The Grand Tour

(The Grand Tour) served as an educational rite of passage.

– Wikipedia

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. – St. Augustine

“Tu ne peux pas te taire, oui? Tu commences à me porter sérieusement sur les nerfs!” (Can’t you shut up? You’re really starting to get on my nerves!)

T glowered at his friend, Mus, who was dancing along the pavement, snapping his fingers and singing off-key snatches of the latest American hit. To make things worse, he was slapping his thighs in time to the music in his head, the persistent, maddening thump-thump grating on T’s already frayed nerves.  Mus was a little tipsy, having already consumed a few beers with their frugal lunch, and the alcohol had gone straight to his head.

Not that he needed much encouragement. With an irrepressibly volatile nature, as quick to laughter as he was to anger, Mus was the best, and the worst, of travelling companions. Kamel, the third member of the group, plodded along stoically in his friends’ wake, saying nothing. They were searching, as usual, for the nearest youth hostel — by far the cheapest place to stay.

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T on the left and Mus in Marseilles

It was the summer of 1964 and the three friends had decided to head off on a tour of Europe during their university vacation. Two years after independence, and after seven years of brutal war and decades of repression, they were still savouring their new-found freedom. The year before, they had taken a battered old Peugeot 403 and, with two other friends, had gone on a road trip to western Algeria, taking in Oran, Arzew and Tlemcen.

Before independence, any absence from home had to receive prior approval from the colonial authorities, so they had never been out of Algiers before, except for T on his journeys back to his home village in Kabylie.  Kamel had never ventured further than Fort de l’Eau and its famous ice-cream parlours.

Their road trip had been such a resounding success than they decided to go further afield during their next vacation and explore southern Europe. So the three young men embarked on the ferry heading for Marseilles, a new continent and new experiences.

Arriving the next day in the oldest city in France, after an uncomfortable night spent on deck, they gazed at their surroundings with bleary eyes. For one moment, they had the impression that they were still in Algiers. There were the same peeling buildings along the quayside, clustered together like old friends reassured by their closeness, the same sun beating down, the same salty breeze, the same weatherbeaten faces.

Just like their home city, the Vieux Port was full of creaking boats, bobbing and tugging on their moorings. Gulls filled the air with the beating of their wings and their squawking cries, homing in on the catch of the day that, silver scales to the sun, was displayed on tables laid along the quayside. Behind the sea wall locals sat at the cafes, eating fish, drinking wine, smiling broadly and laughing. The only difference seemed to be that instead of the neo-Byzantine curves of Notre Dame d’Afrique looking down benevolently on the teeming city below, it was Notre Dame de la Garde, crowned with its flashy golden statue and perched on its rocky peak.

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T, on the right, and Mus outside the YMCA in Berne

After spending a day or two exploring Marseilles, they then continued their Grand Tour by train; visiting, in succession, Lyon, Geneva, Lausanne, Berne, Stuttgart, Munich, Locarno, Milan, Monaco, Nice, and Cannes.  It was really a case of, “If this is Tuesday, it must be Lausanne.” They wanted to cram as much sightseeing as possible into their holiday, barely spending more than twenty-four hours in one place before moving on. The downside was that all the towns and cities soon merged into a blur of buildings, train stations and endless miles of pavement.

Unfortunately as well, T had taken to heart well-meaning advice warning him about Europe’s cold and rainy climate, and so had filled a large suitcase with thick sweaters, scarves, cardigans and  warm jackets — just in case. In fact, so full was his suitcase that he had forgotten other items that he really needed — like swimming shorts.

Of course, these warm winter clothes were useless in the sweltering summer heat of southern Europe, and so the bulky suitcase became the albatross around T’s neck, always having to be manhandled off and on trains and carried along for miles in the baking heat in their search for the nearest YMCA hostel. This is why T, sweaty and tired, had shouted irritably at Mus, who was sashaying along the road, humming to himself and swinging his small bag around without a care in the world.

As Mus and Kamel refused to take turns in carrying the cumbersome suitcase, T’s first task on arriving at a new destination was to find a luggage locker in which to stow it. He would then pick it up again when they returned to the railway station to embark on the next leg of their journey. It was like going on holiday with a wardrobe.

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T, on the left, and Kamel in Lausanne

T also had a small backpack that he carried over his shoulder, its age-thinned and frayed straps digging into his flesh, but he was afraid to put it down. Everything of importance was in there. His brand-new Algerian passport and the little money he’d scraped together. Except of course, the hundred-franc note he had hidden in his shoe —just in case.

Filling their stomachs with the breakfast included in the price of an overnight stay at the hostel, they would exist for the rest of the day on bread bought from the nearest bakery, stuffed with tuna or sliced meat, and a few pieces of fruit filched from the breakfast table. On this meagre diet and with the miles covered each day on foot, they began to lose weight rapidly. They were not overweight, anyway, except for Kamel, whose slight chubbiness just added to his charm. They began to look gaunt, their cheekbones jutting out and their arms becoming stringy and sinewy — especially T’s, which, thanks to the suitcase, must have grown an extra two centimetres in length.

The only mishap that occurred was an overzealous immigration official confiscated T’s French identity card, saying he didn’t need it anymore, now that he had an Algerian passport. I don’t know whether this was within his remit, but there was still a great deal of simmering resentment amongst some sectors of the French public about Algeria’s independence.

The three friends spent the best part of a month in each other’s company, with hardly a cross word until, once safely on the ferry home, T drew out the hidden hundred-franc note and flourished it under his friends’ noses. “Quoi???? (What?) they spluttered, launching themselves at him and punching any part of him they could reach. “On crevait la dalle, alors que tu avais cent francs cachés dans ta chaussure!” (There we were, starving to death, while you had a hundred francs hidden in your shoe!)

Their arms around each other’s shoulders, they leaned against the rail at the stern of the ferry, watching the buildings of Marseilles disappear from view and the creamy white wake churning behind them. With a plaintive cry, the last few seagulls finally wheeled away and headed back towards land. Little did T know at that moment that he would be back on European soil in less than two months’s time — this time in Britain.

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Climbing the stairs of the family villa, dragging his suitcase behind him, he raised his hand to knock at the door. It opened slowly, and his mother’s warm, loving face was revealed. The smile changed into a puzzled frown as she looked at the gaunt stranger standing on her doorstep. “Ambwa khetchini?” (Who are YOU?) she asked suspiciously.

Thenek!” (It’s ME!) replied T., stunned, realising she hadn’t recognised the new skinny version of her son. Clapping her hands to her cheeks in dismay, she grabbed  him, dragged him inside and sat him down at the table while she rushed to the kitchen to find him something to eat. Losing weight to her was a cardinal sin. It meant you were mortally ill — or worse.