Tourist in Your Country of Birth? A Walking Tour of the Maboneng Precinct

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For my 37th birthday in January, my friend Mandy gave me one of the best gifts I could have asked for: a walking tour of the Maboneng Precinct, south east of the Joburg CBD. I had been to the Sunday morning market at Arts on Main once with David and Chiara in 2013 (Chiara was about 2). I thought it was cool but a little limited: once we’d picked something to eat, there were a few shops to browse but mostly up a flight of stairs – so not really a pram destination.

My second visit was in September 2015. I wanted to show my Cape Town foodie friend & lifestyle chef/ consultant, Maureen, that Jozi also has some funky destinations and that it’s not all about strip malls. We had two kids and two prams between us, it was a scorcher of a day and after the kids had messed “ice cream” (actually organic frozen yoghurt or such-like) all over themselves, they were frankly OVER the excursion.

Then, a few weeks ago, I went to Maboneng to watch a documentary at The Bioscope (The Boers at the End of the World: very interesting doci about a tiny group of Afrikaans-speaking Argentinians in Patagonia). It was a Friday night and the place was PUMPING. Such a great vibe with so many bars and eateries to choose from… (Note to coffee lovers: The Bioscope possibly offers one of the best tasting cappuccinos I’ve had in Joburg. Yes, I was drinking coffee at 7pm at night – I have small children). It was then, that I started to understand the hype about Maboneng, “Place of Light”.

This bar was HUMMING on Fri 18 March
(This bar next door to the Bioscope was humming on a summery Friday night in March)

Returning to Maboneng for our walking tour on a Friday morning in April, sans enfants, felt really decadent. Mandy and I Uber-ed (I think it’s a verb now, right?) to Fox Street with only our handbags in tow (not even wet wipes :)) and met our guide, Jo, at Origins Coffee. (I recall going back to Cape Town in my early days as a Jozi immigrant and being told I had not lived until I had sampled Origins coffee in De Waterkant. I love local “imports”).

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Jo is the founder of Past Experiences, one of a handful of inner city walking tour companies. I love that she majored in History and Archeology. (She has a keen interest in street art and graffiti about which I knew absolutely nothing before the tour. The photo above is a “tag” –  a street artist’s signature).

As we arrived, Mandy and I spied some of my two most favourite words in the English language “ROOFTOP BAR”. We ventured upstairs and it transpired that Canteen (the restaurant inside the Arts on Main courtyard) has a cute, little rooftop area.

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Jo then led us to the shops and galleries on the first floor. I bought these gorgeous, colourful mini canvasses (pictured below) featuring different hand signs for taxis, as well as one of Madiba. I love the bright colours against the dark grey cladding in our guest loo, where they are now hanging. I spied them in artist, May Wentworth’s, store: The Inappropriate Gallery & Decor. The large canvas of the woman in a red jacket is one of May’s own artworks which I was admiring too. I couldn’t resist a carved noughts and crosses board which I’ve been using to teach Chiara (who just turned 5) to play.

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The Inappropriate Gallery also stocks gorgeous platters, bowls etc by The Ceramic Factory (main Joburg store is in Linden). Here’s an example of their wares from their Facebook page:

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As for the prices, perhaps I am punch drunk by the exorbitant prices we get charged for pretty little things in Sandton, the Parks etc, but I felt like I had US dollars to spend but was paying in Rands:  I couldn’t believe what great value everything was. (Jo, on the other hand, is more used to shopping in the inner city and surrounds and couldn’t quite understand my bargain hunter’s excitement…).

Next stop was at I Was Shot in Joburg. I absolutely love this “brand”. So much so that I actually bought the T-shirt. (I never, ever buy the T-shirt…that’s me wearing it in the picture below – yes, the 10 year old in me wanted to wear it straight away!) That’s how much I love their story, purpose and now, their product range. If you don’t know who they are, they say it best: “I Was Shot provides a platform for former street children (from Hillbrow) to earn an income”. They started out by using disposable cameras to photograph their surroundings. Now, the photos form the basis for gorgeous, trendy and totally “usable” products. Besides my T-shirt, I bought funky photo frames and fridge magnets. (Their products are also on sale at their pop-up store in Rosebank’s mall, opposite Clicks. I love them as gifts for Saffers living abroad or foreigners – so easy to fit in your suitcase and so reflective of modern South Africa.)

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After our shopping spree, Jo walked us through the precinct to The Collector’s Treasury. I’m not proud to say I’d never heard of it, but I gather it’s sort of famous amongst book lovers and/or hipsters and collectors. Prepare for total chaos as you enter – and throughout the store – with piles of books, lining almost every inch of available space. According to Jo, the owners (if they happen to be on duty when you visit) kind of know what they have in stock and where to find it. Definitely worth a visit for the experience even if the product range and method of display is totally overwhelming.

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We then walked over beautiful pavement mosaics (somewhat in disrepair, sadly) into what I didn’t initially realise was part of the Maboneng Precint. As part of her studies, Jo did a mini thesis on New Doornfontein which she described as once being a very poor, but culturally and artistically rich, slum in the early 1900’s. It’s now home to a private school targeting lower middle income families, an arts centre for local children, as well as some great street art. We finished the tour outside Access City with its huge mural of Mandela as a young boxer and Trim Park: free, brand new, outdoor gym facilities.

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Before dashing back to fetch the kids, we shared a quick lunch at James XVI’s Ethiopian Cafe, next door to a very Paul Smith-esque cycling store:

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I feel like we only just scratched the surface of what Maboneng has to offer and I was thrilled to return ten days later for the #JoziMeetup at The Open, organised by South African Mom Bloggers. (The Open is an amazing space and if I lived closer to the CBD, I would love to spend my mornings writing there. For more about the amazing #JoziMeetup, check out Sharon’s post at The Blessed Barrenness).

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I leave you with the first piece of street art we came across in Fox St: “Tourist in Your Country of Birth?” The irony was most certainly not lost on me…

"Tourist in your country of birth?"
“Tourist in your country of birth?”

If you need a push of inspiration to venture out of your hood and to be a tourist in home country, check out 2summers.net, for American blogger and Jozi dweller, Heather Mason’s post about her rooftop tour of Joburg with Dlala Nje. (It was a custom tour, but I raced over to “like” their Facebook page and cannot wait for a potential repeat.)

South Africa Through the Eyes of a Joburg Cab Driver

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Amidst the horror of the most recent spate of xenophobic violence that has gripped South Africa, I wanted to write a positive piece about people, preconceptions and othering.

It is 2003 and I have just moved to Joburg after a year in London and Rome and before that, four years in Cape Town.

Growing up, we made the long trip from Keurbooms to Joburg a few times to visit family and to experience some city buzz. The last time I visited Joburg with my parents I was ten years old. It was 1989 and there was a bomb scare while we shopping in one of the northern suburbs malls. In high school we were made to read some horrific Nadine Gordimer short story involving high walls and electric fences. I forget the details but either the dog or the owner of the dog is frazzled by their own electric fence. The story was set in Joburg. To me, it may as well have been Bogota or Baghdad. A society of such violence felt foreign and far away from the safety of my surroundings in Keurbooms, Plett, George and even, later, Cape Town. Joburg was the wild west. A menacing metropolis that someone from the Western Cape (or certainly, almost anyone I knew) would never imagine living in.

But love is a powerful thing. And that is what leads me to move to the Big Smoke in 2003. I recall a brief conversation with a stranger on a subway platform in Rome. He must have asked me where I was from/ moving to and I must have answered “Johannesburg”. He responded by telling me that it was the second most dangerous city in the world.

Nonetheless, I arrive in Joburg in June 2003 with the contents of a backpack and a boyfriend with a townhouse in Illovo. No job and – more critically – no wheels. I don’t know Hillbrow from Hobart Road and I am going for interviews anywhere and everywhere around the city.

About a week into my arrival, I am to meet a recruitment agent at a coffee shop in Bedfordview. I don’t remember how I get there but I do recall that my only way of getting back is to order a cab. So, after the meeting I phone a taxi company and a driver duly arrives to collect me. In an effort to be very nouveau South Africa or something, I climb into the front seat of his car.

“Look,” my 24 year-old self is trying to say, “we are equal. I’m not sitting at the back like some Apartheid-era Madam!” If he thinks anything of this gesture, he does not let on.

I don’t really recall what we speak about during the drive but what happens next will remain with me forever. We are stopped at a red light and, somehow, he gets started talking to a the driver of the vehicle next to me. They are speaking loudly and animatedly in Zulu.

“Did you understand what we just said?” he asks me as we pull away.

I reply that I am embarrassed to say that I did not. Not a word.

And then he turns to me and says, “And we could have been planning to murder you and you wouldn’t even have known?”

I smile.

And he smiles back.

I feel exhilarated. In that one moment in my first week in Joburg, this taxi driver has laid bare our country’s issues of violence, equality, language, race, class, education and has challenged me to confront them.

I dream that one day, we will all live in that South Africa. A South Africa in which we speak to one another as equals, regardless of the colour of our skins or whether we are expats or refugees seeking a better life here. A South Africa in which everyone feels truly free.

Up-date on the Month of March

Apologies, dear readers, for my prolonged absence from the Blogosphere. Things have been rather busy for the past month.

After returning from Cape Town at the end of February, I had a teeny tiny taste of what life as a full-time, working mom, might be like. The Best Friend invited me to a very impressive two-day conference that she had conceptualised and was hosting in Jozi. I have to say, it was fun to wake up in the morning and peruse my usually untouched wardrobe of beautiful shirts and suits from a bygone era. To meticulously insert lady-links and to pick out a pair of shiny heels and to feel super chic and ready for the day. Of course, my day had officially begun three hours earlier at 5am and so as I was getting ready to leave at 8am, it felt close to lunch-time. Happily, staying awake to listen to conference speeches and staying awake to entertain a small child require similar amounts of caffeine and so I remain well practised in this respect. Of course, when one is a stay at home mom, leaving one’s child for two whole days from 8am to 5pm brings with it all manner of feelings of guilt, to the extent that, on the second day, I nipped back home for an hour for a session of play with The Princess.

My brief return to the world of “work” (sort of) was followed by an two week return to the world of French. My Belgian host sister arrived in mid-March as part of the pen-ultimate leg of her one year around-the-world tour which began in Mexico in May 2011 and which will end in the Ivory Coast in May this year.

Her sojourn in Jozi led us to many historical sites – many of which I have been meaning to visit for years but have just never got to: Liliesleaf Museum in Rivonia, the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill & the Constitutional Court and a guided tour of Soweto. This was interspersed by visits to Parkhurst, 44 Stanley, Melrose Arch, 70 Juta and the Neighbourgoods Market. Ages ago, my Parkhurst friend recommended a great “guide” to Jozi sites and life, when we were breakfasting at Nice: “Spaces & Places: Johannesburg” by Gerald Garner. The author covers all the cute little neighbourhood/ homely spots worth visiting in the “Village Life” section (from Parkhurst to Craighall Park to Greenside to Linden),  he covers a fortune to be discovered in the Urban Life section, especially when it comes to the CBD and “Braamies” and then also does a great synopsis on what’s should be visited in terms of struggle heritage. I think my host sister and I – often with The Princess in tow – did a fairly good job of experiencing Jozi in 10 days, if his book is anything to go by, although of course, there is way more we could have seen and done.

On Human Rights Day, we headed off to Clarens in the Free State, to explore a bit of the rest of the country and so that The Husband could cycle himself silly. We stayed 1.2km away from the edge of the common in the middle of the main street of Clarens. Here’s where our newly acquired Phil & Ted’s jogger came in handy. It has only been jogging once since its acquisition six weeks ago, but with Clarens’ dirt roads, we found an additional reason to justify its existence.

The Princess went on her first hike in the Golden Gate National Park not far from Clarens, safely esconsed inside her Baby Bjorn carrier on The Husband’s chest. The next day we visited a “replica” of a Basotho village – a tourist destination inside the park. We arrived at lunch time so we decided to brave the traditional menu at the restaurant. I convinced my host sister to try vetkoek for the first time, by offering to split a safer option of a toasted cheese and ham. The Husband’s idea of eating exotic food is ordering Italian so he also went for a toasted sarmie. Honestly, I haven’t eaten a toasted sandwich this tasty in about 20 years. I have distant childhood memories of yummy, greasy toasted sarmies where I guess the bread is basically fried and the cheese is oozing out of the corners, but whatever I’ve had in the last decade has tended to be rather dry and bland. Well, the Basotho Cultural Village Restaurant makes ’em like they used to – worth a visit just for that. And if you’re more adventurous you can drink home brewed beer from a calabash with the advisor to the Chief of the village.

On our final day in Clarens, I suggested that we meet The Husband at the end of his cycle in Fouriesburg. I had never heard of the place but my host sister’s Lonely Planet mentioned it, citing numerous old stone buildings. In hindsight, I think that’s all the Lonely Planet said about Fouriesburg because, well, there really is nothing else to mention. However, I would like to object against any mention of the place whatsoever because it really is a one-horse town with no redeeming features. We were forced to wait there for The Husband – I had bargained on at least an hour of “visiting time”, ten minutes of which we’d managed to deplete by filling up with petrol. For the remaining 50 minutes, we installed ourselves in the garden of a local pub. As there was no-one in sight to order coffee from, I ventured inside. “Inside” consisted of an enormous bar counter populated by white men in long, khaki socks, against the back drop of an old South African flag. The flag was autographed in numerous places but I didn’t get a chance to figure out by whom because I was the only female in the joint and to say that the old farts were looking on leacherously, would be polite. When I enquired about coffees from the owner surveying his territory whilst smoking a cigarette behind the bar, he looked thoroughly peeved that I deigned to interrupt his rugby game to actually try and patronise his establishment. In short, not my favourite town and we quickly changed our plans and headed back to Clarens for lunch.

At the end of my host sister’s two week stay in Jozi, we were joined by her wonderful parents who had hosted me in their home in Belgium for six months in 1997 and who, along with their three daughters, painstakingly taught me to speak French, took me to fascinating and beautiful places and made my stay in their country and home absolutely unforgettable. Now, fifeen years later I could finally “host” them and their charming relatives, if only for one night, on the day of The Princess’ first birthday.

The story of The Princess starting to walk and turning one, will be a story for another blog. In the meantime, happy holidays as the Americans would say and I will check in again after the long weekend.

xxx Natalie

Size Matters. Duh.

I have a theory about us Joburgers, our states of minds and what makes us the moodiest of all. I’d like to suggest that it’s not Ju Ju, it’s not load shedding and it’s not even the traffic. Sure, the traffic gets our blood boiling but how else would we break the ice in meetings? In my (past) experience, the subject of traffic instantly bonds business people like nothing on earth:

 

Meeting Participant 1:     Sorry I’m late. The traffic was horrendous…

Meeting Participant 2:     Where do you stay?

Meeting Participant 1:     Pretoria East

Meeting Participant 2:     (Nodding sympathetically) Ja, I live in Centurion. I left home 

                                     at 4 this morning and I only just made my 8 o'clock.

Meeting Participant 3:     It must have been that broken down truck at Allendale?

Meeting Participant 2:     Ja! Right next to Allendale.


It’s a beautiful scene: a roomful of total strangers, bonding like old friends over their shared experience of “the traffic”.


But back to my theory: which is NOT that “the traffic” makes us moody. No. I believe that nothing makes a born-and-bred Joburger quite as grumpy as bad weather. It’s as though we subconsciously know that despite all our issues: the smog, the smash 'n grabs, the roadworks, the lack of beaches, the dry air …we’ll be okay, because at least we have the weather. And when the weather is shite, then Joburgers are cold, wet and above all, grumpy.

 

As a Jozi immigrant who spent years dragging myself through rain- and wind-storms on UCT’s campus, Joburg weather doesn't often get me down. But I confess that last month was so bad, I found myself catching the meteorological malaise. I was in this mildly depressed state when I happened to wander into a shop called Helen Melon at the BluBird centre. A couple of warm, fluffy winter gowns had caught my eye, so I went to investigate. I was approached by Helon/Helen herself. Because it was 11am on a Tuesday morning she correctly assumed I hadn’t had to brave any traffic to get to her store and so she went with a more universal ice-breaker: the weather. She couldn’t believe how cold Joburg was and she was from Cape Town and it was actually warm there and she'd never been this cold in her life, etc… etc…etc…

 

I admit I tend to get irrationally competitive on the whole Cape Town/ Joburg thing: if I’m voicing my own opinion, then Cape Town may sometimes be better than Joburg. However, since I live in Jozi, if someone else ventures the opinion that CT is better than Joburg – so help them God. And so it was that I found myself standing in front of Helon Melon and recounting tales of being practically blown off Eastern Boulevard by the Cape Town South Easter. Jozi would be re-instated as “Weather Capital of SA” if it was the last thing I did.


Fortunately, Mrs Melon decided to change the subject. I told her I was interested in her winter gowns

and would like to try one on. And then she committed Sandton retail suicide. Here’s what she said: "Would you like to try an extra-large? I think the medium might fit you but I wear an extra-large because they are so much longer than the smaller sizes, so they keep you so warm around the legs.


I was speechless. Did she just say "extra large" out loud? I admit that I was somewhat comforted by the fact that Helen herself is absolutely tiny and here she was telling me that she wore this gown in a size extra-large by choice. Only somewhat comforted, though. I was still mostly mortified at the thought of owning an extra-large garment. I think it must have been a mixture of shock and horror that caused me to temporarily lose my mind and stammer, “Er, okay, I’ll try it.”

 

She looked relieved because she thought I had seen her point of view about the long, warm, extra-large gown.

Her relief gave her renewed confidence in our retail interaction and she went on to say: “It’s just that most of the women who come in here won’t buy anything that’s a size bigger than their normal size. Just because of what the tag says – can you believe that?”

 

What I was thinking was: “Lady, you should see the size of my aspirational wardrobe. It takes up the entire spare room and has been gathering moth balls since 2005.”

 

But what I said out loud was: “Gosh! Really?”

I guess I sounded convincing because Mrs Melon was like, “I know! Isn’t it mad? Hahahahaha."

And so it was that, in an attempt to come across as an equally psychologically stable woman with a healthy body image, unperturbed by frivolous things such as size tags (just like Helon Melon), I found myself purchasing an extra-large dressing gown.

I was totally going to take it back and swap it for a smaller size on a day that Helen was safely back in Cape Town. Totally. But the next day I remembered that I’d violently ripped out the size tag somewhere between the shop and the parking lot, leaving the gown with a giant hole where the tag used to be.

And if you’re wondering whether the extra leg warmth has made up for the psychological trauma of owning a Donna Claire-type garment, the answer is a resounding “no”. I think the gown’s about to get booted to the spare room – I’m just not mentally strong enough for this sh**

Runaway Make-Up with David-John


I’ve been in hiding here in Jozi for the past few days. On my second last day in Austria, I managed to break out in some sort of scaly, vulgar face rash. It started on top of one eyelid and spread to my forehead, my chin, my upper lip…You get the picture. I figured it was either the sub-zero temperatures, the dry air, or the lack of sunshine and assumed that it would disappear after a day at the pool back at home. No such luck.

I decided to call my dermatologist’s rooms just for a laugh. The receptionist usually offers me a slot around mid-2012. This time was a little better. I was offered 1 July 2010. Fortunately, she was suitably grossed out by my description of my flaking face that 1 July, turned into “I have a cancellation in an hours time”.

An hour later, I learned that I am experiencing an allergic reaction to nail varnish. One little forehead scratch with a painted talon is apparently all it takes. Who knew? Naturally, I’m delighted to have gotten to the bottom of the Sci-fi story on my face, but it has meant that I’ve had to cancel my manicure at the Nail & Body Lab. And I was SO looking forward to catching the latest kugel goss (by eavesdropping, obviously). I was also banking on my Blubird visit to provide me with a little material for this posting. I was beginning to despair, when I happened upon the gem in the picture above.

While I was paying for my parking at Hyde Park centre, I saw a Rod Stewart poster. Since I was convinced that the old fart had to be dead by now, I looked again. Not Rod Stewart. Alex Jay, the Wedding Singer? Wrong again. Meet David-John, people. “International make-up artist”. I was busy taking down his number to call him and tell him that Duran Duran is dead and that he can’t keep his hairdo as a shrine to them, I noticed the poster’s copy. My personal fave is the second last bullet point: “Runaway make-up for fashion shows”. Not the effect you want to have on your clients, Dave.

Then there’s his name. I’m not sure if it’s a stage name that he thought gave him a sort of je ne sais quoi or if his parents just couldn’t reach consensus and decided to take matrimonial compromise very literally and just call him by two very common boys names stuck together. I mean, can you imagine: “David-John! Dinner’s ready!” or “David-John! Leave your mother’s eye-liner alone!”

I guess Dave got used to long names and couldn’t quite stop at “David-John Make-Up” as a business name. Nope, it had to be “David-John Make-Up INTERNATIONAL”. Maybe he tagged that on after a wedding in Mauritius when he realised that “David-John: Make-up for SADIC” didn’t sound quite as cool. Oh, but wait. Please note the info. at the bottom of the poster: “David-John travels world wide”. ‘Course he does.

And thank GAWD for that! I may just need him for my next trip to Austria when my face breaks out from supposed schnitzel-induced scurvy. “Please, cover me in base, David-John!”

It’s not the BFG: it’s the GHD

I was in Dischem the other day, when I overhead a little interaction that took me back in time. I was instantly reminded of a rather memorable project meeting a few years ago. It was during my former life at one of the Big Four Audit firms. I was in a division with a far lower concentration of auditors and tax advisors than the rest of the firm, but, in general, the auditing culture prevailed: risk averse, polite, professional, etc. However, the meeting in question was the kick-off meeting for a ten-person project at one of the firm’s clients. Okay, fine. I’ll give you a hint: the client has been referred to as Incestec Bonk (but I’m sure only by less refined members of Jozi society and certainly not by my ex audit firm). Anyway, this meeting should have been like any other: timelines, roles & responsibilities, blah, blah, blah. Instead, it felt more like a meeting amongst a Cosmo team preparing for a Hugh Grant interview. 33 year old women in pin stripe suits were giggling like teens, before collectively panicking about what they’d wear on Monday when we be in the midst of these Incestec homo sapiens (the male variety). The atmosphere was filled with palpable excitement; sexual innuendos were rife and the poor male Partner in charge was powerless to stop it. It was almost surreal.

That weekend, I had lunch with a friend employed by Incestec. I’ll call her Nigella (since Nigella is almost as gorgeous and almost as good in the kitchen). I described the reaction of my female colleagues to the news that we’d soon be working amongst her male colleagues. I wanted to know if they were just off the charts good-looking, or what?

“Yes, they are,” she said straight away.

“But…”

Ha! There had to be a ‘but’ – the stats just didn’t make sense.

“You see, the thing is…” Nigella continued but then tapered off again. “The thing is…”

She looked almost pained by what she was trying to say and once again she stopped mid-sentence.

“Well, the thing is, they…”

Oh for Pete’s sake, what is it? By now I was thinking she was going to tell me that they were transvestites by night or that they all lived with their aging mothers.

“The thing is, (deep breath) they do their hair”.

Monday rolled around and proved Nigella right. Virtually every member of the male species had about enough gel in his “do” to stop a bullet. (Thankfully, that didn’t deter my female colleagues).

The other day in Dischem, I witnessed first hand how it all begins. It was mid-morning and the store was quiet enough for me to bump into a yummy mummy and her teenage son several times over. The third time I encountered the duo, I was picking out shampoo.

“Oh, look. They’ve got the GHD,” the mom was saying.

Then she turned to her son. “Do you have a GHD, Kev?”

I was like, “he’s a guy (and he’s 15) but mainly, he’s a guy – of course he doesn’t have a frigging GHD, you silly woman.”

And then came Kev’s reply, “Jaw. I usso got a GHD. For shaw.”

I guess who needs the Big Friendly Giant when you have the GHD?