The first thing that I noticed on my return to the UK for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends was just how green and lush the country really is.
While some people would undoubtedly question whether it could be anything else after having suffered such a rainy spring, I, having absented myself from the proceedings, was unaware of quite what an impact the inclement weather would have on the local flora.
But it’s also these kinds of everyday details that you tend to forget when you’ve been away for a while and start acclimatising to someone else’s landscape – although you certainly notice them when you come back, not least because you’re looking at everything through the new eyes of a partial stranger.
So while South Africa may boast the scrubby high drama of soaring mountains and spectacular if barren cliffs plunging down to azure seas, England, on the other hand, is blessed with its own more fecund charm and a decidedly gentler, rolling beauty.
And nowhere is this more true than in the North East. Although I’m biased having been brought up there and undoubtedly feel protective towards this despoiled and battered child of the industrial and post-industrial revolutions, I can say in all truthfulness that it’s no longer grim up north.
In fact, the huge amount of trees of every ilk and hue that you see in Durham County in particular is simply astounding. Following a massive planting scheme 30-odd years ago, they’re everywhere you care to look these days, growing in lavish abundance by the sides of roads, beautifying old slag heaps and rejuvenating former brownfield sites, filling in every possible gap and restoring Durham to its former rural glory, just as if the last 250 years had never happened.
It truly is amazing what a difference our arboreal cousins can end up making to a landscape.
Another thing that struck me on coming home, however, was just how expensive the UK has now become. Although I’d been aware over the last few years that my salary wasn’t quite stretching as far as it used to, pitching up again from a developing country like South Africa really underscored the difference.
In general terms, food and drink here cost about half of what they do at home, I’d say, while other commodities such as clothing and household goods are probably about 25% cheaper. So despite living off my beloved’s bounty as my visa doesn’t permit me to work, I feel comparatively wealthy for the first time since leaving California about a dozen years ago, where my money also seemed to go a lot further.
Perhaps that’s just the joy of ex-pat living. Or more likely it’s because stagnant UK wages and apparently ever-increasing inflation levels are really starting to take their toll on people’s standards of living.
But that sorry state of affairs, combined with an excessively weak rand, are making us British ex-pats feel relatively affluent. And concern over the seemingly endless strikes in South Africa’s key mining sector, which are spooking the markets and dragging the currency to historic lows, don’t look set to abate any time soon either.
Whatever it is that’s going on in the wider economy, however, I still seemed to spend a veritable fortune at home despite foisting myself on anyone who’d have me and so not even putting my hand in my pocket pay for hotel rooms. Nonetheless, exorbitant train fares and an endless round of eating out and socialising all take their toll on the old bank balance after a while.
For example, even after booking online a couple of weeks in advance with Cross Country trains, it cost me a huge £125 return to migrate from Durham to Oxford in order to visit friends, before commencing my grand tour of London and the South East.
Shocking, particularly as I had to stand for the initial chunk of the four-and-a-half hour return journey due to delays to the service in the wake of signalling problems, which meant that, in the scrum that ensued, I couldn’t even get near my reserved seat, let alone sit on it. Not impressed.
But apart from being a generally more affordable country in which to live, South Africa also has one or two other pluses, one of the biggest being that it always offers up some special little absurdity to make me laugh.
On picking me up from the airport on Sunday, for instance, my beloved thought it would be a nice treat to take me for lunch to the first wine farm that he ever went to in the country years ago as he had such good memories of it.
So on the road back home to Stellenbosch, we stopped off at a Cape Dutch-style establishment called the Saxenburg, which apparently has amazing views over Table Mountain – when the damp, eerie mists aren’t blanketing everything from sight, that is. My beloved had it in his mind to sample a succulent guinea fowl again at the eponymous restaurant there and we were both looking forward to a lovely roast dinner.
So imagine our surprise when, on seating ourselves expectantly in the aforementioned almost empty restaurant that we were told was full until my beloved insisted that the waitress check, we perused the menu excitedly only to find there was not a guinea fowl dish to be seen.
While there was ‘Tipsy Butterfish’ served in white wine sauce as well as the indescribable horrors of deviled lamb’s kidneys, the nearest thing we could find to our goal was the rather misleadingly entitled ‘Guinea Fowl Waldorf Salad’, which although replete with the usual apples, raisins and the like had not so much as a dusting of bird wafted over the top.
We couldn’t even see any guinea fowl racing around outside, which is pretty unusual as they’re almost ubiquitous everywhere else. The nearest we got to one, in fact, was watching the rather over-the-top Maitre d’ clucking around, but he didn’t look that tasty anyway.
So in the infamous Guinea Fowl restaurant that didn’t serve guinea fowl, I plumped for local delicacy, bobotie, which I’d never had before and probably wouldn’t bother to have again – spicy minced meat (beef) with dried fruit in and an egg-based topping served with rice really isn’t my thing, unfortunately.
So welcome to South Africa. It’s good to be back.