It’s almost taboo, talking to strangers. From an early age we instil in our children – for good reason – the importance of Not Talking to Strangers. But as an adult, talking to strangers is something I do. And conversely, strangers talk to me. Often and anywhere. My most recent experience of this was being asked by a young man in mirrored sunglasses, in a Boots Pharmacy in London, whether or not it is acceptable to address a woman as “Ma’am”? I’m still trying to figure this one out. He was British, after all. Later I wondered if it was a tactic to distract me and checked that my phone was where it was meant to be…
Perhaps it’s because of this inclination of mine that new American ‘friends’ who I’d never met before in my life, came to visit earlier this month. Trying to explain this to ‘old’ friends here drew some curious looks and many questions and I found these responses almost as interesting as the Americans themselves. Perhaps I’ve always been intrigued by ‘otherness.’ I was an exchange student back in the day and spent a year with an unsuspecting Southern American family. It was long, long before cell phones and the internet and the only way to communicate with my family at home was through letter writing and the very occasional (expensive) long distance call.
Looking back on that experience now, I wonder at the trust I (and my Alabama hosts) put in the AFS selection process which allowed me, at the age of 18, to sally forth into the complete unknown. I was placed with a wonderful family with whom I still maintain contact, decades later. The year I spent in the States left me with friendships and insight into that country that I could never otherwise have gained.
So when I met D’Arcy in cyberspace and it became clear we had some common interests, it seemed only natural that our connection would develop into a friendship.
We ‘met’ through blogging. At that time D’Arcy was renovating her arts and crafts house (ourbungalows2ndcentury.wordpress.com) in a Seattle suburb and I was overseeing the building of a new home in Johannesburg. Somehow we found each other in the comments sections of other ‘building blogs’, then we found each other’s blogs and then she found that I had not one, but two blogs and she also started reading about my perspective of life in post-apartheid South Africa on africadayz.
Over time our blog comments evolved into a Facebook connection and then an email one. In a sense, I suppose getting to know someone on line and then communicating with them is the modern equivalent of having a penfriend. From the age of twelve to my early twenties, I kept in close touch with a penfriend in Germany who I eventually met on a trip through Bavaria and who I have more recently rediscovered on Facebook.
Three years ago, friends of D’Arcy and Eric’s passed through Johannesburg on a trip through Southern Africa and we arranged to meet up. Cathy and Peter came over for dinner on their one evening in the city and proved to be great company. Perhaps they returned to Seattle with encouraging reports about South Africa because not long after that, D’Arcy and Eric started to plan a visit too. And that is how the second of October saw me taking the Gautrain out to O R Tambo Airport to meet these ‘almost-strangers’ and to accompany them back to my home. I directed them to Parkhurst with Eric at the wheel, on the ‘wrong side’ of the road for the first time in his life.
We made it home safely and they got to spend two nights at Treetops, the house they’d followed on a blog, (homeinthemaking) from foundation phase to completion, from the other side of the world. During their brief time in Johannesburg we visited Victoria Yards in Lorentzville (victoriayards.co.za)which was interesting for all of us and which took me out of my usual comfort zone. I’d posted an article about Victoria Yards on Facebook a year earlier which D’Arcy had seen and not forgotten. We also visited Garden Bleu in Parkhurst and Art Africa in Parkview as a direct result of D’Arcy having seen my photographs on Facebook.
On their third day we drove down to the Kruger National Park in two cars and by the time we got there Eric had become perfectly comfortable with left-hand-side-driving. They would have visited the Kruger with or without us but somehow, knowing they were here almost entirely owing to my blog ramblings, I felt a certain sense of responsibility for them and didn’t like the idea of them setting off alone.
After 5 nights in the Kruger, they flew to Port Elizabeth and from there did a lovely drive (by themselves) down the Garden Route with a few excursions up into the Little Karoo, before winding up in Cape Town for almost a week. There they stayed in our Claremont home, the recent renovations of which they had also followed on homeinthemaking so they knew exactly what to expect.
On their meanderings towards Cape Town, two nights were spent in guest houses I’d only heard about. One, a farm called ‘Skeiding’ (http://www.skeiding.co.za) somewhere near Heidelburg, had been recommended by my sister in England and turned out to just as lovely as she’d described it. The other was Montagu Vines (http://www.montaguvines.co.za) and here I also appreciated the ‘connection.’ Montagu Vines is owned by Anthony Townsend who grew up in the same street as I did in East London. We used to walk to school on opposite sides of the road, he to Selborne College (for boys) and I to Clarendon High (for girls). We were of similar age and I used to glance across the road and think that he looked really nice but not once did I pluck up the courage to simply cross over and say Hi. And then, about two years ago, an old school friend of mine mentioned in passing that she’d stayed at Anthony and Pam’s beautiful guest house and directing D’Arcy and Eric there seemed like the obvious thing to do. I am fascinated by these connections and inter-connections that occur throughout our lives in unexpected ways.
Perhaps D’Arcy and Eric had beginners’ luck because everything seemed to work out perfectly on their trip. It was refreshing for us to see the Kruger through their eyes. They were as delighted by zebra and giraffe sightings as they were by the Big 5, all of which they’d seen by the end of their second day in the Park. In fact, the Kruger seemed to exceed their expectations in every way and it was wonderful for us to share our love of that game reserve with them. They enjoyed great weather almost throughout their time in South Africa, described their road trip as ‘awesome’ and took advantage of just about everything the Western Cape has to offer.
In Cape Town they were invited to dinner by a special friend or ours who has a home overlooking Camp’s Bay and The Twelve Apostles and they also paid ‘The Bunny Emporium’ in Rondebosch a visit. On arriving in Johannesburg, a visit to The Bunny Emporium was high on their ‘to do’ list. They thought it was a retail store and for this confusion I had to take full responsibility… A very talented friend of mine hand-knits adorable bunnies which make perfect baby gifts. I have nicknamed her home The Bunny Emporium because whenever I visit, there is another collection of perfect bunnies waiting for new homes. Having cleared up that misunderstanding, D’Arcy and Eric were invited to tea at Liz’s home. Along with choosing a pair of bunnies for grandchildren back in the States, they also got to see her beautiful, mainly indigenous garden and to simply enjoy the spirit of creativity that pervades her home.
By the time I met D’Arcy and Eric at O R Tambo on the 2nd of October, I knew that D’Arcy wrote beautifully. I knew she had an interest in English, as I do. I knew she was artistic and that she does lovely watercolours. In fact, she arrived in Johannesburg with a watercolour (currently being framed) that she’d painted from a photograph I’d posted on Facebook several years ago. The picture was taken on the Wellington Wine Walk which I’d written about and last week she and Eric visited Wellington and found the area where it was taken.
I also knew that both D’Arcy and Eric were animal lovers – as are we- and that Eric takes magnificent photographs – for which talent I now follow him on Facebook too. (Eric Shellgren Photos) I knew that we shared an interest in architecture, especially when it comes to houses. I have learned a lot about Seattle and Washington State through my connection with them and have specially loved D’Arcy’s blog posts on Seattle’s floating homes. Remember ‘Sleepless in Seattle’?
So, knowing all that, I didn’t share the reservations expressed by friends concerned that we were going to be hosting ‘pen friends’ we’d never met before. I expected them to be gentle and creative and that’s just what they were. Besides, we’d met their friends Peter and Cathy a few years earlier and they were harbingers of good things to come.
I have to confess that I always have a little niggle of anxiety when hosting overseas friends and family. We have something of a reputation in this country when it comes to crime and bad driving habits among other things. When I know visitors are safely on their return flights having experienced no mishaps whatsoever, I do breath an inward sigh of relief. But I had no need of that niggle this time. D’Arcy and Eric were calm, insightful and completely non-judgemental. They were appreciative and complimentary of everything they saw and everyone they met. They’d done masses of reading and research and knew what they were about. Wherever they went it seems they were met with nothing but interest and kindness. It was a privilege for us to introduce them to South Africa and it was good to be reminded that we have so much to be proud of down here on the tip of this complicated continent. When you’re all grown up it turns out there’s a lot to be said for ‘talking to strangers.’