There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

When Aunty Edith went to Alexandria

The event, or rather non-event, related below did actually happen. Over the intervening forty years my imagination has played fast and loose with my memory, resulting, I suspect, in more than several embellishments. I cannot vouch for the literal truth of every word that follows, but it remains, I believe, true in spirit. All names (except Alexandria) have been changed to protect the guilty.

My Aunty Edith never had a good word to say about anyone. I would hate that to be said of me, so I shall hastily say a good word about Aunty Edith. Aunty Edith was a respectable woman. More precisely, Aunty Edith was a very respectable woman. Even more precisely, Aunty Edith was a teeth-clenchingly, eye-wateringly respectable lady. Unfortunately, she rarely showed others the respect she took as her due.

She once requested investment advice, and her bank duly sent an advisor to see her. ‘My dear,’ I heard her tell my grandmother afterwards, ‘he was the most peculiar looking person.’ This could have meant his hair was too long, or too short; his tie was too bright, or too drab; his lapels were too wide, or too thin. Maybe he had used a ball-point instead of a fountain pen, written with his left hand, or had sat in the wrong chair. Good forbid that he had a beard or his eyes were too close together or (whisper it quietly) he wore brown shoes. There were many ways to transgress against Aunty Edith’s largely arbitrary, and not entirely consistent, code of behaviour.

We can probably be sure that in a small town on the South Wales coast in the 1960’s the advisor was not from an ethnic minority. Aunty Edith would have had difficulty understanding the concept of racism; everybody was inferior to her and it was thus axiomatic that the more different a person was, the more inferior they must be. Having brown skin was, without doubt, several degrees worse then wearing brown shoes, but to Aunty Edith it was all part of a continuum.

Like many unconscious racists, her racism started at home. She often spoke disparagingly of the ‘Welshies’ – a word I have never heard anyone else use. That she herself was Welsh; born in the Valleys with the maiden name Thomas, and speaking with an accent that could come from nowhere else, never seemed to cross her mind. The Welshies were the ‘working classes’, the ‘great unwashed’, the little people whose existence she regretted but without whom life would have been impossible.

Aunty Edith was not, I am happy to say, actually a relation. She was married to one of my grandmother’s many cousins. Godfrey Bevan was a mild mannered man and a banker by profession (think Captain Mainwearing, not million pounds bonuses). He and Edith had no children and, for some reason, he spent as much time out of the house as possible. He spent a lot of that time at the ‘Corsairs,’ a drinking club down by the harbour. Godfrey died in the mid 1960’s. I will not say that he drank himself to death to get away from his wife, but I cannot deny that the thought has crossed my mind.

A year or so later Aunty Edith took a Mediterranean cruise, maybe to cheer herself up after the death of her husband, though I suspect she had largely forgotten who he was.

In Alexandria she was met by expatriate acquaintances living in that once cosmopolitan city. She visited their house and then, for some now forgotten reason, had to return to the ship on her own.

A taxi was found, the destination communicated and the fare agreed. Even today, Egyptian taxis rarely have meters, and even more rarely use them. Locals instinctively know what to pay; foreigners are well advised to negotiate a price before starting out. It will be several times the local fare, but it is your duty, as a representative of a rich country, to pay up cheerfully.

I heard her tell the story several times and though I was a teenage boy and would rather have been anywhere than trapped in a room listening to Aunty Edith, I can still hear the indignation and near panic in her voice as she remembered the events.

No one tells a story twice using exactly the same words, but she had certain stock phrases:

‘He drove me for miles and miles...’ Well, Alexandria is a very long thin city.

‘He drove me up hill and down dale...’ Unlikely, Alexandria is a very flat city.

‘My dear, he was the most villainous looking man you can imagine.’ That probably only meant he was, like every other Alexandrian taxi driver, an Arab.

'At one time he seemed to be driving me round in circles.’ I would not trust Aunty Edith’s sense of direction; in an unmetered cab taking the shortest route is in everybody’s interest.

‘I had visions of him stealing me away and selling me into the white slave trade.’ Given Aunty Edith’s notorious prudery in matters sexual (perhaps another reason Godfrey took solace in the bottle) I am not sure she knew what ‘white slave trade’ meant. She was a chunky woman in her mid sixties with a disapproving glare that could wilt an iron bar, anyone hoping to make a living from renting out her body was either an incurable optimist or knew something about niche markets I neither know, nor wish to know.

‘Eventually we arrived at the dock. I have never been so relieved to see a ship in my whole life.’

To summarise: a taxi driver took a woman to the agreed destination for the agreed fare - hardly a story worth telling, let alone retelling. What Aunty Edith never realised was that the tale tells us nothing about Alexandria, or Alexandrian taxi drivers, but a great deal about her. As such, it is a warning to anybody who tries to write anything about their travels: I will endeavour to take heed.

See also our trip to Alexandria

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