Brighton and the Alps

‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father.  He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.

Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.

On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.

After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:

I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”

And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.

I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’.  Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.

Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open.  Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.

She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.

After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.

I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.

Hair cut in Italy

Sometime in the 1980s, I was visiting Italy in order to see my sister who lives in the Emilia Romagna region. I landed at Milan and rented a car.

HAIR BLOG

The SEAT vehicle which I hired was tiny and very basic and seemed to lack many items that can be found in other low-cost cars. However, I benefitted from it because it did not consume fuel at a high rate. This was lucky because in those days fuel was extremely expensive in Italy as compared with other countries in Europe. In those days, the petrol price in the UK had just exceeded £1 per GALLON (4.5 litres). In Italy, at the same time, petrol was available at about 1600 Lire per LITRE, and the exchange rate was about 1570 Lire to the Pound Sterling. Nevertheless, I ‘beetled’ around Italy visiting various friends in different places. 

Driving practices in Italy differed from those in the UK. One day, I gave a lift to some Italian friends. At each village or small settlement on the Strada Statale (main road, not a motorway or highway) there were traffic signals at intersections. At one of these, I began to slow down because I could see that the signal was about to turn red. My friends said:

“What are you doing? Why are you slowing down?”

“The signal is turning red,” I replied.

“Don’t be silly, speed up. Don’t let the signal hold us up!”

I cannot remember what I did, but I have lived to tell the tale.

A day or so before I was due to meet my sister, I decided that I ought to have a haircut in order to look presentable. I stopped in a village, where I had spotted a barber shop as I was driving past.

I entered to smart looking salon, and sat amongst three or four other gentlemen awaiting the caring hands of the barber.Eventually, I was invited onto the barber’s throne. I explained what I wanted as best I could with my very rudimentary Italian. However, the barber, a true experienced professional, knew what was needed. 

He began rummaging around in the mop of hair on my head, and then suddenly stepped back as if he had been confronted by a deadly poisonous snake. He raised his hands high above his head, and shouted:

“Forfora”

The other men in the salon shrank back, one or two of them hiding their heads under the newspapers that they were reading. I sat, amazed and wondering about the meaning of ‘forfora’ and why it had caused such alarm.

Then it dawned on me. The barber had discovered dandruff in my hair. He explained something to me that I worked out meant that he needed to apply a special treatment to my hair.  I told him to go ahead. He rubbed some oily liquid into my hair. After a moment, I felt a strong burning sensation. It felt as if something was burrowing down the roots of my hair and into my scalp. As it worked, I thought that whatever had been applied felt as if it was strng enough to kill anything. I just prayed that my hair would not fall as a result of this terrific chemical onslaught.

After a short time, my head began to feel normal, and the barber carried out my haircut. I do not remember how much my cut cost, but I do remember having to pay an extra 5000 Lire for the special treatment.

I doubt that I will ever forget the Italian word for ‘dandruff’, but how often I will make use of this knowledge is questionable.

 

Photo: a hairdresser in Istanbul

In the footsteps of the ancients

OSTIA ANTICA, THE PORT of Ancient Rome is constructed mainly with baked clay bricks. When I visited it some years ago, I remember thinking that it looked like a recently built place because of the brickwork that looked so contemporary. Ostia dates back no further than the 4th century BC. The port at Lothal in Gujarat (western India) thrived long before Ostia, probably between 2500 and 1900 BC, but like the Roman port, the remains of Lothal are mainly (sun baked) clay bricks, giving them a far from ancient appearance. Lothal, excavated in the 1950s, was a port inhabited by people of the Bronze Age Harrapan (or Indus Valley) civilisation that thrived between about 3300 to 1300 BC.

We drove to Lothal from Ahmedabad along a good highway that runs through flat landscape with numerous tidy looking factories. We arrived after about 75 minutes of steady driving. The archaeological site, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is in the middle of very flat fertile agricultural land far from the nearest village. Unlike most other ASI sites that charge an entrance fee, that at Lothal is the same for both foreigners, who are usually charged a high fee and Indians. Each ticket cost only 5 Rupees.

The ticket gives access to a small but well laid out museum, whose exhibitsand information panels demonstrate how Lothal fits into current understanding of Harappan civilisation and what life might have been like in the ancient port. A fairly simplistic video was shown. It concentrated mainly on Mohenjo-Daro, a large Harappan site now in Pakistan. The evidence dug up at Lothal and other Harappan sites shows that the civilisation was both technically and artistically sophisticated. On display, were systems of weights and ingeniously crafted fine jewellery, both examples of products that could only have been produced by people of great intellectual ability.

The ruins are, as already mentioned, mostly made of brick. A low mound, known as the ‘Acropolis’, is covered with structures that might have been warehouses or residences of the upper echelons of Lothal. The mound overlooks what looks like a huge rectangular brick lined swimming pool, now filled with rainwater. When Lothal was thriving, this dock was connected to the nearby sea (now the Gulf of Khambat) by a channel along which vessels could sail. Over the millennia, the coastline has shifted and what was once Lothal is separated from the sea, far away from it. The ASI keep the dock filled with rainwater to show what the dock must have looked like in its heyday.

Various other structures outlined by brickwork, including circular wellheads, can be visited. These include the former bead factory, a cemetery (where all the skeletons discovered were from people who died aged 30 or less; maybe older people were cremated), and a ‘lower town’. What little that has been excavated is well looked after, but without the explanations provided in the museum the casual visitor would have no idea of what he or she was seeing or how ancient these remains are. With a little background information it was thrilling to walk in the footsteps of townsfolk and traders who lived and thrived so many, many years before us.

We met only three other visitors while wandering around the ruins. They were all from Bangalore. They were touring Gujarat but lamented the fact that most signs are only in Gujarati script. In Karnataka, where they live and where we visit often, signs are often not only in the local script but also in English and/or Hindi.

There are no refreshments available at the Lothal site. An employee suggested that we might get tea in the modern village of Lothal, a few kilometres away. Our driver had his doubts about this and so did I when we drove along the winding dusty road through the small village. There were no shops or stalls to be found.

We parked outside a pair of wrought iron gates separating two houses. A lady appeared in the door of one of them, and my wife asked (in Gujarati) whether tea was available in the village. The lady said she would make some for us.

We followed her through the gates and into a long wide alley lined with houses. Two ladies were embroidering gold thread, jewels, and sequins onto long silk saris spread out along the incredibly clean concrete floor of the alley. Other ladies were sitting around.

Our hostess brought us each a plastic chair from her home. We sat chatting with the ladies while we awaited our tea. The alley was lined with houses that a farmer had built for his sons. Each of the ladies was one of his daughters in law.

Our hostess arrived with a large metal cup filled with tea and two china saucers. Each of us was handed a saucer, which she filled with hot tea. We slurped the tea from the saucers as is the custom when sharing tea in Gujarat (often one person drinks from a cup and the other who is sharing it drinks from the saucer: a system known as ‘cutting chai’).

The ladies doing the embroidery take about a day to decorate a whole sari with a complex design. The silk is sent to Lothal from Surat, where the decorated saris are later sold. An old lady with barely one tooth in her smile, the mother in law of the women we were talking with, joined us. This wizened relative asked if it was true that a man’s haircut would cost 1000 rupees in the USA, as she had seen on YouTube. We told her that it would cost at least that. She was then told to go back to rest on her charpoy in the nearby farmyard.

We asked where the menfolk were. They answered: “In the fields. What else could they be doing?”

Our hostess, who seemed to be the brightest of the very hospitable women, took us to see the cow whose milk had been used to make our tea. We thsnked her calf for sharing his mothers milk. She also proudly showed us the two fine horses the family owned.

Just before we left, my wife asked our hostess whether we could leave a small gift for her children. She said that they were at school and there was no need for a gift. She told us that she was very keen that they should do well at school, and hoped that they would be able to study in the USA, because she said: “There is no future for them, nothing here anymore.”

As we drove away from our new acquaintances through the village, people waved to us. We waved at three old men on a bench. They waved back. We felt that we had received a warm welcome at ground level in Gujarat.

The road to Hogsback

In August 2003, the middle of winter in South Africa, we made a long tour around the Cape Province, visiting small places that figured in the history of my family’s sojourn (beginning 1849) in South Africa. Here is an account of our journey to Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. The writer JRR Tolkien is supposed to have been inspired by the landscape near Hogsback, but not all are agreed on this. The author was born in South Africa (in Bloemfontein), but left the country aged less than three years.

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Between Barkly East and Dordrecht

We sped on from Barkly East to Dordrecht. It was at Dordrecht in 1884 that my great grand uncle Sigmund Seligmann with his partner, another Jewish gentleman, Moss Vallentine opened their first business, a retail store. Later, he opened a general store in Barkly East, where his nephew, my mother’s father, became the town’s only Jewish Mayor.

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Dordrecht Museum

Dordrecht, a smallish place, still has several nineteenth century buildings including one with an elegant arcade supported by cast-iron pillars that serves as a museum. Andre Coetzee, the museum’s curator, pointed out an old shop opposite the museum that he believed had originally been Seligmann’s.  He seemed very certain that this was the building, but he could not show me any evidence to confirm this.

The rain and snow continued to shoot past us, propelled by a fierce wind. Between Dordrecht and Queenstown, we crossed a plain that was quite different to anywhere we had been so far. The plain was quite literally dotted with thousands of ‘black’ peoples’ dwellings, some with rondavels as out-houses. There were few fences. People and animals wandered across the road. The countryside was much less manicured than any other inhabited places we had so far visited in the Cape. Derelict cars were frequently seen. We were in Chris Hani District that includes the town of Queenstown and was under the Apartheid regime part of one of the so-called ‘Homelands’. 

Queenstown is not an attractive town but has a lively buzz and good shops. A sign in the town centre advised motorists to pay for parking at a “mobile parking meter”. This meter turned out to be a person who hangs around the parking area carrying a machine on which he or she records your arrival and departure times and based on these determines how large a parking fee needed to be collected. We found a wonderful spice shop run by a Pakistani man. He had a special table on which he can make spice mixtures to order and, also, had ready-made mixtures including one, very strong in flavour apparently, called “Mother-in-law Masala”. We visited a large branch of Woolworths as many people had commended this chain store to us. We were disappointed: it was like Marks and Spencer’s used to be in the UK many years ago.

We drove via Whittlesea to the tiny village of Seymour. A road marked incorrectly on our map as “narrow but with tarmac, not for four-wheel drive vehicles alone”, led from Seymour up the side of a mountain to Hogsback. This road proved to be the worst surface that I have ever driven on. Compared to it, Joubert’s Pass (near Lady Grey), was a motorway. It got progressively worse as we painfully slowly approached Hogsback.

The road had everything against it and us. There were potholes, and deep furrows where streams of water had eroded the gravel. Bare rock showed through the road and made steps that had to be carefully negotiated. Worst of all were large rounded boulders, which were difficult to drive around as the narrow road was bounded either by ditches or by walls of rock. We were lucky that we neither capsized the car nor grounded it, nor damaged the sump or some other vulnerable part of its under surface. Navigating around or across some of these dangerous obstacles reminded me of performing a particularly difficult surgical dental extraction. Just as I had to take care not to damage a hidden nerve or blood vessel during an extraction, I had to drive to avoid injuring some important part beneath the car. Had we broken down on this deserted, barely frequented road, we would have been in big trouble. There was no mobile ‘phone coverage in the area. Hair raising to say the least: I still shudder when I remember this journey. Later, a cousin in Cape Town told me that when he had used this road, he had grounded his vehicle and thereby damaged its fuel line. Things improved at the end of the road. We were amused to see a road sign at the Hogsback end of this road that advised “Road not recommended for caravans.”

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A view from Hogsback

We found our accommodation: a collection of cottages called The Edge. The name refers to the position of the cottages which is at the very edge of the summit of the Hogsback ridge over which can be seen a view of the coastal plain over a thousand feet below. Our cottage was large but unheated except for a small, inadequate fireplace poorly located in one corner of the cottage remote from the bedrooms. We ate an excellent curry made by Dion and Shane who own a restaurant near our cottage. All night the snow fell, and the wind howled.

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A church in Hogsback