Chutzpah in the family

Life lessons on chutzpah from my Dad

The meaning of chutzpah is well known: audacity , cheekiness and even insolence. There are different levels of chutzpah and how people view this characteristic which is often associated with people of Jewish origin. Chutzpah is the ability to take a situation in hand, to be at the forefront, to make a mark and to leave others wondering”why didn’t I do that”?

Chutzpah, at its extreme, can be seen as arrogant, pushy and even aggressive. An example of this, going back to my teenage years, were Hungarian women lining up, well not really lining up, and in fact far from it, in their quest to pick up European delicacies from Grace Bros in Bondi Junction in Sydney.  In the 1970s Bondi Junction was  the centre of the Jewish/Hungarian community and Thursday evening was the time they came out in force due to the recent introduction of late night shopping hours. My father and I would line up in the manner we were accustomed to from our recent home in Czechoslovakia where queues were a common, every day phenomenon.  Despite being annoying and time consuming, they provided a chance to observe others, chat (so long as it wasn’t about the regime) and be surprised at the end of the queue as to what the shop was actually selling.

It was very different behind the counter at Grace Brothers. These women, immigrants just like us, were on a mission to get out of there as quickly as possible with the largest amount of Hungarian salami, cheese, gefilte fish and many more delicacies. The counter at Grace Bros was the only place in the vicinity where, 40 or so years ago, one could buy such things. The first few times,  both my father and I were not quite sure what was happening. There we were waiting in line when every few minutes another middle-aged female of imposing stature would push past us, without any kind of civility, already shouting at the service person as to what her order was to be. It took us a few weeks to realise that  we were not going to get anywhere, being the polite, newly arrived Czechs, used to an unspoken but clearly understood, queuing code.

Even though annoyed with this kind of non-queuing behaviour,  my father felt it was important to give me a  life lesson concerning chutzpah. At that time I didn’t know that part of my ethnic origin was Jewish; there was a reason for that but that’s another story. I think this was his subconscious way of introducing me to some of the practical aspects of being part Jewish. “See” he would say, ” you need to have chutzpah in life to get the things you want”. He would then qualify this statement with ” well perhaps not quite like these women”, and perhaps the word women was preceded by a Czech swear word,  I was young and it was along time ago so I can’t remember exactly what that word may have been.

Throughout my life he would repeat sentiments similar to those said in the early days in Grace Brothers.  I was not a chutzpah-type person when I was young and come to think of it neither was he for most of his life. But as all parents do, he wanted his daughter to acquire characteristics that he didn’t have himself but felt would be useful in life. As I matured and gained self-confidence, there was some chutzpah that emerged in my personality, usually when I felt slighted or treated unjustly. But it is still difficult to gather the confidence to display chutzpah when faced with strangers, especially  those that are famous.

A number of years ago , while waiting for coffee at the Qantas Lounge at Sydney Airport, a towering figure of a man stood next to me. Looking up I saw it was Gough Whitlam, a former PM whom I had admired.A tiny bit of chutzpah would have been wonderful at this point as I really, really wanted to start a conversation and tell him how much I admired him.  But no, it was not forthcoming, and by the time I actually thought of something to say he was gone. I think my father would not have been unhappy about he lack of chutzpah in this case as he really didn’t like Gough and many arguments were held over his leadership.

Chutzpah at its best is the ability to move beyond being self-conscious, beyond worrying what others will say or do, and  to go after what you want, in the nicest possible, cheeky, sometimes flirtatious way.  A big smile helps too. Perhaps I have learnt a little from those early lessons my father tried to instill in me; a middle-aged woman going up to the very handsome tango dancer at a conference in Buenos Aires and having a photo taken with him is somewhat in the right direction. It still takes a lot of effort  for me to display chutzpah at times, my father’s words sneaking their way into my indecisive mind, and so it is comforting to know that sometimes family lessons skip a generation.

The grandson, who didn’t hear those  lessons from his ‘deda‘, is showing promise that the chutzpah gene does live in the family genetic blueprint. It takes self-confidence to ask a question of a well-known business man in front of a large audience in any case. But it takes chutzpah to preface that serious question with an anecdote as to how that businessman started his business and to suggest that this may be a good opportunity for future business together between the young man and the businessman.  Indeed, it shows that chutzpah does get you to places, whether it is the acquisition of Hungarian salami or a convivial drink with well-known business people. I think ‘deda‘  would be happy.


The journey was long; the sea was rough (Part 2)

Our 4-berth cabin was rather small but then we were used to small spaces and it felt like real luxury to have our own space on a large, white boat, ready to sail. We didn’t mind sharing the cabin, after all we would be on deck and in the dining room and entertainment rooms most of the time. At 6.30, just a little behind schedule, the ship sailed away from Genoa harbour amid brightly coloured streamers and confetti clouds. We were on our way!

Suddenly we heard Signora, Signora in a rather loud voice and who should it be wildly waving at us? One of mum’s admirers, the same one who helped us with our luggage into our cabin and did not even get a tip. It was rather nice to be farewelled so enthusiastically by an Italian and added Italian charm to us leaving Europe.

The ship seemed to be moving rather slowly at the beginning and we could enjoy  seeing the city of Genoa and the Italian coast from a different vantage point. After the view faded and the sky began to darken I went exploring before dinner and almost got lost, so big and disorienting was the ship’s space ( today my family would say it was my terrible sense of direction). Eventually I made my way back to the cabin where my mum was impatiently waiting for me and we went off to dinner. And what a dinner it was, I had never seen anything like the variety, colours, smells and abundance of food. There were soups and cold meats, chicken,beef, potatoes (of course), spinach and other more exotic vegetables, salads and so many more dishes that I could actually recognise; there were just as many that seemed strange and I did not feel ready to taste them just yet.  Faced with too many choices, both my mother and I had two servings of cake after the main meal.We were so full and so tired that it did not take us long to fall asleep in this new sleeping space where the gentle waves lulled us to sleep.

First day on the open sea away from the coast and we weren’t quite sure what to expect, the ship was rocking slightly but I felt absolutely fine and ready to tackle the breakfast buffet.  On entering the dining room the scene presented  was, to this 12-year-old, something out of the land of wonders from a children’s story read at bed time. I had never seen so much food and such a variety of food; the typical Czech breakfast being one of tea and bread with jam and maybe a hard-boiled egg or a piece of ham on special occasions.

And so the first days continued, the sea was calm, the food wonderful and in between eating and exploring the  inside of the ship we also ventured onto shore on day excursions to Naples, Pompeii and further south to Messina. Sailing along the beautiful coast of Sicily must have resulted in a dormant, subconscious need to visit Sicily later on in my life and I have not been disappointed by any of the three visits since that first encounter.

Daily life on the ship in that first week took on a familiar pattern, the three meals interspersed with swimming and some English lessons as well, mainly from textbooks we had bought along.  Opportunities to practice what we had learned  arose at meal times as there were many guests from English-speaking countries on board. I certainly learned the English word for ‘brambory‘ quickly as I would always get an extra portion of whatever potato dish was on offer. Hence, my nickname became Miss Potatoes, a name that could still be applicable today as that love of potatoes has never left me.

One day in the first week at sea, an emergency drill was performed, complete with lowering of life boats, donning of life vests and  typical Italian (dis)organisation. It was quite funny and perhaps as novices at sea we didn’t take it as seriously as it should have been.

Emergency drill with photo appearing in The Sea Herald, the daily newspaper. Somehow the  Italian name  L’Araldo Del Mare sounds a lot better.



The first week on board ended with a stop in Port Said and a whole days sailing through the Suez Canal. Despite the heat outside on deck, it was fascinating watching the desert alternating with greenery, camels and in the far distance the distinct shapes of the pyramids. One more stop in Suez and then it was into the Red Sea. So far so good, meals are still excellent, I am learning English with a Japanese English teacher who offered free lessons because I was nice to her two small children.There is time for swimming, sun baking and children’s parties. At 12 I am considered on the borderline to attend those but being a very young (and ostensibly persuasive) 12-year-old I managed to talk my way into these.

“It’s bad” – so begins my mother’s entry in her diary on the day we  sail into the Indian ocean. And it was bad,  more than half the people on board were affected by sea sickness, me included. The ship was rocking quite significantly so that holding onto side rails was a necessity when walking through the corridors or on deck. The worst part was the inability to eat and keep food down. So whilst the buffet tables at lunch and dinner still looked extremely enticing, the only food I could eat during that time were dried biscuits and some fruit.

Our lovely, gentle sea-faring , beautiful ship had changed to a rocking, reeling, grey giant where being on deck and watching the white crests of large waves was infinitely better than below where the rocking was far exaggerated and the smell was often putrid. People moved about in an almost zombie-like way and tended to lie down on deck chairs every 5 minutes to regain their energy. One of  regular our waiters came to see me, concerned that Miss Potatoes had not been seen at dinner and what should they do with all the potatoes they had saved for me.

Despite being seriously sea sick and not eating a lot, there were fun times. Another children’s party, crossing the equator with a celebration overseen by King Neptune, a prize in winning a twist dance competition, seeing films in the cinema, these were all interspersed with lots of lying down on deck chairs or in our cabin.

As with everything, the sea sickness also passed and we learnt that tomorrow we would be arriving in our first Australian port, Fremantle. Two hours of queuing up (worse than waiting for potatoes in Teplice) we stepped onto Australian soul, our ‘new world’.  Four days later we docked in Melbourne where many Italians disembarked. This disembarkation was performed in typical Italian fashion with lots of noise, animation and general disorganisation. Little did I realise at the time that many years later Melbourne would become my home and that the Italian way and enjoyment of life would be an ideal rather than an irritation when in enclosed spaces. The boat suddenly became very quiet, there was no opening of doors at all times of day and night, no shouting at children and at each other. In a way it was quite sad too, as many of the people we became friends with had now left.We were no longer sea-sick so at least could enjoy the last few days just as we had started at the beginning of our journey.

Despite the seasickness it was an amazing journey, one that has left me with many memories and a newly discovered wonder of the big, wide world of which I had only dreamed and imagined in the 12 years I lived in Czechoslovakia. One unfortunate repercussion of the five weeks spent on the boat, with three of those feeling sea sick, was that it would take many years and many attempts to feel comfortable on a ship or boat, no matter what size it was or where it was sailing.

But for now my life was about to change, there would be many things to get used to, a new language to master, a different schooling system. On disembarking in Sydney, our  new home, the excitement at Circular Quay was palpable,  with streamers and confetti, hundreds of people waving and welcoming the many migrants who had decided to leave Europe for the ‘new world’. I was happy and felt welcome, not the least by my father , grandmother and my uncle and aunt, who had very generously enabled us all to make this long and rather expensive journey. To them I am indeed very grateful.

PS.  To learn of the new beginnings in Sydney keep following my blog.


The journey was long;the sea was rough (Part 1)

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)

Galileo Galilei - Gugliemo Marconi.jpg

Source of photo:



What’s my DNA?

IMGP0714After watching  a video about people’s DNA and the surprise they received when confronted with their DNA being made up of various ethnic origins, I had suddenly found the name for my writing site.

Our DNA is of course primarily made up of our ancestral gene pool but I believe the characteristics we acquire along our life’s journey also contribute indirectly to our DNA. The reason I say this is based on a recent experience I had living for 5 months in Munich,Germany.

My ethnic origins are partially German, my  paternal grandmother was half German and my grandfather was Jewish. My parents were Czech and I was born in what was then called Czechoslovakia, now  known as (officially) Czechia or (more commonly) Czech Republic. I am sure there are traces of other  nationalities in my genes, maybe even some from the Nordic countries, as Czechs apparently have a high percentage of Swedish DNA in them, due to Swedish invasions.

Living in Munich for 5 months, I was surprised one day when Phil, my husband, said to me “you are becoming more German than the Germans”, a remark possibly made when I was upset with someone for doing something wrong or at least not according to the rules.. Thinking about his comment led me to think about all the influences I have had living in Czechoslovakia as a child, migrating to Australia on the cusp of teenagehood and then living for a number of years in Switzerland and again in the  Czech Republic. These are all now part of me and perhaps those ethnic origins are accentuated depending on where one lives.

The  areas of my life from which I get the most pleasure and satisfaction are  my family,travel, teaching and writing.What better way then to start this blog then with the question of what makes us us and what influences complement or oppose our DNA.

This blog is a way for me to reflect on my life, the everyday as well as the more exciting. The stories are varied and written as the mood and inspiration take me. And also  very dependant on the amount of time I have.