Our trip to Europe started out as a nostalgic trip to Berlin, considered by all as the best time in our lives, and was prompted by a Facebook connection of my sister N’ku by a former classmate (and crush) a year prior. I was curious also of the changes in Berlin since the fall of the wall.
When the trip begun to look like a reality, we were excited about the possibility of seeing family as well. Our parents have lots of siblings who are now scattered around the world. In Europe, that includes Italy, France, England, and Belgium. But we aren’t that close to them and even our parents haven’t seen their siblings in decades, with the exception of our British family. For my mother, it’s been about 22 years and that was when she dragged us, then children, around Europe to visit her brothers. It is from that visit we remember enjoying Marseille and disliking the dog-poo filled streets of Paris.
Well, while my sisters were contemplating going to Europe, my mother was also contemplating a family reunion of sorts. She wanted to go to Cote d’Ivoire (and Ghana) to visit her family there and wanted all of us to accompany her since we did not know them. I wasn’t too excited about that prospect since I did accompany her there in 2007 and I really wasn’t in the mood to spend close to $2000 to go sit in the village for two weeks amongst French and Nzema speaking relatives who would ask me questions such as “why can’t you respond to my questions”, and ask for favours such as “dash me your camera or cellphone” and make me generally uncomfortable in my own skin because I don’t know how to behave as expected for an Nzema girl. You know, those kinds of things that get transmitted by osmosis, don’t you know, more so often when both parents are Nzema.
I told my mother to concentrate on the others, and that if she were able to convince them to go with her, I would consider joining. She wasn’t happy with that because it probably would have been easier to get me on her side so I could convince my sisters that this is something we wanted to do. She was upset that we had no interest in knowing her family especially when we call our grandparents, recently deceased, “your mother” or “your father”.
I understand her position after all what is more important than family? But somehow I feel if it really were a priority she should have made it such so that each year or so we went to these various countries to be in contact with them. Who knows? Maybe we would be able to speak Nzema by now, or have had meaningful relationships with these people we now call “your brother in Paris” or “your father”, or “your sister in Bassam – no not that one, the mother of the boy who came to stay with us in the new house in Accra”.
I also understand that the reasons she did not do this back when she actually controlled our lives included expense of the actual travel (airfare), the need to arrive with lots of cash and gifts to dash around to various people in the extended family (after all we are coming from the gold paved lands and money bearing trees of abrokyire), and other logistical issues such as visas. But I don’t understand how she sees fit to dictate to us now what to do with our time off and our money earnt. Yes, it would be lovely if we felt the desire to go to the Cote d’Ivoire and meet family before it was too late, before people of my parents’ generation also start to die off, but we aren’t there yet in our priorities, and as far as I am concerned, I did my part in 2007 and I have other fish to fry now. Sad, I know.
Sure, 10 or 20 years from now we will look back and wonder why we don’t know our family, but c’est la vie. That ship has sailed. Again, sad, I know.
My sister T’ni, who had no say in the Europe trip as we would be footing her share of the costs, wanted to invite our mom to go along. That came with heavy protests from myself. As “the baby” who currently lives at home, she has had an entirely different relationship with our parents than I, the oldest, have had. Her mother is figuratively not my mother and I really have no desire to be told what I can and cannot do on vacation and how I should or should not behave. My sisters joke that I went to college and never came back home. That wasn’t an accident. There was one time I did come home and wanted to go out to watch a matinee with a girlfriend. My mother told me I couldn’t because if I were allowed then she would have to allow T’ni, then 11 years or so, to go out to the movies with her friends. Now, I’m not a parent, but surely you can agree with me that that is a ridiculous stance. And since I do not like confrontation, is it any surprise then that I stayed as much as possible in college where I could go out at 2 am if I so desired?
So that settled, we eventually broke the news to our parents late in the game that we were going to Europe. For whatever reason, it got interpreted as K’Chie is taking my children with her to Europe to go visit my brothers.
A vacation is supposed to be an escape, right?. In my case that includes getting away from the grips of my mother, who still gives me that “so if I don’t call you too you don’t call me?” line despite the fact that I have rarely called to just chit chat. That’s not my style, not even with friends. It’s as if she won’t be able to begin to relax until she passes us off unto husbands to take care of us, Nzema husbands that is. Well, that is another ship that dun left the harbour.
Shoo, sure we are privileged kids always smothered with attention and care and maybe lacking in street smarts. Ok, fine, actually we have no street smarts at all. None, zero, zilch. But I think at some point we should be allowed to be adults no? Yes you will always be our parents, but do you have to parent us our whole lives?
Anyway, in my mind this trip wasn’t a trip to go visit family. It was a trip to revisit our memories, to bond, to enjoy the sun, and then go say hello to the family. But when we finally did confirm the travel arrangements and told our parents I was instructed that we must visit the family. And so it begun.
In Berlin we have no family, but rather close family friends. They had been told we were coming. I was instructed to make sure I call them before we arrived. So I delay. The week before we were to leave I called both contacts in Berlin and Marseille. The German family friends wanted our flight details and insisted they would meet us at the airport even though I told them that that would be totally unnecessary. The Marseille ones just wanted to know what day we would arrive so I thought we were good to go there. See, I am not one to use people. I realize that nothing is for free and tit begets tat sooner or later. So, I rather not impose myself, or ask favours and it’s not my style to invite myself into other people’s lives and expect them to take care of me. In addition, I’m socially awkward and I breath much easier when I’m not around people, around strangers, especially Ghanaians, especially adults, especially adults who know my parents because then I feel I’m supposed to behave some way, some way I do not even know how. My sisters don’t seem to have that problem but then again in my opinion they suffer from the delusion that we are the center of everyone’s world and it’s only natural that people would want to dote on us.
Well not only did the German family meet us at the airport (and waited two hours for our delayed flight to arrive) they accompanied us to the apartment we had rented. Then as we freshened up she went to the nearby supermarket so she could stock our fridge stating if she knew ahead of time she would have collected the keys and properly stocked our fridge. We then went to her place where she had prepared lunch for us. So of course it was an obligation for us to check in with her now and then. After all, from her viewpoint, our mother had entrusted us into her hands and she saw it as her responsibility to look out for us. She even woke up at 3 am and took the metro to meet us at the airport when we were leaving Germany to make sure we left as planned. And I had to call when we arrived in Marseille so she could talk to our uncle there as if she was passing on the baton.
And before you mistake me for whining, I do realize that all these gestures are especially sweet. So sweet.That all this reflects the selflessness, or is it welcoming nature, or is it the “a village raises the child” phenomenon of Ghanaians. That some would kill to go on vacation somewhere for others to take care of them, to look out for them, and to feed them. But that is not my style whether as recipient or as giver (sadly), and that was not my impression of how this vacation would go down.
And then my uncle. Ooh la la. Upon arriving in Marseille, we made our way to the apartment that we had rented, settled in, then took a grand tour of the city prior to calling him to let him know that we were in town. In my mind I was calling him to arrange a time to meet the following day. The poor man could not understand what was going on and I couldn’t understand what not to understand. Unbeknownst to us, he had already called our family in Belgium to find out if they knew our travel arrangements and they had in turn left a Facebook wall message for one of us to call him for he was worried. So when I did make contact he thought we were at the airport and was quite disappointed that not only had we taken a taxi to wherever, we were in a rented apartment. Apparently, he thought we were going to stay with him because that is what family does. Mind you, my French is poor, I hardly speak Nzema, and he hardly speaks English. So you can understand how frustrating it was to convey our frustration with each other.
“Why did you not call from the airport?”. “Why did you take an apartment?”. “My place is small but it’s enough – I thought you were coming to stay with us?” And he speaks a million words per second in French!!! We haven’t seen him in 22 years, and back then was the only time we had met, but here we were arguing. I had committed a big faux-pas and didn’t even know it. It was such a huge affront to his sensibilities like a slap in his face. And I’m thinking, what’s the big deal? So when he got to speak with my mother, his older sister, on Skype as I had arranged, one of his first questions to her was why didn’t she let us come and stay with him. Like she has any say in any of this?! She didn’t send us here! Then she gets me on Skype and asks why don’t we leave the apartment and go stay with him “because it’s not nice” which I couldn’t respond to because it was such a preposterous question in my mind and I’m slow with the verbal comebacks. Oh my goodness, culture clash proper!
The next disappointment came when they tried to plan our days only to find out that we already had plans. I don’t know. Maybe they forgot that it had been 22 years since we last saw them, and that in those 22 years, we also grew up. Come eat breakfast here, then come eat lunch here, and dinner too. And my protestations. Mine, because the others speak much less French than I do. No, I don’t think we’ll be up in time for breakfast. No, I think we will be out doing things around lunch. No, fine, yeah come pick us up for dinner. They checked in with us every few hours. WITH ME. I carried around with me one of their cell phones that wouldn’t stop ringing. So where are you now? I want you to meet my best friend, my neighbour, my grocer. And so it happened that we went everywhere to meet these people. These people who wanted to meet the nieces from America and potentially practice their English.
They lamented over the fact that we were staying only 5 days. Only 5 days. That’s not enough time to see Marseille, to take you to Aix, to Avignon, to Toulon, to Nice. Next time you must spend a month at least.
In hindsight, obviously I thought about it all wrong. All wrong. Of course, you can’t be African children and go to a town in which you have family and not stay with them, and not have them dictate your life, and take care of you. What was I thinking?!
I think about it now and just shake my head. My mom got her wish after all in some round about way. She did manage to send her kids to visit her family. And I got no vacation from parental oversight and from being the eldest one. Well at least there was sunshine and I had a delicious mango. Mmm-hmmm. A delicious mango!