After a lifetime of moves across the world, touching on all five continents - “history-enforced peregrinations” as Kapka Kassabova aptly described them in her review of my autobiography My innocent Absence - I was back in Christchurch recently.
Christchurch was where I launched into a new life, aged eleven, after my childhood years in Spain, France and Mexico. My mother brought me here to join her sister, my aunt Lotte, who had arrived in New Zealand nine years earlier from Germany, Italy and Palestine. Christchurch was where I learnt to speak English and adapt to Kiwi ways and where, in spite of profound differences in background and experiences, I was readily welcomed by my new classmates in Elmwood School followed by Christchurch Girls High School.
I enjoyed our conversations, the sport, the study… and yet I found myself alone and isolated, a chasm of an unshared past separating us. I had not lived through the stability and continuity that formed the comparatively rock solid, buttressed background of my schoolmates, and they in turn were barely, if at all, aware of the collective, genocidal, life threatening dangers and enforced nomadic existence that had shaped mine. It was a reflection on my new Antipodean friends’ good nature that this great difference did not touch on or interfere with our everyday interactions.
Now, a lifetime later, I returned to Christchurch on a reading circuit. Several of my old classmates had already read my book, one, Leona, had read it twice. We had no idea about your life before you came to New Zealand, my friends exclaimed. Over a gourmet pub lunch with Leona, Judith and Jill I found they were my same old friends. Their warmth delighted me. We had hugged on meeting, in stark contrast to that no-touch lifestyle of my earlier period in New Zealand, where to my surprise people didn’t even hand-shake.
The intervening years and the earthquake had changed history. I witnessed extraordinary strength and spirit surrounding the recovery and rebuilding. But what stirred and impressed me most in my re-found friendships was the human connection which had always been there for the looking and finding, buried under all those layers of different experience, tradition and ways of life, the underlying human connectedness that, in the end, exists between us all.
Miriam Frank spent her early years in Spain, Vichy France and Mexico, arriving in New Zealand at the age of twelve where she attended Christchurch Girls High School and Otago Medical School. She was a senior lecturer and consultant anaesthetist at the Royal London Hospital and now dedicates herself to literary translation and writing since her retirement. Her autobiography, My Innocent Absence, was recently published by Arcadia Books.
I still see my mother delving through our suitcase and pulling out my cotton nightdress, while I stand stretched to my full five-year-old height on the mattress, with our belongings alongside, on the stone floor. I raise my arms and she slips the nightdress over my head, all the exciting new impressions of the day still jostling in my mind: the open-air souk, shielded from the hot sun by the white canvas overhead, with stall after stall of curious, enticing wares; the flowing white robes worn by everyone here, young and old, men and women – these last so completely swathed in them that only their kohl-rimmed, bright, almond eyes peek out… Now night has fallen and we are back at our mattress, one of an endless row, each housing a family in transit between the Old World and the New, waiting for our ship to take us across the Atlantic.
This is my enduring memory of our passage through Casablanca on our way from Marseilles to Mexico. We were leaving behind German-occupied France, and Spain, before it, from where we had fled as Franco’s troops closed in on Barcelona, my mother’s new home since Hitler took over in her native Germany. As she readied me for bed, I was running through my mind our various homes up till then, noting their mathematical progression.
“You know, Maman,” I had switched from my early Spanish in Barcelona to French in France, as my mother dared not draw attention to us in the political circumstances of the day, “first we had a big house, then we had a little house, then we had a room, and now we have a mattress.”
The ramifications of memory: I remember remembering our “big house” in Barcelona, out of reach to my memory today.
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