Thoughts on Experiencing Similarities and Differences in Countries and/or Cities you Visit for Only a Few Days at a Time

(I always wanted to write something with a long title like this. My favourite movie title is The Englishmen who went up a Hill and came down a Mountain.)

Countries under Discussion

France (a bit of the South and Paris, ten days)

England (only London, four days)

Netherlands (only Amsterdam, three days)

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One can hardly be an expert after visiting a country or even only a city for three or four or ten days – and for the first time! But we can make deductions, relate experiences and emotions and share observations after visiting places – even if it is after only such a short time. After all – that is why we do the lovely, beautiful, excruciating thing called travelling. So add if you want to, differ if it entertains you, but please don’t digitally crucify me for my inadequate, subjective views and comments on three great places my feet had the pleasure to touch.

We as a little family visited a few destinations in Europe at the end of last year through the beginning of this one. My husband is a seasoned traveller and had visited many countries beyond our continent’s borders, but for our son and I, it was the first trip beyond Africa and the Middle East. we looked forward to it for a long time and we weren’t disappointed. It must actually be ‘normal’ for South Africans like us to visit Europe at least once in a lifetime, because that is where our origins are. But travelling is a privilege and most of the time we can’t just jump on a plane and go wherever we dream to go. For us, the opportunity came up and we grabbed it with all fours.

 man in pau

France

After hoping and dreaming, we finally made the trip to visit to a friend of mine, residing in the south of France for the last five years. My friend, Mirella, her husband, Christian, and two sons, Daniël and Xavier lives in Sainte Colome, near Arudi, near Pau, near Toulouse in the south western part of Aquitaine province of the country, very close to the border with Spain. This border is lined with the beautiful Pyrenees Mountains and counts as some of the finest of God’s creation.

Our initial introduction with the French people wasn’t that heartening. Speak English at the train station in Toulouse and you are rudely ignored. Fortunately, angels roam the earth and an English speaking one was waiting for us at the ticket machine to help us obtain three tickets to Pau. Once in the countryside, people showed us the nicer side of being French. We breathed the good, clean Pyrenees air for seven wonderful days, we watched the world around us in awe, threw a snowball for the first time ever (!) and admired people’s skills in the soft, white, cold wonderland.

Paris was everything I hoped it would be and more. We visited all the famous tourist sites, enjoyed the food and watched the Parisians stroll up and down the Champs Elysees dressed as if it is a catwalk. We were there for only three days, but somehow we ended up going to the Eiffel Tower every single day! We left for London on the evening before the Charlie Hebdo incident. I don’t know if we will ever have the opportunity to visit Paris or the French countryside ever again, but I know that there is a smile reserved in my heart for my memories of France. I can’t help to wonder what Paris will be like in the summer though?

Things we Observed and Experienced while Visiting France for Ten Days

  • It is true. The French don’t like hearing English. We tested it. Every time my husband started an enquiry in his friendliest English, he was impolitely disregarded. I then stepped in, beginning in Afrikaans, our native language, and then flowed over into my version of ‘French’ – English camouflaged in a terrible French accent. It is quite easy to ‘bend’ English words so that they sound We were successful in all our missions this way – from asking directions, to exchanging pleasantries to buying cough medicine!
  • The French seems educated. (They definitely sound educated speaking such a beautiful language!) Everyone They sit on benches and read. They read on the bus, the boat, the train. Men read, women read, children read and grandmothers read to children who can’t read yet. It is just lovely to watch this passionate affair the French people has with books!
  • It also seems that all people living in France can speak French. (It might sound obvious, but it is not necessarily a given that people naturally speak the language of the country they live in – see my observations about London later on.)
  • Being South African and coming from a country where the crime rate is unacceptably high, one of my first observations of the French countryside was the absence of fear. In the village where my friend lives, they don’t even lock their doors (as some of those hundred-plus-year-old houses don’t have keys anymore!) There is a sense of safety and also an absence of aggression – something I had recognised and acknowledged within myself for the first time. I am still shocked to appreciate how living in a society with no respect for life changes you and make you angry all the time. And I am deeply saddened by it, because it had become the psyche of ‘my people’ back home. It is something I have to ponder on and to do something about.
  • I’ve touched the point above already that the French knows how to dress. They really dress elegantly and if you are clothed in the most common South African brand winter clothing, you stand out a little bit. Luckily it didn’t rain much, so we wore our ‘classier’ stuff the two remaining days. But with my weathered hiking boots I still looked very Boer-like in the presence of all those designer heels. Anyway, my feet were happy. And so was I.
  • In spite of them not liking English, the French are friendlier than one thinks and they are pretty likable people in the end.

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London

All I wanted was a beer in a real pub and sitting on the Underground, being in shops and walking in the streets of London and listening to proper English accents, like our friend Simon’s. Boy, was I disappointed! Only twice in the four days did I hear that. The rest of the time our ears were entertained by almost every language under the sun – Arabic, Italian, Russian, other Eastern European sounding languages, Greek, French etc. In shops, we were served by foreigners. The Underground was packed with people from elsewhere. London is a little world in its own.

In spite of not hearing much proper English, we really enjoyed our time in London. We walked, saw touristy places, we went to see Phantom of the Opera at West End, we went to the movies and checked out James Bond stuff in the British Film Museum. It rained and it didn’t and it rained and it didn’t. And we had that pint in a real pub – the Sherlock Holmes Pub, nogal!

I liked visiting London and won’t cry if I have to visit it again. I do still have a dream to go watch a tennis match at Wimbledon. And I want to still see the English and the Scottish and the Welch and the Irish countryside…

Things we Observed and Experienced while Visiting London for Four Days

  • There is no good coffee.
  • There is no good coffee.
  • There is no good coffee.
  • Did I mention that the coffee there isn’t any good?
  • London appears very orderly. Properly English. Things work. That’s nice. I liked that. Once upon a time, things worked well in South Africa too. We learned from the Germans and the Dutch and the French and the British. But somehow we’ve lost our orderliness. And a lot of other necessities too.
  • People flock to England to get an education. Some for real. Some under false pretences and get stopped at the airport – something we witnessed.
  • On that point, London had become a place of refuge for many people from many different countries. It brings along its own challenges for the authorities, because of socio-economic issues and increasing extremism, but for most people it had become a place where they can go to be safe and to make a new life. It might be a hard life and difficult to get ahead, but nevertheless, it is a place to where they can go to get saved from where they come from.
  • And also on that point. One gets a feeling of disconnectedness amongst the masses. Most people appear alone and distant and lonesome. Maybe it is because they had to disconnect from their roots and they just didn’t reconnect again. I suppose it is not out of the ordinary. Living in a foreign land does that to a person.

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The Netherlands

Amsterdam was a breath of fresh air. Okay, with a hint of marijuana near the train station. We spend a whole day walking along the canals with our friend, Rudi, who lives there. We ate biltong at an Aussie restaurant/bar that is nice enough to sell South African delicacies for the homesick Springbok supporters who watch rugby matches there. It was bloody cold.

It must be impossible to know for real, but statistics shows that there are more than 600 000 bicycles in Amsterdam. They have their own parking lots – like those for cars. Everyone is riding a bike – young and old. And sometimes the young with a mom or a dad. It is an overwhelming phenomenon, the bikes of Amsterdam. We visited the places everyone visited, rode on a boat in the canals and we walked and walked and walked. And it was bloody cold.

I loved Amsterdam. It was fun, relaxed and relaxing and we just had a great time. And we would love to see the rest of the Netherlands. Maybe in springtime…

Things we Observed and Experienced while Visiting Amsterdam for Three Days

  • The Hollanders are super friendly. Maybe they are always a little bit high with all the fumes hanging around (wink-wink) or maybe that’s just the way they are.
  • They are helpful people. Apart from their friendliness, they have this wonderful way in which they serve you. Really caringly serve you.
  • There also is an absence of fear.
  • Order and education is a visible priority. It’s Europe.
  • In Amsterdam everyone speaks Dutch. The population looks a bit like that of London with white, black, Asian, Middle Eastern etc., working everywhere, but the difference here is that every white, black, Middle Eastern or Asian mouth speaks Dutch! It is so weird, but also so wonderful! And we can understand them a little bit. If they speak slowly.
  • As in the case of London, Amsterdam is also a sanctuary for people from all over the world. Their tolerance throughout history made people flock to the city and it harboured many people in need of shelter in the past and still in the present.

These were just a few comments. I’m still working on my observations about living in Egypt. Maybe I will only write about that at the end of our time here. That is after all a whole different ballgame.

© 2015 – I, Fielies (Riëtte) De Kock tries hard to be a Proverbs 31-woman – excellentest wife, finest mom, greatest lover and successful ‘wordpreneur’ all at the same time. I temporarily share my living space in Cairo, Egypt with my husband, young-adult son, the building’s ginger cat, a stuffed toy dog, named Ike – and the space in my head with way too many ideas and multitudes of story characters, to functioning normally.

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