You know the way some white South Africans telling travel stories tend to roll their eyes/shrug their shoulders/throw up their hands, sigh theatrically and say “Well, this is Africa!” – meaning “Well what do you expect other than incompetence/delay/corruption?”
They constantly look for the negative, magnify it and amplify it, thus consistently fulfilling their most dire expectations. These same people look to Europe as I looked to Narnia as a kid: as an idyllic place of order, beauty, abundance, sophistication and justice.
I loathe how this centuries-old Heart of Darkness shit is constantly rehashed. Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina pointed out the intellectual laziness of Western writers in his satirical essay How to Write About Africa in 2005 and its 2012 update (and his commentary) #This Is Europe is my attempt to point out a few home truths and counter the Darkest Africa narrative, first perpetuated by imperialist-era writers such as Stanley and Conrad, that assumes all whities share such assumptions.
NB This is not an anti-Europe rant in the Brexit mould. I count Britain as part of Europe for the purpose of this blog, at least until the Union collapses or until we can tell the difference by looking at you. (You all look the same to us Africans: over-privileged.)
So let’s explore #This Is Europe!
No one greets. Coming directly from West Africa, this seemed so rude. On our first day in Spain, at the Customer Service desk of a huge supermarket, Sampson was completely ignored for half an hour. Although queuing smiling at the counter, he was not acknowledged or told he needed to take a ticket to get service. It seemed so bizarre to us not to acknowledge the presence of another human. Europeans, it seems, have successfully trained themselves to block each other out with their insulating belief that ‘it’s not my problem’. They don’t see you or your suffering.
(The first friendly people we met in Europe were Africans: a Moroccan street cleaner in southern Spain, an effusive Ghanaian carguard outside the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia and an Algerian outside a restaurant in Marseille, who was so thrilled to see us there he went back to his house to fetch us iced water and dates.)
I was equally baffled early one day when I was doing T’ai Chi in T-shirt and shorts on the empty nudist beach in Almayate. An older gay couple were unfazed enough to come and stand right beside me stark naked – one oke sporting a silver ring around his straining red balls – but yet weren’t comfortable enough to say good morning? #This Is Europe!
The first four Euro/English speakers we bumped into by the beach acted like overgrown children despite being over 40. Whatever the topic, it all came back to me me me. We’d just arrived after crossing Africa in a truck that runs on waste vegetable oil, but they didn’t ask us a single question. Their consuming interest was only ever their own dramas, achievements and needs. Classic lines included “Have you got a spare tent?” “I’ve got a violin” “My father’s a millionaire-type person. He was very tough on my brother and me. My life is so terrible…” #This Is Europe!
I thought getting online in Europe was bound to be loads easier than the schlep we’ve had to get connected in each of the African countries we’ve passed through. If I’m honest, I assumed there would be free wifi pretty much everywhere by now. HA!
Seems the capitalists have still got the iknowledge commons on lockdown. France blocks cell tethering: we couldn’t use the SIMs in our phones as mobile hotspots but were forced to buy a separate modem. Data was cripplingly expensive: 10€ (R157) for 1GB which seemed to disappear a lot faster than 1GB at home. What’s more, Orange charges for access by the day, not only the quantity, so even if you don’t make any calls or go online, in 10 days your credit expires. As a result, we just spent the most money and the longest time isolated offline of this whole trip… #This Is Europe!
The olives of Spain look the same as Maroc’s but are pumped full of E numbers that give me stomach ache, it’s so sad. Fruit in Europe appears bigger, brighter and better looking at first. But though it may look juicier on the outside, once you take a bite, you find the taste is surprisingly bland. A bit like Europe itself!
Shockingly, it’s been more of a challenge to find water in southern Europe than in the Sahara. Service stations are anything but – there are no taps in garages here. If you want water, you have to pay for it e.g. 4€ for 7 minutes in a municipal car park in France. #This Is Europe!
Food packaging is still ridiculously excessive. I thought Europe would be streets ahead of SA in terms of reusable/refillable solutions in supermarkets but I’ve seen little evidence for that so far beyond biodegradable plastic fruit and veg bags.
Mechanics here also never learn how to make a plan and recycle or repair anything – they just buy a new part. They don’t need to because there are no old trucks in Europe. In France, a car is officially classed as ‘vintage’ if it is more than 30 years old. It’s almost impossible to get hold of second hand parts for our 1978 Mercedes. #This Is Europe!
I’ve been shocked at the effect on my body of the assault of European pollution. On the Côte Bleue, when the wind blows hard, the breeze coming off the sea smells nothing like fresh air. At best it’s neutral, like in air-conditioned hotel corridors; more often it’s loaded with factory effluents or heady fumes from a refinery. It’s a slow but deadly suffocation.
The continuing unchallenged hegemony of fossil fuelled vehicles seems beyond crazy – thousands upon thousands of lorries ply up and down the autoroutes transporting similar products to each other’s countries. #This Is Europe!
Cheese, I grant you, is cheap. Everything else? Aaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhh. I’m just thankful we’re not having to buy diesel as well. Gauteng may think E-tolls are a cheek, but try getting anywhere quickly along the Mediterranean coast without hitting péages. An hour’s travel in a truck can cost you 10€. #This Is Europe!
Oh take me back to the wide open spaces and freedom of Africa! There’s bloody NOWHERE to park. We’re so Not Allowed. Sampson wonders why France doesn’t make souvenir T-shirts bearing the ubiquitous slogan ‘INTERDIT’. There are height restriction bars under 2m in every car park down every single inch of the French south coast.
Other potential spaces are fenced off, with bollards or railings, to keep ‘camping cars’ out. Apps such as park4night have been a great help, but too often when we arrive at those rare places they’re locked up or full of ‘fridges’ as Sampson calls these vans, packed in like sardines. Overcrowding down the Mediterranean coast is endemic: cities, autoroutes, beaches, waves… #This Is Europe!
Of course, when we set off in 2013, we didn’t know Libya was going to remain without a government indefinitely and we hoped to avoid going the long way round the Med. Our dimensions, like our budget, were never designed for Europe. In hindsight, a sleeker version of the Big Green Truck would’ve been wiser…
Historic towns that grew into modern cities are full of ancient stone bridges of random heights and strengths. Big Reg is just under 10T and 4m high and we’ve spent many hours on merry detours to avoid some suddenly announced bridge: “Turn! Turn! It’s 3.5m!” or “5T – Get off, get off!” Not to mention old village roads so narrow you hold your breath going through them. #This Is Europe!
In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks, there are armed guards patrolling up and down bearing automatic weapons at tourist sites across Spain, France and Italy. Europe is beginning to look uncomfortably like a police state. The bombings are not the direct fault of the European population, but Africans can certainly feel more assured that the besieged folk of the Middle East are less likely to be inflicting revenge on our cities for the violence inflicted on them in the ‘War on Terror’ by Western governments.
Did you see the way the police treated voters in the Catalunya Referendum? #This Is Europe.
Especially for all those white South Africans who are convinced The Crime is an exclusive product of townships, so far we’ve had: in Spain, a man with a knife rifling through Ruby’s tent at 2.30am, when, luckily, disturbed cats woke her; in France, two guys who tried to rock our bike rack off at 10pm, not realising we were inside, fast asleep.
On our first night in Marseille, Euromaster staff had warned us to stay inside behind the high walls of their parking lot and not venture out. It was stiflingly hot, so we ate late, watched some TV with Friday Night Treats and were getting ready for bed around 11pm when the first bangs sounded out.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Sampson cautiously.
“Mmmm” he said and we exchanged looks.
It sounded exactly like the gunshots we were used to hearing at weekends earlier this year when we lived in the LoveShack on the Capri hillside opposite Masiphumelele. Except these just kept coming, so many of them, they were sounding like firecrackers. Zola sidled up for a goodnight cuddle on my bed, admitting he was a bit frightened.
“Oh no, it must be fireworks” I bluffed confidently, googling, “Look, there’s a big music festival happening in the city this weekend, Die Antwoord are on the line-up tomorrow, I bet it’s the opening for that…”
He went to sleep as Sampson and I lay listening to the bursts of automatic gunfire spraying round the neighbourhood outside. Shoo, seems the main difference between gangsters in Ocean View and les quartiers nords is the amount of money they’re prepared to splash out on bullets. #This Is Europe!
PS For any French people who are about to jump in and remonstrate “Ah yes, but the crime in Marseille is due to the huge amount of North African immigrants there”, we’d just like to say a) bollocks, Marseille has had a reputation as a port city of smugglers and thieves for centuries and b) that driving through the ‘dangerous’ suburbs of downtown Marseille (by accident, to avoid a bridge) was the friendliest experience we’ve had so far – people were shouting and waving and smiling to see us. It felt like home 🙂
PPS If you are offended by the concertina-ing of all European countries into one amorphous mass and the lack of any attempt to differentiate between the hugely different cultures, traditions and atmospheres of each, well – hah, wake up and smell the irony!
Look, of course a great deal of our experience of Europe so far has been “WOW it’s so tidy/efficient/full of cheese” but there is a whole other side that tends to be overlooked. It’s not my style to focus on the negative, but, as a dual passport holder, I’m just throwing in a little realism to redress the balance.
The main challenge while travelling Africa is the constant battle to contend with Mother Nature and geography (weather, distances, roads); for us, travelling Europe so far, it’s mostly about striving to stay one step ahead of The Man…