Thursday, 20 September 2012

Saint du Barrys and smells

We're about to be covered by a blanket of orange blossom in the air, thick enough to assume that if you put out your hand, you'll actually touch something. It's the strongest signal of spring that we get. On the cold winter days, I believe that I can smell snow, when the wind whirls from the white crags of the Cederberg, or the sea, although it's sixty kilometers away to the west, when the west wind blows. The air changes in respect of olfactory qualtiy, from season to season. You can smell what kind of a day it's going to be, as it gets lighter and the birds start earlier and earlier. The orange blossom isn't negotiable: you have no choice but to breathe it in. My favourite is jasmine: for that I have to walk over to the parking bays, and the wall against which the jasmine grows. It's like a high legato violin note above the darker volume of the orange blossom orchestra. Open the front door in the morning, and you get the full orchestral hit: spring-cool air, orange blossom heat to come, the jasmine note, and birds joining the choral spaces. I'm waiting for frangipani: Joan planted one some years ago. It suffered somewhat when the municipal meter-reader came from the back, and snapped off branches to defend himself against our guest-house friendly dogs. But it's coming on, and will in due course add it's own chord to the sharps and flats in Saint du Barrys octave of smells.

Step beyond the gate, and you'll pick up one of two friendly fire smells: either the warm neighbourly hearth-fire from ourselves or Uncle Phil next door, when it's winter, or the slightly more smoky smell from the pizza oven at Olifanthuis restaurant, which the locals still call the pizza huis, although the menu is a la carte as well as pizza. That's more of a summer smell.

If it's one of our quieter days, and we've had a walk in the car, and have checked the town's perimeter, I usually respond to braai smells by going into competition. If that's peri-peri chicken, I'll reply with Spur wings. Some over-drenched, overdone hunk of mutton chop? The clear answer is fillet, no basting, on an open fire at just the right heat, and no flames yet, sending out a pure aroma guarranteed to produce salivation up to four hundred meters, six if the breeze helps to carry the message.

This is no competition for what strolls out of the kitchen when Joan prepares dinner for guests: fresh bread, oxtail, chilli con carne, lasagne, oven-baked aubergine, accompanied by garlic, olive oil and followed by brandy tart, all of this creating an exciting smudge that excites the palate and reduces the mind to nothing but anticipation.

The home-smells of thatch. Guest rooms and our own upstairs rooms have rafters that are open to thatch. Each room has a different smell of thatch, emphasized when the wind blows. Lead me into each room with my eyes closed: here's a dry touch of sunlight combined with tall grass on a slope: room five. This one has a rich yet soft touch and I have to think of mountains on the horizon and a river close by: must be room three. These identities of thatch become invitingly strong as the wind picks up. What goes into the nose settles in the chest, and the feeling is one of nostalgia, almost too much, at times.

And of course, depending on the time of year, varying intensities of drying rooibos. Sometimes just on the edge of the breeze, sometimes standing squarely over the town, this presence is ubiquitous. After eleven years of living here, I think my body has accepted rooibos at a cellular level. I think I I have extra rooibos mitochondria helping my identity to progress beyond known things. They say animals use the sense of smell far more acutely than humans.

I believe that I sniff the air much more than I did earlier on in life, and that I am even excited at the messages I receive. That's the equinox passed; that's four o' clock in the afternoon; it will rain in less than an hour; we're more than halfway through Spring; today we have to light a fire; the snow has defintiely melted; the wind has at this very instant changed. This week we should go to find crayfish, a sauvignon blanc and a sandy beach.

And when we get home the thatch might say that a quiet couch and a book are called for, or, the pizza house may offer another invitation, as the evening progresses, just a small one, maybe the Adriatic with fresh avo as it comes out of the oven. And just because life is a celebration, I should be indulgent enough to at least breathe in over a wee bite of the Glenlivet before tasting it.

And the last one, that many may not ever experience: burying your nose in the back feathers of an African Grey. I won't attempt a description. It's another curious recognition that happens not in the head but in the chest. Perhaps that's what the animals try to tell us.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hand-crafted hospitality

This is an ideal to which guest-house owners who enjoy their work aspire. I think it also explains why people who prefer guest-houses to hotels do so.

Hand-crafted furniture, clocks, glassware, violins and cloth. Custom-made fountain pens, embossed paper, wax-sealed envelopes. Fine coffee. Signals of carefulness, time and craftsmanship. Ancient or contemporary, one senses the value of skilled workmanship, wherever it's presence is invested.

It was once pointed out to us that guests choose which guest-house to visit on the basis of what they are used to at home. If the experience is equal to or better than their home comforts, they're happy. At home, personal taste and choice are supreme, and furnishings, furniture and decor reflect the family narrative.
Being more personal than a hotel, a guest-house also reflects a narrative, and this is part of the appeal of living the guest-house life-style.

In room two, there is a set of four pictures called The Road to Bisho. This was given to me by my Irish friend. He wanted to be right in front of the crowd that marched to Bisho, to go up that long, dangerous hill with them, and fortunately for him, his wife locked him into their bedroom and didn't let him out until it was over. The march started virtually outside my house, and I remember calling the children inside when I heard the gunfire. Then I watched the crowd run down the hill. The etchings are large, and were done as a project combining poerty and art, recording and recognising the event. Twenty-five sets were made, and I was given one.

Over eleven years, a vivid red splash has washed through Saint du Barrys. When we started off we were green and white. Daringly, I painted the gate and the garden lamp-pole blue. The shutters turned blue, too. One day, we had to change our email address. We pondered the new name, and came up with redbird@saintdubarrys. Dot com. The origins of this are still obscure. Maybe it had to do with the red tail feathers of Ramius, the African Grey. Maybe it was the emergence of the cheeky yet warm streak that we enjoy when human nature presents it. Our logo became a red bird in a green tree. Then came the red cushions for the outside chairs. Cups, saucers, plates with red lines. Just for the fun of it, a red Le Crueset kettle for the gas stove. More red plates and side plates, with bolder designs. Red Le Crueset cups and saucers, sourced after turning a few shops upside down. Along came our chair man, Mr Thomas, who turns couches, sofas and chairs into brand new items: "red", we said, a nice, comfortable not in your face but very sittable red for our dining room. He brought them back, chairs like new, and with a warm, red-like seat. I heard some German guests, the other morning, commenting on the wonderful, warm feeling of the dining-room, and was gratified that what pleases us, pleased them, too.

This is what makes the details of Saint du Barrys important: as far as we can, we invest in the details. One good thing that has come out of the global financial melt-down is that even the richest of the rich are no longer embarrassed to mention money. Budgets and limits. We would be delighted to throw caution to the Cape Doctor, but that would soon invite the wind to blow through empty rooms. Bed linen, and bathroom towels? Non-negotiable. I roll my eyes when Joan gets into hunting mode and marches straight past the "guest house quality" shelves to look for better things. Polo. I don't even know the labels. Two hundred percale, four hundred. Egyptian cotton. "Must we really spend this money on sheets and stuff?" I ask, looking forlornly for the single malt whisky that Saint du Barrys ought to stock. She is stern. The budget and no budging are the same thing. New linen. New towels. I reckon it happens every season of the year.

The Snow Goose. This is a favourite story of mine. Philip Rhayader and Fritha. They'd be personal friends if I met them, but alas, they can only meet me through Paul Gallico, who is in heaven, now. I lovingly framed pictures that spoke to me so strongly and vividly in childhood and hung them in room one. I believe some guests found them bleak. Well yes, of course they're bleak, the whole landscape of the story is bleak, but what a message of hope came out of it!

Just yesterday we moved them around.

Again, in connection with the theme of red. We have managed to entice red bishops to join the garden birds. This is the first year ever that they have done so. They eat from the bird-feeders.

A Nigerian (I think) gentleman made the red birds on the dining room tables to order. His voice has such a song-like quality he could almost be Welsh.

A guest-house is an invitation. Whatever you experience, it's hand-crafted hospitality, and therein lie all the advantages and fallibilities. All the financial investment in the world won't necessarily offer this guest what will satisfy him, while that guest will notice something that affects the visit profoundly, and will make it memorable, which, as my colleague once said in respect of reading a book, is the actual value. You remember because it struck you.

We live here. We will remember much, and there is much that we treasure, from the first bird-calls in the morning (just after five, this morning) to the smells that come with different breezes. We've put our hearts into Saint du Barrys, and that's no tear-jerker, that's just so. Those words on our front door say when the heart speaks take good note.

Today is the first day after flower season, an in-between day, with dull weather, yet the air is not cold. The birds outside are discussing the matter. In respect of detail, I'm thinking of the bright colours of our key-holders, the strips of tiling that bring red to the bathrooms, the quietness of the grass in front of our own bedroom and patio, and the single malt whisky I don't have. That could be serious, but it won't change the love I have for this place.