Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of my grandparents’ apartment in Switzerland, and the hive of activity that could be found there on any given evening. As well as the uncles, aunts, cousins and other assorted random distant relatives I would be certain to encounter, there would also be a steady procession of neighbours, friends, local tradesmen and lion tamers of many nationalities coming in and out of the flat for some gossip, an espresso or a slice of cake – often all three. Whilst French was the de facto language in this excitingly vibrant environment, a minimum of three others would typically be bouncing around the airwaves. I vividly recall lapping up this atmosphere and energy with great delight.

I particularly remember realising early on that my family background was somewhat unusual. It seemed as though every dinner would uncover another city or region of the world that was somehow connected to our genealogy. I suspect that being born in Ghana of an English mother and Swiss father, himself born in Lebanon to a Sicilian Italian mother and Swiss French father, and with third generation ancestry in the former Prussian city of Königsberg, the modern-day Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, was always going to have some influence on my view of the world and the insatiable desire I have to explore its every corner.

And at the centre of it all was my father. As the eldest of four brothers in the middle of the three generations present, he was both the family and linguistic linchpin. After chastising me in English for unsuccessfully attempting to steal a third Kinder egg from my grandmother’s cupboard, he would respectfully reply to his father’s question about his work day in French before discussing the latest Italian football results with his mother – in Arabic. Growing up speaking four different languages in one day was not abnormal to me; I was only doing what my father was doing.

Although never officially a contest, I could not help but measure myself and compete against him linguistically: what a benchmark to measure oneself against, after all. He had me in Italian, I edged him in German and English, and we probably shared the honours in French. But the Arabic, the Arabic! Even in later years, as I learnt Spanish to an adequate level and pretended to have equalled the same magic number of languages as my father, I knew deep down that similarly to away goals in European football, the language of Islam counted double, at the very least.

And this is where my favourite entertainment was to be found: in the Middle Eastern roots of our Western European family. As a child, I would never tire of asking him to write in Arabic, watching enthralled as his hand would move unnaturally from right to left; or teach me words that to this day would get my tongue cut out or a good old-fashioned stoning in most of the Levant; most enjoyable for my mother and I, however, would be seeing the stunned face of a waiter in a Lebanese restaurant as the white infidel would order a three course family meal in faultless North Beiruti dialect.

Whilst my father may have questioned until his very last breath why his only child had secured neither partner, offspring, house ownership, pension plan or pet Labrador by the grand middle age of 41, choosing instead to spend every disposable pence, cent or piastre on such frivolous a pursuit as global exploration, I like to think that he understood the reason to my madness. From the look on his face, and his response as I announced that I was resigning from my job of fourteen years, I know he did.

And so I find myself about to return to Africa, to continue my quest to conquer the continent of my birth. Only I will be doing so with a heavy heart, knowing that my father will be following my adventures from even further away than when they first began at the end of January. But with each new backpacker I meet, and every opportunity I am given to share selected slices of our extraordinary family history, Dad’s memory will live on throughout my travels. With every year that passes, I realise there is a little bit more of my father in me than I previously thought, and of that I am proud.

Great-grandfather Paul-Otto Knoll, officer in the Prussian Army (Königsberg, Prussia – 1914)

My paternal great-grandparents taking the family pets for a walk… (Cairo, Egypt – 1919)

Pre-Mum ladykiller in action (Beirut, Lebanon – 1960)

Father and son at home… (Accra, Ghana – 1975) 

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