By Graham Clifford
Piet’s back is bent, his eyes focussed. With one hand he slowly tips the jug of warm milk into the orange cup. The other holds a spoon in case he needs to help the white foamy liquid on its way. Carefully he combines artistry with method to produce the perfect flat white. He straightens up with the look of satisfaction. Concentration gives way to contentment. A barista at one with his artwork.
It’s a busy afternoon in the Heron Café in Fermoy – a town which has become home to the South African who grew up near the border with the small landlocked nation of Lesotho.
“In many ways my home town was the Fermoy of South Africa. Ladybrand is a town build around an agricultural company. It has a larger population than Fermoy but still everyone knows everyone,” explains Piet.
In school, sports-mad Piet spoke both english and Afrikaans.
With his studies finished he applied for a two-year-work visa for the UK and in 2008, swapped hemispheres.
In Winchester, Piet worked as a carer for a disabled student studying at the local university. And in November 2009 first got to know Charlotte from Chester who would become his wife.
“Two months after we met I had to return to South Africa as my visa was due to expire. So for three-years we continued a long distance relationship. It was difficult, but with technology we could Skype all the time and when we had holidays from work and university, we’d visit each other,” he recalls.
After Charlotte graduated she moved to South Africa and in 2013 the couple married in Bloemfontein.
But where to live and settle down?
“It would have been very difficult for me to move to the UK because of visa requirements or for Charlotte to live in South Africa. So we thought perhaps Ireland might be the best option. Friends in England who are in the Presbyterian Church, of which we are members, told us about Cork. So on January 17th, 2016 we moved to Ireland after selling up everything we had in South Africa. It was the start of a new and exciting chapter in our lives together. In many ways I feel that we didn’t choose Fermoy, but that Fermoy chose us,” says Piet.
Initially the couple lived with friends in Kilworth as they tried to settle.
“I’d worked in the travel agency business in Durban and had hoped to do the same in Ireland. I found though that once employers learned you were from outside the EU and didn’t have references from other Irish employers, they lost interest.”
But when a new café opened in Pearse Square in Fermoy Piet’s luck was to change.
“In August 2016, I walked through the doors of the Heron to meet Dee (Deirdre McCarthy) who owns the business and she was fantastic. I began working as a trainee barista and I’m still here. The café has grown in the hearts of the people of Fermoy and I love working here,” Piet told The Avondhu.
And because of the nature of the business Piet has been able to make more connections than he could have imagined. He plays indoor soccer at the Loreto sports hall and goes hiking with friends.
“Initially I think people are cautious. They hear my accent and are polite but perhaps a little wary. But as they keep coming into the café they get to know me, ask more questions and a friendship develops. Charlotte works in the Three mobile shop in Fermoy, so both of us are dealing with people everyday and, as a result, know so many locals now,” says Piet.
And what of the future?
Piet explains: “At the moment I have a permanent visa which is valid for five years. So in three years I will be able to apply for citizenship which is what I intend to do. This is our home now where one day we hope to raise a family.”
And when that citizenship arrives Piet has a novel way of dealing with an inevitable future conflict. “If I’m in the Aviva Stadium to watch Ireland play the Springboks I’ll wear my South African jersey and Irish cap. That way I can’t lose!”