A Travellerspoint blog

South Africa, Greece and England

Turning 25 in my Hometown, and Celebrating Sacrifice in Europe

In October I headed over to South Africa to visit my family for a number of reasons, most importantly my first cousin’s wedding as well as my 25th birthday. I don’t think any trip can compare to one that’s filled with family. We started off in Swellendam, which is about three hours away from Cape Town. It was appropriate that the wedding take place there as my grandparents had lived across the Pass in Barrydale for a fair amount of time. The mountains surrounding the towns are beautiful, and the baboons within, although at times obnoxious are quite exciting for someone like me who’s not used to wild animals aside from raccoons (if they count?).

Anyway, the wedding weekend was wonderful. We woke up on the Saturday morning and used maps to find our destination. Upon arrival, I downed some gravol (motion sickness tablets) because I realized that we were going to be taking small boats to yet another surprise location. When we got there, the wedding basically took place in a cove on rocks and it was full of singing, wind and a German preacher. In the evening, I indulged in Amarula and watched my cousin learning the subtleties of German culture from our new cousin’s cousin.
During my 9 day trip there were a few national events of import. For example, the All Blacks beating the French rugby team, which many of the South Africans celebrated. As well, Cape Town (quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world) won World Design Capital for 2014. From what my cousin explained this basically means that the most creative people from all over the world will be in charge of ameliorating the city in creative ways, from transportation to social design.

On a more personal note, with my immediate family we spent time doing things like visiting the Pinelands cemetery where my grandfather, and great-grandparents are buried. Cemeteries are bizarre really. When we visited this cemetery it almost felt like we were joining a tea party, as strange as that sounds. Walking through the cemetery we pointed out the names of people my grandparents had been friendly with. It was literally like a walk down memory lane, which was appropriate considering the recent death of my grandmother. It was like a way to re-visit her too.

Due to the excessive amount of food I ate, including rusks, boerewors, and biltong some physical activity was definitely necessary. To counter the food intake I hiked a few times, including the Helderberg and Lion’s Head. I would particularly recommend the latter, as the view is stunning. You can see Clifton Beach, the Waterfront, and obviously Table Mountain. My cousin, Sean, showed me an area at the top where it’s almost like stepping stones to a little perch where you can theoretically just reflect and look out over the city. High up above everyone and not too far from the clouds, it was the perfect end to my trip.

Some of the more touristy things that we did along the way involved a trip to the Natural Museum of South African History, which had a wonderful exhibit on various African cultures including signs that pointed out the fallacy of some of the captions. I thought this was a necessary step, as parts of the exhibit were indeed outdated. One of the more interesting and modern exhibits was all about cave paintings. It had information and interviews, as well as pictures. It spoke of transcendental experiences and ceremonies centered on devotion to animals. As well, I did some shopping, which was, of course, necessary considering that I can’t find shoes in my size in Turkey. Apparently, Turkish women either have small feet, or know how to hide all the well-stocked shoe stores.

Briefly, I just want to describe my birthday and then I’ll jump over to Greece and England. The night before my birthday Sara and I slept at Candice’s house near The University of Cape Town (UCT). We spent the night chatting, gossiping and watching the most memorable movie ever “The Hollow”. It amounted to a soft-core porn cum Disney flick. The next morning we spent wandering The Waterfront including the hospital where I was born, and then visited the aquarium where I learned all about an interesting project involving witch doctors and superstitions in a campaign to protect marine wildlife. I thought it was creative and efficient because apparently people are responding to this method. After our visit, we went back to Candice’s house where Sean fairly shortly after picked us up and took us on a drive around Hout Bay. All along the ride, Sean gave me a fascinating commentary about the townships that he’d visited as well as more information on his road trip to Zimbabwe. I hear horror stories on the news, but it sounded like for a visitor the risks may have been exaggerated. He told me a few rules, in case I ever decide to follow suit. I think most importantly of course don’t try to argue with police and let people take their time, whether it be in conversation or transaction. A lot of what he was saying reminded me of my life in Turkey. I’m so used to constantly rushing in Toronto that it’s taken me a while to become used to the concept of accepting an invitation to drink tea. I think it’s been a change for the good though.
Anyway, to get back to my birthday, we went to Sean’s, ate and chatted and then headed off to see Kings of Leon at Greenpoint Stadium. It was probably the most amazing way I could have turned 25. A crowd of some 40 000 odd people all screaming and cheering and jumping and waving, while my sister hitchhiked around on some old man’s back and I jokingly explained to a naïve South African that in Canada we can’t see stars because the sky is too dark, so this was my first time really seeing them. The beer probably enhanced the oddness of our post-concert shenanigans because I ended up convincing Sean’s friend Lee that we absolutely needed a pylon. Due to it being my birthday, I would expect nothing less but full cooperation from him, and he agreed. We ran up and down the street with it and then the next morning the first thing I saw when I looked in the mirror was, naturally, a massive black smudge from where I had worn the pylon on my head. My way of ushering in 25, aided by family and friends, and not feeling a day over 15 (in the best possible way).

I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a better trip. I was able to spend time with my parents and sister who I hadn’t seen in a few months, and also see all of my cousins. In Swellendam I saw my Uncle and Aunt and then in Cape Town we spent most days with my other Uncle; I was really fortunate. We all bonded over my dad’s silliness and the gorgeous views that Erinvale had to offer. We also saw family friends who I hadn’t seen in ages. I find it funny every time I go back to Cape Town, because it’s almost like a snapshot. Each time I go it’s about 4 years apart, and we’re all at a different stage in our lives. Last time I was a University student and this time a teacher. Last time my cousin was a high school student and now she’s in University. The presents I received were telling: Sean gave me “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and Candice gave me “Die Antwoord” CD, while Sara treated me to a luxury day of chicken pot pies, beer and Kings of Leon. It sounds over-the-top, but it was just really nice being able to actually spend time doing nothing with them.

As for my trip to England and Greece, it wasn’t nearly as relaxing. In South Africa my parents took care of logistics, or my cousins took the reins. Upon arrival in Greece I had no voice as the two buses it took to get me there had been crowded with sick people, and the border crossing had involved what felt like an hour long waiting period in the freezing cold at 3 a.m. The bus company employee felt so bad for my pathetic, shivering self that he gave me his jacket. Thessaloniki at first glance was un-enticing. Cynthia, Brian and I went for some breakfast and in the process took in the lonely streets. We couldn’t believe how empty it was, and how hard hit their economy seemed to be considering the number of shops for sale. They left for Italy, and I went in search of my hostel. I took a Greek bus, which I didn’t pay for because I couldn't figure it out. I’m almost ashamed of how often I get away with things I shouldn’t, and how easy it’s starting to become for me to fall into the trap of doing it. In any case, I followed instructions and ended up lost and hailing a cab. The taxi driver had a horrible attitude, and drove me in circles. I requested that he stop, and I got out, at which point he tried to charge me about 5 Euros for a 5 minute drive and I refused. I offered 2.50 and he started screaming, so I gave him what I had and walked away hoping to avoid a scene. In the confusion I ran into a British girl and her Greek friend, who then promptly walked me back to her place and woke up her friend (on the phone) to tell him to google my hostel and then tell us exactly how to get there. They then walked me directly to my hostel and went off on their way. Once I was settled, I felt much better. I ventured off to visit the old city walls, and also the downtown core. Along the way I picked up a German friend named Jonathan. We visited The Rotunda, Hagia Sofia, as well as Ataturk’s House (his hometown of sorts). I think the last visit was the most entertaining for the sheer number of Turks everywhere. I felt like I was speaking more Turkish than I do in Turkey. The reason being that Kurban Bayrami was in full swing, so Greece was a close and interesting destination – we all had the same idea, clearly.

While exploring the city, including the waterfront I realized that I was quickly becoming enamored of it. The White Castle and all the restaurants along the water were somehow enchanting even though the grey skies only cleared at sunsetIMG_5736.jpg. Our timing was strategic, as we were able to buy tickets for the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. That night we saw “Michael” – a film about a German paedophile. Before the film we went to dinner at an excellent Argentinian restaurant. As it happens, Jonathan’s father writes guide books in German for Greece, so he was definitely in-the-know about where to go. The next day involved more wandering, as well as more introductions to Turks – who happened to randomly spring up in my hostel room overnight. I was still feeling sick the next day, but I decided to go exploring the city more and we saw another movie. This time it was Lebanese, and kind of functioned as an advertisement for me to visit (in my mind at least). It was called “Ok. Enough. Goodbye”. It basically showed the life of a middle-aged man and his mother’s quest to make him independent, which involved her moving to a different city while he was at work. I’m not sure which strategy is best; leaving home after high school or waiting until marriage (if that comes). I’m pretty sure that were I to move back home for good with my parents it would be difficult for us to manage; however, that could be attributed to my having lived apart from them for a while. Nearing the end, I had some interesting conversations with fellow hostel-dwellers and the owners. They taught me a lot about Greek society, and also an interesting fringe area called Athos where monks rule and women aren’t even permitted to cross the border. That night I went to a bar to wait for the bus to take me to the airport. I got so distracted by my conversation with the bartender that I not only missed the bus once, but twice. I ended up there in time to catch my flight though, which matters most.

Leaving Greece I headed to England, where I stayed the first night in a B & B near Stansted airport. It was incredibly relaxing. I had a gorgeous room to myself, and I basically just arrived, slept and then ate a delicious breakfast. The next morning I headed off to London, where I left my bags and set off in search of culture. I visited the British National Museum, the Tate Modern, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Green Park, and London Bridge. I had an excellent time wandering, but by the end of the day I was exhausted and tired of being alone. What stood out to me the most that day was a photo exhibit by Taryn Simon. It documented the lives of a lot of really unusual people in different countries around the world, including Indian men who had been declared dead by their families (who wanted to acquire their land) and a Palestinian woman who had been a terrorist.

That night I attempted to call my friend, with whom I was supposed to stay, and who I couldn’t reach. It turns out she had given me the wrong number, hence the confusion. In any case, I arrived at her dorm in Camden Town in search of her, but without her room number. I was let in and spent about 2 hours trying to contact her by phone and facebook – to no avail. Fortunately, another friend was on facebook and agreed to let me stay the night. To all those facebook naysayers, clearly it serves a purpose. I ended up in West Kensington. We chatted and reminisced about times in Mexico 3 years prior, while her poor roommate packed up and went to stay at a friend’s. As it happens she lives in a 3-bedroom apartment, but her third roommate had subletted to someone and then arrived back earlier than expected, meaning that the apartment was already crowded and my arrival meant someone had to temporarily step out. In any case, I slept well and woke up refreshed; happy that I wasn’t in a 10-person dorm but rather a cozier, more comforting environment. That morning Erika walked me to a nearby coffee shop where I ended up having a long chat with the owner and a record producer, while waiting to see if I would get in touch with my friend before my daytrip to Evesham. I think one of the most insightful things I heard on my whole trip came out that morning when the owner told me that travelling alone is the best way to set personal boundaries and also test one’s own limits. England did just that. I tried calling my friend again, which didn’t work because the number was wrong, so I headed off on my trip with all my baggage in tow, including broken boots on my feet (the heels had started falling off while in Greece). I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt like such an aimless wanderer.

My train ride to Evesham was beautiful. The countryside was really green and I saw cows, and rivers; I expected a zombie to jump out at any point. I shared the ride with two ad execs and an Estonian rapper: interesting, to say the least. The town itself was quaint, and I thought it appropriate to have some proper local food so I ordered fish and chips. It was alright; I think the novelty made it worthwhile. That night I returned back to my friend’s dorm and went in search of her by knocking on doors. I found her and we dropped my bags and headed to a bar nearby to reminisce on last year in Turkey and the lives we’re now leading. I was disappointed by the precarious position she put me in the night prior, and also how little time she made for me given that this was a trip (partially) to visit her. Situations change people though. She’s pursuing her Masters in London, and it seems to be exactly the path for her. She seems much happier and at ease, both because she’s in England, in a relationship, and because she’s found a career that really interests her. Her dorm is right near a few very interesting neighbourhoods including Soho and Kentish Town. It made me think back to Thessaloniki and how much I had appreciated the vibe there that the plethora of graffiti created.

The following days in London were filled with visits with friends. It really made me nostalgic. I met with Maddy who I’d met in Toronto and who’s now also teaching. We talked about our experiences living with Spanish host families; the trials and tribulations of trying to understand what’s acceptable and what’s expected. Strangely enough the restaurant we ate at was Turkish. I had chosen it not knowing, perhaps it’s fate, or perhaps I’m programmed – maybe a touch of both. Before meeting Maddy I had ventured around Leicester Square and Westminster Abbey, and also gone to lunch with Erika before seeing a play. I was fortunate enough to be bumped up to seventh row at “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, which may have been the strangest thing I’ve ever seen live – excluding a mock S & M play in Winnipeg when I was 18. The play’s costumes were basically like the brain of a kindergarten kid on acid; there were men dressed as cupcakes and others like flamingos. The dialogue was witty, and the music was pop. One of the highlights for me was when I noticed that all of the other attendees were over 50, and when the time came a bunch of them went up on stage and joined in the festivities. It was encouraging considering that I’d just turned 25. I now have a plan for 50 – get on stage with drag queens and do a dance-off.

Remembrance Day came and went and I left to go back to Greece. The day before I’d seen a ceremony of sorts at Westminster Abbey, which I found appropriate because my grandmother had volunteered there. I spoke with one of her cousins in fact (or my mother’s), and I found it pretty inspiring. I have a huge number of extended family in England, but I don’t know them at all. I think my mission for my next trip to England will involve getting to know who these relatives are, and learning more about the life my grandmother led. Right before catching my flight I went for breakfast with my friend Mehmet, who I’d met in Turkey. It was funny seeing him because it felt like we could have been anywhere: two friends sitting in a café and chatting. It was wonderful seeing him, but from a selfish perspective I almost wished he was still in Turkey so that it didn’t require a 5 hour flight to have a casual conversation. He had been there all along my Turkish-language discovery journey. He’s also pursuing a Masters in England. Hopefully that’ll be me soon enough, minus the England part.

My last days in Thessaloniki involved more wandering and very little sleep, probably due to the sickness I was still getting over and partially due to my Greek roommate. He came back to the dorm at about 4 am, very surprised to see me (I had only arrived after 11 pm). He mumbled some Greek to me, which clearly I didn’t understand and I told him to turn off the light and go to his area – he followed my orders. As it happens, he was in the army. At 6 am once again he woke me up because he and his friend were heading off to work. They came back later, and we introduced ourselves. He ended up volunteering to accompany me around the city, so off we headed to the Archaeology and the Byzantine Museums. He told me about his life in the army, and what it was like growing up in Athens. More importantly, he joked around constantly, which I really appreciated. I’m not sure what it was about Greece, but I felt like they got my sense of humor and I got theirs. It was comfortable having to be on my toes. The most fascinating thing at the museums was an exhibition about the Jews of Thessaloniki, wherein I learned about the community and its responsibilities before WWII. There was also some discussion about how the community was organized, including the cemetery. Afterwards, we went for some Greek food and then I took off for my last movie “Fleurs du Mal”. It took place in France, but one of the characters was Iranian and had been sent there by her parents to avoid any injury during the protests. Once again, it made me want to travel there. It made me think back to some of my friends from high school, and also some of the students I taught – people who told me stories about their friends being beaten at pro-democracy rallies.

My travels around in the past month have involved family, friends and a large number of acquaintances. I’ve heard really interesting stories and also realized that I don’t want my purpose in travel to be fleeing problems, but rather discovering my capacities and learning about others. I like having to figure out plans and overcome obstacles, especially when they involve end-goals like moussaka and drag-queens. Next step: Lebanon and Jordan, or Prague and Vienna?

Posted by madrugada 13:23

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