The word of the city
I am reading Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert at the moment. It’s a book I’ve heard a lot about. Everyone recommends it, but I have never really been one for the mushy self-reflective stuff when it’s written also as entertainment (unless it’s someone famous who accomplished something extraordinary) and travel writing is something I’ve never ever ventured into. So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would read it, but I came across a collection of quotes from it the other day and it intrigued me to the point that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Well, I love it. Gilbert’s frank and self-aware assessment of herself, her humour and the transformation of her self and her approach to life as she writes about her journey is delightful and so much of what she says is sooooo true, but anyway, this isn’t a review. This post is actually about my home town!
Gilbert writes in Eat Pray Love about the word of a city – a word that embodies the spirit of the people that live there…
“…every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever the majority thought might be.”
At least largely so – and often, people who don’t identify with the word of the city will not stay, will not feel at home.
It is also why some will stay even when there appears no reason to do so and there are “greener pastures” all around us in other places and countries.
So, Cape Town… I love this city and feel such a bond to it that I cannot even describe it in words. When I drive from the outskirts and suddenly over a crest coming through the hills or mountains around the city you suddenly see the ocean and our iconic Table Mountain, my throat constricts. It is a place of such immense beauty, but it is so much more than that. And it was yesterday, when reading Gilbert’s musings about Rome and New York (the latter which I have visited twice, the former, never) that I started pondering what Cape Town’s word might be.
It didn’t take me long. Cape Town is the “Mother City” and in effect embodies the greater spirit of this “rainbow” nation of South Africa. Our word is “BELIEVE”. I feel that with a tremendous certainty. The freedom to believe what you want, believe that you can achieve something great and be happy regardless of your lot in life. Believe in your own specialness. This is our city. The city of believers. Free to be free spirited or hardworking or just totally relaxed. Believe that you can pursue happiness, whether that’s a life waxing surf boards or at the head of a high-powered company board of directors. Whether it’s a simple life or an extravagant life, regardless of race, orientation, age or religion or ethnicity, everyone can find a home here. If you just believe. That’s why refugees travel the whole of South Africa to come and report to Home Affairs here. If belief drives you, you will end up in Cape Town at some point in your life. And sure, there are other towns that I know in our country that have very different words – Johannesburg is all about HAVING and OWNERSHIP as much as they probably think they are about POWER. Bloemfontein is a place that makes me think their word is TRADITION.
But Cape Town embodies the essence of the nation. Deep down underneath the power hungry and the stoic traditionalists, belief has carried this people forward since 1652 when the first settlers arrived and started crafting the nation we are today. We are young, and we made mistakes. But there has been racism and segregation in MANY countries. Why did it define us and why does it still have such a lasting effect like the tail of a comet? Because we believed it. We believed in the anti-Apartheid struggle (whichever side you were on)*, we believed in our right to fight for our identity and more than anything we believed that everyone has the power to participate in and change the fate of this country. And we still do today. And yes, that belief isn’t always good – it lets people pursue illegal activities with confidence and it creates the super-wealthy and it creates a poor that is somehow content with their lot and makes it their own culture. But this is also our strength. This is what defines us against all odds. And I think this is what attracts so many foreigners to our shores as well. For that I am proud and embrace this word that has shaped this beautiful city. My town.
* I was all of 12 years old when Apartheid officially ended in 1994. My parents never discouraged me from being kind and courteous towards people of other colours, so I would like to think that had I been older at the time, I would have fought for the end of Apartheid, but you understand, I am speaking generally…