The Mother City

A Love Letter to Cape Town

“Do you know why they call it the Mother City?” I asked J one night. A Kenyan architect-slash-model with eyes deep as oceans, J is just the type of fascinating creature that freely roams the streets of Cape Town. A history nerd, like me, she seemed to have done her research in the months she’d been here.

“Oh, I don’t know really. I suppose it’s because it was the first real European settlement in South Africa — it sort of gave birth to everything else.”

She casually waved her hand and kind of rolled her eyes, but she did it in the condescension-free way Capetonians do, as if she were rolling her eyes at herself more than anything. It was refreshing, this nonchalance. I’d noticed it immediately upon arriving when I texted a friend in the US. “How’s Cape Town?” she’d asked. “It’s all the best things about L.A., but without the L.A.-ness. Unselfconsciously cool.”

Cape Town: the Mother City — the place I’m absolutely broken-hearted over leaving. I landed at her International Airport on November 12th, just after noon, and by 9 pm I loved her. She took me into her arms and threw me up onto Lion’s Head for sunset, despite my jet lag and Himalaya-legs. She poured the southern-hemisphere sun on my face and set the Cape Doctor breeze on my shoulders. I saw the shimmer of Atlantic waves and imagined the coast of Antarctica just beyond the horizon. I watched the night fall and the city light up. I told her I was tired but still I let her coddle me into a late-night burger feeding with a cute gay Brazilian and two Aussies, after which I stumbled into her bosom, spent and sated. I was safe, in that way one felt as a child in their mother’s arms after a hot summer day at the park.

The more I think about it, the more I understand Cape Town’s nickname on a visceral level. The Mother City takes all children under her wing. They are white, black, coloured, German, Zimbabwean, Slovenian, gay, straight, weird, high, elderly, toothless or fit, here in passing or “Here in passing… for the last 19 years” as one cafe owner said to me with a wink.

She picked me up, this Mother, and set me down on a path I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know I’d been craving. She pointed me toward the kind of friends who know the truth about you within hours of meeting you; toward men who are kind and good-hearted, who laugh at thunderstorms and make music and dance barefoot by the bookshelf; toward women who show up, laugh with not at, who understand where you come from and see where you’re going because they’re on the exact same road. She nudged me into a creative discipline I’d yearned for and postponed. She stoked the fire of inspiration and reminded me why, when my fingers hit keys, my heart just swells. She reminded me that health is wealth, that fun is a fine goal to have, that feeling rain on your face can get you ready for anything.

I was only supposed to stay with her for a week and a half before my meditation course. After that I would perhaps head North to Botswana before Christmas in Swaziland with my actual mother — but then, after 10 days of meditation shook out my insides, she scooped me up and gave me a soft place to land, like a mother does, and I found my feet again, little by little. I re-learned how to hear, how to speak, how to make eye contact, there in the traveler’s house with my gypsy family. I remembered how to connect with chill people and speedy ones, how to navigate the complicated rhythms of personalities and days: the weather patterns of the soul.

I met the other hearts that came to her, in various stages of repair. Our wounds recognized one another; step-tribes were born. Bruised doctors from England and Argentina, rebuilt with the Ganges, with Borges and sweet plums. Soulmates from Quebec and Slovenia, Joburg and Uruguay, and the Capetonians too, real and honorary — around us like siblings. They cared, they welcomed, they enchanted. There was magic in her doe-eyes, in the old man’s tattoos. There was music in the accents I heard on the playground, just as there was in the song he sang, the smiling one with the cappuccino skin and permanently sandy toes.

I rooted so deeply into the Mother City that I convinced my own mother to fly out from Swaziland for a road trip East, rather than simply go to her. “You’ll love it here,” I promised, knowing she needed a mother’s love, too. As her arrival approached and time slipped through my fingers, I watched the sadness inside of me grow: a longing for the present moment that only can be born out of awareness of its impermanence. Saudade, the Portuguese say. Did Bartolomeu Dias feel it, in 1488?

Mothers will hold you tight until you absorb the lessons that have been taught to you. I could feel her now releasing her grip, my lesson learned, as I prepared to begin a new part of my journey elsewhere — with my biological mother, who loosened her grip on me long ago.

That mother, the live one, is a hopeless optimist still decked out in pink John Lennon shades. I am a hopeless romantic — quick to love, and by extension quick to get hurt. But here, in a bowl-shaped city surrounded by mountains and the sea, I finally fell in love with being in love. I internalized that little heartbreaks are part of the process, that one must let go of something in order to grasp another. And that sometimes, in letting go, the love grows even deeper. Even truer.

“There are moments in time that you just want to freeze,” I told K on our last lunch date. My Slovenian sister and I had jumped onto the fast track to intimate friendship just a week previous, in that way only gypsies and women in their thirties do. “Then stay,” she said. “We could really have something here.”

We’d hatched a business plan in recent days because, even though she had another month and a half in the city, she could already feel the slipperiness too. “It’s like I just got here yesterday,” I said. She nodded. “Same. And also like I’ve been here my whole life,” she replied.

In that sunlight-filled street bistro for one fraction of a second it seemed as if time stood still for K and I. In some ways I couldn’t remember a time before Cape Town, I confided. She just nodded again, slowly, knowingly.

It seems fitting that I transitioned from one Mother to another. As I travel east to Addo for Christmas with the woman who physically birthed me, who raised me, I can see even more clearly what the Mother City did. Just as I understood the little woman with Lennon shades better once I became the age she was when I was born, I can appreciate Cape Town’s quiet, detached, patient love now that I’ve left it. Non-discriminating love. Fearless love.

“Honey, I’ve seen it all,” she says to the gypsy hearts. “And there’s a place for you here, always.”

The Mother City. She mothered me back into a state of belonging. She fed my soul and licked my wounds. She generously gave me everything she could, without expectation. She gave me the wings to fly and picked me up when I stumbled, until I could try again and soar. She taught me courage and faith, and reminded me of what it feels like to be home, and to be loved.

I may have left the nest, Mother, but I’ll always come back.