Travelling Tales: All roads lead to home

Posted on 19 November 2018

You’ll never know what sort of creature you are until you take yourself out of context, says our guest columnist Susan Hayden.

Image from Gallo Images

The first time I ever travelled abroad was in my late 20s and my destination, oddly, was northern Europe. This was not intentional. I would rather have gone to France or Italy but I’d met a Danish boy who invited me, and beggars can’t be choosers.

I had no expectations other than the firmly held conviction that everything in the mythical ‘overseas’ would be better. This was before the days of #ProudlySouthAfrican and #AfricaThisIsWhyILiveHere, and most of the country was still in the grip of a deep-seated inferiority complex. Back then, we had no reason to believe we were interesting. Plus, everything cool we saw and heard and watched on TV was foreign, confirming our innate unworthiness.

My visit somehow turned into an eight-year stay –again, not on purpose – but I married the Dane in question. And the biggest surprise for me was that everything was not better at all. In fact, some things were decidedly worse. The weather, for example. Bad. Europe has some spectacularly bad weather, and you don’t know how good you’ve got it with your 25-degree winters until you’ve spent seven days driving around the Isle of Skye in horizontal summer rain. Or hired a cabin in a Norwegian archipelago during the ‘warmest’ time of year, and sat staring gloomily out the window for 28 days straight waiting for a glimpse of sun that never comes.

Also, the food. It’s impossible to know how well South Africans do world cuisine until you’ve sat in the best Indian restaurant in London and found the chicken lababdar lacking. Or tucked into a breaded pig trotter in Montpeyroux, France, only to find the ones at that little bistro back home were just as tasty. I registered these truisms with no small sense of shock. Could it be, notwithstanding our dodgy political history, that we were actually not as rubbish as I’d long been led to believe? Was it possible that, on a global scale and all things considered, South Africa was even slightly okay?

What I discovered one evening, drinking Tuborg in the 300-year-old pub of a tiny fishing village in southern Denmark, surrounded by locals whose faces looked as old as the sea, was that I was even a little bit exotic. They refused to believe me when I told them, in broken Danish, that I was from South Africa. This blonde girl? No way. Or the customs of facial who wouldn’t let me board my plane in Warsaw because ‘South Africa’ wasn’t on his computer, and what was this country in the south of Africa called, anyway? Surely it had a name?

I learnt some fascinating things on my journeys around the globe (once the travel bug bit, I was a goner): Caribbean islands are every bit as beautiful as the pictures, but hanging with the expat community for a few months taught me you don’t necessarily want to live there. It’s too small and incestuous. Prague in real life looks exactly like the fairy-tale city it promises to be, but the mantle of the Soviet Union hangs heavily on its psyche. You feel it in the air; a tangible melancholy. Everything works in Scandinavia, but this doesn’t reflect in the demeanour of its inhabitants, who are taciturn, at best; fantastically rude at worst. A well functioning society does not, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, translate into a warm or a friendly one. But for me, the most precious lesson of all lay in realising how deeply South African I really am. It took living abroad and travelling the world to learn I had no aspirations to live anywhere but here. There’s a wonderful satisfaction in knowing that wherever I go, I’ll always be happy to return home.

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