My father used to drive a Volvo Amazon. A station wagon. White. I have an old movie of him herding the three of us into the back of the car. He then closes the hatch and waves to my mother (camera-mom, who once mystified the entire family by filming two minutes of blurry, close-up footage of her gold tooth). Perhaps cars, like dogs, start to resemble their owners as time goes by. Whenever I see the characteristic Amazon headlights and grille, they immediately bring to mind my father’s face. I don’t remember much else about the car, but he drove it all over Europe, as far north as Trondheim and as far south as Athens.
My father also had a map of the world in his office at home. On it he had marked his journeys by sea from the Netherlands to Indonesia, where he was born and raised in a Dutch colonial family. The red routes ran through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal into the Red Sea and on around India, or southwards around the Cape of Good Hope and then up through the Indian Ocean. He also used a marker and ruler to chart his air travel, but he soon stopped because most of Western Europe had been blotted out with black stripes.
It was hardly surprising that my father found it difficult to sit still in the Netherlands. We emigrated to South Africa when I was four and settled in Johannesburg, where we regularly received proof that hyperactivity ran in the family, with birthday and Christmas cards arriving from all corners of the globe. Very soon I had a rather impressive stamp collection and an irrepressible desire to travel. At the age of seventeen, I decided to study journalism and dreamed of working as a correspondent in all of the world’s greatest cities. When I returned to the Netherlands in the mid-1980s, however, it took me so long to re-establish myself that I began to doubt whether my youthful ambition would bring me much joy. And so I remain firmly rooted in Amsterdam.
Today, I am little more than a desk-chair traveller, who prefers to watch a good documentary about Mumbai or Beijing rather than directly experiencing the sights, sounds and scents of their bustling streets. But my desire to explore and discover is undiminished and I have found a cheaper, safer, more eco-friendly way to criss-cross the planet. It’s called the worldwide web and it allows me to visit several continents in a single day, without moving more than ten metres from my fridge. And so I will be mapping my ignorance of the world’s cities from my desk chair, in the hope that their inhabitants and other readers will help fill the vast gaps in my knowledge with entertaining and enlightening anecdotes. You may even rekindle my boyhood dream.
When may father passed away, I took it upon myself to search through the thousands of slides documenting his travels. We loved looking at those slides when we were younger. Little portraits of far-off places we might visit someday. To my dismay, I discovered that my father hadn’t been an exceptional photographer. I eventually discarded two garbage bags full of standard holiday snapshots featuring his sole travelling companion – the Volvo overlooking a fjord, the Volvo under autumn trees, the Volvo beside a vineyard, a snow-capped mountain range framed by the Volvo’s window. The best photo I could find was taken by someone else. A dramatic portrait of my father in Rome (I think).