January 2020. I'm at the airport about to fly to England. My best friend's eyes are bloodshot, but she's holding it together for my sake. The past few days have been a blur of admin, getting rid of the last of my stuff, saying goodbyes, a frantic last-minute drive to the state vet on the other side of town to finalise the cat's travel paperwork. She's been at my side the whole time, both of us trying to stay too busy to be sad. Now, she hands me my backpack, and there's nothing more to be done except to board the plane. So we just hug each other. "It's just a few months," I reassure her, and myself. "I'll see you so soon."
We chose England because it's just an overnight flight away from South Africa, and we always intended to maintain homes in both places. I still have a business in Cape Town, my family and my friend-family are still there, as are my writing partners - the two other pieces of my brain. I promised my mother I'd be home often, every six months at least. She already lived in Pretoria while I lived in Cape Town, so we'd had practice at living apart. "Honestly, I don't think I'm going to see you much less often than I do now," I said.
My partner and I had already scheduled our first visit home, six months in, so that when things were hard in the first few dark cold lonely months, we'd have something to look forward to.
And then - to steal a phrase from Bo Burnham - the funniest thing happened.
When I was younger, I had this idea that I wanted to be a citizen of the world. I wanted to live in as many countries as possible. Travelling expands your worldview, I thought, so moving around all the time must make you WISE.
Most people fall into the trap of making their happiness contingent on something. I'll be happy once I get a promotion, or I'll be happy once I change my body, or I'll be happy once I'm in the right relationship. For me, it's that at many times in my life, I've believed I'll be happy once I move somewhere else. That restlessness has taken me from Durban to Pretoria to Cape Town to Joburg to London to San Francisco to Cape Town again, and now to Cambridge. I'm an idiot and I never learn, so I'm currently thinking of moving to London again, or maybe Bristol. Moving to Bristol will solve all my problems, friends! For real, this time!
I've been asked the question "where are you from?" throughout my life, and the answer is never stable, but has usually been "from somewhere else". When I lived in Pretoria, I said I was from Durban; when I lived in Joburg, I said I was from Pretoria; when I lived in the UK and America, I normally said I was from South Africa, although in the case of one spectacularly ignorant American I once met in D.C., I then had to clarify that South Africa is a country, not a region of a country called Africa (I really met one! In the wild!).
"Where are you from?" is a question of geography, but also of identity. I've felt so much more South African since leaving it, so much more aware of the ways that I am shaped by where I have lived.
I'm South African, because I have discovered that I'm really not British. I grew up speaking English and reading Enid Blyton and Harry Potter and Beatrix Potter, so I fooled myself into thinking the culture shock would be minimal. BOY was I wrong. This nation is adorable, but FOREIGN. Their snacks are absurd. It's a law that every household must own at least one set of crockery with twee woodland creatures painted on it. Complete strangers call you "luvvie" and "darling" and "sweetpea". The default emotion is embarrassment. And you have never met a people more utterly obsessed with growing flowers: even in the strictest lockdowns, the three types of shops that were allowed to stay open were grocery stores, pharmacies, and garden centres.
I have felt myself being more South African in response. To my own bewilderment, I've become that stereotypical white Saffer who has a reserve stash of rusks in my kitchen, and gets misty-eyed listening to Rodriguez. You do these things to hold onto a part of you that has been lost, the bits of your identity that feel erased.
Just over a week ago, the night of the Euro finals. We've been invited to watch the game with some Brits, which we take as a huge honour. "It's our real citizenship exam," I joke with my partner. The mood is merry. We set up a projector in my friend Dave's living room and seven of us squeeze in together around the couch. Half of the people in the room have already received their second Pfizer vaccine. It's still a thrill to be hanging out with other people, inside. The sense that it's not the end of Covid, but it's at least the beginning of the end. We're drinking, joking, cheering on the team. I'm trying to be present. But I can't stay off my phone.
"I'm sorry to be rude, but there's... something happening back home," I eventually say, doomscrolling through Twitter. My friends are sweet, they press for details, ask if everything's okay. I try to explain, but how do you explain South Africa? I don't even know what's happening yet, myself. I don't want to be alarmist or to say something as blunt as "my mother lives just a few kilometers away from one of the shopping centres that is being targeted, and I don't know yet how explosive this violence may get, and I'm afraid for her." I don't want to bring the mood down. I tell them there are protests about our ex-president being arrested, which is already a wildly insufficient explanation of what's happening. We get back to the game, while I live simultaneously in two worlds, the one on my phone where it feels like my home is burning, and the joyful one on the couch around me.
Over the next few days, the gap between here and there widens. I eat strawberries and cream in a park with some friends, joking about throwing a Terry Pratchett party in one of the colleges. I'm texting my sister in KZN to make sure she and my nieces are still safe. I'm cycling through a balmy summer's night, 10pm, alone, after watching an outdoor performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. A friend tells me she had to evacuate the hospital in Soweto where she works after there were gunshots in the area, and her main concern is for the patients she had to send away. I'm swimming in the river Cam, enjoying the squishy dark mud between my toes. I'm on Zoom, trying to find words to comfort a friend who lost someone in the taxi shootings in Cape Town, until loadshedding kicks in takes her internet connection down.
I go hiking in the Peak District with some South African friends. The group chat is 50% logistics for the hike, and 50% sharing articles trying to decipher what the hell is actually happening back home. The words we use shift throughout the conversation. It's an uprising. It's sabotage. It's looting. It's despair. It's a coup. It's a joyous release from the pressure valve of the lockdowns. It's property redistribution. It's destruction. It's a demonstration being escalated and aggravated by the violent response of the military and racists LARPing a civil war. It's a Third Force. It's about to erupt into Xenophobia. It's actually very controlled and strategic. It's a food riot. It's an insurrection. It's the inevitable result of having one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world (with the expanded definition, about 62%). Media reports are overblown. Media reports are underblown. It feels impossible to parse from so far away, but I'm skeptical that it would be easier to understand if we were there. South Africans live in parallel worlds already, all of us.
I feel furious at the British people in the streets around me, enjoying #hotvaxsummer, who don't know or care what's happening to my country. I feel guilty for being able to turn off my phone and be one of them, for a while.
Sometimes, the world feels very small. Last week, I was sitting at my local hipster coffee shop: one of those places that could be anywhere - San Francisco or Sea Point - Scandinavian/industrial decor, overpriced lattes, avo toast, nourish bowls. I was there with my friend Peter, who I met in Joburg, became friends with in Cape Town, and became real friends with in London. We were talking about how the TV show Friends is the Millennial fantasy where you live across the hall from your five best friends and you hang out every day in the same coffee shop and can also afford inner-city real estate.
I could write a whole book about how to make friends in your 30s. But I have no clue how to make friends in your 30s... in the middle of a pandemic. Because I absolutely failed to. Usually, my strategy is to attack difficult emotional problems with GUNG HO and PROACTIVITY, but a good attitude is of limited help when everything is shut and people are rightly scared of breathing the same air as you.
Now that things have reopened, I'm finally doing all the things that help: I've signed up for clubs and meetups and sports groups. I've signed up as a volunteer for the local Scouts troop. I'm inviting people round for dinner. But friendship also just takes time. You've got to spend enough time in each other's company, ideally doing things together. You've got to learn each other's backstories. I think one of the reasons it becomes harder to make friends as you get older is that there's just more history to catch somebody up on.
Those close, all-up-in-each-other's-lives friendships - it's much easier to cultivate them if you stay in one place.
Relationship advice columnist Dan Savage talks about how people drive themselves crazy trying to find the perfect romantic partner:
What’s most important, and a trait of truly successful people, romantically, are realistic expectations. A lot of people have unrealistic expectations. And rather than adjust their expectations, or examine them to see if they’re rational, they end the relationship and head back out there to try and find the perfect partner, the perfect relationship — the one. And I have been railing against that concept for decades. There is no “one.” There is maybe a .67 that you can round up to 1.
I've been thinking that maybe choosing where to live is a lot like love: it's less about finding the right person, and more important to build the right relationship together. Sure, you need to have some basic compatibility and be aligned on the important deal-breakers. But most of the meaning in a relationship comes from the memories you make, how you treat each other, the shared life you build over time. Date a bit and don't just settle down with the first person you meet, of course. But at some point, if you want to be in a long-term relationship, stop looking for better relationship "raw material", and start actually building that relationship with someone who's good enough.
Whether you're talking about flings or holiday destinations, there are things that are exciting and fun for a while but you couldn't live with in the long run. And the corollary: there are joys that you can only find by being deeply embedded in a place and a community, or in being with someone who is familiar with the smell of your farts.
I was re-reading Lauren Beukes's Afterland the other day, and paused on this:
The geography of home is accidental: where you’re born, where you grow up, the tugs and hooks of what you know and what shaped you. Home is pure chance. But it can also be a choice.
It's impossible to rationally choose the best place for you to live. There is no perfect place. There are probably a lot of different places where you could live and be happy. The point is to choose one, and then to build a life there. The grass is greenest where you water it.
Belonging is - at least partly - an act of will. It's something you can work at. It's being helpful. Practising citizenship. Speaking the language. Doing the things locals do. Mucking in. Being helpful. Connecting with people. Leaving things better than you found them. Saying you're "from" somewhere is a description of how that place made you, but also about whether you feel like you helped to make that place.
December 2020, that's my lowest point. The few friends I've made in Cambridge have retreated back to family homes far away in the panic of the second Covid wave. I feel like I don't exist any more, because not a single person in this town knows me except for my partner. I feel like I've been erased.
The inverted seasons are cruel. Here, the sun sets at 4pm and the fact that we can only socialise outside, in the freezing dark, feels like a joke. I've just had to cancel a trip home, for what's now the fourth time. I Zoom friends back home who are going on weekends away together in the height of summer. My friends hesitate before telling me about the fun things they're getting up to, like they're visiting me in hospital. No, I say, tell me every detail of your joys. I have to know that what I left still exists. Even if I'm not there.
I develop an almost hyperactive positivity. Things really aren't so bad. We've been so lucky compared to so many people. Sometimes I feel like Wile E. Coyote. He knows he's run off the edge of the cliff. He can feel he's run off the edge of the cliff. But he knows that everything will be fine as long as he keeps peddling. As long as he doesn't look down, and acknowledge that he has in fact run off the edge of a cliff and is not just running on ground that has become oddly soft and breezy for some reason, he can avert disaster for just a little longer.
It feels churlish to complain about having had a choice that so many people desperately wish for. According to research done by the World Bank, the share of migrants in the global population has remained surprisingly stable since 1960, fluctuating between 2.5% and 3.5%. But many more people want to move countries than are able to. Research by Julie Ray and Neli Esipova suggests that nearly 14% of adults worldwide would migrate permanently if they could, and 26% would move temporarily for better work.
I am very aware of how lucky I am. I'm white and well-educated and English is my home language. England has welcomed me in a way that it does not welcome everyone.
Yes, I feel selfish for leaving. I can only tell you that I wish for everyone the same opportunity and freedom to choose where to live that I have had.
Moving countries costs so much more than you think it will, in every way. So you have to have a compelling reason to want to go, and it needs to be something you can hold onto when things get hard. I wrote it down, my list of what I was moving for, and I kept going back to it throughout the last year. It helped.
The alternative to moving is to be part of fixing what's wrong where you already are. South Africans, my friend Jodi Allemeier had some excellent practical suggestions for what that might look like (her whole Substack is brilliant - I highly recommend it).
I can't tell you whether you should consider emigrating or not. I can only warn you that it's hard, and it's not a decision to be made lightly. And I can also strongly advise you not to do it during a global pandemic ;)
Later, I think we'll all start to tell our Covid stories. None of us have come through this experience unchanged, and I think we'll only really be able to understand what we've been through when we've come out the other end.
Here's the biggest way that I have been altered: I want to find a place to settle down and then never move again. Ever. When we first moved, we weren't even sure we wanted to commit to the UK. We'll just go for a few years, we thought, and if we don't like it, we'll try somewhere else, or we'll come home. Now, I want to bury my feet in cement. I want to chain myself to my radiator. I want to buy a damn house, which is not something I've ever felt the slightest desire to do before. There's no part of me that finds the idea of being "a citizen of the world" appealing anymore. Increasingly, it seems to me that being from "everywhere" means you're not from anywhere.
My friend Bongani Kona once wrote a short story where he said that the thing about being Zimbabwean is that there's "home", and then there's "home-home".
I haven't been home-home in eighteen months. But I'm getting my second vaccine next week, and hoping beyond hope that South Africa comes off the red list soon, so that I can finally go back for that first visit. I'm going to hold my loved ones so bloody tightly.
But on Wednesday night, at my first Scouts meeting, I tried something new for the first time. When a kid asked me where I was from, I said, "I'm South African. But I'm from here."
Wishing you hope, wherever you are.
Updates from Sam-Land
- Simon Nicholson, Christopher Trisos and I wrote an op-ed for The Ecologist about why storytelling is as important as science when it comes to the climate.
- On a similar topic, this interview with Grist about our climate game, Survive the Century
- Whatcha up to this Sunday friends? At 1pm UTC, I'm participating in a Zoom panel with the brilliant climate activists at Fridays for Future. Sign up for free here: fffutu.re/STCxMAPA