The Time I didn’t learn Greek

The one is light blue with big red letters on it. On the picture people are sitting outside a restaurant at wooden tables in the sunshine. The other is smaller and older, a mustardy brown with white letters and a moth-eaten spine. This is a tale of two beat-up little phrase books and the time I didn’t learn Greek.

Langenhoven noem daardie straat in van sy boeke wat in Oudtshoorn afspeel, soos Sonde met die Bure, Sint Jan Straat (kan nie nou lekker die spelling onthou nie, maar ek onthou hoe snaaks dit was toe ek dit die eerste keer gelees het). Daar, nes jy deur die duik ry, sit ‘n tweedehandse boekwinkel en ek was seker so om en by dertien jaar oud toe ek die eerste keer daar in is. The first little book costed only R5, I think the owner of the shop gave it to me for free in the end. I was in that stage between high school and primary school and convinced that I was going to learn Greek.

Like many of these little books it started with the alphabet, and I earnestly attacked those funny symbols with the same sense of wonder I felt  as a younger child trying to learn Morse code and the secret languages the kids in Astrid Lindgren novels spoke. A couple of years ago a friend showed me how to cook a Greek dish. And when I found myself saying a clumsy “good day”, with my Afrikaans pronunciation sounding like “kalliemerra”, with an onion in my hand, I suddenly remembered the little phrase book again. Today I can see the ticks of my pencil next to each phrase I learnt – I didn’t get more than a couple of pages into the book. And a few months later I started to learn German  at school – a much longer story for another time.

Over the years I ran into the language I never learnt quite a few times. Then one day, as a university student, I picked up another, even tinier, phrasebook. This time for the beautiful handwritten inscription on the first page of an otherwise very dull looking little book:

1981

To Peter

May all our dreams of travel come true

Love, Stella

Did they? Did their dreams come true? Did they travel to Greece? Could they use a few Greek words? Did they split up and never went? Packed the little phrase book but never used it? This time a Greek phrasebook brought me the beauty of someone else’s dream instead of my own. Today when I look at the row of little phrasebooks on my dusty shelf, I see a little row of dreams and stories.

So I guess that’s two times I didn’t learn Greek.  But I learnt a few other things. (Well, for one thing, it taught me that I should rather learn languages a different way.)

I learnt the thrill of encountering a foreign alphabet for the first time. The other day I read this incredible novel by Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai, where a little boy learns Greek (it’s about so much more than that, but I won’t go into it today, in the meantime you can go read what someone else had to say about it in this review) and I sat riveted. Because my little phrasebooks taught me what it feels like to attempt learning Greek at a young age, I could add my own sense of wonder to that of the boy in the story.

When I picked up that first phrasebook in the shop, I remembered again how much I wanted to learn foreign languages. I learnt something about myself from those phrasebooks, and that led met to a path I’m still happily following today. Greek didn’t end up being the first or even the fourth foreign language I learnt, but it will always be first one that made me a learner of foreign languages.

And Greek taught me the value of learning only a little bit of something. I learnt only a few words and symbols, but over the years they would keep popping up in novels and science text books and Hollywood romcoms with the casual familiarity of old friends. The first time I heard Barbara Sher talk about not finishing things and how you can be finished with something without other people realising it, I knew what she was talking about. Getting fluent in another language is a lot of fun (yes, yes, another reference to German), but that does not make my half-baked attempts at learning a few Greek words a failure to learn Greek. Whenever I pick up one of those phrasebooks, I don’t feel sad, I still feel enchanted –  a thrill that adds as much to my way of being in the world as being fluent in a few other languages does.

Do you have a little phrasebook with a story on your dusty shelf?

The Art of Telling Stories: Reading “Open Your Eyes When You Dive”

Here’s a writer that knows about the value of storytelling. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Amy Troncelliti Milavsky as a speaker at an event, and I’m thrilled to finally own a collection of her stories.

Like Amy, I grew up in a family that told stories around the kitchen table as a way of life. And the atmosphere and the variety of stories in this delightful new anthology, reminded me of that. Grapstories, hartseer stories, familiestories, droomstories… julle weet waarvan ek praat, daardie lang aande om die kuiertafel wat die praatjies na die zienk toe karwei sodat daar plek is tussen die koffiebekers vir groot stories, ou stories, lang stories, snaakse stories. Sit jy ook nou terug en onthou ‘n storie wat jou familie altyd vertel, wat iewers in die vorige eeu of selfs voor dit met ‘n oom se antie se oumagrootjie se ma se pa gebeur het, wat so helder in jou kop staan dat jy vergeet jy was nie self daar nie?

The subtitle of Amy Troncelliti Milavsky‘s Open Your Eyes When You Dive reads “and other heartwarming tales.” And that’s exactly what these stories are, heartwarming. Take a look at this bit from one of my favourite stories, “Give thanks for answered prayers” of the grandmother’s special relationship with St. Anthony:

‘Ant’ny, find my keys,’ she’d call out. ‘I’ll give you five bucks if you do.’

And if the keys didn’t surface immediately, she’d call out again: ‘Alright, I’ll make it 10, but you’re not getting another red cent!’

Many of the endearing characters in the book had me in absolute stitches, like Neighbor Lou, taking it upon himself to investigate a suspicious mailbox in “Be a good neighbor”. Or the WWII vet, Mr. P. in “Talk to Strangers” who pulls a picture out of his wallet, with such dramatic flair that I just keeled over laughing:

‘Now get ready… I’m gonna show you a picture of the most handsome devil you’ve ever seen. You up for it?

‘I think so, ‘ I nodded.

And flapping it open so I could see, he pointed to a photo of a grinning, strappingly handsome, not-safe-near-any-woman young guy. And tapping it determinedly, he said, ‘Lucky you, Sweetheart. You’re with him now.’

And don’t forget “The Box Kids” in the problem class at school who ordered in fried chicken for lunch and smoked cigarettes to the growing consternation of their substitute teacher – the unexpected ending of this story, “Give ’em a Chance” will just make your day.

To me the most charming thing about Open Your Eyes When You Dive, is the narrator’s ability to not only show herself falling flat on her face, but also weaving it into a story that will make you not only laugh at her, but also at yourself. What about that time you desperately tried to do something because you thought it would make you look cool, but then you looked like and idiot? “Smoking is not suave” will not only have you grinning at Amy’s scorched eyebrows, but also at your own. And what about that time you felt foolish after wearing the complete wrong outfit or embarrassed and scared after getting into trouble as a child? While reading “Always exit with style” and “Telling the truth is easier”, you might find yourself taking a different look at some of those cringe-worthy moments in your past and have a little grin at yourself. Besides, who can resist this opening line:

Pastry led to my downfall.

Today’s book is not such a dusty one. But the Dusty Books section is not just about the dust on the books themselves, but also about dusting off some neglected or forgotten dreams and interests you might have. The art of storytelling is something that warms many dusty shelves, when it should be out on the kitchen table and the stoep, spinning entertainment from the yarn that makes up our seemingly ordinary lives.

A Moment of Loving Vintage Couture: Reading ‘The Dress’

One of my favourite things about reading, is the way a well-written description can plonk you down right there inside a world you wouldn’t normally enter. A week from now the different kinds of silks and seams might once again be a complete mystery to me. But today, reading Kate Kerrigan’s lovely novel The Dress (2015), I’m living the world of vintage couture right here from my armchair.

“When Honor’s father complained to his wife about their only child’s obsession with making clothes, she pointed out it was his fault. It had all started with Honor making costumes for the amateur dramatic shows which her father ran in his school hall. It was through John’s love of Shakespeare that his daughter had got a taste for velvet capes, puffed medieval sleeves, elaborate beading and gold braiding. Honor spent all her free time embroidering handkerchiefs and making costumes. She would tear up her father’s good shirts and remodel them into blouses for herself, then pick apart clothes she had grown out of and patch-work them into skirts and aprons for her mother.” – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress p. 72

Van naaldwerk weet ek nie juis veel nie – en van modes en ontwerpers waarskynlik nog minder. But even though I can’t stitch a straight seam myself, it’s a wonder to be able to have a book take my hand and trace my fingers along a perfect line of stitches. For a fleeting moment I understand the importance of a properly made piece of clothing:

“Honor was the best seamstress there. She could machine-sew an evening skirt to couture finish in less than two days or embroider the collar and cuff of a blouse so that a socialite would pay a small fortune for it.” – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress. p. 69

For a short while, I know about intricate hand-made lace and the proper way to sew on a pearl button – two things so far removed from my usual wear that it is like words from a fairy tale:

“When the lace arrived, in a simple brown postal package, Honor carefully moved back the tissue paper and placed the delicate material on the back of Joy’s hand. It was like gossamer, so fragile that Joy was afraid it might melt into her skin. ‘Will it be strong enough for you to work with?’ Joy whispered, afraid the very sound of her voice might break it. ‘Trust me,’ Honor said, ‘it might look as if it’s made from butterfly wings, but actually it’s unbreakable,’ and she stretched the fabric tight between her fingers, making Joy cry out. ‘Don’t worry. Making lace is a delicate, precise process but once it’s made, nothing can break it. As I said, it contains soul, and let’s face it, there’s nothing tougher than the soul of an old nun.’ – Kate Kerrigan, The Dress. p. 171

One of my other favourite things about a good book, is how it can make me jump up to do something, like I described in an earlier post here. Reading about the velvets and pleats and crystals, brought unexpected pleasure to the act of ironing my handkerchiefs today – which due to my low iron wardrobe hardly ever happens. Suddenly the soft gliding noise with the occasional puff of steam along an embroidered flower, made wooden floor and draped dummies spill over from the pages into my living room.

How delicious it is when a writer can make you see why somebody loves something, even when it is something you don’t love that way yourself. I might even stretch out my hand tonight to that garment that needs a small alteration I’ve been putting off for so long. Just so that the feel of the needle and tread can make the charm of the story last longer.

Dusty Roads: Mapping Toilets

One of Dana Snyman’s books with descriptions of his travels Op die Agterpaaie has an introduction where he unfolds a Shell Map of South Africa and traces his journeys along its roads and back roads,  reading all the cryptic notes he jotted down on the well-used paper. And it always makes me smile to read that introduction, not only because I love his writing, but also because I often come across similar journeys mapped out in my black and red A6 exercise books.

So I’m doing something similar today, but instead of opening a faded map with a glass of wine, I fill the plastic mug with coffee and flip through the battered little notebook I always carry in my handbag. Somewhere towards the middle, scratched out with a blunt pencil, the pages are filled with a recent road trip through the Eastern Cape, tracing names like Mt Frere,  Ugie and Alice. Next to the names (of met pyltjies wat wys waar die Steers of die kerk by die verkeerde dorp se naam neergeskryf is) are useful things I wanted to remember for future trips. Here it reads Wimpy in hoofstraat and KFC by die garage. Other bits are reminders of incidents or memorable sights, those moments from which stories are strung together: mooi ou kerk (pretty old church), uitkykpunt by grondpad langs hotel (view point on gravel road next to hotel), motorfiets met krukke (motorbike with crutches) (?!).

But even more cryptic and urgent scribbles fill the bits in between: R2 Toilet, skoon R1 toilet (clean one Rand toilet) and binne-in winkel by Engen Garage (inside shop at Engen Garage). I give you: The Toilet Map of the Eastern Cape – Northern Route from Kokstad to Jeffreys Bay and back through Hogsback, Queenstown and Matatiele. 

Logging the rest stops like this, suddenly reminds me of another journey way back when I studied in Germany for a bit and traveled during the holidays. After a trip with a friend from Cologne to Leipzig I was going to go to Berlin, before returning to Stuttgart for the semester. But somewhere along the way I had caught a bad cold and didn’t feel up to traipsing around a big city like Berlin. So I opened the map in my crumpled purple and golden Let’s Go Germany!, closed my eyes and pressed my finger on that little corner where Germany meets Poland and the Czech Republic. My destination was a town called Zittau.

When I open that Let’s Go today, you can still see all the places where the pages are wrinkled from getting lost in the rain. Scribbled phone numbers written down after calling the tourist office in Zittau. Circles or crosses at places visited. Numbers of buses and trains. Notes in the back of the time we got stranded in Villingen – a town that didn’t make it to the guide book. Anyway, before I get carried off to the story of Villingen or Zittau, this story is actually about my trip from Zittau to Berlin afterwards on a little local train network called the Oberlausitz.

On this jolly little train going up to Berlin along Germany’s border with Poland and the Czech Republic, the announcements on the train are in different languages and as it squeaks around the bends you can actually imagine it sticking its toes across the border. A tiny little Polish woman with dark, beady eyes and a headscarf stands next to me in the swaying toilet queue. Jy weet mos hoe daai treinvloer onder jou kan beweeg soos ‘n bootjie. En almal in die ry staan en tuur in die verte asof hulle maar altyd so vir tydkorting rondhang buite ‘n stinkende deurtjie om hulle “moves” te oefen. The little wrinkled face turns to me and starts talking in what sounds like very heavy Sächsisch. Proud of myself that someone can mistake me for a German speaker, I lean into those sounds, listening in the way that reminds me of tuning an instrument or catching a moth on a curtain. Slowly, careful and with a tense concentration that almost feels like precision.

She’s on her way to Cottbus or somewhere to do her monthly shopping and starts listing which products are cheaper to buy in Germany than in Poland and the other way round. A vague memory of potatoes and coffee. Soon the conversation steers to our present situation: of course one has to make use of the train on the toilet – because it’s free. I, the broke student, agree in my best, most gravelly German noises. She can list them: all the places along that line where the toilets are free. Behind that station there, inside that building there, on the trains… I give you: The Map of Free Toilets along the Oberlausitz. The story is quite funny; but to this day I’m very moved by that conversation. The urgency of her tone, helping the young girl on the train with such meticulous detail: “Kohlen sparen”, she called it. Saving coals, kole spaar: dialect for saving money. For a few minutes, she made me a local.

Squinting at promising-looking boulders, signs pointing at fast food outlets and queues at revolving doors at garages; I clenched these scribbles out of a pencil, and told my Eastern Cape road trip buddy that story of the train toilets. Dana Snyman looked down at that map of his, and wrote about how it’s all about the people he meets along the way and their stories. That Polish lady and her story I’ll never forget. But as close the notebook and stuff it back into the bag, I realise that it also holds the promise of “next time”. Why else map a toilet on a dusty road?

Topic Tuesday: That Time a Book made me do Something

When I was about ten years old, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was one of my very favourite books. Besides the fact that I was very proud of the fact that I had read the whole thing (it was one of the first proper English books I ever read), I was captivated by the world created in that book. I ran outside to build a raft, complete with a Jolly Roger made out of a black trash bag and some white paper stapled to it. This story is probably not that funny – until I tell you that I grew up in the Little Karoo and that the raft was built to sail on a sheet of that grey-blue rock we call nabank.

When was the last time a book made you do something? And I don’t mean non-fiction, even though I love telling the story of how Barbara Sher’s I could do Anything got me onto a plane. No, today I’m talking story books. I’m talking about the time a scene in a Mills&Boon made you want to try cold potatoes with roast chicken and a jug of milk. Die keer toe Trompie en die Boksombende jou geleer kettie skiet het.  Oupa Landman se Viool made me build a bit of stone wall when I was about eleven, because of a glorious scene in it describing exactly how to build a stone wall. Here’s a bit I translated from the conversation between the young Johan, who wants to be a farmer, and his father, teaching him how his grandfather, Oupa Landman, used to build with stone:

Johan, if you want to be a farmer, nothing on this earth should be able to throw you. I also struggled back in the day to find my direction with a stone, but once you have the knack and the feel for a stone inside of you, it becomes real easy. The place where you want to lay a stone, you must fix properly in your mind first, and then you pick out the right stone from among all the others with your eyes. That stone there, in front of your left foot, give it to me for a bit.

But, Dad, I already had that one!

Just give it, lemme see. See, you must always remember: a stone has a face; and if he does not have one, then you hit one onto him with a hammer. Yes, and then he also has a backside and a belly side. Look at this stone: if he lies this way, he won’t lie right out of pure embarrassment, because his face is facing inside. Now turn him like thís and then he says: ‘No, I don’t want to lie on my back, turn me over onto my belly.’ And… see, there he lies now and he laughs with pure glee!

– (Oupa Landman se Viool – GG Joubert)

 

More recently The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels pulled me into the worlds of postwar Poland, gardening and words so sharply, that I could feel myself stuffing sentences in my pocket like a collector. Candace Bushnell’s Summer in the City got me to say “I’m a writer!” and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian shoved a map of Eastern Europe into my hands. Dan Sleigh’s Wals met Mathilda made me sing and Dalene Matthee’s forest books let me hear Benjamin call “Meisiekind!” in the Knysna Forest. Will Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop get me onto a river boat? Will John Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent make me talk to the canned food in my kitchen? Who knows. But if you go down that dusty road in the Little Karoo, my stone wall is still standing there.  The one you see in the picture up there is a different story and a different builder altogether, I’ll tell you another time.

So tell me, what did that novel make you do?

The Haiku Dust-off

Come read the fabulous haikus from our readers! So on Tuesday we started talking about all the things haikus can do. When last did you write a bit of poem? Miskien is hierdie klein 5-7-5 prentjies net wat jy nodig het om weer aan die gang te kom. Thank you Pat, Caren and Jade! If you missed Topic Tuesday about Haiku, click here.

Think haikus are to small and compact to fit everything in you’re feeling? Look at this picture by Pat Louw, she captures not only the tiredness of a long day but also the entire body of the tired person. Isn’t “Tatters of the day” just every scattered day you’ve ever had?

Mid afternoon slump
Tatters of the day melt down
In pools of sunlight

She’s also the person who showed me how well haikus and photographs can go together. Here’s mine that goes with the picture up there:

Kruipende blink neut

in skatkis van stukkies bas

Pilduisendpootjie

A haiku can contain something so big you can just marvel at it. Look how Caren Zimmermann  fits the change from Winter to Spring into just a few words. That Robin is so alive!

The wind still blows cold
But sun, light and joy return
Hear Red Robin sing

Caren’s haiku contains two contrasting images. A haiku often contains a contrast like this, often this contrast is a sudden break. I love how Jade Herriman shows in this haiku how a sound can have a completely different effect on different people. Look how she built the contrast into single words: “grind” and “Aches” clash beatifully with “renewal” and evokes a variety of feelings:

The grind of ban saw
Aches through my window, the sound
Of neighbourhood renewal

Hilke Sudergat sent a haiku this morning that’s alive with possibilities. Look at how she plays with the image of the painting!

In the morning me
the sunshine makes the color
inside painting now

See what only a few words can do? Would you like to give it a try? If you feel like just writing one little line, come and add it to our Big Fat Haiku Chain, just for fun.

Topic Tuesday: A Haiku or two

Flowers shake raindrops

thrilled to feel cool mud again

happy as wet dogs

 

I was chatting to Jade Herriman the other day about writing haiku when there’s little time for writing. That got me thinking again about all the things I use my little haikus for (yes, I like adding the s). When I started writing poems as a kid, I loved trying out the structured forms like limericks and the different kinds of sonnets. The old Japanese haiku (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables) also got a turn, but it was only in 2010 that I really started writing them as a habit. I love telling the story of how I travelled to Namibia with friends at a time when my friend Pat and I were trying to do a 100 consecutive days of writing a daily haiku. At first it was about the challenge and the fun of coming up with images to fit into these little forms.

But we discovered something amazing after the trip: those daily haikus made a wonderful travel journal. With minimal effort we had created a day-by-day log of our trip: vivid, memorable and condensed. Since then, I’ve made a habit of writing haiku on trips, look at how this one captures the kind of trip another friend and I recently made to Hogsback:

Icy waterfall

glittering under bent ferns

Here we had to stop

Recognise the picture at the top of the post? It gets better. Even the most mundane work day was given some meaning by documenting it with a haiku. And they aren’t always beautiful or happy, but they often were funny and made everything better. I’m the world’s worst diary keeper and journal writer, but suddenly I could read back over my days and recall them vividly! It is like having a photo album of words, of even seemingly mundane things like the weather. Last week it was very hot:

Slowly the night bakes

till the sound of cicadas

quiver out the sun

And then it started to rain:

Sharp drumming raindrops

swaddle the heat with a roar

in a white blanket

Turns out documenting was only part of it. We started sending our haikus to friends via email, SMS, WhatsApp and Social Media and not only do you have an instant audience and travel companion; it turns out these little poems are contagious! More friends joined in, added lines when we got stuck, made up their own. It was also a wonderful way to get people who don’t normally write poetry or who thought that writing poetry wasn’t for them, to stick a foot into the water. Here are two fun ones we all slapped up together at the Afrikaans Leeskring (reading circle) in Empangeni:

Bol poedel sit en wag
Bol rol en rol en rol en
poedel is gebol
Hygend op die mat
ogies wag vir beter dae
stertjie bly vol hoop

During times when I feel I have no time or energy for writing or anything creative, a little haiku is an easy way out. But turns out that writing them is like putting a bucket under a leaking tap. Sooner or later those little drops make a bucket full of water! They’re like oil for that engine, a kind of low effort maintenance.  And after a while I noticed how the constant squeezing of images into these little poems improved and sharpened my writing in other genres too – even my academic writing!

Fietsspeke knetter

langs die gras wat wakkerword

en ruik na oop pad

Do you write haiku? Would you like to try it? You can go Google all the rules and conventions and traditions that go with this art form, it’s fascinating. But I generally stick to the 5-7-5 and biedem the rest.

Leave me your haiku in your comment on this post and I’ll feature all the ones I get by Friday in a post!

Dusty Books: Edith Wharton – In Morocco

Published in 1920, I just had to read this account by a woman who traveled Morocco directly after the First World War by car. One of the very first sentences of the journey bristles with an all too familiar excitement, even though Morocco is the the subject of so many guide books today:

To step aboard a steamer in a Spanish port, and three hours later to land in a country without a guide book, is a sensation to rouse the hunger of the repletest sight-seer (p.8)

Books like Wharton’s do their bit to rouse that hunger, but also satisfy it many ways. Even if an old travel book may speak from an era, culture or ideology as foreign to the reader as the destination is to the author. Morocco is all over my book shelf, but between those pages I can still visit her Morocco, bobbing along without a guidebook beyond what she calls “the familiar dog-eared world of travel” – isn’t that a wonderful image?

For Tangier swarms with people in European clothes, there are English, French and Spanish signs above its shops, and cab-stands in its squares; it belongs, as much as Algiers, to the familiar dog-eared world of travel – and there, beyond the last dip of “the Mountain,” lies the world of mystery, with the rosy dawn just breaking over it. The motor is at the door and we are off. (p.10)

Not only does she describe sights in places like Rabat, Volubilis (fans of Asterix, there you can still walk on a paved road where Roman chariots once thundered), Meknez and Fez; she also takes the reader into her vehicle so that the narrative bounces and grunts along with the motor in the dust. Amper soos die bonsende kamera agter die ruite van die voertuie in die dokumentêre televisiereeks Voetspore, voer haar beskrywing die leser padlangs deur die landskap:

After leaving the macadamized road which runs south from Tangier one seems to have embarked on a petrified ocean in a boat hardly equal to the adventure. Then, as one leaps and plunges over humps and ruts, down sheer banks into rivers, and up precipices into sand-pits, one gradually gains faith in one’s conveyance and in one’s spinal column; but both must be sound in every joint to resist the strain of the long miles to Arbaoua, the frontier post of the French protectorate. (p.10)

Gain faith in your spinal column! When I travel, I like to read books set in the place where I’m going. But long after a journey, a book can also take you back. Wharton’s description of her first sight of Rabat, made me sit upright, because not only does she conjure up a sight that I saw, she manages to bring back the feel of the air and the smells and the cool mist – that mist that rubs out the edge of a continent into a hazy bit of light blue sky:

To the gates of both the Atlantic breakers role in with the boom of northern seas, and under a misty northern sky. It is one of the surprises of Morocco to find the familiar African pictures bathed in this unfamiliar haze. Even the fierce midday sun does not wholly dispel it – the air remains thick, opalescent, like water slightly clouded by milk. One is tempted to say that Morocco is Tunisia seen by moonlight.(p.14)

I’ll leave her descriptions of the desert and the desert light for another time when I return to this book. But next time you travel, try to read something really old about the place you are going to or that you’ve been to: You may find a travel companion whose typewriter used some of the words on you touch screen to draw the same filter you used on your Instagram over the moment you re-encounter in a dusty book.

Dusty Roads #3: Stream in the Little Karoo

Even in this hottest, driest December we’ve had in a while, the beauty of this corner of the world lingers up its dusty roads. The other morning I was up early, before the sun pushed over the koppie across the river. Some bits between the rocks still gurgle in clear splashes over the red and blue-grey rocks. Die rivier loop steeds floutjies tussen die diep kuile. This time of the morning, the water is still cold and for a while the water catches the blue sky and holds it.

Take care not to slip on the slimy green stones under the surface of those patches of sky when you make your way to one of the big flat bluish rocks in the middle of the stream. After a big splash you’ll have a small Jack Russell frowning at you.

2016-01-01 09.06.58

Naaldekokers bewe bokant die hoppende waterhondjies en deur die vars oggendlug trek jy die reuk van bergwater in. Even though the brackish water from the borehole nearby will always be the taste of home for me, nothing tastes quite as wonderful as water straight from the dripping mountain. That yellowish brown is not mud, no, it gets it’s colour from the roots of the plants as it filters into tiny little waterfalls that eventually become rivers.

2015-12-30 18.34.28

It is a taste that I’ve never been able to describe, except that the sharp freshness of real mountain water sends a shot of life through you. It tastes like stone and moss and bubbles and cracking air of an early morning.

What does home taste like to you?

Topic Tuesday #2: Italian

There will be a lot of talk of languages here at the Dusty Shelf because my own dusty shelves are full of them. Someday I’ll sit down here and write the story of the two little faded Greek phrasebooks that started it all. I love little dictionaries and phrasebooks. Mostly just because I like holding them, and looking at them and flipping through them. Picking up random words here and there like shells on a beach. Shoving them into my pocket only to remember them again when I hear the cracking sound as I sit on them.

Ek het al ‘n taal of wat baasgeraak en toe vir ‘n klompie jare nie ‘n nuwe een aangedurf nie. A friend was going on a trip to Russia and when I started digging around to see if I could possibly learn a language by myself, I stumbled upon the work of an excellent bunch of polyglots like Alex Rawlings and felt like I found “my people”. And I still enjoy reading their blogs and trying out their advice and experiments. But one of the interesting things that I found, especially when I started toying around with Italian, was all the other dusty shelves closer to mine at home.

Mentioning learning Italian in random conversations, brought out people who felt something for the language too. One friend had learnt Italian before and could recommend some easy things to me to read. We’d chew and spit out halting phrases together – hers a bit rusty, mine very wobbly, and laugh. Imagine running into someone at a place like your local supermarket every week and then “bam!” you’re on a bus in Rome! This is what the Dusty Shelf Academy is all about, not just re-discovering the things that have been gathering dust on your shelves, but also sharing those things with others. Who knows, a few halting “bene’s” later you might bump into a real Italian, far away from her home and yours, and be all chuffed with yourself – like was when I met my friend Florenza.

Don’t say “I want to learn Italian”, say: “Buongiorno!” – Barbara Sher

When you like something that appears random, like learning Italian in a little village in South Africa just for the hell of it, you often get discouraged talking about it.

“What will you use it for? So are you going to Italy?”

“But how long will it take you to get fluent?”

I have a lot to say about this idea that one has to be fluent in a language to benefit from learning it. But I digress. Let me ask you instead what it is about Italian. It’s different for different people. You read our man Goethe’s or Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class or Irma Joubert’s Anderkant Pontenilo – for some it’s the sound, for some it’s the food, the country, the people the opera… What is it about Italian for you?

Without even recognising the name or knowing anything about the author – or understanding a word of it – I bought Giovanni Verga’s Tutte le Novelle  in a second-hand shop this holiday. Or at least, I tried to. The lady was so surprised and relieved to find the two Italian books in my pile that she gave them to me for free (more about the rest of that pile on one of the next Dusty Books). At the moment I’m not a very dedicated language learner, too busy shaking my full sleeve. I make that dear little Duolingo owl very miserable – yes, you whiny little squeaky toy, I have no idea what the word for breakfast is. But yesterday I sat in front of my computer gawping at an article about Verga’s work, pointing excitedly like a child at the table of contents in front of me at every story title I find that the article talks about and scratching around in my own copy to re-read the sentences he quotes.

I still knew only a tiny bit more than squat about that Sicilian writer, but suddenly I knew again what it was about Italian and about languages. Not just the fact that I enjoy pronouncing *all* the letters again after all that French or using my hands after all that German. And the flour sticking to my hands after the home-made pasta experiment wasn’t the whole story either.  Listening and repeating scraps from the computer or the CD in my car, venturing into delighted exclamations saying nothing at all to a friend who’s having just as much fun, flicking through a dictionary stopping at words that I might never need and mulling them over… All of that is what Italian and languages are to me: a chance to be me, but different…

And you know what, I’ll still go back to the part where I listen to shells breaking under my backside. Because that is the part I enjoy the most, the part that reminds me of being a kid and sitting open-mouthed in front of an English tv-programme, laughing and not understanding a word. For me, right now, Italian is stumbling around in the dark, picking up things and stuffing them into my pockets and then carrying them out into swift glimpses of light, thrilled with what is gliding through my fingers.

So, if there’s Italian on your shelf, I ask you again, what is it for you?