Sunday, June 29, 2008

LIFE IN KAROO COUNTRY….or, the answer to Juliet’s question

- Elizabeth Storey-Lawson -

With due deference to Watson and Crick, my own double-helix is sorely bereft of family talents! My father had ‘perfect pitch’, spoke and/or read 12 languages and played the violin beautifully. Mother was a National Spelling Bee Champion. My Scrabble Club cohorts will attest to the fact that I am hardly sure whether the word ‘spelling’ has one “l” or two

My siblings all learned foreign languages with the ease of a 3 year old. One sister became a simultaneous translator at the United Nations and my 6’5” brother, blond and blue-eyed, was an awesome oddity in Japan with his flawless pronunciation.

Collectively, they mastered the cello, harp and piano. I never advanced beyond “Chopsticks”. Their voices always landed them the lead roles in school musicals whilst my Choir Master tempered his appreciation for my enthusiasm with the strongest suggestion that I ‘lip-sync’ all songs.

I have a decided ‘tin ear’ – (I am not sure why tin should have deserved this ignominious honour: why not bronze or pewter?) Attempts at speaking in a different tongue have been known to reduce the most jaded waiters to gales of laughter and totally unintended entrees. I have been assured by various railroad ticket sellers that my desired destination, in spite of being a city thousands strong, did not exist and hardened bureaucrats have been rendered helpless by my risible inability to explain either my purpose or myself.

Communicating in what is supposed to be my Mother Tongue is oft no better. A soft voice and propensity to mumble causes listeners no end of confusion. Attempting to import a small stained glass window for my house in Cape Town elicited great sympathy from the Customs Officer that I should be installing a dirty pane of glass.

My quadrilingual husband laments that my Afrikaans has not progressed much beyond lekker and skelm (although it was his suggestion that I learn these first). My new Karoo companions are eminently tolerant of my language-mangling but I am acutely aware of my limitations.
Recently, on the dirt road to Leeu Gamka, I came across a disabled lorry and distressed driver. Without a cell phone, he was caught in the classic quandary of staying with his entrusted cargo or seeking help. Using a bit of pantomime, I conveyed my willingness to call for help on his behalf.

Sighting what I took to be the owner’s name and number on the side of the vehicle, and reverting to the manner of address in which I was schooled, I asked to speak with Mr Thomas Vervoer.

To whatever degree confused, or bemused, by my malapropism, the gentleman nevertheless patiently listened to my information and kindly assured me that he would arrange rescue for his driver and truck.

After at least five more times of my using this erroneous ‘name’ during our conversation, he kindly offered his services should I ever need them in the future. Karoo forgiveness is most gracious: without a hint of recrimination, my generous and appreciative Mr Vervoer proffered: “Just call Thomas Transport anytime and ask for me…, my name is actually Jannie Coetzee”.

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