I didn't see as much of Italy this past year as I wanted to.. Dublin, the Algarve and Helsinki were all wonderful in their own right (obviously) but there can only be one true love. So I spent July attending a crash course Italian, and left for Milan in August.
Milan is considerably bigger than, for instance, Firenze but it has a metro system and I love cities with an underground. The first day however, I decided to get a feel for the place and walked, which turned out to be an ambitious plan. But also totally worth it, because I planned it so I walked through the galleria (Vittorio Emanuele II) and then ended up in front of the Duomo. Cliché cliché - I know - but I did hold my breath for just a second when I first saw it. Things of impressive beauty tend to do that.
The first - and only - thing that I had planned beforehand and booked online was a visit to the Duomo, but I insisted on the whole shabang: rooftop, cellar, guided tour. I am also the type of tourist that asks for the audio-guide and listens to every single entry.
The Duomo has a chequered history: its construction began in the 14th century but it lasted as much as 500 years to finalize it. When Napoleon declared himself king of Italy, the building was unfinished and he made it a priority to finish it, and eventually had his coronation in Milan. Considering a trip to Milan was a tad harder in those days than it is now, it is however still no wonder that so many people went to visit it throughout history. Hemingway, Shelley.. they all sung the Duomo's praises.
I am also very grateful to the friend that convinced me to book a rooftop tour. Am-a-zing.
One of the perks about Milan - and there are many - is that there is plenty to see in the city but that it is also a good base to start from when visiting other places.
So I went to multiple markets, including the fiera di Sinigaglia in the Navigli neighbourhood on Sunday morning where I almost bought a vintage chanel skirt from the 50s (but decided it was too short). I visited a myriad of museums: la Pinacoteca, galleria dell'arte moderna.. One even more amazing than the next but I also discovered even I have my saturation point. I saw the Last Supper by Da Vinci - one must, no? I went to the fashion district, where I could feast my eyes but I never went further than windowshopping. I wandered through the castello sforzesco. I went into la Scala but there were no performances, I watched them clean the chandelier, which is an experience in its own right. The attached museum and tour immerse you in the abundant time of the 19th century when everyone who was anyone had a private balcony. I had just finished reading a book about Salieri - Mozart's nemesis - so I totally went with it.
I am sure that using a public transport system doesn't fill up anyone with sheer joy but in Italy I find trains run efficiently, punctually and are affordable. I spent a day at Lake Como, visiting Varenna, Bellagio, and Como itself.
I absolutely loved Varenna. One of those places for which the word picturesque was invented. I was there fairly early so the lakeside café was only just putting out the chairs and I watched the village wake up, in all tranquillity.
I took a ferry and reached Bellagio by lunchtime and even though it is gorgeous, I disliked it. I am not going to make friends by saying this but it was full of tourists (I know I know, I am one) but the majority of them were Americans. Not trying to diss everyone at once here but the ones I encountered were loud, didn't do their research (23 questions at the ticket office in a long slow queue anyone?), yelled "where is George Clooney's house?" and had probably bought a new wardrobe just to come to Italy. Anyway...
It was a toss up whether I would spend my last available day in Torino or in Bergamo because depending on which Italian I asked, I got a different answer. So I went to Bergamo, a cute hillside town that uses a funicular to connect the different parts of the city.
For as long as I remember, during my childhood, we had a dog at home. Different breeds, different sizes. At some point, we even had a horse, a pony, cats and a goat. Safe to say I was taught to love animals. So of course, as soon as I got married and we moved into a house, I wanted a dog. Then, when the kids came, we took a second one. I loved the fact that my kids grew up with pets. At some point, our household even counted 3 people and 4 dogs.
But of course, they grew up in Africa so pets was not all they got to know in the animal kingdom. We took the kids on safari. (The bad looks we sometimes received from tourists in the safari parks is a good point for another blog post.)
I do not need to explain that going on safari is not the same as going to a zoo, not by a long shot. In a safari park or game reserve, your mind needs to make the switch from "there is an animal on the road" to "we put a road through their home". The animal goes about its business and you should not disturb. I once almost missed a bush flight because there was a pride of lions on the road, and going off road is not allowed.
You'd be amazed what you learn about animals when you see them in the wild, and the motivation to listen to a guide or open a book to learn more is immediate. The respect and love just naturally flows from there really.
Guides by the way, are an incredible source of information, and a good example on how to behave when in a park. Also, to humour my kids the guides sometimes asked me what they would love to see and then did their utmost to provide that sighting. They would radio each other and rely on their own knowledge of wildlife and terrain and they very often succeeded, if not always. When my eldest asked to see a cheetah with cubs, I really thought she was pushing it, but he came through and we saw just that. In the Chilean part of Patagonia, I had the same luck and spotted a puma on day 2. Guides also taught us that monkeys are cheeky and will steal your snack if you are not careful, and that elephants do not sweat. To name but a fraction of what I even remember.
Once, I took my girls to Kenya to visit the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, an organisation that operates the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. There, you can witness the feeding of baby elephants, spend some time with them and adopt an ellie of your choice for a fee, which my kids both did.
In South Africa, we went to visit the penguins. The kids were so small, I assumed they hardly remembered but when someone asked them about in their teen years, one of them replied: "I remember they smelled badly". Okay then.
At the shores of lake Tanganyika, I was able to visit a family of chimpansees. Visitors can only go in small groups, and are only allowed to spend one hour around them, while wearing mouth masks - and this in a pre-Corona era. But I cannot describe the experience of making eye contact with a primate and realizing they are extremely similar to us. I can safely say that impact lasts a lifetime. It is still on my bucket list to see the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. Some day maybe. Hopefully.
And I deliberatley did my Padi-diving course in order to see sea turtles and tropical fish. I did not expect that I would love diving that much by the way, it is extremely tranquil and relaxing. The fact that you can explore this whole world you hardly know anything about, it was utterly amazing. (But the disgust caused by seeing the damage we do, seeing that people destroy whole coral reefs and overfish the oceans, grows equally.)
I do not want to make you believe it was always sunshine and roses. My dogs chewed more shoes and furniture that I want to recall. Seeing her first kill, made the daughter of very good friends cry. Having a snake in my bedroom, made my heart skip a beat. And I do not even want to remember how often we were (mock)charged by and elephant (and we surely had it coming). And there was that one time we saw a zebra foal of literally some minutes old, umbilical cord still attached, that chased our vehicle thinking we were the mother and we realized 'that little thing won't survive': simply heartbreaking..
Numerous good stories and anecdotes I think of when I reminisce about my time in Africa, have to do with animals. For instance, one time, we stupidly drove between a buffalo and its herd, separating them in the process. We found out this makes the single standing buffalo really aggressive, as he proved to us by running towards us in an attempt to attack our car. I was 7 months pregnant and remember thinking: if that child has PTSD, it is because of this.
We even contemplated giving both our kids a second in Kiswahili. The eldest would have been 'Swala' which is a gazelle, but Axelle gazelle might have been a bit much.
But they do not even have to be impressive, funny or eventful stories to make me homesick, just the recollection of sitting in front of your safari tent at sunset with a gin-tonic, the smell of dry dust on your khakis, while a hyena grunts or a lion roars somewhere in the bush. Bliss. I will vouch for the fact that it changes a person.
And I for one, am glad my kids are African bushbabies. Best gift I could give them.
As a linguist, languages intrigue me. I guess that is obvious. But as an immigrant, I understood the necessity to learn the local language. I also learnt how difficult that can be. Being Belgian, I had of course learnt Dutch and French in school. A privilege for sure (I am aware not all Belgian school-goers will agree with me at this age) because it concerns both a Germanic and a Romanic language. While travelling, I always have to explain that Belgium is split in parts and if I want to buy me bread in the one village, I do it in Flemish and if I go a couple of miles the other way, I need to order it in French. No biggie. Come to think of it, I also have to explain that Flemish is Dutch. Compare it to American and British English? But I digress..
When we arrived in Tanzania, we made an effort to learn Kiswahili. (By the way, the language is Kiswahili and not Swahili, sorry google translate.) I think it is only self-evident that as a guest in a country, you at least try. So we did the typical thing: started with some tapes (I am that old) and a book and as soon as you realize you are stuck, you take lessons. The advantage was that we needed it on a daily basis. The disadvantage was that Tanzanians are such a gentle people they wouldn't even think of correcting you so god knows what I said at times :).
Some interesting things about Kiswahili proved to be both fact and fun. Kiswahili mainly has an oral tradition: this languages has more often been used throughout centuries to sit around the fire in the village and tell stories than to write books. This is now of course no longer the case but for such a long time it was. So at times, I came across different spellings of one word or different uses of one word or different words for one thing. Theoretically, I guess you could say there are a lot of dialects.
Kiswahili is definitely a lingua franca, which means that for a lot of people it is not their first language but it a means to communicate with a lot of other people. If you read up on your history, it is of course because current countries and borders did not originate naturally, their were forced upon people, and often nomadic people that were asked to settle. Interesting stuff (in lack of many other adjectives that come to mind when reading up on history but not wanting to start a debate). This has consequences of course, since the way you tell your story contributes to the meaning: 'mtu yule' (the person over there) will be standing closer to you than 'mtu paaaaale' who is standing very far.
Kiswahili is a Bantu language, that means that for a European there are little to no reference points to study grammar or remember vocabulary. A conjugated verbform for instance gets a prefix which contains both subject and tense, and there are 9 noun classes, oh and also, if you want to refer to one of these noun classes as an object of your verb you insert yet again a letter into that verb.. So if you for instance want to say "I like him" that becomes ni-na-m-penda which very roughly stands for ni=subject I + na=present tense + m=object him + penda=verb root of kupenda. I am oversimplifying of course but believe me: it is an intricate language and I am sure I only ever spoke it in its simplest (often incorrect) form. But that simpler form is enough to get by, your effort will be appreciated. And the easy part for this Euopean: the vowels are pronounced as in Dutch (kinda).
The Swahili people inhabit a long line of coast, including islands such as Zanzibar and thus they came into contact with a lot of other tribes, peoples and nationalities. So today, the language is an incredible mix of languages and introduced words. The largest influence will undoubedtly be Arabic (tafadhali is please and salama is well, good) due to geographical reasons and a history of trade but there is also a lot of English (kabati is cupboard, closet, baiskeli is bicyle), and even German (shule is school) and Portuguese (nanasi is pineapple and chepeo is a helmet). And this is only what I can think of on the top of my head, I am sure there are more.
My children learnt Kiswahili as a subject in the international school, which is only normal since every international school teaches the national language, and their Kiswahili in the end became better than mine. Which is exactly what happened with their Spanish as well. At first, my evening school had me at a headstart but since their last two schools were in Spanish speaking countries, they now outdo me with ease.
My own students in Belgium often ask me: "so say something in Kiswahili!" But if you watched the Lion King, you can also say something: hakuna matata. If you ever travel to East Africa, you can get the T-sirt.
It might seem selfevident (but then again.. it might also not) but we travelled. A lot. And of course, we had to travel in order to see our family so the annual flight home provided by the company was a given. But after my divorce, the girls had to travel as unaccompanied minors so by the age of four, they went from Africa to Europe to Middle America (and back) several times a year, labelled like baby cattle with a big UM. I remember the first time they left, I hated it, and I was so nervous. And even when they came back, I had arranged a tarmac-pass so I could meet them directly from the plane. We did get used to it quickly enough though. I was releived and glad that they did too, we all still take a plane as if it is a bus. As a result, we had three clocks in our living room telling the time of different places in the world, and my eldest did her show and tell about jetleg. And you might be surprised to hear it, by I actually enjoy flying, it relaxes me. And I think that if you ask my kids where they are from, they will reply: from Zaventem.
But of course we also travelled within the country. From the moment we arrived, I was keen to see the country (strangely my partner was not) but then, years later, I started working in tourism so we were given such fantastic opportunities. To list but a few that will always stand out for me: we stayed at an authentic mobile safari camp at the rim of the Ngorongoro crater, we were lucky enough to stay at the Four Seasons in (bam smack) the middle of the Serengeti, we walked from Empakai crater to lake Natron in three days (I really need to spend a post on that, that was utterly gorgeous), I got my PADI (diving certificate) in Dar es Salaam, my eldest slept in a hut in a Maasai village, we went wild camping in a dry river bed in Tarangire, we went to Zanzibar several times (in both low budget places with hamacs on the beach as beds and in the Hyatt Regency with a overflow pool that seemed to run straight into the Indian ocean), the girls walked to base camp on Kilimanjaro, we stayed on a farm on the western slopes of Kilimanjaro, I was lucky enough to see the chimps in Mahale on the shores of lake Tanganyika.. oh and I would almost forget to mention Fanjove, a desert island straight from your dreams.. Basically, we did a whole bucket list before we even made one.
Do people like travelling because they were introduced to it young? Or do they seek the opportunity at all costs because they are curious? I don't know. But I do know we will never stop.
But the most important thing is not ticking off things of a list (or boasting about them on a blog). The privilege is that you start seeing the world as a small place with all people as equals. And for my girls, it also caused an intrinsic love for animals. I am grateful for that.
Recently, I was going through pictures (as a mum does) and I stumbled upon a picture of my kids riding motorbikes. And I immediately thought: that is something they did because their stepdad did it. And of course, he did it because Africa is an ideal place to do so: ride a dirtbike. So then the thought hit me: I am going to tell people about the stuff we did because we lived where we lived.
And yes... you could debate they might have done some of these things in Belgium but let us not over-analyze the fun out of this. I will definitely have fun reminiscing about the cool stuff we did.
So this is the picture in question. The girls went around the track to get comfortable with the bike and after some laps, they got a briefing from A. And although it never became their big passion, I was happy they tried and that they were open to his favourite passtime. Maybe I should have forced them to stick with it for a while at least but well.. At least they tried and they are now comfortable on a bike.
Motorbikes were not the only thing they rode by the way..
And the irony? It was a bit of a hassle to teach them how to ride a normal bike. Flat, paved roads are not exactly a regular thing in Africa and the children-size bicycles we had to import! Not your regular story when you come from 'le plat pays'. So the eldest ended up learning to ride a bicycle in Belgium when we were there and the youngest learnt on the raspberry farm.
Another thing they tried (I should say: we tried), was archery. In Africa, we had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, and their hobby or profession, and one of them happened to be a world renowned bowhunter. The three of us learnt how to handle a bow, and practiced several times. The same person actually also taught us how to shoot a gun, and even though I am strongly against firearms, I also believe it is better to teach your kids how to swim than fence the pool so they are now no longer nervous around a gun. But I hope this statement will never be put to the test.
Stay tuned.. because I am already inspired to write the next post! So many stories..