Wednesday, 29 July 2009

World and oyster

So, we all trooped off to Brussels for a week to visit my Godmother (anyone who wants full explanation of the background to this perculiarly-English-unrelated-relation, just ask. It's 22:05 and I'm recovering from a cold virus - and feeling lazy).

My Godmother's a legend. In short:

She's visited almost 200 countries. No cheating - no counting principalities, islands owned by mainlands, transiting through airports at midnight - like I do when I tot up my lot. No, she's ravaged across maps, in-depth. Criss-crossed dictatorships. Fine-tooth-combed through the world, on horseback, shambolic buses, on foot. Dives, digs, guest-houses, family-run inns, student hostels, castles in Romania and yurts on the Steppes have all seen her whet their thresholds over the many years - and still do. She wrangled a visit to Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia before his deposition: as a private guest, walking past live cheetahs flanking the entrance. Went to the island of Zanzibar, when it was by special dispensation only. Tibet? Bhutan? Central African Republic? Laos? Kyrgystan? the Pantanal? (several times) Sudan? Libya? Kamchatsk? (look it up!) Tick, tick, tick, tick, etc. And etc. Etc. Etc. etc.

As an English-French interpreter sometimes sent on conference work overseas (French Africa, when it still existed), she got a taste for voyage in places like Isfahan (Iran) - where she'd end up after veering 'off-route' on the free days following contract end, exchanging the allocated first-class-return for econo trips around the mulberry bush instead. Travelling then remained her only passion after divorce and childlessness, and finally took over full-time from employment when she retired early twenty years ago from her post as a top interpreter for the European Commission.

Places I've never heard of. Places you cannot go now. Places she'd first visited in the 50s, and RE-visits to get the updated version (!). And so on. And so forth. She's just as likely to be traversing the Mongolian steppes on horseback, hiking through the desert, research volunteering in the deepest Amazonian rainforest, birdwatching, as leaping out a Zodiac inflatable in the Antarctic. Birdwatching, you ask? Well, recently, her love is combining birding with travelling. How about having seen every rare bird in the world (and being able to name and spot most of the less rare ones)? Hand in hand with having been to all their habitats, and traversed their migration paths, naturally.

We were visiting, last week, on one of the two, or perhaps three, weeks max you'll find my Godmother at home (per year). Sponsored by a large golden handshake from the European Commission, the money's had to stretch a good twenty years so far and will have to stretch, if she has her way, a good ten years more. No five-starring it. No Hiltons. Which is what she doesn't want, in any case. Is that the way to really - REALLY - get under the skin of a country, a city, a culture, a way of life?

If you mention a city, she'll tell you exactly what to go and see, and where, as well as all the surrounding localities and places to visit. Mention a country, you'll get a verbal "Lonely Planet!" rundown. Never forgets a name, a place, a sight. Mind like a map. Physically, on a walk, I can still barely keep up. On the level of I.Q, I suspect I lag way behind.

Oh, I forgot to mention. My Godmother's 76 (SEVENTY SIX. Soixante Seize. Sessanta Sei. Sessenta Seis. Sechs und Siebsich. Jesus!).

It's not only what she's done and how. It's the never-ending flow of stories (all true and most matter-of-fact) which just make you secretly kick yourself and promise to grow balls like her. Every time.

The occasion in Peru where a small mountain bus was held up by the 'Shining Path' Guerillas because of the couple of foreigners on board. "Young man!" said my Godmother, in immaculate Spanish, to the spotty 17-year old brandishing an AK-47 in everyone's faces as they stood around the now immobile means of transport, in the middle of nowhere. "I could be your Grandmother. So make it sharp, you're not going to leave us here for hours with no food or drink, are you?!" And his boss meekly trooped down the hillside to a local farmhouse, arriving back with Coca Cola and snacks, which they all sat down to share.

The time in God-knows-where on a flight from Outer Mongolia or something, in an old Russian aircraft which ran out of fuel at some godforsaken military airfield. She was shaking the drunk Russian control-tower operator awake, in her 'limited Russian', as he lay slumped at his screen, surrounded with vodka bottles (now I'm exaggerating the number of bottles, the rest is true).

And in India, after a week's fruitless buzzing around a protected forest reserve to catch a glimpse of that shangri-la of endangered species, a tiger in the wild, she strolled out after breakfast on the last day, across the barrier fences, alone. And felt a presence. Turning, saw a tiger but a few meters away. The tiger stared. My Godmother stared back, motionless. And the tiger turned tail and walked off. No, my Godmother wasn't at all alarmed: she knows tigers only attack from behind, as tribespeople she's encountered in her travels have made clear, wearing painted masks on the back of their heads to guard against attack. (In the guestroom at her house was the photo she took, tiger looking on. In a cheap frame, above the children's beds. They were delighted.)

Back at home in Europe, whilst staying with her last week, we talked one day about things closer to home (for homebodies like the rest of us, that is). How Europe has changed over the years. "Is there any crime here in Brussels?" I ask. "Oh!" she answered, smiling. "Just a few days ago, in the centre of town down an underpass, a thug tried to mug me - grab my handbag", she answered. "And what happened?" I asked. "Oh, I elbowed him in the face and he burst into tears!", she said, matter-of-factly. "He told me - 'You aren't meant to do that! It's not allowed!' - And I said to him, 'I suppose you're allowed to steal my handbag, then, young man?! Off with you!'." ... "How old was he?", I asked, not in the least bit surprised, knowing my Godmother well. "Oh, about 25 or so!" she replied. We laughed, heartily. And I wished again, secretly, for Balls like hers. That's my Godmother, alright, at 76 and counting. (She's off again next week, on a trip from here to there...from there to here...lost count. Lost track.)

So, folks, this is why I'm not complaining that I've got laryngitis, feel below par, and have a million things to do since my return two days ago (and imminent departure again tommorow night to the kids' Grandparents in Kent for a couple of weeks). Nope. I steadfastly drank good quality red wine every day of my break in Brussels, took the kids to their aircraft and safari museums, the sights, the mussels-and-chips restaurants, the chocolate shops, all despite feeling more than a little rough (not Swine Flu, no worries!). I've a lot to live up to. Life, for a start! - as my Godmother would put it. She's determined to see every last unique or undiscovered corner of this world before she dies or it fades into anonymity, whichever occurs first. Me? I'm not gonna complain about a little bit of 'flu. As I just said, I've a lot to live up to.


  1. hi, i´m a passionate reader of your blog and thought of commenting today after reading about your godmother, a former interpreter. I´m African from Namibia, just finishing my MA-degree at the University of Leipzig in East Germany. I would like to hear more about your godmother´s interpreting career and experiences. Is there any chance of that...? I´m planning on doing the SCIC accreditation test to become a freelance interpreter for the EU institutions. I thought I´d ask. Would be nice to find out about your godmother´s experience in a predominantly white working environment. winnie

  2. Hi Winnie, thanks for your comment (and for taking time to read my blog, much appreciated) and well done for being close to finishing your MA! I'd be perfectly happy to ask my Godmother for her advice to you, as I'm afraid I don't know the details myself. She's just gone off again on another trip however if you drop me your email address and a short note to I will make sure to contact her and ask that she give you some tips on her return. Just one thought: I suspect that to work for the EU institutions you need to have an EU passport, or at least residency (which studying in Germany you might have?) Do check that out. Regards, Helen