The Corner Café
It’s a bright and breezy Monday afternoon in Durban, and it’s bizarre to realize that a week ago I was preparing for my last full day in America for a while. My graduate student (and Protestant?) work ethic has me thinking that this first full weekday means that I should get rapidly into the swing of working, but I’m not entirely certain how that is going to happen. Do I just dive in to an archive? Do I walk around and figure out what’s going on?
At any rate, this morning at half past seven (South Africans never say 7:30 or the like, I’m trying to adjust and at least sound like less of a rube), my friend Steven’s mom came by and picked me up. The Dri family has been absolutely amazing to me; it was Steven, who I first met while studying abroad at UKZN Pietermaritzburg back in 2004, that put me in touch with Joe and my kick-ass apartment. Additionally, Steven’s parents have simply bowled me over with their generosity. Both of Steven’s parents immigrated decades ago to South Africa from Italy; Steven was born here and has dual citizenship. Steven’s father is a bluff, friendly mustachioed man with a penchant for long and loud arguments that end in at least seven contradictory statements. Steven’s mother is kind, warm and thoughtful; she’s the kind of woman who will give you a hug while reminding you that you need a certain piece of paperwork that you’d completely forgotten about. Although I live about 2 kilometers at most from the university, it was Mrs. Dri’s idea that she drive me up the first day so I’d know exactly where I was going and so I wouldn’t get lost. Seriously, how sweet is that?
It was that thoughtfulness that led me to be driven up the hill to the University of KwaZulu-Natal this morning. It was like being taken to my first day of school, which was very sweet, except I didn’t actually have any school today. In fact, that’s a weird thing in general—I don’t have school at all. I’m connected to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College, almost as an after-thought—it was suggested to me, and the history faculty is quite good, but it’s weird for me to just be ‘in’ South Africa, without an official, regular program to make ‘sense’ of it. Don’t’ get me wrong, I’m going to be attending UKZN’s History Department seminars, which are weekly discussions that take place on a variety of fascinating topics. It’s just that this week is spring vacation (remember—there’s that whole equator thing) so no one is here. The seminars themselves actually start (or rather continue, they’ve been going on all semester, I’ve just arrived) on Wednesday 5 October. I’m excited.
But back to the beginning. I got dropped off today at the uni, said goodbye to Steven’s mom, and haggled my way past the security guards at the front gate…
T: I’m sorry [I always apologize when I’m newly somewhere, it’s odd], I’m from America, and I’m here to meet people in the History Department
Guard: Where in America?
T: Ngiphuma eCalifornia (why did you switch to Zulu, Tallie?!)
G: California? You know uTchuwasenega?
T: Um, what?
G: UTchuwasenega? The President of California?
T: Oh, Schwarzenegger? Yeah. I know him. He is, well, um, a better actor than Presid—er, governor. We have a new one now. He is a very old man. I think he is smarter than Schwarzenegger.
G: (uninterested) Oh, ok. Have a nice day.
G: Yes, All right.
I’m never sure when to speak Zulu or not, and I’m always afraid of whether I’m doing it right or not, so I’m usually just awkward in my own native language instead.
I’d only been on the Howard College campus once—back in 2009, when I was with the Fulbright-Hays Zulu Language Program, and we were there for about 6 hours. Truly, the highlight was either eating a delicious meal with the humanities faculty, or posing for a series of incredibly sarcastic photos in front of the ostentatious statue of King George V (what? I’m a critical empire historian, damnit). This time it was nearly 8 in the morning, I had no idea what I was doing, and I was trying to fake it best I could. I remembered to head for the Memorial Tower (which is like a gigantic phallus of knowledge, pointing straight up into the clouds), and looked for the history department. On my way in, I paused at the inscriptions in the doorway memorializing (hence the name) the Howard College students that had died during the Second World War (the Pietermaritzburg Old Main Building has a similar inscription for WWI students—it’s intense). I was most intrigued by a ‘John Ing’ they had listed. Was he Chinese? I wanted to know, and I’m including this in my journal as a sort of passing thing to look up at some point when I have a chance. I then found myself thoroughly lost in the building. I wandered up and down, left and right, over and under, hither and yon throughout what was clearly M.C. Esher’s African intellectual bungalow. I eventually found my way to the history department, disturbed a bubbly, friendly administrative assistant named Dudu (it is a common enough name here, no snickering) and had a lovely conversation. She introduced me to a professor I’d semi-met two years ago via email, and then took me down the hall to meet two end of dissertation stage graduate students…who turned out to be people known to me through my advisor and we had friends in common.
Friends, it is the best feeling when you find people you know even through the most tangential of connections eight thousand miles away. This is not an uncommon occurrence for me, but I find that every time it happens I’m filled with this amazement and excitement that the world is perhaps not as massive as we think and that connections with people can shrink some of the divides we feel. We chatted for nearly an hour, and it was awesome. I felt like there were people that were actually interested in the same things I was, and we talked vaguely of historiography and of our indecent fears of dissertations (although I must scoff as they’re nearly done, so their fears are both more justified and more ludicrous). Also, this is further proof that my advisor knows everyone on the damn planet.
Flush with success at having survived a stroll onto a campus a mere 2km from my house (I set the bar low, people!), I hoofed it downhill home and smiled with relief at re-encountering the walled in parkland that is Laurel Road. I live on a cul-de-sac, which is honestly the most reassuring thing ever. Far from being a dead-end, it’s extremely comforting realizing that you live in a circle; you’re enveloped, warm, connected, even if you don’t know everyone yet. Laurel Road (much like the church service I attended yesterday) is populated largely by white South Africans born before Pearl Harbor; that the road forms a circle over a beautiful green swath of parkland makes the entire place feel something vaguely like a laager, the old Boer circling of the wagons for protection. Here thus is the weird relationship I have with settler colonialism; I find mild comfort in a space that reminds me of the circling of covered wagons. It’s this image that reminds me that I, too, am a new occupant in this space, and that on some levels I’m struggling to make sense of my place in it. I just hope my rage-based historical practice keeps me from falling into the same complacencies as the settlers I study while at the same time my vulnerability reminds me to keep those self-same settlers human in my mind and not just mustache-twirling villains.
I changed into shorts and flip-flops (for the humidity is making itself felt, even on a mild spring morning/afternoon), and hoofed it for my first trip to the Corner Café, an eclectic hotspot that friends assured me would be perfect for me.
How right they were. The Corner Café is pretty much the spot I’d have described if you asked me to imagine where the ideal place I’d hang in Durban. It’s a funky eco-friendly café serious in its environmental pledges (no plastic/paper cups, constant composting, meat-free Mondays and the like), edgy artwork (I am currently typing beneath a massive-ass painting of a cow. Why not?), and a fun mix of paper lanterns, purposefully chosen graffiti and OH MY GOD FREE WIFI (well, when it’s working—it’s down right now, but I’m not holding it against them. EVER.). The owners are a kindly white couple who appear to be in their late twenties/early thirties with bright smiles and quick laughs, and the staff all seems super friendly. Yet I’m aware that I am in a strangely gentrified region between frou-frou bed and breakfasts and inanities like the Ernest Hemingway Bar (do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for beer). But for now, this is a bit of an extension of my laager, a space that I’m feeling out and trying to understand as I slowly understand more and more of Durban around me.
A final note before I end this ridiculously long update. Small kindnesses go a long way, and little connections make me feel far less alone. Last night, I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of a friend named Marie. She is a woman my mother’s age who I’ve been facebook friends with for the past few months, linked through another South African who herself had lived both in Pietermaritzburg and Urbana, Illinois. She has two half black sons about my age, and it’s been a pleasure to read about her family over the past few months, and to feel as if I was getting to know someone across the globe. She called and said she was in Durban with another friend of a friend, and then they picked me up and invited me out to dinner. We went to Wilson’s Wharf, which is a bit of a touristy spot, but one that I remembered from multiple visits in the past. It was incredibly humbling and gratifying to meet two people that I’d not known previously in person that were willing to have a meal with a fuzzy-headed semi-stranger who was feeling a bit unmoored after traveling so far. I’m grateful and hopeful at the moment, and I’m looking forward to all the connections I’m making. Now, sometime soon I should get around to doing research. Although I have to remind myself, it is only my fourth full day here. I should pace myself.
Thanks for reading, friends. Btw, if you’re looking to send me a message of encouragement or an uncomfortable death threat (really, I’m narcissistic enough to think they’re both declarations of love), then please please send me some mail at:
30 Laurel Road
If you’re feeling particularly sassy or if you’re actually in country, my phone number is 0767262568. For you foreigners, that’d be +27767262568.
That’s more than enough of a bombardment for now. Until next time, friends.
Current Location: South Africa, Durban
How am I feeling?:: chipper
What's playing?:: Shawn Colvin - Fill Me Up