South Africa has never heard of cookies; Christmas in Cape Town

We’ve somehow acquired a family for Christmas this year, I may have mentioned. There’s a certain symmetry in this, you see, because it’s our friend Nicola’s family we’ve acquired, and she acquired mine last year so this makes us somehow even. The only problem was - what should we do for gifts? We’d only met a few of these people, after all, and even those we certainly didn’t know well enough to buy appropriate gifts for. And there were twenty of them! We would have felt terrible giving nothing for Christmas, so we fell back on our usual idea of baking cookies and things. Everyone loves cookies, right?

Well, not in South Africa, they don’t. If fact, they’ve never heard of baking them. They eat lots of them, don’t get me wrong - the shops are full of a thousand kinds of cookies. And they do lots of baking, I think. But the baking they do doesn’t seem to relate in any way to the sort of baking we do. This completely blindsided us, right up until the moment when we were in the supermarket buying ingredients. We’d settled on three things - chocolate-chip and cornflake meringues (better than they sound); traditional chocolate-chip cookies; and Nanaimo bars (for the non-Canadians, this is a dense, three-layer affair of cocoa-crumb crust and toxic yellow frosting topped with a layer of chocolate - Nanaimo is the name of the town where they were invented). All good, yes? Wrong. I thought I’d have trouble getting custard powder for the Nanaimo bars (the toxic yellow part of the middle icing), but that was readily available. What we couldn’t find anywhere were - wait for it - chocolate chips. Bizarre. All we could find were some sort of waxy brown drop-shaped things pretending to be chocolate, which were sold in tiny 100g bags for 6 rand each (about CAD$0.75). We also couldn’t find baking chocolate - those cubes of bitter chocolate wrapped in paper. What we really should have done was buy some expensive dark chocolate and chopped it up into bits, but we just couldn’t face the expense, so we bought fourteen packets of the crappy fake chocolate chips.

The other thing I couldn’t find was graham cracker crumbs. Call me North-American-centric, but I’d never realized that graham crackers weren’t universal. I needed them for the crust of the Nanaimo bars. I couldn’t find anything even remotely similar, though. I had to reinvent them from first principles by crushing up buttermilk “rusks” (a thing like a hundred-year-old scone) into crumbs and mixing with brown sugar and honey. Believe it or not, it was spectacularly successful and the Nanaimo bars turned out exactly as I remembered them from so many Christmases. The meringues were acceptable, but not great. Sheryl was pretty disappointed in the chocolate-chip cookies, but with such sad excuses for chocolate chips, I don’t see how she could have done any better. But hey, everybody liked everything, or at least pretended to, so mission accomplished.

Christmas itself was nice. It was my first Christmas in a warm place, and I have to say that I could definitely get used to it. Yes, the whole “white Christmas” idea is romantic and charming, but the reality is so often freezing, mucky and depressing. I much prefer wearing shorts and a t-shirt. The big night here is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day itself. Joan’s entire extended family gathered at her son Russell’s house for a truly massive dinner. I counted four kinds of meat and four or five vegetables before I gave up. I can’t imagine anyone at home preparing that kind of meal, it’s just too much work. Russell and Jill have the services of what they call a “housekeeper” here (and what I’d call a “domestic servant”) so that probably eased the burden somewhat. I’m not comfortable with the idea of having servants, to be honest. It somehow pricks my liberal sensibilities. I doubt that anyone here would understand, so I’ve kept my mouth shut, though. It was a good evening, though I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the people and all the noise. South Africans complain that Canadians mumble and talk too quietly, by the way - their phrase for it is “talking inside your mouth” (conversely, my phrase for their mode of speech is “shouting”).

There was some unpleasant news for Sheryl and I, however. My brother called to let me know that my mother’s former partner, Grant, had passed away. I’d never known the man well, but I had known him, and liked him, for years, and his death was sudden and unexpected. Sheryl and I were both sad to see him go and remember him fondly.

Christmas day itself was somehow an afterthought. The immediate family came round to Joan’s house for a cold dinner and gift exchange, and didn’t stay as long as I’d have expected. I’d tried to delicately raise the subject of gifts a week before, with only partial success. Sheryl and I didn’t really want any - we’re not Christmas people, much, and we’re backpacking around the world after all, and don’t have room in our packs for any more things. I could tell I was skirting perilously close to giving offense, though, and so I backed off after getting a reassurance that any gifts would be consumable. Mine were chocolate and Amarula liqueur - both fine choices, I have to say.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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