South Africa 2008 - Communal Living and Relatives in Close Quarters
I've been driving around Johannesburg getting my head used to driving on the left side (I credit my excellent hand-eye coordination to many years of video game playing. I can "remap" very easily) and after a trip this afternoon to Makro (the South Africa "Costco" giant wholesale warehouse equivalent) I returned home to find no less than twenty souls in the house.
I am immersed in Black (mostly Zulu, but some Sotho) culture here, so I can't speak to White South African culture, but from what I can tell, when someone is in town, Black Folks come over. We had visitors from Lesotho, from Pretoria, from Zimbabwe, from all over.
All of this is a culture shock to me each time. It's at once comforting and grating. Predictable and chaotic. Here's the parts, even after nearly a decade of marriage, that I haven't gotten used to.
What's for Dinner?
Folks just show up. No call, no write, just, hey, what's for dinner? But the interesting part is that dinner is never mentioned. People arrive and sit on the couch. The meal is completely implied. We had a meal at 4pm. We'd already had lunch, and we had dinner planned, but there was a "critical mass" of humans, and food started showing up. At some point we were having a braai. Someone started looking for a goat to slaughter, while someone else starting wondering if it was allowed in city limits.
Relatives arrived, each one that showed up brought five others we couldn't quite place. So-in-so's uncle's ex-wife's daughter's sister and the like. And their three kids. And they stay. For a long time.
There are a couple of things I can hear my father saying, in my head, that would never be said in South Africa.
"Don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out."
"You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
Folks may scandalize and gossip, but they'll never let you go hungry or without a place to sleep in South Africa.
Start Inflating Beds
At some point it's clear that folks aren't leaving so inflatable air beds are brought out. Blankets appear from no where. More blankets that you'd think could comfortably fit in a normal sized house. I don't know where they come from nor where they disappear to, but sleeping quarters are quickly assembled by social pecking order.
If you're a teenager, you get whatever couch or scrap of floor is left. If you're an elder, you get a proper bed. Boys under 30 on air mattresses, families in rooms, girls on couches, everyone else find a spot. Just wait until morning as folks get up earlier and earlier to try to be the first in the bath. Sucks to run out of hot water in a three bedroom house with 19 people.
Women in the Kitchen, Men in Front of the TV
At some point, like silt separating while panning for gold, the house starts to split with women in the kitchen area and men in the living area. Or, manning the braai/bbq. Grunt. Men. Fire!
Oddly, as a Sensitive White Man, it's a little unclear where I am supposed to be, so I end up flitting between the two. The women don't find me threatening, rather they find me fascinating and I'm peppered with questions. The men are disappointed to learn I can't even fake caring about soccer. Ah, the Pirates! No, Ajax! No, Bosso! Ah, whatever. Is Manchester a valid answer? Did we get a home run?
Who moved my Cheese?
My wife loves Flakes and Crunchies. You can find them in the states, but they are definitely a specialty item. Certainly not available everywhere. We try to get a box and smuggle them back to the states when we go. I bought her five Flakes today and put them in the fridge so they wouldn't melt in this oppressive Christmas weather. I went to tell her about them, and literally by the time I'd returned there was one left, and four wrappers strewn about.
In the US Judicial System you are "innocent until proven guilty" but this is reversed in many countries. In my household and in the households I've been raised in, food in the fridge is "someone else's unless you know it's yours." Here, it seems, that anything not bolted down or labeled is edible.
I have since hidden my stash of Black Cat Peanut Snacks under my pillow.