Going somewhere slowly

 

Cycling

My friend Pieter chirps on Facebook: “Why do you guys cycle? Are the transport workers on strike? You don’t have to suffer like that, you know.” That’s him being facetious, of course, but the question made me think. Why do we do it, when we can hire a car and go many more places?

Our first cycling holiday was in Ireland, three years ago. Our two-week timeshare exchange brought us to the tiny hamlet of Knocktopher, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Friends kindly lent us their bicycles and for two weeks we got around on two wheels. In the process we discovered the pleasures of going somewhere slowly.

So, when friends generously allowed us to stay in their holiday home in Royan during this trip, we were delighted to discover two bicycles in the garage. We shall do it again, we decided, and for the last week we’ve cycled wherever we wanted to go. From short hops to the supermarket to a rather ambitious 36km round-trip to a historic town, we explored our surroundings by bicycle.

Of course we would have covered far more ground in a car, but I doubt that we would have seen and experienced more. Cycling forces you to slow down (unless you have the legs and stamina of a Tour de France competitor!). It forces you to stop for ice cream on a hot day. Or to find a bicycle repair shop where a friendly Frenchman wields an Allen key.  You get to savour the smell of a small woodland or a field being cut. And when you get to the day’s destination, you spend good time there so that your legs can have a proper rest.

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Another consequence of cycling is that it forces you to be conscious. You have to be aware of your surroundings. It might sound like work, but it’s not – it’s a heightened sense of where you are.

Doing the shopping with only the backpack in which to carry it all home, takes being conscious to an interesting new level. You can’t just pile stuff in the basket; you have to think about what you really need. I think one definitely wastes less this way.

Look, there’s no denying that cycling is hard work and that your backside takes a pounding and your legs beg for mercy on a stiff uphill. And that you sometimes don’t get to see the sights you wanted cause they end up being just too far. But that’s ok. The times when we’ve chosen to cycle have been some of the most fun and rewarding, and this week in Royan is right up there with the best of them.

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We and our bikes on the ferry between Royan and the Medoc.

Interestingly, one of the most touching encounters we’ve had in this town came about when we were on foot. It was the day in between two big excursions and we thought our legs and backsides needed a break. Also, we only had some errands in town, so walking was entirely doable. Until the one errand turned into a bit of a production and we ended up speed walking to get to a print shop before the notorious French lunch hour arrived (shops close for up to 2 hours over lunch!).

Having accomplished our mission, we decided to conclude the day’s activities with a quiet visit to the town museum. According to the map it was close by. Except it wasn’t. We could not find the place.

Standing on a sidewalk trying to make sense of the vanished museum, a couple drew up in their car and Rob approached them for help (yes, I do indeed have a husband who asks for directions – far more readily than I do). Turns out we were standing outside their front door and they had just returned from grocery shopping. The man’s English was quite good and he quickly showed us that we were on the wrong side of town. And then he offered to give us a lift to the museum! But first we had to come in for something to drink. I used the loo, Rob helped to carry the groceries inside. The woman offered us a wonderfully refreshing cucumber-and-mint drink while she knocked back a glass or rosé (“Francaise!” she chuckled, pointing at herself and rolling her eyes). Then the husband loaded us in his car and drove us across town, pointing out places of interest as we went. We arrived at the museum and it was closed – that dreaded lunch hour! The friendly man made sure we knew what time it would reopen and suggested we have a drink at a beachfront café. He drove off, leaving us stunned by such kindness, so casually dispensed. We never even exchanged names.

I guess this little story is the answer to the question about why we choose to take things slower, be it walking or cycling.

Footnote: That museum? All in French. Not a word of English. So after all that, the visit was a non-starter.

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The world through different eyes

I have been thinking about world views quite a bit over the last two weeks. Being confronted with Europe’s richness of visible and tangible history, and having time to absorb it, seems to amplify and clarify thoughts that had been swirling around in my head for a while now.

(The luxury of time to do more than skim the surface of a city or an area is something I’m acutely aware of. Instead of having to rush through a street or a church or a ruin because you have to catch a bus or a flight on the same day, we get to spend hours just being there. The experience has to be a fundamentally different one.)

Back to world views.

While gaping at the walls, vaults, roads and other infrastructure the Romans built in Tarragona more than two thousand years ago, I thought about how they thought about themselves. They did not build with the idea of breaking it all down again in a few years’ time. These structures, which in many instances were a blatant show of force, were meant to last. As, I presume, the Romans thought their empire would.

Contrast that to the Nasrid palaces in the Alhambra in Granada. An article I read commented on how remarkable it was that the sultans’ homes were still standing. Those delicate columns with their almost fragile decorations were never meant to last hundreds of years. According to the author, the sultans’ world view was that nothing was permanent, not even the ruling dynasty and certainly not its palaces. While the Alhambra’s walls were meant to protect the fortress against whatever the ancient world could throw at it, the sultans were apparently really comfortable with the idea that they wouldn’t be there forever, hence the ethereal architectural approach.

In that same complex, the heavy hand Carlos (Charles) V applied to his palace, is testimony to the Western European approach that had permanence as its goal. Thanks to this, I am spending a lot of my time staring in wonder at magnificent buildings that have been around for centuries.

We don’t have history on an impressive scale where I come from. It’s taken me a long time to understand this doesn’t mean South Africa doesn’t have history; it only means that it is history at which you can seldom point a camera.

Before the Europeans arrived in 1652, the Khoisan tribes on the southern tip of Africa lived without leaving much of a trace on the face of the earth. These were people who knew how to survive in harmony with Nature’s cycles, and embraced it. For example, instead of building reservoirs and aqueducts to bring water to them, they went to where the water was and practiced the art and science of extracting moisture from the driest deserts without altering the landscape. At most they left drawings on cave walls – as far a cry as possible from a stone-built amphitheatre that could seat 25 000 people and employed a system of platforms, pulleys and counterweights to deliver gladiators from subterranean passages directly into the arena.

What caused the Romans to react differently to the world they found themselves in? Why, instead of living with Nature, did they set about with such determination and ingenuity to bend it to their will?

I’m not an anthropologist, so I don’t know. What I do know is that their accomplishments leave me in awe. I also know that I feel sad that there are no similar monuments to the way in which other peoples interacted with their environments. Because they left no trace we have no way of quantifying their contribution to the world we live in today. As a result we wrongfully assume that they had lived without culture, structure and consequence. But that is not true; they simply lived according to a different world view.

A taste of Spanish

 

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The first time I travelled overseas I was half as old as I am now. Twenty-three years of age, I came to Spain and Portugal with my parents and older sister in 1993. It was the first time I had left South Africa and everything was rather overwhelming and almost unbearably exciting.

I remember surprisingly little of the one place these two visits have in common, namely Granada. Back then, we stayed in Malaga and made an impromptu trip to Granada, specifically to visit the Alhambra. That was it. We didn’t see anything else in that magical city despite spending the night there because the Alhambra visit took so much longer than we had anticipated. More than the Nasrid palaces and Generalife gardens, I remember shopping for emergency toiletries with my mother, and staring at pictures of food in a divey restaurant, trying to identify something to eat in the absence of making sense of the Spanish menu and the Spanish waiters.

Looking back on that first trip, I remember how unsure of myself I was. Spanish and Portuguese threw me completely. Me, who loves languages and words, felt utterly incapable of communicating, to the extent that I failed to appreciate the key handed to me by the Germanic roots that the language I was exposed to had in common with Afrikaans and English. (Needless to say, my helplessness felt complete two years later when I visited Hungary and was confronted by a language that was foreign in every sense of the word.)

Although I had travelled a lot in the intervening years, all my trips took me to countries that were either English speaking (the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia) or where English was commonly used (Bahrain, the Seychelles and Mauritius). In theory, then, nothing has prepared me to deal with no-English in 2016.

To my great pleasure, I’m discovering it’s not so. Apparently life has done its bit, because on this trip, my experience is completely different. My inability to speak no longer silences me. Making sense of Spanish feels like a treasure hunt. Every now and then I decipher a word that unlocks the meaning of a notice, an advert, an item on a menu – and the sense of accomplishment is pure joy. Not to mention the sense of empowerment. In a cathedral in Granada, for instance, there was a blurry photograph of a scene of devastation and all I could identify in the caption was the year 1936 and the word “incendio”. The latter reminded me of “incendiary” and I guessed that part of the church had burned down in 1936. How chuffed I was when my deduction was later confirmed.

In a moment of reckless confidence I even ordered two drinks in a restaurant in my version of Spanish – and it worked! And I know that the double “l” in paella changes the pronunciation to “paheja”.

It thrills me that I’m finding it possible to deduce meaning from a torrent of Spanish that flows over me even when the speaker knows I don’t understand. Somehow, we find a way to make sense of each other’s words. No deep philosophical thoughts can be exchanged, of course, but a basic give-and-take is possible.

Something else about languages that has struck me over the past two weeks is that English is not nearly as universal as we in South Africa think it is. In Amsterdam the Dutch were very capable in English; in Spain the Spaniards not so much. Even in cosmopolitan Barcelona, and here in Salou – where we are told only about 30% of the population are local locals – English is not widely used. A pub in the tourist area, for instance, advertises “paint lager” – we hope they are selling pints of lager… In Granada’s Alhambra – the second or third (depending on which source you consult) most visited attraction in Spain – most of the signage is in Spanish, and in that same city’s tourist information office we extracted with much effort a bus schedule from a boy whose pout was more eloquent than his English vocabulary. And yet, we learned today, around 60 million tourists flood this country every year, and we all end up greeting each other with a jaunty “Hola!” after the second glass of sangria.

Of course language skills matter; how else would we be able to communicate concepts and feelings? But for the moment I’m loving how having to find my way through a maze of words that challenge and delight me, is forcing me to keep things simple and to think about how the world is viewed by the people whose mother tongue this is.

 

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A whistle-stop in Amsterdam

 

Our trip started in Amsterdam, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. It didn’t disappoint.

We arrived at our hotel at around midday on Wednesday, 1 June, and after a brief breather, headed out to join a free walking tour of the city. We first encountered free walking tours in Sydney and Melbourne at the end of 2014 and have become firm supporters. Without exception the guides are knowledgeable, engaging, funny and committed to creating a memorable experience. Also without exception we’ve always been happy to give them a generous token of appreciation. The exchange feels fair and that I love.

Karen in Amsterdam lived up to all expectations. A native of the city and an arts graduate, she imbued the 2,5 hours with fascinating history and personal anecdotes while pointing out features that brought the city to life and allowed us to feel like insiders too.

 

On Thursday, our one full day in Amsterdam, we decided to follow our noses, instead of tour guides. While still in South Africa, we had many plans for Thursday, but being there it felt right to abandon them and go with the flow. We took a tram to Central Station, the transport hub at the harbour, and from there the free ferry (“pont” in Dutch) to North Amsterdam. There we were ambling under the trees when a most unexpected sign caught our eyes: Het Mandela Huisje it read. Intrigued we followed the breadcrumbs to a little establishment on a terrace that looked out over the river IJ. As we poked our noses into the tiny kitchen, a man rushed in. With his blue eyes and grey-blond longish hair he was the quintessential Hollander.

While making our cappuccinos (“shall I wait a minute and you change your mind again?” he joked when Rob decided to not have the tea he had first ordered), he told us that in the past, the Queen’s yacht used to dock where we were now sitting. No longer in use, the area went to ruin. Two years ago, the mayor of Amsterdam called for proposals on what to do with the land. The Mandela Huisje project pipped 200 other submissions to the post and was selected for funding. These days our host lives in the old caretaker’s house and runs initiatives that support the spirit of Ubuntu. These include free conflict resolution sessions, hosting NGOs that need meeting facilities (the day we were there, an NGO that works with refugees was having a strategic planning session) and even conducting weddings.

Sipping our cappuccinos on the terrace, we met Marjina, a woman originally from Eastern Europe who has been living in Amsterdam for 17 years – and who has been to Soweto to run life skills training sessions with a local NGO that works in communities and prisons. In the course of our chat, she recommended we take a stroll into Nieuwendammer Dijk.

We followed her advice and discovered a gem. Nieuwendammer Dijk is a slice of history. An added bonus was the walk, en route, through Vliegenbos, which is not a park but an urban forest. What a magical feeling to be in a busy city thoroughfare one moment and in a forest the next.

On our way back to the heart of Amsterdam, we stopped at a small supermarket and bought fresh figs, cherries and peaches. The peaches were a bit unripe, but the cherries and figs made our taste buds sing. Such a treat!

Back in the bustle of Amsterdam we continued to follow our noses and ended up in an unassuming Indian restaurant in a nondescript alley, where we had a wonderful chicken curry and naan bread. The perfect meal after a long day –  that grew increasingly cold and windy – on our feet.

The day and a half in Amsterdam left me with the impression of a society that embraces freedom. From the respectful way in which Karen our guide talked about the sex trade, to the matter-of-fact way in which she recommended coffee shops (where one gets weed, not coffee!) to people in our group, it felt like freedom is both expected and treasured. The Dutch seem to have found a way to not disrespect differences. The first gay bar opened its doors here in 1927, its owner a woman who rode a motorbike. After World War II, the city fathers were so embarrassed at how the Jewish homes and properties had been looted for firewood, that they razed the whole area and rebuilt it (admittedly choosing a really ugly architectural style). Going further back in history, when Catholicism was outlawed several hundred years ago, not many people were ever prosecuted because the police maintained that they did not work on Sundays. When they returned to the secret Catholic churches on Mondays there was no one to arrest…

For me, another symbol of this free-thinking approach to life is the fact that just about none of the thousands (perhaps millions) of cyclists wear protective gear while racing round the city on their bicycles and scooters. Of course it might be pure recklessness, but to me it looked like a rejection of living life wrapped in cotton wool. The same goes for legalising prostitution (not soliciting and pimping) and soft drugs. The latter was done to counter the trade in hard drugs and, according to our guide, it has worked.

I don’t believe for one moment that Amsterdam and Holland have no problems. Societies are too complex for that. But I do love the fact that people let each other be.

I wondered why, given the big role the Dutch had played in South Africa’s history, our society seems to have retained little or nothing of that sense of freedom and adventure. I remembered a discussion with my brother-in-law a few years ago, when they were living in the UK. He remarked on how the Brits had gone from a nation of explorers to one where many people hardly left their immediate surroundings for fear of unknown dangers. In my limited experience, the Dutch seem to have retained their bold spirit and don’t mind setting out on paths untrodden. What a pity that South Africa has lost this inclination.

Living in Amsterdam might be a very different experience, but as a first-time visitor I loved the messages the city sent me.