The journey was long; the sea was rough (Part 1)
It was by far the longest journey I had ever taken, many times the sea was rough and I was very seasick; but it was also the most exciting journey of my life. It was a journey that would transform me and my life and begin my wanderlust, a wanderlust that has never left me and that has given me a perspective on a world that I would not have been exposed to otherwise.
I had left behind a world that was mainly black and white, often grey and sometimes but rarely, with hints of colour. It was not just the location, a city surrounded by coal mines that permeated the air with pollution, it was also the psychological darkness, the inability of people to say what they wanted to say. At the age of 12 I was just beginning to understand that where I lived there were two worlds, the private one, where my family, but only among themselves, would discuss and criticise the political system and its many wrongs, and the public one. In this second world people were very wary of saying anything in public that would mark them as opponents of the government and its politics. I was not fully aware of the nuances and rules between these two worlds and did not really understand at the time that there were other, different worlds beyond mine.
I was not unhappy, I was a child and as children do, took joy and comfort in the everyday and holiday rituals, the excursions to my grandparents’ garden, the weekends away at our ‘chata’ and the fact that I was a good student. I do remember having to queue for food, especially meat and fruit and vegetables, often not knowing what we were lining up for until at the end we found out if it was bananas, sausages or potatoes. At the same time the taste of fruit from my grandparents’ garden, the apricots, plums, strawberries, red currants, and my favourite, gooseberries, has not been surpassed since.
So from this world, a decision was made to leave Czechoslovakia, a decision that was made without any input from me, that’s the way things were then. Adults made the decisions. To be fair, there were major reasons as to why they did not tell me or consult me. The process to emigrate was so long and so fraught with possible rejection and subsequent repercussions that my parents decided it was best not to tell me until a few weeks before we actually left. Even then I was not allowed to say anything at school and until a recent school reunion 50 years later, my school friends were never sure what had happened to me.
And so we left. The goodbyes were hard, more so for my mother who was leaving her own parents and sisters, knowing well that it would be a quite a number of years before she saw them again. The train was called Vindobona and from Prague to Vienna my mother and I did not talk much. I was very excited and a little sad and she was probably very sad and somewhat excited. My father and my grandmother who was 8o at the time stayed behind, to join us in Australia 6 weeks later as they were going by plane due to my grandmother’s health.
Arriving in Vienna 10 or so hours later, I saw the first of my ‘new worlds’. There was fresh produce in the markets, the freshest looking peaches, oranges, pineapples and lots of green and red vegetables that I had not seen before. This was heaven for a child who loved fruit and vegetables more than any other food, well perhaps not more than ice cream and chocolate. There was an abundance of that too and I didn’t know where to look next. We only had a limited amount of foreign currency so the hard decision for my mother was to prioritise what was needed and what else we could afford. As difficult as it was and against all the wares she would have wanted, she very generously bought me a doll that I had fallen in love with. This was no ordinary doll, it looked like a real live baby and even though I was 12 this was what I wanted. The doll was so unlike any dolls that I had ever had, her eyes were alive, her limbs were bendable, she was dressed in cute pink clothes and I was in love. The doll, even though a lot worse for wear, and without her pink outfit, is still around, no longer coveted but loved nevertheless.
In Vienna with new doll in shopping bag
Nearly on the boat, our next stop was Genoa, and for me another ‘new world’. This was such a different and loud world, despite the fact that Czechs can also be loud and argumentative when need be. There was colour, there were people seemingly arguing or just recounting, there were horns beeping, there were new foods I had not heard of, this was Italy at its best. My mother, always beautiful, elegant and cheerful, had an innumerable number of admirers, but this is something I only realise now. At the time I was seemingly ignorant of all the male attraction she would have received, I was too busy absorbing the sounds, smells and colours of Italy. I was too young and too boy-like to be the recipient of any looks, whistles or touches from the Italians.
Our hotel in Genoa was extremely nice, especially to someone who had only stayed in communist- built and run accommodation, where any sense of luxury and often comfort, was avoided. The room had highly polished marble floors onto which I managed to fall a few times from leaning back on the chair. My mother’s words still ring in my ears “don’t lean back, you will fall”. No great damage was done even though my bottom was sore for a few days.
Genoa was also where I tasted my first Coca-Cola, a product unavailable in the Communist block as it was produced in the ‘evil’ west and thus scorned. My mother was a bit shocked at the prices and the Italian accounting – no prices were displayed and once it was realised we were foreigners and quite naive at that, I am sure prices increased instantaneously. Nothing much has changed in the world of the first-time tourist today.
Getting onto the boat was, as one would imagine of Italy in the 60s, fraught with long queues, lots of necessary stamps, lots of shouting and general disorganisation. The long queues we could deal with, after all were used to those, it was our lack of Italian and subsequent understanding of the process that was more worrying. Luckily, one of my mother’s admirers, seemed to appear yet again and helped us with the process and even took our luggage into the cabin. Surely he was expecting a tip, if not more, but by then my mother had decided she had enough of paying exorbitant amounts for every little thing, and so her ‘thank you’ said with her charming accent and beautiful smile was all he got.
My mum with one of her many admirers
So now we were in our ‘new world’ for the next 6 weeks, on the way to our new home in Sydney, Australia from our small town of Teplice in Czechoslovakia. A gate had been opened and I was discovering the joys of travel, new places, different people and the excitement of going to a new, totally different country. The next 6 weeks on the Guglielmo Marconi would prove to be an initiation into the unknown and introduce me to the sobering reality that travelling is not always smooth sailing.(to be continued)
Source of photo:https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30448912