Little Ol’ Grahamstown

I’ve come back to my hometown for a few weeks to stay with my parents and plot out my travel plans (or non-plans). It’s been an interesting experience to come back to tiny little Grahamstown after spending almost three years living in Cape Town and then Johannesburg.

Grahamstown from the air

Grahamstown from the air

Grahamstown is a city (by virtue of having a cathedral, apparently) with a population of just over 120 000. It was proclaimed in 1811 by Lieutenant-Colonel Graham as a military outpost intended to secure the British frontier of the Cape Colony against the resistance of the isiXhosa people, whose land lay just to the east. The city is home to Rhodes University, as well as several very good primary and secondary school institutions, making it a hub of education and intellectual inquiry. This also means it is at the mercy of the ebb and flow of school terms, and the in- and outflows of new students, which constantly alters the mood on the streets. Grahamstown also is host to the National Arts Festival, an annual event that attracts thousands of artists, performers and art lovers from all over the world.

Rhodes University from the air

Rhodes University from the air

Small as it is, Grahamstown was a great place to grow up. We could walk to our friends’ houses, and play on the streets, we went to fantastic schools, and our humble achievements were frequently recognised in the local newspaper. I was lucky to form very close bonds with a handful of wonderful girls in my class at school, and we have remained friends through university and into our early adult lives. Although we all live in different cities around South Africa (and beyond) these days, in this way, and through our families, we stay connected to our little hometown and the memories we collected here together.

In my first few days back I visited one of these friends. She is currently living in Cape Town and was visiting her family for a few weeks and loves being back in town. She likes the familiarity of everything, and the fact that nothing much ever changes. She likes the quiet, and the simple pleasure of spending time around the house with family. I am perhaps more restless than she. I felt at home when I was involved in school or university, and had a campus to belong to, but now all of those places feel foreign, and the city feels hostile and small. The streets feel stagnant and unchanging.

I posed this latter observation to a Johannesburg friend of mine, describing my experience of being back in Grahamstown. This was her response: “Cities steal our stories into their own; they all get entangled in some agenda that isn’t born of us and we stop recognising where our own selves end and constructed ideals or legacies and others’ tales begin. We get caught up in cities. In smaller towns you know the beast (or the beauty). The city doesn’t know itself.”

I retorted by claiming that the streets of small towns have a life of their own in just the same way that big cities do; that they are just less forgiving, less fertile, less malleable. Bitter even. New ideas are not welcome; and there’s no young money to lubricate them. And so things stay the same.

She responded, “I think new ideas that aren’t welcome in small towns go to the city to find belonging. They know who they are but are defined as not-the-town. In the city they lose that identity. They forget who they are. The new and fresh is entangled either in a labyrinth of anonymity or an orgy of compromise and contortion. The new idea is lost in the city, to the city.”

“So what place then for the new idea? Obstinate and doomed in a small town, or thriving yet conformed in the city?” I asked.

“We need a new idea to tell us,” she said.

I find the way that we relate to cities and acquaint ourselves with them so interesting. We almost attribute personalities to them, and form relationships with them the way we do with people. This conversation reminded me of the way I feel about and relate to the different cities I’ve lived and visited over the past few years. When I first moved to Johannesburg I hated it. I despised it for its hostility and its overwhelming size and pace; I resented it for the workday that was my everyday, and the loss of my ‘free time’. I was determined not to let the city get under my skin.

It took several months and a catalytic moment for me to make the decision to give Jo’burg a chance. Three months before I was due to move on, I decided to make a bucket list of all the things I wanted to do in the city before I left, and to start a blog where I could document the completion of my list. Enter A Jozi Bucket List.

Through the process of talking about Jo’burg’s various attractions, exploring and photographing them and posting my experiences on my blog, I formed an unexpected, but very real bond with the city. By the end of three months, I was talking about the warmth and intrigue of the city; I was introducing people to new haunts and jaunts and digging out old ones that were long forgotten. I had grown to really love Johannesburg, in my own way.

It interests me that we can have very real relationships with a place, or opinions that we form of it based on our interactions with it. These relationships can be shaped by our perceptions or preconceptions of a city as much as they can be swayed by our active efforts to improve them. They are based on a feeling that we get in a place; and what is it that creates that feeling? People, pace, action, interaction, spaces, faces, opportunities, communities, history, mystery? It is all of these things, and many others, that make up the personality of a city, the persona we become acquainted with. Yet even the strongest of bonds to place can be broken by the realities of life: a new job, a failed relationship, a yearning for something new. And so we move around, meeting and greeting new places just as we meet new faces; deciding if they are cities we want to remain connected to, or ones we never want to go back to. Some cities we visit just as we do old friends, just to check in and remember what it was we liked about them.

On discussing this with my Grahamstown friend, she declared that she thinks of the town we grew up in as a warm and welcoming old granny that invites you back for tea and always serves Ceylon. I think she’s a crabby old lady with brittle bones, that complains about the youth today and refuses to try a cup of chai. Whoever she is, she was good to me growing up, and so I am very fond of her, no matter her mood, or her cup of tea.

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