Memories and meanderings in Middle Europe

WE’RE ALL PART of a family, and often more than one. Even without kids, I turn up on several family trees, albeit as a cryptic and peripheral mention. But what bare bones family trees show: only dry lineage, not the hot pressure of relations. Those thin black lines connecting partners and progeny give nothing away. Better to map circles of influence, radiating colours and casting shadows, with bold connections that pulsate with anger and laughter, and spidery traces that hint at longing and regret carried across generations.


MEMORIES. JACK AND I marvel at how our disparate trajectories brought us together, but though we come from opposite sides of the globe, our backstories are not dissimilar. Refugees from Old World to New, both families emanated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from either side of the Alps. We share a cuisine, a taste for goulash, sauerkraut, onions in our potato salad, caraway seeds, fat dill pickles and plenty of mustard. But while both families fled their homelands, mine steamed across the ocean to America in first-class cabins, en masse, just before World War II. They enjoyed the luxury of selecting their asylum from a position of advantage and foresight. Jack’s parents took a different route, an impromptu escape on foot across a mountainous border one bitter winter’s night. Young survivors, they embarked on the long voyage to Australia in steerage, leaving behind parents and siblings in a decimated land.

We are off to Europe for a two-month honeymoon, Jack and I. This is his first trip to the place where I spent half my life. But we are both paying homage to the past: I to revisit old haunts, and he to fulfil his dying father’s wish for him to seek out their ancestral home, abandoned since the war. He expresses supreme indifference to the family there that he has never met. It will be strange if he resembles them, to see his eyes twinkling above the prominent nose of some uncle, or his smile beaming from the wrinkled visage of a great-aunt. A mealtime assembly of relatives might reveal the particular shape of his fingers as common currency: reaching for pieces of bread, gesturing in midair, a multitude of digits all shaped like his. Perhaps it is his sense of uniqueness, so dear to his heart, that he is reluctant to relinquish. I expect his detachment will be tested.

I left my own family behind in a puff of dust half a lifetime ago, but that was my decision; Jack’s choice was made for him. His parents constructed the ultimate nuclear unit, cutting off contact with the clan and hiding the portals to their culture and language. It is not uncommon to turn one’s back on the mother country, as the fastest way to assimilate is to have no other option. Without the sharing of experience or memories, the family left behind was reduced to a biological construct, a coincidence of blood lines, leaving Jack a distant and disinterested stranger, content in the freedom of not belonging. I am a lone addition to Jack’s family, the last dinosaur of a line almost extinct. But I share with him my valuable dowry of family folklore, my Middle European ghosts, in an attempt to make up for what his parents excised.


MY PARENTS WERE old when I was born, so I only remember their generation from late middle age…as old as I am now, strange as it seems. Eccentric, all of them, with heavy accents, and regrets we could not share of places and customs erased by time and war. Descriptions of their youth were vivid with tea-dance flirtations, chases in fiacres and kaffee mit schlag taken at small marble tables. Photographs of women posing with elegant dogs and men lounging at the lakeside, bathing suits covering their smooth chests, are preserved within albums, anchored in time by little gold corners. One sepia image shows a handsome woman standing alone in Piazza San Marco. Clad in fur coat and cloche hat against a Venetian winter, she offers a gloved palm of breadcrumbs to a halo of pigeons. This was my Aunt Elise, whom in latter years I knew as a rather sentimental woman, fond of name-dropping and bridge playing, and eternally regretful that she wasn’t of royalty. Her hair was wavy grey and later white, her eyes heavily pouched, and her body soft and pallid. She was kind to me in a fussy, intrusive way that was heartwarming for the first ten minutes, and then drove me to distraction.

Her husband, Uncle Rudi, was a tall man with an enormous paunch. A consummate practical joker, he owned a collection of pens adorned with pictures of girls in bikinis. When you upended the pen, the bikini would disappear. It was more kitsch than obscene. He and Aunt Elise split their time between a sprawling Manhattan apartment and a Tyrolean luxury hotel. They were the bane of both establishments. They had lived in their old-fashioned, rent-controlled apartment since World War II, with its high ceilings and view across Central Park. Up until their deaths, the Office of Rent Administration thwarted the landlord’s attempts to evict them in favour of higher paying – or at least shorter -lived – tenants. In Austria, they requisitioned the hotel’s ‘Franz Josef’ suite every summer, and expected to be treated accordingly.

My aunt and uncle were famous fresser: they loved to nosh, to gnaw, to nibble. They consumed prodigious quantities, especially of anything sweet. Once, the hotel chef prepared kaiserschmarrn, my aunt’s favourite dessert. The plates arrived with a flourish, followed by a rosy-cheeked, dirndl-clad serving girl, tasked with dispensing a careful dollop of raspberry puree on each. My aunt, unimpressed, snatched the silver sauceboat from her and emptied it over their desserts. The young girl looked on, mortified, her cheeks going from pink to crimson. My aunt returned the sauceboat and dismissed her with a wave of her hand, but she did not move. 

‘You may go now,’ insisted my aunt in her most imperious tone.

‘But gnädige Frau,’ the girl stammered, ‘that was the sauce for the entire restaurant! What shall I tell the chef?’

‘Well, tell him he needs to make some more,’ came the cool reply.


MEANDERINGS. MY HUSBAND’S face is pressed to the glass, obscuring my view of the sky, but I don’t mind. On this long night flight, a movie is distracting me from the discomforts of the slim slot of space I have paid to inhabit. Halfway through what feels like the world’s longest voyage, I would give anything for a bed and some privacy. Yet tomorrow – this morning – when I am waiting to disembark, stamping impatiently on swollen feet, I find myself amazed at the speed of the journey. Our rented car, that trusty steed, awaits the luggage, laughter and language of another world. With us is an old map, split at the folds, marked with an X, and Jack’s father’s directions to the house, our first destination. Together we roll forth onto a continent I love and that my husband is yet to discover. After the long flight’s captivity, movement revives us and we feel as bright-eyed and invincible as action heroes. Yesterday saw the familiar broad and arid landscapes of Australia; today a lusher panorama of rivers, mountains and metropolises unfolds. Anything seems possible.

Navigating through corners of countries, we traverse frontiers, passports at the ready. Long ago, borders had gravitas. Beware, they warned, once you cross this frontier everything you take for granted – your language, your culture, your coins, your history – stands for nothing. Relinquishing your passport to uniformed men in guard booths had a frisson of danger: for a moment you were stateless, without papers, disposable. Recently, a more unified Europe made crossing borders swift and unremarkable, while the booths, bypassed but not dismantled, waited for the predictable end to the continental bonhomie. Now, converging queues of several kilometres reaffirm the sovereignty of adjoining nations.

We make steady progress down the highway. The mist lowers and a light rain begins to fall, leaching the colour and blurring the sharp profile of the landscape. The windscreen wipers offer brief but rhythmic moments of clarity. Soon, like a peashooter, a series of tunnels propels us inexorably from my family’s side of the Alps to Jack’s. His first glimpse of the land of his forebears is suitably dramatic, as the clouds part to expose sunny hills and shadowed valleys, punctuated by church spires and hayracks of drying fodder. We drive through tiny hamlets, squeezing between buildings with ground-floor corners carved away like river canyon walls, and second storeys overhanging the road, almost touching. Through open barn doors we catch sight of tractors and dogs and huddled cattle, and implements hanging in the shadows. There are not many people about; only a few farmers and a little girl clutching her mother’s hand see us pass.

Guided by his father’s map, Jack parks. We climb a track alongside a stream – its bed of pebbles clearly visible through the shallow water. The trees close in on both sides, revealing nothing. Returning to the car, we drive on and try another track. Then another. Our post-flight euphoria wanes with the afternoon light. At the end of the last track, we stop to sit on a large rock. Jack, eternal disbeliever, votes to abandon the search: ‘Why look for irrelevant relics of the past when our future is forward?’ Discouraged, I rise to go. And then, my tired brain disengaged and my eyes wandering, I glimpse a lighter colour in the underbrush, the merest fragment of a wall. Further along, I spy the remnants of a chimney. Jack looks up at the sound that escapes me, and follows my eyes. He stands, and I feel his arm around me. ‘The family house,’ he says in wonder.

A flurry of photos later, we linger, at loose ends. The forest has reclaimed this sliver of land and, sixty years on, there is little left to see. We decide a modest plaque to Jack’s family would be appropriate here, but no more, as we will soon be gone from this shadowy little foothold of a place. But like sighting a wistful puppy at the dog shelter, we find we cannot just affix a plaque and depart, to abandon this mutt of a site to its fate. I do not remember when we first think of it, but I know it is soon and simultaneous: a sudden, strong urge to claim the place, to take possession and make it ours. Our family home. We each carry that idea away unspoken, carefully, like a fragile object, to discuss it at length over dinner.

Later I sketch a simple layout of Japanese frugality: a single room with sleeping loft, tiny ablution cube and potbelly stove, all protected by a steep roof. My head fills with images as the design evolves. Like those restless spirits brought to life solely by one’s imaginings, so unbuilt projects, once conjured up, wander the planet looking for somewhere to rest. A moment ago our little hut did not exist and now it is clamouring to be built. Erasing the lines, even burning the paper, could not efface its existence, nor exorcism extinguish it; it will haunt us until we walk through its door. Tying us tighter to that land than the tendrils of undergrowth is Jack’s father’s last bequest: the seeds of belonging.


THE FOLLOWING MORNING we pay our respects at the cemetery. The paths are trim and the clean gravel crunches irreverently underfoot as we pass between rows of granite gravestones. The sun glints off gold inscriptions and brooch-like cameo portraits, and almost every gravesite hosts a lantern and flowers. Jack’s surname adorns a multitude of stones, surrounding us with family. The evidence of time’s relentlessness seems reassuring here, rather than oppressive. In this place you are not forgotten, however modest your life. At any time in the future, someone walking by will spare you a thought, mouth your name, ponder your connection. For those of us unsure what happens after, who have no recourse to the relief of belief, and who carry the fear of our own extinction, here at least we can leave our little mark: I was here, I existed; do not forget me. We are family.

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