Inside history

Two weeks ago I ordered a few used books from AwesomeBooks and inside A History of Fashion by J. Anderson Black & Madge Garland I found four letters from 1992. This was not one of those amazing discoveries that sometimes happens in the wonderful world of second-hand books. They are letters written to Gemma by friends that seem to have met her during a summer course in France while sharing a dorm and, most probably, a few giggling nights in a chatêau. I remember this kind of experience when I was a teenager sharing a room with Monica from Cugat del Valles at Cathy and Howard’s house in Cheltenham. In our minds, our friendship was forever. We also wrote letters to each other planning visits and other adventures. They never happened and we never met each other again. I wonder if Gemma and her friends kept in touch.

The first letter to Gemma was written on December 26. Her friend, whose birthday was December 2, got clothes, chocolate, a “very nice new desk” and soft toys, for her collection, as Christmas gifts. Maybe Gemma got A History of Fashion as a seasonal token of affection. In another letter, another friend writes about her mother who is a teacher and even though she looks like one, she is actually not that boring. But she swears quite a lot at home. In public, she assumes a “pompous” persona. Her dad is a vicar described in short and rather unpleasant words. She really hopes Gemma won’t be “put off” by her family. The other two letters are about boys. There’s Tristan, the knight in shining armour, with whom the girl is so smitten that she even talked to her mother about him. She didn’t tell her mum everything… There’s also Bob, fancied by another one of Gemma’s friends. Bob doesn’t seem very interested in going out with her. Maybe they could have one of those “open relationships, as they say”.

After the first excitement of finding these letters ( I do love all kinds of surprises and most especially if they are of the written kind), it took me a week to decide whether I should read them or not. I suppose the answer to this would always have to be no. These are, after all, personal stories traveling between Lincolnshire and Essex and I still read them. And even decided to share what I’ve read.

I remember C. telling me that he wished he would have the time to get rid of all his notes and letters before he died so no one would get to invade what was only his. We had this conversation again a few weeks ago. He has now given up on that sort of absolute control. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense to fight for privacy anymore. It does, however still bother me that I did not resist the temptation to invade someone’s else’s life.

There’s a full name and address (I didn’t Google them) on the envelopes; maybe you could just return them, J. suggests. What’s the chance that Gemma is still living in the same place? What’s the chance that twenty-five years later she is actually interested in getting some loose pieces of her life back? Would you want your adolescence to come back to you?

Mozambique 97

In August 1997 I travelled from Brazil, where I was on vacation with my parents, to Maputo where I stayed for a while with an uncle who was working there at the time. These are pages from my travel diary.

After six days in Porto Alegre, a city I was quite familiar with during my teens and early twenties, I flew to São Paulo to get on the flight to Beijing which had its first stop in Johannesburg.

At Guarulhos I waited,  trying to read Raygun magazine’s special issue on Cinema and Music.

I think my mistake was that I thought you could live the things that you acted. But I realized that that wasn’t the case. Then I realized that I would be better suited to try to do that but without an audience. To pretend I was in the movies all the time, basically. And to try to create a narrative flow out of actions, and sequences and events.

Will Oldham in that Raygun Magazine

My mum made me promise I wouldn’t get out of the airport in Johannesburg during the six-hour-long layover. I did. I took a taxi and Philly drove me downtown to Museum Africa and drove past Ponte Tower and took me to Ellis Park and the flea market in Gateway and told me I should walk around Carlton Center and I remembered that my mum used to talk about this place. There were people playing chess on a gigantic board. I was born in Johannesburg. How could I not go out?

I arrived in Maputo at night. My uncle, my aunt and my cousin picked me up and drove me home, a big apartment in Avenida Albert Lutuli, overlooking the Aga Khan foundation from the living room and the car park on the Polaroid from my bedroom.

I went to Mozambique to do research on forced labour migration. Most of my first weeks were spent at the library of the Provincial Culture Centre in Rua do Bagamoyo, former Rua do Araújo in the also former “red light district” of the former Lourenço Marques.

The long balcony of the former brothel was where I spent my smoking breaks. Across the street there was a Pensão (I suppose a hostel by now) and the life of the Dutch couple staying there became also some sort of voyeuristic break. Under the balcony, every day, the same lady selling matchboxes danced to her own rhythmic section when she got bored.

This how research turned mostly into contemplation of life by the Indian Ocean.

Every morning I would pretend to be a morning person and go downtown at 6.30, have coffee at the Scala or the Continental and wait for the library to open while marvelling at the long line of men and women getting their shoes polished. We are proud of our shoes, Professor C. tells me. Most of us only have one pair, most probably handed down, we have to keep them looking new.

Before my aunt and my cousin go back to Portugal we go to Nelspruit to do some supermarket shopping. It felt like the old ritual of crossing the border to go to Tui or Vigo in Galicia for the same purpose before there were “free markets” and you could buy the same sort of things on the Portuguese side at the border. We get to Ressano Garcia and there are long lines of people and cars to cross to Komatipoort. I walk around amazed at the chaos of this mythical place that I knew only from books. It’s dirty and crowded. On the other side, I don’t have to wait, my passport is South African and everyone thinks I am American because of my accent. Nelspruit looks like a giant supermarket where people buy giant tins of butter. I had never seen a tin of butter before. We spend the night at a lodge near the Kruger Park and go visit the next day. There’s no diary entry for this. There are hundreds of photos and boxes of photographic slides (!) I still can’t find the words to tell anyone what it felt like.

My aunt and cousin return to Portugal in time for the start of the school year. I stay on with my uncle and Olga who worked as a cleaner and cook at the flat and was now a single mother of two after her husband left. We had fun together. There was a fabric warehouse just around the corner from our flat and we often went to buy capulanas and play dress up. With my uncle, there were a lot of arguments about how to “behave in Africa” and how to deal with “things you know nothing about”.

Outside, there was still a whole world to be explored and a lot of bureaucracy to deal with when trying to get authorization to see archives. The upstairs neighbour who owned the liquor store in Avenida Josina Machel tells on me because she saw me walking home. It’s not appropriate. Apparently.

I spend two days reading labour legislation at the Ministry. The intern there just got a scholarship to go to Holland to study for a Masters degree. Is happy is not heading to Portugal to do that. I then move to the National Film Institute. I had an amazing two weeks in this place just watching movies and making friends.

Everywhere, I am surrounded by words and images and words and images that always have some sort of political meaning. And writers, and artists and liberation activists and foreign journalists that have stayed on after the colonial war was over. And Italians that have become African and don’t even speak Italian anymore. And generous souls that have shared pieces of their lives and changed mine.

Re-living these pages I am, sometimes, amazed at what I have written. From quotes of Ruth First and Margot Dias to somewhat futile accounts of every little detail of every walk around the city, every coffee, every encounter.

I didn’t want to risk missing a thing. I didn’t want to risk losing the memory of the place and of the people.

Re-living these pages, I am really sorry that I haven’t kept the habit of writing travel diaries. Re-reading some of these pages, I realise they are actually a script for the adventure movie of that African winter.

 

“No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself.”

In Retrospective, a cinematographic year without the scent of time. I have accomplished nothing. I kept zapping.

References

Haruki Murakami, After the Quake

Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time