Bringing Snapshots of Europe into Focus
For many in my class in an Irish 1970s secondary school, French and German provided an entry point to our experience of Europe, even before Ireland joined the EEC in 1973. Ireland was isolated. It was an island off another island off a continent. Next stop America, where so many of my generation found a welcome and cultural affirmation. To contextualise the Irish sense of the outer world in 1970 is to rewind almost fifty years of modernisation, secularisation, advancements in technology, and advancements in– importantly for us in Ireland – legislation for various social protections and, importantly, for the acknowledgement of difference wherever it is found. Below is an excerpt from a memoir in progress. I have been writing it for ten years and keep abandoning it. But in this section, I recall how vastly Europe differed from Ireland – in particular Germany – how what it meant was a kind of call to my younger self, and how it chimed with many of my hopes and dreams when I was a teenager. After my first visit to Germany in 1970, I never afterwards – in those moments in which we imagine or dream what our future might be like – saw myself remaining in my home town, for example. I would be a city person, I thought, or be tuned into modern cities and places. I might even, if my German ever became proficient enough (it didn’t) work in German radio! Yes, I was capable of being inspired by Europe, because it brought a sense of possibility.
Excerpt from Nana’s Kitchen
“School was a place where some of us began the uneasy boat-ride on the river of languages. Most of the girls in my class carried five languages: English, French, German, Irish, and Latin. I met two very brilliant but different German teachers within my first three years in the convent. One of them, Sr du Sacré Coeur, or Sac as we called her, believed in the value of getting learners to dramatize what they’d learnt in the classroom. In 1969, she got us to memorize the different parts of a then contemporary television German language series which ran in Ireland at the time, called Komm mit!
Week after week, we learned the scripts and then transferred to the school concert hall stage for rehearsals. I can still hear Sac’s approach down the school arcade in which rows of geraniums bloomed in earthenware pots, the fierce energy of her stride as her long legs struck the black serge skirts that encumbered her, her Rosary-beads dancing, its Crucifix jumping against her thigh. She would burst through the open doorway and grin up at us, her slightly twisted top teeth the first thing you noticed. Her look was always expectant and jubilant. “Guten Morgen! Guten Morgen!” she sang, striding towards the base of the stage. “Und jetzt, seid ihr bereit? Alles in Ordnung?” “Ja-a …,” we replied uncertainly. Rehearsals began. There was a ludicrous scene in which Franz has been invited to Ute’s house for Abendessen. He arrives carrying carnations, which he thrusts into her arms (one of the larger girls played Franz). “Ah, Nelken! Wie schön! Das ist lieb von Dir!” Ute coos. Although we found the set scenes a big joke, gradually we assembled masses of communicable German, ordinary, everyday stuff from outside the literary exam canon and set text of Heinrich Böll’s Dr Murkes gesammeltes Schweigen. Sac then proceeded to invite the luminaries from the Goethe Institut in Dublin, as well as the German Ambassador, to our school. She wanted to show us off in our first full performance of scenes from Komm Mit! For a change, we were doing a contemporary drama, in contemporary costume, in contrast to a concurrent class production of Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows. Hasty letters were scribbled home for our real clothes to be sent quickly, and the whole thing became an exciting fashion-fest, with the usual exchange of jeans, shoes, tops and jewellery that goes on between girls.
The performance took place on a spring evening. The sun beamed down in a fan of long lines through the high windows of the concert hall, golden on the shoulders of the audience. We stood rather formally to sing the German national anthem, causing the seated German entourage to rush to their feet too as they realised what was happening. Einigkeit, und Recht und Freiheit, für das deutsche Vaterland! It was the era of Rights, Rightness and Freedom as far as most of us were concerned. Well, I believed it. I wanted it, deeply, absolutely. I wasn’t all that certain what these rights were, or this freedom, but my assumption was that freedom was good and a right. My relationship with German got off to a good start. Not all of those involved in education in Ireland at that time, or those who taught languages, were necessarily influenced by Europe or actively look to Europe, or “the Continent” and many Irish people harboured a sense of national inferiority. With Sr du Sacré Coeur, Europe, it was implied, broadened the mind, connected us to other cultures, and gave girls like us a bit of “polish” in advance of the careers she saw us ascending to in the future.
By Intermediate Certificate year, a new, young, dark-haired teacher arrived, Miss Máire Ní Chonaire from Connemara. She spoke fluent German. Her modernity was striking in comparison to that of some of our other teachers. She arrived to the classroom with magazines like Freundin, anything to stimulate our sense of the world of things German. She initiated projects, and significantly, organised an exchange programme between our school and the Bayerischer Jugendring. The girls who were to go on this trip to Bavaria in July were matched with various families, letters written in advance, photos attached, as we attempted to tell one another a little about our lives prior to departure.
The trip was by sea and land: boat to Holyhead, train to Euston and on to Dover, boat to Le Havre, train from there to the far south of Germany. It was 1970. The excitement at Dun Laoghaire that July was wild. Two friends and myself travelled as a trio, along with others from our class. I was packed off in a new white, leather-look mini-coat and black Levis. My mother had insisted on tying my travellers’ cheques around my waist with a piece of string, such was her confidence in her eldest daughter. I carried a dark red handbag. The ship pulled out from Dun Laoghaire harbour and we waved goodbye. The harbour shrank back and I could see the hobbled rooftops, a church spire, little flecks of yachts, then the land shrank even more and there was the length of the Irish coast, including the city of Dublin in one direction, and the golden sands of Wicklow in the other. Lights came on, the coast now a shimmering mass of yellow. We rushed to the back of the boat to watch the trail of white, churned-up water. I automatically dangled my handbag out over the railings. “Look! Look!” I laughed giddily. Back we rushed inside to inspect our cabins. The night passed slowly.
In the morning as the boat docked at Holyhead, tiredness had finally set in. Yet by the time we transferred to our train, we were renewed. The train, we knew, had a bar and we were now free to purchase our first alcoholic drinks by ourselves, unsupervised. Cider and an egg and onion sandwich at nine a.m. I had not been abroad before. Even England, with whom we shared a language, seemed foreign. It was indescribably different, this place so highly regarded at home in Monaghan, with television accents that were half-revered, half-despised, accents that now surrounded us even on the train. On arrival at Euston in London, the first clear difference I noted between Ireland and the other, outer world, was the sight of black workers sweeping floors, cleaning toilets.
In this next section, readers will notice how my sense of the world is already expanding, even through the brief trip through England. One of those workers accidently dropped a piece of paper on the ground and, something I haven’t included below, I automatically picked it up and handed it to him. He seemed surprised. Anything outside Ireland pushed at the edges of local experience, began to make itself felt as a new and exciting demand that sometimes disturbed and sometimes enhanced.
I briefly observe these black workers in London. There is something very different going on here, something not found in Ireland, where people of colour are largely absent unless they are doctors in big hospitals. But these black people are everywhere, sweeping, cleaning up around the white Überclass. Then, on the train to Dover, I experience another England, green and beautiful, gardened and tended. Then the hops and fruit trees, acres and acres of them everywhere, and the odour of those hops wafting in the open windows of the train as we nose towards the cliffs of the south.
Only when we have boarded another train on the other side, only when we have reached “the Continent” do we realise the enormousness of the adventure. Everything is different, the houses with red roofs, the flat fields of part of Belgium, then the endless suburbs of northern Germany which hardly seem separated at all. We arrange our couchettes in the carriage and settle down to sleep. By dawn we awaken in time to see the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral flying by as the train hisses on, thrumming southwards. We laugh at the sight of “Continental quilts” hanging out bedroom windows to air, our first taste of Teutonic domestic diligence. Frequently, we glimpse the river Rhine, and already I am imagining, not for the first time, the Germany of the south, which will surely have romantic castles, beautiful rivers, the stuff of fairy tales. It has not dawned on me that just as the north of Germany is industrialized, highly modern and populous, so too the south is very much the Germany of the contemporary and the future, and that I have arrived in one of the most self-questioning countries in Europe, if not the world. Finally, the train stops at Augsburg, our final destination and our host families greet us. I am completely unprepared for the reality of Germany.
Forty-five years later I examine a group photograph taken with Familie Schmitz, the family that met me that day off the train. It was taken during a mountain-climbing weekend in Austria’s Zillertal. This family was accustomed to driving to various holiday destinations throughout Europe – Bulgaria, France, Denmark, Hungary, Austria, Italy – and I was impressed at the ease with which they negotiated such travel, which was unknown to most Irish people. The girl in the yellow blouse who carries a bunch of wild flowers is me. I am looking back towards the camera, one hand on hip, a long blonde pony-tail tied loosely. It is a well-arranged shot of a successful weekend outing, post-climb, when we have returned to the floor of the valley again. It is not the kind of photograph that we would have taken of ourselves in Ireland, haphazard and unarranged. My exchange partner Gabriella – more poised and posing than I – stands opposite. A year older, the chasm between German sophisticate and Irish naïf was considerable. She had self-confidence, I was awkward and shy. Slightly behind her are two aunts and three cousins, then, more towards the front of the photo Frau Schmitz herself, tanned and glamorous. We make an attractive grouping, colourful, smiling, the thick low-lying forests behind us. Beyond the conifers, the mountains from which we have just returned rise up displaying snowy summits even in summer. From my point of view the weekend has been complicated and I felt lonely and homesick, my period arrived unexpectedly, and I was tired, awkward, and out-of-sorts. But on the other hand all that remained was one, final week of this cultural trial, which had tested me so severely despite its obvious pleasures.
Familie Schmitz could not be more welcoming. Right from the moment they collect me at Augsburg train station it’s clear that they want to make everything as right as possible for their Irish visitor. They are patient with my faltering German, which they praise and encourage at every opportunity. Mostly, I feel gauche in Gabrielle’s presence. Everything about her is older, wiser, more street-wise. In her school, the students have a union, and she tells me that they protest against anything they feel is unfair. This is unimaginable to me, and I instantly admire the German system, which appears to acknowledge that by the age of sixteen or so, girls and boys are young adults. One thing which the European experience has undoubtedly taught Ireland is that adult, or near-adult citizens should be treated as such, and their life experiences mediated in an adult way, a way which respected privately considered decision-making. The family’s house is a spacious, ultra-modern one. I have my own room, with a television (a novelty in 1970). Every day, a bowl of fresh peaches is placed in my room. Cigarettes and a lighter are also left there at my disposal. I write long, amused letters home about this, regaling my parents and Nana about this bewildering, fascinating home. But I am homesick, and have reached a stage which I cannot overcome for many years, of being completely unable to reveal my distress to anybody, for fear of being thought to be childish or ridiculous. And so I write letters.
In author Aidan Mathews’ short story “Train Tracks” (from the collection Lipstick on the Host) the character Timmy becomes quite desperate in the bathroom of the German Familie Stern, when, after several flushings, the turd he has just passed refuses to glide away. Desperate to remove the offending object from the shallow bowl of the toilet, he takes a piece of train-track from his German pal’s bedroom and prods and pokes until the bowl is clear. Unable to clean the train track properly, he resorts to flinging it behind the raspberry bushes in the immaculate Stern garden, where, inevitably, it is later discovered by a frowning Herr Stern. When I read this story I empathized with Timmy, for many of the technicalities of the bathroom in the house defied my skill, whether operating the plug in the wash-hand basin or flushing the toilet until it was clean. Too proud and shy to ask how to remedy any of these minor problems, a full week passed before I figured out that pulling up the metal stopper behind the tap would lower the plug. I’d spent the first week washing myself by letting the water run and run. The mysteries of the ultra-modern shower were beyond me. Such episodes showed a technological wizardry at work in the new Germany (and by association, in Europe) that was still decades beyond us at home, it seemed.
The Schmitz parents, Josef and Helga, had made good in the twenty-five years since the end of the World War II. He was the largest distributor of cigarette vending machines in Bavaria, having begun his trade by literally selling cigarettes from a stall on the side of the streets of Munich. Smoking and everything to do with it was their life. Both parents smoked and Gabriella also smoked. The business had built and built. By now, they were wealthy and proud of it. A warm-hearted, generous family, they opened their arms to me and puzzled over my Irishness, at times perplexed by my extreme shyness.
On top of homesickness I was startled by a number of things. Josef Schmitz sometimes lay sprawled out in immaculate white underpants on the leather sofa of the split-level living-room, smoking and drinking beer. Occasionally, he lost his temper with his son Manfred, usually over something inconsequential. His temper tantrums were volcanic, unlike anything I had hitherto heard. My own father was gentle and had never directed the slightest ill-humour towards either me or my sister. Josef Schmitz’s first outburst terrified me. I sat perfectly still as he raged at his son who had, apparently, broken the new stereo. I felt the boy’s humiliation. Anna Schmitz signalled to Gabrielle and me to leave the room, and we withdrew to the kitchen, leaving Josef to rant, rage, and scream for a further five minutes.
Everything European was valued by many Irish people at that time, although not by all, who bleated often on archival news clips which may still be viewed, about “losing our values and traditions”. Many people used “customs” as a means of obscuring the possibility of progress, in particular the progress of ideas and pluralist thinking. But as a young woman, I couldn’t wait to lose our values and traditions, couldn’t wait to discover the many things I did not know about the world but which, surely, would be found on the mainland of Europe. I experienced no threat to our local, island, Celtic habitat, which, if it was like all the other European countries in the EEC, would undoubtedly retain its own customs and traditions while at the same time benefitting from the immersion in the Benelux countries in particular.
Ireland was on the brink of joining the EEC, grandparent to the current EU, and we Irish lived in a state of continuous self-assessment and comparison. It was a different kind of self-assessment to that undergone by the Germans. For one thing, we didn’t experience a state of war-guilt that transfixed many German people on account of the events of World War II; we were not responsible for having murdered six and a half million Jews, plus a fair sprinkling of gypsies, Catholics, and homosexuals, nor did everybody laugh at our gruff, order-giving voices. In comparison, we seemed undisciplined to outsiders, semi-Leprechauns fond of a pint; we were perceived as having “Top o’ de mornin” accents, and inhabited a land of meandering roads, with huge tracts of green between small town and small town. We had hills and mountains, none of them like the Sound of Music mountains of Austria the Schmitzs brought me to; we had lakes and rivers. Not even the Boyne or the Liffey seemed to have the robust swell of the river Lech that coursed and pulsed through Landsberg. Instead of living in permanent guilt, we lived still in permanent apologetic mode, apologizing to the rest of the world for not being good enough, for not having the right accent, the right clothes, the right levels of efficiency and the smartness of our “betters” in more industrialized places. What a long journey we had to make towards self-reliance and a sense of collective self-worth. We have still not arrived, but then perhaps, who does, really? What nation ever gets it quite right?
We too had old buildings, but nobody honoured them the way the Germans honoured their old (and preserved) buildings, and we had mostly not been taught to value what remained to us after the departure of the English, but to feel slightly ashamed. The old castles and mansions of the gentry had either been destroyed or left to crumble. They represented everything nationalists and literal-minded people wanted to forget. I expected to find lots of castles in Germany, rather like Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. But somehow, I never quite located the fairy tale romance of the Germany I expected. Instead I was dropped into a highly modern environment of whirring machinery, car-washes, bookshops with uncensored walls of fiction and lurid covers, and also into a nation in which Gastarbeiter now did the work which Germans no longer needed to do. Everything was prosperous, the elements of peasantry long dispensed with – either dead or forgotten – unlike in Ireland, where one or two generations back many Irish families were not far removed from peasantry, open labour, small farming, and the struggle to educate over-large families that were over-influenced by Catholic dogma.
The family brought me to Schloss Linderhof, built by the mentally fragile King Ludwig II. For the rest of my life this place haunted me with its magic. It was the one place in which I recognized the romantic dream, especially in the fake caves and grottos he once built, with shell boats and gentle, green-tinged shallow lake waters and, later, influenced a passage of my novel The Elysium Testament (1999). Inside the castle was a replica of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and a replica of the bedroom of Louis IV, gilded and glorious. We visited the Benedictine monastery of Ettal, as well as spending a day at the Oberammergau Passionsspiel. That interested me. So too did the swallows which flitted and dived constantly across the open-air stage, up and down the auditorium as the actors enacted the story of the Passion. Gradually, I absorbed the frescos of the villages and towns, gradually I came to love the tumbling geraniums on window-ledges, the green southern ease of Bavaria, the sense of calm order that many families there seemed to experience as they enjoyed themselves by properly equipped lakesides, as they went boating, swimming, mountain-climbing. It was a very active culture, with the kind of weather that made such activity possible.
A year and a half later, in autumn, Herr Schmitz died suddenly and shockingly from a massive heart attack. Looking back, undiagnosed heart disease may also have accounted for his explosive moods. He was not well and possibly had not felt well either. The Tabakwaren vending machine business survived and has diversified and is still run by his son. Gabriella has been twice married and twice divorced and is unhappy and cynical. But to me, then, they seemed to have everything that would make life rich and worthwhile. And just as I could not foretell the future of this family, so too can none of us foretell the future of Europe, and how it will unfold. I am an Irish citizen but also a European citizen. I have felt the difference in my life that being part of Europe has made, both legislatively and economically and in terms of a broadening of attitudes. The key to Europe, I believe, is respect for difference. Without that, we are nothing. Without that basic respect, Ireland suffered because of its indivisible State and Church relationship, which ultimately punished many innocent people in ways which are now well-documented, also pressuring many to pour towards England to become England’s Gastarbeiter, building roads and erecting buildings in Manchester, Birmingham, and London.
Once, I asked my mother in some frustration at the age of eleven, why we couldn’t see into the future. I was in high excitement about something that was coming up – holidays or Christmas, I cannot remember.
“But I want to know what’s going to happen!” I insisted.
“You can’t,” she replied calmly, glancing at me from above her reading-glasses.
“But why not? I know what happened last week and I know what’s happening Now. Why can’t we see into the future?” I yammered on.
“Because,” came the unsatisfactory reply.
“Because, Mary, if we could see into the future, if we knew what lay ahead, we would have no hope.”
I recognised this as a profundity of some kind, although I couldn’t quite grasp it. How could it be possible not to have hope, I puzzled silently.
“But I have hope,” I said, determined to push the conversation on.
“Does that mean you haven’t any hope left?”
“I have enough,” she said uncertainly, putting the newspaper down and staring out the window, “but if I knew the future I might run out of it. I’d know everything, including the sad things ahead, and what would I do then, knowing I had to face all that?”
Although I could see the logic of this, it did not really mean a lot. It was impossible to conceive of the idea that there might be a high stack of dark experiences ahead of me in the future, in fact it seemed ludicrous. Every young person believes – indeed knows – that their future is to be the brightest and most flawless, that somehow everything is going to work out better for them than for most other people before.
“Anyway,” my mother took up the thread again, “you think you know the Now as if it’s here. But it’s not. It had already gone into the past, as soon as you said the word Now!”
That made sense to me. I had to admit defeat in the face of my mother’s brilliant philosophy. For a woman who avoided analyzing anything very much, she was so right.