mercredi 31 août 2011

Kemps vs Bears

There’s a great deal to see in California. (Though not the Golden Gate Bridge, permanently obscured by fog, whatever the postcards say!) A lot of it was amazing and beautiful, particularly in and around Sequoia National Park, on which probably more another time.

But while we went looking for bears, and were delighted to find them, the most amazing encounter for me – after an absence of 33 years – was with my Californian cousins. ‘Hi Kim, this is your cousin Ellie from the UK – I’m in San Francisco for about 48 hours.’ ‘How fantastic! Shall I drive into town now and we can go for a coffee?’

This, right off the bat, from somebody I have to assume hasn’t had much occasion to think about me since 1978, when she and her sister were our cool American cousins and I was an overawed eight-year-old… I begin to see where the Californians get their reputation for warmth and laid-back good nature.

In the end we met up the next day, together with cousin Karen and her shy-cheeky-smiley four-year-old Quinn in a diamante butterfly dress. I inevitably went to the wrong Starbucks – how can a town the size of a largeish parking lot possibly have two of them?? – and had to be rescued, but not before I had checked out every one of the Sunday-morning coffee-drinkers in turn. It’s interesting how very differently you look at strangers when you think they might in fact be family...

But it’s a bit like that moment in Arrivals when you’re waiting for a loved-one to come through the gate and everyone seems to have their haircut or coat or walk – and then the person him- or herself comes out, and you realise you couldn’t possibly have mistaken them for anyone else. Kim and Karen were of course everything the mangy Brit expects of Californians – tanned, slim, impeccably turned out and at ease with the vagaries of parking rules, three-way stops and the Starbucks menu – but they were also unmistakeably family. We talked a lot, filling every pause between sips of coffee and every wait at a red light on the way to visit their parents, and somehow managed to get past the stage of ‘Tell me everything about yourself over the past three decades starting NOW’ and on to things that mattered to us.

And one thing we found mattered to us was our own relationship: despite none of us having made the effort before now to establish contact as adults, we all felt that now the connection was made, it was important to maintain and nourish it. By the time we reached the nursing home, a free-ranging discussion of memories, history, interpretations and ideas about ourselves and our families had created a kind of complicity, so that while I had in a way to present myself anew to an aunt and uncle who’d not seen me themselves in decades, I did it flanked by cousins who in some sense did already know me.

So while the picture of the bear cub below is very cute, it’s mostly here for Quinn; the one that really makes me smile is the one of the Starbucks family reunion.

mercredi 17 août 2011

Pedaloing while London burned

We turned on the TV and saw gangs of young people torching homes and businesses and communities arming to defend life and property; violence creating an opportunity for wholesale looting and for a ratcheting-up of interracial tensions for political gain. We heard questions about whether the forces of law and order had the strength of numbers, equipment or stomach and ability to protect civilians, and speculation about how far known strongmen were orchestrating the violence. There were needless deaths, and heroes and villains in unlikely places, and politicians and pundits trying to sound tough and savvy and in control.

So far, so Congo.

But we were in Bude, Cornwall not Bukavu, South Kivu. The violence and looting was taking place in cities across middle England, an area synonymous with the ordinary: certainly by the standards of most of the rest of the world, a place of comfort, privilege and predictability.

The DRC-hardened humanitarian aid workers in our little group, accustomed if never inured to accounts of such horrors in our working lives, were as shocked and saddened as our friends to see the chaos so close to home. But in dark jokes about the Tottenham Mai Mai and the child soldiers of Peckham there was perhaps a hint of self-satisfaction, a sense that maybe next time there’s talk of villages burning and farmers looted in more far-off places, the proverbial man in the English street may take a little more notice.

My own bent to smugness was somewhat restrained by the knowledge that I’m not currently a useful member of society in any way. My own contribution to the common weal hasn’t risen lately beyond cooking dinner or doing the washing-up; but once the pedalo rides in Cornwall were done, my friends went back to trying to help people caught up in the violence in eastern Congo, where the fires have been burning for some 18 years now.

mercredi 3 août 2011

The power of Babel

Clara is Italian, but having met in Brussels we tend to speak French. Ada is Spanish and speaks excellent English, so she and I speak that. But Ada was keen to practise her Italian, I my Spanish and Clara her English. So when the original plan of going together to Portugal fell through, at one level I was relieved – it seemed to me that we had quite enough potential for linguistic confusion between us as it was!

But even being in Italy together we struggled at first to have genuinely three-way conversations. Either one of the three of us was simply listening in to a dialogue, or else the rate of platitudes per minute went through the roof as we took turns to prove the unyielding law whereby your capacity for thought becomes rapidly constrained by the words you have to express it.

Then Clara had the brainwave of the holiday. The Breakfast Pact, solemnly entered into over cappuccinos and croissants on the morning we left for Piemonte, stated that each of us would speak her own language and her own language only. A series of rapid beeps and sirens would meet any attempt to converse in one of the others’ languages.

Sheer genius! Not only did we each recover an adult capacity for thought and speech which enabled us to enjoy one another’s company vastly more, but we got to increase our knowledge of ‘real’ Italian, Spanish and English, rather than the clunky, simplified version spoken between non-natives. I have for instance added to my infinitesimal Italian vocabulary such words as dimenticare (to forget), rompicoglioni (pain in the bum), roba (stuff) and di cazzo (bloody, as in ‘another bloody church’) – all eminently useful things to know, it has to be said.

And if it was sometimes tiring having to listen so hard and being unable to multitask while concentrating on what Clara or Ada was saying, it was more than made up for by the fun of confusing the hell out of everyone we met…