When strangers photograph your laundry


What must it be like to live in a town or an area overrun by tourists who wield their cameras and selfie sticks like weapons of mass revelation? You hang out your washing, and someone takes a picture. You go to the market, and get stuck behind a visitor photographing the pumpkins. You go out for a card game with your mates, and the people at the next table surreptitiously record the interaction. Cause they’re all in search of the elusive off-the-beaten-track experience. Authentic Italy. Secret Paris. Dublin where the locals go.

Do those places even exist? Take Venice as an example. I read that the city has 58 000 residents; more than 20 million tourists visit every year. Where can 58 000 go where 20 million have not been already? Sure there are quiet streets and residential areas that are not really pic-worthy. But even there the tourists venture (I know, cause we did in an attempt to escape the milling crowds).

In such quiet backstreets in Lucca, we ran into a man dressed only in shorts and freshly fragrant from his shower, nipping out to empty his rubbish bin. I felt we were intruding and wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of that mundane domestic moment. People deserve to put out their trash in private.

They also deserve to not have their laundry photographed as part of a typical Italian street scene. They definitely deserve to have their dinner without strangers traipsing past their windows.

A quiet Sunday morning – or not?

Before this trip, I never realised just how intrusive tourism can be. Of course it is a massive industry without which many countries – let alone tiny medieval villages perched on hilltops in the middle of nowhere – would not survive. And it would be hypocritical for someone who’s just spent three months travelling to make a case against it. But the fact is that the more people travel, and the more tourists are being advised to avoid the tourist traps and the beaten track, the more they will intrude upon other people’s domestic routines.

As we walked through Burano – the tiny Venetian island famous for linen and lace – I wondered whether the residents have regular meetings about maintaining their island’s picture-perfectness. Surely they have to agree on the colours to paint their houses, who hangs out their laundry when, and who is allowed to buy a tumble dryer. Maybe there is an official record of the decision that allows residents to protect their privacy by hanging a piece of fabric in front of their open shutters. Or maybe they just did it off their own collective bat when the prying eyes became too much.

Tourists expect the locals to embrace them warmly in exchange for their dollars, yen, yuan, pounds and euros. I did too, before this trip. Now I understand a bit better why the bus driver in Pisa gave the Dutch couple a little lecture about coming to Italy and not being able to say where they want to go in Italian. English is not the universal language we think it is. And I suspect refusing to speak it is, in some cases at least, the stand ordinary people take against being treated like characters in someone’s travel memoir.

Not that I’m happy for the lady at the Lucca train station to treat me like I’m unworthy of the time of day, but I can understand that it’s the end of a long summer and that she’s probably had enough of people asking the same questions when they could have read the schedule (yeah, me too!).

Every plane, bus, train and cruise ship bring a fresh wave visitors, all demanding a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s only fair to spare a thought, and a little empathy, for the ordinary men and women who are expected to provide the local colour while getting on with their lives.

As we come to the end of our magnificent adventure, I want to thank the woman in the pizzzeria in Lucca who responded with such kindness to the post-it note on which I had written the Google-translated request for a sprig of rosemary. Also the Frenchman who, without us even asking, interrupted his walk along the Seine to explain how the public bicycle rentals work in Paris. Thank you too, bus driver in Rome, for telling us where to get off the bus and then, when you saw us unfold the map, for hooting and pointing out the street we should turn into.

Thanks to you, and the countless other “ordinary” people, our trip has been richer than any number of museum visits could have made it. Thank you also for making me aware of my responsibility to tread lightly and respectfully when I cross your threshold.

You fish, I photograph


Changing with the season



It astounds me to realise that we’ve spent a whole season in a different part of the world. We arrived about 12 weeks ago to days that were getting warmer and were already much, much longer than we are used to. Sunset at 22:30 took some getting used to!

These days it’s dark by 20:30. The leaves are starting to turn and today in a park I noticed how many had been shed already. The crowds are also thinning. Literally overnight, here in Lucca, there are noticeably less people in the medieval streets and under the restaurant umbrellas on the piazzas. The last weekend in August is proving to be as significant as we’d been told almost from the start of our trip. August is the busiest holiday month in Europe, people said, but from the 20th onwards, holidaymakers start returning to work and schools reopen. We can see it happening here, and it drives home the realisation that as summer is ending, so too our trip is drawing to a close.

It is a complex thought to deal with. The past 84 days feel like both a lifetime and the blink of an eye. When I let my thoughts wander through everything we’ve experienced, the incredible richness of it all is almost too much to comprehend. But it has gone quickly too.

As the time approaches to pack our suitcases one final time, I am increasingly grateful that we are not going home in the sense of returning to the place where we used to live. I feel too much of a different person to simply fall back into the life I’ve had before. The fact that we get to choose a new home, is a tremendous gift at the end of this experience. We’ve started looking at rental properties currently available, and there are a number that, at least on paper, could fit our bill. That’s exciting; a whole new adventure on which to embark. Having packed up everything and left once before, has also freed us from the mental shackles that often add weight to the decision on where to live. We know it is not the biggest decision we will ever make. This place won’t be forever; we can change our minds again if we want, and that is hugely liberating.

On a more personal note, I’m evolving towards a new hairstyle. That sounds odd, I know. My last cut-and-colour was on the day we left South Africa (31 May). In the meantime, my hair has grown long enough to be clipped into a “bun” behind my head – quick, easy and out of my face. My natural colour is also clearly visible for the first time in years. There’s more grey than I would have liked, but over the past number of weeks I’ve come to accept that, and am now rather curious to see what I will look like without the highlights that have been part of my life for about two decades. I’m being reintroduced to my own hair… It feels significant, hence I’m not feeling the need to dash off to the hairdresser as soon as we land. In fact, I’ve just about decided that a new hairdresser would be a good move too.

On a practical level, I’m planning to leave behind some of the clothes I brought. I’ve done so already with a pair of boots and a pair of jeans left behind in Dublin. By this time next week a pair of shorts and possibly two tops and a scarf will also be history. And almost definitely one pair of Sketchers shoes. The summer clothes I brought have served their purpose; they’ve been worn and washed many times. I’m ready to dress my new life differently.

I don’t know yet what that new life will be like once we’re back in Johannesburg. But as the season changes around me in many ways, big and small, I feel ready to find out. Most importantly, I am determined to not squander this moment by stepping back into the ways that once were.

Riding in cars with boys (and girls)



The service is called BlaBlaCars and I vaguely remember having heard of it before.

The concept is simple: a person travelling between two destinations lets others know, through a website, that there are seats available in the vehicle. For a nominal fee, you can hop in and share the ride.

It’s a bit like a cross between Uber and AirBnB, I guess. Drivers and passengers only communicate via the platform until the ride has been agreed and payment has been made. The driver receives payment at the end of the trip, once the passenger shares the code he or she received after booking and paying through the website. Both drivers and passengers rate one another, and you get to learn a little bit about the person you are about to share a vehicle with through their account profile.

Today was our first introduction to BlaBlaCars. We wanted to visit Albi, a sizeable city about 80km from Toulouse, renowned for its historic town centre and, specifically, its cathedral and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec art collection.

There is a train service between Toulouse and Albi but at €14.10 per person one way, it was just too expensive. Enter BlaBlaCars. For about €24 both of us travelled there and back, in the company of friendly, interesting people, and it was all really convenient.

Our driver from Toulouse to Albi was Cyril, a young personal trainer and the fitness coach of the Albi Rugby Club. He lives in Toulouse and commutes every day. On most days, he tells us, he has paying passengers in the car. The system covers his travel expenses, and is a “moneybox” for him.

Our return trip was courtesy of Manojo, a woman who looks barely old enough to drive, let alone be a procurement and logistics manager for Airbus. Currently on a one-year placement in Tunisia, she’s on holiday in France at the moment and has revived the BlaBlaCar account she’s had since her student days.

Our experience today prompted thoughts about a world that is at odds. In certain parts of it, people are killing each other in the name of religion or ideology – perceived differences that are deemed insurmountable. in too many countries, politicians trade on this “otherness” to incite hate and fear. In our own homeland the most recent election campaign carried messages of division like so many albatrosses around its neck.

And yet, at the level where people get on with their lives, strangers are willing to step into intimate spaces with each other. The interior of a car is really close quarters. Add to that a significant language barrier and you have the potential for an awkward hour on the road. But it was ok. All involved had a “problem” they wanted to solve, and could agree on the terms of the solution. With Cyril there was hardly any conversation because of our non-existent French and his very basic English. Manojo could express herself far better and was a more gregarious character, but even in that car there were long periods of silence – and it was all fine.

What does this mean? I don’t know. All I do know is that today I again had the opportunity to be reminded that there is not a single story when it comes to human relationships. We are not all friends, but we are also not all foes; despite the horrors visited upon us by minorities that insist on philosophies that exclude, we still find ways to share our lives and, in so doing, our intersecting journeys become richer, easier and more interesting .

A window on Toulouse


We’re getting three bites at the French cherry on this trip. Toulouse is our second taste. Since our first introduction to France in Royan, the terrible attack in Nice happened. Here, in the third largest city in France, we experience some of the fallout. Heavily – and obviously – armed soldiers patrol the streets at random intervals. They are not always there, but every time I see them my heart stops for a moment. Despite having grown up in South Africa at a time when there were running battles in township streets, I do not recall ever encountering armed soldiers in the streets I walked. Going into tourist attractions our backpacks are searched, and yesterday in the city’s cathedral there were two policemen having a quiet look around. None of these men and women are aggressive or threatening, but their subtle presence is a reminder that all is not well.

Being as far south as it is, Toulouse is home to a mixed population. People generally have darker complexions, there is a great variety of “ethnic” restaurants and informal eateries selling Moroccan, Middle-Eastern and Asian food, and mixed-race couples are a common occurrence.

Do I feel unsafe here? Not at all. Not for a moment. Toulouse is beautiful and has a lovely, relaxed vibe.

As was the case in Royan, the long lunch hour is a given here. Shops and businesses close for at least an hour over lunchtime; sometimes as long as two or even three hours. They also close as proprietors take their summer holidays. To me this sends a remarkable message about how the French (at least those in Toulouse) view life. It is okay, as a small business owner, to not work yourself to death, to take a proper lunch break and to go away on holiday. I don’t know if they agonise about losing business while the shop is closed, but I’m pretty sure they are happier and more balanced than many small business owners in other parts of the world. I love how a handwritten sign on a shop door communicates a belief that it will all still be here when I get back. And these really are the small businesses – just around where we stay a few restaurants, a butcher shop and two dry-cleaners have notices on their doors. Granted, Toulouse is not a massive tourist destination, but it still takes courage and a certain worldview to lock the door behind you and go on holiday for a week or three.

I appreciate the lesson I feel I am being taught here.

On holiday from 2 to 25 August.

Another observation, on a different note, is the unexpectedly high number of beggars and people who appear to be homeless. A large proportion of the beggars have pets with them. Without exception, the animals are well looked after on the face of it and there is always at least a bowl of water for them. One tends to think beggars are confined to our street corners and traffic lights, but it’s not the case. Even in affluent, first-world France there are people who get by without the bare necessities.

Speaking of animals, the French appears to not appreciate the need to clean up after the dogs they so like to take for walks. Arriving back home with clean shoes requires some fancy footwork. Thankfully the street cleaners keep the problem at bay (even if they do so at 06:00 in the morning using the noisiest equipment you can imagine!).

Fresh from my cookery course, food is on my radar and Toulouse does not disappoint. The fresh produce market that springs up every morning along one of the main thoroughfares offers an abundance of fruit and vegetables at the most astoundingly low prices. Even the little supermarket around the corner has an excellent selection of cheeses and “specialist” ingredients like gelatin leaves and vanilla pods (but not lemons, for some unfathomable reason!).

The fantastic fresh produce market.

Getting around the city is easy, given that its sights and attractions are within walking distance of each other and of our accommodation. The city encourages cycling with cycle lanes everywhere and a public transport system that includes bicycle stations all over where you can pick up and deposit bikes once you’re registered on the system. Toulouse is of course not the first city to introduce this scheme, but it’s the first time we’ve used it and what a pleasure it is. Imagine linking such a system to the Gautrain, or finding a way to make it work in our metros and even smaller towns. Yes, I know you can think of a hundred reasons why it won’t work but consider, just for a moment, the impact on people’s lives of having public transport option available that is cheap and convenient, and where your safety is largely in your own hands.

Exploring Canal Du Midi, thanks to Velo Toulouse.

On a lighter note, despite bicycles being everywhere, they are not the rulers of the roads here as in Amsterdam. The onus appears to be on the cyclist to stay out of trouble. Pedestrians step into the street or wander into the cycle lanes without looking and cars refuse to yield if, in the driver’s opinion, the cyclist is in the wrong – such as crossing an intersection at a traffic light instead of using the underpass. In all fairness, though, drivers are really careful and considerate when passing cyclists on the road.

Like every other place we’ve been over the past two months, Toulouse is opening my mind a little more every day, and I absolutely love it.




Ramblings of a traveller (not a tourist)

Today, seven weeks ago, we arrived in Amsterdam, the first stop on our trip. Another six weeks, to the day, lie ahead. It’s a long time on the road, when you look at it like that!

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s different being a long-term traveller than a tourist for two or three weeks. It is especially true on this trip where we are spending significant chunks of time in one place, staying not in hotels or guesthouses but in suburban homes.

Yesterday, for instance, on my morning walk to the cookery school, I encountered refuse removal day in Blackrock. The green truck trundled up the street and a man jumped off and on as he emptied the wheelie bins lined up outside people’s homes. This was Dublin going about its business, being a place where people led ordinary lives, I thought. This was not what tourists came to see (obviously!), but it was one of the thousands of jobs that had to be done in order for a city to be a destination.

Much as you get to see the mundaneness beneath the glamour of places, on a long trip you don’t escape domestic drudgery. You simply cannot bring enough clothes to avoid doing laundry. And if you’re staying in a self-catering place, you have to sweep the floors and do the shopping. Fortunately the difference in products, prices and the shopping process is significant enough to make going to SuperValue or Marks & Spencer or Lidl feel like an adventure. To me it all adds to the flavour of being here, of getting to know a place a little beyond the first-date stage.

A pleasure of spending time is that one begins to understand the lay of the land. Spatial orientation and sense of direction are not my superpowers. It takes a while before I know where I am. You can see how not moving on to a different city every three days is useful to me! We have been to Dublin twice before, but the greater Dublin Bay never featured on our radar on those visits. We were focused on the attractions in the city itself. This time round, we stay in one of the towns on the Bay and have the opportunity to explore several others. A whole new picture is unfolding in my head. I’d still get lost if I didn’t pay attention, but at least I now understand enough of the area’s geography that I can get on a train or a bus and know which direction to go. (You’ve no idea how relieved Rob is, knowing I can find my way home on my own!)

To me the greatest luxury of not being a “tourist”, is that I don’t feel so rushed. The panic of having to get through a list of must-sees and must-dos disappears almost completely when you know you have time. I’m also discovering that as the experience of being in a place becomes richer, the need to tick a top-10 list of attractions diminishes.

The weather doesn’t matter so much either! The first two weeks in Dublin were rather grey and wet and cool – not cold, mind you. Soft weather, I think is the right description. The last four days were summer in all its glory, with mostly not a cloud in the sky. This morning, however, the soft weather was back. None of it matters too much, though, because we are here for long enough to simply enjoy what every day brings and adapt to it.

A marvellous surprise is that I’ve stopped keeping track of how long we’ve been away from home, and that I don’t really fret about time running out and the trip coming to an end. I’m getting better at being in the moment. Sometimes my mind wanders to what lies ahead (France again, then Italy), but it is as if my head and heart are too filled with the richness of this day to have space to dwell on it. Of course I look forward to it, but I feel grounded where I am now. Such a precious feeling, and one I am consciously aware of and holding on to.

Is there anything I struggle with? Yes. There are times when I feel isolated. Not lonely or homesick as such, but I miss getting together with the special people in my life for lunch or just a chat over coffee. I’m meeting interesting characters over here and am having delightful encounters, but none of them know the backstory. There’s no way I could explain the layers of my world so that they can understand why i find something funny or amazing or sad. The sheer weight of the effort it would entail to build that connection often silences me. Technology is a saviour (thank you WhatsApp, Facebook and Skype) but Rob is the real hero at these times. He knows the stories of the past and discovers with me the ones we will be telling in future.

For now, however, we just revel in the wonders of every day – even days when nothing special happens – because that’s what travellers do.

Cooking in leprechaun land

I am an unlikely candidate to be spending a month at a professional cooking school. Nobody in my family expected me to be much good in the kitchen (they similarly doubted that my powers of coordination would ever extend to keeping a car safely on the road. But that’s a story for a different day). In all fairness to them, I also never expected even culinary competence from myself. I was the one who used to phone my mother for exact instructions on how to cook green beans, down to the settings on the stove plate. Admittedly I was at school at the time, but you can see how I was not born with a feel for food.

Over the years my abilities developed and, unexpectedly, so did my interest in food. The fact that I have a husband who thinks my cooking is wonderful is a great motivator for which I’m truly grateful. But despite an expanding repertoire and skills set, I’ve always doubted myself in the kitchen. Unlike my older sister who cooks from instinct and with flair, I need a recipe when I try something new (and even when I return to old favourites). The desire to learn about and get more comfortable with tastes and combinations was part of what motivated me to enroll for the 4-week course. Another factor was that I knew there had to be an easier way to get jobs such as chopping herbs done. And then there was the question of how to deal with fresh fish and whole chickens, and let’s not even get started on the mysteries of baking.

So here I am, halfway through the course. Not quite a transformed woman, but certainly one who feels far more able. I have a sheaf of recipes, most of them covered in notes lest I forget the tips and tricks the tutors give us – and the mistakes I made and learned from. I am acquiring a new vocabulary. I’ve struck up a close relationship with the beautiful Würsthof chef’s knife I bought more than a year ago and only ever used to carefully cut up chicken breasts. In fact, in the 10 days I’ve been in the Dublin Cookery School’s kitchen I have not once used the trusted little utility knife that was my go-to tool at home. I’ve learned to sprinkle salt from a rather dramatic height, and the same with flour when dusting the counter top. In fact, the theatre of food is one of the most delicious discoveries.

Is it like Masterchef, people ask me. The answer is yes and no. No because one of the greatest gifts of the school is the completely noncompetitive environment in which we learn. The tutors never highlight a student’s success or failure. Their praise is lavish yet discreet, and when things go wrong they rush to the rescue without making a fuss. This allows the students to compare results with a sense of curiosity rather than competition.

Where it is like Masterchef is the exposure we get. The three senior tutors have all worked in fine-dining establishments, including Michelin-star restaurants. Tara, who is revealing to us the dark arts of choux pastry, jells, emulsions and foams, trained and worked in restaurants in France. Richard spent several years in the kitchen of Ottolenghi in London. Eric learned the art of Italian food in the kitchen of an American chef who would be flown to Italy to cook for guests at national cultural events.

Not only do we learn from some of the best in the business; we also get to eat gourmet food every day when these chefs demonstrate the dishes we get to recreate (or murder!) the following day. And then, while we cook, they are there all the time to guide, correct and encourage. Best of all, is the atmosphere they create. When Reggie turns on the music while we clean down the kitchen at the end of the day people sing along and do the odd little jig as they rush to and from the sinks. And it’s not all fun and games. The tutors instill in us the work ethic of a professional kitchen: work stations have to be clean; service has to be punctual; and each team is assigned a specific job for the day, such as setting the table for lunch or cleaning out the rubbish bins.

I could carry on and on, but let me conclude with a few thoughts on the other students on the course. Most of them are Irish, and their hospitality and friendliness add a huge amount to my experience here. I love listening to their accent, the quirky turn of phrase they bring to the English language, the skill and irreverence of their repartee. They take such an interest in each other, and in the five of us who have come from other corners of the globe: Mao from Taiwan; Merve from Turkey; Roberta from Brazil; Amy from America; and me. Two of them have invited me to their homes already, and they are quick with suggestions of places to visit and things to do. They represent an interesting cross section of society, which makes me think about people’s motivations and what they are willing to do in pursuit of their dreams. There is Vanessa who stopped working following the birth of her son a year ago, whose husband is hugely successful, and who can forget about the dough in her hands when she gets chatting. Donal is the executive director of a company that owns two restaurants at Dublin Airport; he’s doing the course because he loves cooking, wants to better understand the workings of a commercial kitchen, and has a bucket list to get through. Katie is a school teacher, as is Brenda. Caitríona (pronounced Katrina) is a professional waitress in one of Dublin’s top restaurants who wants to explore the option of opening her own place. Suzanne is a veterinarian and Alaidh (pronounced Alli) a vegan who brings her own lunch on most days.

I can’t yet say what the outcome of this experience will be, but I do know that I will carry its impact with me forever. A desire to share with others the food I’m learning to cook is unfolding within me and I’ll be fascinated to see where it leads. What is certain, is that the Dublin Cookery School is adding flavour to my life in the way a chunk of butter enriches a sauce.

Open the shutters wide


Claude’s house in Saint Michel de Fronsac.

We’re all probably a bit sick of Brexit by now. Speaking for myself, fretting* about the economic implications has lost its lustre. What hasn’t, is the continuing realisation of just how interconnected the world is, and how utterly foolish and misguided any attempts to drive people into camps that can be labelled and then fenced off neatly.

There’s nothing neat about societies and who “belongs” where. The incredible richness of the world we live in strikes me every day on this trip, and is a continuous source of fun, wonder and inspiration.

For an example (to borrow a phrase from David, the Spanish estate agent we met, whose surname is Janssen, courtesy of a Belgian grandfather, and who has taught himself to read, write and speak Russian):

Yesterday was the first day of the 4-week cooking course I’ll be doing at the Dublin Cookery School this July. With Ireland not famous for its cuisine, Dublin not generally regarded as one of the great European cities (I disagree, just so you know) and the Irish summer not known for its sunny days, you’d think that the class would consist of mostly Irish students. You’d be right, as it happens, but the exceptions are wonderful. There is Roberta, the gorgeous Brazilian who packed in her tutu after 24 years of being a ballerina and ballet teacher in Brazil and came to Ireland as an au pair. Now she’s hunting down her food dream with a sharp carving knife. There is also Suzanne, an Irish vet who lived in the States for 9 years and in Dubai for a year – where she tended the racehorses of that country’s richest and most powerful sheikh. Now she’s home. Then there is the Turkish girl (whose name won’t stick in my head) who lived in Düsseldorf in Germany before coming to Dublin. There is a young Asian man who never said a word yesterday and about whose story I’m hugely curious. Fortunately we get to cook with different partners every day, so I know it’s only a matter of time before I meet him. So right there, in a training kitchen in a small suburb of Dublin, you have a mini UN.

For another example (says David): our Airbnb host in Saint Michel de Fronsac, a tiny village in Bordeaux, was a lovely French gentleman called Claude. His wife is Juliet, a British woman (who was so upset about Brexit that she could barely talk). Around a generous breakfast in his kitchen-straight-from-a-Country-Life-article, Claude confessed that he was managing the comings and goings of guests in the two guestrooms and one cottage to prevent him from simply closing the shutters and living in his own world, now that he has retired. That resonated deeply with me; as an introvert I understand that impulse. Yet here was a man who consciously and actively opened himself up to the world by inviting strangers from the four corners into his home.

And another example: in Barcelona our Airbnb hosts were a woman who used to be a contortionist with Cirque du Soleil, and her boyfriend, a man composed of muscles. To pay the bills, Dasha teaches stretch classes and Ljubomir English classes. Together they work out twice a day and are now perfecting a routine they hope will get them onto the cruise ships for a season or two. Dasha left Russia when she was 7 and joined the circus at the age of 15. Ljubomir comes from Macedonia. Between them they speak about 7 languages. I don’t think I’ve ever met people less concerned with putting down roots than these two.

For a last example: the couple who live next door to the house where we stayed in Royan are Armand and Lucia. After 26 years in the USA, Armand moved his extremely American wife and their four daughters to his native France just more than two years ago. This less-than-cosmopolitan corner of France appears to find Lucia a bit overwhelming and it saddened us to hear that the family feels quite isolated. Circumstances brought us into their orbit a few times and, the evening before we left, Armand and Lucia brought us freshly baked cookies for the road. Such a heartfelt gesture from people who could do with a little more kindness themselves was a precious gift to receive.

The notion of countries belonging exclusively to a specific group of people is ludicrous. Even more so the notion that we should put up fences to keep some in and others out. If the Brexits and Trumps of the world win out, every one of us would be personally the poorer for it.

*Trivia time: “fret” comes from the Old English word freton, which means to devour like an animal. When you fret over something, it consumes your thoughts.