Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Truth Behind Randomness. And Claude Monet. Again

I don’t know much about art. I come from the ‘new world’, where the oldest building is a colonial relic less than a hundred years old, and all the history I need to know happened during my grand mother’s lifetime.

Art is hip, and sometimes a passing but annoying fad- I’m talking about ‘spoken word’ and ‘contemporary dancing’…maybe even Kapuka. Art is over the top dramas staged by Heart Stings Kenya actors, who make up for their lack of talent with enthusiasm. Or the more sophisticated but decaying Phoenix Players.

Art is alive.

But in crumbling Europe, art is ancient. Art is history. It is hours at the Louvre and Gothic cathedrals. It’s learning about the Renaissance and Impressionism and the different styles of nude marble statues. It’s straining to admire the roof of the Sistine Chapel while slowly succumbing to a sensory overload induced headache. It’s walking in museums crammed with geriatrics and reading reassuring signs that  defibrillators are available in the building….just in case anyone’s heart stops.

Consequently, my visit to Monet’s village had nothing to do with art and a lot more with lazing away a pretty Sunday afternoon. And why shouldn’t it have been? Like the average literate person, all I knew was that Monet was dead, very famous and that his pictures are often reprinted on postcards.

I might as well have spent the day taking pictures of rocks in formation, because you can only appreciate what you understand.

Has anything changed since then?

Well…Yes and no….

Jesus said we have eyes but we cannot see. And something about a candle not shining if hidden under a basket. He wasn’t just talking about heaven.

My salvation was a bouncy haired girl who had the dearly coveted ‘true’ appreciation for art. The ability to tell the difference between Monet and Pissaro. The ability to have a ‘favorite’ painting. And in those dark places we all love, she explained the fundamentals concerning Monet, and by extension, modern art as we know it. (or, as we should.)

Monet was a revolutionary. He did something that others did not dare.

He began painting with his feelings, as opposed to reproducing stiff, picture perfect and slightly boxy images that were in vogue those days.

The modern day equivalent?

Try asking a studio photographer on River Road to adjust the light  to accentuate your cheek bones, as you will tilt your nose to the right and look over your shoulder to show your good side, as opposed to his standard hands-crossed-on-lap-painful-smile pose for your photo.

Then go uptown to those studios that have reflectors, black screens, golden filters, and two million different lenses, with a dreadlocked guy playing trendy neo-soul abstract-ish music, who angles you to ‘catch the light in your hair’ before frantically clicking away for an hour.

Monet was the first of the dreadlocked guys.

He was the trend setter. The bad boy of the 19th century painting crew.

And he just happens to be in Normandy.

Hence, 19th Century Normandy was forever captured by the impressionists. Boats and towns and rivers and the odd explosion from sexual repression in the form of naked women picnicking with fully dressed men.

Like most people under 25 admiring smudges of boats and rivers and flowers at Monet’s museum, I suspect we were there mostly because it was free for students (and really old people).

There are some things my limited knowledge do not allow me to understand. Such as, who decides what good art is? Its been caricatured in movies. Everyone stands around looking puzzled at some confusing and apparently meaningless portrait, before the most effeminate man in the room stands up and, in between gasps of pleasure and tears of joy, flamboyantly declares he has never seen anything more beautiful. Then everyone else claps and pretends to understand.

Think about it. Who decided skinny jeans and shorts with hideous pleats and bulky seams are cool again? When will they change their minds again?

My art buff explained to me about HER visit to Monet’s garden. She studied art for a couple of years, and was ecstatic to stand in the very same spot where Monet stood as he painted her favorite painting of his. For her, the paintings came alive. Or maybe she was taken back in time.

I still don’t understand art. I don’t even understand poetry. But since I can only draw stick men, I do appreciate people who can recreate 3D on a piece of cloth and then have full museums dedicated to them.

And, of course, we all love revolutionaries.

The truth behind randomness. And Claude Monet

Would you take a bus, a train, walk for half an hour and then pay 300 bob to stare at a bunch of flowers and an old house?

No, neither would I. I’d much rather buy a bottle of questionable quality wine and make idle chatter (or sit with a man of even more questionable intelligence in a dimly lit pub and  pretend to be interested in his conversation as he feeds me large quantities of beer…).

But I’m fighting a war, and like in every war, I need strategy.

In my war to get acquainted with more than just my laptop and reruns of 30 Rock, its all about being a YES (wo)man. And off we went to Giverny.

Because nothing encourages bonding more than getting lost in a town far away from home with a group of people who’s names you are still trying to memorize.

Its all about the honeymoon.

If you ever had a first day at school, then you must know the honey moon-a time when everyone is on their best behavior. Alliances are weak and cliques are still in the embryonic stages.

It comes before you discover that the really cool guy you like to party with is actually a pathological liar, and that the girl who is always out for a bargain is really an annoying skinflint who’s passion is running a constant monologue on every cent she has spent.

No, the honey moon period is a time for pleasant conversation and people falling over themselves to be as nice as possible to everyone else. It’s sort of screen saver mode. Or an airbrushed version of the real you.

Mais, c’est tres important. Like Jesus said, you must separate the sheep from the goats. But first you must get acquainted with the herd.

Giverny, Claude Monet’s final residence, is a ‘village’ of 520 people with tarmac-ed roads and uniform French people cuddling their little dogs. (Am I wrong in thinking that, if you want to invest so much in an animal, might as well have a child? Why take a dog to a museum anyways?) On a somewhat related note, dogs in Paris shit about 16 tonnes daily. Daycare, anyone?

To the untrained eye, Monet’s work looks a lot like multicolored, smudged scribbles . You can make out a couple of flowers or two, after reading the name of the painting, maybe.

‘Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand. As if it were necessary to understand…'(the rest of the quote is gay, so I’m doing Monet a favor here.)

He said it himself.

He must be like sushi, beer and cheese- an acquired taste. But saying that I was not impressed by his work and meticulous gardens would be a major faux pas– one of his paintings recently sold for USD 80 million.

Yet another source of pride and joy for France’s already overinflated national ego.

He hated school (shock horror, ditching school only works if you are a genius) obviously preferring to be outdoors, where he became fascinated with natural light and subjects, painting lots of flowers and ponds at different times of the day. Critics condemned his work as ‘impressionism’, and to their chagrin, the name was embraced by all his adoring copycats.

Yes, he was that good.

Add the French’s rock solid belief in the superiority of their culture above all others and their ability to transform even the most mundane wooden shack into a fee-charging museum, and Monet’s house lives on, providing W with a strategic opportunity for a reconnaissance mission.

Some took pictures of flowers. Others complained about the heat. All were out on their own mission too. Lewd jokes, plans for future nights in dark places and the odd confession dripping with suggestions of future adventures.


Soggy sandwiches, melting chocolate, lukewarm water and a dead French painter. The glue that bonds friendships, or at the very least, drinking buddies.

Before You shake the red dust of your continent…remember remember….

I was going to write something really witty and sarcastic about my final dinner with my family.

I even toyed with the idea of using the last supper as an analogy, but I figured that writing ‘and W said, take this and eat this…’ was stretching the whole poetic license thing a little too far, especially since I still entertain fantasies about going to heaven.

Anyway, what happened at my dinner floored me. The sarcasm disappeared. With it, the irony. You know what was left?

What should actually have been there. The feeling that the clan proffered its blessings upon me as I departed from the fold. (And, while lugging 40kgs worth of luggage around in Paris, this was actually quite comforting.)

All I needed was a lunchbox with Ngwaci and a minivan decorated with banana leaves and singing relatives to take me to the airport.

So, I finally got my graduation/farewell dinner. A celebration of my achievements, for the hard working daughter of the clan, right?


Ok, sort of…

It was mostly a plum chance for the clan matriarchs to rub their progeny’s success in each other’s faces. Something like, ‘Yeah, just because I caught her smoking at 17, doesn’t mean she became a drunken little whore…but Im not pointing fingers….’

No need to get into the details of how I was really nothing more than a glorified waitress at my own party, and that we had lots of hangover inducing box-wine instead of my favorite Merlot. (Yes, I’m showing off, but ZA IS wine country, and when in Rome….)

Or the side shows provided by the cute blonde girl and her Marine detail who wolfed down the nyama choma like they had been starving for days, pausing only to wash it down with gin (WTF!!!)

No, let’s get to what was really important.

The hour after all were fed and well lubricated with said cheap wine, the matriarchs fell silent and called for order. And the advice flowed:

From Mama W’s fashionista bff (who’s entourage included a girl-boy who vowed to come visit and a little sister in the throes of a love affair with gin): some PG stuff about having fun and working hard. Then W fixed her another drink that got her tongue loose and she pulled W aside…

‘W…I don’t know how to say this….when you go to another country, the Africans tend to stick together…and start dating…every year new people arrive, but pretty soon you have all dated each other…the problem comes in when someone gets sick…it can spread to everyone.’

Translation: don’t hook up with the Africans, you might get AIDS.

Hands down super creepy, yes?

So, I bade farewell to my fantasies about tall, dark Senegalese men. (Fine, and the odd, florid Congolese sharp shooter.)

One Aunty F, who has been a family supporter since before W knew what bras were used for,  really laid it on thick…’I know you will succeed…you are our daughter, and a role model for the others!'(meaningful look at some less illustrious individuals in the room)

No, no pressure there, None at all.

Aunty A, who’s home is where we discovered baked beans, frankfurters and such exotic foods, was the soothing balm, all like, ‘if you need anything at all, we are here for you.’

In light of her recent circumstances, I shall leave it at that. God bless her dear soul.

Floating around there somewhere was talk of working hard but also having fun and opening  up to new experiences, ‘living a little’: basically, obscure references to their own crazy days in college.

Crazy cousin K, who embodies many of the finer qualities of a bona fide Kikuyu woman made a speech she had been preparing for hours that just got me all choked up.

(If i ever get this emotional again, please shoot me.)

Then, a voice from the rabble said, ‘And remember God is with you’.

If these were the olden days, our house would have burned down, given the unprintable jokes that were given life by that statement.

And, from Mama W, ‘You are going to be cold. Very cold.’

Now that’s some practical advice.

Its the ‘Pre’ in Preparation

You know that feeling that you get when something that you knew would happen but somehow had not absorbed finally happens?

That’s where I’m right now. Its goodbye old life and hello continental Europe.

But I have this thing where  I’m a coward when it comes to saying goodbye. I’ve sneaked away from people on several occasions. I hate the finality. And the tears and ill advised confessions of shit that you should just have kept to yourself.

I had to woman up and tell my friends.

We decided to go to Naivasha as a farewell trip. The idea was to go to Mombasa, but since I had been burning through cash like Hilton’s blind daughter, that was out of the question. Consider the 16hour round bus trip and suddenly the Rift Valley was looking alot more enticing.

I love Naivasha. The drive down is beautiful. Kijabe’s tree plantation, (the right sequence of hand signals can get you some highgrade bursting with freshness…) the Rift’s dramatic landscape, it all makes me glad to be away from the city. And best of all, it is only an hour away from Nairobi.

Naivasha is many things to many people. Exclusive golf at the Great Rift Valley Lodge. The Lake Naivasha Yatch Club with its dinosaur KC crowd and uppity Nairobians. Naivasha Sopo’s overbearing gilt, embroidered toilet paper and cuisine that’s trying too hard. Hell’s gate and Crater Lake. Binge drinking disguised as camping at Fisherman’s and Crayfish camps.

…Not on our budget.

For us, Naivasha is the home of Nyama Tayari, hookers and hustlers, cheap beer in underground clubs with ‘animal feed’ rubber stamps, and crashing in dingy bar & lodging outfits with outside bathrooms. It’s breakfasting in one chef cafes that make surprisingly good omelets. It’s a place you can light a cigarette while walking on the main street, because you really don’t care.

In Naivasha, you must ignore the mountains of rubbish to enjoy an ‘expensive’ beer at the Happy Valley Bar. Where, when you climb a minibus, you ignore the fact that you are squeezed cheek to cheek with the multitudes and their burlap sacs.

Its a three street town that can be mastered in a few minutes, and when a sewage pipe bursts, you wade in human excrement until someone rouses themselves long enough to solve the problem.

It’s where budget tourism means going to the lake and taking ‘snaps’ for a hundred bob. Haggling with beach boy hustlers and strong arm business men for boat rides and park fees. If nature calls, better hide behind the bushes, because, why would anyone have the preposterous idea of building toilets at a public beach?

It’s a place where ornithologists converge convulse in delight when they see the African fish eagle and the malachite Kingfisher (yeah, the one on that horrible strawberry wine shit that knocks you out). And all the other pretty birds who’s names you will forget by the time you have your first beer that evening, which is really all you wanted to do all day long.

Not a bad place to say goodbye to your best friends, I guess.