On Sunday, it was eleven years since Matt and I stepped off a plane and became Londoners. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and some years, especially the first few, were really hard, when we were lonely strangers in a very strange and foreign land. This is home now, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Matt did 11 of his 13 years of education in the UK, and most people who meet him have no idea he was a little South African oke until he was 8. I met my wonderful Tom here in London, and of course our little Ted is a proper Londoner, born and bred. This is a beautiful and astonishing city, now full of familiar places, thousands of memories and wonderful friends, and my reasons for moving here, opportunity and breadth of experience for both me and Matt, still hold.
Nevertheless, I’m still a South African. I cheer for the Bokke and I cry when I hear Vusi Mahlasela sing, and I always will. And I still, like many London-based South Africans, will lose all reason when I visit one of the shops selling hilariously overpriced South African goodies in London. I’ll happily pay two quid for a stale Lunch Bar chocolate bar, or an out-of-date packet of NikNak crisps. You’ll find me weeping in a corner, clutching a can of Sparletta Creme Soda. I never drank the vile stuff when I lived in South Africa, but now it seems like a nostalgic, green, e-number-ridden hymn to my homeland. With bubbles. And then there’s biltong. I’ll shell out more than I would for an ounce of gold for a small greasy bag of dried, raw meat. None of my English friends understand, and they all look rather pale when I try to get them to try it.
But what I miss most about South Africa and South Africans is the language. There are so many words and phrases which simply don’t have an equivalent in English English. I’ve learned to censor my vocabulary to avoid uncomprehending stares and occasional ridicule. For example, South Africans, like Americans, use the words “underpants” and “pants” where the English would say “pants” and “trousers”. As a result, a South African in London will loudly tell the whole office that her pants are dirty – but just the once. Similarly (and non-South African readers, please don’t snigger too much), all South Africans refer to traffic lights as “robots”. It’s unthinking, universal slang and no one pauses to think how… well, small-town hick it makes us sound. Shortly after I moved to London, I went on a road-trip with a film crew to Bradford. Five minutes after we left my house, I told the driver to “turn left at the robot” to get onto the M1. “The what?” he said, and after I’d explained, the teasing began. Three film boys can think of a lot of robot jokes between London and Yorkshire, let me tell you.
When the sun is shining, but it’s still raining, South Africans call it a “monkey’s wedding”. The term apparently originates from a Zulu folktale. I know of no equivalent term for the phenomenon in English. A small pick-up truck, often for personal use, is a “bakkie” and all sneakers, trainer, plimsolls and tennis shoes are covered by the blanket term “tekkies”.
Afrikaans is a wonderfully pungent, onomatopoeic language, and many of South Africa’s best words come from there. Something that is rotten or overripe is “vrot” (pronounced froht”). A coward is a “papbroek”, which translates literally as “soggy pants”. Diarrhoea is accurately called “spuitpoep” (translation: “sprinkler fart”).
And finally, when someone really, really annoys you, (sensitive readers offended by bad language look away now), you may wish to administer a “running poesklap to the head”. Now “poes”, gentle reader, is a colloquial term for a ladygarden, and a klap is a slap. It’s not literal, you’re not going to slap someone IN their ladygarden, the word is merely there for its rudeness and for the wonderfully plosive sound it makes when you say it. In the entire lexicon of English I challenge you to find a phrase that matches the jowl-rattling, lip-flobbering satisfaction of “poesklap”. And the idea of someone taking a run-up to administer this blow to the side of the head… well, it just warms my heart.
How a poesklap is correctly delivered. Image courtesy Mr Robert Joseph.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.