A little touch of zugunruhe in the morning

I was walking down Main Road in my neighbourhood this week, my head full of salt air and pleasant nothing, when a man in a doorway said, “Hey, remember me?”

I did remember him. Last year during rugby season I took my mother to see the Springboks play at Newlands. The train from town was thick with rugby fans and I fell to talking with a large man in the seat across from me. He lived somewhere in the far small-town north of the country and had just arrived that morning. He told me that he had been the manager of his father’s restaurant, but one day he had grown tired of his dad telling him what to do, tired of his ex-wife asking him to fix the gate of the house where she lives with her new boyfriend, tired of looking at the same sights and seeing the same faces and driving the same streets to work, so he put his house keys and cellphone in an envelope and left it in the safe, took money from the cash register and sold his father’s bakkie and set out for as far as he could go.

He arrived with just a small tog-bag and knew no one in Cape Town and the seaside winter was damper than he expected, but his eyes were bright and he said it was months since last his heart felt so light. He told me he’d done this some years before: he went to Port Elizabeth and made new friends and it had been a happy time. If he’d been so happy, why had he returned up north? He shrugged. “It was time to go back,” he said.

We were already almost at Newlands so we didn’t speak much more, but he did have time to tell me that when eating a hamburger you should turn it upside down so that your tongue gets to taste the cheese and relish and pickle, rather than wasting them against the roof of your mouth. Then I went to the rugby and didn’t think about him again until a month or so ago when I turned a burger upside down. He was right – it did taste much better. But you don’t want to be the guy flipping his burger upside-down in public, so now if I’m at a sit-down burger joint I request that my cheese and condiments be placed underneath the patty. Try it yourself and see.

While I ate my burger I wished I’d told him about zugunruhe – one of those German words for which there’s no good English translation. In The Snow Geese William Fiennes tells how the German naturalist Johann Andreas Naumann coined it to describe the restlessness of a migratory bird when it’s time to move. Even in isolation from other birds, even kept shut away from such seasonal cues as solar position and air temperature, garden warblers start hopping about at the beginning of each autumn, shuffling and anxious to be going. At the same time that their uncaged fellow warblers are flying south-west from Germany to Spain, the caged warblers hop in a south-westerly direction. Just at the time the warblers on the wing turn southwards across the straits of Gibraltar into Morocco, warblers in their cage start hopping toward the south. It’s an unknowing pull, a travelling song of the blood, something inchoate and ancient sewn into their genes.

When we met again this week he was standing in the doorway of the Holiday Hotel, which is apparently what a residential hotel calls itself these days. Right now a room there will set you back R260 a night, but in winter it drops to R120, and weekly rates are cheaper still. It’s one of those places that make me pleased to live in Sea Point. Effortlessly side by side with expensive beachfront apartments and swanky hotels lousy with Euro-tourists coming south for our summer, it’s a place where travelling salesmen and divorced dads and Ivorian single moms and optimistic Kenyan businessmen can find a clean, well-lit home, a roost where lost birds blown astray can rest awhile and furl their wings and gather themselves.

I greeted him and asked how he was.

He’s good, he said, and I told him he looked good. He said he has a girlfriend now, and he might have a job. I told him he was right about the burgers, but I didn’t mention zugunruhe. I didn’t ask him how long he’d be staying, or if he felt restless yet, or how long he thought it would take. I didn’t ask him how it feels to act so easily on your impulses or if it’s frightening to be so free. I didn’t think he could tell me, and it’s not my place to ask.

Times, 4 February 2015