A surreal sojourn across Europe

European sights: The Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Photo: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

European sights: The Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. Photo: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

In isiXhosa “ukufukuza” refers to the act, or rather the art, of moving quickly hither and thither. The word is somewhat onomatopoeic, conjuring as it does images of feverish movement over medium to long distances, often perspiring heavily. Rarely have my travels not involved ukufukuza — owing in equal parts to my twin habits of overpacking and chronic, congenital tardiness.

But there I was, overpacked and late, fukuzaring across Europe.
Four cities, three countries, eight days and a limited budget — the result of an impulse purchase in honour of my 35th birthday last October. The predictably reliable nature of developed world things — the efficient public transport, the trust economy on which the sharing economy was able to flourish, the almost imperceptible poverty levels — seemed a fitting theme with which to enter the post-youth era of my life.

My first stop was Berlin. On my first night, a South African friend invited me to a party in a drained swimming pool that had been converted into a cool hipster joint somewhere in Kreuzberg. Later that same night, I learned that Club SchwuZ, which I had immediately fallen in love with on my last visit to Berlin, had morphed into something I would want be a part of. The once niche underground club had moved from its old premises. With the relocation came a revamp into yet another enormous industrial club blasting the same unintelligible rave music from each of its multiple stages as though it was the 1990s all over again.

A few days later, I travelled to Hamburg, where I went to see the newly opened Elbphilharmonie Theatre. The acoustic design was done by renowned Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota — and the theatre also boasts the dubious accolade of being completed at more than 10 times the original proposed price. Each new update to the budget left Hamburgers feeling they were being held to ransom for a theatre they didn’t need — a helplessness that is anathema to their militant spirit of activism.

The story of the Rote Flora, a historical building in the Sternschanze quarter of the city, exemplifies the militancy of Hamburg residents in defending their right to exist and be in their beloved city. Originally built in 1888 as the Tivoli Theatre, it underwent a series of changes in use (and name) over the first century of its life.

Its last incarnation was that of a department store, which closed in 1987. Shortly thereafter, a proposal was made to return it to its original use. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, militant Hamburgers resisted and protested ceaselessly, and at times violently, for nearly two years before officials acceded to the will of the people. In 1989, it was decided that the building belonged to whoever had a use for it.

Today it stands as beacon of cultural and political activism in a sea of unyielding civic disobedience, as evidenced by the graffiti that adorns the walls in Sternschanze, a quarter tenuously straddling its hippie past and its hipster present.

I took the DB (Deutsche Bahn) train from Berlin to Paris and established for myself that even in the European Union low performance standards are a part of life. By the time I arrived in Paris more than five hours later, I was thoroughly exhausted.

The following morning, fatigue forced a delay to the start of my day as I recovered my strength. I desperately wanted to lie on my hotel bed in Le Marais and watch Al Jazeera all day. I fought this feeling and decided to take a random walk and get lost until I found a museum. Within minutes, I arrived at the 11th-century priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, home to the Musée des Arts et Métiers (the Museum of Arts and Trades).

I was captivated by the exhibition titled Machines à dessiner (Drawing Machines). Throughout the museum’s many exhibition rooms, I felt reminded of the intertwined legacies of the arts and sciences, which contrasts sharply with the myopic focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) development in developing countries like South Africa.

The museum also houses a version of Léon Foucault’s pendulum with the original bob that Foucault used to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation in 1851. In the same room as the pendulum is the original miniature model of the Statue of Liberty designed by Frédéric Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel.

After lunch, I took another random walk across the Seine and found myself standing in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral. I continued into the university district, home to Paris University’s Sorbonne and Pantheon campuses. I read all 810 names of prominent scholars — mostly Western, mostly white, mostly male — carved on the façade of the Sainte-Geneviève Library.

Among them I found the names of Arabic scholars such as the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, the poet Imru’ al-Qais and the alchemist philosopher Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. Somehow, Paris in 1843 was quite open to ideas from the Islamic world, something modern-day hijab-banning France could learn a lot from.

I sojourned at the Bombardier, an English-style pub that could have easily been in Grahamstown. The cute barman complimented me on my coat and served me a refreshing pale ale. A jazz band began playing and I knew I was home.

Six sexagenarians played swing like they knew Count Basie back when he was still called William. A cosmopolitan crowd filled the bar and I was transported back to the Paris of Josephine Baker and Gerard Sekoto.

I spotted a handsome stranger sitting alone at a table for two. I inquired about the empty seat and he invited me to join him. An army man in town on extended study leave at Paris University’s Pantheon campus, he was there to support his friend, the trumpeter and vocalist of the band.

Then he proceeded to educate me on how French he truly was. His family was from Guadeloupe, a cluster of islands in the Caribbean, which made him very French. Possibly more French than people from other French colonies, as Guadeloupe’s annexation to the Kingdom of France in 1674 predates the post-Ancien Régime annexation of certain departments of Metropolitan France such as Nice and parts of Avignon. But it wasn’t the first time I had been flummoxed by this brand of Stockholm syndrome in a black French person.

When the band took a break, I decided to return to my hotel. Retracing my steps, I found myself again at Notre Dame. The familiar scent of frankincense from a childhood of Sundays in an Anglican church beckoned me to enter. It was evening Mass but tourists were still allowed to enter and gawk without disturbing the faithful. I took in one last dose of awe and resumed my journey.

The following day, I caught another train, bound for Zürich. This final city on the trip only made it on to my itinerary at the insistence of a dear friend who had moved to Switzerland after her fairy-tale wedding at Hout Bay’s Castle venue back in the early 2000s. With the offer of a train ticket from Paris and accommodation in her home, how could I refuse?

Cognitive dissonance grew inside me as the sunny blue skies of France gave way to the deep hazy grey of snow-covered Switzerland.

At my friend’s apartment in Zürich’s Höngg district, we watched while, across the Atlantic, America was strapping a suicide bomber vest to itself and preparing to enter a busy global market and take us all with her as she swore in her 45th and least worthy president. I drank wine and ate cheese for my feelings.

The following day we explored Zürich. I was regaled with fascinating tales of a socioeconomic system largely built on neoconservative principles with a welfare safety net, which its citizens, natural and naturalised alike, jealously guarded from “outsiders”. The ironies compounded on each other to the point of nonsensical farce.

Later, after leaving a birthday party just before either of us got drunk enough to embarrass ourselves, we headed to Zürich Photobastei for night 21 of Swiss post-electronica band Superterz’s 31 Nights Insomnia Sessions. My friend successfully hustled the doorman to let us in at a heavily discounted price by claiming that I was a struggling musician from South Africa — and I proudly realised that Kraaifontein still coursed through her veins.

We were not ready for the melodious cacophony that came. Drums, keys and sitar provided the more easily recognisable elements of sound, rising and crashing separately and together. A man with long blond hair, also a member of the collective, moved about the crowd and within the band giving hugs and interpretative dance motions while filming the performance on his iPhone.

A middle-aged Asian dude sat stoically on a high chair and simply absorbed the vibes, periodically dismounting and reaching for the mysterious instrument he wore at the waist, which made weird scratching sounds like some kind of digital washboard.

The sound technician guy, who is also the band leader, fiddled with the knobs and buttons on his laptop, mixers and multiple drum machines. It was post-genre music for a brave new world — a world I knew I wanted to be a part of, zeitkranheit (sickness of the times) notwithstanding.

The following day I began my 28-hour trek back home, with a 7am return trip to Paris, where I would catch my Qatar Airways flight to Doha before connecting to Johannesburg.

I felt like one of the main characters in Salman Rushdie’s Grimus, who were at risk of falling victim to “the Grimus effect”, which gave them the ability to create new and unique universes both inside and outside the mind. The character of Virgil Jones could be seen as the creation of a kind of palimpsest reality — a reality re-created and superimposed on a prior-existing, yet effaced, reality.

That was what this trip had felt like. I had attempted to superimpose a reality that was really an amalgam of past experiences and future desires on an unyielding and gradually decaying reality. 

Fumbatha May

Fumbatha May

Fumbatha May is a data scientist and socioeconomic development consultant working in the renewable energy sector. Read more from Fumbatha May

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