Berea

Photo by Axel Bührmann

Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.

By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.

It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.

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A Rigorous Sort of Happiness

Mavis Gallant at the Standard, Montréal, May 1946 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-11524).

I’ve never read a Mavis Gallant short story, something that, as I write this blog post, I’m ashamed to admit. But every so often I come across a mention of this escaped Cannuck — who has lived in Paris for over 60 of her 90 years — that re-asserts her importance in the world of writing. As a result, I have a certain sketchy understanding of her life through the Globe and Mail, the Walrus, the National Post and other media outlets. The first time I really took notice was in a charming 2008 radio interview on CBC’s Writers and Company, but it wasn’t until last week, when I listened to another CBC radio interview on Ideasthat her life strongly resonated with me. She seems to have achieved something that I find deeply admirable — independence — and I wish I knew how to do the same.

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