I find myself at the comptoir of Café du Nord directly opposite the Gare du Nord, eagerly immersing myself in a Parisien brasserie scene. ‘Un thé s’il vous plaît’ I ask the fifty plus bar tender who’s immaculately dressed in a white shirt, black pants, black vest. ‘Un thé noir madame?’ I hesitate a split second to get ready to step into his world. ‘Est-ce que vous avez un thé rouge?’ I ask him slightly mysteriously. He smiles. Who manages to make a Parisien fifty plus bartender smile within seconds, it quickly goes through my mind. He pours me un té aux fruits rouges instead of a rooibos tea which was what I’d actually meant. But it doesn’t matter. We are both satisfied. He for not having to deal with a stupid tourist. A tourist okay. But at least it looks nice and blond and it does talk a familiar language. As for me, I am satisfied for the exact same reasons.
While another bottle of Moët and Chandon is opened with a loud plop at the table behind me where three good looking french speaking African men are seated and my two old french neighbors at the comptoir order another round of bière blonde, I make myself up for leaving the scene to find a metro to Oberkampf.
‘Ca fait dix euro madame’. ‘Excusez-moi monsieur?’ ‘Ca fait dix euro!’ The two old men at the comptoir start laughing heartedly. I need another split second to realize the bar tender is making a joke. I answer in earnest: ‘Ca c’est tres gentil monsieur, merci beaucoup’. I laugh along with the two old men. I feel grateful and warm. As if I’ve been cautiously checked and have been granted to pass the test. Seriously happy I step outside in the metallic colored Parisien rain. No translucent drops but a romantic mist. Even rain gets romantic in Paris. I quickly step down the stairs of the metro; down under and well protected against jokes, the weather and feelings of romance.
Green hills floating by. Three hours in the Thalys to Paris and this is the first time I look outside. I actually look at the world outside and realize I’ve locked myself up, trapped in small affairs. I’ve been sending emails and making phone calls as if I am preparing for a major event. All I do is getting two weeks of absence organized. Abstention from a narrow life with small affairs. Ahead of me there’s two weeks of looking outside through the windows of my soul. The world around me is about to open up, beautiful, much anticipated. I will devour it like the first bite at the end of a long day of fasting during the Ramadan. Tomorrow, or in my case after two weeks, the fasting will continue and the world closes up again. But now, the time is now.
My outfit surely suits the organizational preoccupations better then the alluding adventure. A little black dress, classic silk scarf and moderately heeled espadrilles topped off with gold lacquered leather and black velvet adorn me on the first haul of a segregated journey towards the two Congo’s. The first leg is Amsterdam-Paris by high speed train. To be continued tomorrow morning with a very early flight from Charles de Gaulle to Istanbul. And from Istanbul onwards to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a territory as vast as almost entire Central Africa. I am excited. Take off being formed by the said lush green landscapes of Northern France. Until within minutes an incoming call pulls me back into the narrow world. The grand father of a friend of my daughter’s, the one where she’s supposed to be staying during the first couple of days of my absence, this morning died unexpectedly. The landscape outside evaporates as fast as the Thalys is speeding. As if it was just a site we crossed, visible for as many seconds as it takes the Thalys to pass by it. Instead of a full three hours bearing the delightful potential of dreaming away, enjoying green hales and dales floating by. I am pulled back into my much less enjoyable micro universe. Condolences and arranging another refuge for my thirteen years old daughter involves another set of phone calls, emails.
L’Arc de Triomphe and La Tour d’Eiffel will never be the same. I am leaving Paris. Alone in the back of a taxi. The flat we occupied for a couple of days is empty. An unfinished bottle of Chablis left behind. To me a symbol for the sequence of eternal moments we’ve lived here. They will remain here. And I will part from them. Only memories travel along. With me in a little black dress and a rain coat that was given to me. By him. The finest love of my life. I am confused. The taxi driver puts on soft violin music. My favorite. Outside the sun is shining bright. It’s incredible. The violin reminds me of Tchaikovsky. His violin concerto in D major, opus 35 I used to have on cassette and play endlessly in my small little room at Jardin du Luxembourg, some twenty five years ago. I hadn’t got a clue at the time that the years back then shaped and moulded me to an extend that the experiences of the past few days seem to relate directly to it. The effort, energy and enthusiasm I’d confided to Paris come back to me. The life I live turns out very different then I would have thought. Although I never visualized or fancied any particular course in life. I am astonished as to how I find myself in the back of this Parisien taxi. Talking to the driver. Who asks me if I live in Paris. One day I will buy an apartment here I decide. To honor both my parents, the special man I was so fortunate to spend some time with and the incredible love that Paris endows me with. I am happy. I’ve found my way.
The crossing, the ultimate crossing, between Kinshasa and Brazzaville is exciting. Between 7 and 7.30 am we gather in the open air breakfast lounge of Hotel Investe de la Presse. The climate, surroundings and hotel staff are exceptionally smooth, welcoming and peacefull. It’s completely opposite of what we’d expected from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s hard to obtain a visitors visa for the giant Congo. With a formal letter of invitation supplied by one of the only two travel agents of the Congo and several other necessary documents we’ve managed. At breakfast that morning we do the usual chit chat, making up the balance of the evening before and for the day ahead. A taxi and a van arrive. Employees of the only two Congolese travel agencies meet us at the entrance of Hotel Investe.
One is concerned about the ticket we’ve booked with the other, which according to the one is a rip off. Even if we will effectively be transported to the other side of the river it will still be a rip off because it’s far too expensive. The rip off agent sents a taxi with driver to pick us up. But we decide to step into the van of the other agent. Off to the harbour, to cross the Congo river. Setting the two capitals of the two Congo’s apart. We’ve been talking about it and arranging for it, for weeks. One of us has a ferry ticket that has costed six hundred US dollar, a lot of official and some missing paperwork. Will we be able to get a second ticket as to both make it across and at least as interesting, at what price?
A broker has taken our passports. We wait in the exclusive lounge. Canal + is broadcasting an animated version of Saint Exupérie’s Le Petit Prince, one of my favorite classics. I like the coïncidence of the little explorer questioning all human behaviour without judging it and finding myself in a country where a lot of culturally conditioned behavior induces many question marks for me. The broker likes to whisper confidentially. He does some complicated calculating and comes up with a gap of two hundred dollar to be replenished. Excuse me sir, that’s impossible, I confidentially whisper back. Another piece of paper comes up out of our bags. He takes it and stays away again for a very long time. He finally returns and whispers confidentially that we both need to pay another ten dollars and that our boat is leaving in ten minutes.
At the pier there’s several mid sized passenger boats and one speed boat. A couple of minutes later we ride the fast streaming water of the Congo river in that one speedboat. It kind of feels like James Bond. We arrive at the other side of the Congolese universe. Brazzaville radiates a laid back ambiance that associates well with croissants and café au lait. Congo Brazzaville used to be colonized by the French and it feels French. The broker at this side comes to tell us he wants our immigration to get over with as quickly as possible since it’s Sunday and he’s celebrating the holy day. You can see from his content face, he’s celebrating it with people that make him feel good, food and beer. He wears a fine white linnen shirt and a genuinly friendly smile. We wait. Until we’re being asked in at a small office, the colonel’s office. A colonel without an uniform; a festive outfit he’s wearing, bright and colorful. But his questions are serious. And he doesn’t seem to be wanting to take us for who we are. More questions. Why do you travel together, where are you staying, why do you’ve got different visas – as one is issued in London and the other in Brussels – where do you come from etcetera. After a quite severe interrogation the tension fades slowly and we make some jokes, exchange irrelevant personal information and listen to stories about his country. He is a proud man. I see a nervous tick around his upper lip. It’s not obvious. I wonder what his life has been like until now. We shake hands. And we leave the serious interrogation room a bit astonished about this happening here in laid back Brazzaville instead of in ‘el desperado de Kinshasa’.
The water dispenser next to the breakfast buffet table holds a simple one and a half liter ordinairy pet bottle instead of a costumized twenty liter fresh water container. The pet bottle upside down in the holder, could better have been placed in it’s normal position at the buffet table. But this construction shows the possesion of a water dispenser. Who cares about a fitting container anyway?
Eveline and Adolf come to pick me up from the hotel at the exact time I was informed they’d come: 7.30 am sharp. Although I don’t want to give in to prejudice, I must confess it startles me a little bit at my first morning in Africa: 7.30 am sharp. We’ll make a two and a half hour journey from the commune of Lingala in Kinshasa city to the commune of Maluku in the country side down the Congo river. Purchasing gasoline to start with. The first gas station doesn’t have change from Eveline’s one hundred dollar note and the money changer next door doesn’t make a good rate. So we head to another money changer which takes a detour. From him Eveline receives a pack of paper as big as four pounds of sugar. We stop at another gas station and get hundred liters of gasoline of which the last twenty end up in a container in the trunk.
We pass shops painted in bright colors: a Dutch pharma – being Dutch it intrigues me why a pharmacist would add the adjective Dutch; quite some dépot d’oeufs, where they sell eggs and un agence de voyage, which also intrigues me, being in a country where travelling is a challenge, let alone crossing borders. For the rest of it dépots de ciment, selling stones and cement. They cover the majority of the kiosk-like shops along the road side. Most of the brick and concrete buildings under construction we pass, are deserted. So that seems to make sense.
After an one hour drive the roadside starts to become quiet and at last the road in front of us and it’s surroundings are empty. We pass a ‘Militairy Zone’ sign. The land looks vacant. Some parts seem kind of cultivated but not convincingly. It rather feels a bit devastated. There hasn’t been a single high rise nor any sign of town ships along the road. Concrete or brick buildings that are completed are ground level only. Where do the seven to thirty million Kinoa’s live? Seven, the lowest estimate as the number of officially registered citizens. Thirty, including all illegal and homeless people. We cross a sign. It says we’re leaving a certain concession and suddenly we find ourselves driving through Africa. Lush green, half erected brick dwellings, colorful dresses and big baskets on top of tall women, the newly paved road flows flawlessly through hales and dales.
A Congolese journey has begun.