Category Archives: Memoirs

The many layers of my Jewish skin

Certain things remind me of my Jewish roots. Some bring me closer, other repel me. Make me want to run a mile.

Like watching Manny Wax talk about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of David Cyprus, a security guard at the Yeshiva College Melbourne, the subsequent community cover up and shameful treatment of Manny’s family by their supposed friends. These things repel. They push me away.

Then I see a man like Zephaniah Wax, Manny’s father, an orthodox Jew with a modern-day understanding of the world, who is kind, thoughtful and funny, whom I instantly admire and like, a man I would love to discuss the philosophies of life with over a meal.

He is nothing like the orthodox woman who tought me at cheder (Jewish studies I attended in the afternoon while I was at primary school) who told me I should try not associate with non-Jewish people. Or the awful history teacher at high school, who tried to make us learn to draw the map of Israel by heart. She repelled me as did the forced morning prayer, the constant yelling at kids who didn’t pray and the shovelling of religion and zionism down our throats.

The truth is being Jewish is complicated. It’s probably why Woody Allen depicts his characters – primarily New York jews – as guilt-ridden, questioning, uncomfortable people. Never quite at home in their own skins. I love those characters and identify with them.

My own admission is that I have willingly and easily slipped the yolk of my religion. I’ve married out the faith, I eat what I like, I never attend synagogue and don’t observe the sabbath or any of the festivals. I am very much a secular Jew.

But it wasn’t always this way.

It was my mother who instilled in me my Jewish identity. She got it from her father, my grandfather Harry, who died – on of all days – on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement.

My grandfather Harry, far left - not quite how I remember him

My grandfather Harry, far left – not quite how I remember him

It shook me when he died on that very day. Having been told endlessly that Yom Kippur was the day when you were inscribed either in the book of life or the book of death, his passing felt huge and momentous. In my mind, I always pictured Yom Kippur as the hand of God writing names in one of two enormous, leather-bound books somewhere up above clouds. On the cover of one was written “LIFE” on the other “DEATH”.

Harry, who we called ‘Zayda’  (Yiddish for ‘Grandfather’) and his son, my Uncle Sydney, who we all called ‘Uncle Yoel’ were the religious centre of our extended family when we grew up in South Africa in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

Zayda was a distant, but kind man with big watery eyes made huge behind thick glasses, a bald head always covered with a kippah and a bow-legged walk. He was an old man from my earliest memories. Zayda was the impetus for us observing the rituals of the Sabbath and the festivals. Before Passover, he would hide ‘chametz’ (pieces of bread) around the house and then we would walk behind him in the dark as he tried to remember where he hid them. Zaydah would hold a candle and a little shovel he’d made from cardboard and using a feather, sweep up the “unleavened bread” in ritual cleansing of the house of bread before it was filled with boxes of Matzoh. My sister, brother and I could hardly keep a straight face as we marched around the house searching for bread. My grandfather was never amused by our snorting. Many months later, we’d find stale pieces of bread on bookshelves or somewhere else Zaydah had forgotten about.

Like many Jews of his era, a favourite pastime was reading the obituaries in The Star newspaper in the afternoon to see who had died. This he did with a magnifying glass, hunched over the paper. Having come to South Africa from Russia where he ran a concession store on the mines, I think he had endured a tough life. He had a sad face and suffered the loss of wife Lily, my ‘bobba’ when she passed away suddenly many years before I was born.

I was very close to my Uncle Yoel  – a slim man with a neatly trimmed black beard, always full of ideas, patient, kind  and well liked by all who knew him. I used to go to his flat in Hillbrow (and inner city Johannesburg suburb that has since fallen on hard times), where we studied the portion of the Torah I was to read for my Bar Mitzvah. I’d come to his flat on Sunday mornings to study, but we also talked about cricket and other things.I am not quite sure what my Uncle did for a living, but for a long time he sold a course of motivational tapes from the ‘Success Motivation International‘  – SMI as I called it – that created a program for setting and achieving goals. He gave me a set of tapes and we would also sit in his flat planning my goals and how I would achieve them. One of them was to be a good Bar Mitzvah boy, which I achieved.

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

The author, his Bar Mitzvah, 1987

After my Uncle Yoel married his wife Esher – a native of Chicago with a big beaming smile who seemed to find everything I said funny – and started to have children they moved to a big house in Yeoville,  an predominantly orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of square brick houses and shady trees reminiscent back then of the Melbourne suburb of Balaclava with its kosher cafes, Jewish institutions and synagogues.

Here our family and my Uncle’s family would gather on Friday nights for the Shabbot (Sabbath) meal. We would sing songs in hebrew and say the prayers and then feast in the traditional Jewish way: by overeating. First would come the chopped liver piled high on challah (platted loaves of bread topped with sesame seeds) on to which I heaped horse-radish or mustard. This was followed by chicken soup, a broth that contained soft pieces of chicken, necks and stomachs and sometimes chicken feet followed by a main course of chicken or meat or both, roast vegetables, kugel (potato pudding) and salads. Dessert was non-dairy chocolate mousse which my mother made with something called Orley Whip, a staple of every Jewish household in Johannesburg.

A couple of years later my Uncle Yoel emigrated with his family to an othordox neighbourhood of Chicago. Over the years, as I have drifted further and further away from Judaism, we have sadly lost touch and lost that close bond we had when I was a young boy and teenager. The last time I saw him was at my brother’s wedding in Miami in 2010 and before that it had been many, many years since we had seen each other.

Over the years, I have shaken off layer upon layer of my Jewish skin.  But there are many layers.

I have remained – at heart – a proud, non-observant Jew.

My core Jewishness remains and deeper than traditional foods, the jokes, anxiety and guilt.

Sometimes I feel a longing to sit in  synagogue and sing some of the familiar Friday night songs. On the  odd occasion I get invited for a Friday night meal or to celebrate one of the festivals, it’s a special treat. Sometimes I find myself humming the tunes I used to sing in synagogue.

It was a sad, but also defiant moment on the ABC’s Compass show that aired the story of Manny Wax when Manny’s father Zephaniah and his wife are seen sitting alone at their vast dinner table, because their own family and community have cast them out.

It takes me back to those big Friday night dinners in Berea, that I remember now so clearly, but yhat are also so distant.

There’s the enormous meal before us. I’m calling on someone to pass me the ‘chrain’ (horse-radish) to spread on my chopped liver. There is herring and kichel (sweet Israeli crackers). The two families are gathered together. My Zayda is there eating slowly. He is very old and struggling to hear what everyone is talking about. My Uncle Yoel is discussing cricket or asking me about my week at school and the food keeps coming. The house is suffused with the smell of chicken and potato pudding. Wax drips down the shabbat candles, which flicker and burn on a silver tray. Later we ‘bench’ – sing prayers of thanks for our meal –  and make our way home by car through quiet Friday night streets of Yeoville and Observatory.

These were things that bound us together back then and are a layer that I keep beneath my skin.

To Rome with love (and a bit of hate)

to-rome-with-loveWoody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’ is a gorgeous tribute to the “eternal city” and a feast for the eyes.

The Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Roman Forum, the Spanish Steps, quiet cobbled back streets and rooftop panoramas are the backdrops to four off-beat stories about people caught up in various adventures and mis-adventures in Rome.

While not a classic among the director’s huge body of work (no less than 50 movies), it is filled with enough classic “Woody Allen” moments to make it one I would recommend to fans.

There are plenty of trademark Annie Hall-style intellectual jokes delivered by Woody Allen’s character, Jerry an unhappily retired opera director, much to the exasperation of his wife Phyllis (played by the always brilliant Judy Davis):

Jerry: “I couldn’t be a communist. I could never share the bathroom”

And…

Jerry: “You know, you married a very bright guy. I got a 150/160 IQ.
Phyllis: You’re figuring it in euros, in dollars it’s much less

There are also some very funny moments as when Giancarlo (played by real Italian opera singer Fabio Armiliato) – the soon to be father-in-law of Jerry’s daughter Hayley  – is wheeled on stage in a production of the opera Pagliacci singing in a portable shower while he soaps himself (I am sure you can work out the reason for yourself).

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Jerry: I see New York. I see Vienna Opera House. I see Paris.
Phyllis: All in the shower?
Jerry: Yes. They love it that he sings in the shower. They identify. You know, he’s going to be the most popular opera singer in the world.
Phyllis: Certainly the cleanest.

Like the more successful Midnight in Paris, elements of magical realism are interwoven in the story as when Leopoldo (played by the charismatic Italian Oscar winner Roberto Begnini) awakes one morning transformed into an instant celebrity (much like George Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though a slightly more appealing predicament) hounded by the paparazzi:

Journalist: Good morning. We are at the home of  Mr. Leopoldo Pisanello. It’s half past seven, and Mr. Pisanello is shaving…an event that we document
from first to last gesture. Mr. Pisanello is having his hair cut. – Look, just a trim – He opted for only a trim.

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Roberto Begnini finds himself irresistable to beautiful Italian women

There’s also a sensational performance by Penelope Cruz as Anna a gorgeous, buxom prostitute and great cameos by Italian actors Rosa Di Brigida and Antonio Albanese among others.

Watching ‘To Rome with Love’ took me back to my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I was backpacking around the world with my wife.

I blogged on July 15 under the heading: “No roman holiday” -

“Rome is too bloody hot, too overcrowded with tourists and we can’t wait to leave”

Rome felt nothing like the care free, enchanting city depicted by Woody Allen.

Our few days in the “infernal city” had been a disaster from beginning to end starting from nearly getting run over by Italians in small cars as we hiked down a narrow road, in desperation, trying to find our budget hotel on the edge of town.

After that ordeal, we spent our days fighting our way through traffic jams of tourists at every famous site and on every crowded piazza. Even getting a simple scoop of gelato meant standing in a long line. Worse was the sun which pounded down relentlessly while Rome seemed to offer no shade or escape from the heat. Everything was too expensive, the subways and trains were like ovens and we felt like the only two fools in Rome without a penny to scratch between us. We were glad to leave.

This was nothing like my experience of Rome about eight years prior, when I visited with friends.

I was living in London at the time and money was less of an issue.

We hired a large rooftop flat with sweeping views over the city. We ate delicious pizza and pasta al fresco on big piazzas with the locals. We drank lots of Italian red wine, sipped cappuccinos and shots of Amaretto liquer and watched the sun sink below the white church domes from our mock-castle in the sky. At least that’s how I remember it!

We visited all the sites; stared up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and explored countless old churches. We went walking along the Appian Way to find the ancient catacombs and took naps in parks in the afternoons.

I remembered getting lost outside the Altare della Patria, the white marble national monument known as the ‘wedding cake’ on our way to find some famous site just as Hayley (Alison Pill) does at the start of the movie, only for Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) to show her the way.

When John (an architect played by Alec Baldwin) is drinking a glass of wine with his wife and friends on the piazza, I remembered sitting at an outside table in front of the Pantheon, ordering a ‘prosciutto’ pizza only for the waiter, confused by my poor pronunciation to bring me a ‘bruschetta’ – much to the amusement of my friends.

‘To Rome with Love’ is not Woody Allen’s greatest film or even a great one, but as a homage to Rome, it is practically flawless.

It reminded me of all the reasons I loved Rome the first time.

My great great grandfather: the adventurous Prussian soldier who loved a drink

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This is a picture of my great great grandfather Heinrich Gimkiewicz  (with impressive beard) and his wife Helene taken in Berlin in 1881.

I have come to know a little about Heinrich through a self-published book by a cousin, Keith Kaye, a urologist who lives in Minneapolis.

Keith translated and published the diary Heinrich kept while serving as a non-commissioned officer during the Franco-Prussian war, a largely forgotten but bloody dispute that took place in Western Europe between July 1870 and May 1871, won by Prussia thus unifying the various German states.

The diary was bequeathed to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg by Heinrich’s granddaughter Helga, It was here that I studied various degrees between 1992 and 1998, emerging, finally with a Bachelor of Arts in 1996 and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management in 1998.

All that time, I had no idea a diary was kept by the University library detailing the daily marches, battles and ruminations of my distant paternal descendent.

When I began reading the translated diary entries I was at first bored. Heinrich details his movements from one town to the next, the long marches or train rides, complaints about the cold, waiting around for orders and details of the various civilian billets where he stayed in occupied French towns.

The names of towns and army commanders meant very little to me.

But as I read and persevered, I found Heinrich to grow more interesting and to see things in his personality that reminded me of myself.

It became apparent to me that my great great grandfather enjoyed a drink, preferably an alcoholic one (as I do) and sometimes drank until he was “tipsy”.

He writes of a stay in Rheims on November 12, 1870:

We stay here today, and so we try to get to know the town. Provisions are quite bad here, but there is lots of wine…

On November 16, in the hamlet of Coucy la Ville between La Fere and  Soissons:

It is quite nice here, there are lots of apples; the people make a pleasant drink out of them. It is available in quantity, and we like it very much, there being no wine.

And later, in Roumare on December 28:

I go and get my baggage, we prepare our meals and sit together until 10pm, having a good time. There is enough cider, each day we drink a considerable amount.

He was also fond of exploring the towns that he visited and had an appreciation of architecture, food and the hospitality and the customs of local French people, even if they were the ‘enemy’. However, unruly Frenchmen are not tolerated and one, he reluctantly admits to slapping.

He is also more than a little mischievous and I surmise – not always that honest  – with his diary entries – particularly when he visits a Rouen brothel:

It happens on February 16, towards the end of the war when he is billeted in the home of a cotton manufacturer. Heinrich writes that at 6.30pm he eats dinner with his landlord, “who is a very friendly man” then goes out again “this time on a less moral path”.

We want to have a look at a French brothel. There are many here. The first one is the Maison Stephan, which is high-class. The second one is a normal one. We return at 11pm.

No description is given of what he did for four hours, but we can guess. His fondness for the ladies reveals itself on a number of occasions with glowing descriptions of local landladys (one is”an aristocratic woman called Madam de Savers” who is “very friendly”) and the daughter of one of his landlords.

Rouen was a special place for Heinrich in the war. He writes of its bustling life after the armistice is declared and that “in all the places and in all the cafes it now becomes obvious  that this beautiful city belongs among the greatest in France”.

I would whole heartedly agree. My wife and I visited Rouen in the summer of 2010, staying in a little shoebox apartment above shops on the main road. Our landlord was a small, dark-skinned moustached man, who spoke not a word of English. We cooked tinned Cassoulet on a portable gas burner in the evening after exploring the exquisite, historic town in the day.

Now, I wonder, if I tread on the same cobbled stones as Heinrich did all those years ago as he explored the various districts and drunk in its cafes and restaurants.

Heinrich also writes intriguingly of the Yom Kippur service for Jewish soldiers, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

A proud Prussian man willing to die for his country, Heinrich could not have known that this war, which unified Germany, would create some of the circumstances that led to the First World War in 1914 and later the Second World War, where German Jews were betrayed and murdered in their millions by their homeland.

He writes of the Yom Kippur service in St Barbe on October 6:

…all in all there were 400 men of our denomination there.  It was Rabbi Blumenstein who came especially from Mannheim…it was moving. Most of us had probably never prayed as intensely as we did today.

My favourite extract – and where I feel a strong connection with my great great grand father – comes towards the end of the campaign, when Heinrich’s regiment reaches the town of Fecamp, on the Atlantic Ocean:

Now we are to see the ocean. We are led there one platoon after the other, it is a gorgeous view…with its huge waves…a clear difference from our eastern sea. This mighty sea with its waves which exist in such height only here, surrounded by high white chalk cliffs is really indescribable and unforgettable. This great view truly compensates for all our strains of the last days and we are grateful to our captain who kept his promise.

With the war over, Heinrich returned Berlin and married Helene 10 years later. They had four children.

The family move to South Africa in 1899 was most likely sparked by a wave of anti-Semitism surging through Europe at the time and the prospect of making one’s fortune amid the gold fields of the Witwatersrand.

Heinrich’s daughter Else would later marry an Austrian-born geologist and mining engineer called Bruno Schlesinger in 1907 and I would emerge into the world in 1973, a chubby child with a curly mop of hair to carry on the Schlesinger name.

Heinrich ran a toy shop in  the centre of Johannesburg with merchandise imported from Germany. A photo outside the store shows him to be a dapper dresser in three-piece suit and hat, bearded with fob chain dangling from waist coat.

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Sadly, anti-German feeling in 1915 following the sinking of the British ocean liner the Lusitania  forced Heinrich and his family into veritable hiding as mobs attacked anyone of German descent. Being unable to import German goods, he lost most of his customers.

Heinrich died in 1922 aged 75, 10 days after his wife Helene apparently of a broken heart. They are both buried in Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetery.

- I think I would have enjoyed sharing a glass of wine with him. Or maybe some Cider.

Threshold to the Kingdom: Art, MH17 and sudden departures and arrivals

In November 2001 I visited the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London.

In a darkened room  I watched a video art installation called “Threshold to the Kingdom” by the acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger

It showed the gates at an airport arrivals hall opening and closing in super slow motion as passengers emerged and made their way home after a long overseas flight.

In the background, rang out the 500-year-old chant of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘ – a psalm about a man asking for God’s forgiveness written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel.

Their slow movements and the haunting music transformed the arriving passengers into poised, graceful dancers, as if each movement of arm and leg were in perfect rhythm.


(A 3 min excerpt of the 13 minute art work)

I remember being completely mesmerised,  in a state of Zen-like contemplation: I saw the passengers coming through the automatic gates as angels arriving into some earthly heaven, not one full of puffy white clouds and cherubs playing harps.

This  interpretation may sound strange, but it was only two months earlier that I had walked back to work in the West End and watched with sheer disbelief as jet planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, bursting into balls of red and orange flame, obliterating lives in an instant.

In that darkened art gallery room, I thought of people that never arrived and those they left behind in airport arrival halls.

The recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17  brought the memory of that London afternoon vividly back in my mind.

As I did back in 2001, I think now of all those bright, happy people, returning from family holidays or on their way to an exciting destination- and then gone in an instant, never to arrive at their final point of disembarkation.

Perhaps they have not disappeared, but have arrived someplace else. It is that feeling which “Threshold to the Kingdom” instilled in me so powerfully.

Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford  wrote of the effect of the artwork:

 It gets its strange power from the conflation of Allegri’s soaringly spiritual music with the banal, anonymous setting of an international airport. Yes, the gates of heaven might be like this – ordinary, yet marvellous.

Reflecting on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief, I remember “Threshold to the Kingdom” with ever greater poignancy.

It seems a fitting memorial to the victims of MH 17 as it was back then – in my mind – to the victims of 9/11.

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The full, haunting version of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus:

Peter Greste and my own bittersweet memories of Egypt

Having tea near Tahrir Square, Cairo - October 2010

Having tea near Tahrir Square, Cairo – October 2010

The recent wrongful conviction of Australian and Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste and his two colleagues by a corrupt Egyptian court has stirred up memories of the week my wife and I spent in Egypt in 2010 as part of a round-the-world trip.

Before I turned to my own diaries to recall what I wrote about those days in Cairo and Alexandria in a hot October (just a few months before the start of the Arab Spring) I was moved by an re-collection of Cairo by a colleague at the Australian Financial Review, Tony Walker, who lived there as a foreign correspondent between 1983 and 1994.

Mr Walker reminisced:

My own memories drift back to my Cairo home at 19 Gabalaya Street, Zamalek on the Nile, where I lived securely and contentedly for 10 years surrounded by Egyptians who were my friends, including my assistants, Hoda and Shahira, my late ­tennis-playing friend, Eduard Malek, who was killed in a road accident in the office ­Mercedes I had bequeathed to him at the end of my assignment…In my apartment building resided some of Egypt’s foremost citizens, including Samia Gamal, the Arab world’s Margot ­Fonteyn of belly dancers, and Faten Hamama, the region’s Sophia Lauren and first wife of Omar Sharif.

Mr Walker described the case made against Mr Greste and his colleagues as a “judicial farce” and concluded, mournfully: “Egypt, I do not know you”.

Cairo, for anyone who has not visited is a manic place – perhaps the most manic in the world – crammed with 20 million or so people (no one seems to know exactly how many), packed with buildings new and ancient in a metropolis that never seems to end and roads clogged with cars, trucks and busses, where you cross at your own peril. Cairo has both crumbling majesty in its ancient monuments – the pyramids of Giza the most famous – bustling trade in the markets of Islamic Cairo and touch of the modern city in its efficient metro system, one of only two in Africa.

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Me, in Islamic Cairo, October 2010

But my abiding memory of Cairo was of playing the Western fools, with our map spread open on Tahrir Square trying to find our way to the Nile or the Egyptian Museum and caught out at every turn by scam artists and confidence tricksters.

We were scammed almost every day in Cairo – nothing of the amount to ruin our trip – but enough to leave a sour taste in our mouths when we flew off to a “sedate” (by comparison) Mumbai.

The opening remark in my journal on Wednesday, October 6th (our fourth day in Cairo) begins: “We awoke with the intention not to be scammed today.”

Of all the cons played on us – from the jovial family man Abdullah who “just happened” to bump into us after his hotel shift on the way to catch a bus to the pyramids and who steered us straight into the arms of US dollar charging camel ride purveyor, to the man who led us straight to his uncle’s perfume shop rather than where – as promised – the felucca boats departed on the banks of the Nile,  the saddest was perpetrated by a kindly looking old man with white beard and moustache (think the Egyptian Colonel Sanders), who caught me out on our second evening in Cairo, when I was walking on my own near Tahrir Square (my wife was still battling a cold and had stayed in the hotel room that evening).

A very expensive camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza

A very expensive camel ride at the Pyramids of Giza

I had just returned back to the centre of Cairo after having a wander around the dark lanes of Coptic Cairo (home to ancient ruins, churches and synagogues of Cairo’s Catholic and Jewish descendants dating back 1500 or more years) with its mud-brick homes. tiny convenience stores and less than friendly stares of the local children.

I emerged from Sadat Station looking for somewhere to eat when I was stopped by a portly, balding man with a white beard and glasses who asked me where I was from.

“Not a minute had passed and I found him walking alongside me as if we were old friends,” – I wrote in my journal. “He looked so innocent,” I added.

At one point during our walk he stopped to write my name out in Arabic. Later he told me he played the organ in the church and that he was a sculptor.

At some point, I told him I was hungry but could not find somewhere to eat:

Next minute I was tucking into chicken, rice and vegetables. He watched me and said little except to enquire if the food was any good. He later stepped outside to chat to the owner.

After the meal – all he had was a soft drink – nothing was paid in the restaurant and in my naivety as we left, I wondered if perhaps – out of the goodness of his christian heart – he had paid for me. I wrote:

As we walked on, he said I owed him 43 Egyptian pounds, not a king’s ransom, but double what the meal would have cost me anywhere else. When I gave him a 50 pound note, he then had the temerity to ask if he could keep the change. I said no, but he still short-changed me by 3 pounds.

I walked back glumly to my hotel to recount the story to my wife. I felt both stupid and sad.

Looking back at it now, in the wake of the Arab spring which promised so much for Egypt and its struggling people, I feel mostly sympathy for the little old man who conned me out of a few pounds.

I wonder what has happened to him and if he is still trying his routine on  unsuspecting tourists – if any still visit in the wake of 2013 military overthrow and the terrible situation of Peter Greste, his colleagues and thousands of others arrested, tortured and murdered.

One further incident remains fresh in mind -

It is of my wife and I running to catch a bus outside the Egyptian Museum guided by our new friend Abdullah urging us to jump on the rickety thing while it was still moving.

Along side was a man throwing his ten bags of groceries on to the steps of the bus before leaping on himself (buses in Cairo, we learnt slow down but don’t stop to let passengers on).

Safely on the bus, I found myself staring at a little kid – perhaps 12 – sitting in the ticket seller’s seat as we sped past Cairo University who demanded I buy a ticket from him.

Just before I handed over a few coins, Abdullah stopped me.

“He is not the ticket seller, just some kid.”

Having reassured us that he was our guardian, he then proceeded to scam us.

Gerald Durrell’s idyllic Corfu childhood: a review of “My family and other animals”

My_Family_and_Other_Animals_BookI had hardly thought of Gerald Durrell, the author and naturalist until my wife bought me his boyhood memoir “My family and other animals” as a gift.

It tells the story of the four years he spent from 1935 to 1939 as a young boy living with his family on the Greek island of Corfu.

The family left the dampness and cold of London for the fresh air, sunshine and open spaces of the Greek island at the behest of Lawrence Durrell – Gerald’s oldest brother, who himself would go on to be a famous novelist, essayist and travel writer.

Picking up the book, I recalled a childhood memory of Gerald Durrell from a television show he presented that ran on South African television in the 1980s: a short, plump man with a white beard who appeared on television to tell us fascinating things about exotic animals. I looked at photos of him online and my memory served me well for he was indeed, short, plump and bearded.

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Gerald Durrell as I remember him from my childhood

The book is a wonderful account of an idyllic childhood for a young boy fascinating with nature. It’s one of the most entertaining books I have read, full of wonderful anecdotes about Gerry (as the family called him) and the animals he collects and brings into the family home.

These include: an owl, snakes (that end up being kept in the bath tub), frogs, a pigeon called Quasimodo, a tortoise and scorpions (that scatter one day across the floor during dinner) to name just a few.

Gerry Durrell is part Steve Irwin – unafraid to pick up creatures to see them up close – but more so Sir David Attenborough, with a wonderful eye for the details of nature and how it works plus the skills of a gifted novelist to bring it all to life.

In one scene he describes a gecko who has come to live in his room, which he names Geronimo:

He would sit on the window sill gulping to himself, until it got dark and a light was brought in; in the lamp’s golden gleam he seemed to change colour from ash-grey to a pale translucent pinky pearl that made his neat pattern of goose pimples stand out and made his skin look so fine that you felt it should be transparent so that you could see the viscera, coiled neatly as a butterfly’s proboscis, in his fat tummy. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he would waddle up the wall to his favourite spot, the left hand outside corner of the ceiling, and hang there upside down, waiting for his evening meal to appear.

This wonderful gift for describing a scene and revealing the wondrous details and idiosyncracies of nature is found throughout the book.

It is a mix of boy’s own adventure (Gerry accompanied by his faithful dog Roger exploring the island with almost unlimited freedom in which “all discoveries” filled him with “tremendous delight”) accompanied by hilarious tales of family life – Larry and his arty friends invading the island, his diet-obsessed sister Margo and the adventurous, gun-mad Leslie.

The other wonderful aspect of the book are the lovable eccentric local characters: There’s Spiro, the Durrell’s taxi driver, “guide, mentor and friend” – a “short, barrel-shaped man” with a unique grasp of the English language and who adored the family, the tremendously fat and cheerful Agathi who taught Gerry peasant songs and the immaculately groomed, sparkly eyed, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, who became Gerry’s guide  to the natural world plus a parade of doctors, housekeepers and tutors.

Gerrald Durrel with 'Spiro' on Corfu

Gerald Durrell with ‘Spiro’ on Corfu

Durrell writes of an afternoon spent with Agathi outside her “tumbledown cottage high on a hill:

Sitting on an old tin in the sun, eating grapes or pomegranates from her garden, I would sing with her and she would break off now and then to correct my pronunciation. We sang (verse by verse) the gay, rousing song of the river, Vangelio and how it dropped from the mountains, making the gardens rich, the fields fertile and the trees heavy with fruit.

By the time I finished reading the book, I yearned for just a few days of Corfu sunshine and a walks among its hills, valleys, gently swaying Cypress trees and olive groves.

I challenge you to find a more charming, magical account of a childhood we should only dream of giving to our children.

Mexico is indeed “gentle and fine”, Jack Kerouac

lonesome_travellerIn Lonesome Traveller, he’s poetic, mystical, sometimes incomprehensible account of wanderings and odd jobs in the mid-1950s, the beat writer Jack Kerouac writes of a trip to Mexico:

“There is no violence in Mexico, that was all a lot of bull written up by Hollywood writers or writers who went to Mexico ‘to be violent’.”

Kerouac continues:

“I know of an American who went Mexico for bar brawls because you usually don’t get arrested there for disorderly conduct, my God I have seen people wrestle playfully in the middle of the road blocking traffic, screaming with laughter, as people walk by smiling – Mexico is generally gentle and fine, even when you travel among the dangerous characters as I did – ‘dangerous’ in the sense we mean in America – in fact the further you go away from the border, and deeper down, the finer it is, as though the influence of civilizations hung over the border like a cloud.”

I recall the warnings from well meaning friends and family – There’s still time to change your plans/It’s not safe/It’s a dangerous place/Don’t go – before we boarded a New York flight in Christmas 2010 for a month long Mexican bus sojourn from Cancun all the way west to Guadalajara.

Though the notion of Mexico as a violent place is indeed “a load of bull” but still seemingly engrained in the American psyche more than fifty years after he wrote about it, Kerouac’s description of Mexico as “generally gentle and fine” is wonderfully precise.

There is little violence south of the shady border towns where the stories of gangs, beheadings, shootings and drugs garner garish headlines in American newspapers and stoke the flames of fear.

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A fruit stall, Mexican style

As travellers, we found the biggest danger in Mexico to be from a falling coconut while snoozing under the shade of a palm tree on an unspoilt sandy beaches on Isles Mujeres or Tulum.

Or perhaps from one of those mad windy bus journeys – where brakes are unnecessary accessories – up through the mountains to postcard perfect town like San Cristobel de las Casas, where the only sense of danger are the dolls, paintings and postcards for sale in souvenir shops depicting the Zapatista rebels with guns criss-crossed across their chests (and scary steely stares).

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The colourful, quite streets of San Cristobel de las Casas beneath the mountains

I write in my journal of a day spent in this oasis of bright colours, cobbled quiet streets and lazy wanderings:

“Students and tourists abound.The streets are lined with brightly painted mainly single story houses and shops in shades of yellows, reds, blues and oranges and with slanting roofs of Spanish-style red tiles…the perfect place to wander, sit and sip a coffee or beer and people watch.”

In comparison to the constant pleadings, coercions and tourist tricks and traps in Thailand, India, Morocco and Egypt (all places I nonetheless loved), Mexicans are so laid back they hardly bother when it comes to approaching tourists.

On Isles Mujeres, the little island off Cancun, this lack of savvy was perfectly captured by a man offering boat trips to see whales:

“Wanna go on a whale ride?” he enquired as we strolled by one afternoon.
“No gracias,” we replied.
Silence, then he said sleepily:
“Lotta whales…”

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Ice creams in the park, Valledolid

No one harasses you in Mexico. Not in the small, sleepy afternoon siesta towns like Valledolid (where we visited the ruins of Chichen Itza and swam in the underground Cenotes) and not in sprawling, bustling Mexico City, the world’s best functioning mega-sized city.

Are there dangers in Mexico? Of course. I would not be so naive as to suggest otherwise. But the risks are small unless you’re smuggling drugs, heading for the seedy border towns or in the words of Kerouac going there “to be violent”

The Mexico I remember is that of little black haired men with moustaches; their plump wives pulling chihuahuas on leads, climbing steps to find churches painted in brightest pink and orange, wandering streets in shades of yellow and red, the little taco stands sizzling away by the side of the road, poodles sleeping in hammocks, glorious, colonial Spanish architecture, the boulevards of Mexico City, the murals of Diego Rivero, Frida Kahlo’s sad paintings in the blue house in Coyoacán, ancient Mayan ruins overlooking beaches and azure oceans.

Alive in colour, light and smiles. A sentiment Jack Kerouac would have agreed with, I think.

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City

Jack Keroauc top left next to the poet Allen Ginsberg and firends in Mexico City