(okay, and the odd milkshake….)
There was once a well known song called Ramona, it was sung by Louis Armstrong and Jim Reeves… It was sweetly sentimental, lamenting the loss of a girl by the same name… For me, Ramona does not conjure images of a dark haired Mediterranean woman, with a big dark eyes and hairy legs, but instead that of the smells of heavenly pastries, greek shortbread and french eclairs…
Years and years ago there was a well known bakery in Uitenhage called Ramona. It was owned by a Greek family who had opened it in the early 50′s and ran it for the next fifty years. Over this period the shop became something of an institution. I was introduced to the bakery as a baby, not so much to be fed pies or pastries, as much as to be introduced to anyone who happened to be there sipping tea or having a slice of cream cake. My grandmother would wheel my identical twin and myself into the shop, push the elaborate double perambulator past the gleaming counters and talk to anyone who would take note of the two of us or the commotion she was creating with her unusual push-pram.
As a young boy my parents would go to town, often splitting up to go to the bank or buy necessities and would meet up afterwards at Ramona for a cup of tea and a scone or pastry.
By the time I was at high school, I would stop by for a chocolate eclair or a sausage roll before spending languid afternoons at the municipal library during holidays.
The shop had the fifties written all over it. Green and Red Formica tables and chairs in shiny chrome frames decked the checkerboard floor, and large wooden framed posters of different sights around Greece adorned the shiny white walls. In the center of the restaurant, a section of the ceiling was raised to double volume in white painted wood and glass, creating a distinct feel you were in a menagerie or Edwardian greenhouse.
Over the years very little changed in the shop. It became a sort of 1950′s time capsule. The bakery made every conceivable pastry and cake, but to me, their most extraordinary accomplishment was their pies. Sausage rolls, chicken pies, steak and kidney pies, all baked to a kind of perfection I have never been able to find again. Not even during the 6 months traveling in Greece.
But alas, by the mid nineties the traditional clientele had dwindled, as the town center had become dirty and unsafe. Middle class whites who usually frequented the bakery, started avoiding inner town and limited their visits to the absolute essential. Ramona had become a fading jewel in a sea of slow decay. People only dashed in and out to make quick purchases and what used to be a charming restaurant from a bygone time, had become a fast food joint where nobody bothered to sit down for a chat or take in the now-faded surroundings.
The shop closed in the late nineties. But before it did, I went there with my father and we shared a pot of tea and scones, at the same table we had over the decades. The huge wooden framed posters were gone, but despite the absence of decoration, there was, as usual, an abundance of things to discuss. What we spoke about, I cannot recall, but I do recall two birds fluttering above in the white space beneath the glass roof and I could not decide whether they were nesting or had become trapped or both. But apart from the two birds, and us, the restaurant was mostly deserted.
As we were about to leave, the owner passed by our table and stopped by to say hello. She remembered my grandmother and my twin and the double pram. I was rather shocked that she was still alive, as I remembered how old she was when I was a boy – 35 years on she was now so old, she had become something of a relic. She spoke about how many people had asked her for the recipes for her pies and pastries, but sadly, she was not ready to part with them. I would not dream of asking for them anyway, as its just not something I would have the audacity to do.
But, perhaps responding to her own feelings of lament, or perhaps realizing just how much I loved her bakery, she said she had something she wanted to give me. She took me to the back, and there, covered in dust, she pointed to some frames, and told me I could choose any two of the framed pictures which had hung on the walls of her bakery for so many years.
I was quite taken by her gesture. I chose the large photo of the talking fishermen, set against the background of an ancient Greek fishing village, and another one which showed details of the columns of the temple of Delphi, basking in glorious bright sunlight. Both of them had ‘Griechenland’ in large times new roman typeface written at the bottom, and had the distinct feel that they were from a bygone era. And of course, they were.
I hung these pictures in my eclectic lounge in my Johannesburg apartment, and would often think about them as objects, which over the years, had become permanently permeated in the warm scent of baking pastries, the buzzing sounds of customers talking about their day and the sights grandmothers showing off the latest addition to their family.
These were not just pictures. They were a part of my own recollections and memories growing up in apartheid South Africa. They were a part of me, a part of the town and its people, and a part of our family.
Ramona would forever define my idea of extraordinary pastries and baked treats. It had defined the many hours I would spend in town, and it defined a huge slice of my childhood. What was left on my wall was the collective memories of people who had over the years passed through its doors, and the collective memory of the pictures themselves, which together with the warm smell of baking pastries, were part of an extraordinary fifties relic called Ramona.
The pictures echoed, albeit in a very different context, the sentimental lyrics of that Armstrong song :
I dread the dawn
When I awake to find you gone
I made you my own.
Yes, I too had a love affair with Ramona, the smell of her pies on my hands, the taste of her puff pastries on my lips… and even though she is long gone, I am privileged to say, I had a chance to make her my own…