Le TEMPS Geneva - Les Suisses dans le monde
The Swiss expats in the World " 16 December 2006 I Article
Jacqueline Castella Pujol in English
In Upington she is called Jackie. Her clients are her guests; her cooking
is as renown as is her hospitality. At 62 years of age, Jacqueline
Castella Pujol wagered on opening a guest house in South Africa in a
region forgotten by tourist guides. Nine years later, she wouldn't go
back for anything in the world.
Samedi 16 décembre 2006
Jean-Fred Bourquin, Upington. Traduction: Sylvia Hottinger
Jacqueline Castella Pujol's story is one of those we like to tell. It is so emblematic,
both extraordinary and close to us. It's a story that makes us question the choices
we made in
our own lives and in order to grasp its substance, it deserves to be told in detail.
Let's rewind. With her retirement close, Jacqueline had sustained some dreams:
of the South, of the sun in French Provence or in the Lot et Garonne. But for this
woman of action with her strong personality, the sun didn't mean sweet do nothing
or peaceful days shared with other retirees. She needed a project. It came to her in
December 1996, six months before retirement, through a young friend, an airplane
pilot who wanted to open a guest house in South Africa. She offered to accompany
her. It was the detonator and the beginning of an adventure she had never imagined.
"We visited several sites and finally came to this corner at the west of the country. The air
is dry and it is sunny and warm ten months out of twelve per year. Not far from Upington are the magnificent desert landscapes of the Kalahari, Namibia and Botswana."
The two friends visited about forty houses. None suited. But, once they returned to Switzerland, Jacqueline made her mind up. She was going to open a guest house in Upington, a small town of 70.000 inhabitants that resembles those of the US and Canada. A sort of oasis, supplied with water of the Orange River, nested in a long verdant fracture in the midst of pebble filled vastness. With upriver and downstream vines covering each lot irrigated by the river and that are the producers of the wine of Oranjeriver Cellars. The big prize.
A horizon of uncertainties was taking shape in front of this woman from Neirivue, Fribourg. But she had begun and nothing would stop her. Her daughter lives in the US and Jacqueline would be able to see her two sisters and friends regularly. There was a house that may suit. Jacqueline immediately went to Upington and discovered what she had hoped to find. An architect's abode that offered all the potential she needed for development.
That was in May 1997. With no doubts, Jacqueline started the immigration formalities, she resigned from her job and cancelled the lease on her apartment. Her friend gave up on the project. Jacqueline found herself alone in South Africa in a town she didn't know and into which she was going to invest a big amount of her savings.
At the end of November, a big container was deposited at the foot of the building of chemin de Bellevue in Lausanne. Family furniture, knick-knacks, papers, books, records, pieces of sting, mopeds and furniture picked up here and there: all was carefully stacked into the enormous metal case. It would all remain locked up for three months with some local cheese included. Her one way plane ticket was booked.
February 1998, Jacqueline was finally summoned to the South African Embassy in Bern for the final immigration formalities. The following day, she took the airplane. "I was both excited and anxious. I was afraid I wouldn't manage. One of my sisters decided to come with me. I must admit that she was a comfort."
The works began immediately and restrained the clients welcome for over a year. The financial situation was becoming tense. Also the guest house had to make itself known. The sign of "The Fugue" is a reminder of having left Switzerland and most of all of the music and many concerts Jacqueline had given during her twenty years as a member of the Choir of la Cité.
In May her daughter announced her intention of getting married and wanted to speak to her about it. So she made a trip to the US with a stopover in Switzerland. With a friend she decided to buy a lottery ticket and split the winnings. Three days later, Jacqueline rescued in extremis the lottery ticket from the laundry and consulted the newspaper where she found out in a daze that she and another winner had won the big prize. In a beautiful gesture of generosity her friend refused to split the winnings and only asked for a small part of the profits in exchange. This welcome manna allowed Jacqueline to expand her guesthouse and to install a new swimming pool. Life grants unexpected gifts to those who learn how to take risks.
April 1999, the welcoming of guests was really able to begin. The house has 6 units and can host 14 people. It has beautiful rooms and two bungalows in an exotic garden. There are also secluded spaces. There is a big woodened straw hut and a hatch cottage for the aperitif and meals. The choice of place is suitable. Exceptional and natural sites are close by and tourism isn't very developed. "I was looking for a quality of life and certain spirituality.
For over twenty years, I was involved in intense activity and under numerous pressures. My life didn't have enough meaning. My activities were interesting but I had the impression that I got lost in them. City life exhausted me. I didn't have the time to think of my life, of old age or death either. I was really scared of dying. Nowadays I'm less nervous about it. I've organized my life for the years to come. I plan to die here… but it's still far away!" It's true that this energetic woman who is always on the move does not look her 71 years of age. With a master hand she directs her team; she does her groceries herself, cooks, manages the accounts, prepares parties and organizes her guests' trips to Kahalari. Dresses and suits are stored away to be replaced by bathing suits and colored beach
scarves. Jacqueline has a beautiful collection of them.
During her first few years in South Africa, Jacqueline rode a moped like she had done in Lausanne. But the huge distances and many comings and goings that her work demands were the death of her moped. At 68 years of age, she acquired her first car, a beautiful old automatic Mercedes. Once she passed the theory part of her driving test, she still had to learn how to drive. But circumstances didn't allow her the time to do so. One day the moped broke down when she had to be somewhere urgently. In order to do so, she decided to take the car, come what may, and throw herself into Upington's happily slow traffic.
She tells her story with a touch of pride. She has been in worse situations and she has enough personal resources to get out of many of them. "I'm happy as I am. With a house like this I always have some project on. I've obtained the four star status and have to fight to keep it. The demands to do so are increasingly strict."
Switzerland is 9000 kilometers away. Does she miss her country?
"Not the country, but cultural life. There are no theatres or or concert halls nor exhibits here. In Lausanne I had an active cultural life. To compensate I have developed a certain conviviality. This house is not a business. I want people to feel at home. I like to please and look after them. When I was at work I had no time for my family or friends. I'm making up for lost time although I'm a bit sad that my daughter is so far away and that I'm not able to see my grand children grow up."
And the political situation here? And the racial question?
"I came here after the end of apartheid in 1993. It was therefore easier. Here in Upington, 30% are white. They have kind of a hold on quite a bit of the economy, like in most parts of South Africa. Many of the blacks and colored are still living in poor villages and townships kilometers away from the big cities. Public transport is nearly non-existent, except for wild cabs on weekdays, on week-ends and holidays Jackie is doing the taxi for her staff .The only bus that runs properly is the one that goes to fetch the people in the townships to take them to gamble at the new casino. It's a scandal.
Black and white people live side by side but don't socialize very much with each other. Social and economic differences are still huge. The relationships between black and colored are very tense. National government and regional and town authorities are mostly all black and value negritude. The safety problems are still acute. In the big towns the pople barricade themselves up. There are still many break-ins, rapes and crimes."
Behind the palm trees, sheltered from the noise of the world, in Jacqueline Castella Pujol's house resounds the magnificent "Noura donna di Morteze", Abbe Bovet's hymn to Notre Dame Des Marches de Broc, Our Lady of the Steps of Broc. With her sister Raymonde, who has come over for a few weeks, she is leafing through the booklet of the Fête des Vignerons of 1905 which bears a dedication by the composer. Their grand father Clement Castella played the role of the sewer. On the wall hangs the loïe he wore for the occasion. A corner of French Speaking Switzerland can be found in South Africa. In a few hours time, some members of Pretoria's government will arrive to stay for a few days at "a La Fugue."
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