeat the process. It will take you a decade to get there. In the end you just stop going out. Or, we did, especially when we had young kids. It’s just too hard. Here, an Uber on a Saturday night costs you R30. Or you drive. There’ll be no traffic and plenty of places to park. A bottle of nice wine costs the same as a glass of shit wine in Sweden. Restaurant food is better and incomparably cheaper. Things in SA are easy and accessible in a way they are just not in Europe (or Australia or the States). We don’t know how good we have it.
I’m sure, after a while, I’m going to get grumpy about Eskom again, but right now I’m so happy to be home it doesn’t even phase me. I light candles, read by the light of a paraffin lamp and spend some time gazing out of my window at the darkness of the African night. Out there, in all those houses and apartment blocks, are people who know who Riaan Cruywagen is and love Marc Lottering and are cross about the fishpaste. You don’t know how precious this until you don’t have it anymore. Your country, your tribe. There is something very comforting about knowing where your home is.
Anyway, I’m back. Thanks for waiting.
The Disco Pants Blog was created by Susan Hayden who lives in Cape Town with her husband and two daughters. She is a freelance journalist, editor and columnist and the author of five books. (And very Proudly South African!)