The secret lives of people

2013-11-03 06:00

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Andre, the security guard from Congo, is teaching me French – one word at a time.

Today’s word of the day is see-voo-ple (spelled s’il vous plait, by those in the know), which means please.

He wants me to teach him “American English” but I refuse. Nee, sies.

I’ve tried to explain to him that his Francophone accent is sexy. But alas, he refuses to see reason.

The other day our daily chat ventured beyond the conventions of language.

He told me about the Italian guy who bought the powder-blue house down the road for R8 million, cash.

Apparently the man likes to have limos filled with women, well-lubricated with vodka, delivered to the double-storey house when his wife visits family abroad.

Once, he greased Andre’s palm with R2 000 in crisp notes – discretion comes at a price.

The guy is said to be “a king” of sorts back in Italy, Andre explained.

This brought back memories of a story I covered for the Sunday Times two years ago.

It wasn’t used very big in the paper at the time but it captivated me, sending my imagination full circle in a delighted puppy rush.

It’s rather sad, actually.

On April 18 2011, news broke that 47-year-old Pietro Ferrero, heir to the Italian Ferrero chocolate-making empire, had died in a freak cycling accident on a coastal road outside Cape Town.

He had a heart attack and crashed his bike at the foot of the Twelve Apostles mountain range between Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

Pietro was the joint chief executive of the Ferrero Group (producer of the famous gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher sweets, Nutella spread, Kinder, Tic Tacs, etc) and was to inherit the fortune along with his brother, Giovanni.

Pietro’s grandfather (also named Pietro Ferrero) founded the family-run company in the town of Alba in Northern Italy in 1942.

He secured their wealth during the Second World War when he supplemented chocolate, scarce and expensive at the time, with hazelnut, which they had in abundance.

Since then the Ferrero Group has grown into a formidable enterprise described as the “one of the world’s most secretive firms”, and said to be richer than disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Pietro junior’s death in South Africa shattered the family’s privacy somewhat, revealing puzzle pieces of the secret life they lead in Cape Town.

At the time a deeds search revealed that the Ferrero family owned a couple of homes along the city’s Atlantic Seaboard, the coast-hugging stretch of high-rises and bling villas between the V&A Waterfront and Hout Bay.

The family’s main base was a stone and glass mansion set high against Chapman’s Peak in Hout Bay.

I set out to find the house soon after Pietro’s death. The gate was open and I ventured in; I remember crossing a small bridge over a koi pond to get to the front door.

The foyer was filled with huge sombre arrangements of white flowers.

Their South African housekeeper was friendly but firm.

She asked me to please respect the family’s grief, to leave them be. I voiced my condolences and left.

The Ferreros also owned three neighbouring mansions perched on cliffs overlooking Victoria Road in Bantry Bay; notably the pastel blue one that resembles a fortress.

At the time, I climbed up a steep flight of steps etched into the mountainside to ring an intercom outside the candy blue fortress.

An old lady answered. She wouldn’t let me in, but explained that the Ferreros bought the property from her some years earlier. She had an agreement with them to stay there until she died.

Nice, decent people, she said.

I believe the lady has since passed away.

Back in my street in De Waterkant, Andre had finished the cup of coffee I’d brought him.

He tells me that the other security guards are jealous of the friendships he has cultivated with people in the area – particularly with women. I laugh.

One day when our friendship is deeper I will ask him about his past. How did he end up in South Africa? What is the secret of his infectious friendliness?

The secret lives of people. Fascinating.

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