Monday, March 27, 2006

Mr. Cooper Speaks

This is Andrew speaking. I did my first "African" (i.e., left the gated communities and indoor shopping malls that might otherwise be in Jericho, Long Island) thing yesterday in Jo'burg. We went to a lion cub farm and game park outside Jo'burg. The lion cubs (pictures to come) were amazing and Ilana and I got to play with them. Ilana also got finger-nipped by an ostrich but don't worry, Mom of Ilana, she doesn't have avian flu. The cubs not too different than Lionel my cat except they'll probably be 400 pounds or something when they grow up...On the game drive, the adult lions came just about to 3 feet up to the car although were pretty well placated since Sunday is feeding day and the antelope rib cages made them rather lethargic.

Today we arrived in Capetown and within an hour I had another African experience, as three boys (maybe 15 yrs old) accosted me on the street and basically harassed me on and off for an hour, alternating between threats, friendly chat, and taunting. They were more irritating than scary (not unlike lion cubs). After a walk through the beautiful Company Gardens park by Parliament and the Presidential palace, I retreated back to the Internet cafe to write this post. Tomorrow I'll go out to Robben Island (where Mandela was imprisoned) and then Ilana and my Selwyn adventure begins on Wednesday.

Ilana now speaks: We are having a fabulous time although I am doing some work today. We have a really nice dinner planned at Cape Town's coolest restaurant (and we won't spend much at all per person with the exchange rate which is lovely). Andrew has been reading me Creme De La Mer promotional material in a soothing monotone at most moments of the day. Cape Town is rather windy today although it is such a beautiful city---lots of bright colors and bouncy, happy people except for the teenage wannabe thugs.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

We're Disgusting

Andrew and I really, really want to post something profound but we are revoltingly full. I dragged Andrew to a Creme de la Mer breakfast this morning where he ate a full piece of steak at 10:00 am and drank four glasses of bubbly. Then we ate two pieces of Bev's cheesecake each and capped off the night with insanely huge burgers (Andrew had a double), fries, onion rings, vodka martinis, vodka tonics, and a double scotch (Andrew).
Other highlights of the last 24 hours:
-6 hours spent in a shopping mall with no access to natural light or fresh air. Andrew snapped many pictures of kugels luxuriating in their most comfortable habitat.
-A 16 hour flight spent next to a pre-operative tranny and a frightening looking robed and bearded man.
-Today, many events were devoid of any greater meaning: a scientific presentation on miracle broth devoid of any science; diamond shopping devoid of any purchasing; sightseeing devoid of anything but consumerism; a film devoid of anything but violent heterosexual and homosexual sex (mainly rape); a city devoid of anything but wealth and poverty.
-Incidentally, Andrew charmed my friend Bev by playing (misplaying) Israeli folk songs on her little-used piano. Bev then sang us the South African national anthem but had to read the lyrics off of a piece of paper.
-Andrew's Jo'burg observations: I'm not such a bad driver as he remembers from my senior year of high school and Americans do stick out when they go abroad, particularly loud, gluttonous, New York Jews.
-Lois, you will be happy- Andrew found stunning earrings for Amy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Zim Dispatches

From the ZimPundit:
There is growing anger in the country; I hear it on the street, at dinner parties and in business. Anger that the economic collapse is now threatening everyone. Anger that the authorities, despite the fact that they have been in power for 25 years seem not to even understand what is happening - let alone find solutions. Anger that food aid is still being managed so as to make the population subservient to the regime. Anger that the UN is such a hopeless organisation - unable even to find the courage to call a halt to the genocide we see every day.

I think the ZimPundit's account speaks for itself. I for one feel quite ill at ease in the world when the United Nations refuses to acknowledge Zimbabwean atrocities as the genocidal overtures that they so blatantly are. Is not the deliberate starving of a population, the forced displacement of millions of impoverished residents in "Operation Clean-Up," the torture and maiming of political opposition, the deliberate destruction of a country through greed, wanton violence, and rule of the machete worthy of United Nations intervention or at the very least, appropriate acknowledgement? Notice that the ZimPundit doesn't even seem to expect the United Nations to physically intervene in the Zimbabwean situation (as it should)- he merely asks for the courage to speak out against Zimbabwean atrocities, to criticize a former revolutionary leader who did fight against a racial supremacy system in Rhodesia but now has abandoned all sense of egalitarianism in favor of the iron fist and terror.

I continually am sickened by United Nations activities in Africa- the precedent set by the deliberate ignoring of the Rwandan genocide even as officers witnessed the nights of long knives and the rivers of blood and body parts in their field of sight. How can we have any confidence about this organization's ability or will to deliver the people of Zimbabwe to safety? I fear that American liberals refuse to criticize the United Nations in an attempt to counter themselves to so-called American conservative unilateralism. So what if conservatives don't like the United Nations either? You both have the right and responsibility to stand up to this bloated structure. I'll save my views on the relationship between the United Nations and HIV prevention/treatment attempts for another day...

On a lighter note, please make sure you visit Cape Town at least once in your lifetime. The beauty will make you believe in God even if you are an atheist; how did one city win the genetic lottery so heavily? How can mountains and two oceans co-exist like this? How can beauty be so rich, so striking? How can watching the sunset over both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans while drinking a sundowner and eating a plate of fresh kingclip feel so vivid? Why did God decide to create Cape Town and Detroit with the same paint brush? Why do some win and some lose?

From MSN's list of the top ten places to visit in 2006:
Often touted as "the most beautiful city in the world," Cape Town is at its best during our spring months—when fall is underway in South Africa. Flanked by spectacular natural scenery, this cosmopolitan city is still warm come autumn (around 70 degrees) so the beaches are still welcoming—while the frosty Atlantic Ocean along their shores is not (but then, it rarely ever is). Aside from delighting in near-perfect temperatures, refreshing sea breezes, and vistas of the famous Table Mountain blanketed in a layer of auburn leaves, this time of year is also harvest season in the Cape region which means plenty of opportunities to sample award-winning wines. One of the best times to do just that is early May, at the annual Waterfront Wine Festival, the largest wine event in town. Outside the city, several wine routes lead you through thriving vineyards and charming Dutch villages. Imagine sitting with a glass of wine in hand, gazing onto the sprawling vineyards that stretch towards the distant ocean…for some of us, nothing is more divine.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Jo'burg Musings

1. You probably shouldn't wear a baby-doll tee at the gym that says hottie! unless you are really, really pretty.

2. Today there was a tremendous rainstorm (often there are beautiful, savage thunderstorms in the middle of the afternoon which end quickly but cool down the city) which was vivid and amazing. I stepped into a whole bunch of puddles on the way to Ninnos and my butt was soaked from the impact. I pity the many living in shacks, all the time, but particularly during these bouts of extreme weather.

3. I love Woolworths (www.woolworths.co.za) with all my heart. It is the South African version of Marks and Spencer but oh so much better. It is a fabulous department store with the best food displays in the world. Yesterday I bought goat cheese disks, freshly squeezed pear juice, spinach and ricotta tortellini imported from Italy, persimmons, and olive oil hand soap.

4. One of my closest friends is coming to Jo'burg on Friday. I am so excited. I am forcing him to go to a Creme de la Mer product breakfast on Saturday morning at the Michaelangelo Hotel in Sandton both so I can get two bags of free samples of Creme de la Mer and so he can observe kugels in their most natural habitat.

5. The rest of the week and the weekend will be very hectic-- tons of work-- so the blog will be lacking but Andrew (above mentioned very close friend) and I will co-blog next week. We have some extreme adventures planned including a Cape tour with a man we found on the Internet named Selwyn D. (very Jewish-sounding last name but I want this to be un-googable). It appears that his only clients are obese American Jews visiting Cape Town. He also posts digital pictures of his tourees doing unflattering-looking things like being blown by a gust of wind practically off of the Cape of Good Hope. There is NO way I am allowing that.

6. I have been suckered into volunteering for a Jewish communal organization. The only benefit, as compared to Jewish communal organizations in the States, is the quality of meeting refreshments. I recall lots of Utz potato chips and soggy deli sandwiches and Caffeine Free Diet Coke in Philly/New York--- here at least there are full on pieces of kosher steak from On the Square and yummy Samba chips. Some things don't change though- i.e. sleeping through every meeting/doing other work while the talking heads drone on. And, a good point, from one Jo'burg friend--- every time there is some sort of raffle or contest from a Jewish communal organization, it appears that the most wealthy contestant (i.e. the one who needs the all-expenses paid vacation to Mauritius least) wins. Does this happen everywhere?

7. I went to Beyachad for the first time in two years (Jewish communal organization headquarters/crazy armed fortress with crazy intense security). There is something about Jewish communal buildings or synagogues that makes me miss being 12. I was the queen of cutting class at Hebrew school/sitting in the bridal dressing room on the couch with my friends during services/leaving services to walk and get ice cream/being thrown out of Hebrew school classes for being overly insubordinate. I'm different now, but seeing polished linoleum floors and walls of plaques commemorating the big givers makes me a bit cooked in the head (South Africanism for "screwed in the head"). Used in a sentence, "Sharon, how can you wear that mumu over capris? Are you totally cooked?"

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Shamelessly Stolen from Another Blog...


But who really cares? It's for an instructive purpose.
This minibus taxi was snapped yesterday in rush hour traffic by another blogger. They're not usually this bad... but close. Normally the doors close. CANNOT believe that thing was driving around on the highway.

Soweto resident Themba Qayiso claims in Soweto, BMW stands for:
-Be My Wife (for a woman driver)
-Black Man's Worry
-Don't Break My Window (personal favorite)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dealing and Scheming

I think a lot of people I know think I may be a "good person" to spend this time in South Africa. To supposedly give up winebars and sophistication in favor of barren Africa in pursuit of the great HIV insight. As if all of Africa is one big peace corps for Americans instead of a daily traffic battle against BMW SUVs for a parking spot for a cappucino break in Sandton. Definitely, Jo'burg is enraging and suburban-urban but intrigue is lurking, vast sums of money are being made, and dealers and schemers reign supreme.

Case in point-- I'm working with my laptop at the library bar of the Melrose Arch Hotel- all wood panneling and brass lights and scotch and old books. It's one of the few wireless zones in Jo'burg that I can stand, and I believe the staff thinks I live there due to the frequency of my time there in February for the UA project. I can nurse a Coke Light for five hours, eat bar snacks, and do some serious banging on the IBook.

I sit very close to two distinguished-looking middle-aged guys so I can use the electrical outlet under their table. They speak in hushed tones, sipping whiskey at 2:00 pm. "You know, we made about 250 million in the mines in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) but you have to get out alive." I pieced together that one gentleman was some sort of private gem-financier, while the other was a Director from Barclays (UK) which has now merged with a South African bank Absa. They were definitely pissed I was sitting so close, and I can't repeat all I heard here. The walls have ears, and as an old, very odd family friend once said, "those who speak, pay."

I walk by the most beautiful jewellery shop I have ever seen (not the shop but the gems) and notice the fresh bullet holes in the windows (Andrew, I will show you this!). Supposedly, a Nigerian gang shot out the store after-hours to steal gems for a German ganglord directing from Berlin.

I could go on but let's talk more about the enraging. I receive a South African fellowship award that contains a small stipend. In total, it has taken about a million hours to sort out this small stipend--- and the hours of paid work I have given up far outweigh the total amount of money the stipend entails. Mr. X assures me the documents will be ready to sign on Monday. I wait until Tuesday since I know how this works-- it will never be ready the day the rubber stamps say it will. I drive an hour and Mr. X gives me a blank stare. "You can't be serious. We spoke last week and you said this would be ready on Monday." Mr. X shifts and combs his hair with spit-laden fingers. "Madam, I have been so busy I haven't even had time for my personal chores." "Listen, sir, I AM SO BUSY I DON'T EVEN HAVE TIME TO SHOWER BUT I STILL DO. I'm not leaving without signing those papers." "Madam, there's no need to yell." "Yes, there is. There really is." Three hours later... the papers are not signed until the next day and that office thinks I am a hysterical American freak.

Back to dealing and scheming. I try to withdraw about R1500 from a Bureau de Change since my ATM card situation won't be sorted until I'm in the States. There are tons of men near me- American, British, Nigerian. Most are holding absolutely enormous sums of cash- like 20,000 Euros each. What sorts of people carry around so much cash? Who are these Americans? Why is this man, in bermuda shorts and a Mickey Mouse polo shirt and loafers with no socks, carrying close to 50,000 pounds sterling? What does he want to do with the converted 500,000 Rand? Isn't he scared to walk to his car with all that cash?

Back to enraging. A woman in front of me is catching a flight to China that evening. She needs to exchange Rand for the Chinese currency whose name escapes me (I mean I never knew it). They've already sent her home for a copy of an utility bill for proof of residency. The electricity bill she brings only has a PO Box number on it (since it is unlikely you will actually receive any mail at a physical address rather than at a PO Box) and the clerks insist she needs proof of a physical address. This defies the recommendations set by the South African postal service and is in general really ridiculous (nor did they specify this when they sent her away the first time). She totally goes ballistic- "YOU FUCKING CUNT. YOU FUCKING BITCH. HOW AM I GOING TO EAT IN CHINA? THEY DON'T TAKE CREDIT CARDS. YOU ARE SUCH AN INCOMPETENT WHORE." She slams the bullet-proof double doors. The Nigerian carrying 20,000 in Euros looks really scared. Just another day.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dental Dams and a Note on Tsotsi

I went to the dentist yesterday in Bedfordview, my ritzy suburb (I am fully expecting a call from the powers-that-be at any moment informing me that my crap car is grounds for expulsion). In the waiting room, next to thumbed through and slightly gummy issues of Style Magazine from 2004, were ammo magazines and some nifty gun catalogues. My dentist concluded that I had "healthy, strong, American teeth" but told me that Italians, Chinese and some other ethnic group are more susceptible to plaque build-up due to higher than "normal" consumption of carbohydrates. That was an odd racial theory, even for South Africa. I asked him if my addiction to Crest Premium Whitestrips was of any concern, and when he replied with a blank stare, I knew ignorance was bliss.

Some interesting dental practices:
1. He didn't ask if I was pregnant prior to taking X-rays (I mean I'm not but still... that should be standard fare).
2. It's illegal for clinicians (including dentists) to ask the HIV status of patients prior to treatment, so clinicians regard all patients as likely HIV carriers. That means intensely high levels of sanitation and extreme precaution (this is of course in private medical facilities as opposed to government-funded public institutions) which I hope to see employed in medical facilities in the States.
3. This dentist has worked on really indigent and suffering people in Swaziland who have never received any preventative dental care in their lifetime. It is a bit mind-boggling to be obsessed with cosmetic dentistry (me) but know that dentistry, at its core throughout most of the world, is a last-ditch attempt to save teeth from rotting out and stop excruciating pain with minimum resources.
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Okay, after some reconsideration, I concede that Tsotsi is a bit cheesy and overwrought as a film. Maybe you have to be really into South Africa to find any quasi-introspective look at township life (as opposed to the usual panning images of masses of black faces or some superficial commentary on all the millionaires in Soweto)at all interesting or meaningful. I just want to caution you that the film depicts the very worst of South Africa existence, not by any means a depiction of what my daily life looks like (so don't worry Mom). Anyway, sometimes you give up walkable streets in favor of mangos the size of footballs and a chance to chase a dream- to really learn about an epidemic that will alter the very demography of our world (not just Africa) for decades to come and hopefully develop the tools to help the many other countries who will contend with dying masses and falling mortality in the next ten years.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Note to Very Large Man to My Left

Why must you look over my shoulder onto my screen at every available moment? Do these datasets really interest you or do you want to continue to pretend you love quantitative research? Secondly, why must you wave your memory key in my face at half hour intervals? Do you think I will be impressed? If you wave Ferrari keys in my face and let me drive, I will be impressed. Thirdly, please stop commenting on the "wireless button" that you too have on your computer at home. I'm not quite sure what you mean by that. Fourthly, I pray for the day the South African government fully opens up competition against Telkom so I can work from home on a stable, non-expropriationist fixed line Internet connection and not have to deal with people like this in public spaces. Fifthly, please crunch your cookie less loudly. It is harming my concentration.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Party Central

I was invited to three parties on Saturday night. The multiplicity of occassions provided a much-needed opportunity to remove myself from the computer and attempt to look divine. These days, my normal schedule revolves around running from meeting to lecture to laptop to e-mail to cellphone and I seem to exclusively wear jeans with heels. It's boring, my nails are always in Essie light pink, and the only make-up spark is sticky pink lipgloss. When it's windy and the windows are down, my hair sticks to the lipgloss, and one hand is on the wheel, the other moving between the cellphone and tieing my hair back to remove lipgloss collision. I needed a night to dress up and wear more eyeliner than usual.

What a Jo'burg night of extremes. Where did this crazy city come from- with breathtaking homes and the hottest Mercedes SLKs next to informal settlements and squatter camps and poverty and despair? Where I can easily pay more for a pair of boots than the monthly wages of a domestic worker?

First stop- an African braai. The host pours me a whiskey, and Mandoza is booming. I love his sons- Poppy and Brian Junior (Brian Junior is turning two)- and Poppy had a brilliant friend over named Layunda. Lindie made a huge bowl of pap, and chicken/ beef/pork are marinating on the braai. I am salivating at the smell, although the meat won't be ready until I have to leave. Poppy and Layunda want to braid my hair and I oblige. It takes them about an hour to complete 1/4th of my head and I'm immobile on a bar stool. Layunda (age 7) tells me to wear more lipstick and wants to know which products I use on my hair. I love both of them and promise to invite them over for pizza and a movie and they can finish braiding. We play around with the digital camera and if it didn't cost me R2 per MB, I would post the images here.

In the car. Unbraiding. My formerly straight hair looks kinda frizzy now. Apply more lipstick per Layunda's advice. Onto the most stunning home I have ever seen in my life in Linksfield- overlooking the entire expanse of Johannesburg, an amazing cocktail party on the terrace, armed guards outside every home on the street. He has 40 rooms including a cinema, a ballroom, and his own synagogue. His strange, controlling mother keeps an eye on the crowd and there are many framed pictures of him, alone, posed in front of one of his sprawling staircases. There are so many servants working tonight, and they're all in uniform. Ten minutes away, there are thousands starving, ready to kill for some cash, but pass the champagne. My feet hurt already from the stilettos. The air is perfect, as always for Jo'burg, and I recognize half the crowd from Slow Food Johannesburg.

We leave. Time for another party in Saxonhurst. This is billionaire territory. Everyone has full-time gardeners on staff, and the house is worth at least 15 million. I pass at least ten beggars and five boomed streets on the way from Linksfield. Liquid Chefs are catering and the mojitos are stunning. On line for the bathroom and the girl ahead of me is already snorting coke off a copy of Marie Claire South Africa. We park far and it feels good to walk barefoot, on the street and in the grass, to the entrance. Such an alien feeling to walk far at night on the street here.

Sunday is sad. With new friends whose mother has just been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which is invading her bones. She most likely will have to receive radical amputation of an entire leg, but she'd rather die sooner (it's not a question of if, but when) than contend with amputation. Her daughter surprised her from Mexico, but worries that without medical aid (South African private health insurance), her mother will have to contend with chemo at the Jo'burg Gen. It's a terrifying notion, but they seem calm, drinking Mexican rum and lighting candles and incense.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Depressing Data

Sorry I didn't write more about the Jacob Zuma trial, as promised. In due course. My blood is boiling too much from the pro-Zuma protesters outside the Johannesburg High Court with their "burn the bitch" placards. This is a tragic time in South African history- an alleged rape victim having to recount every past sexual experience for a hungry and vengeful public. What a state of affairs when the victim cannot enter the courtroom unless she is masked and covered, and the defendant smirks in designer suits and swaggers to his adoring fans.

I was struck with some fascinating new data on HIV/AIDS released by Wits on Wednesday. Dr. Francois Venter, my hero, and the Wits clinician in charge of the Esselen Street Project and provider of anti-retroviral treatment to the Johannesburg General Hospital, spoke candidly about the immense failure of the HIV prevention program in South Africa, even with enormous sums of money spent by government, international funding programs, and the private sector. He predicts that within his lifetime, 50% of all South Africans will be HIV-positive.

Even more terrifying is recent Wits RHRU (Reproductive Health and Research Unit) data showing that 50% of all HIV-positive individuals in South African self-report having no risk factors. This shocker means that there is major incongruence between perception of risk and actual engagement in risky behavior.

Dr. Venter uses a blunt voice when assessing the current state of anti-retroviral treatment: "We sweated blood to get 130,000 South Africans on HAART this year. Those we didn't get to (another 370,000) will grow sicker and die shortly. This state of affairs will grow exponentially in the next years."

Dr. Helen Rees, Executive Director of the RHRU at Wits and one of the world's most celebrated and leading HIV researchers, confirmed new data showing that in South Africa, 25% of young women under 25 are HIV-positive. It is likely that amongst our female students, 25% are HIV-positive and have little sense of their own risk or impending illness.

I just wrote like 800 words of analysis on the above data and thanks to the decaying electrical grid in South Africa (thanks Eskom!), lost it all. But the data speaks for itself, so perhaps you're better off without my take on it. So pissed. You'll just have to wait until later then.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

I Didn't Think I Would Write More Today but...

Tomorrow I'll comment in depth on my own feelings about the Jacob Zuma debacle/trial unfolding currently at the Johannesburg High Court. If you are interested, do a bit of googling for background--- a legendary ANC figure who was the Deputy President of this country was removed by President Mbeki for alleged corruption. Almost simultaneouly, he was accused of raping a HIV-positive activist who was like a "niece to him."

Read below excerpts from columnist Chris Roper. Not South Africa's finest moment...

Still, who am I to make fun of North Americans. I live in a country where our ex-deputy president is accused of raping an HIV positive woman. Makes Bill Clinton's blowjob look a little less of a big deal, something Monica often points out, albeit in a different context.

And supporters of our alleged rapist ex-deputy president are picketing outside the court and shouting "Burn the bitch".

They're also burning pictures of the woman who made the rape charge. This is all in accordance with the culturally sanctioned right of South African men to be absolute bastards, and to stick their cultural weapons into anyone they want.

I know what you're thinking at this point. What does a bunch of evil wankers hanging around outside a court have to do with peanut butter? Except, obviously, for the fact that it takes a lot of nuts to produce both?

The answer is - nothing. I was trying to write about peanut butter because I'm sick of the whole Zuma thing. There's really nothing to say about the Zuma trial that isn't obvious. It's even the vote on the CNN news channel, for heaven's sake! When the Americans notice you, you know you've REALLY screwed up.

Alas, I think I'm developing an allergy to nuts. They can be deadly, you know. The nuts picketing outside the Zuma trial are deadly to South Africa's image, that's for sure. The rest of the world now thinks (now knows, some would say), that we're a bunch of intolerant, patriarchal morons.

Oh, not all of us, I'm sure, in the same way that not all Americans are mad empire-building right-wing Christians. But from the perspective of the hundreds of thousands of women raped a year, it's pretty much all South African men.

Ode to Kugel Couples

I could write at length about the myriad differences between Jo'burg kugels and the more familiar JAPs (Jewish American Princesses). I assume, over time, I will. Today, though, I want to discuss my long-stifled love for kugel couples, particularly middle-aged kugels. Although the description is interesting in it of itself, I think the kugel couple way of relating is instructive in understanding some of the unfortunate ways American society treats aging in women and marriage.

One of the most (only) fun parts of flying South African Airways from New York to Johannesburg is watching middle-aged kugel couples cuddling on the flight. The woman is normally wearing Juicy Couture sweats with a low-waisted velour trackpant, tight on the hips, and flared at the bottom. She has cute matching Pumas and a tight white tank-top with a zip-up hoodie on top. Her butt looks good in the trackpants and her hair is always long, and always down. Ponytails only happen at the gym or in the bath. Lips are glossed and her modest wedding gold-band (we were just starting out!) has been supplemented on the other hand with a huge rock for their silver anniversary.

He is not exactly good-looking, but you can see the appeal. He's beefy and is wearing a Polo shirt and some sort of loafer. He carries all of her bags (and there are a lot!) and rolls his eyes like he's used to it. After take-off, he starts reading an autobiography of Lance Armstrong and she starts paging through American Vogue. She loves the adverts for Gucci handbags, but doesn't really like the "weird" designers like Yohji. The armrests go up, seatbelts unfastened, and they share two blankets. She falls asleep on his lap and he plays with her hair. They hold hands in their sleep, and share a toothbrush before landing in Jo'burg. He smiles when she touches up her lip gloss. They've probably been married for 25 years and have three kids.

Sometimes, at the numerous malls blighting the Johannesburg landscape, you see middle-aged kugel couples having coffee in the morning before Sunday lunch or Saturday shul. She rests her legs on his lap and when she stands up he tells her "you're a tough chick." A pretty girl in her 20s walks by in tight jeans and wedge heels and although he looks and remarks that she's a "hot babe," he tells his wife "I like your ass better...And you're the best mother ever."

They pay the bill, hold hands, and perhaps go shopping for a bikini for her to wear for their upcoming holiday in Mauritius. He's late, but wants to pick out which bikini will look the best. There's a little (lot) bit more fat than 20 years ago, but who cares, she's still "my hot wife."

I love how in good kugel marriages (and not like they are all good!), women still sit on their hubbies' lap in public and will totally make out at the movies. It's cool to be young and in love- even if you're 53 and have been married for 20 years. It's cool to keep your hair long and still wear tight jeans with heels and low-cut tank tops out to dinner. It's cool to keep pinching your husband's butt in public even if you're Lubavitch (witnessed by yours truly!). It's cool to feel beautiful even if you're not. It's cool to love making your wife coffee in the morning since it's the only thing you know how to make. It's cool to complain that your wife is blocking your view of the cricket or the rugby, but miss her when she leaves the room.

Some women look really good with short hair (like my mom!), but I wish American women felt that they don't need to just cut it off when they turn 35. That it's not inappropriate to have long waves and pink, glossed lips at age 50. That marriage can be really fun, not just that thing you do after a really good year of dating since you're getting older and it's easier to pay a mortgage with two incomes. Kugels often make marriage look really fun ("Ooh... I should buy this tea for Milton. We're going to stay home tonight and watch 'Prison Break' and I made these divine biscuits which will go well with the tea."), not like a chore all about sacrifice and compromise and lost youth. Kugels can be crazy in love and young at heart and married.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Naughty, You are Such a Tsotsi

My frantic state from yesterday (see Worst Day Ever) has slowly dissipated, and I was momentarily relieved when Naughty returned my 1986 Ford Laser with a fixed "broken wire." Tomorrow, I have to cruise for about 200 kilometers, so I am slowly holding my breath that the era of irate taxi drivers beating my window is over.

I had dinner with my favorite Jo'burg family last night at Ciao Baby Cucina. The food was quite divine (kugel talk) with a nice dish of small raviolis with veal stuffing in a very spicy arrabiata sauce. They were off to see Tsotsi and I joined them for dinner beforehand. Nicki asked me if Jewish families in America also only think of life occurrences in terms of "best ever" or "worst ever"... hmmm. A resounding yes for the female side of my family. Like "I met this guy yesterday at the carpet store. He would be the BEST EVER for Tee." Or "I can't believe you lost your wallet. That is the WORST THING EVER." I told Nicki that the tendency for extreme superlatives is compounded by a propensity for major anxiety about minor life events, and minor anxiety about major life events (i.e. my car and when will grandchildren be delivered). "Did you go to the dentist? What did he say? Well, how did he say it? What did he mean by it? Are you going back? Did you make the appointment? Are you going to remember the appointment?"

Anyway, see Tsotsi. It begins at the Ritz this Friday and has already been playing selectively in New York. I saw the premiere in December at the Goethe Institute and we were all gripped- black, white, old, young. It is a stunning story of redemption, the nature of crime, and the realities of life on the margins of the new South Africa. It is absolutely terrifying, but astoundingly beautiful. The acting is immense- and it just won the Foreign Languague Film of the Year award at the Oscars. Oh, Tsotsi means "thug" and the kwaito soundtrack is booming and thrilling- it is "hard" in a way that so much hip-hop wants to be but fails miserably. I want to buy a soundtrack for the car but it's not like 1986 Ford Lasers come equipped with CD players.

It touches on so many issues of importance to Johannesburg in such a subtle way- the nature of crime as mostly directed towards black residents (as contrary to popular perception), the stigma against AIDS deaths, the gated/electrified/enclosed affluent home (and, an interesting question- do those "security" precautions actually exacerbate violent crime and drive criminals to more daring acts of violence? My favorite Judge says yes.), and the archetype of the savior woman.

Incidentally, there are many wonderful attributes about life in Johannesburg which are not at all captured in the film, and that's fine. I'm happily encouraged that the debate in South Africa is overall really proud of the film and doesn't feel that this success story needs to only portray a rosy picture of life here. It's great to observe a discourse that doesn't chastise brave storytellers or artists as "self-haters."

A few mundane observations:
-I have way too many e-mail addresses. I like the idea of maybe creating fake e-mail addresses, but my legitimate ones are already out of control.
-Thank you American Express for refusing to send a new card "to Africa" post my wallet theft (in Europe, not South Africa!). I'm sure that all the retailers here who pay your crazy-ass merchant fees will be thrilled. Also, all the Americans/Aussies/Europeans who come here to buy gems and use AMEX are surely loyal customers?
-Someone thought I was Australian yeterday based on my voice. That is strangely exciting/shocking/weird.
-Read the book "Capitalist Nigger." I'm not even sure if it's sold in the States but it is heating up the charts here... a really fascinating examination of the prognosis of Africans becoming "economic warriors" by Nigerian-American Chika Onyeani. It's not just a controversial title, but a fully controversial premise that is being really reflected upon by many here.
-There is a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous lecture tomorrow at Wits (relevant if I have any South African readers which is highly unlikely): "AIDS in Africa: The Role of Leadership in Community and Business Responses to HIV/AIDS." The discussion features the Managing Director of Goldman Sachs and Dr. Francois Venter, another Wits doctor changing the world through cutting-edge HIV research. Dr. Venter manages the provision of public sector-funded anti-retroviral treatment at the Johannesburg General Hospital and is a likely candidate for world expert on the provision of AIDS treatment in an urban, resource-poor setting. He is also an amazing speaker and scholar.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Worst Day Ever

It started off well enough- had enough time to make a nice cafe latte in the morning, and found the office building in Braamfontein easily enough after a few circles on a round-about. My business meeting went well and the day ahead was promising- 8 hours of work in Hyde Park at the wireless Seattle Coffee, then tea with Nicki, and attending a lecture on HIV and psychology at the Goethe Institute.

I leave Braamfontein, driving down Jan Smuts in the middle lane towards the affluent northern suburb of Hyde Park. I'm driving about 90--- it's a fast-moving road, but not a highway. Then, the car suddenly doesn't move and lurches forward. I'm officially stuck in the middle lane of a main Johannesburg traffic artery. Hazards go on, and I immediately phone Naughty (yes, that is his name) at Asshole Car (name changed to protect the innocent or not so innocent). "Hi Naughty, it's Ilana. You need to send someone like now. I'm stuck on Jan Smuts and people are hooting (beeping) like crazy."

Ten minutes later, no sign of rescue. Lots of kugels pass by in BMWs and Audis and no one even thinks of stopping or offering any assistance. The only people wanting to "help" are extremely scary looking. I am sitting in a locked car with the windows up. I think that most of the kugels who passed thought I was some sort of teen pregnancy/heroin addict/living in a cardboard box sort of person due to the unfortunate choice of vehicle I was driving. A 1986 Ford Laser. Not a typo--- 1986.

You see, I am in a bind. With the payment I make each month to Asshole Car, I could lease a new BMW 1-Series, but since I don't have South African permanent residency, no one will give me car insurance. Even if I bought a car for cash, I still couldn't insure it. Only Asshole Car! Asshole Car pretty much only rents to desperate foreigners with no other options...

So, I am still waiting for the Asshole guys to arrive. A minibus taxi driver starts hooting frantically at me to move. Hello, I am stuck. I can't move, hence the hazards. Move your pathetic red minibus around this 1986 Ford Laser. Mr. Driver emerges from the minibus and begins banging on the window really roughly and loudly. He does this for about five minutes. I then phone Naughty crying and tell him he better hurry up cause this taxi driver is insane. Naughty replies, "Wow, that is really ridiculous. I can't believe he's doing that." YES, I KNOW THAT IS RIDICULOUS. I wasn't phoning you for your condolences.

Mr. Driver finally gets bored of striking my window and gets back in the red minibus and drives away. Lots of kugels and kugel-lites seem intrigued by this situation, but won't even slow down since there must be something wrong if someone "like me" is driving a 1986 Ford Laser. It is inconceivable that I would choose to drive such an un-road worthy vehicle. I second that assessment!

Johannes finally arrives and gives me another vehicle. It appears to resemble a 1976 school bus. "Johannes, you've got to be kidding. I just paid you guys a fortune four days ago!" I enter the car-like object. "Johannes, does this actually drive? And there's no left-hand side mirror." It literally took about ten minutes to figure out if this vehicle-esque thing actually drove.

I take myself out for lunch and ignore my phone until Naughty calls. "Hey, are you feeling better now?" Yes, thanks so much for your concern. "So we solved the problem. A wire broke. We'll bring the car back tomorrow morning." How lovely.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Celebrating AIDS Research Accomplishments at Wits

From time to time, I want to call some attention to the amazing and life-changing research accomplishments in HIV/AIDS stemming from the work of scholars and doctors at the University of the Witswatersrand (Wits). I think we can expect to see some (more) Nobel Prize winners in the near future, but more importantly this is cutting-edge scholarship at its most humble and necessary: scholarship with the potential and demonstrated ability to save thousands of lives. First up... Dr. James McIntyre and Dr. Glenda Gray.
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The trendy offices of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto are a far cry from the poky broom closet its directors James McIntyre and Glenda Gray started out in when they embarked on their mission 10 years ago to find ways of preventing mother-to-child infection of HIV.

Now the unit, which occupies several floors of the hospital's New Nurses Home, a large square building west of the hospital, employs 200 staff members, conducts myriad research programmes and is an international player in the field of HIV/Aids research.

Just getting an interview with McIntyre and Gray is something of a feat - and chatting to both of them together, a major feat.

Given the cutting-edge nature of their work, they are much in demand, and the awards that line their offices are testimony to their incredible success in the field of HIV/Aids: the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2002) and the Heroes in Medicine Award from the International Association of Physicians in Aids Care (2003) are just two.

The Perinatal HIV Research Unit, under the auspices of Wits University, is one of the largest Aids research centres on the continent, and has grown into an impressive multi-disciplinary research centre, partnering with many other organisations and engaging in research across the spectrum: preventing mother-to-child transmission, conducting vaccine trials, researching diaphragm use as a barrier to HIV, exploring sexual practices of men and women in Soweto, examining the economic impact of HIV/Aids on families, and researching the best treatment, care and support of people living with Aids.

Both Gray, a paediatrician, and McIntyre, an obstetrician, are candid about the success of their work. "What we've spearheaded here has changed the lives of millions of women worldwide - essentially finding affordable interventions to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV", says Gray. "And we've been quick to translate research into action."

"We've been a central player in international research in the field that started 10 years ago", chips in McIntyre. "We've helped develop that research agenda." The two directors, who have worked so closely for all these years, constantly finish off each other's sentences.

The unit was pivotal in changing the mindset of the World Health Organisation, which prescribed that HIV-positive women in developed countries should formula feed while those in developing countries should breastfeed, in the belief that the health risks for formula feeding in Third World countries outweighed the risk of HIV transmission.

"We said that women had a right to make that decision themselves and needed to be properly informed first", says Gray.

McIntyre is the principal investigator for a wide-ranging five-year project on HIV/Aids which has been given a massive US$21-million grant from the United States National Institutes for Health - one of their largest awards and part of their Comprehensive International Programme on Aids (Cipra).

The programme brings together several partners in the field, including the Reproductive Health Research Unit, also based at Bara, and Wits University's Clinical HIV Research Unit.
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How amazing to almost single-handedly change WHO orthodoxy on the "necessity" of breast-feeding for developing world women! I am particularly struck by the inter-disciplinary nature of their work and in fact, the entire Wits approach to HIV/AIDS research- that doctors have to work in collaboration with economists, for instance, and remembering that socio-economic conditions influence disease transmission risk, but equally important, medical advances yield other key challenges for economists and policy makers. On this point, see Nicoli Nattrass' (from the University of Cape Town) most recent article about the despair of those receiving HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment) and improving their HIV condition but subsequently losing disability grants. Must the unlucky choose between rapid death or poverty?
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Another South African hero is Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet appointed by UNICEF as its special advocate for children living with HIV/AIDS or orphaned by parental AIDS deaths. Kami is humble and sweet, and made out of yellow shaggy fur. She talks gently about coping with illness and loss; her parents died of AIDS and she is a 5 year-old orphan. I love Kami so much!

And, more heart-breaking than Kami's story, is the number of children who NEED to relate to her, who can only understand a life at age 5 without any parents. Here's an excerpt from a 2002 interview with Kami:

Kami: At my school, at first children did not want to play with me because they thought they would catch HIV by just playing with me. But my friends Zuzu and Zikwe and Moshe told them. They talked to them and told them, "you cannot get HIV by just playing with me".

Interviewer: And they believe you? And, now they act nice to you?

Kami: Oh, yes. They are very nice to me. We play together.

Interviewer: And do you hug and do you kiss? And is that nice?

Kami: Yes. I hug my friends and they hug me back.

Kami can be seen on Takalani Sesame, the South African version of Sesame Street, but she works with children all over the world. She always wears a cute light green vest (looks good with the yellow fur!) with an AIDS red ribbon and a happy white daisy. Kami also keeps a "memory necklace" around her neck in honor of her biological mother who died of AIDS-related causes.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Through the Spectre of AIDS, Love

From this morning's Sunday Times:

AIDS brought former President Nelson Mandela’s grandson and his wife to the altar.

Mandla Mandela and his wife Thando hosted high-profile guests, including President Thabo Mbeki, and hundreds of villagers when they tied the knot at one of a series of colourful wedding ceremonies during a two-day celebration at the Mandela homestead at Qunu in the Eastern Cape last weekend.

Speaking at his reception, Mandla, clutching his weeping 27-year-old bride’s hand, told the 800 guests that Aids had killed both his and his wife’s parents.

“My parents, Makgatho and Joyce Zondi Mandela, died of Aids,” said Mandla. “But I also want to tell you that my wife Thando’s parents died of the disease as well.”

Mandla told the guests that he met Thando at a difficult time in her life.

The couple met five years ago in Johannesburg. In 2002, her 55-year old mother, Yolisa Mabunu, died of Aids-related complications. Two years later her 56-year-old father, Mpumelelo Mabunu, also died of the disease.

“In both cases I was there to support and comfort her,” he said.
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Although this story is bittersweet at best and not so likely to make the New York Times style section's wedding story of the week, I'm always happy to see any public pronouncements of the devastation of an individual AIDS death. Former President Mandela has been a leader in this regard upon his departure from office-- expressing public grief at the death of his son from AIDS-related causes. In South Africa, we're bombarded with mass AIDS figures- over 5 million infected with HIV, but there is little public dialogue on the toll of AIDS on one family, on one life, on one couple losing both sets of parents before their wedding day.

President Mandela reminded us that an AIDS death is not a cause for personal or family shame, just a cause for sorrow.

If You Are Obsessed with Food...

The South African Slow Food convivia are kicking some serious ass. Slow Food in the States is often a bunch of pretentious foodies waxing poetic about the Messiah arriving and obliterating all McDonalds (amen). In Jo'burg, Slow Food is serious business. Last year, there was a tasting of 35 sausages with a two-hour lecture on sausage making. Followed by a taste test of eggs from 12 hens, and a workshop on which bees produce the best honey...

But Cape Town is amazing! Here is the menu for the next Cape Town Slow Food event:

Carpaccio and Avocado

Boerewors rolls and onion marmalade

Home made farm bread and foccaccio

Constantia Uitsig Grape Marmalade

Watermelon preserve

Fresh Constantia Uitsig Grapes

Cape Cheeses

Smoked Snoek

Chicken liver parfait

Watermelon Smoothies

Tea & Coffee


YUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM. I NEED to find watermelon preserve (jam) with the greatest of urgency. Some translation:
Boerewors= Afrikaans hotdogs. Kosher and halaal versions are available, and they far surpass Hebrew National. If you drive through a game reserve (i.e. safari), you'll smell boerewors braaing (barbequing) far and wide.
Constantia Utisig= One of the most beautiful towns in the Cape winelands. There is nothing more beautiful than the expanse of vineyards and mountains in the Cape and most wineries are now culinary Meccas.
Snoek= A small fish South Africans love.

Two little oddities:
-The Saturday Star (not a tabloid) carried the following headline this morning: "What to do with Maids with AIDS"
-A man tried to ask me out at a petrol station convenience store earlier today by saying "What are you doing out so late?" It was 7:30 pm on a Saturday night.

Zim Woes

One of the best parts of living in South Africa is the comprehensive and constant coverage of the continually depleting situation in Zimbabwe. I love when the tabloids refer to Robert Mugabe as "Uncle Bob" although it's hard to tell if it's a joke or some sentimental reminder of Mugabe's pivotal role in ending white supremacy in Rhodesia. Although of little strategic importance to the powers-that-be in Washington, the Zimbabwean case is earth-shattering and mind-numbing in its wanton cruelty, scale of self-defeating behavior, and its manipulation of race and colonialism for greed and ego.

I feel blessed to know many Zimbabweans in Jo'burg- both black and white- and anecdotally, I know that all of the black Zimbabweans I encounter prefer to live a life on the margins in South Africa- illegally, without permanent work or income, in a cornern of a room in a storehouse in Soweto- than return to Mugabe's clutches. Mugabe was spotted at a fancy medi-clinic in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg last month, and there were many off the cuff remarks that someone should have been brave enough to assassinate him.

I hear quite a bit about the remaining and struggling small Jewish community in Zimbabwe, particularly in Harare. They need milk, bread, and petrol, as do all Zimbabweans. Rampant inflation, spreading disease, and diminishing agricultural production would be enough to engender mass despair, but Mugabe and Zanu-PF's reign of terror and corruption is heart-breaking. I think we can all pray for the rise of an effective opposition to Mugabe and international support to break his grip on power.

Most American media coverage of Zimbabwe centers on the violent and dramatic expulsion of white farmers from the country since 2000 (many now producing awesome agricultural outputs in Namibia and Kenya); unfortunately, there are many more stories to tell and many feel that the plight of white evictees carries more resonance with the American public than the thousands upon thousands of black victims of Mugabe. Still, the story is central to the demise of Zimbabwe and its resulting, harrowing food shortages. Here's the latest on Zimbabwean white farmers from the Mail and Guardian:


Zimbabwe says it can't remove every white farmer

Harare, Zimbabwe


02 March 2006 11:18

Zimbabwe's vice-president has said the country's remaining white farmers would be spared eviction if they toed the line and respected the law, local media reported on Thursday.

"We cannot remove every white man in this country," Vice-President Joseph Msika was quoted as telling a farmers' rally.

"If you think it's possible, that will not happen. We will respect those white people who respect our laws and want to live with us," the private Daily Mirror newspaper quoted him as saying.

The state-owned Herald further quoted Msika as saying: "We cannot remove every white farmer because it's stupidity. That is shooting yourself in the foot."

No more than 600 white farmers remain in Zimbabwe following controversial land reforms which saw the eviction of at least 4 000 of their peers to pave the way for land redistribution to poor blacks.

Msika also lashed out at lazy black farmers who invaded white farms and seized properties and then failed to produce anything.

"Some of you when you take these farms, you don't make use of them," The Herald quoted Msika as saying.

"Don't just evict someone who is farming productively because they are of a different race."

Msika's statements came weeks after Land Minister Didymus Mutasa said no white farmers were "farming legally" and urged them to seek permission from the government to continue work after constitutional reforms barred dispossesed farmers from seeking legal recourse.

Msika attacked new farmers for their heavy dependence on government handouts.

"We don't want to build a nation of beggars," Msika said, urging the farmers to "cultivate the land".

Zimbabwe's land reforms, which began often violently in 2000 after the rejection in a referendum on a government-sponsored draft Constitution, have seen about 4 000 white farmers lose their properties.

Critics say the majority of the beneficiaries of the land reforms lack farming skills and rely on government handouts.

They also blame the land reforms for the chronic food shortages in what was once Southern Africa's bread basket.

At least four million of Zimbabwe's 13-million people require food aid until the next harvest in May. - AFP

Friday, March 03, 2006

Shabbat Dinner Musings

The food was perfect. Small potato pancakes with avocado spread and smoked trout for starters. Carrot ginger soup with a touch of orange. Brisket, rice, cabbage salad with a vinegar marinade, and a butternut squash savory pie. Cut mango with gramoedilla seeds.

Nicki and I laughed so hard I could barely breathe. My mascara was running down my face and she kept breaking into an American accent so uncanny I almost forgot that she was a former Jo'burger with a fake British accent. "Lans, that is so awesome!"

Snippets of the night:

A. Jo'burger: "Girls, go to the SPAR and buy some parve ice cream for the mangos."
Ilana: "But that means I have to drive. When I turn on the air conditioner, it smells like urine. And leaves are coming out of the vents."
Jo'burger: "Don't care. We need ice cream with the fruit. And make sure it's kosher."

B. Ilana: "Nicki, I think this Ferrero Rocher is stale."
Nicki: "Just bite off the nuts and suck the ball inside."
Nicki's Mom: "Girls! It's Shabbas!"

C. Jo'burger: "Ilana, do you always wear heels? Is it like, hey it's Tuesday morning, let me put on some heels?"
Ilana: "Pretty much."

D. Jo'burger: "I think the Chief Rabbi needs to grow a longer beard."

E. Jo'burger: "What's the word that sounds like the sound of the word?"
Ilana: "You mean an onomatopeia."
Jo'burger: "Oh, yes, like a barking dog."
Nicki: "But that's only when you say barking like you are actually barking. Not just the word barking."

F. Ilana: "I think you guys should bring a real American neoconservative to speak to the Jewish kugels. They'll love it!"
Jo'burger: "You mean like Billy Crystal."
Ilana: "On second thought, maybe Barak Obama as an emerging major American politician. He's a really good speaker and tolerant."
Jo'burger: "That won't work."

G. Jo'burger: "The Chief Rabbi inscribed his new book to me.... Judaism is a set of values."
Jo'burger Male: "Where's the chapter on sex?"
Ilana: "Actually it's about how Judaism values female sexual pleasure and the connection between the sexual bond and emotional intimacy."
Jo'burger: "Pass the brisket."

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Girl Crush

In my heterosexual world, a girl crush is a non-sexual/non-romantic obsession with another female. My last girl crush occurred in about sixth grade, with a teacher I misguidedly thought very "glamorous." If only glamour was as simple as using half a bottle of stale Elizabeth Taylor Passion eau de toilette per day and wearing Sam & Libby ballet slippers with faux leather skirts to teach middle school English. That entire foray into obsession was quite pathetic and culminated in me forcing my parents to eat dinner at the Yorktown Inn (completely and utterly geriatric) to hear the above crush "sing" at the piano bar. Oh, and the Bat Mitzvah invitation. I wish I could forget the entire incident, and use this entry as my last public mea culpa, but quite a few of my friends like to remind me. "Remember when you followed Mrs. X into the teachers' lunchroom?" "Remember how Mrs. X let you wear her fur coat when you babysat?" "Remember when Mrs. X said you were her best friend?" "Remember when Mrs. X asked you to shoot her if she ever got as fat as that lady at the Willow Grove Mall?" Yep... I remember. Thanks for reminding me though!

Anyway, my new girl crush is Jo'burg glitterati. She is taller than me and has a blond bob, icy blue eyes, and perfect skin. Her accent is completely unplaceable but definitely not South African. Every consonant is crisp. Every meal has wine. She's Swiss and German but lived in London for ten years. Her mom moved to South Africa, and after a year in Cape Town, she followed her to Jo'burg. Her clothes are amazing--- she wears capris with open-toed rounded heels with a Dior blazer. We tried on each other's rings.

She only passed her driver's license test this year, and we are both scared to merge on the N highways. We can only handle the M driving 120. She likes to order calamari salads and cuts the calamari in symmetrical ovals with perfect knifestrokes. Late at night, she'll order steak frites and eat each french fry with precise grace.

We're having dinner at LongMeadow in Fourways next week. She says it's like being in France- "we'll sit in the veranda, drink wine, and it doesn't even feel like Johannesburg." I can guarantee her manicure will be perfect and we'll chat about books and London and food and taking a roadtrip together although we are both too chicken for the National highways (the Ns).

She always tells me that some of her German relatives are Jewish.

She's of Jo'burg, but not really Jo'burg at all. No flash and pink sequins and rhinestones and frosted hair. Just elegance and a Chloe Paddington bag.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Home Is You

I arrived mid-morning in chaotic Johannesburg International. Immediately the air changed from false oxygenated to dry and sweet. I was gulping for air in Customs and just needed some South African sun to feel whole.

Nothing worked--- all the ATMs rejected my card, the same card I've used for years internationally. "Transaction Cancelled by Network." "Incompatible Banking System." Oh God... I didn't want anyone to pick me up because I was too tired to talk, too tired to grab a quick freezachino, too tired to talk about Candace suing Hillel, too tired to talk about Italy. I love when my father picks me up from the airport- we can just take a Starbucks to go, listen to music, and talk when we are in the mood. There aren't awkward silences or feelings of guilt for not being more chatty or forthcoming. He understands that I'm tired and hate interacting in public when I'm unshowered and uncoiffed. He only makes a brief, passing comment about how much I can pack for three weeks (last count- 40 cosmetic items for 10 days).

But I need cash to pay the taxi driver. The person I can count on most is away until Sunday. I can call other friends, but that requires niceties, explanations, invitations, coffee sharing. I'm already dripping with sweat, but removing my sweater and scarf adds one more mis-shaped layer to carry. Finally, an ATM works. I have cash.

Men are coming at me left and right asking if I need help or need a minibus. They are all so irritating, but it's still heartbreaking that they will carry everything for me for less than a dollar. I'm annoyed at myself that I find them enraging since they too are covered in sweat and are tired-- tired in a way I'll never be, God willing. Tired of houses that leak, toilets that don't work, electricity that cuts out, taxi rides that are brakeless and excruciating.

The air is so beautiful, the sun is so beautiful, the mountains are so beautiful. I want to bathe in all the beauty.

I speak to my Mom later in the day, when she wakes up. She tells me "Welcome Home. Or to South Africa." Good question.

So many people I love and respect have abandoned the notion of home as tied up in place and land and childhood house. It's only parents and best friends and first loves and long-distance crushes. I'm not sure where I stand... my primary home, my fundamental home, is lying on the couch, any couch, with my Mom, watching Law and Order and fighting over the good seat. Abba sits on the floor, and tells us he likes sitting on the floor, but maybe he just likes being nice to us. Home is watching Tee IM, talk on a landline, and talk on a cellphone all at the same time.

Sometimes home is feeling South African warm grass beneath bare feet and reading on the lounge on the roof terrace, or listening to my heels click as I walk down subway or Metro or tube stairs, or sitting in Saba and Savta's apartment looking through their books, or falling asleep in my clothes on Mir's couch.