Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

In my city of ghosts

I love going to Jozi. I love that wet air feeling when landing after a summer thunderstorm. I love the huge, green trees that spread their dense branches over roads in the suburbs. I love the city skyline, and the feelings and flavours of the different areas. I love that Jozi is constantly and surprisingly evolving. Braamfontein, after years of being dodgy and weird, has returned to the vibrancy of how it was in my school days, when I would go to drama lessons at The Nunnery on the edge of Wits. I love being there and feeling the excitement of the shift. I love the soft rolling sounds of SeSotho that I never hear at home. I love my family and friends who all live in Jozi, and I love seeing them. I love working in Jozi, and meeting with the people who work there. I love that Jozi is black, in your face and getting on with it.

But because I relocated to Cape Town (this last time 19 years ago) Jozi is still my city of ghosts. Something happens to me there, something visceral and emotional and almost beyond my ability to articulate. It is the mix up of childhood and school, of family and loss, of bravado and insecurity, and of being on the fringe and not belonging completely. There is the tug of ‘what if I’d stayed?’. There is the nostalgia threaded sense of ‘where would I live now?’ and the slightly panicked ‘who would I be here?’ There is the excitement of knowing the old and learning the new.

I drive confidently in Jozi (with Garmap on my Crackberry) but I am nervous of Jozi drivers, where in Cape Town I would just be confident.

I see shadows in Jozi. Shadows of ended relationships. Of a dead parent. Of chances missed and unrealised dreams. Of places where I lived that no longer look anything like they did. I see a city that has moved beyond my ability to contextualise it, and yet it is so achingly familiar. That smell. Steaming tar after a storm. Different petrol smell. My sweat smells different. Those sounds. Thunder and hard drops on the windscreen. Loud crickets in drains. Loeries and Hadedas and black faced small grey birds shouting in the very early dawn. A traffic that is a constant low thrum. The suburban tick of electric fences.

Jozi might almost have forgotten me. My Jozi is a tightrope; of real present, past complicated and future unimagined.

When I drove on the highway to the airport this morning it was still dark. Jozi wakes up differently to Cape Town. It pulses awake while Cape Town staggers towards a later rising sun.

The faces at the airport are different. The hairstyles and the shoes. Then I feel a familiar tug. She is more hippy. He has plakkies and a hole in his T shirt. I hear the clicks of isi Xhosa. Some other people on this flight are going home, like me.

Landing at home I grow straight back into my actual self. I am totally me here. I am who I am. There is no potential me, no limbo me, no almost me. And I am entirely present and comfortable. But Jozi and all it stands for prickles my soul, and will always be part of me.

Thanks for the good times.

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13 Comments

  1. Peter Terry

    Lovely stuff. I know exactly what you mean. I have such emotional relationships with places, especially houses. My place of ghosts is Grahamstown, although it has changed so much in the 40 years since I left, that the ghosts too are fading away, a sadness of its own.

  2. Jaqueline Dommisse

    Megan, I’m sitting at my keyboard, weeping. You articulate so well the feeling I have whenever I fly into OR Tambo to spend some time in the place of my birth. Over 25 years in Cape Town and still Joburg holds my heart in its complicated grip. Your story resonates strongly for me, the many layers of having chosen to live in a different place from my childhood home. Thank you for the many things your blog is, and today, for your poetry and your truth of that other home; and how it echoes mine.

    Love, Jaqueline

  3. Anton Burggraaf

    Lovely stuff miss head. I adore celebrations of regionlism, thank you. All hail our ghosts, awkward, marvellous things… the more we shun, the deeper they scythe x

  4. bobby

    beutiful meg. so visceral. i found it so evocative. xx

  5. Beilla Gans

    Hmmmm…….good stuff. Tante B

  6. I can also feel tears prickling at the recognition of how a place can send you reeling through decades to who you were, weren’t, might have been, and became. And yes- those smells of Joburg!! To observe so acutely, and share so generously – you really are a wondrous soul, Megan. But I especially identify with that airport moment, when whisps and threads of familiarity start gradually weaving you, happily, towards the home of now. Lovely lovely lovely.

  7. An absolutely beautiful read. A thought that stuck with me subsequently: Theres many born and bred Capetonians who appear not find themselves, in the absence of a more complex experience like Jozi might be. Having said that, it is reasonable to conclude that your post has allowed me to gratefully reflect on some of the things we take for granted so very easily. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Nyarai Pfende

    My city of ghosts is Harare in Zimbabwe. I so get you. Beautiful piece.

  9. Ilze

    Beautifully written Megan. Cape Town is that place for me. When I go back, I feel so disconnected to the place it has become. I dearly want to go back, but am so scared I won’t fit in. Jozi is under my skin – it’s beautiful people, trees, the birds in the morning, the red sun in winter, but I am just a migrant worker I suppose. Just don’t know if Cape Town will ever be home again. So living in that space of in between, belonging no where.

  10. Rod

    So beautiful and so true, every word.

  11. Wilmien

    Aish but you are a true north sort of one. I appreciate very much that you write with your heart first. It opens the tickers of the others and so gently and with such a light touch. A gift, to be sure. They say it takes 6 months to digest the dna of any place, and to become part of it. I think it rolls like that everywhere in the world except for Cape Town and Johannesburg. We share our ghosts, and loop them into borrowed senses of remembering, sent back and forth daily on trains and planes and second hand cars in the minds of the thousands who have lived both there and here. It keeps us half restless, half longing, half wondering and thankful enough for where we are. Strange country. Grand old cities.

  12. I loved this passage and can so identify with your feelings about Joeys. I left Cape Town to live in Johannesburg over 20 years ago and loved being there. All the sights and sound that you describe are the things that I miss now. We have relocated to Canada with a job opportunity. I have started a blog to try to process this whole change…it is huge. Enjoy your visits to the Big City and send my love to The Mountain when next you cast your eyes that way…I miss that too. Keep blogging.

  13. Lena

    Jo’burg’s beating heart is still my own, living in Cape Town now 13 years later. Thanks for this piece.
    Went to see a Dance Umbrella show at the Dance Factory while I was visiting recently – what a vibe!

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