My Family and Other Immigrants

(Mixing Memory and Desire)

The other day I heard someone say that one should treat all recollections with suspicion.

In 1892, nineteen-year old Adolf Ondruš, travelled from his native Brno in Bohemia to Zagreb. In this town of 80 000 inhabitants, the capital of the autonomous province of Croatia, the Austro-Hungarian authorities were building a national theatre and Adolph, a newly-qualified upholsterer, was one of the army of craftsmen who descended on Agram, as it was known in German. He spent the next three years cutting plush red velvet and making cushions for elaborately carved, gold-painted chairs and furnishing padded wall decorations in the theatre boxes lining the auditorium. The building, which still stands in its neo-baroque opulence and mustard-coloured facade, was designed by a duo of fashionable Viennese architects and opened officially by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1895.

Adolph never returned to his native land and died in Zagreb in 1964, aged ninety-two. Like many subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Adolph grew up bilingual, equally at ease in his native Czech and German, the lingua franca of Central Europe at the time. A few years after arriving in Zagreb, he married a local woman. He had learned Croatian but at home the family spoke mostly German. They had three children: the eldest was their only daughter, my grandmother Maria, born in 1898.

Although not religious, Adolph was guided by the Protestant ethic of hard work and careful husbandry throughout his life. The small upholstery workshop he opened as soon as the theatre job finished, lacked no customers and very quickly the business prospered. Adolph bought properties around the town and was considered wealthy. However, when it came to his personal needs, he remained frugal: my father used to say that when he was a child, opapa would take him to the cinema and they always bought the cheapest tickets.

I remember my great grand-father as an old man, his soft smile belying a commanding voice and strong opinions. Dressed in a dark jacket and tie, he would sit in a large armchair, his aged frame rigidly upright, his eyes darting around the room. When he spoke, he would lift his walking cane. He dispensed his views freely on whatever topic was under discussion. His son-in-law, a socialist, often clashed with him. Even as a young child, I was aware of opapa’s unusual accent. He was strange. He was different. His surname wasn’t Croatian. I knew that he had come from another country. At school, I had absorbed the official ideology of patriotism. Too young to question the need to belong and to love one’s country unconditionally, I was puzzled by this old relative who was born in another place but who didn’t return not even to visit. He never talked about his place of birth. Wasn’t he homesick? Once I asked him whether he missed his country and he said he didn’t know what his country was. He didn’t think he had one. He had been a subject and then a citizen of several different states and therefore his nationality, changed so many times, did not mean anything. ‘You belong to where you choose to belong,’ he said. ‘I’ve made my life here, with my work and the family I have created.’ My young, naïve brain couldn’t process that. For me, belonging was a given. It was a question of where you were born. Choice didn’t come into it. Not belonging was both confusing and scary. Adolph said: ‘I’m your opapa. But not Czech, or German or Croatian. Nationality comes and goes.’

When Adolph arrived in Zagreb, he was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1918, he became a subject of the newly-formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929, Adolph became a subject of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1941, he was a citizen of the Independent State of Croatia. In 1945 he became a citizen of Yugoslavia.

Many years passed before I learned that those labels of national identity were just that: labels. Of necessity they were transitory, irrelevant fantasies, arbitrarily liable to the whims of power and politics.


In history books, 1914 is marked by social and political tensions: different tribes, for centuries subjected to the authoritarian rule of the Habsburgs, are forging their identity and demanding autonomy. The Empire is on the verge of collapse and within just a few years it will be parcelled into nation states. But when Maria talks to me about that period, she makes no reference to what was happening on the public stage. The focus of her memory is on the visit of Circo del Mondo to Zagreb in late April, two months before Gavrilo Princip assassinates Franz Ferdinand and triggers the First World War.

She is sixteen and a student at the arts and crafts course, a compromise on her part, I learned. To her parents, her dreams of becoming a painter sound improper. A daughter from a respected bourgeois family in Mitteleuropa must conform to established conventions of behaviour.

While preserving the appearance of propriety, Maria finds a degree of freedom. Most days after classes she climbs the promontory above the town. I picture her tall, slim figure wearing what became her trademark style, a dress in dark navy or chocolate brown, sometimes with polka dots, and with a revere collar in white silk, lace for special occasions, rushing up the hill to the Old Town, her block heel shoes bashing the rickety wooden steps by the funicular. Like an elegant phantom, she breezes through the medieval streets of the upper part of Zagreb. Once the houses peter out, Maria makes a bee line for her usual spot in the meadow and there she gazes into the distance, above the red tiled roofs and towards the horizon. Her dreams take her to faraway places and she imagines extraordinary encounters. She envisages a life where no one knows her and where she is free to choose who she wants to be.

‘I understood that there was something wrong with the world at large but also perhaps with me. I dreamt of an imaginary homeland,’ she said.

To the world at large, she is a happy young woman, a touch self-reflective but certainly neither anxious nor troubled. My future grandfather, Francis, who had known her by sight from childhood, said that in her teens she had become reserved, distant, maybe even melancholy. When he passed her on the street, he had a feeling that she didn’t recognize him. His sisters thought it was typical of ‘the rich girl to be so haughty not to acknowledge a man from a poor family’. Violet, the eldest, would remind him that they ‘used to play hopscotch with her’, but he had no memory of that.

Francis is pleased to see this beautiful woman even from a distance and if her demeanour doesn’t encourage more than a cursory greeting on his part, which more often than not remains unacknowledged, he accepts that as his lot. She has it all. He has nothing.

When she dies, Francis realises that it was ‘her dreams that made her oblivious to the rest of the world.’

On that particular afternoon in late April or early May, Maria and her fellow students are dismissed early. They are to work on their designs for the end of year project. The girls whisper about a planned rendez-vous in a café, but Maria slips out before they can ask her to join them. Minutes later, she is skipping up the rickety, wooden steps by the funicular, brushing past the people descending from the upper town and almost bumping into an elderly gentleman, a friend of her father’s, who has already paused and is about to raise his hat in greeting, but instead is left dumbfounded by the flight of this strange Ondruš girl, so much so that he drops his walking stick. He shakes his head more out of confusion than disapproval and makes a mental note that next time he runs into Adolf, he will…he will…yes, he will speak to him, say what he has meant to say for some time. Better still, he won’t wait to run into Adolph; that might take a few months. Agram is not a big town, but Adolph works long hours and hardly ever pops into cafés. The older his friend gets, the richer he is and yet he appears more worried about money. The last time they met for coffee, almost a year ago, Adolph complained about the price of everything. He wouldn’t take a fiacre but walked back despite the rain and his bad leg. Why is he working so hard? The boys will soon be ready to take over. As for the girl, she is bound to make a good marriage. There won’t be a shortage of eager suitors. Now Mr Wagner is gripped by a sudden sense of anxiety. Time’s passing and he is still alone. Yes, he is rich, but the girl is beautiful; stunningly beautiful and he’s old, old in her eyes. He is only a couple of years younger than her father.

Nothing explicit had been said between him and Adolph. His friend is a liberal man, too liberal. He wouldn’t impose his will. Or at least that is what Mr Wagner, the man with a walking stick, assumes. His gaze is still fixed on the direction in which Maria disappeared. But Adolph must know that he, Mr Wagner, Gustav, or Gustl, as he is known to his friend, would consider it an honour to marry Maria and he would do everything in his power to make her happy. More than once Mr Wagner has intimated that he was keen to find a wife, a wife young enough to give him an heir, and more than once has he mentioned in Adolph’s presence that whoever marries Maria would be a lucky man. He hoped he was making his meaning clear but he is no longer sure that he still believes in what he said so many times. Seeing her now, and it’s not the first time he has observed her strange behaviour, makes him think that her husband would have quite a job on his hands to keep her in check and make sure she doesn’t shame him. The possessed look in her eyes. There is something almost wild about Maria. How is it that a respectable family, like the Ondrušes, could have a daughter so different from anyone else of her social circle? And yet, if he stood a chance, he wouldn’t hesitate to make her his wife; for her, he would overlook anything. God knows he would spare no effort, no money, to make her his, if only… if only he stood a chance. Mr Wagner picks up his stick and makes his way to the lower town; his resolution to go straight to Adolph’s workshop and take him out for a drink to assess his chances is waning with every step.

Maria reaches the meadow and sits with her back against the solitary poplar, legs stretched out, her portfolio of sketches thrown on the grass beside her. She stares into the distance, above the red tiled roofs of the houses and the spires of the churches. There is no one around. Except for the buzzing of bees, nothing can be heard. A few butterflies dance around the wildflowers.

Maria is a reader. Croatian literature of the period is marked by nationalistic and anti-Austro-Hungarian sentiments. More suited to her temperament would have been something like ‘Rainbow’, a story by Dinko Šimunović, which had appeared a few years earlier in a magazine dedicated to contemporary Croatian writing. Brunhilda, the ten-year old heroine of the story, envies the freedom boys enjoy. When she hears a folk tale where a girl reaching under a rainbow turns into a boy, she runs and runs towards the rainbow and eventually drowns in a swamp. Even if Maria had not known the story at the time, many years later, she gave me a collection that contained it. She might have seen her younger self in the protagonist as she too was running away over the horizon, but only in her dreams, sitting on the meadow, her back pressed against the poplar.

Maria carries a watch, a gold-chained, porcelain-faced watch (after her death, I inherit the watch and who knows what other dreams), given to her for her sixteenth birthday but she isn’t in the habit of checking the time.

A shadow falls upon the open book in her lap, in the margins of her vision. Gradually, she becomes aware of someone’s presence and turns towards it. In front of her stands a tall, thin figure in black tails and a top hat. Where has he come from? He takes a deep bow and raises his hat in greeting.

‘Fabrizzio, my name is Fabrizzio,’ he says as he offers his hand.  

Fabrizzio? To her teenage ears, not used to foreign names, it sounds magical. She looks into his eyes. The name smells of faraway places.

He sits on the ground, next to her, stretches out his legs. She sees his pointed, black shoes. Immaculate. Not a crease in the leather. How can they shine so brightly? He has walked through the grass.

They speak. Maria has no memory of what is said nor which language they use.

Perhaps they achieve the sublime connection in reticence, the eloquent tranquillity of two people who do not need to share a language.

When I suggested that, she shrugged: ‘Maybe. As to what was said, perhaps we told each other stories. What else do people say to each other?’

Or was it a silent conversation? Felt but not spoken.

His hand hovers over hers. The tiny hairs on her skin wake up. His hand is cold, unusually cold. He runs the tips of his bony fingers along her hands and up her arms, tracing their shape, like a blind person trying to identify an object by touching or a sculptor checking the smoothness of their creation.

She watches him as he walks away, his back upright as a dancer’s, feet barely touching the ground.

That evening at the show, I imagine, he is a light speck under the dome of the marquee, a golden speck, like a star against the inky-coloured canvas. It descends, flies above the heads of the audience, its breeze ruffling people’s hair. Fabrizzio’s wings slice the air. Swish. Swish. On and on, round and round he goes. The heads of the audience are thrown back, their necks rigid with admiration. Mouths gape. Time stops.  

No one can tell when the act finishes. For a while they sit motionless. When they file out, the faces are serious, mouths closed, minds preoccupied with the spectacle they have witnessed.

‘Who is the flying man?’ somebody asks.

‘Did you notice, he had no harness, nothing to tie him? It wasn’t a trick.’

‘No, nothing tied him down.’

‘A traveller, a Gypsy, these trapeze artists sooner or later crash down.’

‘I don’t think he was real. Not real like you and me.’

A clown tumbles in front of Maria. A note slips into her hand.
At midnight, when the house is quiet, Maria tiptoes out and makes her way to the meadow. She wears a cloak and a hood against the night breeze. A tall, thin figure with a top hat is silhouetted against the sky.

He puts his left arm around her waist and they take off, drawing circles in the air above the town, round and round the cathedral spires, and then spreading their invisible wings further and further, taking in places whose names she remembers tracing in her atlas, wondering what they were like.

She glances at Fabrizzio. How does he manage to keep his top hat on despite the breeze?

Towns flicker in and out of existence. Seas glisten under the moonshine. Snow covered mountains are just an arm’s length away. Lands are bathed in sunshine, others in complete darkness.

The beauty of life makes her feels dizzy. Fabrizzio whispers into her ear and she smiles.

Dawn breaks when they land.

She walks home and thinks that everything is possible.

A few hours later, Circo del Mondo leaves the town.

And Maria? What does she do?

The family story was that she had secretly arranged to join the circus and Adolph – how did he get wind of it? Had Mr Wagner told him? Had he been snooping around, the old busybody? – stopped her at the last minute.

Throughout my childhood, at family celebrations, someone would say, usually for the benefit of my brother and me, the only children at the table, ‘your granny was a wild young thing; did you know that she wanted to run away with a circus?’ To maintain the party mood, we feigned surprise. Maria smiled silently as she presided over the table or stood up to get a dish from the kitchen. What alternative was there to playing the role of an old woman distanced from what others would see as the follies of her youth?

I thought running away with a circus sounded exciting and once, to everyone’s amusement, I said that I’d like to do the same. Maria didn’t comment. She had already recognised in me that same longing for elsewhere, the desire to cut the ties that bind you.

Let me get back to the morning after. Maria leaves the family home early, in her satchel a few photographs of her parents and her brothers, and a poetry book by Matoš, a recently deceased Croatian writer. She walks across a field towards Circo del Mondo, where the marquee has already been taken down and rolled up, ready for transport. Her legs brush against red poppies. Through the morning mist, she sees the blurred shapes of carriages and hears the horses neighing as they are reined in. Dew penetrates her shoes. Her heart beats fast. Most people live and die in the world of their parents, she says to herself, but I have to live in a world of my own. She is about to take off, riding with Fabrizzio in his horse-driven carriage. Excitement prevents her from regret at what she is leaving behind. As she would say to me one day many years later, ‘we part from people so that we can meet new ones. No point looking back.’

And then someone stands in front of her. She recognises the striped grey suit.

‘Maria, my daughter, my love,’ he says softly. ‘I’m pleased to see you taking an early morning stroll through the fields. Fresh air clears the mind. Sets you up for the day. I like to do the same. May I join you?’

And with that, Adolph offers his arm to his only daughter and she takes it. They walk off in the direction opposite to that about to be taken by the departing circus.

Nothing of importance is said.

Mr Wagner sees the opportunity to advance his situation or perhaps Adolph encourages him by being more welcoming than before. It’s possible that he even invites him around. Maria is polite but reserved in his company.

Two years after the visit by Circo del’ Mondo, Adolph decides to speak openly. He and his wife tell Maria that Mr Wagner has asked for her hand in marriage. She says no. She is not ready. The same conversation takes place a year later. Adolph thinks he has been patient enough. He can see that Maria does not wish to get married at all. But she surprises him and says that there is someone else.

But there is no one else.

‘Who?’ they ask. She says she will tell them in her own time.
Another year passes. Adolph speaks to his daughter. He has been patient enough. She has to tell him: ‘Is there anyone else?’

‘Yes,’ she says.

Adolph stares at her. He wants to know more.

‘He is a soldier,’ Maria says. ‘He is a soldier serving the Emperor.’

If he is serving the Emperor, he is worth waiting for.

When the war finishes, Francis comes back and starts his first job as a print-setter for a publisher. On his days off, he helps a friend who has recently opened a shop printing greeting cards, invitations, certificates and the like. Maria passes by the shop every day and when she sees Francis at the counter, she walks in and asks to see samples for some visiting cards for her father.

Francis does not know whether she remembers him and wonders whether he should say something, refer to that game of hopscotch that he has no recollection of but Violet keeps mentioning. But he doesn’t need to say anything. Maria is particular about choosing the design for the cards and takes her time making a decision. He wants her to stay longer, even though he feels nervous in her presence. He watches her elegant hands as they produce a miniature drawing of a curtain and an armchair that she would like reproduced on the cards. She will leave the drawing with them.

‘Yes, of course, we can do that,’ Francis says and thinks how he might try to keep the drawing once they have copied it. That is, if she doesn’t ask to have it returned.

When all is settled and paid, she looks him in the eye. She is smiling, at ease with herself when she says:’ You’re Francis. We used to live near you when we were children. You have three older sisters. And a brother.’

Now he doesn’t know what to say except ‘yes, Violet and’ – and, stupidly, he cannot remember the names of the other two. Later, he will be ashamed and think what Mimi and Steffi would say if they knew he had forgotten their names because a rich girl talked to him.

He will make sure he is at the counter when the cards are ready in a week’s time. But what if Maria sends someone to collect them? Perhaps he should offer to deliver them to her?

He worries unnecessarily. Maria says:

‘You are a printer. You may be interested in seeing the exhibition of our final year projects. I could take you to see them this Wednesday afternoon.’

He is drained of energy and nods faintly. He wishes he could retreat to the back of the shop and regain his composure but he cannot think of an excuse to do that. She doesn’t seem to notice his discomfort and says she will wait for him in the lobby of the school, the day after tomorrow.

But why? Why does this beautiful woman, this rich young woman want to see him? Why him? Is she not engaged? Violet told him that Mr Wagner, the old bachelor, rich as Croesus, was a frequent visitor to the Ondruš household. Everyone knows he has his eyes set on Maria. Is she trying to make the old man jealous?

Such questions soon become irrelevant. Things happen. Maria and Francis are married a few months later. ‘The impatience of the entitled,’ Violet says but Francis pretends he neither hears nor understands. He is happy or at least that’s what he says to himself.

Mr Wagner sends a generous gift to the couple.

Francis continues to work in printing. Sundays are spent on trips to the countryside with the families of his friends from the printers’ trade union. There are photographs taken on those days, all in shades of brown. Some of them show the son of Maria and Francis, my father, at four, five, six and seven, always in his sailor suit, standing in front of his parents, who are seated in the first row of the adults.

I look at the serious faces of people crowded together, often in their Sunday best; men, in suits and ties, outnumber the women. They are not smiling; posing for the photographer, who takes time to prepare his bulky camera resting on a tripod before he hides under the blanket, is a serious business. But Maria’s face stands out; her gaze is distant, her thoughts are elsewhere. Francis sits next to her, her beloved son stands in front of them. She doesn’t belong to that group of people, not because she is more beautiful than anyone else, but because her melancholy builds a wall between her and them.

Some of the photographs show Francis sitting on the floor in front of a table, flanked by a couple of mates, their ties loose, top buttons on their shirts undone, each holding a glass and a bottle, their eyes blurred, staring into nowhere. He drinks every day and then there comes a time when as soon as he is paid, he invites everyone from work for a drink. Often, he takes no money home. Maria does not complain. She plays the role she has chosen. She says Francis is a kind man. Always ready to help everyone. Dedicated to improving workers’ rights. She doesn’t mind that he drinks or at least she doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she thinks of how kind he was to her years before. How ready he was to respond to her every suggestion. How he loved her. And still does. Her equanimity keeps her sane.

Sewing orders arrive from her brothers’ shop. Every day a porter takes a parcel of finished goods away. Curtains and soft furnishings, armchair covers, that sort of thing. She is pleased she can use her skills with the sewing machine. Some orders allow her to be creative. She was right to learn a craft. No vicissitude of fortune can perturb her. Where does her strength come from?

Family life carries on, and in style. They have a maid; her son attends the town’s best private school and takes music lessons, plays the violin. She has nothing to complain about. Only those who have no power of the mind complain, she thinks.

She has no regrets about the past but sometimes, just sometimes, maybe once every few years, it amuses her to wonder which role she would have chosen had she fled with the circus: a juggler, a horse rider, a dancer? No. She knows she would have been a tight-rope walker. She possesses a talent, a natural ability to balance and negotiate, to keep her head up when whatever forces try to knock her down. Yes, she would have been a tight-rope walker. She admires their awful tenacity. The staying power to walk tall and live.

In her everyday life, she carries on sewing, sewing for money and sewing for herself and her son. Later, she sews clothes for her grandchildren. She makes clothes for my dolls too, sheets and quilts for their toy beds. As a child I watch as she works with an absent-minded precision that I have never noticed in anyone else.

She bakes cakes and pastries. Her hands caress the dough as if it were a lover. Oblivious to the world.

She bakes. More than we can eat. Why does she bake so much? People ask but she has no answer. ‘Hospitality,’ Francis says. ‘Your grandma is a kind and generous person.’

When I grow up, I start baking. Baking for the sake of baking. Unhappy, I bake.  

Perhaps I bake for love.

Life goes on in its time-old, unmomentuous fashion, children growing up and they in turn having children and everyone getting older. But then Maria has a stroke and is taken to hospital. I visit her and think her body looks smaller than I remember. A few days later, she is even smaller. When she sees me, she sits up. She asks me to open the book by her bedside. It’s a large volume, with the title La Filosofia dell’ acrobatica.  She searches through the text and points out a sentence that someone has underlined in pencil:

‘Solo la mente piu vincere la forza di gravita.’

I am studying Latin at school and it helps me understand the Italian. I say it aloud. The words sound beautiful.

Grandma Maria says: ‘I heard this from someone when I was young. An acrobat. Remember the sentence. You may choose to be guided by it.’

And I do. The words carry an illusion in which I can indulge all the more readily: subvert the necessity. Dream.

She is tiny, like a child’s doll. She looks happier than ever before. When I think back to that day, I can see that there was no fear in her of dying.

I am still there when she says she is tired and falls asleep. I tiptoe out of the room, casting a glance at her tiny form, almost imperceptible under the covers. Next day, they tell me that grandmother is not well enough to receive anyone. I never see her again.

On the day of the funeral, it rains heavily in the morning then the sun comes out and, as we gather in the funeral parlour, I see a rainbow over the horizon. I hear Francis’ sister Violet whispering to someone that Maria became smaller and smaller until she eventually disappeared. I think the great aunt is speaking metaphorically.

Or perhaps not. I have a vague memory of the day years later when my brother and I are tidying up our deceased parents’ home, we find the following press cutting:

A woman, 69, died yesterday of a mysterious illness. Doctors at the Central Medical Research Institute could offer no explanation for her condition which made her visibly diminish in size over a period of the three weeks that she spent in hospital, following a stroke. The woman, originally of above average stature, 173 cm, gradually shrank to two centimetres before eventually disappearing. She did not complain of any pain or discomfort, apart from having to deal with the family and medical staff whose reactions to her changing physical shape she found, as she put it just before she disappeared, ‘thoroughly annoying’.

There was also something about a press conference held at the Institute and the relatives seeking legal advice about a lost body case, but I do not remember the details. I am not a perverter of truth and therefore I admit ignorance on that.
But the real question is the one Maria asked: How did Fabrizzio manage to keep his top hat on, despite the breeze, when they flew over the city?


By the time I was in my early teens and started visiting the Croatian National Theatre, Adolph’s handiwork had been destroyed by wear and tear and the seats had been newly upholstered. And yet, each time I sat in the gilded, baroque auditorium on a seat covered in plush, red velvet, I wondered what had made him uproot and start his life so far away from his birth place in a country with a different language that he was yet to learn. Maria was sure the job was only a pretext. As I learned in my own youth, you need a pretext, a credible pretext to subvert the necessity. She pointed out that he never returned for a visit and had not even maintained any links with the place of his birth. Attachment to it was not part of his sentiment. She would remind me of his maxim that ‘countries come and go’.

I can only speculate on what motivated the young upholsterer to build his life elsewhere. The realisation that ‘countries come and go’, that they are not part of who we are, might have come later, at the end of Adolph’s life. It could have been that his wanderlust was stronger than his patriotism. I cannot tell.

Perhaps Maria’s dreams and my own restlessness, which led me to fashion my life and identity in a culture and language different from the ones into which I was born, come from Adolph. Perhaps, the three of us are members of that category of people who are born migrants, exiles by temperament, déracinés in our essence, the kind of people who pretend to belong to a different nation from the one we were born into, or better still, wish that we belonged to none at all. We who are strangers and foreigners at the same time, the term Iago uses in a derogative fashion to diminish Othello. Adolph, Maria and me. But perhaps I am trying to construct a narrative here to make sense of my own feelings. Feelings and failings.

It is possible that Adolph’s search for a job really was his excuse, an external factor that he could offer to others who needed to explain his departure to themselves. I used my studies for the same purpose. I had to study Shakespeare in the land of his birth; therefore, I had to leave Zagreb. We both used aleatory antics to satisfy our longings. But what prospects existed for Maria? The Habsburg Empire, like Europe now, offered possibilities for people to move around for work between different nation states but when it collapsed, formally delineated borders forced a more parochial existence. Unlike my great grandfather and me, who had experienced that wonderful sensation of being from another place, Maria, alas, only travelled in her dreams.

I loved Maria. Unlike any other person I knew as a child, she illuminated the world.

She too, like Adolph and I, was an immigrant. But unlike us, geographical immigrants, she was an immigrant of the soul. An immigrant by temperament.

My great grandfather had an accent in Croatian. A marker of his foreignness. His Czech, I imagine, would have been rusty. I don’t know about his German. But I do know that I have an accent in every language I speak. I sound foreign in Croatian. I sound foreign in French. I sound foreign in English.

Once an immigrant, always an immigrant.
I used to have my grandmother’s tram pass. A photograph in tones of grey showed a young woman with a long plait over her left shoulder. She was looking straight into the camera, her eyes full of longing. Tiny smile dimples flanked her mouth, the dimples I inherited from her. I carried the pass in my purse but one day, on the London underground, a young man opened my bag and took out the purse. People behind me shouted and someone set off in chase but they didn’t catch him. As pickpockets do, he took the money and discarded the rest. I know that because the credit cards I reported missing were recovered but not the tram pass. What happened to it? Had he kept the pass with the photograph of my grandmother as a beautiful young woman?

Author Photo by Chris Gilbert


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