Amsterdam – Barcelona – London

  

The journey continues. Having a destination facilitates a journey. As opposed to not having a destination. And to remain focused at subjects that inhabit one’s own world. I feel incredibly lucky to make journeys. I do. The expression ‘It is not about the destination, but about the journey’ makes itself known. It might not be all about the destination, but in the very first place, so I realize, life requires a destination. Any destination is good. Because it’s the destination that inspires the journey. It’s the destination that lands a journey. Bringing about experiences. Without a destination, life is stationery and litterary a no go. 
Destinations vary from physical entities to metaphysical concepts. Acquiring certainty and security in life, finding the truth or, in my case, center around love and connection. Nothing else really matters. To me it’s love that goes the longest way, further then anything. Connecting flights in between, the accidental lost in translation, transit hours passed in placid, non personal and non familiar places seem exact metaphores for what my journey of love brings forth.

It’s 4.17 am. I wake up three minutes before the alarm after three hours of sound sleep. On a small mattrass at the wooden floor of my brothers’ apartment, next to my two girls. Our dogs are sleeping in the same room. My brother in the room besides us. The apartment is full of my beloved family and not in the least filled with all our stuff. Packed and unpacked suitcases, remnants of last nights dinner, devoured at an authentic Spanish dinner time, around 11 pm. The doors to the balcony are closed to keep the gothic street noise outside. Down town Barrio Gotico; the eldest parts of central Barcelona don’t know much of a recuperation time. A constant buzz goes around. On top of that the temperature doesn’t lower much further then 28 C this night. It is hot. Twenty minutes after the alarm I gently wake up my eldest daughter, thirteen years old. She’d asked me to. I hug her goodbye, leaving her to her little sister of six, my brothers apartment filled with humanity and the eluding city of Barcelona. Only hours later I realize how much I trust her she is able to handle her independency, asking myself if I am doing the right thing. Then the doorbell rings and I get into a black and yellow cab. As it turns onto Colon, stretching along the harbour of Ciutat Vella in between Via Laitaina and Columbus’ thirty meters high landmark at the outset of the famous Rambla de Barcelona, I am struck by the beautiful buzz of this city. It’s still dark outside, fancy lights and illumination scatter through the shadows of palm trees. Even at this hour traffic is abundant and speeding up. Only eight hours ago I arrived in the Mediterranen hub after a two days car drive from Amsterdam, reminiscent of Michel Sardou’s eternal lyrics: ‘D’avonture, en avonture, de train en train, de port en port, je ne peux oublie ton corps. Je t’aime encore’.

The journey continues. ‘Where to?’ asks the elderly friendly driver. 

‘L’aéroporto por favor’

‘Quel terminal?’ 

‘Numéro uno señor’ 

I enjoy the ride. I love it. Because nothing else matters but getting closer to my destination. 

At 5 am the airport information desks are still closed. Access to the internet is outruled. It’s too early for tea. But I talk to him for a couple of minutes on the phone. And nothing beats it. Happiness is the truth. 

My seat for the coming one and a half hours, number 28A, happens to be at the very last row of the plane, window side. It feels remarcably cosy and safe. Right upon landing, seemingly only minutes after we took off, my phone rings. We talk and listen to each other again. Sometimes we let silence talk to us. Much more powerful then words. It’s magnetizing. Down the aisle leaving the plane, following the flight connection signs, checking the digital information screens we are talking and laughing, sharing our anticipation. We walk together through Heathrow while at the same time purchasing a bottle of wine in Melbourne, exploring the essence of Einstein’s theory of relativity. My cabin luggage has to go through security again. That’s where we hang up. 

Heathrow is surprisingly pleasing. It has this somewhat worn feel, like your favorite sturdy winter coat. It’s non glamerous, efficient and comfortable. My first encounter is with an airport host asking me if I need any assistance. I am connected to the internet within minutes and upon request I am being send to the airport spa next to the airport lounges. 

‘Where are you from?’ I ask her. 

‘People are asking me this question twenty times a day. Why is that? Why do you ask?’ She pledges me. 

‘It’s because of your accent’

‘Oh so it’s my English’

‘Often I recognize an accent and can make out where someone comes from by just listening. But with you I can’t make it out. Where are you from?’

‘Ukraine and I don’t like the country’

I tell her I visited it quite extensively some twenty years ago and that I liked it a lot.

‘Why?’

‘Why don’t you like it’ I get back to her.

Our quite confrontational conversation results in Tatiana giving me an excellent massage. It’s a Swedish massage and I don’t like Swedish massage. But she starts by telling me that she’s not allowed to do a deep tissue massage nor shiatsu. As these are my prefered, not to say my only wished for ones, I should be disappointed. But I am not. What I get is her elbows or entire lower arms pinning down firmly, pressing precisely at painful muscles, strong oily hands running over the length of my back, reflexion zones in the soles of my feet and the joints of my neck being played with as if my body is a classical instrument. I almost fall asleep one moment, alternated by cramps from sudden pangs of hurt, the following; good hurt, healing hurt.

After a refreshing shower I step into the hussle of Heathrow again. I find myself a perfect spot in a typical airport restaurant. It’s very crowded. I order English tea with milk and I am loving it. We are connected again, chatting over messenger. Our words are trying their best to express the complete array of excitement, anticipation, love, happiness and sincerity we both go through. While sharing important thoughts, spontaneous outbursts of laughter and sweet talk, I make my way to the second gate of this journey. 

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Reflections on Congo

  
Maurice tells me he’s afraid of women. Women are different from men. Life is about being together. In a world where you can’t count on any thing physical, the interaction between humans becomes the only safeguard. There’s no money to acquire possesions. There’s no economy that cultivates produce. Getting your daily food and beverage is as much of a hazard as loving a woman is. Maurice lives by himself in a hut in a tiny little village some five hundred kilometres nord-east of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. He’s born in the capital and knows his way around. But he prefers to cater for his own sustenance at the country side rather then being dependent on others in the city.

On est ensemble Maurice repeats. If I can do something for you, I will do it. If you can do something for me, you do it. The context is Congolese Africa. There isn’t much secure in live. Fellow human beings can form a net of (vangnet) if they intent to. Loyalty becomes dominant in a place where hunger, governement corruption and sorcery rule. Food and beverage is to be shared rather then consumed. But mainly it’s about time spent together, being together. Even if there’s nothing to be shared but silence. Individual impressions, thoughts and emotions being processed sitting side by side in each others presence. 

We meet Maurice early in the morning in front of our basic room provided by the priests of a mission post not far from his village. He’s wearing dark shades, a long dress and a little red radio. The peaceful silence at the little monastery is overruled by African music radiating from his device. Maurice is talking philosophy. Sometimes his words are hard to follow. Which makes it even more compelling to listen to him. From the moment he comes to see us until days later, when we leave the country per speedboat crossing the Congo river, he and his little red radio accompany us. By expressing this words I might be able to make the experience everlasting. As if time and distance are relative. Which actually they are.

One hour Istanbul

  
I get off the plane and as unexpectedly as it is mesmerizing, a healing heath welcomes me. Non air-conned placid silence. I transfer to a lower level and I can’t resist a big smile. What a vivid bright colored mess of people, neon lights advertising hot dogs, piled boxes filled with Turkish Delight and luggage everywhere. 
At the verge of different continents appropriate sized hand luggage definitely isn’t an item, I discover in line at the gate for Kinshasa. The people carry along duvet covers, bulking suitcases and a lot of huge plastic bags with no matter what kind of content, all hand luggage. Merchandise most probably, surely no one forbids them to bring along their means of existence. Even if it’s gotta go in the cabin. Two young women catch my attention, both dressed in long black dresses, their heads covered by burka’s but their beautiful faces are uncovered. Never have I seen such stylish examples of orthodox moslem attire. Strass and flowers made of pearls are dangling from the burka besides their invisible ears. Voluminous lips are painted matte red. A purple velvet U-shaped little inflatable cushion is wrapped around the neck of one of the women. Why not indeed carry the customized cushion around your neck I ask myself, as to maximize to the fullest a six hours day time flight experience. Both me and them laugh. Bright eyes, Africa is in sight.
Two weeks later we return to Istanbul airport. We run through it’s alleys in order to catch our connecting flight to Paris. We make it. Not twenty four hours after passing through, the airport is attacked. Thirty people die, we read from a digital device while waking up that next morning in Paris’ 7th arrondissement.

A licensed taxi to Roissy, Charles de Gaulle

  
She opens the trunk of the taxi for me to dispose of my suitcase. It’s still dark. We leave the artisan quarter around Place République smoothly and soft. An interesting half hour of listening to an educated Parisien accent, talking about the taxi crisis that’s making her work eleven hours per day topped off by one and a half hours of commuting one way to come up to Paris and one and a half hours to return to her village. Seven days a week. Initiatives like Uber and Bla Bla Car have been taking over the taxi business. One and a half years ago her Parisien license including the car imatriculated with a Parisien number plate, valued two hundred and fifty thousand euros. Now the value is half the price and no one is buying. She can’t get rid of it. Nor is she capable to earn more then the costs of her taxi and the license. Her sorrows are quite hard to stomach at 5.30 am. 

Women with scarfs had taken over the Parisien banlieu where she used to live. ‘Nothing against their religion. But the second or third generation young muslims, they become extremist. The scarfs change into burkas.

‘My Muslim colleagues are not like that’, she explains. ‘In the morning when we meet up for coffee there’s two other French, I am the only woman, five Asians and three muslims. These people are okay. They don’t even do Ramadan. Because in our job, working eleven hours in a row, often starting or finishing in the middle of the night, fasting is not an option. I’ve left the banlieu for the sake of my ten years old daughter. We’ve changed from a 45 m2 apartment to a house with a garden. My daughter has a bike now. It’s worth driving one and a half hours to Paris for work. But the future doesn’t look bright’. 

I change the subject and when she drops me at the airport at 5.45 am, I thank her for the discourse, wish her a pleasant working day and remark that I’ll be flying with Turkish Airlines, closing the circle of our conversation.

Place Vendôme

  
I drop my luggage at the house of a dear friend where I’ll be spending my one night in Paris. A bit later I find myself walking along rue Saint Honoré to visit him at the very fancy boutique where he’s employed. Selling custom made jewelry by Phillipe Ferrandis, very beautiful. It won’t get more Parisien then this, I realize. It makes me loose my mind a bit. Walking the chique street crowded with many mindless people and pockets full of money, bored faces, immaculately groomed. When a church comes in eyesight, I climb it’s stairs without thinking. Like a magnet it draws me close. Inside tears rise in my eyes. I wonder where and how emotions suddenly get such a tight grip on me. In full acceptance I sit down in the back of the church, admiring the azure blue of the painted sky and the almost alive white marble of the statues around the altar. Until I close my eyes and empty my mind. Before leaving the church I lit a candle in order to continue my way at the rue Saint Honoré relieved. Momentarily relieved. From what exactly I don’t know.
Cartier, Dior, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels encircle the beautiful Place Vendôme. Tomorrow I’ll be setting foot on the ground of the nation where most of the raw material being traded here, in these ultimately exclusive shops, are mined. The contrast can’t possibly be bigger. Paris versus Kinshasa, the latter being after Nairobi and Cairo the third largest city of the African continent. I take a picture. I had to find myself exactly here at the epicenter of decadent luxury. It’s an indispensable part of the journey. Today the road leads me further only to l’Opéra. Where I am supposed to catch the metro. But I decide to first spend a whole lot of money on a cup of tea at Café de la Paix, across from l’Opéra. Since I did evaluate from a student in Paris with no money into a single woman on a short visit to Paris with hardly any money. The upgrade is almost neglectable considering the time lapse of twenty five years. But sure enough I can afford a ridiculous eight euros for an elegant cup of tea at one of the numerous exquisite street terraces the city of light hosts. There’s one little round table unoccupied at the terrace of Café de la Paix. I have to ask an indifferent preoccupied woman – is she really from Paris or merely pretending to be? – to pick up her expensive hand bag from the seat in order to take place, content, potentially joyful and very much at ease. Another waiter, another exchange of smiles. What happened to the typical Parisien waiters syndrome of arrogance, I ask myself while realizing that this part of the journey had to be terminated at Café de la Paix, a name to be cherished under the circumstances of me traveling to the Congo’s. Café de la Paix will remain safe and protected taken over as it is by the exclusive Intercontinental Group. What about the two Congo’s? Will they survive their extremely rich heritage of rubber, gold, diamonds, kobalt and uranium exploitation? Around Place Vendôme they might know better then I do.

Café du Nord

  
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.

Thalys Amsterdam – Paris

  
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.

Paris 

  
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.

Kinshasa – Brazzaville; crossing the Congo River

  
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’.

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo

  
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.