Let me tell you a little story. Exactly half my lifetime ago, I sat on a French TGV train a lot like this one I’m on now. On that occasion, speeding from Paris to Bordeaux, the swaying coach made me queasy and bored. And I said to the man who was my partner then, “Let’s just get off at the next stop. Take a break.” So break we did in a pretty town called Blois.
We spent two-and-three-quarter hours there before the next train came. Walked around and climbed the cathedral stairs and indulged in a monstrous ice cream sundae I was too nauseous to do justice to. It was a public holiday. Almost every shop and tourism attraction was shuttered up tight. There was not a soul to be seen, apart from that bored ice cream madame.
This still being the Apartheid era with sanctions in place, very few South Africans had left our shores. So there was much curiosity when we got home: “You saw all of Europe in six weeks. What was the best bit?”
I listened in reciprocal curiosity to my own, surprising answer: “There was this town called Blois. I don’t know anything about it, but I felt I had come home. That was very definitely my highlight of the whole trip.”
Working as a travel journalist, I was writing a feature on the Cape Winelands town of Franschhoek. “Did you know yours is a Huguenot name?” asked the museum curator. “Would you like us to trace your ancestry?”
This is what they revealed: on New Year’s eve of 1687, two brothers found themselves on a ship setting off from Holland to the Cape. Refugees, seeking the freedom of religion that had been revoked by France’s ruling Catholics, they had been taken in by the Dutch who, feeling a little crowded by this migrant crisis, offered them free land and seed at their little vegetable garden at the southern end of Africa.
The deal: no two French farms side by side, and you must go to the Dutch church.
Very quickly those French got absorbed into what would become the Boer or Afrikaner community. But not before they’d brought viniculture to the Cape.
And those two Le Roux ancestors of mine?
They drowned. Both of them. In the Berg (Mountain) river that separated their farms. One had waded across the flood-swollen stream to visit his brother and had been swept away. The other had jumped in to save him. And lost his own life.
But at least one of their wives was pregnant, and they already had plenty of kids between them.
With that news of my heritage, our family coat of arms – the one my grandfather made from Plaster of Paris and yellowed with egg yolk – finally, finally made sense. LE ROUX CONSTANTIA BLOIS. (Only, in my profound South African ignorance, I’d always read it out loud as Blow-is, little knowing it was the name of a place.)
All my life, growing up in our tribe-and-race obsessed nation, I’ve been asked “Why do you have an Afrikaner name but you’re an English speaker?” Now, living in Laos, a former French colony, I am so often asked, “Why do you have a French name but you’re an English speaker?”
Tonight this English-speaking African who lives in Asia returns to her European ancestral birthplace.