07 February 2011 by Chris Marais

A Distant Frenchman

South Africa is a giant muddle-pudding of people.

Take me, for starters. My surname - Marais - means ‘swamp’ in French. Or ‘bogs’, if you listen to my mates. My wife the greenie prefers to call me ‘water meadow’.

Anyhow, being Marais has led to some interesting encounters in my travels over the years. In Madagascar, they treated me like I was a famous French travel writer. When they found out I was a Marais who couldn’t parlez a word of Francais, they stalked off into the middle distance.

Mauritius? Same story. Paris? Don’t ask.

And when you try to explain that you’re from Huguenot stock, that you were never exposed to the French language, that there’s more African in you than French, they flip you that fateful ‘too much information’ gesture.

Except for New Orleans. There, everyone has a French surname and no one can speak French. Cool. Except if you’re a Cajun, then you speak a French patois that rolls off the tongue like a good day’s fishing on the bayou.

To make things even more complicated, my wife Julienne is a Du Toit - also Huguenot. But she can get by in French, so she can busk it. She’s also a descendant of one of South Africa’s most famous slaves, Angela of Bengalia. A Marais or a Du Toit in South Africa is expected to speak Afrikaans.

I’ve got an Afrikaans mate called Jenkins, another English friend called Kriel, and I know a Holomisa who was once a Holmes. I personally think we’re all part of the same family.

So me, I’m a South African ‘pavement special’. But that’s OK - hybrid vigour rules. The open road before me - and those glorious mountains in the distance - are all I’m thinking about. And that’s just enough…

Category: Culture & History

comments powered by Disqus