Have You Seen the Taal Kraal?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues, a young woman from Zimbabwe named Joy, asked me about ten gallon hats, cowboys and John Wayne. While her inquiries were clearly in jest – the mock-galloping gave her away – I really wasn’t surprised by the questions. As strangers in a strange land, we’ve become popular targets for interrogation.

This is despite the fact that (the very best of) American culture is regularly imported here by way of B-grade Hollywood films, sitcom reruns and Royales with Cheese. The opportunity to grill a real, live American about anything from the supposed superiority of Starbucks to driving on the other side of the road to “Why do your Republicans talk so much about ‘freedom’ when they insist on taking it away from women/minorities/immigrants/gays?” is often too difficult to resist. Shame that we still don’t have good answers.

Without conducting the scientific research necessary to confirm, I’d say that the two questions we get most often are these, and I quote:

  • “When are you people leaving?”
  • “Have you seen the rugby?”

The first question, you must understand, is not meant to be rude. We like to think of the phrase “you people” less as an arbitrary, disdainful lumping and more as a term of endearment. As if the word wonderful was accidentally omitted. Still, we’ve been getting the question for the better part of six months now …

As for the rugby question, until recently, we could not supply a satisfactory answer. While we became avid supporters of the Springboks during the Rugby World Cup last year, we couldn’t see one of those matches in person because, well, they were all in New Zealand. Now, however, all attention is on the Super Rugby league, and we have our own team here in Pretoria: the unfortunately named Blue Bulls.

It was time to see the rugby.

Thanks to the gracious organizing efforts of Quintus and Christa Smit, their daughter, Marni, and Marni’s boyfriend, Giancarlo, we scored tickets to a Bulls v. Crusaders match at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

Crouch. Touch. Pause. Engage. Blue Bulls & Crusaders preparing for a scrum.

Loftus during Blue Bulls matches is informally, yet fittingly, known as the “Taal Kraal.” Taal is the word for “language” in Afrikaans, and kraal is the word for “corral.” In essence, by going to a rugby match at Loftus, one is effectively surrounded on all sides – corralled in, as it were – by Afrikaans. And I mean Afrikaans Afrikaans. The Boers love themselves some rugby! And they love to talk about it. In Afrikaans.

Don’t get me wrong, we understand why people like the sport. I enjoy the strategy, something I learned to appreciate while watching and discussing World Cup matches. (As it happens, the match we saw featured several players from the Springboks side, as well as the All Blacks, as the Crusaders are from New Zealand.) Jenny, bless her, loves the muscular men with the thick thighs. When she spotted Victor Matfield, I thought she might rush the pitch and hurl herself into his arms, nuzzle his werewolf beard. Never mind that he is actually retired and his appearance was as a business-suited sideline reporter.

Blue Bulls & Crusaders players compete for the ball during a lineout. (not pictured: Victor Matfield)

But, the point is, rugby – especially Blou Bulle rugby at the Taal Kraal – is a white thing. I think fellow American Ryan Brown said it best:

… don’t let Invictus convince you otherwise: rugby is whiter than a Wilco concert and always will be.

So it is. And, so what? So is ice hockey, eh?

At least we got to experience an authentic slice of modern Afrikaner culture. At least we got to openly and enthusiastically support men with Blue Bulls … jerseys.

At least we people got to see the rugby before we left.

I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way…

WARNING: This post gets slightly NSFW towards the end…

As Americans who speak only one of the 11 official South African languages (English), you could argue that we are missing out on 90.9% of the national conversation. Of course, that’s not precisely accurate. Or, it is, depending on how you figure it (I’ve never been good at math, or “maths,” as they say here).

On the one hand, it is true that despite our best (feeble) efforts to learn Afrikaans (Jenny), seSotho/Nguni (Ryan), or any other local language (Indie does respond favorably to the word Zulu), we are basically only able to operate in English.

And this, one would think, on the other hand, should be fine. English is, after all, the de facto language of commerce, navigation, and (for the most part) politics. However, as we have detailed here, here and here, South African English is different enough from American English that it can – at minimum – cause confusion, or – in some cases – demand a double-take, or – in the extreme – trigger a face-twisting sort of cringe-wince-smirk that encapsulates the usually disparate feelings of embarrassment and hilarity.

OK, to be fair, there are really no truly squirm-worthy moments in normal conversation. Unless, that is, we have a momentary lapse and ask a waitron for a napkin (which here means diaper or feminine napkin) instead of a serviette.  What we see more often are unfortunately named brands, shops and restaurants that, while in English, must have much different – and more innocent, perhaps – connotations in South Africa.

Let’s start with some of the more innocuous examples:

  • DEFY – This is an appliance manufacturer, like GE, Maytag, Bosch, etc. I guess my question is, why DEFY? Our tiny refrigerator (the one with the freezer setting for dinosaur meat) is made by DEFY, as is our cooktop (or hob). What is it saying? “I DEFY you to cook on me!”
  • HOMELEE – Again, why? Our coffee maker is HOMELEE. No, really, it is.
  • Chicken Licken – This one really doesn’t deserve to be listed here…it’s not that bad. While we’ve not sampled the food, we expect it to be in the league of KFC, which here is more commonly referred to as “the Kentucky.” Funny, yes. Outrageous, no.
  • The Old Boys Club – We always wondered where the Old Boys Club met, and now we know. It’s near the corner of George Storrar Drive and Queen Wilhelmina Avenue.

And then there are those that are a bit more scandalous:

  • The Blue what?

    The Vodacom Blue Bulls – Yes, that’s right. The Blue Bulls. If you allow your mind to move past the color of the bulls and more towards the replacement of the letter u with the letter a, you will hear what we hear: that the local, Pretoria rugby team consists of a bunch of hunky, yet extremely “frustrated” dudes. Shame. [Aside: The Afrikaans name does not help. In Afrikaans, they are the Blou Bulle. Still seems unfortunate.]

  • UTI Distribution – In a country suffering from high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, it is slightly regrettable to see the acronym for urinary tract infection on delivery vans.
  • Something Feminine – Maybe you had to be there, but when Jenny and I first saw this store in Menlyn Mall, we wondered out loud whether the “something” was an itch, an odor, a product…an infection? Mercifully, it was a jewelry store.

Finally, there is the shop that started it all. The inspiration for this post. The one that made our friend Hannah nearly drive off the road when she first saw the sign. The one that would make Altria change its name back to Philip Morris. The one that made Caligula blush. The one known as:

  • You just can't make this stuff up...

    CUM Bookstore – Eish! Go ahead. Do a double-take. Do a triple-take. You read it correctly the first time. But, wait, it’s not what you think. Ohhhh, no. In fact, if you visit the website, you will learn that it is, in fact, a “Christian Family Bookstore.” Ouch! Insult to injury. They have to know, don’t they? “Hey, where can I find a copy of The Bible for Dummies and the Cliff’s Notes for the Left Behind series?” Why, the CUM Bookstore, of course! COME ON, PEOPLE! PLEASE, PEOPLE!

I’m sure there are more examples, but I doubt any can beat the final entry here. We will be on the lookout, nonetheless. We do it all for you…it’s only for you.