Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Cederberg and evening light.

One of the most beautiful things to see in the Cederberg is the changing shades of light on the mountain rocks as the sun begins to set. In the first place, the rocks themselves are magnificent and weird at the same time: poised on three or four points, they seem to have been placed there on purpose. It's strange to consider how they came to be there.

When guests who arrive quite late in the day ask what they can do, we frequently suggest that they drive up the Pakhuis Pass as evening develops, and the sun begins to slant. The colours and angles are an experience.

A few days ago I was in the bakkie (Afrikaans word for a small, open truck) with our local doctor who was driving over that pass in the evening, and so I took a few random pictures which don't do justice, but give a glimpse into what one may experience.

Please note that the windscreen was a bit dirty. This adds authenticity....

The temperature was warm, about 32C, even at that time of evening. I had actually taken a jersey along as I have been surprised by sudden cold evenings even in summer months, but this wasn't one of them.

As shadow and light develop and contrast, the drama of the sun's descent engages the Cederberg with something extraordinary.

One should actually find a place to stop and take take in the changing vista.

But we didn't have the time, as we were actually having a meeting in the bakkie.

It was a most interesting meeting, not only because of the agenda but also because of the context.

But if you come as guests, not as attendees, you would have the time to stop and savour more of the Pakhuis Pass, the colour kaleidoscope, and the evening cooling into the anticipation of dinner somewhere in town.

And we still do have enough water to wash the windscreen. 

Friday, 1 December 2017

The rescue dogs of Saint du Barrys

Saint du Barry's name originates from the St Bernard rescuers, particularly one famous Barry, the story of whom is on the wall in our dining room. Our guest house has been home to many animals, all affectionately remembered, and perhaps one day all their stories might be told.

Currently, we have three dogs, none of whom were planned as pets, but all were chosen at their own appointed time.

The longest-standing one, ButterBean, whose colour and shape are good clues to her name, was found at the Spur in Piketberg. We had stopped there three times in quick succession, and Joan noticed her apparent homelessness, and suggested we take her. The staff who had been looking after her, all came to greet, as we took her home. Her genes have given her short legs and a long, chubby body, and thus, mechanically, she is not a quick machine. She still knows how to gaze at anyone who is eating what she would like.

Jack is a this year dog, a Belgian shepherd who was found at the informal settlement in Hout Bay in Cape Town by an organisation called Pavement Specials. No-one knows how he came to be there. He is an intensely loyal dog, whose innate sense of orderliness is severely disturbed when we move tables, the stove and other furniture. He's old, with plenty of grey on his snout, but he's strong, and is always ready for a walk. We refer to Saint du Barrys as his retirement home.

Shona would have died the day we decided to rather let her live. Joan had been feeding dogs who had a place, but were not being looked after. The mother was wandering around town looking for food, and Joan tracked her down. There were puppies, and while Joan fed the adult dogs, the puppies disappeared one by one, and the story that was given as explanation was never clear. One puppy was particularly forward, and when I looked for her one morning, and found her lying listlessly, I picked her up, and realised that she would die. Her energy was falling away, fast. It was a Tuesday, though, and on Tuesdays the vet arrives at eleven o' clock, so all it took was three medications, and within the hour she was perking up.  She has stayed with us since, has made friends with Jack, and the two of them play rumbustiously. She likes to be in water and trouble.

I have often thought about the fact that dogs have distinct personalities. As do cats, but that's another subject.

We have four cats, but I have to stop at this point because I'm actually not allowed to talk about one of them. That's an interesting story which will have to wait for some time. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

New stories from Saint du Barrys

The big tree.

Our big tree had to go for a haircut. Our tree doctor told us that several branches had begun to pose a threat, and I could see exactly what he meant. The current drought added to my uneasiness, and so, with many apologies to the tree and the nest of harrier-hawks that had taken up residence, an appointment was made.

And so, our tree now has a re-styled look, still the same staggering height, but less wide. Guests are free to suggest names for the new look. One of the highest branches on which the nest had been built wasn't touched, and the harrier-hawks are still there. They are magnificent creatures. More than once I have been startled when a shadow briefly separated me from the sun, and looking up, I saw the hawk settling on another tree. Their characteristic call has become well-known to us, and this will be a memory to carry, similar to the magic of hosting our martial eagles.

The cherry-picker, as the truck is known, drove over the garden beds, chewed up the pebbles and pavers, and it has taken weeks to begin to get the garden back. Still quite a way to go, but it's happening.

The Story Clinic.

Wally has shaped an initiative called the Story Clinic. Some workshops, presentations and interactive sessions have been held, for example, at the local art gallery, with the CANSA support group, and at the Kalk Bay Bookshop in Cape Town. His background as professor of English and his training in homeopathic medicine have contributed to this venture.

The interest is growing because of his novel approach, which combines the sense of story, the sense of meaning, attention, intention, emotion and non-differentiated pathology.  One's life and one's body are more like a story than anything else, and once this is grasped, the question of how to read and act on one's own health changes.

Guests are welcome to enquire, and have an experience or book a consultation. To learn more about Wally's background, check

At the moment, via a free 3-4 hour experience is offered to anyone who books two nights at Saint du Barrys. Feel free to take advantage!

New products from The Storytellers Apothecary.

Quite coincidentally, which is how stories seem to work, new products arrived at Saint du Barrys, and are available along with the range of rooibos toiletries provided in our bathrooms, and are also for sale. There has been a great deal of interest in these, which include soaps, bath-salts moisturisers, balms, spritzers and sun-blocks, and contain ingredients that include rose-geranium, lemon-grass, rooibos, cancer bush, buchu. The plants are grown close to Saint du Barrys, here in the Cederberg, and the manufacturing is home-based.

We're fortunate to have such carefully-crafted plant-inspired people-centred products available. The packaging and presentation are compellingly attractive. Perhaps the owner herself could tell her own story on a later blog.

Noticing new things

As we rebuild our garden, become acquainted with a new family of hawks and move into the next season, it's striking how the blurring of the present and the next present occurs. Greeting guests who have often come becomes a matter of the heart more than professional courtesy, and wondering where the next sense of connection will occur is an intriguing experience. We often consider what guests are looking for, on their travels, and hope they find something soul-satisfying at Saint du Barrys. That would give us our own sense of joy and accomplishment.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Down the hospitality rabbit hole

You never know what something is like until you do it. I think that's what part of the attraction of traveling is: the newness of experience. I enjoy traveling immensely, always to new places, often to familiar places. A week ago I went to my annual place of retreat, The Botrivier Hotel, which is probably a one an a half star, if it were ever to be star rated, yet I am really comfortable there.

Traveling for recreational purposes serves many facets of experience from novelty to excitement to rest and comfort. Whatever the soul needs, otherwise the soul wouldn't be traveling. I have been thinking about recognizing what the soul  needs, wondering about what our guests want to experience. When we started off in hospitality our kindly star grading assessor, Mark, said many practical and pithy things which have formed a basis for understanding what we do. "A comfortable bed and hot water," he said. "No-one expects to be without these." Well, from these basics to the bells and whistles of a five star hotel is quite a leap.

I have heard that some boutique hotels have a private swimming pool for each suite.The main thing, as I understand it, is that if people pay for what they want, they are entitled to get what they want. This seems fair enough, but I am surprised, sometimes, at what people want.

Special occasions, moments, relationships and experiences are to be sought after, but consistent opulence and extravagance? I didn't grow up in a wealthy home, and just flying, for the first time, seemed a grand event. The first time I flew business class I was uncomfortable and felt out of place for ten minutes, before settling into it and enjoying the experience.

When I went into the etymology of hospitality I found that hospitality, hotel, host, hostel and hospital come from the same idea of shelter while traveling or required for the purpose of healing. You needed to stay over, either because you were on the road, or because you had to receive medical assistance.

It certainly is a rabbit hole, and choice is the biggest part. No-one wants to go to hospital. The atmosphere is very different, and if the efficiency is excellent, it will be more clinical than indulgent.

But my musings took me further: choice, necessity, expectations and desires began to blur in my thinking as I thought of all the guests who have passed our way, pursuing the stories of their lives. The activiites as host follow fine divisions between seeing to real needs, pandering to whims, ignoring madness, feeding the soul, creating special spaces and offering support when guests arrive troubled.

We have found much meaning and satisfaction in setting ourselves the challenge that if guests arrive unhappy, they should leave happier. The bed and the breakfast are the practical basics: setting the tone for pleasantness, cordiality, recognition, respect and laughter of the right kind are the un-grade-able bits of the service -levels we strive to maintain. At the end of the day, relationships with guests is what makes it all worthwhile. What do such short relationships mean? Well, some friendships have developed and lasted over the years. But for the most part, when folk shake my hand as they leave, I become aware that I an unlikely to see them again, and frequently a pang of pain crosses my heart. When I first felt that, I thought it was ridiculous. Why on earth should a practical and financial exchange involve emotion of any kind? However, etymology is a worthwhile study, one of my favourites, in fact, and if we are to recognize our humanity fully, it's not so strange for carefulness, curing, traveling and shelter to mingle.

At Saint du Barrys, that's how we like it to be. We don't offer surgery, but there is a Clooney coffee machine in each room.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Saint du Barrys and poetry people

Before we moved to Clanwilliam and Saint du Barrys, I was professor of English at the NWU, on the beautiful green banks of the Vaal in Vanderbijlpark. It was a growing campus, and the tasks were many and varied. One of the teaching tasks I enjoyed was that of poetry and poetics. A bit of Chaucer, but that petered out: it wasn't even related to English, as far as the students were concerned. The Metaphysical poets, the Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats and more, and then towards and into the twentieth century, through the war poets, modernists and post-modernists. We included protest, rap, hip-hop and whatever could be relevant to students to establish a sense of verbalized awareness of their time and place. But for most, the sense of poetry had been damaged at school by boredom, irrelevance, tedium and testing. Wondering how poetry could link more directly with personal meaning, I discovered the National Association for Poetry Therapy, based in New York, and under the mentorship of Deborah Grayson and the supervisory umbrella of my faculty dean, I completed the course and became a registered poetry therapist.

In the USA, poetry therapy is often included in clinical medicine curricula as an elective, the purpose being to evoke awareness of the subjectivity of patients, so that they do not become merely defective tissue in the eyes of clinicism, to coin a word. When I'm asked what poetry therapy is my standard answer is that you must take the thickest book of poetry you can find and hit your enemy over the head with it. 

Poetry is as individual as the person who produces it, extremely versatile and probably the most direct path to that no-man's land between experience and language. 

Some people have just about no awareness of poetry and do not realize that humanity and poetics are indivisible, since poetics centres on the art of making meaning through uttered and unuttered verbalization. I wouldn't discuss this topic while bringing the bacon and egg. On the other hand, there are plenty of poetry people, and if they stay for more than twelve hours, we often find each other, especially over a glass of wine, and then discussion can flourish. For example, four ladies, all friends with each other for a long time, came to stay for three nights, and they were pleasant, sociable, literate and, moreover, they drank wine. I challenged them to write the poetry they wanted to write, and offered the first line: "The heart has three corners...:"
Two of these poems were put to writing and emerged at breakfast the next morning.

Emotions make odd friends and in these two short pieces, fun and deeply felt things rub shoulders, and that's how it often turns out, when you free up the language of your soul  in contrast to the langauge of your rationality. 

I enjoy this kind of encounter with poetry people, especially those who aren't gurus of grandiosity, but are simply willing to give one glimpses of their private words. 

Of course, if one wants to read works that are way out there in terms of achievement and beauty, here are two precious gifts that came my way:

Much of my development as a poet comes from Louis MacNiece, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rumi. And my life's teacher is Cathal Lagan, who taught me to write Irish poetry. To be Irish is to die laughing even though you're scared spitless. We'll see when the time comes. 

So if you're one of the poetry people, I'd be delighted to know. But please not when I'm bringing the bacon and egg, otherwise the others would never get served.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Preparing for Flower Season 2016

We were worried about the lack of rain since the beginning of the year, but certainly, enough has fallen in the past weeks, enough to fill our new one thousand litre tank twice, enough to water the ground and green the hills. We're expecting flowers, and maybe a longer season.

The temperature has gone cold this weekend, with snow expected on mountains all over the country, even on Table Mountain. Along with the usual heating, we've prepared extra heating, along with the electric blankets for those who feel cold more keenly than others. But the moment that the earth feels the season change, and waiting life senses the right time, the daisies will appear. In fact a few of the brave ones have already started, but I think their clock is a bit ahead.

In our fifteenth year at Saint du Barrys, we pay more and more attention to details, because love and paying attention are part of each other. Some details are obvious to guests, others aren't.

Our faithful  micro combi began to click rather than turn, and after a visit to the micro doctor, the light went out as well. So we looked for a replacement, and there it is. The other bits aren't new: the yoghurt maker, and the orange juicer, both of which have added to the home-made breakfast experience. What is new. though, is the cheese-maker, which still has to find its soul in tastes yet to come. My quest is for tongs to flip the bacon, tomato and hash-browns. The fifteen-year-old one was my favourite, but was literally losing its grip. I was delighted to find the exact replacement at Banks, as well as another kind to try out. Amazing what can excite one after fifteen years at Saint du Barrys.

Quite often we're asked where the name came from. The story is up in the dining room: Barry, the famous St Bernard from the Swiss Alps who helped travellers who were lost in the snow, especially with the barrel of brandy around his neck. The travellers make sense, but in the heat of summer, even the idea of snow melts.

What's new in Clanwilliam this year is the road, the N7. It has changed from being a precarious path to a smooth highway, shortening the drive to and from Cape Town considerably. We feel the difference, and hope it makes for safe travelling.

The season is quite full, with just a few gaps left. What's interesting this year is the number of bookings extending into 2017. It's good to see that people are looking forward to travelling, even though times are unpredictable. While we anticipate the coming season, we're looking at the new thatch, the garden circling back into itself, and appreciating the gift of living. We look forward to putting your name on our welcome board.

One more thing that's new: a guest miscalculated the height of the parking bay, and took down the beam. So that's new too...

Monday, 27 April 2015

For the love of a guest-house.

If you had told me, when I was twenty-one, and about to enter a teaching career, that I would in time to come think back over a fourteen year period as owner of a guest-house, I would not have imagined that to be the truth. But today it is the truth, and an unpredictable path has brought me here. We are in our fourteenth year of living and working at Saint du Barrys. This year has seen the most mild summer months we have yet experienced, the longest autumn warmth, and at the moment the weather is near perfect. The mornings start off cold, but the day warms up after ten o' clock, and maximum temperatures in the high twenties Celsius are forecast for the next ten days. The sky is clear. The past mornings when walking the dogs, we've seen the jet-stream high up, creating a light tear in the blue fabric.

Why would anyone want to run a guest-house? The hours are long, the work attention-intense, the required skills many and varied, the rewards often subtle. Yet they are real. I always enjoy it when guests arrive, look around, admire the tree and say, spontaneously, "This is a nice place you have!"

The rewards that I appreciate are living in an older home that has an atmosphere I won't easily get again, with the wood, the character and the quirks that make for uniqeness, meeting very many people whose natural grace and personal style have impressed me, having enjoyed many fascinating and memorable conversations, and having shared moments that speak something not quite verbalised yet emotionally valuable.

Joan says I am a city child, and often I do crave the stimulation of too many humans in one place and time, and having to tell a story that's too big for one narrative. On the other hand, the affection of a well-known tale steeped in personal pondering is an experience I would not have missed. This is the longest by far that I've lived anywhere, except for the house in which I grew up. If I wake early, I can tell the time by the relative intensity of the stillness. I know what day it is, not because of which day yesterday was, but by the background hum, or lack of it, of the rooibos factory up the hill. There are birds that start their annunciation just before the light changes. At this season, the day will be at its most cold between five to and five past eight in the morning. I know which cat is passing above me, by the sound of the floor-board and paw, even though the the touch is slight. And I can smell what Joan has created in the kitchen, today, yesterday and the day before. Once, last year I sat down in a restaurant at the V and A Waterfront and ordered a glas of dry white wine. House wine, I didn't bother to ask what it was. One small whiff, and I was certain, a sip to confirm, and yes, it was the Cederberg Cape Atlantic. Suddenly two senses of home merged.

Before long it will be time to light the fire in the office, and to sit in the lamp-light, or fire-light, depending on Eskom's ability to beathe electrons before lapsing into coma.

When you do something for long enough, you realize that your body does not occupy space: instead, the rhythmns and patterns of where you are suffuse the body. Recently field mice have taken to rushing in and out of the front door. The other day we saw one get up on its hind legs and push at the door with its forepaws. It makes you wonder who lives where.

A guest-house is a business but it's much more than that. It becomes a way of life, and that life is what we hope rubs off on guests. City-life has far too many details. Each one distracts from the other so that in the end you become part of the pace. One night in a guest-house in a small town at the foot of the Cederberg is not really adequate to formalise an experience. When I was twenty-one, I came across a good line in one of Barbra Streisand's songs: "Love takes time, I'm in a hurry..."

I have learnt the difference between hurry and no-hurry, which is definitely not the same as relaxation. No-hurry is not an escape from too much detail, but an intensification of detail. So we take pride in selecting detail so far as we can and paying attention closely to what connects.