Although it’s not an entirely obvious statement, one of the key benefits of coming back for a visit to the UK from South Africa in July is simply to get warm.
While such a declaration may seem counter-intuitive, it happens to be high summer in the northern hemisphere and high winter in the southern, with temperatures in Johannesburg in particular often plummeting to below zero at night.
It’s also decidedly chilly in both the evenings and mornings until the sun gets itself going and the place warms up to a really quite pleasant 17-21 degrees C – although since I’ve been back, the birds do seem to be a bit more active and chirpy, which gives me at least a bit of hope.
Because so comparatively cold and miserable is the winter season here that South Africans have now started adopting the Australian habit of holding ‘Christmas in July’ festivities, presumably to cheer themselves up.
In Joburg, these celebrations seem to manifest themselves primarily as Yuletide markets or late night shopping activities, where people wander around the streets of neighbourhoods such as ours in Parkhurst, wearing Santa hats, drinking the free gluehwein and taking advantage of multifarious ‘special offers’ in the various stores and restaurants.
But the vital issue here is not so much the actual real-world temperature of the place. It’s more the lack of the centrally-heated, double-glazed and generally well-insulated abodes that most of us are blessed with in the UK.
In contrast, the average middle class South African home, with its whitewashed walls, tile floors and utterly inadequate heating systems, is completely geared to keeping you cool for the bulk of the year.
So when the cold weather hits, as it does for an apparently endless three months during each annual orbit of the earth around the sun, you really do feel it. It’s actually warmer to sit outside with a blanket around your legs like an old dear than it is to brave the frozen internal wastes of your dwelling place. Shocking.
In fact, in keeping with half the population of Jozi, I’d warrant, most nights I can be found tucked up in bed by 8.30pm, thawing myself out courtesy of my much-loved electric blanket and expanding my literary horizons with a good book.
Because, not to whinge, but there’s rarely much on TV here worth watching – in my view anyway. There are the melodramatic South African soap operas, relentless US reality TV and comedy re-runs and interminable UK cooking programmes, all with swear words and random blasphemy beeped out even before the 9pm watershed.
Needless to say, I am now completely addicted to ‘7 De Laan’, ‘Brides of Beverley Hills’ and ‘Come Dine with Me’. But give me a good, old BBC drama or travel programme any day.
Definitely something to look forward to when we make it back home, although things have been made a bit easier in this regard by the recent discovery of ‘Tunnel Bear’.
This particular little downloadable treasure is a perfectly legal virtual private network that makes it appear as if your laptop, iPad or whatever is based wherever you wish it to be in the world so that you can access local TV. A real find.
Anyway, another thing that I particularly noticed during my recent trip back home was just how beautifully lush, green and verdant the UK is at this time of year.
While the foliage-bedecked affluent northern suburbs of Jozi may be pleasant and leafy at other times, in the dry winter season everywhere just looks brown, parched and barren, with too few leaves left on the trees even to soften the harshness of the ubiquitous 10 feet high security walls and electric fences.
A product of the deep insecurity felt in white suburbs during the tense Struggle years of the 1980s, I can’t say that I missed the slight feeling of imprisonment or the lack of sociability that they tend to generate.
Instead, I found it refreshing to walk freely along the open streets of home, whether in town or country, rather than simply sail past everywhere in the cocooning safety of my car.
I also relished being able to indulge my nosiness by peering into people’s gardens over hedges and low stonewalls without sparking a security incident.
And seeing the hanging baskets chock full of colourful blooms that seemed to be everywhere this year. It’s not something that you come across so much over here, but it really does brighten the place up.
Another thing that I thought was a great idea when visiting my parents in the North East of England though was the now commonplace corporate sponsorship of roundabout upkeep – or circles, as they’re known in South Africa.
It’s a proposition that appears to be a win-win for everybody – councils don’t have to fork out for maintenance to keep them looking decent, companies get themselves a sign for a nice bit of publicity, and the Great British public benefits from a beautifully-designed and well-kept traffic island without having to pay a penny.
Keeping on the topic of roads, meanwhile, a slightly strange South African trend that I have yet to spot in the UK is to attach so-called ‘Family Stickers’ to the back windscreen of cars.
For some reason that is utterly opaque to me, people affix to their windows cartoonish figures of themselves, their partner, any male and/or female children, pets and the like that they’ve acquired over the years, seemingly to advertise their kinship groupings to the world. Not being rude, but as if the world cared.
Still, maybe for the perpetrators it’s just one more way of generating a few warm, fuzzy feelings in a perfectly reasonable bid to stay cheerful on yet another of those cold Jozi nights.