Every November, my friend Sarah texts to ask if I am going to the bazaar. Sometimes she puts bazaar in quotation marks or all caps, in acknowledgment of the fact that it is a funny word, with a funny energy around it. Funny haha but also funny here comes one of those white South African things again, like loving yellow face brick as a building material or having a dangerous trampoline in your back garden or smashing the back of your head on the wall of the school pool during the swimming gala because you misjudged the amount of space you needed for your tumble turn and everybody saw. Here comes the recollection that there was once a very popular supermarket chain in South Africa called “OK BAZAARS” and no one at the time seemed to find that amusing. Every time I see the word bazaar I feel the full weight of how embarrassing it is to be a white South African. It makes me feel like someone’s racist gran is about to blow a whole cloud of Chesterfield cigarette smoke in my face. It makes me feel like I am wearing bootleg pants covered in dog hair. I don’t know exactly why. I have tried to get to the bottom of it, but there is very little literature on the subject. If you google “do white South Africans have a more intense relationship with the word ‘bazaar’ than others in the world,” you get nothing.
Complicating all this further is the fact that the bazaar mentioned earlier is held at the German School, and anyone looking for answers about how and why it is so embarrassing to be a white South African would come away from the German School unsatisfied. The German School is German. It is 135 years old, originally a mission school, and the exceptionally well-located place to which the many German people who live in Cape Town send their children to be educated. I should add that it’s not only German people who send their kids there. The school has an English stream too, but I do not think anyone would object to my describing it as an extremely German place. People do German things up there, and all of them seem to have those incredibly long German legs (thin and with a kneebone equidistant between hip and ankle), and no one seems even slightly preoccupied with the question of whether the word “bazaar” is fundamentally embarrassing. For one thing, they are too busy organizing the annual German School Bazaar, which raises a stunning amount of money every year and is a huge deal all round.
It sounds like I am exaggerating, but it is truly a highlight of the social calendar. On bazaar eve, something called a “Bavarian Sundowner” takes place at the school. If you, like me, immediately assumed that a “Bavarian Sundowner” was a sex pervert activity, then I invite you to wipe that smile off your face. At the German School, a “Bavarian Sundowner” is just when you invite lots of politicians and prominent businesspeople to have drinks on the school field. The Bavarian Sundowner this year was attended by the premiere of the Western Cape, the Western Cape’s finance minister, and assorted European consuls. A big deal and we haven’t even got to the bazaar itself.
The first year my friend Sarah asked me if I was going, I didn’t know what she was talking about, and she said “The bazaar. The place where the mugs come from.” Right. Every student in Cape Town owns at least one glass beer stein from the bazaar. You buy one when you get there, and you get it filled at the beer tent for an extremely reasonable price, and you go back and forth doing that all day until you are wasted. Sometimes in the day you lose your mug, and you buy another one before you realize that the first one was right there on the floor next to you, and eventually you totter down the hill to your flat with three or four of them clanking together in your bag. I myself have owned several, and for many years I never knew where they came from. They were just one of those things that fetched up in your cupboard, and that you only found cause to use during especially trying times. Have you even gone to University of Cape Town if you haven’t woken up at three a.m. and taken desperate thirsty gulps out of the German School mug on your bedside table? Even today, I feel hungover just looking at them, and I am right to feel like that, because the main thing about the bazaar is that it is a place for people to get very drunk in the daytime. There are rides, and stalls selling German appliances and giant used puzzles, and all different kinds of wursts, and a cake competition, and a talent show, and a special place to buy really intense German Christmas decorations, but ultimately it is a place for beer.
I responded to the bazaar text the way I always do: obviously yes. I have never had a particularly good time there, but I have the feeling that saying yes to the German School Bazaar falls under the broader heading of saying yes to life. It would seem sort of tragic to say no. I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come too. He said Is it just like a beer festival, and I said it’s more of a bazaar, without getting into the whole thing, and he said yes.
On the way up we saw a dad we both knew who was coming down to change clothes between shifts at one of the wurst stations. All the parents and children have to do shifts, and they all seem to bear this burden very cheerfully. This dad we both knew looked happy as anything, although there was a slight note of caution in his voice when he said “there’s people getting wild up there already.” I cannot repeat the other thing he said because the German school has a reputation to maintain, so I will just note that, in my experience, there is no one like a tired parent for seizing the opportunity to get absolutely fucked up in record time. I could sense this kind of powerful German energy enveloping us as we entered the school, a feeling that had nothing to do with the actually quite small number of German flags dotted around, or the men wearing Tyrolean hats. It just was German. I say this as someone who has never been to Germany and who has never given all that much thought to what goes on up there. I don’t know. German things. As we were walking around, I made a list of all the things I saw that I personally would categorise as very German, and I present it to you as follows.
- Incredibly dry grass on the school fields, obviously a result of a decision to adhere faithfully to the water restrictions, even though those restrictions have now been quite substantially relaxed. My friend R told me a story a while ago about going to play golf and noticing that the course was incredibly green, certainly way too green for a city in the grip of a crippling drought. He said something about it to the manager, who leaned confidingly over to him and went “It’s being watered with barely treated effluent.” Barely treated effluent. Something like this would never happen at the German school.
- People closing their eyes and smiling in glad recognition at the opening chords of Toto’s “Africa.”
- Everyone’s long legs.
- This guy wearing those kinds of jeans you only see in Europe, ones with a million giant rips all over and pre-faded so that there’s just two white stripes running down the middle of the legs and that feathery effect around the zipper and with a sassy label on the back that says like NEW YORK BOY in diamante, vaping and releasing giant smoke rings in time to the chorus of Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.
- Lots of stairs.
- Talent show with unbelievably confident children.
- Puzzles for sale.
Other than that, I don’t have much to report. My boyfriend agreed with me that there was something inexpressibly German about the whole affair, and he took those pictures to prove it. I had a fine time, and I will probably go again next year.