Cape Town is certainly a beautiful city. There is a quintessential tranquillity to the way that the mountains so seamlessly meet the ocean. Birds of paradise rise tall and add a pop of fiery colour to the greenery of the Company Gardens that we walk through on our way to and from our work placements. Sitting on stunning sandy beaches and watching the sun set until it finally disappears over the horizon is simply incredible.
Prior to making my trip to South Africa, many a friend who had been to Cape Town before had told me all about this flora and fauna, what they said I most definitely had to take advantage of and appreciate during my time here. And yes, the nature is breath-taking. But the true beauty of this city, I discovered during this first week here, lies with its people. For they provide the soul. They are the soul. Cape Town is nothing without its people.
Even in just the week that I’ve been here, this fact has continually been exposed to me through various interactions and experiences. And honestly, the ones that I have treasured the most have been those in which I’ve engaged in small talk with people that I’ve come to meet.
Now, if you had asked me about my opinion of small talk before coming on this trip, I would likely have tried to (unsuccessfully) hide my distaste for its awkward nature and the pointlessly empty conversation it produces. But small talk is different here. I think of small talk differently now as a result. Suddenly the question every O-week freshmen cannot wait to never hear again, that of ‘where are you from?’, sparks some of the most engaging conversations I might ever have.
Maybe it’s because everyone that I’ve encountered here comes from such different backgrounds to my own. But I think that fact only plays a small part to a much larger story. You see, everyone here appears genuinely interested in forming a human connection with you when they begin small talk with you – in a way that I cannot say I have ever experienced to this degree at home in the UK, or when I’m in the US or have travelled elsewhere around the world. Despite the horrors of political apartheid that occurred in a recent past and the inequities of economic and spatial apartheid that continue to exist in South Africa and, indeed, even in Cape Town, the people here express a level of resilience that I’ve never seen before. And I think that’s what makes them so interested in others and so interesting themselves. It’s eye-opening and inspiring.
I bought a painting the other day at a local market stall. The stall was covered in these exquisite pieces of art that expressed such vibrancy and passion that I couldn’t help but be drawn to stand before the stall and gawk, completely absorbed in my art nerd self. The owner of the stall, noticing how amazed I was, started up a conversation. “Where are you from?” I explained that I was from London. I found out that he was originally from Malawi but had moved to Cape Town 13 years ago. I told him all the reasons why art is so important and special to me. He told me all the reasons why he sells art and why that is important to him. He asked me about my life in London. I asked him about his life in Malawi and in Cape Town. We laughed about how I had voluntarily come to South Africa during the winter and the rainy season at a time when London actually sees sun. He smiled when I told him why I was in South Africa and I smiled as he beamed with pride when he told me about his children.
Then together we picked out a painting, and I bought it, more than gladly. Besides the fact that I loved the painting and the intricacy of the knife-art method used to create it, it had become more than a physical object to me. Small talk had made it come alive. Alive in the sense of having a story attached to it. A story that I won’t soon forget.