Life in South Africa: The Unannounced Playdate

I recently got an email from a new reader who, like me, now lives in the United States and spends her time alternately missing South Africa and appreciating the fact that she no longer has to deal with its flaws.

We both agreed that we miss the South African lifestyle. But what, exactly, is the South African lifestyle?

Is it – for those who can afford it – a big house in a beautiful estate, with manicured lawns and someone to iron your underwear? Is it living imprisoned behind barbed wire and running red lights at night for fear of being attacked? Is it the sunny skies and the equally sunny people, people who can make you laugh any time of day, people who will dance in the streets whether they are happy or angry or sad, people who will have changed your tire before you’ve even had time to call roadside assistance? Is it the imperfection of everything official, the act of shrugging your shoulders and saying “This is Africa” when things go awry, knowing you should feel frustrated but finding yourself smiling instead? Is it being surrounded by natural beauty every way you look, and being able to park your car right next to a lion just a short drive away, should you have the urge? Is it seeing immaculately dressed children in their school uniforms, girls politely wishing you a good afternoon, and boys holding doors open for you?

It is a little bit of all of that. But one thing this reader said to me rang especially true. “I miss the South African lifestyle,” she wrote. “No need for an official playdate, you just bring your child unannounced to play and swim while you sip rooibos tea on the patio.”

I immediately knew that she was absolutely right. More than anything else, the Unannounced Playdate is the face of the South African lifestyle. How many afternoons did I spend leisurely at a friend’s house, only having meant to drop off or pick up my child, and, after being invited in, whiling away hours with great conversation while nibbling at biscuits and sipping tea? How many evenings did I give up waiting for Noisette to return, when he was just supposed to quickly pick up one of the kids and ended up staying for several rounds of beer and wine?

In South Africa, you are ALWAYS invited in. Whether you really know the people or not. In fact, being invited in is the way we met the majority of our South African friends. Most often, you’ll be invited in and come upon a whole group of people who were invited in prior to you when they picked up THEIR children, and before you know it a nice little party will be in full swing. Granted, it’s easier to spontaneously invite somebody into your home when it’s perpetually cleaned and picked up and orderly looking, thanks to your full-time domestic help. But that’s not all of it. It’s just that South Africans spend more time relaxing, and they like to do it together with friends. South Africans know how to LIVE. Or, as my new reader friend pointed out, South Africans work to live, not the other way around like many Americans.

When Noisette and I take walks around the golf course we now live on (or, as Noisette will point out, when he takes walks while I stay behind reading the newspaper), we come past one beautiful house after the other with the most gorgeous decks and patios, and they’ll all be abandoned. No one EVER sits on them. People are always too busy. No one ever just relaxes, or so it seems. In South Africa, people are busy too. But they prize sharing time with their friends more. So, even though you are busy this very moment sitting at your desk trying to sort out your huge Eskom bill due to some accounting glitch (the South Africans among you will now have shouted “Ha!” – I heard you.), you will go and answer the doorbell and invite your friend Sue in for a glass of wine, who came to pick up little Louis from a playdate with your son. And Sue will gladly accept, even though she was on her way to buy a bottle of much-needed propane gas, without which the house will be bitterly cold on winter mornings, and which might be sold out a few hours from now. She will think about the wine with the friend now versus the warmth in her house later, and the glass of wine will win out. (By the way, lest you think it’s just the alcohol talking, it works equally well with a cappuccino.)

I do miss the Unannounced Playdate, and all that it stands for.

What’s better than sharing a cup of coffee with a friend? Although Starbucks coffee in particular will take a bit of digging in South Africa. But hey, I couldn’t withstand the chance to put the image of my likeness in this blog post. Don’t believe it? Read this!

To be fair, let me put in some disclaimers. Firstly, I have made new friends here, in workaholic America, who also qualify for the Unanncounced Playdate group. Who call me with 15 minutes lead time to come meet them for lunch. Whose doorstep I have no doubt I can leave my kids on without warning should there be some kind of emergency. These are the friends I prize the most. Secondly, now that son number one has his driver’s license, I have resorted more than occasionally to sending him on errands involving picking up and dropping off kids for playdates and such, so that even if anyone felt like inviting me inside, that would prove to be a bit tricky. And thirdly, the above hospitality I so generously call “South African” may not be so much South African as a specialty of Johannesburg. I’ve been told that the people of Cape Town, for instance, can be altogether more “stuck up,” though I’ve never been able to find out if this is true.

So when we now raise our glasses in a toast to the South African lifestyle, what we may mean is the Joburg lifestyle. Whichever it is, our family fell in love with it!

For more insights on the South African/Joburg psyche, read Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.

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