After a lifetime of big cities, Kevin O’Grady finds himself in a village, with no traffic lights and a population of around 5 000. He contemplates what took him there, and what makes him stay.
Clean mountain air. Crime-free living. Serenity. Peace and quiet. No traffic. A sense of community. Breathtaking scenery. An exquisite conservation area right on your doorstep. White winters, splendid autumns and springs, and agreeable summers. Love.
I can come up with a list as long as my arm of possible reasons to choose to live in a village like Clarens in the eastern Free State, which I have called home for the past three years, but I’ll have to admit the only one that brought me here is the last one: love.
It’s true. The one minute I was quite happily ensconced in my well-paying, rather gratifying job in the Johannesburg newsroom of a national daily newspaper, and the next I was on a flying weekend tour to Clarens, with a band I played drums in. and in love with an artist. What choice did I have?
Even as the band and I arrived in Clarens and took a slow drive around the village square, we said things like: «It’s very quaint, not to mention extremely beautiful, but I’m not sure I could live here. What is there to do?» Which, it turns out, is one of the questions most asked by visitors who nonetheless descend on this little town in their hordes for long weekends and holidays. (The answer: You have to live here to find out.)
My city friends tell me I’m «living the dream», and I know 1 am immensely privileged to be able to live here and do the work I do. But. of course, it’s not all moonlight and roses. There’s always some trouble to be found in paradise. The politics and small-town mentality have to be seen to be believed: everybody likes to know (and talk about) everybody else’s business and there seems to be an above-average representation of backwards backwoodsmen and unrepentant racists.
Equally, there are some absolute gems of individuals who I am privileged to count as friends. It’s a much smaller pool of potential acquaintances, so you choose your friendships well and you make them count.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a cultural backwater. It’s all very well playing in a band that makes original and interesting music, but it’s frustrating to do it in a place without a venue or an audience that appreciates it.
It’s also important to make sure, for the purpose of surviving winters here, that you don’t live in a dilapidated 100-year-old, south-facing sandstone farmhouse with a mountain looming ominously over its northern side. Because, if you do, like I do, permafrost will become a very real concern. I once left a block of ice outside in the back garden, in the perpetual shadow of the mountain, and it was still there two weeks later. Whatever we know now about designing and building homes that will keep you warm in a frozen wasteland, they had no idea when this place was built.
Much better is to find a piece of land in the sunshine, out of reach of the long shadows of the mountains, and build a home on it from scratch using any and every method at your disposal — and within your means — to keep the freezing temperatures at bay. That’s our project to be completed before next winter.
Because, there has to be a better way than the creeping sense of dread every year as the temperatures gradually get lower and lower and the hue of the leaves on the trees changes from green to spectacular shades of orange, yellow and red. The official start of the season aside, winters here are unimaginably long affairs, stretching from as early as April to as late as October. It makes no sense at all not to be prepared for them.
That’s the relationship I have with this part of the world: love/hate. Call me sentimental. but most of all I love that I found love here. I love that love brought me to this place that is at once simple and complicated, alluring and forbidding, friendly and hostile, unique and ordinary. And I love it just enough to stay.