The European

 

I am, because you are, and have been. My skin and bone are grafted from yours. My eyes were first ignited by yours. My lens of perception was shaped by the sea of your memories: a German washed onto the shores of Britain, carried up the Thames on juvenile dreams of Arthur, high-tea Hardy, skylarks, Shakespeare, and roses. You’d read too much. It had given you a pleasant impression, whetted your appetite for the genteel, for English manners. It had shielded you from the harsh realities of a curtain-twitching prejudice.

You were stunned at being shunned, cold-shouldered for crimes you didn’t personally commit.  Oma had opposed Hitler vehemently. She dangerously opened her shop in Judengasse, in the middle of the night, to Jewish friends, so that her fellow Germans could keep on mending their clothes. She refused to “Sieg Heil,” in the post office, and boldly (foolishly) spoke out. A village Spitzel had already put her on a black list.

You hadn’t imagined you’d be called a “Nazi” at the Heinz baked bean factory, or in Hillingdon high street in the greengrocers. It got under my skin too, even at 4, that injustice. I hated seeing you cry.  Your homesickness gave me abandonment anxieties. How could any of us make it better? All those war films, on BBC television, constant shooting, hoping to expiate pre-war, British fascist guilt, East End anti-Semitism – by ramming home that there was only one, scape-goat nation. Did they not realise that people, just like themselves, had fallen under the Curse of a shoot-to-kill dictator?  How brave would any of them have really been, if the tables had been turned?

We moved to Holland where they were friendlier, (despite the war) where there was more warmth and colour by the early 70s. We were all sick of the grey, white, navy-blue compassion austerity. I wanted to be a Dutch girl, to wear pillar-box-red bonnets and orange jumpers. I wanted to become a Protestant. My mouth learned to swallow hard words: “Ik ben een Hollandse meisje.” I became a patriot for Juliana and celebrated her Silver Jubilee with spekulatius and heemstjam.  I watched fabeltjeskrant and Tita TovenaarMijn Vader is een Tovenaar” – religiously.

You were forbidden to speak English to me when you picked me up from school. “Dutch only when we’re out. Please mum, it’s embarrassing.” German was for bed-time stories, when the lights were dimmed, for some secret comfort through the hot hell of chickenpox and mumps, and for weekend visits to Oma, the cousins, aunts and uncles across the border in our spearmint, Volkswagen beetle.

Suddenly there were three identities: each language produced a different variation of being. “Ich bin halb-Deutsche. Meine Mutter stammt aus Euskirchen. Ich wohne in Holland.”  I was childlike in English, confident in Dutch and reticent in German. (The cousins spoke platt, I made a lot of mistakes and seriously corrupted my Mother-tongue hochdeutsch.)

Hoping to bring out the Rhineland Catholic in me yet, you made me take “meine erste heilige Kommunion” as a German girl, clad from head to toe in white, garlanded with fake-silk daisies, a mini bride for Kristus: “Alles was wir haben, alle guten Gaben, alles was wir haben geben Wir Dir hin.” The English family (who had ventured across the Channel for this special occasion,) marvelled at our dexterity. I gained a porcelain kingfisher in brilliant blue and green for my efforts. He still lives on the shelf today, though his beak is notably chipped. (There were many moves and adjustments.)

When we finally came back to England, after dad lost his job, it was a case of “Mind the (cultural) gap!” I knew nothing of Thunderbirds, Beatrix Potter, or David Cassidy – and the Famous Five were a complete unknown.  You tried to tell me it didn’t matter. At St Sebastian’s C of E, “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land…” (the longing now was for Anglicanism, for netball and hopscotch,) I was ushered into a ‘transition’ class for children two years younger. Because the written words just wouldn’t come, in this, my original, Fatherland tongue.

A boy called Lesley called me a “git” – and I smiled and thanked him. Dad, ever the conservative, informed me at home later that: “a git is a pregnant camel.” I was bemused. What had he meant by it?

I had no idea what a “bum” was either. And when we had to draw cereal crops, for a school project, and I was asked for an oat, I had to beg a classmate for information, in exchange for a Whimsy squirrel toy and some radiator-dried mandarin segments. Satisfied, he whispered dramatically, “an oat is an English monster that eats horses!” Armed with this shocking, new information I made my best efforts, creating a multi-fanged mega-monster – and was banished to the corridor for “insolence.”

The learning was steep, and another person formed inside me. The storm-tossed, rudderless nature of this life then became an asset. I started to be able to read minds, to effortlessly change colour like a chameleon, to blend in like a leaf-tailed gecko: a girl for all people, all seasons; a smorgasbord of possibility, and accents. I hoped to become an actor, but the shyness for acceptance, the raw self-consciousness, put an end to that path.

As a teenager I had recurrent dreams of living among the animal-loving, vegetarian Cathars, in the Pays d’Oc, and the vivid remembrance of French (perhaps it was Occitan,) danced once more on my tongue, triggered, by my English uncle’s Francoise Hardy LP: “Comment te dire adieu?” It was another home-coming.

I am, because you are, and have been. My skin and bone are grafted from yours. My eyes were first ignited by yours. My lens of perception was shaped by the sea of your memories. Ich bin ein European. Ik ben Europese. Je Suis Européen. I am a European, and I will remain… as all of that.

 

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Heidi Stephenson


By Heidi Stephenson

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