When I see this picture of black men moving their bodies with ease and control; displaying this capacity Africans have to embrace new things and learning without prestige. learning them without abandoning what they already know. I remember my dream man.
As a young girl growing up in Kenya, I never had a dream wedding, just my dream man. He was black, like the men who brought me up – he was dignified, he was “the silent, strong type”. My father drunk too much, so my dream man did not drink. My father smoked and every hug left me feeling like I was hugging his shadow and the real man, my father was hidden behind the layers of cigarette smoke and alcohol. My future man would not smoke.
He would look like that man swinging the Cricket bat and I would adore him and he would adore me. Maybe, if he was kind, I would even *let* him have a mistress to massage his beautiful ego.
And then I moved to Sweden and my dream expanded in form and content. What a twisted rope life is!
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was on TV this holiday season, and of course, we watched it. The details are irrelevant except the affirmation that I love the endlessness of the Lady Chatterley and Oliver story. But, every single time I watch or re-read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and get astounded, it is ruined by the context in my head.
The context is:
In 1959-1960, when the Penguin trial was ongoing in Britain, to un-ban D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was banned under the Obscene Publications Act 1959; my father was 12 years old and mother was 10. In Kenya, a state of emergency had been ongoing since 1952. Kenyans were rebelling against colonialism. In 1959, a good number of Kenyans, both men and women, were tortured, raped, humiliated and murdered. In one such camp, Hola camp, the deaths of over ten detainees kicked the already rolling ball of freedom.
You will now think that I should have forgotten about colonialism and be able to enjoy a good story, dramatized as love. Well, I don’t go around thinking about colonialism. I go around thinking about freedom. The freedom to do whatever the heck I want. And in 1959, when the Great Britain was banning books that described sex, my grandmother assured me that she was still having the wild romp in the wild. Although it was banned as wild, primitive and unnatural by the masters of the world.
My grandmother was married to Rubeni since she was fifteen. Or, rightly said, they were partners for life. Their marriage was not a documented matter. Nor was it a Imprisoned by Societal Expectations kind of marriage. In Kenya, in 1959, marriage was a Together for Survival kind of agreement. Scratch my back, I scratch yours. I may love you, I may not love you, but if I respect you and we are headed in the same direction – I will loyally walk beside you. The religion and law of one God and one partner for life, came with the masters of the world.
So, every time I see Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the contradicting thought in my head is how a society can be fighting for a freedom for themselves, that is already a freedom elsewhere; a freedom that they call primitive, unnatural and wild when exercised by others, but a freedom they want for themselves nevertheless.
I am in the bad habit of saying “merci!”, “gracias”, “gracias muchas”, when I want to be flippantly thankful. And si signor/signorita when I am feeling playful.
I learnt Swedish as an young adult. A process that stretched my patience, my self esteem & my intelligence to their thinnest. In my learning exhaustion, I have been very resistant to learn any new language in adulthood.
Imagine my pleasure then, when I decided during this Tuscany trip that I will learn Italian! Even if I just manage to learn the basics, I will learn Italian.
It is not that Italians don’t speak English. Most Italians speak lots of good English. But; every day, we found someone who spoke very little English; like the little restaurant where we had the most wonderful quiet breakfast on our last day in Florence. The husband was totally dependent on his wife to listen to us & translate for him. It was a young-ish couple too!
We had booked a retreat to Diecimo Pescaglia in the Borgo a Mozano province. It is a nice hidden oasis hidden in the hills just 20-30minutes from Lucca. We arrived at the Diecimo-Pescaglia train station to find an abandoned station with an empty office. An old man was was approaching us at snail speed. Slower than snail speed. We were glad to wait because we needed to ask him if we could order a taxi or something to take us to Borgo Giusto Hotel. He eventually arrived. We said a jolly gracious Buongiorno! Buona sera! He answered back. In Italian.
We were so impressed with ourselves we looked at each other proudly. We then remembered why we had been waiting for him.
“Scusi signor, can we ask you how to get to Borgo Giusto?”
He stopped kindly to look at our printed booking, and read the address.
He said “I don’t know. I don’t recognize that. I cannot help you. Bye bye.” In Italian.
We, in unison asked “taxi?” we got kindly head shakes and finger wiggling. “oh no. no taxis here. if you walk up the street there, you may find someone who speaks your language & can help you”. In Italian.
We turned in the direction he pointed & saw a man unloading his bags from the trunk of a red car. A Volvo. I am convinced that one of us said “oh! another tourist! we can ask him!” We dragged our 3 bags – we were 2 adults – towards the car. By the time we got to the car, the man had gone into the building. We thought it was a B&B so we were relaxed. There were 2 men standing outside, one quite old, another middle aged.
Scusi, can you help us call a taxi, call the hotel, or something to get here? – we were pointing at the print-out of our booking. Both men of different ages poked their noses into the paper, got into a long dialog with pointing wiggling fingers, head shakes and nods. “We don’t really know, but, it must be behind the hills. Far. And there are no taxis to take.” In Italian.
We: “English?” in english
Middle aged gentle man: “Non. a little French or German.” In Italian
What the holy f£$€!
Me a little edgy: “telefono” pointing at the telephone number to the hotel.
The gentlemen spoke among themselves a little more. heads shaking. laughter.
We were stamped. The oldest gentleman pointed at the younger man and says a lot. “he will drive you. That’s his car.” more pointing. “if anyone can find it, he can. He is great, fantastico, the guy pf the month!” In Italian.
Middle aged gentleman took our 3 bags to the car. We are young, we help out.
We had no idea what kind of contract we had signed or how much it would cost us. Trust in the lord. Or not. We needed to go places and someone was willing to take us there in any language. We got into the car.
Middle aged gentleman made a call on his mobile, spoke to a friend. In Italian.
“hola Montalbano! do you know where Borgo Giusto is!? two idiots I have to drive there! they seem nice, but totally lost. Can’t speak Italian either! Who doesn’t speak Italian??! Morons, that’s who. haha! siiiiii, round the bend? turn by the big oak? I know which one! oh ja, the yellow ones? they smell nice!” In Italian
For 15 minutes he spoke on the phone. We drove through a small village or market. I felt relieved. There were people here, behind the big hill. He hang up. And kept driving. Turned right into the bushes, by the big oak tree, on a winding road.
I am brought up in Africa. I am trained to depend on & trust other people’s kindness. Ubuntu. We are one, you live, I live, you die, I die. The wars for crude oil, land & other resources continue to rage in total disregard for ubuntu. My Swedish travel partner is brought up different. I have no idea how. He was fidgety, wondering if we really should trust this which we couldn’t understand. I kept my hand on his hand. To transmit calmness and trust.
After 25-30 minutes drive, around the bend, after the old fig tree, we saw the hotel parking lot. A wonderful view, worth paying for. We were here. Since we didn’t know how much we agreed to pay, we gave our gentleman a note. It was not too big & not too small.
“no. it was my pleasure. I am glad we found it & that you are safe. Shall I help you with the bags?” In Italian.
We are Swedes, I say, My name is merry-traveler-1 and this is my person, calm-traveler-2, do you want to join us for a drink? In English. All is lost in translation. He drives off with a smile.
I am amazed at how much we can communicate with others without words. I am so happy to find that my childhood trust in basic kindness is intact. We are so humbled & thankful that with all the changes and online-lives, someone in Italy is still concerned about the safety of young people traveling in the unknown.
This happened to us so many times, I could write a story for every day. Not always someone driving us somewhere, but someone helping us out in Italian. Gladly, kindly & memorable.
Relax! I believe if you only ever speak with people who understand you on the first try, you never really learn patience or appreciation of the simple truths.
Plan some margins in travel. That way, even if you are a little delayed by language hitches, you still have time to listen in another language. It is part of the experience.
If you are even a dot of the control freak that I am, you need to relinquish control & trust in basic human kindness. All is well if you find one person who is willing to listen & reply; even in Italian.
First time his telephone was off, I believed him. The power went off and his battery died. Bad luck. Coincidence. The telephone was off Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. Then I got an sms. “Baby, I saw your missed call and sms. The phone died. Will call later. Love. C”
Next time this happened was on his weekend away with his boys. That gnawed at me because I knew his friends. Same said “pling” on my telephone on Sunday afternoon. My suspicions began then. I asked nicely if he was cheating & when he said “babe, how can you think that of me??!” and he cried a little bit, I melted and told myself he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He could never.
A couple of months later, my telephone went off when I was away in Cape town with work. Battery dead. For real and no time to charge. He went bananas. Bonkers. Off the hook. Knots in knickers. How could I “LET” the phone die. And then have the audacity to go out for a drink with my colleagues instead of running back to the hotel to call him?
Me: “babe, it has happened to you twice the last 4 months. You know how it is?!”
C: “Oh no, don’t try that on me. I know how women are. Some dude took you to his hotel didn’t they? Didn’t they? And you don’t even know them! How can you? Etc”
I hang up.
Next day I panicked that my very first relationship was ending because of a misunderstanding. I decided to fly home on Friday, miss the weekend planned with colleagues. I had to convince C that he was the one. For ever. And ever.
So I booked a ticket and at exactly 17:45, boarded and flew home. I arrived in Nairobi at around midnight, took a taxi to C’s place. Knocked. Knocked. Knocked. Called out his name. Called out “sweetie”. Called out “baby”. For about 10-15 minutes.
His face showed up at the window. Not the door. The window. My heart sunk. It took 3-5 minutes, he opened the door. Looked surprised & started crying. Asked me to wait outside for a minute. 5-10 minutes more. He did not want to embarrass me he said. A girl came out the same door. Crying. “Where shall I go in the middle of the night?” He says “I don’t care, my wife is here now”. We were not married. We would never be married.
I took the girl home with me. He couldn’t take her back in because he wanted to prove to me that he had changed. Immediately. I wanted to go home because I had changed. Forever.