LISTENING TO THE RADIO IN GLOUCESTOR ROAD

I wanted to revisit this poem, and change it slightly. Also, I felt it got swamped in the Rites of Pasta, one of my previous posts. In my memory it stand out so clearly, the mild English sun filtering through the window. The silence in the house, the pefect peace in the midst of a global city which is what London is.

 

Country 4

 

 

It was not really cricket, but rather a poem

about cricket.

about a match played in Edwardian times

in the countryside, in the summer.

I was having a bath, the transistor radio

tuned to BBC 3

listening to the voice, deliver a poem in a languid voice

describing the dull monotony of bat against ball

in defensive stroke

and the occasional boundary, demurely applauded by

ladies under umbrellas, sipping lemonade

in the summer, in the countryside

So the poem went, as I listened, drowsing in the bath

the water cooling down

as I lay in the bath

in Gloucester Road.

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, SILENT HOUSE AND THE ALLURE OF OBJECTS

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Orhan Pamuk wrote a novel, The Museum of Innocence, and he restored a dilapidated old building in Istantbul, transforming it, as a accompiment, you could say, into a Museum of Innocence. It contained the many items that belonged to Füsun, the young woman he fell in love with and haunted him througout his life. Like the Sultan of India who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife, so Pamuk created a museum for someone who did not exist. As the author himself explained: these are objects from my memory.

I wrote a review of Silent House and The Museum of Innocence for DEKAT Magazine.

Every year they come, the grandchildren, to the village by the sea to visit their grandmother, Fatma Hanim, who lives in the small coastal town of Cennethisar near Istanbul. She lives alone, except for the dwarf Recep, who cooks, cleans, shops, and acts, generally, as her caregiver. But the once sleepy little fishing village has changed, we are told. Brash apartment blocks are now everywhere in evidence, ugly shops, traffic clogs up the streets, noise fills the air, billboards abound and on the beaches, the once pristine beaches, semi-nude women shamelessly display their bodies. Years ago, Fatma and her husband were banished to the fishing village. Now the grandmother is beset by bitter memories of the many follies her husband committed. He squandered her heirlooms, selling off her jewellery, piece by piece, to fund his encyclopaedia, a Quixotian undertaking spanning 48 volumes wherein he, among other eccentric pursuits, set out to prove that God did not exist. His one ardent desire was to rouse Turkey from its Oriental slumber, and bring secularism and scientific method to the Turks. What causes the deepest bitterness, though, is that her deceased husband cherished a pretty servant girl who bore him two sons. One of the bastard sons is the dwarf Recep, on whom, to her chagrin, she now has to depend. There are five narrators in the novel, and each narrator is allocated a number of chapters, one chapter at a time. The action in Silent House takes place shortly before the military coup of 1980 and is, in a way, a precursor to the cataclysmic events that are to come: a coup that plunged Turkey into an abyss, with more than half-a-million people imprisoned, with summary executions, street violence, and people dying in custody. Turkey’s position in the world is ambivalent and has been ever since the dramatic reforms introduced by Kemal Atatürk after World War I. It is a Muslim country and yet it is also highly westernised. Geographically speaking, too, it is situated between East and West and while its gaze is turned longingly towards Europe – to the European Union, to be exact, which it wishes to join – many of the country’s conservative and even repressive traditions from the time of the Ottoman Empire remain. These conflicts and contradictions are also present in Silent House, where each sibling is beset by some restless ambition. Faruk, a historian, who has become not only an alcoholic but is also rapidly gaining weight, attempts in vain to reconstruct the past from the documents he finds although originally published in 1983 in Turkish, has only recently been translated into English. It has been short-listed for the Man Asian Booker Prize for 2013. The author, of course, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. in the local archive, while his pretty sister, Nilgün, who reads leftist newspapers, is an idealist and has yet to discover the realities of life. Metin is a high school student who dreams of going to America where he imagines himself becoming a rich, cold-hearted playboy who mesmerises women. Meanwhile he must grudgingly resign himself to driving a clapped out old Anadol while his nouveau riche friends race around in Alfa Romeos and speedboats. And then there is Hasan. Hasan, Recep’s nephew, is a high school dropout who struggles in vain with the mysteries of mathematics. He has also joined a right-wing nationalist group and it is his brooding presence that invades the lives of the siblings and eventually brings their annual summer sojourn to an abrupt end. Hasan’s head, too, is filled with dreams of trips to far-off countries, bloody wars, the rattle of machine guns, the intoxication of combat, historical films with galley slaves pulling oars, whips to silence the howls of sinners, disciplined armies, factories and prostitutes. And he, too, dreams of greatness. It is summer by the seaside and they are young. Inevitably, the pursuit of love is one of the main themes of the novel. Metin meets Ceylan and falls in love with her but Ceylan seems not to notice and if she does, she does not care. On a night of revelry and reckless driving, Ceylan sticks her bare legs out of the back window. Her legs are tanned and beautiful. She is having fun. She laughs. Metin looks behind him and sees what she is doing; he suffers. But it is Hasan’s obsessive yearning for Nilgün that is the central love theme in the novel. As children they used to play together. Now she hardly recognises Hasan. Or perhaps she doesn’t want to. Still, he follows her to the beach where, from a distance, he observes her with a dull ache in his heart. She lies on a towel, reading a book. She wears a blue bikini and is oblivious of his presence. When she goes into the water, he steals her hair comb from her bag. The hair comb takes on a disproportionate significance in the novel and is raised to the level of a fetish, indirectly leading to disastrous consequences. This novel, like all Pamuk’s novels, is dense and rich in poetic detail. It is not as labyrinthine as, say, The Museum of Innocence and more to the point. It is quite astonishing to think that the author was barely 30 when he wrote this wonderful book. It is summer by the seaside and they are young. Inevitably, the pursuit of love is one of the main themes of the novel. While a hair comb is an object of some significance in Silent House, Pamuk’s previously published novel in English, The Museum of Innocence is dominated by the presence of objects, all of them “touched” by the beautiful young Füsun. The story starts quite innocently: Kemal, the book’s dolorous hero, buys his fiancée, Sybil, a purse from Paris, designed by the famous Jenny Colon. The purse turns out to be a fake but the sales assistant happens to be a distant cousin of his, Füsun, barely out of school. He has an affair with his cousin, even though he is 12 years her senior. At first Kemal treats the affair lightly, with his gaze set upon Sybil, who is socially acceptable, unlike Füsun, who is no more than a shopgirl and, moreover is a disgraced poor cousin. Too late he discovers that Füsun is the one he loves. Too late because by the time he realises this, Füsun has vanished without a trace. From this moment on, Kemal becomes a collector, a collector of things that belonged to Füsun and that she left behind during their brief affair. It is not only that that these objects belonged to Füsun, it is also that they represent the happiest moments of his life, the time spent with her even though he had no idea of the depth of his feeling for her. After years of searching fruitlessly for her – his relationship with Sybil has meanwhile ended – he manages to track down Füsun. She is now living with her family in a different part of Istanbul and she is married. For eight years he visits the family almost every night to have dinner with them and, of course, to see Füsun. He continues to collect everything from her parents’ home that reminds him of her; but then everything reminds him of Füsun! He collects wine glasses to go with his handkerchiefs and a tricycle his family gave to Füsun when she was a child. All objects have a value as the writer believes, just as narratives need objects, so too do objects need narratives. For eight years he observes Füsun, “her hand, her arm, the curl in her hair, the way she stubbed out cigarettes” and so he collects her cigarette butts, 4 213 to be precise! And not only cigarette butts. There is the salt shaker. What importance could a salt shaker possibly have? For Kemal (or the author) its importance is profound because, “Just as Füsun picked it up a rusty Soviet tanker rumbled past the window, the violence of its propeller shaking the bottles and glasses on our table, and she held it for a good long time.” And, further on, we discover that for Kemal, a half-eaten cone, if it has touched Füsun’s lips, is a revered object: “On our fourth meeting, we went to Zeynel in Istinye, and as we all strolled, I was just behind her, Füsun cast off this half-eaten cone, which I retrieved from the ground and pocketed in a flash.” All these objects have found their way into the gallery of an actual museum that Pamuk has created in Istanbul, called The Museum of Innocence. It is a kind of companion piece to his novel, as well as a picture book called The Innocence of Objects, which contains pictures from the museum. As The New York Times wrote: “In the museum, ‘Happiness Means Being Close to the One You Love, That’s All,’ we find that very (salt) shaker and cone, dramatically lighted like operatic singers on a stage. We become flâneurs, wandering past the illuminated windows of an arcade.” And the author himself wrote: “Füsun’s white panties are displayed with her childish white socks and her dirty white sneakers to evoke our spells of silence.” Objects, Pamuk believes, if left in their natural surroundings, have stories to tell. In an interview with The New York Times, when asked if he was, in fact, Kemal, Pamuk responded: “No, I am not Kemal, but I cannot convince you that I am not Kemal. That is being a novelist.” And this much is clear, in The Museum of Innocence fiction has merged with reality. Hemingway wrote: “All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened.” It’s as if Pamuk has wanted to prove to us the veracity of this by actually creating a real museum and a gallery of “ordinary” objects that all attest to the existence of Füsun. And so, in a way, Füsun indeed continues to “live” on in some way, sipping tea somewhere in Istanbul, and stubbing out her cigarettes.

The Museum of Innocence and Silent House by Orhan Pamuk, published by Faber & Faber.

THE SADNESS OF THE MAN BEHIND THE ‘NEW LOOK’

When Christian Dior created his famous ‘New Look’, he not only saved France’s economy but also lay the foundation for what was to become a fashion empire, known throughout the world.

Rihanna Dior

I think I will always have a soft spot for great artists who acknowledge the role their mothers played, like Bergman. Similarly, Dior’s New Look was influenced by the rustle of his mother’s dresses as she came into his room after a party to kiss him good night, and he remembered her perfume. This was known as La Belle Epoch.

And so he created his ‘New Look’, a look that shocked the fashion world.  This was after WWII.

I couldn’t help thinking of him with so much compassion after watching Vogue’s short film on Dior, featuring Rihanna.  I think Dior became human to me after I read about his waiting on his mother to enter the room after a party. I had similar feelings for Yves St Laurent, who secretly stole out of the house to watch his mother dance by heaving himself up so he could see through the window.

But back to Rihanna and Dior. I loved watching it. I also could not help wondering why we make so much of the feminine mystique and yes, the rustling of dresses (although we can’t hear it in the Rihanna film).  There is Versailles. The voluptuous empty spaces, waiting to be filled, the lone figure of the woman. We will have to ask, at some stage, why is she alone. Why does a man not appear, mysteriously, to hold her by the waist, to plant a kiss on her voluptuous lips?  Why is it that the Dior woman is alone?

Dior's New Look

Dior’s New Look

Perhaps it is the image of his mother, and in his childhood dreams his mother kissed only him?  His mother always entered the room alone, his father forever absent.

It is in advertising agencies that these scenes are plotted and designed.  I can imagine the creative director, saying, no, no man. She is alone. She is mystique. A man entering will make it commonplace. She is waiting to be fulfilled but not now.

Anyway, I found the Dior short thrilling.

I could never completely reconcile the rather mundane figure of Dior with his creations, a rather plump gentleman in a suit, with his voluptuous creations.  But there he stood, directing things as his models stepped onto the catwalks of Paris. A not-imposing figure but a figure of such great import. For instance, when he introduced his New Look.

If I remember correctly from my reading it was snowing in Paris when the editor of, for instance, British Vogue made her way to the showing. There was an air of expectancy. But actually, no one knew what to expect. Then the first model appeared on the catwalk and every gasped, and the New Look was born. I just so love that it was born of the rustle of his mother’s skirts, her perfume, and the nocturnal kiss planted after a party.

Was Christian Dior lonely?

By all accounts yes. Of course he was.

So he met a boy, a boy from Algeria.

This was the sixties. Such things were scandalous. But Dior was beyond caring. He was seen holding hands with him in public. It was sad, perhaps, depending on how you looked at it: a plump, elderly gentleman holding hands with a young man, perhaps merely a boy, but a boy with his whole life ahead of him, good looking, and here was this plump, famous aging, sad person holding his hand.

Imagine. He had built a fashion empire, which, in a way saved France. All he needed was to be loved.

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And so he found love, or so he thought.

He had gained so much weight. He wanted to appear attractive to his Algerian boy. So he decided to visit a health spa in Italy. Well, I think it was in Italy. I could check. But I do think it was in the Alps.

At this time, he was strongly advised by his clairvoyant not to go to the spa. She saw only darkness if he went. But Dior wanted to lose weight. He wanted to appear beautiful before his boy.

His clairvoyant was the one who had originally advised him to go into business. He followed her advice. And from then on he did not move without first consulting her.

On this occasion, blinded by love, his ignored her advice.

He depended so much on her. Sometimes, before a show, he would not be able to leave the car and the chauffeur would have drive around the block endlessly. His clairvoyant would be called. She was the one who persuaded him to get out of the car.

But this time, he ignored her advice.

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Now, on the train, on the way to the health spa, he devoured two foie gras. Perhaps more. But not a good start when trying to lose weight. I imagine the train, rattling through the night, the dimly lit windows, appearing to anyone still about, perhaps wanderer, who sees the yellow lights of the passing train. And inside, a man alone with his passion, foie gras, devouring, his mouth greasy as he stuff the foie gras into his mouth, fingers covered in fat ­- fat, fat delicious fat.

Then in the spa. In a white gown. Dior is some way into the cure, the diet cure, dressed in a soft white gown. They are playing bridge. His niece is with him. He has the Ace of Spades in his hand but he his dreaming of his love back in Paris. He will return slim and young to him, and kiss him on his lips, a rejuvenated, young Christian Dior as once he was.

But his dreams froze, because, possibly with a good hand of cards, he died in his chair without a word. His niece might even have looked up and said ‘Your call.” The weight loss regime had proved too taxing for him.

I like Christian Dior. I empathise with him. I can’t help empathising with sad, lonely people who have good taste, who are so knowledgeable about art, who visit the galleries, who read, who speak softly but intelligently around dinners table and who live with such longing in their hearts.  I prefer the little fat Dior so much more than Karl Lagerfeld, the smug, self-assured Karl Lagerfeld who is only happy when he can tell people they are fat.

The Rites of Pasta

My Rites of Passage consisted not of circumcision, or anything as dramatic like that. Well, no, it was more dramatic, actually. Fresh out of school, I had the nerve to order a Spaghetti Bolognaise at my beloved La Perla, the restaurant in the centre of town. And, come to think of it, just about the only restaurant in town at that time. The experience was traumatic. I was, to my chagrin, unable, at 18 years of age, to twirl the spaghetti strands around the tines of my fork. It represented, in my young eyes, a colossal failure. Let me explain.
Where I come from, in Cape Town, I sometimes see along the N2, the white-painted faces of initiates, half naked or draped in grey blankets, appearing furtively before melting back into the bush once more. It is part of their initiation ceremony. They spend days in the bush, having to survive, and endure mysterious things, mostly painful, I believe. At the end of it, if they have passed the various tests, they are declared a man.
As a Christian boy, we had none such rituals. I was not circumcised. I was confirmed and that was that, not much of a ritual. My rites of passage consisted of eating spaghetti in La Perla. And I failed it like I failed my first driving test. I was unable to eat spaghetti in public.
Instead of being pilloried on the village square, I felt the stings of brief but critical stares in my direction. “Ha! … a novice…. No, a peasant. Pissant!” I half expected, well, in retrospect, to be honest, the maître d’ to come up to with a stern expression, and in an undertone ask me to leave. It did not happen, of course. My money was good enough, even though my sophistication amounted to nothing.
Spaghetti Meat Sauce

At home there was very little that I ate that I can remember. Tripe (which my mother always cooked with lamb’s neck, or perhaps it was sheep’s neck), and curry, usually made with – again- sheep’s neck or lamb’s neck. She used Cartwright’s curry powder, and perhaps butter or oil, I am not sure. It was good. But that was about the sum total of my culinary pallet. Perhaps because of the lack of so-called sophistication at home, I began to see food as a gateway to adulthood.
The first time I really started to make spaghetti was in London. It was in Gloucester Road, sharing a studio, as Yousef called it, although others would have just called it an apartment. Yousef was larger than life. His works were once exhibited with Chagal, and that was his claim to fame. His paintings didn’t do much for me, but I never said so. I just stared at his works and nodded. But I loved him as a human being, his love of poetry, his love of women and sex, his larger than life aspects.
Anyway, this was where I learnt to cook spaghetti or thought I did. Yousef acted as my mentor, he of the grand gestures. He tossed a spaghetti strand against the wall, with a rallying cry, like a non-commissioned officer summoning his troops into battle. “Al Dente! It has to be al dente!” he roared. It stuck to the wall. We had the spaghetti. It was not all that great, despite being al dente.
Later I read somewhere that this was a myth. You have to actually taste the strands. You have to taste the slight crunch under your teeth. (dente … very close to dentist, I realized, that must be the origin of the word ‘teeth’ … ‘dente’ … dental – not rocket science).
It was at that time, in the summer, that I found myself lying in a bath, luxuriating in the warm water, and listening to BBC 3 Radio. Or was it called the ‘The Third Programme’? I can’t remember, it was so long ago.
But lying in that Victorian bath, a ray of sunlight pouring through the window and fanning out across the wooden floor, I heard the most wonderful poem. It was about cricket, of all things, a match being played in the countryside during Edwardian times. I realized, drowsing in the bath, at that moment, that anything could be beautiful, that anything could be turned into poetry. That was then.
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A few days ago, listening on the radio to the semi-finals where South Africa faced their nemesis, the Black Caps, and were defeated, I remembered again my time in Gloucester Square, and wrote this short poem, a memory piece really:cricket image

Discovering cricket in Gloucester Square.
It was not really cricket, but rather a poem
about cricket.
about a match played in Edwardian times
in the countryside, in the summer.

I was having a bath, the transistor radio
tuned to BBC 3
listening to the voice, deliver a poem in languid tones
describing the dull monotony of bat against ball
in defensive stroke
and the occasional boundary, demurely applauded by
ladies under umbrellas, sipping lemonade
in the summer, in the countryside
So the poem went, as I listened, drowsing in the bath
the water cooling down
in Gloucester Square.
How time has moved along since then.
Cricket has developed into a limited overs game of 50 overs, and 20 overs, since those soft languid days of four-day tests.
And so has the skill of making pasta. This came to me as I read a story (I prefer ‘story’ to article. Stories have something enchanting and childlike about them) And I enjoy reading Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Here he is on pasta: “On a clear fall day in Rome, I was sitting outside at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a restaurant in Testaccio, in a neighborhood that was once the city’s slaughterhouse district and is now inhabited by both older working-class people and gentrifying youngsters.
He had heard that this was where you could get ‘real pasta’ and so he asked Flavio why it was that “the simplest pastas of all — pasta alla Gricia, pasta cacio e pepe and pasta aglio, olio e peperoncino — were the darlings of Rome, appearing on nearly every menu?” Flavio had little hesitation in replying that it was because of the magic of water. And he added that if you used it right, you can create a beautiful sauce, a cremina which has a thick, round and rich texture.” Flavio added that if you got it wrong, you have “a pile of pasta with a watery sauce on top.”
Flavio then proceeded to show Mark Bittman how it works.
What Flavio wanted to show Mark Bittman was that you had to stir the pasta vigorously in the water, almost as if you were making a scrambled egg. Let me quote directly: “In all three dishes, the secret, as it turns out, is to stir the mostly cooked pasta quite vigorously so that its starch emulsifies with the seasonings and added water. Flavio did this with deceptive ease, almost whipping the pasta as you would egg whites, using a fork in some cases and a large spoon in others, his wrist swiftly moving not so much in circles but in tight ovals.”
The article had numerous responses. And reading them, I realised there was no one way of making spaghetti, even though my early mentor, Yousef Chamoon, taught me otherwise.
Speaking of Rome. I was in Rome a few months later, after my time of instruction at the hand of Yousef. I stayed with friends of my mother’s, the SAA air attaché in Rome or something important like that. They had a grand apartment and a crazy daughter. The woman cooked her food with KWV Roodeberg which mortified me. I knew a little about wine at that stage. But in a way, she was right without knowing it and I was wrong. You’re supposed to use wine you drink in the food you cook. Oh, those times. I was reading Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. By day I was taken to see the sights of Rome and I cannot describe how they bored me.
The weekend came, and things changed. We went by hovercraft to the Isle of Capri. I saw the Grotta Azzurra, I remember clearly the azure (of course) colour of the water in the mysterious cave. But what I remember most was that we walked up a steep incline to have lunch at a trattoria. For some reason it felt like a pilgrimage, that we were following a route up the mountainside, after the strange waters in the cave, that would lead to some sort of enlightenment. I followed Mr Wilson, and saw his white shirt, billowing slightly because there was a breeze. I remember large windows through which the light poured, the soft, Italian light at that time of the year, and tables that seated four, with simple white table cloths. I had the best meal I have ever had on that day, in that trattoria on the hill. And I can’t remember what I had to eat, but I am assuming it was spaghetti, my first love. And my first torment.
By now I was an initiate, and more adept at eating spaghetti. But another rite of passage awaited me upon my return to Rome.

George-Grosz_-Fern-im-Süd-das-schöne-Spanien-(Far-in-the-South_-beautiful-Spain)_-1919.-Courtesy-of-Richard-Nagy-Ltd_-London
I was a virgin. Just think! At 21. That changed, when the sex-mad daughter, who was older than me, slipped into my room while her parents were sleeping and seduced me. I was also mortified at the thought that we should be caught. And perhaps this added something piquant to the act, but the next night, the same routine was repeated until I called a halt to it.
In these nocturnal moments, as she slipped away furtively to her own room, I felt I had experienced a rite of passage, I had learnt something about sex. I was not left with a feeling of exultation, but rather a somewhat sad, melancholic experience, as sometimes happens in life.

The images are from the Rome tourist buro, the pasta from Wikipedia and the art works by George Grosz and Chagal.

A fish market in Venice, and a remarkable Englishwoman

I love food.  So some social media-savvy friends have advised that I should cut to the chase and write about food, directly. What I have been writing up till now, they said, is more like a memoir – a book, in other words. Of course, I do want to write a memoir. So much has happened to me; some of it absurd and amusing (two directors wanted to do a short film based on one story I told around the dinner table) – so I must write down these stories, and I will. But for now, let’s get to food, more or less.  Which reminds me, when a woman I met at a party asked me what I wrote about, I said, “Food,” and, somewhat ambitiously added, because it was not 100% true, “…and travel.”  She asked me where I had travelled and I replied, “From the kitchen to the dining room to serve my guests.  I was not being facetious. What I meant by that was that there is a whole world of experience locked into a meal that you prepare. If you write about food, you also write about life, psychology, philosophy, history, and travel. And, God knows, possibly even about love. 24 January, 2015 On Saturday I needed some lemons for a recipe. The recipe was for tomato bredie ­– a traditional Cape Boerekos (farmer’s food) dish. There has been some dissenting views on what actually constitutes ‘ Boerekos’ and I did contribute to the debate but more on that later. A few nights prior to this I had had dinner at Spasie, purported to be the first ‘Underground’ restaurant venue in Cape town, where I savoured Steffen Olivier’s delicious, absolutely delicious tomato bredie, a dish that is traditionally made with lamb shank. Steffen deviates from the tradition and uses shin which he cooks for hours on end. I would say that he prepares it like one would an Osso Buco, which also uses shin.  He adds lemon zest at the end, just like the traditional Osso Buco (although Italians prepare a mixture of garlic, parsley and lemon zest – Gremolata.) I wanted to make the dish I had enjoyed so much and to this end I even got the recipe from Steffen a few days later. I can get obsessive about food – and I do! (But not as obsessive, thank God, as Bill Buford who is, of course, insane – but again, more on that later.)

Tomato Bredie

Tomato Bredie (not the traditional sort)

 I was joined at Spasie by Denise Cowburn Levy, who had invited me, and Almo. Denise has started a cooking school, Ginger & Lime and Almo cooks with her.  Almo is also the partner of Denise’s younger brother Graham, who joined us at Spasie. Denise it was who, over our tomato bredie and vegetable wrap, mentioned the fish markets of Italy, and it was then that I recalled reading, and writing about that wonderful piece Elizabeth David did on the Rialto’s fish market in Venice. But right then, on this glorious Saturday morning, I was faced with a dilemma. I needed organic lemons. Where would I find organic lemons? They had to be organic. I did not want to grate pesticides into my food. Perhaps I even wanted to recreate the wonderful evening with my friends through recreating the dish. In food one discovers so much. As I said, it is not only a way of travelling and all the other things I mentioned but also a way of recreating the past. I started phoning around but I was out of luck. Even Woolworths didn’t have organic lemons in stock. Then, as if a signal from a higher being, all at once I caught the sound of music wafting in through my open window. A piano accordion. There was so something melancholic about it, this music that reached me through the open window on this summer’s morning. Then it struck me. Of course!. There was a farmer’s market in progress. The Oranjezicht City Farm had moved their Saturday market to the lawns of the premier of the Western Cape. Of course, they would be selling organic lemons! When I got to the market these pungent aromas reached me; or, rather a potpourri of aromas trapped under the canvas canopy that induced a heady feeling as if one had entered another, perfumed world. For some mysterious reason, I thought of the decadents of the Fin de Siecle who dreamed of being smothered by a thousand rose petals … Here, in the confines of the tent, the smells were trapped and concentrated and very powerful but I was far from being smothered.

Ribbet collage markets new

I passed an attractive woman with tanned features. She was in conversation with a gentleman wearing a straw hat. This, I knew, was the woman who began this market, in the heart of the city. Her name is Sheryl Ozinsky. She is a remarkable woman and I am only one of the many who admire her. (I hope to interview her soon for Cape Town Café.) But now the idea of markets was in the air. I remembered again Denise speaking of the fish markets of Italy. And I wanted to revisit, with the author, Elizabeth David, the Rialto fish market.

A Remarkable Englishwoman

 Photographer unknown

Elizabeth David (photographer unknown)

Of all the spectacular food market in Italy, the one near the Rialto in Venice must be the most remarkable.  The light of a Venetian dawn in early summer – you must be about at four o’ clock in the morning to see the market coming to life – is so limpid and so still that it makes every separate vegetable and fruit and fish luminous with a life of its own, with unnaturally heightened colours and clear stencilled outlines.  Here the cabbages are cobalt blue, the beetroots deep rose, the lettuces clear pure green, sharp as glass.  Bunches of gaudy gold marrow-flower show off the elegance of pink and white marbled bean pods, primrose potatoes, green plums, green peas.  The colours of the peaches, cherries, and apricots, packed in boxes lined with sugar-bag blue paper matching the blue canvas trousers worn by the men unloading the gondolas, are reflected in the rose-red mullet and the orange vongole and cannestrelle which have been prised out of their shells and heaped into baskets.  In other markets, on other shores, the unfamiliar fishes may be vivid, mysterious, repellent, fascinating, and bright with splendid colour; only in Venice do they look good enough to eat.  In Venice even ordinary sole and ugly great skate are striped with delicate lilac lights, the sardines shine like newly-minted silver coins, pink Venetian scampi are fat and fresh, infinitely enticing in the early dawn. The gentle swaying of the laden gondolas, the movements of the market men as they unload, swinging the boxes and baskets ashore, the robust life and rattling noise contrasted with the fragile taffeta colours and the opal sky of Venice – the whole scene is out of some marvellous unheard-of ballet.”

 Italian food

28 January, 2015 I went out to Waterkloof farm in the Cape Winelands to do a story for Food & Home Entertainment. It’s my third visit to the farm and I have so much to tell you about it, but all in good time, and in good order, otherwise there will be chaos. Because before I can write about organic farming and even bio-dynamic farming, I must first finish the thread on fish markets – at least up to a point (it’s a BIG subject) and in a way, the subject of fish markets will never be exhausted, at least not here, where I live. As I sat talking French chef French chef Gregory Czarnecki of the Waterkloof Restaurant, a lovely man, remarkably modest for someone who has always worked in Michelin Star restaurants in Paris (his last one was a Three Star Michelin Restaurant!), I again lamented, as I always tend to do, the lack of fishing harbours at the Cape and elswewhere. And this needs further exploration. Why are there no fishing harbours – so-called ‘free harbours’ in Cape Town?  Chef Gregory Czarnecki was in full agreement. “It’s a shame,” he said. “A country with such a big a coastline …”

A young man undertakes a sea voyage on the Europa

Standing on the deck of the Europa, waving …

In December 1972, the Lloyd Triestino passenger liner, the Europa, sailed from Cape Town to Trieste via Barcelona. It left Cape Town harbour at around 11 am. Or was it 3 pm? I can’t remember – but I can remember that the sun was shining and that it was a bright spring day, a day filled with hope, optimism and great expectations. This is what travellers have in common.

Ship 1

And there stood my mother on the quayside waving, smiling her sad smile.  I can no longer remember what she was wearing; a dress, or a skirt with a matching blouse, perhaps. I am not very observant.  Of course, I do remember her maroon epaulettes from when I was five or six. Why?  I cannot answer that question. But as always, she would have had her handbag with her. That handbag that held so many mysteries, it was the ultimate, unfathomable female temple.

My friend, Jack, with whom I grew up and who had been my neighbour for many years, was with me. We had been planning our voyage for a long time, from the time we were still at school and now, after years of daydreaming, imagining how it would be, we would be travelling together. Jack’s father and sister had some to see him off. We stood on deck, with our elbows resting on the balustrade, smiling down at the world below us. We were the brave ones, the travellers, the young men who wanted to explore distant lands. My father and mother were no longer on speaking terms so he, my father, was not there. My brother was not there either; he had more important things to do than coming to see off his younger brother.  So now only my solitary family member stood there on the wharf. I smiled at her and she smiled back bravely. Yes, there were, as there always were, balloons, brightly coloured balloons to create a festive atmosphere, but for the parents and loved ones there was nothing festive about the occasion. Partings rarely are for parents who watch their children leave, as it is for the ones who are left behind. The tug honked cheerfully and the ship’s horn answered, a more deep-throated reply, as if they were performing a secret duet that only ships and tugs understood. The Europa began to move slowly away from its moorings, like a massive animal set free at last and sailed out of the bay where the tug veered off and the Europa headed deeper into the ocean and where, after a few sea miles it slowly turned to starboard. Table Mountain, that symbol of home was slowly receding.  Freedom at last, as the Europa header up the West Coast of Africa.

It was my first sea voyage and what made it memorable, what was to become the centrepiece of our journey, was the presence of a fellow passenger in the form of a young blonde woman of Scandinavian extract.  I guessed she couldn’t have been older than 21, or perhaps 22. Being an Italian cruise ship, with an Italian crew, she soon attracted the attention of the crew members because she was pretty. She spent many hours on deck, sunning herself so that the faint spread of freckles became more pronounced as the journey wore on. She was alone. The closer we got to the equator the warmer it became and the more passengers would take to deck chairs to strip to their bathing costumes and lie in the sun, confident of stepping onto European soil with beautifully bronzed bodies.

By this time we had become acquainted with Pippa, and we would meet on deck, and lie in the sun together. I decried the fact that I had so little money and could not freely order beers or wine or even, for that matter, espressos which were the cheapest of the lot. But I remember becoming distinctly aware of Pippa one morning, I remember it very well, that moment which was almost shocking. It was already warm, perhaps 25 degrees C or more. Her deck chair was next to mine.  She wore an aqua-marine coloured bikini. As I was reaching down for my packet of Gitanne cigarettes, she rose, my head nearly bumping into her thigh. I mumbled an apology but at that moment the smell of Ambre Solaire suntan oil and a muskiness of sweat reached my nostrils and I became aware, just for a moment, of the tiny silvery fox hairs running up her thigh and the texture of her skin.  Her thigh was an inch from my face. She stepped past me and, taking a few steps towards the edge of the pool, she dived in. Moments later she emerged at the edge of the pool, her hair clinging to her cheeks, holding onto the edge. The she heaved herself up, and out of the pool, water streaming from her body.

We befriended a small number of the passengers, among them a psychiatrist named Harry whom we thought of as being a bit ridiculous. Perhaps it was on account of his toupee. It was a really bad one and everyone could immediately see it was a cheap toupee.  It was ginger coloured to go with his natural colour. Once it became dislodged as he dove into the swimming pool.  We looked on in amazement as it drifted away as he quickly swam towards in, retrieving it and placing it once more on his head. We pretended not to notice.

Harry’s companion was a woman with mousy brown hair and watery grey eyes who was withdrawn and spoke very little in company. I thought she lacked confidence, perhaps because Harry dominated the conversations, was more ‘intellectual’ than her and often, even if a question was directed to her, he would intercede and answer on her behalf.  And from Harry we learnt that she was a psychiatric nurse. Harry, mind you, was no oil painting himself, his figure squat and showing the beginnings of a belly and of course there was this abominable slightly ginger-coloured wig that looked like he bought it at a bazaar … How did they meet? I wondered idly from my deck chair.  What made her decide she wanted to be with him?  I assumed that they must have met in a psychiatric ward or hospital. She was, I have to say, not unattractive although far from pretty. There was a kind of appealing plumpness to her and I liked the diffident smile she offered when someone addressed her directly. She always first looked to Harry before she answered – if she answered for usually, as I said, Harry would answer for her.  Her pale, unhealthy pallor suggested that, at least before this sea journey, she spent most of her days indoors. In hospital wards, offering kind words to the demented?

It was something Harry said that made me feel sorry for her and made me dislike Harry even more. It happened day when we were reclining, as usual, in our deck chairs.  It was another day on deck, with the sun shining, there was music coming from loud speakers, cheerful Italian melodies, and we lazily observed Clare swimming in the pool.  Harry, too was observing his mistress, when he turned to us and said:  “She’s really my patient.” This remark was followed by a stunned silence but Harry did not seem to notice. He busied himself rubbing some more suntan oil onto his shoulders which were red from the sun. Tomorrow they would begin to blister.

As we crossed the equator, it proved to be an occasion that caused the (then) South West Germans to behave like animals. It is traditionally a time of celebration. It is a time for organised games and celebrations. The perser was in charge. There were streamers, balloons (yet again: probably the leftover ones from the time we departed Cape Town harbour) and piped light classical Italian songs, such as ‘O solo mio’. I have always resented this sort of thing and so did our little group and found it difficult to hide our disdain. I remember a fat German in his early twenties shrieking like a pig, as he and his friends downed beer after beer. Gemütlichkeit!

George Grosz

George Grosz

Years later, I recalled this incident when the Italian minister of the interior, in a spat with Germany, remarked that he wondered if the German foreign minister participated in burping competitions after devouring huge amounts of potato fries and guzzling vast quantities of beer.

What is it about human beings, possibly the majority of the human race, that they behave in such a way, sometimes to the point of becoming destructive. Is this how we are, really? When we enter the forest, is there a tiger that awaits us, ready to pounce and destroy our flimsy layer of civilization?

We looked on sourly as the Germans tossed beer glasses into the pool, screaming and shrieking with laughter.  They were drunk, of course. We were not altogether sober ourselves but at worst we could be described as tipsy. Not content with the amount of havoc they were causing, the huge amount of noise and shrill laughter, one German hurled his deckchair into the pool while the Italian crew members looked on in bewilderment.

Year later, I shared a house for a short time with, of all things, a female German pilot. Her boyfriend came to visit from Baden-Baden, the well-known spa for the wealthy, immortalized by Chekhov in his short story, “The Lady with the Lapdog”.  His name was Fritz. I cannot remember his surname, it was too long ago, but I do remember what he did for a living: he had the agency for Ferrari in Baden-Baden. Both names spelt money.  One Christmas they had a party, he was telling us.
 
“We all got so drunk, it was unbelievable! There were these wall-to-wall carpets so we opened the taps of the wine vats and flooded the carpets. Then we got hammers from the garage and smashed up the Steinway piano!”  He had become visibly more exited as he spoke, and by the end of the tale, which I have abbreviated, he was red in the face with excitement. As a climax they “smashed up the Steinway piano with hammers”. He was as red as a beetroot by this stage as his head swung from me to this pilot girl friend. Reaching the climax of his tale, he shrieked with laughter slapping his thigh repeatedly.

I think of civilized Germans as some of the most civilized people in the world – at least that I have encountered.  But at times Germans behave badly; after a few pilsners they tend to become loud, blustery and arrogant. In some Mediterranean countries they are despised and at the time when I was in Spain, some months later, I heard them referred to as the Neckermann tourists, a derisory term, because a travel agent, Neckermann, offered package tours that were affordable to even low-salaried Germans. Of course, the German mark was powerful even then, in 1972, and so successful was the enterprising Herr Neckerman that his is today the second-biggest travel agency in Germany.

 George-Grosz_-Fern-im-Süd-das-schöne-Spanien-(Far-in-the-South_-beautiful-Spain)_-1919.-Courtesy-of-Richard-Nagy-Ltd_-London

George Grosz: Fern im Sud das scone Spanien (Courtesy of Richard Nagy London)

George Grosz’s depiction of his countrymen in Spain

Even the Rand was powerful at the time and I think I paid a mere R300 for my passage there, which included a flight from Marseilles to London.  A South African Rand equalled one Dollar at the time.  Anyway, I hope you don’t think I am anti-German. I am not! I will have a lot to say about Germans as we go on this journey.  Nice things. About most of them that I know.

I have some regrets about our voyage on the Europa.

One of them is that Jack behaved badly.  I think this was because he wanted to impress Pippa. As did I, as did I, but I could not compete with his antics.

I had grown up in a home where good food, or good cooking was non-existent as was the case with Jack. They were our neighbours so I knew. We had no way of appreciating the feast we were privy to.  Every night five or perhaps even six courses were served, each dish representing Italy’s regional cooking. The menu looked something like this: antipasto followed by a soup, a fish dish and veal piccata, and Italian Cassata, good Italian espresso for those who wanted.  In between there must have been cheese as well, surely. But I can’t remember. We had no way of knowing that you could divide Italy’s regional cooking into even smaller denominations because village by village, recipes by recipe might differ for the same dish. And how otherwise, recipes were handed down from mother to daughter, for generations! They did not cook from cookbooks. I suppose that on farms, too, this was the case; each farm had probably its own recipe. Similarly, in Italy, in the end, even your neighbour’s recipe for a ragù might differ substantially from yours. Of this, of the subtleties of Italian cooking, we had not the slightest notion.

 Mozzarella (1) Luigi Versaggi

Luigi Versacci (Wikipedia)

Mozarella

One evening, at dinner, Jack arrived without a jacket, wearing only a short-sleeved shirt whilst I, dutifully, wore a light summer jacket. The maître d’hôtel, a tall, imposing figure with slicked black hair and dark piercing eyes came up to our table, a look of disapproval on his face.

“Excuse me, we have a dress code for dinner. Would you mind putting on a jacket, please.”

We sniggered as Jack went to change. After a time our attention was drawn to the entrance and what we saw made us burst out laughing.  It was an apparition of a headless man, the collar of his shirt above his head and this apparition came staggering towards us. Of course, it was Jack and he had put on a life jacket. The rest of the dining salon tittered at the spectacle. The maître d’hôtel, flushing angrily, came to our table once more.  “This  is not funny. Would you mind going to put on a proper jacket, please.” He hovered over Jack.

Jack staggered away towards the exit and returned minutes later, this time wearing a proper jacket. He sat down. As usual, Pippa sat between us.

 Ragu (Spaghetti Bolognaise)

ragù alla bolognese

The Italians believe it is sacrilege to eat ragù with spaghetti. It is suppose to be eaten with tagliatelli. Mea culpa.

 Veal Piccata Saveur

Veal Piccata (Saveur)

We were too young and inexperienced to know that the dinner table, to the Italian, is sacrosanct.  Add to that the French, the Japanese … the list is long.  I recently finished reading Bill Buford’s Heat about his sojourn first at Babbo’s, Mario Batali’s New York Restaurant, and then in a tiny Tuscan village with Italy’s most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini.  The house, which also houses the butchery, is a 1000 years old, as is the trade of butchery, carried down from one generation to the next. The pride with which they practise their craft is immense; the same goes for the pasta maker to whom Buford was apprenticed, rolling out pasta so thin it was like air! And how indifferent we were, how ignorant, and to think that Jack wore a life jacket to dinner and we sat there, guffawing like idiots!

 Heat

Of course, it was, in a way, all Harry the psychiatrist’s fault. But it would be too easy to just hold him responsible. No, we were all to blame and not exempt on account of Harry and his stash.  But more on that in a moment.

And then there was the wine.

Night after night, we were treated to the finest Italian wines, among them Barolo. All inclusive in the cost of the fare of R300?  Today it sounds almost absurd. R300 you said? It was unbelievable. Today I cannot even afford a Barolo. But there is something else.  And it has to do with regret. My own personal regret. If I were to meet our Maitre d’Hotel today, the first thing I would do is apologise to him for our behaviour, and not appreciating what Italy, or Lloyd Triestino, had to offer us.

 giuseppe-riccobaldi-italia-garda

One day, on the foredeck, away from the pool (which the Germans had once again appropriated) we, Jack, Harry, Clare and Pippa were playing poker. Pippa wore a sun hat and Clare had some knitting in her lap, like a security blanket which she clutched in between rounds. After I dealt Pippa, arranging her cards into suits, looked up and let fall in a bored kind of voice:

“Harry, I would be careful if I were you. Those Spanish prisons are bad news.”

She was referring to his marijuana. We all looked up from our cards, eager to know why Spanish prisons were such bad news.

Harry too was interested. Sweat glistened on his forehead from the heat. His toupee was damp.

“I know someone whose cousin was sentenced to seven years in a prison in Barcelona,” Pippa continued, realizing that now she had the attention of all of us. “It happened after he was bust for marijuana.  He went by ship, just like us, but they found the stash on him at customs and from thereon he didn’t stand a chance. Seven years, no extenuating circumstances!”

Even as Pippa spoke a ghost of a smile settled on the corners of her lips and I wondered whether she was making this all up and toying with Harry. But when she continued, I realised she was serious enough.

“They threw him in jail and told him he’d rot there …. On the first night he was raped. He got out after three and didn’t rot there but he was pretty fucked, you know? He had to have some serious counselling.”

We looked at Harry.  Harry was not looking at her. He was staring into the distance, perhaps trying to imagine himself in a Spanish prison. Raped?  By men?  By hard, cruel randy men … from behind? And he couldn’t even speak the language. What was ‘help’ in Spanish, anyway?  He didn’t know.  He tried not to let on that he was worried.

“So, who’s to open the bidding,” he said in a strained voice.

The upshot of Pippa’s little tidbit on Spanish prisons was that, the closer we got to Barcelona, the more the level of Harry’s stash of marijuana dropped. Instead of going down into his cabin, or hiding in some secret corner on deck to smoke his dope on his own, he now began to liberally share his stash, kept in an old fashioned tea tin, a very beautiful and ornate tin from India.  It became a race against time. He had to get rid of it before we docked in Barcelona (he couldn’t bear to toss it overboard, as it was, after all, DP (Durban Poison)).  So he decided to share his precious stash with us.  As a result we were all a little high for the rest of the voyage.

One night, close to midnight, Jack challenged me to a game of ping-pong on the deck. Of course, we were stoned and not too sure what we were doing. Pippa sat on a chair in the middle, like an umpire at Wimbledon with her head following the course of the little white ball. There was something atavistic about it, as if she was the prize that would be awarded to the winner. We began to play with some intensity.

The trouble is, we were high as a kite so the game turned out to be almost surrealistic. Everything happened in slow motion, on top of which the ship was listing quite badly. This meant that while the ball was hit at an inch above the board, by the time it reached me (very slowly) it was a full metre above the table. It was too much. We abandoned the game and retired to our respective cabins.

giuseppe-riccobaldi-lloyd-triestino,-asia-africa-australia

Pippa was the most desirable woman on the Europa. The fact that she was also highly intelligent was probably of secondary importance to most males on the ship. Jack, who went on to become a successful photographer in later years, took photographs of us in bright coloured oilskins, crossing the equator in a rain shower, laughing and carrying on, our hair dripping wet and clinging to our foreheads. After Jack had taken some photographs, he handed the camera to me and told me which button to press. Then it was Pippa’s turn to photograph the two of us together. We were all smiling at the camera but those moments, like a film frozen midway, told part of the story but not all because beneath the surface lurked something darker: the emotions of pain and longing, self-pity and cruelty, the baser emotions we generally refer to as ‘jealousy’. This was something that manifested itself not long after Jack and I befriended Pippa, but in subtle ways. But in later years became more manifest.

During the voyage we became inseparable. We met on deck, we played cards together and sat in the sun together, reading our novels; at dinner time we dined at the same table, with both Jack and myself flanking her. She always changed for dinner, and wore a dress. In the soft light she always looked so pretty; her face would glow from the hours she spent in the sun and faces turned to admire her. This did not escape Jack and I and it gave us a quiet sense of satisfaction.

One night, finding herself alone on deck after she had come up for a breath of fresh sea air, she saw a finger emerge like a periscope from behind one of the life boats and beckon to her.  “Come to me, come to me, my pretty one” the finger seemed to call out to her in a whisper. It was one of the Italian crew members whom she later surreptitiously pointed out to us, a waiter, a tall and handsome fellow. The nocturnal vision of the blonde hair in the moonlight, the slender figure, proved to be too much for him and he cast aside all restraint, and on this warm balmy night, he decided to try his luck. Like with so many Italian men, he was ruled by the dictates of his loins rather than by common sense.  Had she reported him, he might well have lost his job.

I played back those scenes often, the scenes with Pippa, and how Jack and I vied for her attention. I received her attentions finally because I was better looking. Jack was reduced to playing second fiddle.  But my victory, if that was what it was, was a pyrrhic one as it turned out.

Anyhow, Pippa began to visit me in our cabin.

In terms of geography, it was four hours after we crossed the equator, when, technically speaking, we went into summer. Or late summer then.  But as we crossed the equator, it was night time as Pippa ascended the steps to my bunk and at that time we passed the tiny but oil-rich country of Gabon, previously a French possession. Why on earth I made a mental note of this I have no idea.

To reach me, she had to climb up the ladder past Jack’s bunk. We would lie there, kissing and whispering in the dark, and sometimes just speak in undertones. I knew Jack was awake, I could tell.  Nigh after night he was obliged to watch her climb past him in her short summer dress. I did not pause to wonder how this might have affected him. Not then, anyway.

***

The closer we got to Barcelona, the more frantic Harry the psychiatrist became. We were now within spitting distance of Spain and, as far as he was concerned, imprisonment. When we docked at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, most of the passengers disembarked to explore the island. For once Pippa, Jack and I went our own way. I saw a T-shirt with the head of Paul Kruger emblazoned on his. I realized that being here I found myself in a time-warp. Nobody celebrates the old Boer leader anymore.  He was a hero once, though.  Even Isaac Deutscher, the Russian biographer who wrote a trilogy on Trotsky and Stalin, wrote glowingly about the ‘little man rising up against the giant’ at the time, the Boer republics against the might of Great Britain.  I bought a packet of cigarettes named ‘Krugeros’ and nearly coughed my lungs out they were so strong.  In amongst the shops and bars I came across Harry the Psychiatrist and Clare, his ‘patient’. I don’t think Harry recognised me he was so stoned. Clare, uncharacteristically, was giggling incessantly, announcing that she had ‘the munchies’. She was stuffing Spanish sausage into her mouth, as was Harry the Psychiatrist. Clare whispered something and they both collapsed into each other’s arms, giggling like school girls. I left them like that.

 Giuseppe Riccobaldi (Italian, 1887–1976)

When we disembarked at Barcelona, Jack met up with an old school friend, whom I never really liked, and they continued on the Europa to Trieste.  Pippa teamed up with two friends of hers, both sisters and, like her, blond.  I was to travel with them to Marseilles in the kombi which belonged to the sisters. But from the moment we set foot on Spanish soil and she met her two friends, her behaviour towards me changed.

Ps. I shall be writing more on Heat, and of course on food, one of my great loves. (Will add links)

La Perla, La Dolce Vita

La Perla – La Dolce Vita.
I wonder who still remembers the old La Perla in Waterkant Street.

 

La Perla

 

At the same time that I became aware of the fact that there was this trendy, and one of the first, coffee bars in Cape Town, I also saw a film directed by someone who was just a name to me then: Federico Fellini. The name of the film was La Dolce Vita, and the two became almost inseparable in my mind. One was make-believe, a fabrication, albeit fabulous; the other was real, concrete and cement, a place where the beautiful women and the playboys went, the place that consumed my adolescent dreams.

 

La Dolce Vita

 Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita

Compared to the more elaborate and later version on the Sea Point Beach Front, this was a modest establishment, started by Emiliano Sandri who immigrated to South Africa in the 50’s. At that time, Cape Town hardly had any coffee bars. Oh, there was one in Strand Street, called the Harlequin where Bert, who later started the famous Zerban’s Cake & Coffee shop, worked. I recall seeing Bert for the first time, his white chef’s tunic showing stains of sweat from toiling hard, perhaps all day, his features drawn from overwork, from the summer heat, the stifling atmosphere; but his face lit up when he saw me. I only discovered later that he was gay and then I understood the look of delight that crept into his features. I saw him the other day in his bakery/deli in Loop Street. He is a millionaire now, and still with his blonde boy, who has become ‘a middle-aged boy’ now.  But the Harlequin was a shabby place then compared to La Perla. I want to say the name again: La Perla. I was at school at the time and going to La Perla was the highlight of my week.
A certain routine began to establish itself over time. On Friday afternoons it was fun to wander around the OK Bazaars in Adderley Street where the ‘soppies’, the Jan van Riebeeck hostel girls, used to go for their milk shakes on the mezzanine floor. There was a whole lot of flirting going on, or just boys ogling the girls, who in turn, giggled and looked away but still managed surreptitious glances at the boy they favoured. But that was the Wimpy. Saturday mornings at La Perla represented a step up the social ladder. I would go to La Perla in Waterkant Street – all of fifteen and with a wildly beating heart; I would sit at one of its hideous orange tables (they were more red than orange, I think.) Or I would sit at the bar where Bridget would serve me cappuccino and a mushrooms-on-toast open sandwich. I always preferred sitting here – also it was the cheapest place. The highlight for me was when Hazel Baker would enter. She was a well-known model at the time and wore huge shades with white rims. I don’t remember seeing her once without them. Anyway, as she entered, La Perla would seem to pause. She would enter, I remember, and drop the sunglasses a millimetre, no more, to survey who was there. I was just a school boy so I was never ‘there’ which is to say I went unnoticed. But I was content to observe. She always wore a one-piece dress. She had no bosom to speak of, really, and her style reminded me of Jean Shrimpton. She was as sleek, as cool as the photographs of Jean Shrimpton staring at me from the pages of a Vogue magazine, with her straight blonde hair. I think Petrusa Rood model agency was right next door, and it was called Petrusa Rood Model Agency and Charm School then. Imagine, ‘Charm School’. Today the name sounds absurd but then the words ‘charm school’ had a certain allure, as had the word mannequins, because that was another name for models then.

 

Anyway, Petrusa Rood Model Agency and Charm School being situated right next door to La Perla, mean that it was often frequented by models. And over all this, the comings and going, the fashionable crowds, presided the imposing figure of Emiliano Sandri, positioned at the entrance behind the till, ringing up bills, always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie; aloof, yet not unfriendly, observing the world with a look of faint bemusement. You never knew what he was thinking. His responses to those sucking up to him was always laconic, as if he was onto their game. Is it true he came out to this country and worked on the Blue Train as a waiter? Why not. And good for him if he did.

 Hazel Baker

Hazel Baker wearing her signature outfit and sunglasses at the Met. (Photo: The Argus)

 At the entrance, next to counter where Emiliano rang the till and watched, perhaps in quiet amazement as his fortune expanded, there was the round table, with a half-circle bench. This was the select few were usually seated: Hazel Baker, Rein Badings and his model wife, Ann Badings, Peter Simon and his then wife, Glenda Simon.  How can I forget to mention Gavin Overton, who left her architect husband to marry Edu Sorger, both exceptionally good looking men. She divorced again. At the time, she was still married I fell in love with her and made a complete fool of myself.  But that is a story for another time.

At the other end of La Perla, Bridget served espressos and cappuccinos and, as I said, toasted sandwiches. She was a coloured girl but very pale. She had flowing reddish blonde hair and her brother, Thomas, was one of the La Perla waiters star waiters. Not that is not altogether true. They were all fantastic, otherwise they would be working there. Thomas was always friendly, and pale like his sister and when he saw me his face lit up, his eyes brightening before the smile registered on his lips. Bridget was friendly to me too. I had an idea she liked me, but in a distant, theoretical sort of way. As she pulled the lever of the espresso machine, it emitted an angry hiss of steam from the pressure. Bridget seemed to be continuously enveloped in this cloud of steam, like a mist over a lake so that at times, looking back, I find myself think of her as slightly unreal, like someone observed in a dream.
There was another model who frequented La Perla: Bernadette da Silva, impossibly slender, and sleek as a snake with dark almost black hair and a faint spread of freckles. She too favoured loose-fitting dresses and like Hazel Baker she never seemed to smile. I wondered about that. Were they sad or shy? No, I realized in later years: they were just distant and aloof, like figures in a daydream, emulating the Vogue girls, the models who were more famous than them. The truth is, in La Perla everyone put on an act. Why not the models as well? I heard a rumour that Bernadette had a jealous lover, or a husband, and there was talk of a terrible scene, of gunshots. It was told that the jealous lover/husband shot the suitor in the stomach. I always wondered if the victim of the shooting survived the gunshot, if indeed there was a gunshot at all. But if there was, did he die, I used to wonder?  Did he live?  I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.
Then there was Ruth Ackermann, the gorgeous ballerina who danced for the Capab Ballet Company as it was known then. I had never seen a ballerina before and I discovered, watching Ruth pass by, that she walked with her feet slightly splayed, with toes pointed outward and this reminded me of the way a duck waddled towards the water; yet, it was at the same time extremely graceful and it never failed to entrance me, the way she walked. With her was a ballerina who was equally attractive although different. She had dark hair and a pale skin and her name was Diana Cawley who later became one of the principal ballerinas of a dance company in Munich, I think it was. They were always together and as far as I could tell, no man every joined their small table. It was as though they had an anti-magnetic field that repelled all possible advances. One day, as I entered, I saw them again seated at their usual table and then something remarkable happened. Ruth looked up and as she did she met my gaze and she winked at me and my heart stopped. Like a fool, too confused to do otherwise, I looked away. But what else could I have done? Nonetheless, she must have sensed the awkwardness, and the effect she had on me – as women do –  and even though she toyed with me very briefly, I have never forgotten it and I will never, ever blame her for this act of fleeting frivolity.

 

Ruth Ackerman & Diana

Diana Cawley (left), with Ruth Ackerman

Soon afterwards Ruth Ackerman appeared in a commercial for SANS (SA Nylon Spinners) shot by Ashley Lazarus, who became famous for his Peter Stuyvesant commercials filmed all over the world, and later worked – or is still working – in Hollywood. It was a time when zoom shots – or ‘crash zooms’ as they were called – were all the rage and I remember the tiny figure barely visible on the steps of the Athlone cooling towers, and then Ashley zooming in powerfully to show her in her full glory, Ruth Ackermann, perfect, untouchable, staring defiantly back at the camera, one leg extended slightly.

If I had to find a title for my brief encounter with Ruth, I would call it ‘The Wink’ because it reminded me of a short story by Chekhov: The Kiss. This is because something so seemingly ‘trivial’ can be elevated to something exalted in the eyes of the admirer, of the one in the shadows, unnoticed, unobserved, silently appealing.

 Chekov

Chekhov

The Kiss, the story from the master of story teller concerns a certain Lieutenant General von Rabbek who hosts a party for members of the regiment in his  mansion. One of his guests is a shy, awkward officer by the name of Ryabovitch. There is nothing distinguished about him. He wears spectacles, has sloping shoulders and “whiskers like a lynx’s.” No one takes notice of him. And he sets off, exploring the magnificent homestead. In truth, he is trying to escape, to avoid talking to people. While wandering through the mansion, he stumbles into a dark room. Now something remarkable happens: a woman rushes up to him. She throws her arms around his neck and whispers: “At last!” before kissing him. Almost immediately she realizes her mistake, flees from the room, and is lost in the crowd.

But now Ryabovitch has been bewitched … by the kiss of an unknown woman! He sees a new life stretching out before him. A life of hitherto unknown sensuousness, of love … For the duration of the evening, he searches in vain for the woman who kissed him. Soon he can think of nothing and no one else but her. He has become obsessed with the kiss of a stranger.

Of course, I did not physically resemble Ryabovitch. But being barely out of school I identified with his inner world, his shyness, his awkwardness. It was only later, as I too started too model, that I became more sure of myself. But by then, having joined the ranks of that charmed circle of beauty, these beautiful women admired from a distance began to be demystified, while some even revealing themselves to be achingly banal. Which lead me to think that beauty is perhaps at its most profound when observed from a distance, from the distance where everything seems possible and nothing is forbidden to the moist eye that yearns from afar. As Nietzsche wrote somewhere, and I quote roughly: Desire is like a pendulum that swings from one side to its opposite side where it hovers for a second before boredom sets in, and it begins to swing once more in the opposite direction. I don’t think this is true of all people, but is true enough, at least for me

***

Some time afterwards, after Ruth winked at me with that sly smile playing on her lips, I learnt that she had died from cancer. This was news that shook my world. How was this possible? Someone so young? A goddess … goddesses did not die … or did they? I did not know death; no family member had yet died and it’s true, I did not know her either but I began to sense that beneath the surface of things life had a tragic aspect and that beneath that perfect skin I had admired from afar, lurked something malignant that would go on to destroy her. I remember my old Afrikaans teacher, speaking of the ‘duality of life’: life and death, night and day, beauty and decay … in a way this was my first introduction to this phenomenon.

 

When I think back of those days, I remember that one of the biggest compliments a woman could give a man was to refer to him as being ‘very continental’. I heard then many a woman remark, “Oh, he’s so continental,” said with a kind of a sigh, and a dreamy far-away look.
Peter Graham, the male model, sometimes worked as a cashier on Emiliano’s day off. One day he was no longer there. I heard what happened later. He had bought himself some wonderful outfits, suits, shirts and, if I remember correctly, took out a loan or two and then skipped the country for New York, never to be seen or heard of again. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. He was such an artificial type of person with his grey hair swept to one side at the back and his sunlamp tan. He reminded me of a preserved pear for some reason.

Most of the men that came to La Perla were playboys and even if they weren’t, they still looked like playboys, and appearances were all that counted. They would enter with a swagger, sometimes even with their jackets loosely draped over their shoulders, Mafia style. And none entered with more of a swagger than Rolf Starcke.

Rolf was a German-Jew who fled Nazi-Berlin and must have been seventy. Even though he was a midget and his face resembled that of a frog – with large protruding eyes – he entered La Perla with the air of a conquering conquistador. He had been married a few times, and he was never without a woman who was, invariably, taller than him. He drove a Volvo P1800 and moved to Victoria Road Camps Bay in the 60’s after which switched to a Mercedes, I’m told. As a friend said, “He was very ugly and his girlfriends or wives very beautiful and 40 or 50 years younger. He was a bit of a laughing stock but I think many were jealous of him.” Nonetheless, everyone knew who he was and that he was in the movie business and this gave him something of a glamorous air. It was also rumoured that he found his young girl friends among the prostitutes of Cape Town, in those seedy night clubs of the time, the Navigator’s Den, the Catacombs, and perhaps even Darryls: the places I longed to visit but were as yet, forbidden to me.

I have to admit I liked him in a way, perhaps because he acknowledged me; but then, this was possibly not because of me, but because he knew my brother and also because he knew our neighbour, Frau Eick, from their days in Berlin before both were forced to flee the country.

Once he joined my table, ordering a cappuccino and, as was usual, his eyes started to wander around La Perla to see who was there. A young, fresh-faced looking couple entered and sat down at the table next to us.  There was about them a radiant kind of innocence, a sweetness that is the exclusive preserve of two young people in love. Rolf knew them and struck up a conversation with them. I was by then forgotten. They ordered coffees and after a time they paid there bill and got up to leave. As they were leaving, Rolf said, more to himself than me, but perhaps intending me to hear as he followed the couple out with his eyes:  “I wonder if I should take Jenny away from David.” These words caused me to look at him in a different light.

 

La Perla expanded. Emiliano took up new premises at the Sea Point beach front. He persisted, for some mysterious reason, with the horrible orange-red tables and chairs outside on the terrace. The restaurant had large glass windows from ceiling to floor that allowed diners to gaze out to the Sea Point Pavilion which would be lit at night. Tables next to the windows were the favoured ones, and it was the regulars, the gentlemen who tipped the most, who would be led these tables, usually with a glamorous-looking woman on their arm. To the right of the pavilion, in the direction of town, the lucky couple would be vouchsafed a glimpse of the tiny waves breaking onto the shore, their white foamy tops looking almost artificial in the electric lights that lit up the promenade.
I have never seen waiters like the La Perla waiters. They were fantastic. Victor was one of them, with a moustache and a goatee and being quite rotund, I always thought of him as a sultan. Then there was Patrick, the Indian waiter, constantly muttering to himself under his breath. He never got an order wrong; he never dropped a plate or a glass but he continued this monologue all day long and no one knew what it was about.
Chris Barnard started frequenting La Perla. So did many others. But Chris Barnard was special. He was not just a pretty face like the others but he was hugely talented. He performed the world’s first heart transplant, and was featured on the cover Time Magazine. Now this was something. It was not long before he set off with Emiliano Sandri to Italy to meet none other than Sophia Loren. The lure of La Dolce Vita proved too strong; he ditched his first wife and married Barbara Barnard, the heiress and some years later divorced her too. He evidently had affairs with many women, among them an icon of those times, the famous Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida, whom he described as sexually uninhibited. He even described how she had driven him back to his hotel after a one-night stand, nude under her mink coat.
Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren

La Perla was the kind of Mecca for the Good Life. There were scandals, divorces, pick-ups and through all this the music continued playing, Nina Rota and Cesária Évora, and the orders continued to be put through to the sweating kitchen with voices ringing out: One lasagne, one penne … And the beautiful women continued streaming in, followed invariably by the playboys. And it still goes on, till the early hours and gives a special meaning to another nostalgic term of the time: night life.

Cape Town Cafe

Hello, and thanks for visiting.

This blog will be about Cape Town but also, in a more abstract way, about what might happen during a conversation at a café. Over an espresso or a glass of wine, you might find a discussion taking place about a new restaurant that has opened, or the war in Iraq. That’s how conversations go. Sky is the limit.

I’d like to thank Karen Lee Cason for her help in putting up this blog.  She blogs at mayiaskyouaquestion.com.

I am a romantic. I still have the romantic idea of a café being a place where people get together to have conversations, and discuss all manner of things.  Often with my friends we lament the fact that the nature of cafés have changed. For instance, before the advent of iPads, Smart Phones and the like, you might have found someone reading a book, say a woman. From time to time she would have looked up and this might have been an opportunity for you and her to strike up a conversation (if both wished to) with something like, “How do you find that book?  I read it last year when I was in Greece.”

She might have thought for a moment before telling you she either hates or loves it. But then she might have asked, “You were in Greece last year? I am going this year. Where did you go?”

You might have mentioned an island, and so a conversation might have ensued.

Or just eye contact. A kind of tacit acknowledgement of each other’s presence, occurring at a subliminal level.

Unfortunately, modern technology now precludes this interaction because the other person is usually engrossed in some ‘not-to-be-interfered-with activity’.

Of course, it was the French cafés that gave rise to what is known as the café society we have read so much about, and which we associate with, especially, Paris.  This, in these cafés, was where the revolutionaries met, the existentialists; where writers wrote novels and where women came to show off their fashionable dresses and where men came to ogle at them.  This was where ideas were exchanged, where debates took place.  Or think of the coffee houses of Vienna, where the habitué were composers, philosophers, and the famous writers of the 20th century gathered.  Earlier on, in England, Charles II considered coffee houses to be the meeting place of the ‘free thinkers’ and where revolution was stoked so he attempted to close down coffee houses. Cafés were (and still are) places where lovers wrote letters to their loved ones, where married men carried on secret liaisons with their mistresses. Or where lonely men or women just went to be in the presence of people.

 

Cafe, Paris Saul Leiter, 1959 (1)

But this blog is essentially about Cape Town, for years now the number one destination in the world as voted by a number of internal magazines. (more on that later). But it is also the city in which I grew up, and the repository of so much personal history. As such, it is a City of Memories.  Often very ordinary places will be featured that are not glamorous at all, but that are somehow special to me.