Don’t touch me on my small town


Don’t touch me on my small town

He knows tourism is a vital source of income, but ISMAIL LAGARDIEN hates it when his hidden gems are ‘discovered'.


OVER the past weekend I reminisced with an old friend about the summer weeks we spent in Sicily several years ago. They were brief visits, but there was a sense of belonging. It had nothing to do with displacement or searches for a home. It was simply that the owner of the small café on a square of the village we always stayed in knew my name. He always prepared a table with fresh pastry or bread. He was also smart enough not to inadvertently slip in the name of an earlier companion. I may have visited the place six or seven times over more than a decade, and only once or twice with the same companion.

Anyway, we had a chuckle, in a sardonic way, over the weekend. One of us said, it had to be me, “I only hope the osteria has not been replaced by a fucking Starbucks.” I’m sure it has not — the village is perfectly small — but she knew what I meant. I had previously shared my ideas about these things, so she indulged me until our Zoom meeting timed out. We agreed to meet again, some day, and revisit Sicily.

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I’m not sure whether I am being mean or possessive, silly or just a snob. Maybe a bit of each. Let me take two or three steps back. I can’t explain why, but I have always ended up in some of the smallest and most remote places on the globe and in South Africa. Most recently I found a delightful, really small café/coffee shop in a back alley of Petaling Jaya in Kuala Lumpur. Kopi Pintu Belakang is so small that people sit on camping chairs outside, in the alley.

Image: Kopi Pintu Belakang/Instagram

I don’t always end up at “cool” places. A few years ago, while visiting a friend in Innsbruck, I stopped by a cafe in the main train station for goulash and a pint. My friend arrived at the station and looked perplexed. The cafe was full of old men in winter coats, woollen caps or berets. At least one wore a battered Tyrolean hat. Almost all of them were several sheets to the wind. The waiter was the bartender, she cleared the tables, and managed the music. She spoke to everyone in a friendly voice and knew their names. I loved the way she swayed from behind the bar among the tables and chairs (she was not play-acting, Mr Sartre).

The music seemed to be on a loop. I couldn’t understand a word of what was sung. There is no better feeling than complete anonymity. I knew nobody, nobody knew me, and none of us cared. I was back at the station café the next day, and the waiter flashed a broken smile.

Many years before that I would have fry-ups in a cafe on a backstreet/alley in north London where black-taxi drivers took their breaks. After going there a few times, nobody noticed me. I was no longer a curiosity. I had simply dissolved into what looked like velvet wallpaper, into plumes of cigarette smoke, tea breath, and the smell of beer and cleaning products. I’ve never had a better fry-up.

Sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the owner of Yeoville’s Scandalo Grill let me go into the kitchen where the staff (and an old woman in black who may have been the owner’s mother) would prepare a small plate of meze and I would eat. It was always  around midnight, before we gathered in the Speakeasy next door.

All these places, especially the Sicilian osteria, were unique. My greatest fear was that the osteria would be “noticed” and make it into the ubiquitous tourist brochure. I feared that the next time I visited there would be throngs of people in baseball caps, shirts tucked neatly into their shorts, with white socks and running shoes, and with cellphones clipped to their belts. I prayed (I didn’t really pray) that the place would remain “undiscovered”. I haven’t been back in eight years so I just don’t know.

Let me turn now to the northern parts of the Western Cape and the Karoo. Starting in August 1976, I visited places up and down the west coast, and by the mid-1980s, especially during the state of emergency era, we (I was with a close friend) travelled between Wupperthal in the Cederberg and Nieu Bethesda in the Eastern Cape. I travelled from Pofadder to Lutzville, Klawer, Vredendal, Graafwater and across Namaqualand.

When I was appointed to the parliamentary press gallery in 1990 or so, and because I don’t fly when I can drive, I would drive between Cape Town and Johannesburg three or four times a year. Sometimes I would drive from Johannesburg to Kimberley, then westward to Pofadder and spend a day and a night in Springbok. Other times I would drive south, into the Eastern Cape, and spend a couple of nights in Hogsback. I seem to remember it always snowed when I visited Hogsback.

Back and forth across the country, the isolation and solitude were sources of pleasure. There were no cellphones and the internet was a tiny embryo. This meant nobody knew exactly where I was. I was unreachable. Until I made it to the press gallery in Cape Town or Sowetan’s offices in Industria, west of Johannesburg.

Namaqualand, the Cederberg, Okiep, Springbok… the Karoo and places such as Hogsback were mine — not the way that some people, today, make out like Table Mountain is their personal property — and I could stop anywhere along the road and walk into the veld. On the west coast I braaied snoek on the beach. In Clanwilliam I had the best lamb chops in the world. Between Storms River, Qunu, Cofimvaba, Grahamstown and along the R62 I had the best pap en vleis, and sang songs in villages across the Western Cape.

Tourism. Sigh. As much as I have wished that nobody would discover the Sicilian osteria, I imagined nobody would run to and populate the Karoo, or towns along the west coast and across Namaqualand. These days I get dikbek (I am just a grumpy so and so) when I see tourists oohing and aahing on fields of daisies, disturbing the tranquillity of towns such as Wupperthal. Yes, of course tourism is a fantastic source of income, but jiirree nee… Snoek on the beach is now hip and trendy, and I can no longer afford to enjoy it along the west coast. It’s Snoekies or nothing for me.

I have friends and know people who have decamped from Johannesburg to the Karoo, the Overberg, Brakrivier, Port St Johns, up the west coast to Yzerfontein, Darling… and I feel robbed. They’re invading my places. Homesteads, hotels, hipster breweries, artisan bakeries are everywhere. Why can’t everyone just go back to where they came from? How long before there is a McDonald's, Starbucks or Krispy Kreme in every small town? How long will it be until, like every small town in the US, we’re awoken by the smell of deep-fried chicken in the morning? It’s modernity. It’s capitalism. It’s freedom. And it sucks.

Okay, holster your gun. I meant everything I have said, except for the part where I wished everyone would go back where they came from. And I don’t really own Namaqualand and the Karoo.

♦ VWB ♦

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