On Friday the Princess and I went to the Royal Museum for Central Africa where we met the best dressed diplomat and various cousins who were visiting her from distant Chicago. The little boys had no interest in the Princess but the little girl (6) was delighted with her and showed her round the museum leaving me to stroll in their wake chatting to the adults. All very pleasant. And they were all nice Americans, you know the way we used to laugh at our American cousins for being so nice when we were all growing up? Well, I can tell you, there is nothing as nice as polite, well-behaved, little Americans when you are spending a wet afternoon in a museum with a one year old.
The museum itself is a funny place. It was built on an imposing scale by King Leopold II to celebrate his conquest of the Congo. The exploitation of the Congo was particularly dreadful. Joseph Conrad wrote a book about it “The Heart of Darkness” and Roger Casement wrote a damning report for the British government. But the museum is curiously unaware of these developments. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement that dreadful things happened in the Congo when Leopold and co. were in charge. This may be partly because a lot of the exhibits and display cases don’t seem to have been updated since the museum was built in around 1900. This is part of the charm of the establishment, in many ways. There is a piece of wood from the tree under which Livingstone’s heart was buried accompanied by a handwritten note from the donor confirming its authenticity. There is Stanley’s case which has a handwritten note pasted on to it in fading writing saying “This suitcase accompanied my brother across Africa. It is not to be used under any circumstances or to be removed from my bedroom. Dorothea Stanley”. There are old maps of Africa dating from the 1400s. The one that impressed me most was one from 1825 where they were truthful about what they knew and almost the entire of central Africa had “lands unknown” written across it. Best of all, from the point of view of the children, there were stuffed animals. Lots and lots of stuffed animals. The Princess reached febrile levels of excitement when she came to the enormous elephant. She grabbed the rail round it and stood on her tiptoes squeaking and pointing.
Friday, was terribly thrilling also as it involved a birthday party. This was Mr. Waffle’s first children’s birthday party in a long time and, fortunately for him, it was a relatively civilised affair where the adults outnumbered the children by about 3 to 1. Still and all there was falling, vomiting and crying, so it wasn’t entirely untypical. One of the attendees was the birthday boy’s minder who is a very nice girl from South Carolina. The Princess was most taken with her and sat on her lap for a considerable time poking at her train tracks. “These European kids are always fascinated by the braces” she said gamely. “Right, I see, well, proof that we don’t believe in orthodontics over here” I said in mortified tones. Princess continued to poke with interest and then offered Ms SC a paprika crisp to show that there were no hard feelings.
We got the birthday boy two books. I began to feel a bit inadequate as the other presents emerged. Ms. SC (who let’s face it, must have no cash as a childminder who’s “starting school in the fall”) got him a very elaborate turtle that makes lots of interesting noises when you poke it. Other people got him a coat and a bottle of wine for his parents; and two very elaborate cuddly toys. Had the following conversation with Mr. Waffle on the way home:
Me: Did you feel that we should have got him a bigger present.
Him (in tones of deep bafflement): No, why?
Me: Well, the other presents were all bigger than ours.
Him: Really, were they? Well, I’m sure ours was fine, didn’t his mother thank us for it?
Me: Well, yes, of course, but…
Him: Well then.
Sometimes, I feel that I worry too much.