14 August 2013

Amsterdam - July 8 - 12

Within minutes of arriving in Holland we experienced that famous Dutch quality called "gezelligheid" at Cousin Linda's very comfortable home in Almere, just outside Amsterdam. Yes, yes, you heard right, another country, another cousin. I have a fair number of those, and thanks to the South African disapora, they are conveniently scattered around the globe. Linda and her Dutch husband, Marcel, fetched us from the Almere train station (after an anxious half hour of waiting at different exits of this surprisingly big station), and plopped us at a table in a shady corner of their garden. Marcel's mother and sister from a nearby town were visiting. And Linda's mother from South Africa had arrived that morning. Over chilled Belgian beer in this peaceful suburban garden, we got an overview of the cultural peculiarities of the Dutch from these locals. Who would have guessed that practically everyone around the table played cricket? That the Dutch were actually very much into this sport we associated with England and her former colonies?

Linda and Marcel deserve medals for hospitality.
The sumptuous meal that appeared on the table was clear evidence of determined effort. Lamb curry, vegetable casserole, vegetable pies, salads, and pickles turned us all into gluttons. Marcel opened up a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from a Stellenbosch winery. Wow, I couldn't imagine a more luxurious way to begin a visit to the great city of Amsterdam.

The next evening Linda and her mom, my Aunt Sally, prepared an assortment of vegetable curries and roti for dinner. It was another balmy evening. Marcel opened up a fine Bordeaux for this meal. We had such a lovely time in the garden reminiscing about our childhood days in Ladysmith. Don't they always seem wonderful in retrospect? The sun disappeared around 10:00 PM and we finally dragged ourselves indoors to rest up before more serious sightseeing in Amsterdam.

A spiffy train from Almere Parkwijn station deposited us most efficiently in Central Amsterdam. Mass transit in Europe never fails to impress the heck out of me. Exiting Amsterdam's Central station - a stunning neo-gothic building designed by Pierre Cuypers - we hopped on a tram, easily visible and waiting to depart, to Museum Square.

Now, I have to admit, we did learn that over the top efficiency had its problems too. Transportation chip cards are supposed to be painless, but we encountered some frustration when we tried to do a top up. But that's a long and boring story!

Rijks Museum
A few hours at the splendid Rijksmuseum did wonders for our cultural IQ. This museum impresses in every possible way - from that gorgeous facade (another of Pierre Cuyper's creations), to its luxurious interior with its precious collection, to the terrific sculpture garden outside.
A free online audio app guided us through the museum's highlights, helping us understand Dutch art of the Golden Age. We got quite the scoop on famous paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and Frans Hals.

The helpful audio guide also made staring at the museum's Delft pottery more meaningful.

Rembrandt's Nightwatch

Rembrandt's gigantic Nightwatch is, of course, the star attraction at this museum. For ten years the museum was closed for remodeling and this famous painting wasn't available to the public. This year Amsterdam was a hot tourist destination due to the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum. Two other major museums - the Stedelijk and the the Van Gogh Museum also re-opened this spring after years of being closed for remodeling.

The audio guide helped me appreciate the contrast of light and dark that made "Nightwatch"famous. Rembrandt's depiction of motion was another unusual feature. Despite the crowds hovering around this masterpiece, we managed a good gawp.


Canals. gabled buildings, and bicycles - Amsterdam images forever imprinted in my mind. What a pleasure to wander around a (mostly) car free city. Though, it has to be said, dodging the millions of cyclists was not exactly fun.









We totally lucked out with accommodation in this city. I found an absolutely fabulous bed and breakfast listed in Rick Steve's guide book. The Hotel de Leydsche Hof was so central - on Leidsegracht - just a five minute walk from Leidseplein. The building was owned by the same family for generations and used to be a proper hotel. Now, after some remodeling, it is like a huge house with many bedrooms and loads of character.








Amsterdam's squares are all so attention grabbing. Rembrandt Square, with an attractive sculpture of the artist and life size bronze figures around the pedestal, provided a great excuse to sit down and rest our weary legs.
The most famous one, the Dam Square, home of the ornate Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk, and the monument can keep you gaping for hours!
On the topic of famous squares, I had a lot of fun on the Leidseplein, discovering jenever. The buzzy cafés on this square provide a pretty cool base to absorb the city's energetic vibe. Tourists, locals, street performers, shoppers, street vendors - all help give this area a really lively atmosphere.
At the Van Gogh museum the term "spiritual" floated into my atheistic lexicon, as I soaked up the magic of this place. I kept saying a silent thank you to Vincent van Gogh's sister-in-law (Theo's wife)  for her persistence in making these works available to the public after his death. How could it be that this genius was a nobody when he was alive?

How many Shakespeares and Beethovens and Van Goghs have gone unnoticed? Thomas Gray said it best in his poem "Elegy in a Country Churchyard".
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness beneath the desert air

But thanks to Theo and his wife, we get to revel in the sweetness of Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers and irises.
Amsterdam Concertgebouw

At another of Amsterdam's treasures, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, we heard three heartwarming pieces of music - Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Mozart's Violin concerto No. 3, and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4

Free beverages (wine, beer, espresso drinks, tea)  were a really nice touch. It was just so pleasurable to relax in the plush lobby during the intermission, sipping red wine, imbued in the sweetness of "Pulcinella".




Vondel Park
On our last day in this fine city, the weather turned a little chilly. Vondel Park was on our "must do" list, so we bravely marched over there after our tour of the Van Gogh Museum. I'd been to this park twenty years ago, when a heatwave swept through Northern Europe. I could clearly remember the party like vibe in this park on that scorching summer day. For the first time in my life I saw gay couples making out, and topless sunbathers sprawled on picnic blankets. Small groups of musicians strummed guitars, and others picnicked on the lawns. But today, with a gray sky above us, and only a few people around, the park had a serene feel about it.

Anne Frank House

A visit to Anne Frank House is just so gut clenching. Walking through the sombre rooms, all I could think of was Anne's joie de vivre that came through so vividly in her diary. She let us into her soul and we know well how she looked forward to her freedom. To think how close they were to it when they were caught ...

What cruelty we humans are capable of. So many examples through the ages, throughout the world ...







Being the responsible tourists that we were, we checked out the Red Light District - but in broad daylight when Warmoestraat, though thick with tourists and the smell of marijuana, was pretty mellow.
After checking out the 13th century Oude Kerk, we strode into the narrow lanes with red lights that radiate from the square. A few women  were at work being alluring ... and it was impossible not to wonder about the heartbreaking circumstances that led them here. We fled from the area, to more cheerful parts of the city.





Indonesian food is to Holland what Indian food is to Britain. We were told that a rijstafel is a not to be missed experience in this city. So we dined at a place called Sampurna near the famous flower market. An overwhelming number of spicy Indonesian dishes, many featuring tofu, tempeh and peanut sauce, arrived at our table. But they were all so tasty, we totally pigged out! It was our last evening in this city, so the heck with exercising discipline!




As we took our last tram ride to the train station in the early morning, we decided that this was a city we had to return to. There was still so much to see.










09 August 2013

Two Days in Bruges (July 6, 7)

Okay, I admit it, we went to Bruges because we saw the movie In Bruges. Amazingly, it really is full of medieval architecture and cobbled, car free lanes, and gorgeous canals with pretty bridges, just like in the movie!

The walk from the train station to our hotel gave us instant satisfaction that we made the right choice. We walked through a very green, shady park along a beautiful canal. Medieval buildings with red sloping roofs came into view. A quick stroll through cobbled lanes (dodging horse driven carriages) and we were at the Hotel Academie, a luxurious (but not in a pretentious way) place to be based. Wandering through the intimate, winding streets you feel like you are inside a beautiful picture. Every moment is a perfect photo op.

















The world's best beer (and chocolate) are a constant temptation in Bruges. My advice: abandon willpower in this town. Bars are always in the most scenic or atmospheric settings. For example, take a look at that bar right on the terrace of an old stone building alongside a charming canal. Who could blame us for yielding to temptation a few times a day? Hoppy beer with shockingly high alcohol percentage kept us in a constant state of euphoric oblivion.

We sampled a fair selection of chocolates too. Every other shop in town claimed to have the best hand made chocolates, so we obviously had to check this out. We would select a few small dark chocolates from the display cases, and munch on them throughout the day.

At the Halve Maan Brewery, famous for giving tours of the beer making process, we skipped the tour and got right down to business in their lovely patio. On a warm summer day, sitting under the shade of an umbrella and sampling the very flavorful beer made right there on the premises, you can go funny in the head. Are we really allowed to have such a great time in such a troubled world? We promised ourselves we would atone for this ...




Belfry





In the movie In Bruges, the belfry, a thirteenth century tower, featured prominently. We climbed up its 366 steps for rooftop views. Wow, it was quite a steep climb, but a pretty quick one. Seeing the carillon up close while it went off (perfect timing on our part) made it all the more rewarding.

We took a ton of photos from the top just because it was so much fun to admire the city from different angles. Afterwards, we explored the nearby Burg square with its stunning buildings.






A four course vegetarian meal at Restaurant de Buhne was definitely our highlight here in this town. This was absolutely the best restaurant meal we ever had. On our first evening I went into the restaurant to ask if we could get seated. A polite, soft spoken lady pointed to a table in the rather elegant dining room. It was a perfect summer evening and the idea of dining indoors didn't really appeal. I asked her if she had outdoor seating. She smiled and said, "You know, it's such a beautiful evening. You should go to a restaurant with a terrace. There's an Indian restaurant on the square around the corner which serves good food. Why don't you go there?"

When I reported back to Daryl, he chuckled. Why would a restaurant  - which wasn't exactly busy (there was no one in it) - actually encourage us to go somewhere else? We weren't in the mood for Indian so we sauntered over to the big central square - The Markt - and studied the menus of the many mainly Italian restaurants. The square certainly had atmosphere (lots of people and entertainers), and it had a lot of beauty (e.g. the neo-gothic courthouse and red medieval houses), but it seemed obvious that the mass-produced food would be mediocre tourist fare.

Off on a side lane we found a little Mediterranean place featuring falafels, haloumi, humus, that sort of thing. It had everything we were looking for - outside dining, atmosphere (close enough to the Markt), and the menu suggested a definite interest in catering to the vegetarian. A warm, older Flemish woman took our order in the manner that revealed she owned the place. She suggested we get fries for starters. Earlier in the day we had sampled Belgian fries at a "hole in a wall" take-out place and found it astonishingly tasty - crisp on the outside and soft inside. We quickly realized that this was a specialty of the region, so of course we said yes. The sizzling fries were served with three tasty home made sauces. We demolished them in seconds (well, I exaggerate)! Our mains - stuffed pita with salad - were really good too. An English couple sitting near us told us they came to Bruges a few times a year and always ate at this place. Aha, did this mean we had the gift of sniffing out the right restaurants?

Later, back in our hotel room, I did some more research on vegetarian restaurants in Bruges. Again and again I kept reading rave reviews of de Buhne. It seemed obvious that we had to go there for a meal. So the next day, another sunny day, we lunched at de Buhne. What better way to stay cool than in the elegant dining room of a top vegetarian restaurant? The softly spoken lady seated us by the window and then explained the four course menu to us. Unusual. Imaginative. We smiled in that satisfied way of people reassured of a truly unforgettable experience.

De Buhne Restaurant in Bruges

Soup with meringues and cheese sticks

Freshly made manicotti
Second Course - shortbread base, sauce, beets








Roasted Fennel in Pastry Cases with Battered Asparagus
Wine seemed more appropriate than beer, and we were pleased with our selections. Less pleasing though, was the lack of water. We found it quite confounding that the only way you could get water with your meal in Europe was to buy it.

An amuse bouche was served, and soon after, each exquisite course appeared in well timed succession. As each artistically presented dish was brought to us, we just stared at it for a while, discreetly getting out the camera so we could immortalize the experience.

For dessert we were served a warm, delicate apricot tart. The pastry was so light and the fresh apricots so flavorful. Wow! We ate it slowly, drawing out the experience to make it last as long as possible.

We learned from Tripadvisor that this restaurant is run by a French chef and his Italian wife (the soft spoken lady). This couple loves what they do and will not compromise their standards for anything. This restaurant may well be a reason for us to return to Bruges.

In summary, if your idea of fun is to be in a beautiful place where you can find lots and lots of great beer and chocolate, you might enjoy Bruges. We certainly did!


08 August 2013

London (July 2 - 6)

We had a mere four days to fit in as many of our London traditions as we could. My magnanimous, beautiful, thoughtful Cousin Angie once again welcomed us into her lovely Belsize Park flat. Not only did we have a comfortable bed, we also had a well stocked refrigerator and pantry with every food item we could possibly need. In addition to all this luxury, many of our favorite London places were an easy walk from Angie's flat.

A stroll into Camden Town (down Haverstock Hill Road past the Round House) for lunch engendered an immediate "wow, this is why I love London" feeling. All that international cuisine at Stables Market, the arty clothes and jewelry markets, and, of course, Regent's Canal create quite the atmosphere. This is where the first time visitor to London should start exploring the city.

In the evening we feasted on a superb Indian meal that Angie prepared. We had a good old chat, covering the usual assortment of topics.

The next morning I left an unwell Daryl in bed, and hopped onto Bus 24 to Trafalgar Square. London is blessed with one of the best art museums in the world and my plan was to wallow in its collection.
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London

There was much to love at this museum (a whopping collection of the greatest European art over several centuries), but what I enjoyed most were the school groups. There was this group of befuddled, restless nine year olds seated cross legged on the floor facing Constable's Hay Wain. A teachers asked them questions about the era. Their predictable answers gave me quite a chuckle. This scenario was repeated throughout the museum. I thought, how lucky London kids are to live in a city so rich in culture and history.



St. Anne's Churchyard, Soho
Strolling through Soho's narrow lanes at lunch time is a great way to see suit clad Londoner's on their way to trendy restaurants. Browsing the menus here disabuses you of any dated stereotypic notions you might have of English food. Soho restaurants are clearly for the 21st century ethically responsible, adventurous, sophisticated diner. London's celebrity chef, Ottolinghi, has his restaurant here. With the art of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists fresh in my mind I found the process of food selection too overwhelming. So I settled for Maoz Falafel and enjoyed it in the beautiful St. Anne's Churchyard around the corner. Londoners in office attire sat on nearby benches munching sandwiches, immersed in conversation. It felt great to find a spot away from tourists, but clearly a local favorite.

After lunch I joined the crowds and hunted for bargains on busy Oxford and Regent Streets. The July sales had begun. I found two light sweaters suitable for the opera in the evening.
Traipsing around the center of post Olympic London was so much fun. I remember how unpleasant it was two years ago with  all the road work and scaffolding and building cacophony. The warm temperature definitely helped.

Troy and Jon came over from Cambridge in the early evening. The four of us were going to see Verdi's Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House. After a hurried dinner of Angie's yummy leftovers from our Indian meal the night before, we took the tube to Covent Garden. We joined London's high society as we made our way to the Royal Opera House. This building is so beautiful, and entering the plush interior made me feel like I was trespassing through territory reserved for the privileged. Troy treated us to seats just two rows from the stage. We could BBC cameras on a lower balcony behind us. Then we noticed Stephen Fry being interviewed. (Later, during the intermission Troy saw Stephen Fry with Alan Davies quaffing champagne and scarfing down buffet fare.)

So close to the stage, facial expressions and voices so clear, we were pulled right into the Genoa of Simon Bocannegra. The male actors, especially the (black) American, Russell Thomas, delivered the kind of star quality performance expected at a world class opera house. Critics anticipate Russell Thomas cast as Otello in the near future. The female lead role - Amelia - played by Hibla Gerzmava was a little disappointing. She was an outstanding actress and had a beautiful voice, but she couldn't carry the highest notes. I found this a little surprising, given the high standards of this venue. Overall, though, with Verdi's moving music, and a troupe of outstanding actors, we loved the performance.


London Skyline from Hampstead Heath

London has had awful summers the last couple years. Not so this year. With each day warmer than the previous, the pull of the outside was too strong to resist. Troy, Daryl, and I took a stroll through Hampstead Heath in the morning. We showed Troy our favorite bench not too far from Parliament Hill. One of our London traditions is to sit on this bench, eating chips from an excellent nearby fish and chips shop, and sipping cold beer. From here you can enjoy the most wonderful view of the London skyline.



After Troy left we made a beeline for Archway on the overland train. Lunch at Peking Palace, a little vegan Chinese restaurant on Holloway Road, was a tradition we didn't want to sacrifice. The rather inexpensive buffet lunch - a decent assortment of tasty, sensibly prepared vegetables and tofu dishes - lived up to our expectations. A slide show on wall monitors of environmental damage resulting from meat production made us feel quite smug about our dietary choices!



We spent another stimulating evening with the Self family in Willesden Green. Daryl prepared a tasty pasta dinner and Tasha (who has suddenly turned into an adult) provided the wine and cheese. We covered as many controversial topics as we could, thereby preserving our special bonds. I can't get over the fact that the youngest Self, Katie, is about to start university. How did this happen? An evening here always leaves us with those warm feelings of gratitude to not only know such lovely people, but to have them as lifelong friends.







Regent's Park is a lovely walk from Angie's flat in Belsize Park. Down Haverstock Hill Road, then into Primrose Hill, across the park and over to Regent's Park. We met up David and Rona in this gorgeous London park. After a stroll through the fragrant rose garden we found a shady spot outside the café. Over a pretty decent lunch of tomato soup and ciabatta sandwiches (roasted eggplant, mozzarella, and pesto) we exchanged highlights of our lives since we'd last been together. A lot has happened in the last year - and we appreciated the opportunity to experience for a few hours the company of old friends who genuinely care.


On our last evening in London we wanted to have an indulgent dining experience. After all, we were in one of the world's great culinary capitals. My first thought was to go to a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef like Jamie Oliver or Ottolenghi. Then Daryl came across rave reviews for an exclusively vegetarian restaurant called Black Vanilla in a quiet lane off Chancery Lane. So we made our reservations, and slid into proper evening attire. Before dinner we did the London thing of having a beer at a nearby pub. Warm summer evenings in London are full of festive atmosphere. Chancery Lane is famously the address of London's barristers, and they were all here at this pub, in clusters, spilling out on the street. Atmospheric pubs, summer evenings, strong English Ale - I love it!

As soon as we stepped into Black Vanilla we knew we were in for a damn good time. Indeed, every moment was an experience to savor. The tasteful interior - like an old English home - and contemporary china were clear indicators of an intent to pamper. It was so much fun studying the extremely unusual menu, knowing you could choose absolutely any item. An amuse-bouche of some savory mousse in a cute little bowl appeared before the first course. A reassuring touch - we chose well with this restaurant. For starters I had brie ice cream (savory of course) with pickled plums and mulled custard. Daryl chose the grilled carrot cake with sheep's yogurt. My main course was the goats cheese and toasted cauliflower mille feuille. Daryl had the fried mushroom mousse and rosemary scone. We shared a dessert that will be a topic of conversation for years. Roasted White Chocolate, cep mushroom custard, and tarragon cream cheese. I love ceps (aka fungi porcini) and will never turn down the opportunity to eat them. Unless they are served as dessert. Daryl has a thing about ordering inventive desserts and so I had to take the plunge and dare to be different. Of course, the dessert was another fine example of the chef's skill. Interesting, well thought out flavors - yes ... but am I sold?

An unforgettable meal at a first class vegetarian restaurant has the delusional effect of making you feel like all is right with the world. Such was our state of mind when we boarded the Eurostar early the next morning. Destination: Bruges.



31 July 2013

An Ex-Pat in South Africa (June 22 - July 2, 2013)


Returning to South Africa for a ten day visit re-established my fickle feelings for this country of my birth and childhood. I yield to its seductive power, but, like a disinterested lover who can only offer superficial satisfaction, it leaves me exasperated. It’s always with much joy that I purchase my plane ticket. The anticipation of reuniting with people I love and going on game drives and eating Mum’s food fires me up. But almost as soon as my plane touches down, apprehension seeps into my abdomen.


This June, midwinter in South Africa, as the plane descended, I looked out the window at the desolate landscape of the Highveld. So evocative of the landscape of my childhood winters in Ladysmith. It made me think about all that is wrong with this country. (When I visit at Christmas time my feelings are the exact opposite!)

At passport control I gleefully went to the line for foreign passport holders. I felt foreign to my very core. This country was never mine, even when I lived here. As a child I was taught to hate my brown skin, to feel ashamed of my cultural ancestry, to be embarrassed about my uneducated community. The nation’s orange, blue, and white flag, proudly waved by supporters of the ruling National Party, represented oppression and hatred. Up to the age of 23 I never experienced what it was like to be a member of the mainstream. We, Indians, lived in the shadows. Isolated from the whites who were the “true” citizens. And isolated from the black majority, natives of this land that they loved, but from which they’d been disowned. From my inferior place in the shadows I watched, like a curious visitor, the “true” South Africans living proper lives. Enviously, I watched them shop at expensive shops like Ackerman’s, and eat at fine restaurants. These “real” South Africans played rugby, and went on beach holidays, and lived in lovely houses on clean, tree lined streets. The mainstream media carried their stories, and advertisements targeted their lifestyle needs. Meanwhile, I, along with my community, lived in our own space within the prison walls of apartheid.

And so I resume my visitor role in this country. The line at passport control is exasperatingly long. Americans, Europeans, Asians, people from the Middle East, and people from all over the African continent - a rainbow of nations -here to visit the Rainbow Nation. The handsome African man who stamps my passport welcomes me warmly, and I shrug off my bitterness. Decades have past. It’s been the New South Africa for a while. Nelson Mandela’s picture greets me on my way to the baggage carousel. My chest swells with pride. In silence I shout out to all who have just arrived in the country: Dear Overseas Visitor, are you noticing how modern and clean and beautiful this airport is? This isn't really Africa you know. It's South Africa. 


Johannesburg

My darling sister is waiting for me in the arrivals lounge. Familiar sounds - Zulu expressions, South African English, Afrikaans - mingle, make me smile. Outside, the sun, reliable as ever, is shining out of the great blue African sky. I sniff the dry air, and smile at everyone. I love being here. 

From the airport we drive onto a modern freeway passing the tapestry of contrasting scenes that  form South Africa's landscape. Shabby tin shacks, then rows of little government project homes, then elaborate gated communities, then more shacks. The third world right alongside the first world. We drive through the policed gates of my sister's estate, entering an artificial haven where kids can ride their bikes on quiet roads and front doors can stay wide open. As we drive past Tuscan villas in grandly landscaped gardens, I am reminded of Europe during ancient times when the privileged lived within the walls of a city, protected from the riffraff. But who am I to criticize? I have my own walls - the Atlantic and the Pacific - which keep me secure.


After a shower and rest my sister whisks me off to an amazing food market. We go to the Honeydew Shopping Center just a few minutes drive from her place for an absolute trip of the senses. Imagine a more jazzed up Whole Foods and Waitrose. Greater variety, larger quantities, more sensibly priced, and  primarily locally sourced. (To be fair, most of South Africa's produce tends to be locally sourced.) Well, you would get this Food Lover's Market, which frankly, is a tad pretentious. Take a look at this photo, for example: 

Even though it's midwinter the variety of produce is staggering. Shopping at upscale food markets is one of my things, but in South Africa the familiarly unique foods makes this activity even more entertaining. Huge butternut squashes, enormous bunches of dark green chard, oranges in big red sacks, gem squashes, flat round pumpkins, beans of various shapes and colors ... In the dessert section I can't make up my mind whether to get milk tart or malva pudding. Breakfast rusks fill up several shelves. I select the healthiest muesli rusks. The bakery section displays every type of bread imaginable - rye, multigrain, wholewheat, white - freshly baked and still warm. Further on - ripe, creamy cheeses from Simonsberg and sharp, hard ones from Bergville. And yes, many more from abroad. Got to have gorgonzola from Italy and Wenseleydale from England to satisfy the clientele! In the dairy section there's ready made custard, along with various yogurts and fresh creams. Exercising superhuman willpower, we take home groceries for just three days.

Ah yes, lekker to be "home" again. Immersed again in sights and smells and sounds that my senses know so well, a warm feeling spreads throughout my being. Weaver birds, raucous hadedas, Afrikaans, Zulu, cricket news, papayas in the fruit basket, guava juice, Sunlight soap - why does such primal familiarity make me so happy?

Pam, my sister, starts dinner preparations - roti and soya shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce. She asks me to select a wine from their wine cabinet. I choose a Delheim Cabernet Sauvignon. Years ago Daryl and I learned, on a visit to the Delheim Wine Farm in Stellenbosch, that they'd been making wine for over three hundred years. The Cab I pour myself is a 2008. I sniff its powerful aroma. Very promising. I let it breathe. My niece, Kimi, shows off some new dances she'd learned at her Saturday morning dance class. Outside, winter darkness has settled over Johannesburg. Back in the land of my childhood with people I love and who love me, I feel content.

The next day we drove to the Lion and Rhino Game Park just outside Johannesburg. From Pam's Honeydew home, it was a mere twenty minute drive. Quite unbelievable how quickly we could escape the built up city and enter the wilderness. It turned out to be a truly rewarding day. 


Midwinter is widely know to be the best time to view game. On the highveld, as this area is known due to the land lying on a plateau, the vegetation is sparse. It's the savannah - with tall grasses and scattered flat topped acacia trees. No rain in winter results in dried up grass. (Summers here are wet, with frequent electric storms and the vegetation then is quite dense) So we saw wildlife pretty much the whole time we were in the park. The herbivores - eland, gemsbok, blesbok - were everywhere. We also saw lots of ostriches and Cape bison.


But, of course, seeing lions is really cool. From the car we were able to see them quite easily. It was midday and a family was feasting on a fresh kill. A male lion rested away from the pride, a satisfied look on his face.
This park is small and easy to drive through. Helpful signs lead you to the various sections where you are likely to see the bigger game. We saw wild dogs resting beside the road. Then a short while later we saw a cheetah through the grass. Further on we saw another cheetah more clearly.
Driving on we spotted rhinos right in the middle of a "made for a movie" African scene. Ostriches, blesbok, gemsbok, and Cape bison dined alongside a mother rhino and her infant. Flat topped thorny acacia trees dotted the bare landscape The sky, cloudless and deep blue, formed a pretty contrast to the browns. In this beauty, this tranquility, I felt like a native again.  

Later, we were surprised to spot white lions lying in the grass. I'd never seen white lions in the wild before. They are really magnificent. Before leaving the park, close to a lake, we saw some hippos. 

It was quite the day for photographs. Ah ... seductive Africa! How gratifying to be on your precious soil.

Settling into a state of complacency in South Africa is unfortunately quite impossible. Everywhere you go you still see blatant evidence of a hierarchical society based on race. Yes, there is a significant black middle class. But in the upmarket stores, and malls, and restaurants, the clientele is still predominantly white. All middle class homes still have full time maids and gardeners who are deferential to their employers, addressing them as "madam" and "baas". There is such wide spread poverty and people resort to all sorts of heartbreaking ways to earn money. Car guards in parking lots make sure nobody breaks into your car. At busy intersections people try to sell drivers the newspaper or fake designer apparel. Produce vendors set up stands wherever they can. You are constantly reminded what a struggle life is for so many people.

The big news item was Nelson Mandela in critical condition in a hospital. Everyone expected him to die any moment. Newspaper reporters were camped out near his hospital. Cautious announcements about his health were made by President Zuma. Another big news item was the anticipation of a visit by President Obama. It was interesting to observe how South Africans felt about Obama. Protest groups planned marches to demonstrate their resentment of America's imperialism.

Pam was determined to show me a good time in Johannesburg, so my three days here were really wonderful.

Ladysmith



Pam, Kimi, and I make the four hour drive through the barren winter landscape to our hometown. Immersed in the scenery of my childhood - the sad, empty Klip River (which used to be a proper river when I was a kid), the gentle hills spiked with acacia trees ringing the town's perimeter, the lighthouse perched on the highest downtown hill - I feel the prison walls close in on me again. In Mum's garden the skeletal deciduous trees conjure up the oppression of my conservative community - a childhood of prison walls within prison walls.

Mum is in such ecstasy to see me. Surrounded by love, and bonding with the new generation - Cayden. Shreyan, and Kimi - cheers me up. These kids attend integrated schools, travel, read, are comfortable with iPads and laptops, and interact with adults who have traveled the world. Progress has been made.

Despite some heavy duty remodeling projects going on, I had a lovely time in my two days in Ladysmith. I ate well (an aromatic biryani tops the list), spent quality time with Mum and other close family members, and read Greek Myths to Kimi and Cayden. An unusual heatwave in the middle of winter enhanced the pleasantness.

Umhlanga Beach

Umhlanga

After Ladysmith we escaped to the Durban area for a few days at a beach resort. Pam reserved a spacious apartment on the beach so we could enjoy quality time together in a gorgeous setting. Well, this was just the most civilized idea, if you ask me. Leaving the dry interior and entering the lush subtropical coast was like hearing a Mozart symphony after hours of a jarring sledgehammer. From the open plan kitchen, dining room and living room we had sensational views of the boisterous Indian Ocean. Oh yes, those enormous waves roll across like monsters, crashing on sand that is worthy of the adjective "golden". We were in the middle of a stretch of hotels and vacation apartments lining the coast. Between the buildings and the beach a paved promenade stretched for miles and miles all the way into Durban's waterfront area. We hung out on the beach, strolled along the promenade, devoured delicious meals, lazed about on the terrace, and generally just enjoyed being together. The weather was pleasantly mild - except for the day we arrived when we had the mother of all electric storms!

Umhlanga has a fine assortment of restaurants. On our first day here we had the local specialty - bunnies. This South African Indian dish is basically a spicy curry in hollowed out bread - like a bread bowl. Many Indians live in the Durban area and they have a reputation for being outstanding cooks - justifiably so in my opinion. The bunny I had - broad beans and vegetables - was so good I couldn't stop eating. I spent the next hours feeling like a large rock had lodged itself in my tummy.
Phuket Thai Restaurant


Another great food discovery I made was this incredible Thai restaurant right in the middle of the very cute downtown area. I found it while wandering past the lively cafés and bars. It was winter break for the school kids in South Africa so this resort town was quite busy. Anyway, I had lunch at Phuket Thai and boy, was I impressed! First of all, the coconut based sauce had a perfect consistency - neither runny, nor too thick. And the spicing was clear evidence that a master chef ran the kitchen. Secondly, the tofu dish had a variety of vegetables all cooked just enough to preserve the color and crunchiness. Wow! I raved about it afterwards and the next day Risha and Pam bought take out from here. They too were equally blown away.

And on the topic of meals, I should mention another unforgettable dinner I had. Mum's sister Angie, and her family came over to see us. They brought along some seriously tasty curries and roti. While enjoying this lekker meal Angie told me all about her trip to Australia last Christmas. It was her very first plane flight ever, and the only foreign country she'd ever visited. Boy, was she stoked about this trip!



In Umhlanga a highlight for me was getting up early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Indian Ocean. In South Africa it's never a problem awakening early because  squawking hadeda birds work like alarm clocks. From our apartment's large terrace the view was perfect. Surprisingly, it was actually quite a busy time of day. Just across from our apartment I could see many surfer dudes bobbing in the water. The surf here is legendary, and with both air and water temperatures pretty mild, it's a surfer's paradise. The promenade was also busy with people in fitness attire power walking in the cool of the early morning.




Here, in Umhlanga, you see posh hotels, clean beaches, upscale restaurants with generic western menus, and all the people on vacation are white. You could be in America or Europe. Then you see a family of monkeys hovering close to balconies, waiting for that opportunity to dart in and help themselves to fruit from the fruit bowl. And you know this is Africa. Exotic Africa.

Umhlanga's white vacationers who are serviced by blacks is a sobering reminder that even after twenty years of a post apartheid government, the country has made so little progress toward integration. Of course, it's hardly surprising. Twenty years ago when Nelson Mandela became the first black president after the country's first free elections, the vast majority of adult blacks were illiterate, living in various levels of poverty. Due to the design of apartheid South Africa, black families rarely lived together in the same home. A forced dysfunctionality had its expected consequences. Today's black adults were the traumatized children of those unfortunate  families, and to expect them to suddenly blend into the middle class mainstream would be naive. Yes, there have been lots of good changes. Some things are better. Some are worse. Overall, though, I feel hopeful. Today's black kids go to school. The universities are overwhelmingly black. How could it not get better?

But after years of living abroad I do find it quite disconcerting to see the country of my childhood still so divided. I find the government's inefficiency and corruption even more distressing. South Africans are not proud of their president, squirming at newspaper photos of President Zuma beside President Obama.

President Obama's South African visit received much (positive) press coverage. It was heartwarming to watch him give his main speech from the UCT campus with my family. We chuckled at his references to Nando's and the group Freshly Ground.



Pam, Risha, Mum, and I spent an indulgent evening at Mangwanani African Spa at the Sibaya Casino which was a ten minute drive from our apartment. This was an evening of sheer luxury. First you get into a robe and slippers, then get seated at a table in the classy dining room. African décor and music provide the desired ambience. A cocktail and appetizers are served. Then you get escorted into a cubicle in a very African style rondavel where a masseuse offers you a choice of oils for the massage of your life. Forty five blissful minutes later you are back in the dining room for a sumptuous meal. On the menu was potjiekos - a South African stew loaded with vegetables and herbs and spices, prepared on a big cast iron three legged pot over a wood fire. The superb stew was served in miniature three legged pots. For drinks we decided to live it up and have champagne. Mum found this level of luxury a bit bewildering. We were worried that she might not actually be enjoying the experience. After dinner we were taken to another thatched roofed rondavel for head and neck massages. This time we didn't have private cubicles, but sat on comfortable chairs arranged in a long row.
Back to the dining room for dessert. There were three yummy cakes to choose from- cheesecake, chocolate cake, and a vanilla cake. I had a tiny piece of each and enjoyed them all. Dessert was followed by another treatment - a foot massage. I have to say the three therapists I had were outstanding.
Back at our dining table we were served Amarula (a South African liqueur very similar to Bailey's) and dark chocolate. Ah, what luxury! Truly a memory to treasure. Definitely worth the long plane flights here.

On my last day in South Africa I had a long, leisurely brunch with my cousin Jaya. Sitting at a beach café in Umhlanga, we caught up on all the news of the last two years. We've known each other since we were babies, so we have quite a bond. It's always so easy to be with her. Sharing a meal with a childhood buddy in this stunning setting - the great Indian Ocean with its huge waves crashing on a sandy beach, the red and white lighthouse just over to our right, and the warm winter sun above us - was the perfect ending to a most satisfying trip.

As my plane makes its ascent the usual schizophrenia returns. Saying good bye to the people closest to your heart is never easy. I'm sad ... yet happy. I'm returning to the big wide world, a global citizen once again. In ten hours I'll be with my English husband in London. After a couple more weeks in Europe we'll return to our California home.

Sala Kahle, South Africa!



24 July 2013

French Riviera (June)

We moved out of Villa Maye to base ourselves in the heart of old town Antibes. We planned to spend the week working on our projects. So it wasn't quite vacation week. I had fantasies of doing some serious writing during the day and in the evenings we'd go out and enjoy Antibe's vibrancy and beauty. When we saw our new place we immediately realized what a mistake it was to move out of Villa Maye. The new place was so tiny (appropriately named Le Petite Masion) and even though the owner had gone to great pains to decorate the place with interesting art and foreign acquisitions, it lacked the class and elegance we had enjoyed. The best feature was its location.
We were steps away from everything! The Antibes produce market, boulangeries, cafés, the ramparts, wine, everything we could want  - just around the corner from us. I loved going out to get my morning croissant - always still warm - every morning while Daryl made the coffee. We breakfasted out in the tiny upstairs terrace, grateful to be able to see blue sky above us.

Daryl was pretty disciplined about working on his research projects during the day. I, on the other hand, experimented with spending my days doing whatever the heck I felt like doing. During the school year my days are extremely structured and quite intense. There are always numerous unfinished tasks and many more that required planning. So having a week in which I could decide how to spend each moment was quite a luxury. Since we'd been to Antibes many times in the past, there weren't any urgent "tourist have-to-do's" either. I usually started each day at the market, marveling at the many cheeses, breathing in the aromas of the summer fruit, admiring the deep colors of the vegetables, sampling the many tapenades. I could never get enough of the place. I roamed the pedestrianized streets of the old town, stopped for gelato, considered purchasing provencal linen, and later in the day I'd rest up in our little apartment.



In the late afternoon Daryl and I would go to the beach and swim in the pleasantly cool water. I can never get over how sensational the experience is - not just the feel of the water, but also the beautiful views all around - the Alps in the distance, the curve of the coastline, the old stone fort, the masts of the yachts, the color of the calm Mediterranean.

After a swim, we'd shower, get dressed, and seek out a place to enjoy an aperitif. Old town Antibes buzzed with tourists and locals. Outdoor cafés were full of atmosphere. Sitting beside a fountain or in a big square full of other people enjoying aperitifs is one of the great joys of European cities.


Sipping a kir at the Royal Hotel Café right on the beach is my idea of sheer indulgence. Ambivalence tends to plague us during these occasions, though - glamor doesn't fit our self-images.








My friend, Venita, who lived in Nice for  a number of years and now lives in Paris, happened to be on the Cote d'Azur while I was there. We met up for lunch in Nice on a perfect summer Saturday. Over Chez Thereza'a socca at the Nice market on Cours Saleya, we had a good old chat about our lives in the last year. She was not her usual bubbly self, and confessed that she'd been out partying all night. After a full day of meetings in Monaco, she and her work colleagues had gone bar hopping all night. At each bar they shared a bottle of champagne and only returned to their hotel rooms at 5:00 A.M.! Talk about a life of glamor!!


Sauntering through the Old Town of Nice is most rewarding. It has a most distinctive character. I love its Belle Epoque architecture, its magnificent squares, its specialty cuisine, and of course, its huge outdoor market which draws crowds of people. I returned to Nice a few days later to immerse myself again in its quaintness. After meandering through the narrow, cobbled lanes of the center I braved the heat and walked up to the Colline du Chateau. From up at the top the views are sensational. The Baie de Anges sparkles in all its azure glory just like the tourist brochures declare. You can see the pebbly beach and the Promenade de Anglais stretching along the coast. As you follow the coastline you can see Cap d'Antibes protruding into the sea. Enormous hotels line the promenade, and the white dome of the Hotel Negresca juts out most prominently.

Cathedrale St. Reparaté
As you fight the crowds through the narrow streets of Nice you inevitably end up in front of this gorgeous baroque cathedral in a very busy square called Place Rosetti. I enjoyed a fine Nicoise meal beside a fountain in a quieter square to round off my Nice visit.

Tourists absolutely suffocate this town. I realized that this is because of the huge hotels along the Promenade de Anglais. Antibes and other neighboring Riviera towns don't have many hotels and can therefore maintain more of their charm. Driving in and out of Antibes, though, is no fun at all. The roads are jam-packed making it a real headache to get anywhere by car. The public transportation within the towns are fine, but intercity connections are infrequent and inefficient.

The sad truth is that the French Riviera is the vacation destination of just too many people. As a result it is overdeveloped, overcrowded, and the roads are always congested.




Sospel

We whiled away a few hours in this cute mountain hamlet called Sospel. Just an hour's drive from Nice along winding mountain roads, it feels utterly remote. With its mountain backdrop, interesting architecture spanning a few centuries, and the River Bévéra bisecting the town, Sospel is quite picturesque. After a stroll through the quiet streets, we had a leisurely lunch at a café beside the river.





We had studied the menus of all the restaurants along this stretch and were dismayed at the lack of vegetarian options. The place we settled for had homemade pasta with vegetables. Unfortunately the pasta was stodgy with no sauce to compensate. But we did enjoy the bread and wine. And the setting, of course.










On our last evening in Antibes we hiked around the cap one last time. The beauty, the temperature, the air, the smells, sounds, colors, light - I wished I could bottle it all up. Afterwards we found a spot beside the water to enjoy a picnic dinner. We have picnicked out here many times in the past, and it always feels just as magical as the first time. Across the turquoise water we could see Antibes town, and Nice in the distance. We munched the regional specialty - pissaladiére -and salad in contentment.

Two weeks was definitely the right amount of time to enjoy this area. We were ready to move on to the next destination.