I flew home to France on a circuitous route to Basel from Abidjan after five pell-mell weeks of work to find Christmas in overdrive at home. Shortly after I arrived, the girls also came clattering back from their abodes in Brighton, London and Dakha. It’s been a grand year of travel, from family gatherings in Porto, London and Istanbul to mini-breaks in the Greek Islands and Venice, as well as Jessie’s imaginative long weekends around south east Asia, Ella’s visits to Greece and Spain and Gwen’s working holiday in Chicago as well as assorted visits to various parts of the UK. Wolfsloch (our house in Leymen) was in good working order, and the dogs, having become accustomed to their monopoly of Alli’s time, were nevertheless happy to see the family returning, including Laurie and Kay, the Nick and Helen Miles family from Graz and Jessie’s boyfriend Jurrat from Dakha. By the 23rd all were installed, and a mountain of food and drink had been readied and steadied for mass consumption. After attending the local village’s restful midnight mass and an Anglican morning service in Basel, I should have been raring to go, but suffered from an acute stomach bug for several days, exaggerated by a heavy cold that started on Christmas Day. But the minor indisposition was easy to forget in all the excitement, and it made no difference to my enjoyment of our lively Boxing Day party and the delicious group meals regularly produced by Alli and a large team of family helpers. It was great to meet with old friends (and their children, often also their grandchildren) and excellent to welcome Jurrat. He was an instant hit in a household teeming with curious cousins and other relatives, and enthralled them with his extensive grasp of millennial media information. We had, as usual, a full programme of card, board, and parlour games. My desire to keep the home kachelofen fire burning throughout the period was thwarted by unseasonably warm weather, but we went on walks, visited the market in Colmar, had a festive games evening at the Anthonys, a stupendous New Year’s Eve meal at the Ange with the Barneses, Jessie, Ella and Jurrat, and enjoyed our time together in what might well be our last Christmas at Wolfsloch.
Jessie, Lionel, Alli, Ella and Gwen Stanbrook, Leymen, December 2016
For me, the month started in the tropical humidity of Abidjan, where after coming back each day from work to my temporary flat in Cocody Deux Plateaux I would cook something simple, often boiled vegetables and rice or beans. While the presentation and even the quality of my meals often left much to be desired, I was not trying to impress anyone. I even enjoyed many of the meals. I also had plenty of fast food: bananas, oranges, mangoes, paw-paws, apples and plantains, and just at the corner of my road was a clean, modern boulangerie Paris-Baguette, with fresh bread, croissants, danoises and pains au chocolat. On the first weekend of the month, my stroll around the neighbourhood almost became a fiasco. I bought a baguette at the first corner, then decided to carry on walking around the block to get a better feel for the neighbourhood, although I skipped a couple of roads to make the walk more interesting. This was a mistake, since I had not counted the roads I had skipped, and somewhere in my brain lies a fatal sensory short circuit that scrambles my sense of direction without warning. After scrupulously turning left a few more times I found that I was in dramatically unfamiliar territory. I spent at least 45 more minutes wandering around with an unconcerned expression on my face. The fact that the streets have no names didn’t help. While figuratively circling back to my flat, I kept seeing chickens crossing the road, and realised the deep truth that while I still didn’t know why they did that, they did at least know exactly where they were and where they were going. I managed to get home in the end with a wilted baguette double-drooped. After a similar experience a few days later I concluded that I was in an ambulatory Bermuda Triangle and was lucky to have escaped the vortex even once.
The next weekend my driver Mohamed brought his family with us when we went out of Abidjan to Ahoué, a rudimentary leisure park based around a fish farm and garden centre. We had baked prawns and carp with rice and attieke (manioc / cassava) for lunch. Mohamed’s wife and four daughters are great company, and I shamelessly established myself in their favour with direct bribery using sweets, cakes and packs of cards. I am sure I have allies in my quest for street credibility in downtown Abidjan. For example, I went to the Cocody market one Saturday afternoon and had a look around. On my way into the market, one of the stallholders called out to get my attention: “Hé, Monsieur Bien-Nourri, viens ici!”. I couldn’t help laughing, especially as I well knew that the London equivalent might well be the rather less polite “Oy, lard-arse! Over ‘ere”. The market was authentic and genuinely local and I bought a handful of bronze and ebony trinkets to take back to France. In the empty car park of the market there were four elaborately made up women in high cheekbones, heels and swaying hips, walking an imaginary catwalk along car parking lines. Their sullen managers, smoking like Bogarts, were jaggedly assembled like crows by the cars. The girls let me take a photo and pouted frighteningly as I did so before I turned back to discuss the prices of some trinkets with a smallholder, for which the assistance of Mahomed was essential. Bargaining is in the African character; it happens all the time and on almost everything, but it takes place within a bantering verbal structure in which no one ever seems to get angry or even resentful. Keeping a sense of humour while haggling is essential. It’s like the driving, which here is just a less refined form of haggling with bumpers. There is also a solidly based tolerance of others, a mutual assumption of innocence that understands and accepts different behaviours. This complements a deep dislike for getting involved, creating some less likeable attributes but also the better virtue of patience, in contrast to similar situations in Europe or America, where such sensitivities are often wafer thin in traffic or markets. I have also spoken more French in the past month than at any time in my life, not always accurately. Once, after the hot water failed in my flat, I thanked the Manager for personally making sure it was sorted out. He gave me a funny look as I left and I wondered why. Ten minutes later I realised that in thanking him for his work I had also cheerfully told him that I had washed my horses in the shower that morning.
Looking for accommodation is tiring in Abidjan, where the prices are scarcely less than in France, and it is difficult to choose from a very wide selection of accommodation ranging from the frankly rank and probably illegal to the top drawer and probably illegal. The search led me into many revealing twists and turns, prompted by the simple question that is not yet resolved: what sort of a place did I want or need to live in? The flat I occupied as a temporary measure had done its job and I even considered staying there a bit longer, but there were cheaper and better equipped places that were closer to my workplace. One apartment that caught my eye was a two bedroom ground floor flat in a block among three other blocks in a secure walled area in the centre. So secure was it that the entrance was a grim affair through an underground car park. I liked it for its security, space, and an enclosed garden. I shall be staying there temporarily from my arrival tomorrow in Abidjan.
With my best wishes for a very Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year,