* Tuesday is the 20th anniversary of one of the most momentous speeches of the 20th century. On February 2, 1990, in a speech to parliament, South African president F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, announced that Nelson Mandela would be released and declared an end to apartheid. Mandela was released on February 11, after 27 years of imprisonment. Four years later, he was elected president. The newspapers are filled with stories marking both of those anniversaries, though many of the accounts express dissatisfaction with the pace of change in the country, noting continuing problems such as a high crime rate and shocking levels of poverty. Still, the key number there is 20. It's only been 20 years. Twenty years since apartheid ended and the first small steps toward democracy began. How advanced was America's democracy in 1796? The problems are real and difficult and the country is still fighting its own history. But even in 20 more years, the story of South Africa's fledgling democracy won't be finished. It's still early.
* Seeing the poverty in Cape Town can be jolting and gut-wrenching. A big story the past few days has centered on a toilet controversy in one of the townships. The government agreed to install more toilets so residents wouldn't be forced to share. They were open-air toilets, which are exactly what they sound like and as bad as you imagine. They're in the open, sometimes on the side of the road. Most residents constructed walls themselves, but others could not afford material to build a barrier, leaving the facilities and the people exposed. The government said it would be unfair to pay for material for those people, since others did not receive such aid. This is poverty.
* Over the years I've picked up a few new words from Louise and on trips to Cape Town. Lekker is a favorite (basically means something's nice). Isit (sometimes I see it spelled izit, but basically it's just putting is and it together). Just started using this one, and might try breaking it into everyday conversation back in the States as a substitute for "really." I use really too much, as a conversation filler and extender, or when I feel like I don't have anything to add. So might as well add a new line that means the same thing.
"My mom ran a marathon yesterday."
But the word I use most often isn't unique to this country, though the way it's used here is unfamiliar to Americans.
Shame. Shame as in pity, poor thing. But while we might say, "It's a shame," here it's used by itself and can be used during tragedies, humorous moments and everything in between.
"He proposed to his girlfriend using the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium. She said no, and threw a beer on his head. Then 55,000 people booed him."
Or, "All four of her kids are ugly, each one more hideous than the last."
* In eight days I've attended three or four braai's, with a couple more on the schedule. Braai's are basically barbecues, often outdoor but we just attended an indoor one. Ate ostrich at that braai. The men cook the meat, the women make the salads and everyone drinks. South Africans like their drink and are skilled in this ancient art. Their blood is made up of 50 percent alcohol. Cut 'em, drink the blood and watch your BAC rise to .21. I have a suspicion that some in-laws consider me a bit of a weakling in that department. It's an accurate assessment. I feel sort of bad, since I'm - in a way - representing America. I wouldn't want them to think that the Yanks are unable to handle their liquor, even if this one can't. Dozens of my friends could compete with the South Africans in any drinking competition they want and would be the last ones standing. Literally. And, damn it, we have alcoholics too. Meanwhile, I nurse my two or three beers like a frightened 10th grader attending his first kegger, giving off the impression that Americans can't imbibe with the big boys. What makes that comparison even more accurate is that I haven't had to fight off this much peer pressure since 10th grade.
"No, no, I've had enough."
"Really, wasn't that your third?"
If any of my in-laws are able to some day travel to the States, I'll introduce them to a few of those beer-swilling friends I mentioned. Guys who in 15 years will be waiting for a liver transplant. And then we'll sit back and mock the South Africans who can't handle their liquor like real men, like real Americans. Me? I'll still be nursing those two or three beers, with a side of soda.
* Today I was told I was "quiet, for an American." I know lots of quiet Americans. And, yes, many loud ones. What can I say, I prefer to observe. But I don't think I'm any quieter than the average American. Quiet for a New Yorker...might be more accurate.
* A stunning piece of trivia: Television came to South Africa in 1976. Not color television, not cable television. Television. The paranoid, controlling apartheid government feared the effects of the device on its citizens and that had nothing to do with the evils of reality TV. The exact date has long been a point of contention with Louise. She's forever claimed that it arrived in 1977, her birth year. A friend of Louise's visited us a few years ago and claimed it arrived in 1978, his birth year. Louise seemed to get a leg up on the debate when we purchased one of those birthday books back at an antique store in Janesville. The skinny pamphlet listed notable events of the year. One of them said television came to South Africa. In the past few days, two other South Africans have said 1975. Alas, Wikipedia says 1976. And if Wikipedia's wrong...
* I stayed up until 2 a.m. so I could follow the Lakers-Celtics game online. Lakers won on a late Kobe jumper. Life is good in Cape Town on this night, and not just because of the weather.
* Tomorrow night we're going to dinner with Louise's Portuguese relatives. Louise's late father was Portuguese, so these will be his relatives. Louise hasn't seen much of them over the years, even before she came to America. This will be my first time seeing them. Should be fun.
The Portuguese don't like to drink, right?