I was sitting alone in a Greek airport, waiting for the long flight home. Touring Europe had been a memorable blast, but I wanted to get home, suddenly.
There were too many foreign languages connecting commuters around me. The invisible thread of common culture and shared history made them, them, and me, an uitlander.
A whelp of raw emotion rooted me to my chair. These are not my people. This is not my place.
Around the corner came a big yeti of a man, with a doll-like blonde wife and gaggle of kids-under-ten wearing matching blue tracksuits. He wore a knotty beard and a Springbok rugby cap.
“Liefie,” he boomed above the heads of the Greek, Italian, French and Russian travellers, dressed sensibly in their tailored trench coats and nonchalant, organised expressions, “waar het ek nou die bladdy tickets gesit?”
Lovey, he had asked, in Afrikaans, where had he put the bloody tickets?
I wanted to hug them – the yeti, his doll and the gaggle of bright-eyed pre-teens. These were my people and none of us were in our place. But we were all going home (if only he could find the bladdy tickets, which he did, thanks to liefie).
South Africa has so many languages that being able to say howzit in four of them isn’t much of a feat for me. In any other country, being bilingual is impressive; at home, it’s a given.
Words are important. Not as sustainable or heart-warming as gesture, or action, but the power of a common tongue is tangible in its ability to make us feel included, respected, safe.
I once met a Xhosa tourist guide in Rome and instantly, felt at once ecstatic and homesick. We talked about the irony of us being in Italy, with our respective Celtic and Xhosa heritage. Neither of us was staying too long, we said, and I promised to kiss the ground for him when I landed in the Eastern Cape a few weeks later.
After that late-night flight home from Greece, and landing in Johannesburg, I knelt on the dewy black tarmac and kissed the ground. Nobody seemed to notice. Perhaps they weren’t at all surprised.
I sometimes find myself needing to re-write status updates and comments on social media in more universally accepted English – not all my friends are South African.
But day-to-day, my life is rich with a phraseology saturated in South Africanisms.
When my friend Roxanne responds to me with, “Eish, dude, ag, no man – shame!” and I answer, “Jislaaik, I know! Felt like giving her a klap just now”, she gets it.
And so do you. Because we’re home.