Libraries in Langa

On a recent trip to Cape Town I was asked to take over some books for the fledging library at the LEAP school in Langa, the oldest township on the Western Cape. The school educates children from local, high-need communities, preparing them for, in many cases, university entrance and life beyond Langa.

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In the entrance lobby at LEAP School, Langa

On our flight on the way back, an elderly white British couple were horrified that I’d visited a township. “Were you safe?” they wanted to know. They had been staying with family further up the coast, who apparently would rather take a longer route than drive somewhere beside the townships. “The people there will steal anything,” confided the woman who had gone out of her way to avoid such places during her three-week stay and had presumably based this statement on hearsay.

Well.

I was a little anxious about visiting, not for safety reasons, but because there can potentially be something uncomfortable about what my husband, who did not come with me, called “poverty tourism”. There can be a fine line between curiosity and contributing to the local economy by visiting (township tours are now very popular)  on the one hand, and gawping at a way of life that is unimaginable to our own pampered existence on the other. But the school had meticulously arranged my visit – the chance to meet and talk to students and see the school and also the area it serves.

Langa, like any other place, is a jumble of contradictions. To describe it as “poor” and move on is as meaningless as describing London as “rich”. Like any place, it has its wealthier residents – its teachers and nurses who live in very pretty, brightly-coloured permanent residences on the edge of the settlement, with their proud, well-tended gardens: my guide Lungiswa told me that it’s impossible to buy one of these as people hang on to them, and there are never any for sale; and like any place it has its poorer residents – the ones we think of when we think of townships – in their temporary, corrugated-iron shelters built practically on top of each other in no discernible pattern. In between the two are the modern, rather faceless blocks of government-built apartments – as characterless as anything you might see in Dalston or Dagenham. Do people prefer living in these, I ask, (hoping it isn’t a stupid question) or in the shacks? Yes, Lungiswa says, because they have heating, and so are warmer in the winter, and yes because they have inside toilets, but they are very small and anonymous. She is scathing, however, about some of the new housing. It was built, she said, because of the World Cup. “The government didn’t want tourists to see our houses,” she says, “so they built some new homes to hide us, because we are bad for South Africa’s image.” The driver argues that it doesn’t matter why they were built, it’s a step in the right direction and the new homes are a great benefit for the area. They argue a little as I sink into the back seat and decide not to offer an opinion.

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But Langa is not devoid of facilities. Like anywhere in sports-mad South Africa there are quite a few sports pitches; there is a supermarket; there are bright and enterprising local shops, carwashes and other services operating out of people’s homes or roadside stalls; and there is a wonderful library that felt so identical to my own in Burnt Oak that I felt a strange sort of deja-vu for a moment. The library – a community facility with computers and internet access and a range of groups and services operating from it – is just the kind of local resource our own government is closing down back in the UK.

Even the shacks are not necessarily what they seem as you drive past them from a distance on the main road, bemoaning poverty from a safe distance. Walking past one, I’m surprised to see it’s fitted with what looks like an IKEA show kitchen; others have solar panels and satellite dishes; many have little but clearly lovingly-tended flower pots around them.

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The school itself radiates pure joy, and pupils and teachers alike are obviously justifiably proud of it. The library is growing but they are very keen to increase the number of fiction books available – they have a lot of text books donated by various schemes and projects, but to encourage children to read and engage they need fiction. I had brought over, spread carefully across suitcases and hand luggage to max out the luggage weight restrictions, a donation of books from one of their visiting teachers and a donation of original novels from London-based author of teen fiction Miriam Halahmy. Visiting an English class first hand, I was excited to see the children striding up and down the dusty yard as they enthusiastically enacted scenes from a play, which would not have been possible without donated books.

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Students explore the new books in the school library

As part of my visit I visited two classes. The first, a serious group of budding accountants, journalists and nurses studying for their matriculation, listened with disconcerting attentiveness while I talked about London and the UK education system, aware that there are very, very few scholarships for undergraduate students, putting it out of their reach for the time being but making postgraduate study an option for the future. The second, though, 13 and 14 year olds, gifted me one of the most enjoyable 15 minutes of my life, leading to an impromptu, passionate discussion about football, (“your team beat Chelsea? But I have not heard of your team!”) and my connection with the school, the teacher who had donated the books. “We love Miss Lindsay!” chorused the class. “She is our favourite teacher.” “Miss Lindsay was my favourite teacher too, around twenty years ago.” One girl’s eyes widen. “Twenty years ago? You are SO OLD!” Before I can stop them my phone is taken out of my hand, and eventually returned five minutes later with about 20 selfies added to the memory. “Will you put us on the internet?” It would be my pleasure – so here they are:

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I would very much like to go back to Langa in the future and see how it’s doing. I would like to follow the careers of every single one of those bright, intelligent, enthusiastic children. I was touched by the wonderful welcome, privileged to have been invited, impressed by the teachers and their hard work and dedication. I wish them all the best in their small corner of this wonderful, complicated, beautiful country.

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Throwing My Arms Around Paris

One of the more bizarre yet entirely genuine afflictions suffered by some unfortunate tourists is known as Paris Syndrome – the psychological turmoil that results from the discovery that the French capital is, in fact, not a paradise of dreaming spires and aching sophistication straight out of a romance novel, but a vast, crowded city with a traffic problem, no concept of customer service and residents who don’t give a second thought to urinating in the street.

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And yet I love Paris. I even love Parisians, some of whom are, as the stereotypes would have you believe, gloriously rude, or, at the very least, impressively aloof. It was in Paris that, upon being told we were staying at the hotel for our honeymoon, the manager merely replied “mmm”, then pointed to the lift: “Your room is up. Also, there is a package for you,” indicating to a box left on the floor with a mere twitch of his finger, as though it contained something most undesirable with which he did not wish to be associated – it turned out to be a bottle of champagne from an aunt in England. It was a Parisian who told me, after what I considered to be a conversation in flawless French, that she could tell I had a Quebecois accent. Interested, I asked what exactly constituted a Quebecois accent. She pursed her lips and looked very matter-of-fact: “It means you speak…er, how you say… Ah! Like a peasant!”

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Musee D’Orsay

 

Paris is one of the easiest places to get to from London, and there is something incredible, no matter how many times you do it, about hopping on a train at St Pancras and stepping off just two hours later in Gare du Nord. We first went on our honeymoon – probably not the most relaxing honeymoon destination, as we were on a determined mission to see absolutely everything we possibly could, which I will tell you now is impossible unless you’re a millionaire with a year or so to spare. It’s prohibitively expensive, especially since the Brexit vote, and unlike London the museums are most certainly not free. But here are a few tips:

  • If you plan on visiting a lot of the attractions it’s worth buying a Paris Pass, which will allow you to skip the line. Of course, there won’t be any indication as to how you can do this when you arrive at your chosen museum. At the Louvre, we gave up and joined the main queue, until a gentleman on a bicycle rode alongside us and disdainfully indicated we should follow him, nodding his head towards a nondescript side entrance muttering “ici”.
  • Visit the Musee D’Orsay. It really is beautiful, before you even get to the art that’s inside it.
  • Speak French. If you speak English, it’s likely you will be spoken to only in French. If you speak French, you will be replied to in superciliously flawless English: “You try to speak my language? Pah. I speak yours perfectly. And now I will demonstrate your pathetic inadequacies by doing so at length.”
  • A dinner cruise on the Seine is an extravagance, but one worth doing just once in your life.
  • Versailles is a hellish Darwinian nightmare of stampeding, camera-brandishing tour groups jostling for survival. It makes Glastonbury Festival look quiet. Buy tickets in advance and go on a week day, during the school term, early in the morning.
  • Hotels often charge an eye-watering amount for an underwhelming breakfast. This is Paris – you’ll be able to find a café within a five minute walk of any hotel selling croissants, coffee and an array of breads that will remind you just how poor Britain is when it comes to this most basic of foodstuffs.
  • Walk. Don’t go on a walking tour, download your own or buy a book, and explore the under-explored. We stumbled across a Le Corbusier House (devoid of tourists) and the wonderful Musee Marmottan, a more sedate place to see Monet’s paintings than the crowded L’Orangerie.

It’s fine to have expectations of Paris – it’s beautiful, jumbled, disdainful, self-confident, diverse and full of wonderful things to do and eat –  it might end up failing to meet some of your expectations, but it will far exceed others in ways you never imagined.

Top 10 Cities: 1: Sydney

There is not enough hyperbole in the world to truly do justice to how I feel about Sydney. Gloriously brash, loud, hot, cocky, beautiful: Sydney has, quite simply, everything I want from a city (sky-high prices aside). The food is wonderful; the people radiate a joyous mixture of warmth and utter self-assurance – they know they are the best people in the world, living in its best city.

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THAT view, from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair

 

I was very lucky to experience Sydney as an (extremely temporary) inhabitant, living in an Airbnb studio in the trendy but non-touristy area of Glebe, across the park from the main Sydney University campus. I walked to work daily to the accompaniment of cockatoos, swam in the open air pool, ate in the many eclectic restaurants of Glebe Point Road and watched the sun set over Blackwattle Bay. Perhaps this is one reason why I fell in love with it – because I got a sense of what it was like to live there.

So, some tips, from someone pretending – craving, perhaps – to be a Sydneysider:

  • Bollocks to Bondi. By all means go and have a look at it, take a photo or two, but then take the path around the coast to Coogee (pronounced “Cud-jee” – you’ll get sniggered at pronouncing it any other way.) En route stop at the sublime tidal pool at Bronte and have a swim. Don’t try swimming in the sea – aside from the disconcerting warning signs about sharks and currents, the undertow will mean you don’t swim so much as flounder, and come out with half a ton of sand in your bikini.
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Walking from Bondi to Coogee

 

  • If you want “that” view, you can get it from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, a gentle amble through the Botanical Gardens. (Those birds with the large beaks? They’re called ibises – steer clear, they’re even cockier than the locals.) Stop at the Andrew Boy Charlton Pool – it’s cheap and juts out into the harbor, giving you great views as you swim
  • There are many daytrips you can do from Sydney. If you’re really keen and have time, Canberra really is worth the visit (it’s about a three hour drive each way). Otherwise, the Blue Mountains are famous for a reason.
  • It’s true that all the wildlife can kill you, but Australia isn’t cagey about this. I mean, they have a snake called the Death Adder – there’s really no ambiguity there, and in true Australian style they say it like it is. They also treat this daily dice with death with remarkable casualness – this spider chart pretty much sums up all you need to know. While we were there, we saw a news story about a crocodile who had wandered into someone’s house in Darwin while they were out at the pub – apparently just another normal day in the Northern Territories. Don’t worry, though – the chances of you actually coming face to face with a deadly creature is pretty slim, and there have been no recorded deaths from spider bites since 1979.
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An example of local wildlife that can’t kill you

It’s almost two years since I visited Australia, and not a day goes by when I don’t dream longingly of the beaches, the sense of humour, the fact that getting home to find a deadly reptile in your lounge is a mere annoyance. If I were useful in some way to the Australian economy (I’ve checked, and I’m not) I would move there in a heartbeat.

 

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The Blue Mountains

Top Ten Cities: 2: Tallinn

Our trip to Tallinn, in December 2015, remains possibly the most enjoyable holiday we have ever had. The term “fairytale” is often overused by travel agents when they really mean “a town in Europe that’s a bit old”, but Tallinn, with its turrets and cobbled streets and multi-coloured buildings, genuinely ticks the boxes of a “fairytale” city. Emerging miraculously relatively unscathed from the turmoil of the 20th century, Tallinn is bashfully grand and quietly beautiful.

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Tallinn has a fascinating history that’s in some places uplifting and in others heartbreaking. History fanatics will have plenty to do there with, amongst others, the Museum of Occupation which takes you vividly through years of pain and oppression right up to the inspiring Singing Revolution. But if history’s not your scene, there is a Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. (Yes, this is a real thing; no, we didn’t visit.)

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Tallinn from the Radisson Blu Skybar. Well worth a visit

 

There are so many restaurants in the centre of Tallinn that it’s possible to eat affordably yet indulgently every night – you could probably stay there for 3 months and eat somewhere different each day. There are also a range of daytrips from Tallinn: Lahemaa National Park is beautiful and the nearby ex-Soviet Submarine base haunting. Tallinn is also a good place from which to visit the eye-wateringly expensive Helsinki without having to actually stay there. Legend has it there is a quick catamaran service that will take you there in 2 hours, but this doesn’t seem to run very often. Optimistically we booked on it and dutifully arrived at their offices at 7am as instructed. They were empty. We finally located a human being behind the desk and asked if the boat was going. “Of course not,” she said, shuffling her papers and not looking up. We persisted, asking if there was another way to get to Helsinki. “Yes, of course,” she said, as if talking to idiots, but offered no further information. We asked where we needed to go. “Over there,” she replied, sighing and gesturing vaguely towards the wall.

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Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

 

Having walked through almost pitch darkness towards the harbor we eventually found there is a slow ferry that will take you, probably more comfortably, to Helsinki in 3 hours.

More on Helsinki another time, but the journey back on the ferry was an eye opener – known as the “party boat”, it turns out this is the route taken by young Finns in search of cheap booze. It arrives in Tallinn just before midnight and you can book a cabin for a pittance and either head for the clubs in town or stay on the boat for an all-night disco. Almost as soon as we left Helsinki the karaoke kicked off with a vengeance. I maintain that you haven’t really lived until you’ve heard Belinda Carlisle drunkenly belted out with great enthusiasm in a Finnish accent.

Top Ten Cities: 3: Ljubljana

3. Ljublajna

I was surprised how many people had even heard of Ljubljana, let alone knew how to spell it. The capital city of Slovenia, it has more of a feel of York about it than of London. Laid back, pretty, quietly confident, it is the flagship city of the Former Yugoslavia’s success story – the country that avoided the Balkan Wars and joined the EU back in 2004 as one of the “A8” countries, many years before Croatia, the only other former Yugoslavian member, joined.

And Ljubljana feels almost self-effacingly successful. It doesn’t shout about its beauty, charm and astounding accomplishments – Slovenia is ranked as offering the 10th best quality of life in the world, with Ljubljana ranked the 51st best city in the world – well ahead of New York, London, Hong Kong, and, well, pretty much anywhere else you’d care to name. (My favourite city in the world, incidentally – Canberra – is number one.) It’s also a very cheap flight away on the ever-fabulous Wizzair (where, disconcertingly, the passengers routinely applaud when you land.)

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The centre of Ljubljana

 

Ljubljana is one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited. It doesn’t even feel like a city, much less a capital. It’s flanked by mountains, awash with glorious Art Noveau buildings, and packed with cafes and restaurants. There are a couple of nice museums, and it’s a wonderful base for visiting the rest of Slovenia (Lake Bled is the “must go” destination, and for good reason!) and the east of Italy – Trieste and Venice are both just a couple of hours away.

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Venice is just a couple of hours away

 

In Ljubljana I let myself do something I don’t often do on holiday: relax. It is cheap enough that you don’t have to fret about money (some of my other favourite cities have been marred by the need to check your bank balance after every cup of coffee), with enough to do to pass the time but not so much that you feel the need to rush around frantically to tick off the sites (Paris, Washington and New York felt like the travel equivalent of Supermarket Sweep: “You have 3 days….GO! Eiffel Tower – check; Louvre – check; D’orsay – check…”) It is not (yet) one of Europe’s big tourist destinations, and you can amble around without getting stuck behind huge tour groups brandishing their cameras or falling over British stag groups dragging down the already much-marred name of my nation.

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Lake Bled

This is a city I would visit again. We stayed in the wonderful Grand Hotel Union, complete with a swimming pool on the top floor from which you can watch the sun setting over the mountains. Ljubljana is pure bliss, and I hope nothing ever ruins it.

Top 10 Cities: Number 4

4. Istanbul

When I watch the news now I feel a mixture of gratitude that we visited Istanbul when we did, and sadness that, for the time being at least, it is effectively out of bounds. The political situation, particularly since last year, makes it less inviting as a tourist destination, though the Foreign Office only advises against travel to the area near the Syrian border.

There is so much to do in Istanbul, and we were very lucky to have a local showing us around. It is a spine-tingling attack of wonderful sounds and smells and colours, with wonderful food, low prices and weather that never gets too uncomfortably hot. Unlike in Morocco, non-Muslims are welcome to go inside the mosques (women: take a scarf to cover your head), and they are vast and impressive.

Like all major cities there is a hit list of “must sees”, but I’d especially recommend:

  • the Cisterna Basilica – an impressive feat of ancient engineering
  • Bebek – Istanbul’s answer to Monaco, on the shores of the Bosporus
  • Kadikoy – on the less-visited Asian side, and worth it for the ferry ride and to see another side of Istanbul. It’s also a good place to smoke a hookah, if you feel so inclined.
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Bebek: the Turkish Riviera?

 

I hope that people will continue to go to Istanbul, and that things in Turkey will settle down. It’s a wonderful city, a great country, and I am very glad we got to visit.

Top Ten Cities: Number 5

5. Sofia

Sofia surprised us. Tagged onto the end of a schlep across Eastern Europe by train, during which I developed an infection after cutting my hand on a toilet door, saw a disproportionate number of three-legged dogs and ate a lot of gherkin, we went more because the opportunity had presented itself than because it was on our hit list.

Sofia is beautiful. It has a contentedness that nearby Bucharest, still reeling years on from the horrors of Ceausescu’s tyranny, seems to lack, forever in the shadows of a darkness it can’t seem to shake off. In a fine example of pathetic fallacy, the sun shone throughout our three day visit, and the grand classical and neo-Byzantine buildings basked resplendently in it. The Cathedral is even more impressive than any photo would have you believe, and when we were there was filled with a steady stream of bikers who were in Sofia for a rally but nonetheless (this is a devout Orthodox country) took the opportunity to come in and light candles and say prayers.

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You can eat like a member of the aristocracy or a Hollywood star in Sofia. Bulgaria is not yet in the Euro, and a meal in a top restaurant will set you back around the same amount as one of the more upmarket chains in the UK. Oh, and the local wine is good too (though getting a nice one is a bit like playing Russian Roulette).

If you are only in Sofia for a short time one place I cannot recommend enough is the Museum of Socialist Art, which should really be called Lenin: a Study in Statues. Though you do every now and then come across a dramatic frieze with a title like “The Workers’ Struggle” and the odd Che Guevara, this is mainly where every bust of Lenin has gone to die: Lenin looking pensive; Lenin looking determined; Lenin looking like he’s trying to remember whether or not he turned the gas off. Quirky, unexpected and ultimately hiding in a back garden in the suburbs, this was the highlight of our trip.