My backpack, my daughter and me: Part 1
When your daughter starts asking if Paris is in London, it’s time to pack a backpack or two and take off on a trip across Europe — and that’s just what Wanda Hennig did.
This story first appeared in Living and Loving magazine, South Africa.
It all started the day my daughter, then aged 12, asked me if Paris was in London. Horrors! I clutched my forehead in despair and ranted on. How could she be so bizarre? How could she ask something so outrageous? How could she not know?
She hung her head in shame.
I felt that familiar motherly guilt at my outburst over what had obviously been intended as a straightforward request for help with some homework.
Then I sat back and thought. Was it really such a silly thing to ask? After all, unless one has been there, London, Paris, New York are all just names on pages of books and newspapers. I recalled that I had been taken to Europe at the age of 10. Maybe that was why I’d always taken geography for granted.
Then and there, in am impulsive moment of madness, I resolved to take my daughter to Europe. We’d live with our rusty car, our wonky stove and worn-out sewing machine, gather up our cents, throw caution to the wind and go.
Keep going to check out the slideshow at the end of Part 1.
I’d take her out of the routine of school to live and learn, to see the differences between people and places, to get a solid slug of general knowledge.
We obviously wouldn’t be able to go everywhere, but I hoped Europe, the backbone of Western culture and civilization, would be a solid starting point to give some perspective and reality to the words that would line her textbooks for the rest of her schooldays.
Three months, I decided, would be a good minimum timespan. We’d take backpacks and my dated copy of Europe on a budget.
We’d travel as cheaply as possible. We might hitch along the way. We would not sleep under bridges or in ditches. But I’m sure, had we said we’d be living like that, less of a shocked response would have greeted me than the one I got from some people, alarmed at the idea of her missing almost three months of schooling.
“Three months! How can you do that to her?” I was asked again and again.
Anyone overhearing would have been accused of believing I was intending to shave her scalp, turn her into a skinhead, sell her body and hand her over to the Moonies, all in one fell swoop.
Some people reassuringly agreed it was a good idea — mainly those who’d traveled themselves and understood the potential value of the experience.
Several of her teachers, fortunately, were positive and agreed to give her assignments to do along the way. “She can do a project,” suggested the Geography teacher. “Let her write postcards and read brochures,” said the English teacher. The mathematics teacher would give her some exercises to work through and kindly offered to help her in the afternoons on her return. The history, Afrikaans and general science teachers would give her things to keep her mind in working groove.
Travel and learn
Although by qualification a teacher myself, I made no offers of help with her subject learning. She agreed to accept responsibility to do the work in her own time. Experience has taught me a hard fact — it’s difficult to be patient and objective with one so close.
I must confess this also: a fear of time-wasting red tape prevented me from ever formally asking permission to take her out of school. To date there has been no comeback.
We set off on our European summer vacation one warm and sunny winter afternoon late in May. We flew from Durban to London via Nairobi and found from the very beginning that learning while on the move is easier than ABC. Things are there all the time, waiting to be noticed, grasped and stored away in the memory with minimum effort.
Take for example the starting point — the trip over. The flight captain, doing the rounds of the crowded aircraft, for some unknown reason invited us, tucked far back in our Apex economy seats, to visit the cockpit. Our interest, once there, must have been appealing because we were invited to return for the landing at Heathrow.
And so we received, courtesy British Airways, a spontaneous geography lesson from the pilot and flight engineer, which covered the Channel, the Thames and London from the air, with Windsor Castle on the left.
That, together with a chance meeting and chat with actor Richard Chamberlain, who happened to be traveling first class, will, I’m convinced, make sure for a certain 13-year-old that London will never be Paris again!
Taking the point of view that knowledge is more than an accumulation of facts, our expressed aim on the trip was to combine the minimum book learning with the maximum learning by experience.
This is easy in Europe where, in a few hours, it’s possible to move from one culture with language, currency, history and lifestyle totally unique to another where all these things are different.
We decided to land and leave from — where else but — London. An obvious choice. England swings, as we all know. It’s exciting. And in the South African context, there are strong ties that come up in any study of history, literature, theater, music or current affairs.
We arrived on June 1 and spent 10 days in England before setting off to Europe. We returned there toward the end of August with two weeks to spare before our return to South Africa in September.
Our conclusion: England was a good choice.
A person could happily spend three months or three years there, without getting tired of anything except the weather and without running out of new things to see and do.
Our ramblings in a single two-day period, for example, took us from Greenwich, where we stood in misty rain to photograph each other on the Mean Line, to the Hammersmith Palais in London where, our hair teased and sprayed an alarming shade of red, we joined a couple of thousand punks and trendies and swayed to the music of up-and-coming British group, The Cult.
We traveled the length and breadth of the Underground, watched all the usuals like the changing of the guards — and clenched our mouths shut in embarrassed silence when thrust handouts at an anti-apartheid demonstration outside South Africa house.
At different times, we wandered through Robin Hood’s Bay on the north Yorkshire coastline and dreamed of living in one of the many quaint cottages clustered there; and gazed in wonder at Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Kiss, in The Tate.
We sent punk-spotting in King’s Road on a Saturday morning and found that these days there aren’t many punks to spot. The few who remain have realized their worth as a tourist attraction and aggressively demand cash when focused on by any camera-toting tourist.
Cheap seats and the Dance of Death
We laughed at the West End comedies, thrilled at the power of their musicals and considered ourselves among the chosen few when we were asked to move from the cheap seats in the back row to vacant ones in the front for a live fringe performance at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, of Strindberg’s Dance of Death, starring an aging and slightly portly, but still delectable Alan Bates.
Daughter’s “in a nutshell” remarks: “I found England far ahead of us in many ways, for example fashion, music, books and even schooling. (A teacher friend arranged a day for her at his school — not difficult to organize and a worthwhile experience for any youngster on holiday there).
“I found it interesting that they preserve their old houses and don’t pull everything down and build skyscrapers and modern buildings like they do back home. I loved the footpaths in the countryside and the parks — you can get out and away from the car fumes. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle were wonderful to see.”
Polders, Delft and Anne Frank
We tore ourselves away from England a few days into June and moved across to Amsterdam, the city that never seems to sleep and where the Afrikaans link is instantly obvious in the language similarities.
Holland: the Dutch East India company, flowers, cheese, polders, Delft and Anne Frank. In a single day there are lessons in art to be learned from the works of Van Gogh and Rembrandt and lessons in an alternative lifestyle from the relaxed sex and drugs laws.
Daughter’s conclusions: “Afrikaans originated from Dutch and as I can speak Afrikaans, I found it fun listening to the people speaking Dutch, and trying to translate it. When spoken, it doesn’t sound at all like Afrikaans but when it’s written, it is much easier to translate. I like Van Gogh’s work and really enjoyed seeing it and reading about him at the Van Gogh museum. Going by boat down the canals was fun.”
The night train to Berlin
From Holland we traveled on the night train to Berlin — a history book must for anything to do with Hitler and the world wars.
We found South Africans have no problem visiting the Eastern sector of the city and passed through Checkpoint Charlie to wander the “forbidden” streets before catching a breathtaking stage performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Everything seen in the movies became reality as we wandered wearily back through the border shortly before our midnight deadline and were subjected, along with a young American couple, to a brief but alarming spot search while bathed in the glare of spotlights.
In Munich, Ludwig of Bavaria become more than the name of a mad king who built castles when we visited some of his amazing structures. Naturism became more than a word when we saw naked couples striding through the English Gardens. Beer became more than something to quench the thirst when it was served up in enormous liter mugs.
The hitchhikers guide…
In Germany, the cost of train travel began to take its toll and we had our first taste of hitching.
We chose to limit our efforts to the mornings, so as not to risk being stranded some dark and eerie night.
We laughed and danced about to keep warm on our first day’s efforts, standing hopefully for some 30 minutes in misty rain somewhere in the Black Forest.
We felt a satisfying sense of achievement when we reached that day’s destination, Baden Baden, before the bus we could have caught.
© Wanda Hennig, 2015