That German fellow Schilbach, a veteran of the siege of Paris in 1870, thought that something on the banks of the Vaal reminded him of the French capital on the banks of the Seine, and hence Parys, founded in 1887, was christened. Apparently a few renegades claim that “Parys” was a shortened version of “Paradys”, the intended name originally, but I found only one source to support this.
The latter version may have been better publicity as, tragically, a walk through the northern Freestate town reminds one not even vaguely of the history and excessive romance of its European namesake.
On my only visit, Parys’ business centre felt like small-town business centres all over South Africa. Low and low-cost uniform brick-and-glass shop fronts sported Chinese porcelain or clothing specials marked in bright neon paper stars. A home ware shop window was crammed with huge towers of aluminium cooking pots teetering towards arrangements of beige stoneware crockery and enamelled containers in yellow, blue and green. The packaging of the electrical appliances was faded by the sun which beat down on the stoic little display. From a certain point of view and at the time, it was beautiful.
Now, however, having to devise a pilot episode for a new travel TV programme, the memory is slightly depressing. Christian, the… let’s call him… Executive Producer seeing that he will be picking up the tab for our venture, thought that we could create something really special with the Vaal river as central… theme. “Die Vaalrivier… Parys-Vereeniging-Vanderbijlpark,” he said, looking very pleased with himself, and leaned back, expecting approval. Well.
Laat waai Meraai.
Not that I disparage the place, you must understand. In 2005 I spent a wonderfully absurd weekend there with my brother Jules. He had dumped his live-in girlfriend and when she moved out, she reasonably took all her furniture with her. So we had to refurbish him in a short period of time, and as Parys had a reputation for fabulous second hand shops, we set off early-ish on a Saturday morning in May.
(It’s another story really, but the short version was that the second-hand-shop legend was true, the lamb chops in the restaurant were done in some MSG-laced basting sauce from the OK bazaars, the locals admitted freely that there was almost nothing to do on a Saturday night in Parys, and that the in-crowd frequently drove to Potch for a night out. Finding the Mimosa Gardens in our search for a bed for the night irrevocably dumped the weekend in the surreal-parallel-universe-dream category forever. It was marvellous.)
But to get back to my travel programme. Hopelessly optimistically I googled Parys. So much had been written about its culinary progress, it’s antique shops, golf courses and the possible adventures to be had around the Vredefort dome since our sojourn there, that I was sure I was going to be pleasantly surprised.
And so I was.
The first listing under “entertainment” on parys.info was Blockbuster Video.
It is comforting to know that even in Parys, one can get a movie from the video store and the time between sundown-braaivleis and sleep would have been taken care of. Under the circumstances, this was a very good development.
The second listing was for Heinie’s Pub, a place where one has to drink brandy-and-coke, lots of it, and fast. I know because that is where we ended up last time. We played pool in the one half while couples shuffled energetically to the 2/4 beats of Bobby Angel and Joe Dolan in the other. At about midnight, famished and quite pissed, I ran across the ice-covered tar (let no-one tell you that autumn nights in the Freestate are not cold) to the garage across the road, where they warmed up frozen jaffles in the microwave for late-night revellers with aching dancing-feet. I think jaffles are to Parys what skop is to Soweto. (Another story, again.)
The last two entertainment listings were for the Pickled Pig and the Old Ferry House Coctail (sic) Lounge of the Vaal. Parys was drinking country, for sure. It is understandable.
I decided to extend my research to other areas of interest.
On the Parys Tourism website the “introduction to Parys” reads as follows.
“Parys is a small and vibrant town in South Africa. We are on the banks of the Vaal River 120km South of Johannesburg. We have 4 antique shops, 5 art galleries, 19 restaurants, about 37 resorts/B&B’s and 6 river rafting operators. We have a unique character, interesting buildings, friendly people and true plattelandse (country side) tranquility.”
The blurb (verbatim) is accompanied by three photographs of the same quaint little yellow house. Two other pictures showed some buildings that were really neither “unique in character” nor “interesting”. I should not have pitched my hopes so high.
I decided to look for inspiration elsewhere.
Vereeniging was slightly harder work than Parys. If she was a girl, Vereeniging would have had the hard-to-get thing down pat. It would have been part of her mother’s instructions on how to get a guy without having to read “The Rules” after she turned 40.
But speaking of hotels… one website only listed two “top rated hotels” in Vereeniging and the list included the Formula 1. Hmm. I wondered if we could turn this one into lemonade. The “things to do” and “nightlife” pages on the same site both invited potential reviewers to add a review of… something, so if it was possible to shoot an out-of-the-box episode of a travel show in Vereeniging, I still had to discover how. The homepage assured me that there were two (2) people living there, so I took a little break.
I called my friend Blanca to remind her of our Sunday date. I shared my woes and she tried to help. It turned out that her mother had a friend that used to work at Emerald City Casino and Resort, and a light went on in my head. Imagine Riaan our presenter (let’s call him) in a tuxedo (the shirt must have a big frill down the front and the bowtie must be big, blue and velvet) surrounded by old people in shirts with palm trees shoving coins into one-armed bandits. Could this make 24 minutes of television? I thought not, but some humour filtered through the clouds. If it was not immoral to glamorise dropping the dregs of a pension fund into the slots of an insanely lit and incredibly noisy machine, I might have considered it.
I pressed on. I found the “Vaal Meander” website which proved that there was some rainbow-nation culture to be experienced along the banks of the river. History from the Anglo Boer War and its end with the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902, to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 could be commemorated while cruising gently down the (recently, apparently) sewage/industrially contaminated water, wondering why one does not get out of Johannesburg more often.
Parys… the Riviera on Vaal Country Club and the Vaal de Grace Golf estate… a dirty, polluted river was perfect to complete the Francophone metaphor. Oh yes. The old people (did I say that our programme would be aimed at pensioners?) were going to love this.
What was it that Christian hoped that we would find here? It only took one day of surfing the web for me to call him. Even I could hear the shallow panic in my voice. “There are only two people living in Vereeniging, Blanca’s mother’s friend says the river cruises are not pensioner-friendly and the premier entertainment listing in Parys is the video shop,” I told him.
He thought. “I am going with my instinct here,” he said. “Let’s do the Vaal river.”
I wanted to beat him really badly. But that would not have been constructive.
Instead, I tried to image the show, to see it. It was not the same as Going Nowhere Slowly – the old people would have really suffered in that car. I thought of my own experience… of breakfast at the cafe outside the Mimosa Gardens, light reflecting in diamonds on the river and the chrome of Harley Davidsons parked in formation facing the road. At a long table close to us the bike owners, Jozi weekend riders (‘tourists’), flexed their tussled black leather and Ferragamo shades to the rhythm of the willows rustling over the water.
There is something there, I almost had it, then. Now it is just a matter of going back to find it.