[A week in Cape Town, South Africa, at the end of July 2017... continued from part 1. Yes, I did take a long time to finish writing this!....]
On Tuesday morning we are good and organised tourists: or really Amanda is, and I follow her, still coughing a bit. We are going to see the penguins! – did you know there are penguins near Cape Town? When you go down the peninsula on a long train ride – an astoundingly rattly train, in terrible condition, with windows so scratched it's almost impossible to see through them; but a train – you reach windy cliffs between blue-grey ocean and beautifully streaked skies, dramatic seascapes with small coastal towns that are far from everywhere.
Amanda wants to go into a shop that has local crafts and clothes because she wants an Asian robe of hers remade: she speaks with the tall, attractive black woman who does the dressmaking, and they compare various fabrics and styles – it is a discussion that is intensely engaged, two people who know what they are talking about and have interesting opinions about every facet of the decisions. The woman's face is remarkably warm and open; perhaps she seems much more patient, much more as though she is enjoying herself, because it is a small town: fewer people, fewer contacts – she isn't waiting for the conversation to be over.
We go to a local restaurant – a handsome young man, with dark curly Italian hair and endless wit, distracts me even more than I am usually distracted by such.
(A cluster of questions arise, ones that are embedded in different conversations across recent blog posts. Culturally – is it a reality that a certain percentage of men I meet are gay? I am always bad at this level of gaydar, when I am away from gay ghettoes; it always feels as though connections are filtered through a chaotic range of mistaken meanings.... Emotionally – are my responses embarrassing, or natural? I would be unhappy, but not entirely surprised, if it was the former. Physically – is it really impossible that any of them may actually be interested in me – I do know that the young enjoy flirting because it is in itself fun, and I agree with them: there doesn't have to be any real intent behind it, it's just eros. Socially – I'm not actually embarrassing, am I? Probably not; I rarely push these types of boundaries, in fact it's a part of my shadow that I assume I am going a bit too far at a point when others think I'm behaving normally. Psychoanalytically – yes, anima; yes I imagine, increasingly, possibilities of relationship: which is certainly not a bad thing. But also not necessarily a thing that would ever show up, that would ever have a result, in the real world. More defensively – on the other hand, A. has a hot boyfriend, and look at him....)
We want to go see the penguins; the weather is windy, gusty, and we need a taxi or car. The handsome waiter calls another waiter, a lanky black guy with a mobile face – he tells him we want to go to the penguins, and they work out whether he can leave for a while, to take us there and back, etc. The white waiter is jokey and a bit pushy with the black one, who is not from South Africa: is this just lads teasing each other, or is there a problematic power imbalance? The black one takes the pushing with easy, smiling humor, and we go out to his car.
The gusty rain, blowing through a high sky that seems linked to the sea and the end of land, is intermittent as we arrive at the beach where the penguins live; a few cars here or there, people sitting in them probably waiting for a break in the weather. We have umbrellas and we proceed, intrepid Antarctic explorers (can I count this as another continent, my sixth?... okay I didn't really think so), and walk along the wooden pathways and the rocky beach, looking across a dramatically shaped map of sand, drizzle, dunes and puddles. We take some photos, see penguins at a distance – and, coming back to the car as the rainy wind rises again, our guide comes to show us two tiny penguins curled up in a nest near the path.
He drives us to the station, but there is heavy traffic, and there are no alternative routes: it is like some California towns, a coastal town that has one road with two opposing lanes – but he is unworried, and we make the train with a couple of minutes to spare.
The train is more crowded in this direction, most seats are full: it is now late in the day, and people are going back and forth for various kinds of work. Amanda has a plan of her own: she will get out at the suburban station near where her hosts live and walk from there; I tell her that I can figure out the return from the city station to my hotel. When she leaves I am, however, uncertain: I am the only white person in the very crowded train – everyone looks tired and self-involved, there is no visible risk in anyone, but they are much more poorly dressed; I feel self-conscious about my leather jacket, the iPad in my bag... overlapping aspects of race, poverty, an unknown culture, and the many warnings we keep getting about crime, from the hotel staff, people in the street....
A long, slow train, many stops; crowded. Only in the last two or three stops do substantial numbers get off, as we reach the city – this is all stretched out: Cape Town is a city in parts, with suburbs and small towns scattered across a long stretch of coast, the density of people and buildings never high but always changing. The windows in the train's car are still so scratched and blurred that I can rarely read station signs – but it turns out that I am headed for the end of the line....
which is a seriously vast station, Kafkaesque in its cement immensity, an underground with very long distances between stairs or doors or signs – the large crowds know where they are going, when to split off and go up or across or turn around, but I don't, and it is not an easy negotiation. This is not a small, reasonable station posted with information, but a vast, long, multileveled space that seems both underground and above the city – levels don't appear to lead naturally to a ground floor: I am lost in three dimensions.
And yes, a bit watchful, a bit concerned.... simultaneously a sense that the crowds streaming towards many different stairways, escalators, levels, doors, exits, are preoccupied and safe – but also aware: one of the reasons there are so many guards, so many warnings, is the vast numbers of people coming from poorer, more desperate parts of the continent.
At least it seems that way... I walk up and down stairs, a block or two or so, retracing my steps a bit – I ask for help, take it, rethink, turn around – then rethink again... huge dark tunnel, up stairs to a vast hall that has proportions that suggest Mussolini or Piranesi, it is hard to get through the gate; a couple of turns along walkways and stairs, a vast outdoor plaza of vans selling food, thousands waiting patiently for rows of buses in parallel lines in a low-ceilinged, dark space that fades into distance, but I keep going down as much as possible and finally reach street level. More rows of buses, more people selling and walking one way or another – I finally find myself at the end of a long line of taxis, and trail along towards the front. The driver stutters, seems a bit fragmented, but he is pleasant, and I am very tired, and want to go back and collapse.
Which I do... wondering if there was actually anything at all to worry about... wondering if I should feel guilty for worrying... being aware that I have lived in a place that is remarkably safe for many years now; and I'm not sure I know what to do in other places.
On Tuesday evening, I have dinner with Johann and his wife. Johann is a sociologist, recently retired from the university, who has been studying at the Jung-Institut with me – he finished two years ago, I think; this is his city, and it is a pleasure to have dinner with them. Wines are carefully chosen, the fish dishes vary each day depending on what is found at the market – this is a rather special restaurant, with a decor that is colourful, simple, but practical; because this place is for real foodies.
We talk about our lives and what we all do, which is especially interesting because Johann and his wife are both academics who are also engaged with psychoanalysis and counselling. She is great fun, with a slightly acerbic edge to her humour, though that may be because she has had a cough for three weeks that is clearly a relative to the cold that has taken me down.
Smart people, fun, who know how to enjoy their fish, and their wine.
I am a bit too open about feeling dismayed with being so careful in the streets, with the sense of vast and desperate poverty around the train station; with huge differences in prosperity and all the crime that seems to be attached to it. Johann's wife rebuts me with some astonishment: they have recently visited Portland and Seattle, and were startled by the homeless there. But it's different, I argue: though I know I haven't been to the West Coast for more than a decade, and I honestly don't know how different it all is any more....
I can't actually tell you the truth about any of this: with the various aspects of not quite having my feet on the ground – the colds and medications, the warnings, spending five or six days in a beautiful new city where I haven't really grounded myself in walking around – I am honestly confused: guarded, and groggy, and guilty for feeling guarded, still uncomfortable with the beggars, staying near the protecting men in the streets –
Barbara, who is tiny and delicate and tough-minded (I told her when we spoke later in summer that Amy Adams in Arrival had obviously studied her to create the role), tells me that she visited Johann last year; she is American, has traveled a great deal, and lives in Geneva. So. When she tells me she didn't believe the warnings about dangers, and she walked around for a week with no problem, I wonder if I've fallen for something... or projected something. But I don't know: was she just lucky? Stories from friends and locals are that robbery and kidnapping are serious and real....
so, what do you believe?
As with everything else these days: real conflict, real breakage, real splitting; and huge conversations that expand all these things. Where is the reality....
Wednesday. I will finally meet one of the musical contacts given to me by Martin, who kindly outlined an entire plan of action – most of which has disintegrated in a cloud of cold medications and used tissues – but I will manage to do this one thing. Bongani, a famous gay composer who has lived all over, wrote an AIDS cantata at one point, and I should talk to him about it. I meet Bongani in a cafe in the harbor shopping centre, after getting only a little lost and a little late; he is talkative and funny and complicated, grandly opinionated and very quick, and a tiny bit competitive (think: Londoners or New Yorkers who are in the arts). I am not as well dressed, but we talk about everything in the hour we've got scheduled; after a while I evidently pass muster, because when he leaves for his lunch with friends he asks if I'd like to join them. I'm supposed to meet Amanda, but I message her and tell her to meet me at the restaurant.
The building where the lunch is – what is it? Near the waterfront, in a sort of disconnected area, is an unfinished new hotel built into something that was a large industrial building, a mill I think. An architect has played clever games with preserving and revising, ending up with a combination of heavy and functional, overlaid with witty and contemporary – it is interesting and strange, somewhere between the Wall in Game of Thrones and a trendy museum of contemporary design. We go up an elevator to the casually stylish eatery, again something that is between, this time between a café and an upscale bar – everyone is dressed better than I am (oh well).
The lunch (should I call it a luncheon? – no, it's too fabulously informal, too self-consciously easy-going) is... well, what is it? Lively, loud, artsy, fun – a balancing of style, success, real pretension, and real artistry. (I think of L. who hangs around in high-bred circles in New York – the famous and the rich, and the interface between the brilliant and those who can throw funds at them... she occasionally, kindly, maintains a friendship with me, a bit like greeting an old family dog who never amounted to much. She would know what to do in this situation.)
The undeniable leader of this table is a Cape Town woman of Greek extraction, recently divorced and obviously a social lion at an 'alternative' angle, who talks about everything – she is loud and hilarious and confrontative and great fun. And the guy... a handsome – no, a really handsome – okay how do I explain this... an Australian guy in his forties, a designer and artist who has done some stage design and decorating – and who is honestly the most charming man you have ever, ever, ever seen.
I mean... relaxed, easy, sexy, friendly (someone who is probably accustomed to people falling in love with him on a daily basis, and who handles it without a qualm). Warm smile, rangy fit body, graying hair and casual cowboy-ish clothes, engagingly enthusiastic about a vast number of projects, looks you in the eye with an open smile, and...
Perhaps you had to be there.
Yeah, okay, I did indeed babble. Some. Or a little more than some. I mean... honestly, what can you expect. Clearly at this point I'm out of my league, though I manage to engage in a bit of intellectual fencing and world travel and serious topics and...
Yes I know that doesn't necessarily...
Yes, of course. I'm calming down now.
On the way to this lunch, I did indeed text Amanda that we were changing our destination. She finally joins us as we order lunch, having gone out of her way – a bit, we haven't gone terribly far, but getting phone messages has been difficult on the city's system. Amanda is clearly surprised at the substantial change of tone and energy from the way she and I have talked privately – and at points she seems a bit bored, a bit disaffected, something I haven't seen in her before; if these people are entertaining and self-consciously funny (and, don't forget, one of them is intensely attractive), they are also a bit – perhaps the word next to the word I'm looking for is – self-aware....
I am of course so infatuated that I ignore her boredom; she does engage after a bit, and unexpectedly enters the conversation to assertively clarify an opinion, and her reasons for feeling that way. With me Amanda has been gentle, and she is obviously an introvert, but it is inspiring, and a bit instructive, to have her shift modes to become briskly strong-minded, unconcerned about her reception by this chic trio.
The handsome Australian leaves for another engagement, and I manage not to fall off my chair or run after him. Bongani and I explain some of our musical discussions to the Greek lioness, and I explain my background with HIV/AIDS (I must admit I do that way too often, people are probably a bit put off by it but they never show that of course...). We finish lunch, the chatter continues... and finally we all split up, loudly and friendlily going off in different directions, with much explanation, discussion, advice, and multiple versions of good-bye.
When we are alone, I apologize to Amanda for derailing her a bit, but she is fine now – and we walk out into the city for another couple of hours, before going back to our respective homes.
It has been a pleasure to get rid of the awful cold I've had since my arrival, over the past twenty-four or thirty-six hours or so.
So I notice that I am now starting to have yet another cold: a different one – second of two, winter in South Africa, misery and tissues and medications and snorting.
And, well: there you are then....
The final evening: I have packed, I have paid my hotel bill – I have, I think, organized absolutely everything. I'm not looking forward to the flight, but I've done my best to minimise its difficulty. Clearly I've already left Cape Town, some hours before I actually go, but –
Amanda is having dinner at a Thai restaurant in the suburbs, with the family she's staying with; it's on the way to the airport, why don't I join them?
I take a taxi through several very different landscapes, city, suburb, near-countryside, my fully packed suitcase absolutely ready for my exit, and heavy; the restaurant is entered by a peculiarly shaped door, one wedged into the corner of a block: again there is the Cape Town combination of easy-going, interesting, pleasant, and a bit ramshackle –
But, despite my aggressive preparation and focus on the long night flight ahead of me, this is not merely a transitional moment on the way home: because this family is startlingly interesting, startlingly kind.
I know we don't often admit this, but let's face it: there are people who are far more alive than others. We may have friends and acquaintances, and people we meet briefly, all over the world, all kinds of people from all kinds of circumstances, but –
some of them unquestionably have more resonance, more depth – there is more time and awareness, more life around them than there is around other people.
And this family – there are twelve or fourteen people, several overlapping generations – is honestly fascinating: even a brief hour or so in a corner restaurant heightens, brightens, deepens the future and hope and connection.
I am sat next to the grandmother, across from Amanda – her old friend and her husband are on my right, the youngsters across, the aunts at the other end of the table. Some are visibly distinctive – the adolescents have intermittently sullen faces and mildly rebellious clothing, but even they show bursts of enthusiasm and remain connected, and happy under the teen disaffection. Grandmother, who radiates a patient authority built on what looks like a good working relationship between herself and Time, is actually a Jungian analyst who brought analysis to Cape Town decades ago – she is calm, clear, fascinating: she only asks the kinds of questions that matter.
(I think of my one encounter, about thirty years ago now, with Paul Monette, when Steve Schulte sent me to him to get a document signed in the hills above Hollywood: as I left his office Schulte warned me, 'he has no small talk' – and indeed, when I arrived, Monette immediately plunged into asking me what I wanted to do with my life, in the pale southern California sunshine of a veranda overlooking the city. Shouldn't all conversations be like that? – could we try to stay awake every day? – honestly, I wish I could...)
And Amanda's school friend is lovely and intelligent, her husband cheerful, the kids and aunts and brothers alive, all bursting with what they're going to do next. There's a clear continuity between Amanda's calm awareness and these old friends and their relatives – life creates life, I suppose.
But my taxi has arrived, and I am going back to the airport.... I hug Amanda, say an earnestly regretful farewell to this large family that I met just an hour before, and disappear into the rainy night.
Such real people, such a living place: as I've already said, I can see how easy it is to fall in love here.
But winter, cold, disorientation – they pull the city back, and it fades into mist and past.
The flight home is, on the one hand, not bad – on the other, my digestion, my side effects and pains, cannot really manage these long stretches. It's better than the trip out, but still....
A decision building over the past few days crystallizes on the plane: I won't travel any more, not these big trips, not for fun or work; when I finish the AIDS research grant application that I was supposed to finish a month earlier, I'll yank out the planned travel expenses – I just can't do these things at this point in my age, my health, it's asking too much.
Though, of course, I have had a lot of analysis by now: and I realize that I frequently say that things are over, that I will do this or that thing no more, and that I don't regret it.
Writing a few months later, I remember this assertion and still take it seriously. Except....
I hear myself say these things and, as though I were an analysand in the other chair, in that aha! moment of intuition that brings a large and diffuse pattern to light, I see that this promise is so grandly, so tragically assertive exactly because it isn't quite real: and that's very true of me, isn't it – throughout my life, and especially in the past two years, it is a familiar pattern for me – one probably obvious to those who know me well, but largely something I don't see, can't see: I keep giving things up, without really wanting, really planning, to give them up....
Now there's a pattern: I always say the same things, and my friends don't quite believe me, and at some level, heretofore invisible to me, I don't believe myself either.
I think of the Fisher King....
Well: we shall see. Meanwhile I am home, with no plans to travel again.
I think, of course, that the trip was a disappointment, that it was difficult, and I did so little....
Then I reread what happened, because I've written it all down and it's there to see: and I think – maybe I am wrong, yet again.