I just got back from Cape Town and, once again, I am amazed by how utterly alien the place is. It truly is another country down there; cut off from the rest of Africa by a range of jagged mountains and coated with a thick layer of smug.
OK, I get it. The city is a couple of hundred years older than Joburg or Durban and the streets have a tangible sense of history that money simply cannot buy. The landscape is also pretty remarkable. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the beauty of its steep slopes, open seas and that bloody Mountain with a cloud on top.
But it’s all so different. The wind howls around the tiny houses, everything’s damp and rusty, and everybody has to park their cars on the street – it’s all too much for a good Joburg boy.
The people are different too. In Joburg, our cars are more important than our clothes, believe it or not. After all, we use our cars a lot. It’s a big city and most people have jobs to get to. Cape Town, on the other hand, has a sorry collection of old jalopies on the road but the drivers look fantastic.
And the food is another thing. You simply can’t get a decent sandwich in Joburg, but Cape Town is full of continental delis where people while away the working day; drinking soya-bean latés and eating pumpkin and pumpernickel paninis.
One time, I went to the Old Biscuit Mill, which has a great food market. I couldn’t decide where to eat since I only had one stomach, but there was a stall selling eye-catching pizzas that I just had to try. The queue was long and, while I was waiting, I overheard a customer ask the chef why he doesn’t open a restaurant. The pragmatic stall owner replied that there was too much competition and Capetonians weren’t rich. He then charged R100 for the pizza.
To be fair, the culinary creation in question boasted a crispy hand-made base, made from imported Italian wheat and was topped with imported Italian tomato paste, imported Italian rocket leaves, imported Italian ham, imported Italian asparagus and drizzled with imported Italian balsamic vinegar. Of course, everything was certified organic, with wheat-free wheat, cheese-free cheese and preservative-free preservatives.
And it was delicious. I tried to be dismissive of the overstuffed, self-satisfied concoction. I tried to be outraged by the price (which wasn’t advertised anywhere on the stand). I even tried to be angry with a culinary culture that emphasises Eurocentric ingredients over local produce. But I couldn’t. I liked the pizza too much and I ate the whole damn thing. Then I washed it down with a ginseng smoothie.
And therein lies the seductive appeal of oxymoronic Cape Town. It’s a city that’s annoyingly beautiful, decadently poor and repulsively appealing. Sometimes, I think the whole place is the ultimate triumph of style over substance. On other occasions, I think that I’m just a Joburger who doth protest too much. I suppose, in the final analysis, it all depends on what you are prepared to pay for. IMHO.
[Originally posted 11/03/2009]