(Published in VISI Magazine, December 2012)
I have been living in Cape Town for 25 years and enjoy living here, even if this city is, after all, a visdorpie compared to most cities the world over. More than anything else about Cape Town as a city, I enjoy walking the streets of the CBD and discovering yet another small, independent coffee shop or another view or angle onto a street with its mix of hidden mosques and colonial, apartheid and modern-global architecture.
But almost every Spring something both light and dark tugs at the heart. It may be a bush of jasmine pouring over a wall in Tamboerskloof or the change of light on the face of Table Mountain that draws me back to what I call my home-home, the house and garden where I grew up in Paarl, the environs of the town, the mountains surrounding it. Then tugs at my heart a nostalgia lit by Boland sun, yet dark as any winter.
Many of my city friends react with disbelief to my childhood stories, which strike them often as stories of a rural idyll, notwithstanding that my home town, Paarl, was, even back in the 1970s and 1980s, peri- and semi-urban. But it was still a place where you had to negotiate Bothma’s cows being herded to a nearby grazing field on your way to (primary) school, or where, on your way from school, you might stop at a stream to catch tadpoles with friends.
Before we had climate change and shifting seasons, back when the seasons coincided with certain months, schoolboys celebrated 1 September by arguing with their mothers to be allowed to go to school barefoot and in shorts. It was indeed as if something tightly coiled had suddenly sprung free. And it is this verve that I associate with spring, a verve, alas, not always visible in the city and not always so tangible in adult life.
When I do see a jasmine bush in the city, it enlivens me and takes me back to the bush we had back home, just outside the kitchen door, pouring its green vines through the terra cotta wall closing off the front garden from the backyard and sweetening the morning air. It takes me back to my late father’s garden: a magnificent bush of mint growing underneath the garden tap a few feet away from the jasmine, and also, in other parts of the garden, yesterday, today and tomorrow, katjiepiering (gardenia), wisteria, sweetpeas, bottlebrush, violets, pansies. Mrs. Martin next door also had jakob-regop (zinnia) and leeubekkies (snapdragon).
Spring in Paarl. In my memory it is always about colours brightening. In high-school years, it was the oak trees with bright buds in front of the white school building: Noorder Paarl Secondary, an old-world school, built with community funds, opened in 1926, and left – during apartheid – in a then white area. Across from the school, on the banks of the Berg River, a veld of green with white clumps of varkblom (arum lilies).
But spring also carries its toll. With the warming weather, the lawn had to be mowed more regularly. What child wants to be emptying grass cuttings onto a compost heap that was now starting to “talk” as the days warmed? What child would not want to be out with friends, barefoot and in shorts, playing cricket on the sandy patch under a stand of pines in the veld just across the road from our neighbourhood?
The dark undertow to spring is that it is also, in a manner of speaking, short-lived, temporary, ephemeral as the buds and blossoms that define the season and not mitigated by the fact that, like all seasons, spring will come around again. As much as the child wants to jump out of his shoes and forget the chills of winter, as much as spring symbolises new life, one is always aware that, soon enough, next March, a sudden chill will fall over the late afternoon, that the vine leaves will turn red and brown. Squirrels know this.
If spring represents rejuvenation and life, looking at spring past and present is as much a reckoning of past winters and, perhaps, a dread of future ones. What has gone, what will be gone. The school still stands, but the stand of pines is gone – it had to make way for more houses, for more human lives, for that very thing that spring symbolises: life. The picturesque white mosque with the palm tree in Breda Street, central Paarl now stands largely unused, painted in a cast-off colour, as the Muslim community has expanded in the once new Group Areas, where they are served by an ugly, modern mosque and madressah complex – three storeys but nevertheless a squat building. Not all newness rejuvenates, not all change is as good as a holiday.