When I was in my early 20s, I had a pretty clear idea of the kind of man I would marry and how my life was going to turn out. He would be tall, definitely dark and of French Huguenot stock. A wine farmer with tanned forearms and a soft Afrikaans accent.
I envisioned a dappled veranda and chattering, barefoot children; from my kitchen door, the late afternoon sun illuminating the vineyards, a cool flagstone floor and a happy table where at the end of the day I would present a fat chicken or a tasty mutton curry. My strapping husband would grumble about the Petit Verdot grapes taking their time to ripen and worry about the weather, while sombre photographs of his forebears looked on in approval as we continued the family legacy of living off the land.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself gazing out the window not at the charming, verdant vistas of the Banhoek Valley, but at sleet falling furiously from a slate-coloured sky. Behind me, in the stifling warmth of our triple-glaze-windowed kitchen, my blonde Viking husband held our baby daughter in one arm, and with the other effortlessly removed a tray of cinnamon buns from the oven.
I was meant to live in Stellenbosch; how did I end up in southern Sweden? Fate has a good sense of humour. But I rebelled against this bizarre turn my life had taken because it wasn’t what I had planned. Who were these pale, aloof, beautifully dressed creatures I found myself living among? Their ways were foreign and their sing-song language strange.
There were so many rules. Rules for how to put your groceries on the supermarket counter and how many centimetres, exactly, you could park from an intersection. And then the unspoken, socially sanctioned ones: not to be loud or opinionated; to show up at precisely the correct time (even if it meant walking around the block); never talking to strangers. To this uninitiated African accustomed to the warm spontaneity and relative lawlessness of the Wild West, these cultural norms were outlandish. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and mine wanted the Viking. So, I bided my time.
As the years went by, the charms of my new milieu slowly became apparent. There is a softness to Scandinavia that is enchanting and seductive. Even the sun at the height of summer is reticent and polite. It doesn’t burn and sting and blast the colour from the sky like it does here in Africa. There, you cycle through forests of emerald green, swim in bottomless lakes, pick blackberries, feast on salmon. Life presents itself in muted shades of grey. Warm boots and woollen scarves keep the world at a safe distance. Wherever you go is the welcoming scent of freshly brewed coffee.
Like the people of the north, I started lighting candles in the daytime. And, much to my surprise, I found myself falling in love with the place. I learnt the language and how to cook the food. We drove to Paris, sailed to Norway, took a train trip to Berlin; did all the things you do when you have Europe at your fingertips. And when, a decade later, it was time to leave and relocate to South Africa, I discovered that it is possible to love two places deeply, and that this duality becomes your new normal. You can be homesick for a place that isn’t really home, and long for one when you are in the other.
I don’t have a dappled veranda or a doorway full of vineyards, but I have a happy table and our house looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and the steady fleet of Danish cargo ships which sail between this world and that. The Viking and I watch them from our north-facing deck while we discuss the merits of an Oldenburg Syrah from the Banhoek Valley, and agree that the cumin flavours will go beautifully with our mutton curry.
Words: Susan Hayden