Egonne Roth



view:  full / summary

An effective letter

Posted by Egonne Roth on January 8, 2019 at 10:20 AM Comments comments (1)

The mail brought a most unexpected surprise and delight today: a letter from a woman whose daughter and I had been friends more than twenty years ago and whom I have not seen in as many years. A number of things about this letter really made me rethink my perceptions of what was happening in my life.

In the letter she told me that her daughter, my friend from long ago, had given her my biography of Kirsch as a gift. Really? Somehow I had thought that if anyone buys this book, it would be academics like myself or maybe poets or simply close friends and family as an act of loyalty to me or Kirsch. So many important people in publishing had assured me that there would be no interest in the book by the general public and while I had symbolically lifted the middle finger at them, I realised as I read her letter that I had actually believed those naysayers. Ordinary intelligent people, who care about South African cultural matters, are buying this book. Wow! Good for them!

The second thing that made me perk up was the acknowledgement in the letter that a project such as this is enormously hard work, an endless slog that goes on for years. At one of the “In conversation with” functions I did, a woman asked me why don’t I now write the more important biography, namely of Elisabeth Eybers. I responded that I was too old and did not have the energy, but this she simply brushed aside. I mean if you’ve done one, you can do another. NOOOOO! Not true. I spent nine years working on Kirsch, Eybers would probably take fifteen years at which time I would be eighty! What a thought.

In some ways the third thing in the letter that struck me was that she said she had written to simply say thank you. The implications of this expression “thank you” are more specific. Many people congratulated me with the publication of the biography and I was delighted by that. Clearly they thought I had accomplished a worthwhile goal - several definitely had not expected that I, Egonne Roth, could pull this off. One friend asked me directly what made me think I was qualified to write such a biography. I remember being so caught off guard by that question that I had no intelligent response and when I posed the question to Yehudit, she told me simply to get on with the job and the answer would reveal itself. She was right – I had the curiosity and the tenacity, the encouragement of loved ones around me and the guidance of faculty at the Department of English at Bar Ilan University and so I did it.

However, when you thank someone it means something else – it is closer, more intimate. They are telling you that you have given them something that is of value and that they appreciate it; you have in some way enriched their life. On the flight back to Europe, in-between praying that a second DVT would not send me into eternity, I thought about the Book of Ecclesiastics where the preacher writes “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Later he says, “And I saw it was all vanity.” And as I tried hobbling up and down in the plane I thought – all this was meaningless and vanity. The DVT and the hip needing replacement were largely due to sitting too much, exercising too little and for what? Until today the only real comfort had come from Jolyn Phillips who wrote in the Burger: In baie opsigte voel die boek soos iets wat ek my hele lewe voor gewag het … (In many ways the book feels like something I have waited for my whole life …). That felt really good coming from this young poet from Gansbaai whose work I had fallen in love with at Die Tuin van Digters. So when the letter came today and also this older friend thanked me, I felt that maybe it had not all been purely vanity; maybe I had not only contributed to knowledge which according to the preacher is meaningless but I had given someone something even if only the joy of reading about another woman’s life and that pleased me.

So I did the right thing and pressed reply with the intention of thanking her again, but how to address her. In my young woman days I called her tannie A as determined by Afrikaans culture, but I am no longer young; I have lived outside of Afrikaans culture for nearly two decades and in Israel “titles” are not really used – old and young address each other on their given name and it does not imply intimacy or a lack of respect. It simply is the way things are done here. So there I sat – Dear tannie A or Dear A. In part, I realised that my problem lies in the fact that I hate having something in front of my name – I tolerate Dr Roth when it is either a very formal situation or I am trying to get the other person not to mess with me, but in passing? No! As Daniel Hugo said to me – titles are only meant for people who need to support their egos. Now I know this woman well enough to know that her ego is healthy and she does not need to be buffered by such things, so I wrote Dear A. I hope she is happy with that.

All these thoughts ran through my mind at the reading of a simple little letter, but it had a profound effect on me. I am sure the writer never anticipated that just as I did not anticipate that a young poet receiving much complimentary attention at present would feel like that about my book. Life brings rewards in strange ways. Thank you!


Sunday morning in Berlin

Posted by Egonne Roth on October 30, 2018 at 1:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Berlin Sundays

What does one do on a Sunday morning in Berlin?

Given that this is a city that has a strong Christian presence, you could go to church. Going back to my childhood in rural South Africa, I still love the quiet of a Sunday morning only broken by the toll of church bells calling the faithful to worship. I can still recall my Oupa checking that his formal dark suit was perfectly ironed and my Ouma putting on her hat. They looked so handsome together as they appraised each other and smiled, Oupa offering Ouma his arm to lead her to the car. A warm happy memory.

But that is a long time past and I have not found a church or synagogue that appeals to me here in Berlin. Midday services in the Berlin Dom offer a moment of quiet contemplation and a short free organ recital. Sometimes on a Sunday morning, I go to one of the flea markets in my area where I have picked up some useful bargains such as the coffee table in our living room. There are more sophisticated markets with antiques and ‘nice’ art, but their prices are correspondingly higher and I have yet to find something that deserves putting my hand that deep into my pocket.

A while back a poster advertising a concert by the Cappela Academia appeared in the corridor at work. It looked interesting – Ravel, Debussy, Saint Saëns… “You would consider a whole concert of French Impressionists?” asked my boss, on whose door the poster was taped. An odd question I thought, but as I saw that it was asked in all seriousness, I answered in the affirmative. “I’ve learnt much about the music of this period while we have been preparing for the concert,” she said a little shyly. In this manner I learnt she had been playing in this orchestra for some time. Google told me that the orchestra comprises of students, teachers and alumni of the Humboldt University. “I would be happy to see you there,” she concluded our conversation. I realised my Sunday morning was booked – there was no choice but to go.

                                                   Internet Image


It was my first visit to the Berlin Konzerthaus, situated on the Gendarmenmarkt square in the central Mitte district of Berlin. Built between 1818 and 1820, it is flanked on the one side by the French Cathedral and on the other by the Deutscher Dom – an impressive trio. After being severely damaged during the war especially during the Battle of Berlin, the external of the Konzerthaus was restored in 1977 to the original design by Karl Friederick Schinkel, while adjustments were made inside to accommodate modern technology. The concert I was attending, was in the Große Halle.



The members of the orchestra filed in in a neatly arranged line – not like the Cape Town Orchestra whose members wandered in, looked around, greeted members of the audience they knew and settled down to tune their instruments – a procedure I loved every time, especially as a number the musicians always greeted my father. As the Cappela Academia orchestra is made up of non-professional musicians and only performs twice a year, usually in different venues, the relationship between audience and orchestra I expected, would be different but not so. Clearly a large part of the audience was made up of family and friends of the musicians and the same friendly atmosphere existed.


And then the conductor, Christiane Silber came onto the podium and I sat up in surprise: I realised I had not seen a woman conduct before. Conducting choirs most certainly, but never a full orchestra. She immediately reminded me of a friend who at that age moved and carried herself in the same manner – young, good-looking and elegant with the collar of her beautifully tailored black velvet jacket high against her neck. Her hair short and brushed straight back but falling forwards as she moved. I felt a lump in my throat for a time long gone. Christiane Silber has been described as “PASSIONATE, GRACEFUL, DELICATE AND NOBLE....”by the Weifang Poly Grand Theatre Review. In the course of the concert we saw all these characteristics being displayed. The music was complemented by the incredible acoustics of the hall – I read afterwards that it was considered one of the ten best concert venues in the world in 2004. I was lost in the beauty of it all.


The program opened with Ravel’s “Ma mémre l’oye, Ballett-Suite” with its whimsical birdlike sounds, followed by Debussy’s “Two dances for harp and string orchestra” – a piece of music I had not heard before and loved immediately. There was more Ravel and a piece by Bizet but my favourite was Danse macabre, op.40 by Saint Saëns, where again the harp plays an important role in the opening. Such heavenly music!       


                  Notice our Yankee cowgirl standing near the organ stool


But at some point, my eye was caught by a rather strange figure behind the orchestra – an exceedingly butch-looking woman in blue jeans and a bright tartan shirt responsible maybe for recording the concert. I glanced at my friend next to me and when my eye caught hers we both nearly burst out laughing. In this correct elegant setting with glorious music swirling around us what was she doing and why was she dressed liked a Yankee cowgirl? It was so incongruous. Nothing could have detracted from the music, but she certainly added a touch of the ridiculous. At the interval we speculated who and what she was and why nobody had told her to dress more in keeping with the formality of the orchestra and audience. And during the second half there she was again, moving quietly from point to point or sitting on the organ stool.



As the conductor took the final bow and the audience finally allowed her to go, I thought, “I must remember to thank my boss for putting up the concert poster. It was another first in Berlin that I will never forget.”


Karneval den Kulturen

Posted by Egonne Roth on May 21, 2018 at 7:35 AM Comments comments (0)

“The Carnival of Cultures (KdK) is a city festival that reflects the diversity of Berlin. Since 1996 the Carnival of the Cultures has been held annually: a four-day free festival in the center of Berlin.”

I wanted to meet some friends yesterday but they were busy.  “We’re going to the “Karneval den Kulturen”, my friend texted me and shortly afterwards followed with a photograph –


I grabbed my camera and rushed for the bus and then onto the U7 train. It was full! At Mehringdamm station there was an announcement and the train did not stop – we could see hundreds of people jostling on the platform. As we tried to exit the station at Gneisenaustrasse U-bahn, the noise was deafening. I nearly retreated and caught the next train home, but my curiosity won and I fought my way out into the beautiful late spring afternoon.


The first float that came past was of some African tradition – the source of the load music – but in itself, it was a bit disappointing.




                                                     He was stunning and I managed to catch him several times.


                                                 Whoever was selling unicorn balloons did well - they kept reappering all afternoon.


                    The video that went with this photogragh has not wanted to be uploaded - it just refused! Maybe to spare your hearing!


                             I never quite caught onto what cultures the floats repesented, but I love the "ampleman" and so here he is.


        It really was wall-to-wall people and who was inside and who was outside ropes, I also did not understand but moved back and forth.


I continued photographing but soon realised that the most interesting images came from the crowds.







The faces were the reflections of the multiculturalism of Berlin, not the floats, and nobody seemed to mind a camera pointed at them. There were surpringly few kids but I managed to catch a couple of cuties!


After about an hour and over 300 pics, I was hungry and bought a falafel that tasted of Israel – the most delicious I’ve had in Berlin.


                          I was a happy. Somehow, I did not get to the meat stand which looked and smelt great.


Beer did not apeal to me given the situations. So I slowly made my way back to the station trying not to step into the endless amounts of broken glass strewn over every surface in the area.


I wondered what cleaning up will cost the city of Berlin, but given that most beer bottles  can be returned for money, I reckon they will recoupe some of their expenses.  As I left, more floats were going past in the warm late afternoon sun creating beautiful colours.






Einstein in Caputh

Posted by Egonne Roth on May 7, 2018 at 6:15 AM Comments comments (0)

The sailing ship, the distant view, the lonely walks in the autumn, the relative silence, it is paradise.

Albert Einstein 1929


Visiting the homes of famous people is often an enriching experience. Mostly these homes fall into one of two categories: those where the owner did not anticipate public interest in their dwelling and those that from the beginning are designed with the knowledge that they have a place in history. This last is the case with Chaim Weizmann’s home in Rehovot, Israel and the home of his friend and co-religionist, Albert Einstein in Caputh outside Berlin.


Einstein’s home was originally planned to be a gift from the mayor and people of Berlin to the famous Nobel prize winner for his fiftieth birthday, but in the end, anti-Semitism in the council prevailed – this was after all 1929 – and Einstein paid for his own house. It is a double-storey wooden house designed by the architect, Konrad Wachsmann, who became a friend of Einstein and would five decades later be involved in the restoration of the house. From the upper deck the family could look down across the Caputh palace built in 1662 to the Schwielowsee and the Templinersee, where Einstein enjoyed booting and fishing.


Sadly he only lived in the house for three summers, each time from April to November. After the assassination of his friend, Walter Rathenau, he was warned that his life could also be in danger and he finally left Berlin ten years later in 1932. The tour guide told us many anecdotal stories of little importance, but one thing that he said that I remember is that Einstein supposedly said that he needed no paintings in the house and certainly not in his study – if he wanted to see art, he could go to one of the many art galleries of Berlin. Yet, he hosted many of the foremost artists of his day at the house on Waldstrasse – among them Elias Mandel Grossman, Max Lieberman, Kathe Kolwitz and Hermann Struck. In his study Einstein said he wanted no distractions; he simply needed blank paper and pen on his desk, the view across the green to the water and the absolute quiet.


Yet, the list of eminent guests makes one wonder when the great man had the quiet he so clearly wanted. Famous scientists such as Max Plank who had originally invited Einstein to work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Max Born, Max von Laue, Fritz Haber, Walter Nernst and others came regularly. In 1920 Einstein had met Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel and together the two men worked with others towards the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Einstein served on the first board of directors and gave the inaugural speech at Hebrew U in 1923, beginning in Hebrew but then continuing in French. As a result, Einstein and Weizmann became firm friends and the Weizmanns were also guests at Caputh. Also the Begali polymath, philosopher, musician and poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, visited Einstein in July 1930. Such a profound conversation developed between these two men that it became the basis for the book, Science and the Indian Tradition: When Einstein Met Tagore.


Einstein’s biographer, Philipp Frank, recounts that as Einstein and his wife were leaving their house in Caputh on 6 December, 1932, Einstein said to her, “Before you leave our villa this time have a close look at it.” “Why?” she asked. “You will never see it again.” They did not return to or visit Germany again.

Today 70% of the house is owned by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who inherited 70% of Einstein’s total estate, and is administered by the Einstein Forum in Potsdam. On the Sunday that we visited there were two guides on duty. After our tour I asked them what had brought them to this job – I did not think it would be a very well-paid job – but I was unprepared for their answers, “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? We’re so good looking!” The inaneness of their response and their unwillingness to engage in a discussion about Einstein, the house and its visitors shocked me. I remembered the young man who led us though Chaim Weizmann’s house in Rehovot and the middle aged woman who spoke to us at David Ben Gurion’s humble kibbutz home in Sde Boker in the Negev in Israel. Anxious and mostly able to answer questions both these guides had shown an interest and enthusiasm for the homes and the original owners and they wanted to share that with us. In contrast, these guides at Einstein’s house seemed unwilling, or maybe unable, to answer questions and probably did not care much for the great man, Albert Einstein, who had once owned the house in Caputh. They should at least study the informative and attractive booklet sold at the house about its history. Albert Einstein deserves better.


                   Einstein the Renaissance man



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.






Posted by Egonne Roth on September 27, 2017 at 3:30 AM Comments comments (2)

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 (23)

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...