Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stranger in a Strange land.

I was out last night with a whole bunch of people - some old friends and some people that I had never met before - when someone asked me about what I thought when we arrived here 27 years ago.
It was a whole 36 hour journey in those days and we took off and landed no less than 7 times so by the time we got to PE we were exhausted. We stayed at the Edward Hotel and at dinner the first night we were complimented - well the comments were delivered to my hubby, not me - several times on our four boys and how well they behaved,the same thing happened the following morning at breakfast. I thought that we had come to a country where the children were really badly behaved or this was a custom that we had to get used to and reciprocate. Also, that very morning a man was found dead - hung from a tree on the Donkin Reserve outside the hotel and his shoes had been stolen while he hung there. That sticks in my mind too - What sort of country had we come to where shoes were stolen from the dead?

I felt like a stranger - very different, very white and very alone. We had never been here before and I had no idea that bilingual meant that you had to have a working knowledge of two languages. When we came I was quite prepared for the racial differences that we would face, although apartheid was changing and the group areas act had been repealed, everything was still very separate. What I wasn't prepared for was the Afrikaans / English thing. I was completely ignorant of South Africa's history and oblivious of how the descendants of the Dutch settlers really didn't like us nasty English colonials. I was just Sue who had never had an enemy in her life and now I had thousands of them because I couldn't speak Afrikaans - this was very ironic as I am also descended from Dutch stock and my maiden name was Van Schaick!

Language was a problem as anyone who worked with people needed to be bilingual and my version of bilingual was English and French with a Lancashire accent. I love people and wanted to work in an industry with lots of people contact. I was interviewed at our local university by two young Afrikaans chaps who gave me something to read aloud in Afrikaans and the collapsed in laughter as I stumbled through it! I cried - humiliated. Some companies just put the phone down when they heard my accent. Woolworth's came to my rescue as they were an affiliate of Marks and Spencer then and quite liked all things English - including me!

While working there I met some lovely people and one of them invited us to a celebration at their home in Walmer. We were given directions and we took our precious map setting off in our little car - I still dont know how we fitted the four boys in the back! We then spent over an hour looking for the road that she lived in - this in a 10 minute city! We drove up and down what we thought was Hoof Weg looking for Main Road - only to discover that Hoof Weg is Afrikaans for Main Road! The street signs were in English on one side and Afrikaans on the other.

The search for a dentist for the children was successful when I found one at our local shopping mall. I went inside and made appointments with Dr Tandart as that was the name of the plaque(excuse the pun)outside to discover that 'tandart' is Afrikaans for dentist! I still call our dentist Mr Tandart and he rolls with laughter at the memory and to his credit has never caused us pain! I remember also telling some friends that I had sampled some delicious Roomys ice cream - you guessed that is the word for ice cream and not the brand. My best lessons in Afrikaans came when I moved out of the upmarket retail environment and into Human Resources in a factory - I had a queue of guys who were very willing to teach me to flook or swear. They really did think that I was going to give the MD the important message to "Voetsek!" or to call their boss a "doos"!

Last night's trip down memory lane started because a young woman recognised me from the Woolworth's days, when she was there as a student casual, and we were catching up on 25 years of life. She had also been a 'stranger in a strange land' and had recently returned to South Africa from Australia. So 27 years later I looked around the patio where I was enjoying a glass of the very best wine - South African - and looked at my lovely South African friends, both English and Afrikaans and was grateful for my perseverance and my sense of humour. I was just Sue again - not a stranger anymore - and not an enemy in sight!