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Groot Constantia

Posted by Egonne Roth on October 10, 2017 at 3:50 AM Comments comments (0)


WhatsApp conversation on our family group:

Tamar: My club has a run and need helpers. Anyone ready to help?

Dishen: Yes, I will help!

Me: So will we!

We had just offered our services to help at the Grape Run that goes through the grounds of Groot Constantia Wine Estate without realising what it entailed. We had to report for duty at 6am as we were manning the first and last stations, which on this run were at the same place just inside the main gates. Tables had to be set up and water and coke unpacked.


Though the weather in Cape Town at this time of the year is mild, the early morning air was nippy and the breeze set us sniffling. We were armed with scarves and jackets and cameras and the beautiful setting offered photo opportunities from the moment we arrived. The white Cape Dutch buildings, the old oak trees with the vineyards and the tail-end of Table Mountain created constantly changing vistas as the sun rose


and the colours ranged from dark to soft pastel and gold, to spring green of the oak trees and vineyards set against bright blue skies.


As the first runners came sprinting past the tables hardly noticing the water we offered them, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their movements – they were running at an average time of under 4 minutes per kilometre. Their eyes were fixed on the road ahead, their breathing even and their heals virtually touching their bums as they sped past – their goal was clear. The end line. No chatting, no breaks, no water. It was music in movement.


After a few minutes the other runners came more and more slowly, some simply grabbing water, swallowing and continuing; others stopping to enjoy a drink.


There was a father pushing his twins in their pram; older people determined to make it;


fun runners supporting causes; some in groups, others alone but everyone had a personal goal to be met. In between we had to deal with tractors and busses and cars that needed to use the same road as the runners and at one point a runner and a car nearly collided. We stepped up our vigilance and suddenly I found myself with a little red flag controlling traffic. While it was necessary and even fun, it is not where my future lies. It demands far too much concentration and patience – I will look at traffic cops very differently in future.


 

The last of the runners coming in were hardly past when the first runners were returning on their way to the finishing line – the same music, the same movement, the same concentration. It was a special experience to be able to participate and watch at such close quarters. Once again we just had time to put out papers cups with coke and water before the mass of runners came through.


One of the last women commented, “I run slowly so that I can see the beauty of creation.” That made sense.


And then it was all over and we were able to have breakfast in Jonkershuis restaurant before exploring the beauty of the grounds –


the grace of the architecture against the sky and the strong lines of the polished wooden doors and windows against white-washed walls, the strength of the oak trees overshadowed by the mountain.


The clivia were still blooming and


there were pincushions and


strelitzia adding to the intensity of the colour – so much beauty to enjoy and appreciate.

Art and stairs 

 

Of course one cannot visit a wine farm without doing some tasting and so we settled down on the sofa in the tasting locale and allowed the sommelier to guide us through a choice of wines.


We have all been to tastings before and heard all the jargon, but Victor made it personal and interesting in a manner that fascinated and held us captivated by what he was sharing. We asked him about himself: where he came from and what he did. He grew up in Diep Rivier, not all that far from Groot Constantia and when not working on the estate, he performs as a musician on cruise liners. He spoke with warmth of both his jobs and left us with much to think about. I enjoyed one of his saying in particular. We had been talking about previous tastings we had attended and how the guides often spoke well but somehow did not move one. Victor nodded sadly. “Too much art and no heart,” he said.

That certainly had not been our experience at Groot Constantia that day: art and heart had blended well and left us rich with memories.

 

 

 

 

Shweshwe

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 27, 2017 at 3:30 AM Comments comments (1)

It was 1972 – the height of Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid and I was a student on the campus of Stellenbosch University. I was seventeen years old and I wanted to register some kind of protest at being forced to study in this all Afrikaans environment. I was not the kind of youngster to wave banners and do sit-ins, shout slogans or smoke pot. It simply did not appeal to me and I did not want to embarrass my mother, even if she was the cause that I was where I did not want to be.


Girls still had to wear dresses on campus – trouser suits were introduced in my second or third year – crimplene and miniskirts were the height of fashion. After searching places like Wynberg Main Road and the fabric warehouses in the side streets of Cape Town CBD, I discovered the kind of protest that suited me: “African sis” – “Blauwdruk” – or as it has become known today: Shweshwe – indigo dyed fabric with intricate geometric designs worn by African women. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair, one that has deepened and grown to include the newer designs and colours that have become part of the range with its characteristic Three Cats logo printed on the back.

Since announcing my intention to spend a year in Berlin, everyone has been warning me that the long northern winter would depress me and grey my soul. While I passionately hate temperatures that exceed 30 C, I have begun to wonder how I will cope with extended periods of cloudy overcast rainy days that go on and on and on. Then it came to me – I need to fill my new world with African colour and warmth. Shweshwe!

I wrote to Da Gama Textiles in King William’s Town and received a friendly answer explaining that they do not, for very good reasons, do factory tours. I wrote back acknowledging their reasoning, but explaining my passion for their product. Their kind and understanding design manager offered to give Yehudit and I an hour tour as recognition for my loyalty to their product.

                   

From the moment we stepped into reception we knew we were in for a special experience: in front of us stood a life-size aloe plant as often seen along the roads of the Western and Eastern Cape, but this one was skilfully made of Shweshwe fabric. It is so realistic and beautiful that the revolving doors have to be kept shut as the hummingbirds come in to sit on it – of course, those little beaks could do real damage to this work of art. Imagine photographing that!

Soon our hostess, dressed in Shweshwe met us and guided us through this extremely large facility that at its height employed around 7000 workers from the local community. Today, due to Chinese copies sold at lower prices, the production has been reduced needing only about 780 workers. Walking through the factory’s many large warehouses to see the various stages of production, it was sad to notice open empty spaces.

She promised the supervisor she could see through her bead curtain. Her cell phone is safely tucked away.

            

 

Yet, notwithstanding this, there was a pleasant buzz with several of the women dressed in Shweshwe in honour of Heritage Day.


At the various production points the different processes were explained to us and we were fascinated by the huge machines and the path the fabric follows. I realised how blithely we step into shops, look at fabric, complain about prices without the vaguest idea of what is entailed in producing the wonderful fabric with its distinctive smell and texture in rich colours. We enjoyed the visit enormously – it was an experience that we will not forget and that has renewed our love of the fabric. Unfortunately, due to industrial copyright legislation we were not able to take many photographs.


Da Gama factory gardens

After our tour, we went to the factory shop. I was worse than a child in a sweetie shop. I could not make up my mind. I moved from cut-off bins to tables stacked high to carefully sorted shelves. They offered me huge bags of leftover pieces at a really favourable price per kilogram. The smallest bag weighed 22kg but Yehudit said, “NO! Not enough of the warm colours you need and too much indigo you don’t need!” She was right but I was sad. The thought of drowning in my favourite African fabric in the middle of the Berlin winter seemed extremely attractive. She was firm and I understood, but silently promising myself, “Next year in King William’s Town.”


Still, we left with several meters of vibrant fabric and for the next two nights I could not sleep as blue and red and orange and brown and pink patterns ran through my brain asking to be arranged into quilts and cushion covers and even the odd bag or two. When I learnt how little Da Gama Textiles export, I started wondering – could I start a small home craft selling warm African fabrics in faraway Berlin?

In the Eastern Cape Shweshwe is everywhere.


At East London’s Lavender Blue Farmer’s market (Old Gonubi Road) the waitresses wear Shweshwe aprons and head wraps,


the woman shopping next to me in Port Elizabeth is proud of her brown print dress


and dolls at Old Nick's Farm stall. I constantly want to ask women if I may photograph them. Shweshwe can no longer be considered the protest I used it for in the early 1970s – it is part of being proudly South African.


Creating a new home

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 10, 2017 at 4:10 PM Comments comments (1)

Week 1

 

Today a week ago, we awoke for the first time in our apartment here in Berlin. Around us was total chaos. After a seventeen hour drive from Mama’s house in south Germany and a lunch break close to the Dutch border to collect some wonderful things from our friends in Kleve, we had arrived and unpacked into the night. As we could not lock the trailer filled to capacity with furniture and lots of small parcels, we had had no choice but to unpack. Once everything was safely inside, we opened the bottle of Metaxa, we had wisely brought from Greece, and drank a toast to a safe and pleasant journey. Another moment to say the Shechiano as expression of thankfulness for having been brought safely to this place.

On Thursday, we immediately went to IKEA to buy some essentials for our new home including a lovely bright sofa and a mini-kitchen just so that we can have a place to wash dishes. The IKEA delivery man built/ assembled our beautiful sofa and then left us to cope with building the mini-kitchen. The new chest of drawers we immediately knew was beyond us but then our dear friends from Holland promised to come next weekend to build it for us and whatever else we need done. O the privilege of friends who can do things!

Saturday afternoon, Yehudit’s sister Maria and her partner, Joseph, arrived with the furniture from Mama’s cellar, which while seriously in need of renovation, is going to be stunning in our living room. As soon as everything was in the safety of our apartment and cellar store room, we walked across the street where some Lebanese run a Mexican restaurant. They’re already getting to know us as without a kitchen a hot meal is not so easy to present and their beer from the tap is cold. At present wild forest pfifferlinge is the seasonal speciality so we all had one of the special dishes where the pfifferlinge is served according to traditional German recipes – a German dish served in a Mexican restaurant by Lebanese speaking Arabic to each other. This is the world we now live in and I love it.

Sunday afternoon Yehudit left with her family to spend time with her mom in south Germany and suddenly I was alone in my home. Yehudit had left me a newspaper-type magazine that she had found at America House, which is virtually next door to where I will be teaching EAP in the coming academic year. As I flipped through this paper filled with articles on the various exhibitions that they are planning or have had, I found a piece written by Carolin Emcke titled “Home” a subject I have written about before in my blogs.

Emcke open her piece with a quote by poet T.S. Eliot found in “Four Quartets” “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living.” I was still living in South Africa when I first read these lines and they seemed to me self-evident at the time. Today, I certainly agree that the patterns of our lives become more complicated, death and life more and more entwined – a greater reality than ever before. Yet is home really where I started from? Or is it possibly where I have ended up? And for how long is this home? Is it, in fact, a place? In my previous blog on this subject I equated home to a sense of rootedness, which I felt “I did not have … in my land of birth and I do not have … in my land of adoption,” i.e. Israel. Will I have it here in Berlin? I cannot answer for sure or with absolute certainty but I certainly feel comfortable. My father’s family have had such a long history in this city and my biggest regret is that I never visited it while papa was alive – but more about this later.

 

However, I also have to admit that there are things that are absolutely strange to me. The more traditional settled part of the community here is so “square”: things are done in a fixed manner, each one knows their place and what is expected of them. This is a massive adjustment for a South African Israeli used to the idea, “’n Boer maak ‘n plan!” No, each one does his bit and there is no overflow. Let me give you a practical example. We have an excellent builder doing our renovations and, on the average, I am impressed by his professional efficient work and how pleasant and reliable his team is. If they say they will arrive at 7am, the car stops at 6.58am and at exactly 7am the bell rings. But, the downside of this I am experiencing silly small problems. My kitchen window hooks ever so slightly but I want it sorted out. So I show the problem to the painter – there is a tiny wood splinter roughly 3cm long no more than 2mm thick is half chipped off the frame and catches the window as it opens. I recommend that we carefully remove it, sand the place and then paint it. No one would notice the slight unevenness in the window frame. “NO!” says my shocked painter, “the boss must call in the carpenter!” That implies a call out fee etc etc. When the boss arrives, I show him the problem and make the same suggestion as before. He’s look of shock is even greater. “We must have the carpenter come. Don’t worry, I have to pay him not you!” he says as though money would be my main concern. Of course it is a concern but their solution is so time consuming and unnecessarily complicated, so cumbersome and slow.

I miss Moshe, the man who solved our plumbing problems in Israel. He also fixed some shelves that the carpenter had not had the time to fixing completely; sorted out a problem with the tiles that the builder had left; he repaired the pipe of the air-conditioner; set the temperature of the fridge; replaced the front door lock which in the Israeli security doors is no easy matter; re-plastered and painted the ceiling of our downstairs neighbour, where our plumbing problems had caused water damage and he gave Yehudit advice re a funny sound our car was making. Now, that’s what I call efficient – but I can assure you not what is considered efficiency in the German capital.

No doubt I will get used to it and it certainly will not prevent me from calling this place home as long as I am here. As I look around my living-room, not nearly ready, I have a sense that I will be happy here. My older son’s wife asked me the day I was supposed to sign the sale contract, “Ma, look carefully – can you see yourself living here.” After walking quietly through the flat again on my own, I came back to her and said, “Yes, I can.” Now I am and I am happy, even as I wait for the carpenter to come and fix the tiny chip of wood on my kitchen window frame.

 

Surprising class

Posted by Egonne Roth on May 27, 2017 at 3:05 PM Comments comments (1)


 

A few weeks ago in my English class for software students, I asked a group of students to meet me at the end of the class as I had a problem to discuss with them. At the end of our discussion most of the students drifted away not very happy about the talk. However, one student, Hadi, with whom I have a good relationship, asked me, “Egonne, why did you only keep back the Arab students?” I gave him my reasons and he said he accepted them.

But late that night all the potentially negative repercussions hit me and I lay in bed in a sweat: what if my actions were seen as racist? What if the students lodged a complaint against me? Why had I singled out that group? What were the dynamics that had brought about the situation? For days the whole thing bothered me. At the next class the students were friendly and clearly there would be no negative repercussions, but still the incidence worried me and kept milling through my head.

Then this morning I suddenly knew what it was that troubled me and what had brought about the situation: the Arab students in this particular class and the Jewish students did not mix at all, so that when I asked “that group in the back” to stay to talk to me, it happened to be an all Arab group. Since that is not the norm at the college, I felt challenged to do something about it – to explore some of the dynamics and decided to adjust my lesson schedule accordingly. I was due to do a graded oral exercise with the students the following week but decided to move it forward. I carefully worked out my lesson plan to experiment in creating a change in the dynamics between the students and do a challenging spoken activity with them.

After the usual opening remarks about homework etc etc. I asked them why they had come to the college to study. Why did one need to attend college when nearly any qualification could be gotten online? What were the advantages of studying at a college or university? They gave me the usual career and income oriented reasons but as I kept my board marker poised to write more, they started looking beyond the obvious: “To be challenged,” said Mohamad. “To meet new people,” said Tamir. “To socialize” said Koral. “New experiences, new people” said another. The list grew till the board was nearly covered and I had my next exercise justified by the students themselves.

                   

“Right,” I said, “you have now given me all the reasons why our oral exercise is going to be done in the following manner. Will all the Arab students please stand up.” Glancing around uncomfortably they stood, some reluctantly. I counted – they were nearly half the class. I asked the blonde Russian student also to stand – his expression asked why he was being included in the Arab group. As I saw the uncertainty on all their faces, I felt a definite sense of excitement and expectation.

“Will each of you please choose a Jewish partner, preferably someone you really do not know and once you are all in pairs, I will explain what we are going to do.” At first the Arab group just stood looking helpless, but then one Jewish girl called out to one of the Arab boys to choose her and the ice was broken. They moved about, found partners and those who were shy I helped.

“You are going to interview each other for the next 20 minutes and then, standing with your partner in front of the class, you will introduce your partner. You are going to ask them questions so that you can tell us something we could not have known before –any questions you like but respecting the other if they don’t want to answer them. You will have 2-3 minutes to tell us about your partner.”

At first they sat there stiffly asking each other’s names and where they came from, but soon the class was abuzz with animated conversations, student heads close together as they made notes and probed deeper.


There were bursts of laughter and clearly many of them were surprised and delighted by what they were hearing. One pair discovered they shared a love for sushi, another that they were both interested in music. As they got up to share their findings, they were clearly proud of being able to explain something new about the other that they had not known or even suspected. Some of the stories were funny, some were really serious: “The worst day in his life was when he was rushed to hospital after his appendix exploded. He could have died,” one student told us and we all looked at the tall young man seriously nodding his head and were glad he was with us to tell the tale. “The best day in his life was the day he was finished with the army,” an Arab student told us about his Jewish partner and many of the guys showed sympathy.

I sat there making notes, watching the group dynamics and thinking if we could repeat this exercise in every class in every college all over the country, our future would look so different.

“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?” said Hadi who was sitting next me.

“Yes, I am,” I said, “and it is all because you dared to ask me why I had singled out your group that day. It worried me and I kept thinking about it.” For a moment he looked perplexed and then slowly he remembered our conversation after the other students had left that day. He was pleased with the results of his question to me – we were both happy.

Before I dismissed the class after all the students had spoken, I challenged them to take the experiment further – to invite each other home, to listen to each other’s music and to ask the questions that were there, just below the surface because part of being a student was doing all the things they had told me at the beginning of our exercise - having new experiences, meeting new people, being challenged. I was proud of them and they had clearly had a good lesson.

 

Africa in Berlin

Posted by Egonne Roth on April 15, 2017 at 1:45 PM Comments comments (15)

Shortly after I joined the Facebook page “South Africans in Berlin”, there was a message of a gig announced to be played by a Gauteng group called Thabang Tabane | Sibusile Xaba at a café called Prachtwerk.

        

I listened to them on YouTube and decided it would be fun. I googled Prachtwerk – directly translated ‘wonderful creation’ and discovered they were in Neukölln, Berlin and that they have created an art/music/cultural space where concerts in different musical genres happen several times a week, where artist can exhibit and where people from all the different cultural communities who live in the area can find a living room to relax in. As owners John and Steff worded it, “we want to create a space where people find a place to connect with each other, a place of peace and beauty.” I was curious to see it for myself and given that bus 101 runs from directly where I am staying to just about outside their front door, I decided to go.

                                   

In the late afternoon light, the outside tables promised that spring and summer were coming but for today I would hurry in – the wind was still cold. Inside, I was struck first of all by the feeling of light and space and welcome.

                      

 

People smiled as though they were happy I had come and as I watched I noticed this was a pattern – it had nothing to do with me but reflected their positive attitude; it reflected the philosophy of the owners. Imagine my surprise when, as I walked over to the counter to order a coffee a light system that I had pinned in Pinterest, was on the wall in front of me and it was even more beautiful in reality that on the screen. How could I use that in my living room?

                    

 

At various places people with sitting talking, reading, working on their computers. The decorations were quiet but effective with large holders of fresh flowers that added to this warm atmosphere

 

As I sat down at one of the little coffee tables, one of the band members walked past and I engaged him in conversation. He was delighted to hear that there would also be some South Africans in the audience and when he heard that I actually live in Israel, he immediately asked if I thought a gig or two could be arranged for the group – I promised to enquire. He told me his father was the well-known guitarist, Dr Phillip Tabane, who has mentored the group and so I realised I was chatting to the leader of the group, Thabang Tabane. He was excited and happy to be playing in Berlin and we laughed about how cold it was and different from home, but how warm the welcome.

He went off to prepare for the evening’s performance and I noticed a book lying in front of a couple at the adjoining table. “Would you mind if I look at this?” I asked and the woman turned to me with a friendly smile. “O, you must. It is very good. I suggest you read the piece by Jeanette Winterson,” she said and handed me the book. “It belongs to the café, so take it!” I sat down to read what she had recommended. The whole book was writers’ thoughts on books, reading, libraries and their value. Winterson writes, “There is no substitute for reading… A book is a door; on the other side is somewhere else.” She’s right. It is reading that has brought me to where I am now.

Slowly the place filled up: the faces and accents told me the audience would be very representative of the area – Spanish, Korean, German, American, British, maybe Caribbean, I was not sure, though few Turkish people – Neukölln‎‎ has a large Turkish population. It was a good-sized audience by the time the rhythms of Africa began to surge through the room. Another South African joined me and I commented to her that it reminded me of sitting in front of the Cape Town museum where groups of musicians spontaneously seemed to appear and give impromptu concerts out in the midday sun.

                         

What struck us both was the incredible joy of music and of their engagement with each other that flowed between the four musicians: Thabang Tabane – percussion & vocals, Sibusile Xaba – guitar & vocals, Dennis Magagula also on percussion and Sakhile Twala on bass. They were simply having a ball and as a result so were the audience.They invited the audience to dance if they felt like it and at the side a few people moved to the music but mostly they had the audience’s rapt attention and got enthusiastic applause.

                          

                                  Prchtwerk's Logo

By the time we were ready leave, I felt that I had found a place where I would enjoy spending the odd afternoon or evening with friends or alone with a book, reading and writing.

 

Fasnacht in Basel

Posted by Egonne Roth on March 15, 2017 at 4:00 AM Comments comments (0)


 

It’s just after 3.30am when we leave the apartment to make our way to the old inner city of Basel. We’re not alone – many people are on the move, some in elaborate costumes, some with kids in carrier bags, all of us warmly dressed with scarves and hats and heavy jackets. It is cold – barely about 3* or 4*C. In the inner city up on the Münsterplatz, where it all began many centuries earlier there is a festive atmosphere in a manner peculiar to this Swiss city. Everyone is happy, though cold and quite serious: tonight, we as visitors will be allowed to observe a centuries old tradition that is enacted nowhere else in quite this manner. Visitors do not dress up nor may they wear masks, only those connected to one of the about 200 “cliques”.

  

                          

The Basel festivities are not related to the Catholic traditions of Fasching that I described before and so it actually takes place during the first week of Lent: this part of Switzerland is Protestant. One of the earliest records date back to Ash Wednesday in 1376, when a jousting tournament on the Münsterplatz was the scene of a row between citizens and knights. The argument escalated into a blood bath and the local citizens chased off the noblemen, killing four of them in the process. This fateful day went down in the annals of Basel's history as the «Böse Fasnacht». By 1529, it was determined that Fasnacht should take place between the Monday and the Wednesday following Ash Wednesday and the oldest historical document describing the trading of masks and disguises ("Fasnachtsantlit") by painters and shopkeepers dates to the same year. The tradition of drumming began with 70 drummers nearly two centuries later; when the piccolos were introduced is unclear.

                              

So, there we were in the early hours of Monday, 6 March, watching with groups of drummers and piccolo players, called cliques, dressed up in astounding costumes and large, beautifully painted masks milling around preparing to march. At exactly 4am the Cathedral bells rang and a voice announced the beginning of the Morgestraich. All the lights of the inner city went out and everything was in darkness. A cold breeze crept in under our jackets. Each clique presented a different message which determined their costumes barely visible in the light from the lanterns worn on the paraders’ heads and the light inside double-sided “floats” stating their theme.

                            


                            

The sound of drumming and piccolos filled the air: they marched and played, different groups interweaving with each other as they criss-crossed the inner city. At times it felt that the rhythm of the drummers caught between the walls of the old buildings was determining our heart beat.

                           

                           

                           

We followed some of the cliques with their floats down towards the Marktplatz but eventually,

                   

after about two hours we decided to go into one of the restaurants that were open and filled to the hilt to sample the traditional Fasnacht foods.  We were lucky and found two seats at a big table with several other people. The menu was simple: Mehlsuppe (a hearty broth made from flour and onion), and onion and cheese tarts served mostly with beer. Kids enjoyed thick rich hot chocolate.

                          

We ordered a soup, which after the cold and wet outside warmed our very bones and the beer quenched our thirst. We sat watching the comings and goings of the throngs of hungry revellers

                         

until the music outside drew us out in the streets where the soft drizzle did nothing to dampen the festive atmosphere. Next to the street masks and latnterns are left while their owners eat but noone would dare to touch or steel them!

                       

Eventually our feet objected and we left the inner city to find our transport home.

                        

Later in the day and the next we were back on the streets watching more cliques with the unique costumes and floats.

                      

We were pelted with sweets, oranges, confetti, even vegetables.

                      

                      

The kids had an excellent technique: with one hand they held out a sweet and the minute you drew closer to take it, they threw confetti at you.

                      

We had confetti in our hair and in our glasses, in our bras and down our backs and some were still falling out of our jackets when we walked out of Ben Gurion Airport. We photographed as many people as we could and enjoyed the fun – old people and young people, kids and their grandparents playing in the same bands,

                     

little ones in push chairs and dogs calmly watching from the side lines: it was unlike anything we had experienced before. There’s a reason why it has changed its name from “Böse Fasnacht” (Evil Carnival) to “Die Drey Scheenschte Dääg ( meaning the three most beautiful days of the year).

                     

And all the time the restaurants were open serving the same three dishes – Mehlsuppe and onion or cheese tart – and beer and in two full days of celebrations we saw two drunk men – only two! Imagine that...

                    

 

Fasching in Waghäusel

Posted by Egonne Roth on March 1, 2017 at 3:25 PM Comments comments (0)

It’s just before 11am on a cold Thursday morning that I get onto the bus to go from the small village of Oberhausen-Rheinhausen in Baden Württemberg to the next tiny village,Waghäusel. It is the Schmutzige Donnerstag (Dirty Thursday) festival. The bus is filled with young and old dressed up for the occasion and the atmosphere is one of celebration.


I become fascinated by the faces – most completely blackened, originally with soot from the chimneys, but now with special face paint and on top of that astounding designs have been painted. Many of the older celebrants have painted faces without the undercoat of black.

                                        

                                                             

In Waghäusel we all alight and there is no way I can get lost finding my way to the Rathaus which is the centre of the morning’s activities. After the parade and the bands and the drum majorettes, the women will take the mayor captive. He then hands over the key of the village to them, thereby symbolically giving the women the power over the village.


The bands are playing and beer is freely available. I watch it all amazed at how many people are actually participating on what is basically a normal working day.


By the time the ceremonies are over, everyone is hungry and even more thirsty and the action moves to Yehudit’s cousin’s gasthaus in the forest. Beer is stacked outside and business is brisk. There is hot warming Gulaschsuppe, Käse Brot and Wurst-mit-Brot served with hot mustard.


 



Most people are laughing and talking and every once in a while someone breaks out into song – hearty drinking songs that remind me of my father. I wonder what he would say if he could see his daughter in this crazy village pub serving wurst and beer!


 

Meeting again

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Erfurt, Germany. First mentioned around 746 AD. Home to the first university in German, which was founded in 1379, closed in 1816 and reopened in 1994. The beautiful, old inner city was scarcely damaged during the Second World War and today Erfurt is home to about 206,000 residents among whom is one young Syrian woman rescued from the sea off the coast of the Greek island Lesbos in 2015.

Last year, Yehudit and I visited Erfurt on our way home to Mama from Berlin and stopped long enough to see it highlights: St Mary’s Cathedral perched above the Domplatz with paintings 500 years old,


the Gothic Church of St Severin built around 1300 next to it,


the Alte Synagoge dating back to the 11th century with its mikve on the Gera River, and the little streets of the inner city with their ‘fachwerk’ and Baroque buildings. We had a delicious lunch in the garden of an old pub and promised ourselves to return this year.

Little did we know then that we would meet the young Syrian woman, Seba, a few weeks later in Lesbos. I wrote about her in my previous blogs about the refugee crisis and that she would help us to make that promise come true. Of the several refugees whom we helped in Lesbos and to whom we gave our email address, only Seba tried to keep in touch and so we have been able to follow her story. She now lives in a small bachelor flat on the outskirts of Erfurt where she studies German and hopes to create a new life for herself. For months she has begged us to visit her and finally, last week, we were able to do so. She invited us to stay with her, but we decided to spoil ourselves and booked into the St Nickolei Guesthouse,


across from (and run by) the St Augustine’s Monastery, where Martin Luther lived for a few years (1505-1511). Today St Augustine’s is an evangelical monastery.

Once we had settled our things in our room under the eaves, we set off to find Seba. She lives in an area of tall


apartment blocks set in spacious gardens with many trees. From her large window she looks straight into the tops of the trees so that her place is airy and feels bigger than it is. Her accommodation is provided by the government, who also give her a monthly allowance and access to retraining. She hopes to eventually work as a kindergarten teacher as she had done in Syria prior to the war.

The young laughing woman in jeans and a skinny top, who opened the door for us, her long dark hair around her smiling happy face was a different person to the tired girl struggling up the slope in the photo we took last year. While her German is still weak, we were able to communicate using the translations apps on our phones to fill in the gaps. She told us about her journey through Eastern Europe: In Greece things went smoothly as the Greeks provided transport and basic help, but once they crossed the border into Macedonia, it became more difficult. She kept repeating the words, “We walked a lot! We were so tired!” Eventually, they got to Austria, where they were put onto trains to Germany. When she speaks of that time it is as though her face clouds over and her voice drops. She tells us how much money they had had to pay to get to Lesbos and how some people had sold everything they processed to try to get out – not all were successful. We discovered that her father had died a few years earlier and her mother recently. From the sad nostalgic poems to her mother on her Facebook it is clear how much she misses her. She is the youngest of five children, three of whom are still in Syria with their families. Late last year, her one brother followed the route she had taken and is now living in Hannover – maybe she will join him there but first she must learn German. She fetches her books and proudly shows them to Yehudit.

She served us a simple but delicious meal and when I taste her salad of finely chopped lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes in a tangy dressing, I suddenly felt homesick for the Middle East – that little salad I have been served in numerous Arab restaurants in the Galilee. Seba watched us like a hawk to see if we liked her food and we could genuinely assure her that we did. Then she served us fruit and tea and no matter how much we ate, she tried to feed us more. I wonder what inroads the shopping for our visit made on her budget.

After supper we suggested a stroll through the area but first she had to put on her head scarf and a long-sleeved jacket. We wished we could persuade her to leave the scarf off, to help her to understand her integration in Germany would be easier without it but we sensed this was not the time to discuss it. Not yet. Not this visit. We planned to take her shopping, to spoil her a little especially after she has told us she sends money home to Syria to help her siblings but she steadfastly refused to allow us to buy her anything. Never before have I seen Yehudit trying so hard to make someone choose just one thing as a gift, but Seba would have none of it. With the sweetest smile, she said, “I don’t need anything. It is enough that you came to visit me! Please stay longer.” But eventually we decided to take her with us into the city – maybe we could sit and chat in some café but also that did not work out. She kept refusing to order anything and so we wandered around for a while until we said goodbye and agreed to meet in the morning for breakfast at the Fish Market, now a central square where her trams passes through. We enjoyed walking home through the narrow streets.


The next morning we met at a pretty little café and while she would not eat anything, she had tea while we had coffee. “I don’t drink coffee,” she admitted with a little frown. She told us more about her family about whom she is desperately worried and she repeated over and over again with real fear in her eyes “It’s a big problem! Assad and ISIS is a big problem!” As we sat talking using our phones to assist us, I could not help being aware of the response of the people around us. I had noticed when I hugged her in greeting that several at nearby tables literally swivelled in their seats to watch us, but slowly they decided to just keep a slightly disapproving eye on us. Had Seba not worn the headscarf, we might have gone unnoticed.

But eventually we had to take leave of her. “Please come stay with me one more day,” she kept saying but we had to go. Mama was awaiting our return. After taking more photographs of us with her cell phone, we hugged and said good bye. “Promise you will come again next year,” she asked and we assured her we would. By then her German will be really good and we will be able to talk with greater ease.

“I think I will have start giving you lessons,” Yehudit commented as we walked away. “Otherwise Seba might be better than you!”


 

The Image as Burden

Posted by Egonne Roth on July 29, 2016 at 7:50 AM Comments comments (0)


There is always something surreal when one reads about an old school acquaintance: “she is today one of the most outstanding and influential painters of our time.” But this is one of many descriptions of Marlene Dumas,


whose exhibition, “The Image as Burden” we had the privilege of seeing at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen outside Basel, Switzerland in 2015. Marlene matriculated at Bloemhof Girls High school in Stellenbosch in 1971 as did I. We were all just kids together – some more talented at art, some better academically, others excelling at sport; some richer, some poorer but it did not seem very important at the time. So there was a small thrill to walk into the exhibition in Switzerland and know we were once at school together.

It is a major retrospective exhibition covering Dumas’ oeuvre from the mid-1970’s to the present which had already been shown at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Tate Modern in London. In responding to the collection of over a hundred paintings and drawings a number of themes presented themselves – love, sexuality, violence, death etc. Yet, Dumas chose as dominant theme and title of the exhibition “The Image as Burden”.


The title is taken from the name of a small painting of a man carrying a woman in his arms. According to the Room Guide notes, Dumas’s inspiration for this painting was a film still from George Cukor’s movie “Camille” (1936). Yet, among the pictures, cut-outs and Polaroids shown as examples from Dumas’ archives, is the iconic photo of Hector Petersen in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo after having been shot by the police in the 1976 Soweto riots. For a South African the painting certainly connects more closely to this newspaper image than to the movie still.

The Guide notes have the following to say about this painting: “Dumas draws our attention to the complexity of the relationship between the images streaming towards us from the media and…. the sense of the responsibility faced by the artist in choosing to paint a picture.” In viewing this small painting shown at Beyeler in the context of the large collage, “Love versus Death”,


the viewer is aware not only of the responsibility of the artist but also of his own: what should our response be to these often disturbing images? Dare we walk away unchanged? Can we face the change and responsibility of having viewed the image and heard its message sometimes at a deeply troubling level? There were several paintings and sketches in this exhibition that I found demanded a response: the series of portraits of well-known men such as Alan Turing


with notes written by the artist at the bottom of the drawing highlighting lesser known facts about their lives;


the large portrait of a Jewish girl her eyes filled with terror;


“The Painter”, a beautiful yet strange painting inspired by the artist’s daughter as a little girl with one dark red hand and the other hand purple violet. The child’s expression is defiant, looking straight into the eyes of the viewer: this could have been a painting of my own granddaughter – I know that expression so well. Dare I simply walk away?


Yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the title image and to the painting called “Stern”, inspired by a photograph of the dead Ulrike Meinhof, co-founder of the Red Army Faction, which appeared in the German news magazine Stern in 1976. Why was a portrait of the dead Ulrike named after the magazine in which the picture appeared? Why not just the name of the dead woman? By transforming a newspaper photograph with its grainy texture into this stark portrait of death, far larger than life-size the viewer is challenged to look and look again; to ask questions about who this beautiful woman was and what led to her death. It is as though the role of the artist has taken the role of the photo-journalist to another level. Even if the original photograph had filled a full page of the Stern – and I cannot imagine that it did – it would have been small and smudged compared to the image Dumas has given us. Now as I write, the woman’s strong profile formed by dark green paint that highlights the gleam of her white skin nearly marble-like in death haunts me when I close my eyes, in much the way that the blue of the eyes of “The Jewish Girl” contrasting with her white forehead and black untamed hair does.

I could not help but wonder how the artist’s response to what she paints differs from that of the photo-journalist’s response to the reality he has through his photographing also turned into an image. It brings to mind the disturbing photograph by Nick Ut of

                                                                        

Kim Phuc, the Vietnamese girl running naked towards the photographer, which became for many the iconic image of the Vietnam War.

                                                                    

Similarly, I think of the photograph of the small child being stalked by the vulture in Ethiopia by South African photographer, Kevin Carter. Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for that photograph but so many questions were asked about its morality and the photographer’s responsibility towards the subject – in this case a small dying child – that Carter created various stories to protect himself. Three months after winning the Pulitzer he committed suicide - “the burden of the image” had become unbearable. I am not arguing that it was simply the burden of this one image that led to his untimely death but the many images of war and violence that he had covered during his time as photojournalist.

In their book, The Bang-Bang Club, the authors, Greg Marinovich and João Silva, question what drives a photographer to pursue a career in recording images of untold horror: is it the moral belief that the truth should be shown no matter the cost? Is it the need for the adrenalin that working in dangerous terrains, sends rushing through their veins creating highs which they often counter-balance by the use of various drugs? Is it the fame that comes from taking that one image that no-one else has seen or taken? Is it the power that an image that can change perceptions and influence politics in a way that few other media can that is so attractive?

A question that crossed my mind as I stood before these paintings was: what is the agenda of a painter like Dumas when she chooses to paint these images? Does she know the answer any more than Marinovich did when he raised these questions in his book? The photograph of her that accompanies the exhibition has such a sweet smiling seductiveness – does it really reflect the artist’s response to her own work or is it just another image created by her?

                         

The image of Dumas that we saw a few weeks later at the opening of an exhibition of portraits at “The Museum for Photography” in Thessaloniki in Greece is so different that at first I did not recognise it: a photograph of a woman in a halo of blonde hair smoke trailing from the cigarette between her pursed lips. It was taken by the Dutch photographer, Anton Corbijn.

What a contrast to the sweet smiling Marlene on the posters in Basel!

                                                                          

Who is the real Marlene Dumas? Who is the real me?

 

 

No return

Posted by Egonne Roth on June 4, 2016 at 4:20 AM Comments comments (0)


I am lying flat on my stomach, naked under a black and white fleecy blanket. My face is half buried in the pillow. Maya, our masseuse, who comes regularly to our house, is pummelling my feet. Her hands are strong and sure, yet tender, as though my feet are her baby granddaughter’s. I begin to cry. So much tenderness is undoing me. She does not notice. Mozart’s Oboe concerto in C major is calming the air: outside the sea is roaring and crashing onto the beach. A little poem from Olga Kirsch’s only published English poetry collection drifts through my mind like a ticker tape at the bottom of a TV screen.

“Do you believe in life after?”

asks the mother of the child who has died.

“No,” I reply. “Do you?” She shakes her head

heavy, unwilling.

“Then it’s all over,” she says.

“I can’t have her anymore.”

 

And if we believed,

would we have more?

 

Suddenly, it strikes me: my mom who was my best friend, mentor and hero is dead, gone. I can’t have her anymore. Nothing I do will change that. It is now twenty-seven years since she died but lying on the table with Maya moving her firm strong healing hands over my body, it penetrates my being with a shock as though it all happened yesterday. Kirsch’s poem takes on a new relevance that shatters my equilibrium so that I battle to turn over on the table when Maya says, “Turn.”

Of course this is not the first time since my mother died in 1989 that I have had this revelation – the cycle of death and mourning coils around and around our lives as our losses increase and we come nearer our own end. I remember that the year after my mother died, my husband and I went to Israel with money my mother had set aside before her death for this purpose. She had died relatively slowly from cancer and had the time to think of many things and plan her own demise with care. On the first morning in Jerusalem I woke very early. My husband was still asleep and I walked out onto the balcony to breath in the cool crisp air that is such a definite part of the ancient city. I thought ahead of the day, what we planned to do and that was when it struck me for the first time: she was dead. She was not waiting for me here in this city we had dreamt of visiting together; she was dead. I was overwhelmed by grief. From that moment on Jerusalem has had a haze of longing, a sense of not quite finding what I am looking for, even when it could offer me many other joys and fulfilments I had not come there to explore.

And so it was when I attended the International Writers’ Conference in the city last week. I went there, not wanting to be there. Many other things needed to be done more urgently at home. But I had agreed with a friend and we had tickets to hear Anita Desai and her daughter, Keren Desai, speak and so I went. The day was crisp and clear as it had been that first visit to Jerusalem in 1990. The two Desai women spoke on loss and mourning, on being displaced from the land of one’s birth and on what forms a writer’s literary inheritance. All inspiring stuff but for me, the shock came when after the talk I sat with the view of the Judean Hills before me and casually picked up David Grossman’s newest book, Falling Out of Time – part poetry, part prose, written after the death of his son. I read until I came to these lines:

 

MAN:

If we can be with him for one more moment,

perhaps he, too,

will be

for one more moment,

a look –

a breath –

 

WOMAN:

And then what?

What will become

of him?

And us?

 

A tangible recognition passes through me. The same sense of hopeless loss overwhelms me. Death is the end. Even if one believes in a life after death and I think I do, it is a different life to the one we know. It is a life we cannot comprehend; just as right now, I cannot comprehend that I will never see my beloved mother again – or Grossman his beloved son.

 

What will become of us?

 


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