Lucca with South African friends. When I got the email from Rosemary and Malvern Van Wyk Smith inviting me to join them in a villa outside of Lucca for a week in June, I hesitated about 30 seconds, threw the credit card on the desk and said, “Yes.” I was already committed to a two week trip up the Douro River from Porto to the Spanish town of Salamanca and on to Lisbon with my sister-in-law Joan in April, so my savings account for travel was exhausted. When friends call with whom you have shared a good portion of your life and who live far away in South Africa, you figure out a way to be with them. And the setting, a villa in the hills of Tuscany? Who would say “no?”
May I describe the circumstances? Our hosts were Nicolas and Alyson Burnett. Rosemary had been a nanny for Nick, the youngest of four, when she was an undergraduate in England. She lived in Killigrews, the Burnett family home in the south of England. A few years later, Rose married Malvern, a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. Nick was their ring bearer and his older sister, a bridesmaid. Rose is now turning 80. The Smiths and the Burnetts had not seen each other for 10 years.
I’ve known Rosemary and Malvern since 1964 when they lived in Lawrence, KS where my husband Don, also a Rhodes Scholar, taught. For part of the academic year, 1975-6 with our four daughters, we lived in their hometown, Grahamstown, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I had not seen the Smiths for ten years.
Arriving from different continents in Pisa on June 14, the three of us were collected by Nick and driven to Lucca, around its magnificent wall, up the Serchio River to Bagni di Lucca, and thence, following the Torrente tributary, upward on a windy, narrow road to Casabasciana. The Burnett’s villa, in the family for 9 years now, sits on a stone lane in this village of 250 people. The four story house built in 1690 into the side of the hill, used to belong to the local healer, whose herbs and potions were sold from the double door in the room where I slept for the week. A nice coincidence to share the healer’s vibs with my own chosen field as a wellness advisor.
The vast kitchen below opened on to a stone patio overlooking the valley and two smaller hills towns above us.
Narrow mule tracks meandered off to these hamlets passing through old chestnut groves, often hugging the contour with steep drop-offs and sharp rises. Can you imagine spending a week alternating from eating, drinking, talking and reading to walking these hills? One day we walked to a splendid lunch a couple miles away along such a track passing a simple cemetery. The other luncheon guests were more English ex-pats. Lord Byron isn’t the only Englishman who discovered this place.
We spent one day in Bagni di Lucca which gave me the chance to buy local vegetables and fruit so I could prepare an extravagant pasta primavera with roasted eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers, all fresh from a farmer’s garden. I love nothing more than cooking in a foreign country when there is access to the local produce.
Lucca. Medieval gem with its walkable, cycle-able, jog-able wall of 4k, is full of narrow streets, wide plazas, magnificent churches and fine restaurants only a bit overshadowed by tourism.
We were there when the weekend antique sale tents were up, spoiling Malvern’s photography, but displaying handsome furniture, silver, art, books and strange artifacts, plus the beautiful people who came to buy.
We found a Puccini concert of arias and duets, soprano and tenor to celebrate his birth place. The music soared in San Giovanni church. A thunderous storm caught tourists by surprise while we watched from inside a cozy café.
Africa. My family-Don, our 4 daughters and I-lived in South Africa in Grahamstown while Don taught at Rhodes University winter and spring terms in 1975, and in Cape Town’s summer school in 1976. Chuck Finney and I traveled all over South Africa to celebrate our marriage in 1997, after apartheid collapsed, guests of the Smith’s in Grahamstown and Cape Town. The country is dear to my heart. All of Africa (in the 1970s, we traveled to Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Eygpt) pulls my heart strings and stirs issues of economic, social and environmental justice.
The Smiths and I talked long and hard about Africa. Malvern, the eternal optimist in his younger years had stood with the Progressive party in the Eastern Cape hoping to lend an anti-apartheid voice to a regressive government. Since boyhood, the son of an Afrikaner mother and an English father, he wondered why the black African was perceived as inferior. His lifelong inquiry as an English professor (Drummer Hodge: The Poetry of the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902, July, 1978), was into the images of Africa. He and Don had worked on this together before my husband’s early death to cancer.
Just a few years ago, Malvern published his work, The First Ethiopians: The Image of Africa and Africans in the Early Mediterranean, January 1, 2009. He gave me an overview of the early Egyptian conflict between the Lower Nile people and the Upper Nile people, Nubians who were characteristically Negroid. While the supreme ruler of the Nile changed hands over decades and decidedly Negroid featured pharaohs controlled the region more than once, in the end the Lower Nile dominated and in their declaration of superiority, affirmed a closer relationship to God than the inferior people to the south, who happened to be negroid.
We trace our modern image of Africa and Africans to this ancient belief. “Is there no hope for change,” I cried. He said he didn’t think so. The image of black Africans as inferior is the stuff of millennia. It will take so much to change our thinking, individually and culturally.
I asked about the African countries as a group, could they form a cohesive power block for the economic, social and environmental betterment of all countries, regardless of which European nation colonized them.
Utterly discouraged, now in his 70s a retired Professor Emeritus, he doesn’t believe there is evidence that African nations can pull off a united economic and social agenda. Corruption prevails. State leaders accept loans from wherever to promulgate their lifestyle of luxury. When Mandela stepped down in South Africa to a well-deserved retirement, his predecessor immediately established South Africa as the primary military power in Africa by accepting loan opportunities to purchase armaments from Germany, Sweden, Italy and Britain, including submarines no one knows how to operate. This arms deal is obscene. Nothing good for the poor, for the failing infrastructure in education and health care, police, roads and the like will come from any of this money. Armaments produces no good except for the vendor.
Rosemary and I, Pollyannas both, did our best to turn the conversation around by citing micro-lending, and women’s cooperatives as successes. Malvern countered by saying that Africans will always welcome aid and aid workers, but that given the amount of money that has been infused, there is little to show for it. He told the story of calling home to the woman who cares for their house in their absence. Nambitha, what are you doing? Long pause. We are just sitting.
What keeps you going, then? I asked, feeling desperate for my dear friend.
I have my garden, my photography, my stamp collection, my friends, family and grandchildren. I’d travel all the time if I had the money. After a long pause, he adds, I often wonder what my life would be like if I had stayed in the States when I had the chance.
But, no, this is our country, our home and we’ve done good work. Things will get better. Rosemary, ever the optimist, the English girl who chose Malvern and South African in one “I do.” During the troubled apartheid years they had their wires tapped, their mail opened and once Rosemary’s car was stoned while doing the work of the Black Sash. Her memoir, Swimming with Cobras, is a wonderful read about those fighting years.
While many white South African families are scattered across the globe from England, the US to Australia and New Zealand, two of their four children have chosen to live and work in South Africa. Matthew, the oldest, works for an outfit that sends him out to see that grant monies and investments are handled correctly, the money getting where it’s meant to go. He lives in England with wife and children, but is in South Africa often. Their daughter, Anna, my god-daughter, lives in the south of Portugal, but gets to Grahamstown as often as she can.
I can’t help but be saddened by the truth as Malvern sees it. My own reading and travel experience confirm the hard facts. One goes on doing what one can to bring right relationship to God’s people, all people, and all sentient beings and the planet earth itself. I only wish his book about the image of Africa had a stronger presentation in the West, but the publicity was poorly handled from Johannesburg and Witwatersrand University and it never got a review in the New York Times book review or any of the other major newspapers. I plan to read it. The power of the racial divide is generations strong and must be undone.
This painful conversation took place on our last night in Lucca. The next morning, we caught the local train to Florence.
We left their luggage at their hotel and found our way to the Uffizi, spending several hours with old friends–paintings and sculpture I remembered well from previous visits. We said goodbye on June 21, the Solstice and I took a train to Naples. Amazing high speed trains traveling at 160 mph! On to a walking adventure along the Amalfi coast. Pictures and the story in my next Empowered Grandma post. Stay tuned.
Be well, Do well and Keep Moving.
www.GrandmaBetsyBell.com/be-well/ tips for healthy travel