When strangers photograph your laundry

Burano

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.

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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.

Fishing
You fish, I photograph

 

Changing with the season

 

Seasons

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)

 

BlaBla

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

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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