Granada, Spain. 26 December
Christmas and New Year and it’s downtime for the Wanderlust Junkies – but not for long. Next stop Malaysia and Singapore. The three of us are flying together from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur on 12 January.
There’ve been a few ‘administrative tasks’ related to the upcoming trip. Maroulla booked the tickets for our ascent of Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Petronas Towers, while I got the tickets for the train from Kuala Lumpur to Penang and the bus from Malacca to Singapore (both were unbelievably cheap!). What we really need to do now is tune into Malaysia and Singapore again. Everything was planned ages ago and details are easily forgotten. I remember, for instance drawing up a list of very enticing Sunday brunch options in Singapore, but can’t recall where I stored it.
And right now I can’t even remember if the must-see Museum of Islamic Art is in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
But who cares! We have good guidebooks and a very long flight. So overall right now we can simply relax and look forward to the next adventures, while mulling over past ones.
Which brings me to the painting, Dickens’s Dream by Robert William Buss. It has always fascinated me. It hangs in the Charles Dickens’ Museum at 48, Doughty Street in the Holborn District of London.
Is it a living Charles Dickens in the chair or is it his ghost? Whatever the case, he looks very serene and contented, his eyes closed in contemplation, his body relaxed, and surrounded by endless ‘clips’ from his famous novels. Not just surrounded. His study is plastered with scenes. It’s inhabited by them.
Serenity and sitting down have never been a common pairing in my life. Sitting’s usually associated with translating or eating, followed by flopping into bed. But right now the Copenhagen translation agencies are closed. That means I can actually sit down in the knowledge that I won’t be disturbed by the ‘ding’ of incoming emails and work.
Time for a touch of Dickens.
But our space is inhabited not by scenes from novels, but by ‘souvenirs’. No, not a bull-shaped bottle of Sangria from Benidorm. Not a priapic clay satyr from Kos. Not an Empire State Building snow globe. Not even a plastic nodding Silvio Berlusconi. Not things we had even intended to buy and not necessarily things that cost an arm and a leg. But things that caught our attention and now exist as cherished memories of moments, places and people, clustered with little stories we can share with friends, recall together or simply enjoy in our heads – part of our ever-expanding travel movie.
Take the Little Prince (as we call him):
One Easter we drove with friends to Paris. We stumbled across a tiny art gallery on the corner of Quai Malaquais and rue Bonaparte, directly opposite the Louvre – the Galerie BREHERET. Luckily it was closed, because Lau and I immediately fell in love with some brightly coloured, naïve paintings in the window: cartoon children wearing crowns… Cut to November 2008. I was in London (Lau was home in Turkey). On impulse, one morning at the crack of dawn I jumped on the Eurostar to Paris and found myself at around 8.30 a.m. eating a delicious breakfast outside a café on the opposite corner from the gallery – closed. I had a moment of “What on earth was I thinking of?!”, but picked myself up, set off, shopped for perfumes (always a great tonic) and returned to the gallery – now open. I entered the tiny old curiosity shop and feeling a bit of a prat muttered something about “petits princes“. The old gentleman knew exactly what I was referring to, but “Malheureusement, tous vendus.” What the f••• was I thinking of?! But wait! He opened a drawer and there was the last remaining ‘Little Prince’ lithograph, produced by the artist Daniel Airam at the same time as the paintings. Now all mine!!! A Christmas present for Lau. I celebrated with lunch in a quaint little restaurant on the Île St Louis (you have to, don’t you?).
The only cloud over the event was the fact that Lau had phoned me in London early that morning. Of course I wasn’t there, and the friend I was staying with was sworn to secrecy. Thank God for the print – evidence that I hadn’t been painting London pink the night before.
Meet the flip-flop rhino in the hallway:
The brilliant Davis Ndungu has a tiny booth in the huge arts and crafts centre on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. His company is called Flip Flop Sculptures. On a somewhat overcast May day in Cape Town (misguidedly we had forgotten that May meant winter was just around the corner in this part of the world – derr!), the array of multi-coloured, fantastic beasts of all shapes and sizes, each one created out of recycled rubber flip flops, made us chuckle out loud. We were tempted to buy a menagerie, but settled for our solitary rhino who still makes us smile every time we enter the flat. (Incidentally, the lapis lazuli blue on the walls of our tiny hall is also a homage to South Africa – unashamedly nicked from one of the rooms in the delightful, highly recommended Lézard Bleu Guest House in Oranjezicht.)
Actually Cape Town was a bit lethal on the shopping front. We were staying at the adorable, pint-sized Dock House hotel, tucked away invisibly opposite the giant ferris wheel on the waterfront. Its walls featured tantalising art, all loaned or purchased from the Everard Read Gallery just a couple of minutes’ walk away. Well – no harm in taking a look, is there? After pleasant conversations, first with the young women in the office and then with a charming Italian artist who was currently exhibiting at the gallery and who very sweetly signed a couple of catalogues for us, we noticed a ‘tiny’ painting of a suffragette painted in blurry extravagant swirls of paint applied like toothpaste, in an old weathered frame and crowned by an indiscriminate tangle of copper wire… It now hangs on the wall of the flat in Granada. It is the work of the highly idiosyncratic South African artist Nigel Mullins. (Actually we just bought another of his works – the perilous aspect of Wanderlust shopping)
No we didn’t buy a Nelson Mandela tea towel, which was probably made in China anyway. Both these pieces were ‘Made in South Africa’, bought ’cause they delighted us when we spotted them and continue to delight now.
Buying the two wooden panels in Tamil Nadu in January this year was a bit like a movie…
I’d always fancied a Ganesh. (What did you say?) On our last morning in Pondicherry we stumbled upon a crappy little corner shop – antiques? junk? It was impossible to tell. In we went and spotted a pair of wooden panels – one with Ganesh and one with another Hindu god. The shopkeeper assured us they were “genuine antiques”, “more than 100 years old” blah blah blah. And maybe they are. But maybe they were crafted in one of the many workshops on the outskirts of the city and hammered into some semblance of antiquity. Doesn’t matter, we liked them and could visualise them on our balcony. But there was a Catch 22.
We couldn’t pay for them. I mean we could afford them, but it was impossible to pay.
I never really understood the logic, but in an attempt to combat corruption the Indian PM had banned cash – or some of it. All the cash-dispensing machines were either empty or there were mile-long queues of people hoping to get the few rupees they were allowed. We had no cash and, like so many others, the shop had no credit card machine. Goodbye then. But, as we turned to leave, the shopkeeper stalled us and asked us to wait while he phoned a friend. Within minutes a large beaming man arrived on a motorbike and whisked me off. Away from the comparative slickness of the colonial French quarter, across the stinky open-sewer canal and into the teeming, never-changing Tamil quarter. Parking the bike, he then led me through the throng and bustle of the market until we came to a dry goods stall with pastas the colour of which I’d never beheld and a credit card machine!! Heaven knows how they worked it out between them, but the panels were now ours!
And for a moment I had been Judi Dench on the back of Bill Nighy’s scooter at the end of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Incredible India!
Lau insists on buying a basket wherever we go. Not only are they all used, each of them also embodies some little story or character. The old man in a cave on some Greek island offering us some withered figs from his less than spotless pocket – that’s the basket for onions in the kitchen. Lau fell in love with a basket used by the cleaning staff at the Jetwing Ligthouse in Galle – so he had an assistant manager find the basket-maker who then made us one – toilet rolls. A shop selling crafts made by women’s collectives at quaintly named Pigg’s Peak in Swaziland – the sunshine-yellow basket on the blue hall wall next to the flip flop rhino.
All these things to think about. From Kenya, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sikkim, Venice, Bilbao – you name it. It doesn’t matter what they cost (that’s what we tell ourselves when we fall for a painting we can’t really afford!). And it certainly doesn’t matter what other people think about them. They provide a kind of home entertainment. We always swear we’re done – no more things. But one of us always sneaks that extra fold-up Longchamp travel bag into the suitcase and the collection expands. If someone eventually paints Lau and Nigel’s Dream you will just make out our eyes and the spikes of our thinning grey hair, the rest of us buried in a heap of beloved artefacts.
Happy New Year, Happy Travels and Happy Shopping!