A Villa in the Hills

October 17, 1960

Dear Dad and Russ,

The office is officially closed today (we are celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving Day which we forgot to observe last Monday) so I thought I would take advantage of the free time to try to write you a letter.

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring in your recent letters, Dad and I can’t remember if you asked any questions in them. Oh yes, I do remember about the stamps and I will get them off (uncanceled) very soon. I received a large envelope containing letters from Tudi, Nairobi and Sydney (date-marked Bombay!) and also my two drivers licenses for which many thanks. I also noted that you have sent by sea some bed linen and towels. Will probably take a month or two to reach me but I think I can get along in the meantime on borrowed sheets.

Don’t be alarmed at the thought of my having to buy a Jeep because Roger Bull let me have his for the sum of $300.00. This vehicle is a real classic. It is named “I PRESUME”, the words being stenciled on the front of the jeep just under the windshield. There is quite a history behind “I PRESUME” – it was first brought to Leopoldville in 1951, being driven here all the way from Israel. Since that time it has been passed back and forth between members of the American Consulate and the Canadian Trade Commissioner’s office. Before I took it over, it was borrowed by the UN for the use of the Canadian postmaster, Capt. Manck. While it was in the possession of the Canadian contingent of the U.N., a lot of work was done on it so that now it is as good as new and should last me for my posting here. It’s a very African-looking vehicle – dark red with brown canvas top, appropriately dusty and fully equipped for safari with gas and water cans and two spare tires on the back. Mind you, it sounds somewhat like a bomb, especially when driving downhill, but the reaction I get from the native population is superb. Children dance up and down and laugh; men and women stop whatever they’re doing and wave and smile when I passed by. The Congolese are individually very, very friendly and childlike. But they are slightly timid of white people, particularly when a white person goes swishing by in a huge American automobile. I quite often give rides to people I pass by on the road and they seem to love it and are most grateful. It’s good public relations, too, because “I PRESUME” also has “CANADA” painted on both sides of the hood, as well as a maple leaf emblem fore and aft.

First glimpse of "I PRESUME"

First glimpse of “I PRESUME”

Now about my accommodation. I have rented a villa in a lovely residential area known as “Park Hembise” (Ahm-bees) about 7 km straight up into the hills outside of Leopoldville. It is only a 15 minute drive from the office, however, because there was a good, paved road all the way. It is not in the least bit isolated – there is a Swiss family living next door, Swedes across the street and two very close American friends of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Bartholomew  moved into a house two doors away last Saturday. My garden looks into the garden of the Japanese ambassador’s residence on the next street and a few doors down from him some of the Canadian UN officers have a house. While Parc Hembise is quite a distance out of town it is not by any means bordering on the jungle. There are many more houses out beyond the Parc and about 10 km further on there is yet another settlement called the Djelo Binza where many of the Americans and Swedes live. You might say that Parc Hembise is Suburbia As It Should Be – there are no repeat no obvious telephone poles, the houses are all placed at odd angles on the hillside and set in spacious grounds with masses of trees and lovely well-kept lawns, all of the roads are winding and every few hundred feet wooded spaces have been left in their natural state, not to mention the numerous gullies that abound with wild parrots and a million other species of songbirds (one hardly needs an alarm clock – the morning music of the birds is enough to wake even the soundest sleeper). There is also a very good grocery store and a bakeshop in the Parc, as well as two gas stations (Fina and Texaco) so it is not necessary to go into town to do shopping. And the main attraction of life in Parc on bees is the coolness – it is about 300 to 500 feet above Leopoldville, there is always a cool breeze and at night I am mighty glad to have a warm blanket on my bed.

I will now try to describe “Villa Magalette” (Chez Nixon). It is a yellow stucco bungalow with a green roof and white trim. It is built on the hillside with the back of the house facing the road and driveways running down both sides of the house to the parking area underneath the terrace at the front. There is a hedge running along the road to give privacy and the grounds at the back of the house consist of three terraced lawns; the lowest terrace has three huge, “trunkless” palm trees – sort of like giant potted palms – and growing up beside the back porch there is an enormous Bougainvillaea plant which abounds with bunches of bright scarlet and purple flowers. The main entrance is at the side of the house and here, again, is another Bougainvillaea plant. You enter into a hall and on your right there is a small washroom (toilet and washbasin). To the left of the hall you pass through an archway into the living room. This room is the real attraction of the house. Two walls of the room are almost completely taken up with French doors opening onto the biggest terrace I’ve ever seen which runs along two sides of the house. The view from the terrace is magnificent. I can see the Congo River way down below and in the distance the hills of ex-French Equatorial Africa, stretching as far as the eye can see. And at night the lights of Leopoldville sparkle through the trees. The terrace also looks down onto the garden which consists of a large lawn and lovely trees. Back to the living room – the walls are beige, ceiling white, and the floor two-tone gray tiles (all floors are tile here for purposes of cleanliness and as a precaution against termites). In one corner there is a cupboard which opens up into a bar. In front of this there is a small round wooden table, inlaid with ivory, and a chair. In the centre of the room there is a glass-covered inlaid wood coffee table, two large easy chairs with foot rests, and a curved sofa that measures 12 feet across the back!! All throughout the house the ceilings are about 11 feet high with screened events up near the top to keep the place cool. Also, around one of the sets of French doors in the living room there are 12 screened vents covered with white wooden latticework – very attractive. The living room extends into the dining room which, again, is very nicely furnished with table, eight chairs, buffet and sideboard. The dining room windows look out onto the back garden and through the branches of the Bougainvillea plant. In both the living and dining rooms are crystal chandeliers and walls lights. Between the living and dining rooms there is another archway which goes into a hall. A door on the right of this hall leads to the kitchen – very big, with refrigerator, stove, cupboard, kitchen table with two chairs, double sinks and enough space left over to hold a dance. The kitchen door and windows look out onto the back porch with its four arches and Bougainvillaea plant. In one corner of the kitchen a door leads into a pantry which is a small room with shelves and cupboards along one wall. From the hall outside the kitchen door you go through another door into another hall. Opening onto this hall are two large bedrooms and the main bathroom. I’m using one of the bedrooms as a storeroom and occupying the room on the corner of the house with windows on two walls. There is also a door leading from this bedroom into the bathroom. And at long last I have a bathroom that a person can move around in!! I would say that my bathroom as easily as big as our dining room on Kirkwood Avenue. There is even a recess in one wall where I have a white table and potted fern. So much for the main part of the house. Downstairs there is what is known here as the “boys work area”. This consists of a good-size room with two washtubs, ironing table, hallway, shower and separate toilet.

Now about my staff. First of all, let me assure you that a house staff is not a luxury here – it is an absolute necessity. For one thing there is no such thing as a laundry as we know them back home. Also, to attempt to do one’s own housecleaning in this climate would be suicide for a European or North American. My staff consists of a houseboy and gardener. A “boy” incidentally is anyone who works in a house and is no reflection on the person’s age – my “boy” is married with three children, for example. There are good boys and bad boys. I was fortunate enough to get a real prince of a boy. His name is Ernest (of all things) and he arrives every morning at 6:30. I get up around 7 and wander into the dining room where my breakfast awaits me – usually a pot of fresh coffee, scrambled eggs, fruit juice (or fresh pineapple or papaya) and toast. After I leave for the office, Ernest washes all the floors, does the dusting, makes the bed, shines my shoes, presses my trousers, does the laundry and goes on his bicycle to the store to do any shopping I might want done. This comprises the normal duties of a houseboy. Now Ernest, fortunately, is also a qualified and excellent cook and takes great pleasure in his work in the kitchen. Where he finds the time, I shall never know, but when I arrive home at 12:30 Ernest has a huge hot dinner waiting for me. His steaks are superb, seasoned just right, he cooks a chicken that would make your mouth water just to look at it. He also has potatoes, fresh vegetables and a salad on the table and on weekends he usually prepares a large potato salad and a plate of cold cuts for me to eat on Sundays (his day off). I give Ernest 100 francs a week (about two dollars) to buy fresh vegetables and fruit from the native ladies who come to the door each day and he always seems to be able to buy enormous amounts of food and have quite a bit of money left over. A fresh, golden, juicy pineapple, for example, costs about 10 cents here and you can buy about three papayas for 20 cents. Ernest always serves my after-dinner coffee out on the terrace and then he disappears into the kitchen to wash up the dishes. In the afternoons he does the ironing. The other member of my staff is chap named Donatien, a friend of Ernest’s (this is very important here because if you had two boys from different tribes working for you, you might find a war on your hands). Donatien only comes three times a week to do the gardening and general handy-work around the house. He cuts the grass, rakes the leaves, plants gorgeous things in the flowerbeds and planters around the terrace and waters anything that he thinks might need watering. Donatien (who looks like Rudy Vallee in a minstrel show) is not nearly as bright as Ernest but he is a very pleasant happy-go-lucky chap who always has a cheery “bonjour patron” for me in the mornings. You are probably wondering about now just how much I must pay for the services of these two boys. Well, I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I pay them the standard salary for a houseboy and gardener – Ernest receives $42 a month, Donatien gets $20. In other words, my allowance for this post ($115 a month) covers my share of the rent ($50) plus the salaries of both members of my house staff – with three dollars left over!! The one and only disadvantage to this, of course, is that I am getting awfully spoiled – just a clap of the hands and the job is done!

Well, I think the time has come to go for a swim. I spent all day yesterday other place known as the FUNA Club, outside of Leopoldville and managed to turn a lovely lobster red but today is slightly cloudy so I think I can risk a swim without burning some more. The summer is truly upon us now – everything gets greener and greener by the minute and each day is just a little hotter than the one before. So will close for now. Received a long letter from Bob and Joan last week which I haven’t had time to answer so would you please phone them and give them my best.

Lots of love, David

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