A frank story. part 4 (love and marriage)
Frank’s story: part 4
From Italy’s Bressanone back to Sydney.
After some train changing and waiting for connections I arrived at Bressanone and with the address of the chalet on me I must have found my way up there. Perhaps by taxi or perhaps Bernard picked me up and we walked up. Perhaps even by bus because the chalet was high up and well above the winter’s snow-line. Being July, the weather was sunny with thunderstorms almost every afternoon according to Bernard, who greeted me in his rather subdued and calm manner. The chalet was everything and more as described, sparkling white washed bagged stone exterior with some ornate overhanging gables and carved wood fascias. It had running water and cooking on bottled gas. The setting was well above the village and surrounded by green paddocks with a mixed pine and birch tree forest behind us and sloping upwards to a mountain peak. The thunderstorms that Bernard had mentioned were often below the chalet and dramatic. After settling in we soon had our chess game on the way and since the extensive and intensive chess experiences and games with the uncle in Amsterdam I had progressed sufficiently to now play without handicap. Bernard was still beating me, but I was edging closer!
The owner of the chalet, Frau Johnson who, according to Bernard had extensive land holdings, was also living during the summers in Bressanone. She used to visit us and as she did not speak English we made do very well in German. The Dutch high school, well before our family’s migration to Australia in 1956, had given me a good grounding in English, French and German. She had noticed that our cooking was mainly very simple fare. Often just pancakes fried in lard with Bernard’s fear of anything foreign, this, from memory seemed to be our main meal. Breakfasts and lunches were cornflakes and sandwiches. Bernard was pining for Australian vegemite!
It was then, that I bought some art material and started doodling with water colours again, much encouraged by Bernard. To do just more than sit around was also a way for Bernard to give himself time to concentrate on his writings. These were idyllic times with painting now becoming the focus of a future as a possible artist. Nothing was strange or unachievable and Bernard impressed on me that being an artist is perfectly normal and perhaps the only way to find some peace within. The biggest dilemma, according to Bernard, was how to make a living in order to express oneself in artistic creation but which did not always guaranteed a steady income. The way out for him in the past, had been to work as a tour guide and with his knowledge of languages he found it relatively easy to get temporary work. He suggested I could also possibly do the same. In Australia of course both of us had worked together for several employers doing house painting, pubs and other buildings. None of us had contemplated going back, but the idea that Bernard came up with was to start a possible painting business back in Australia, and make enough money to do whatever we felt like. In his case writing and I would paint paintings. While in Australia, before my return trip to Holland, I had done a few courses in art, including joining the prestigious Mary White Art School whose teachers at the time were John Olsen, Colin Lanceley from NZ and the sculptor Robert Klippel. Also, while in Bankstown I did an excruciatingly traditional painting course in oils. You know, starting with the blue sky and then lighting up the colour to create distance, high-lighting with Yellow ochre the dappled effect on the trunks of those sturdy snow gums, a la Hans Heysen.
The idea of returning to Australia was re-enforced by the experiences in Holland, where the connection with the past had failed, and the job in the bank wearing a suit each day had not been as exciting as anticipated. I also lacked the daily contact with my family and friends back in Australia. I simply missed them. The old school friends in Holland that I did revisit during the beginning had certainly proven that going back to things of the past never work out. The friends had changed, or perhaps they hadn’t but I had. In any case, after visiting them in The Hague, the television was switched on within ten minutes of my arrival. Some re-union! One dear friend had married and with two children was hardly recognizable from those years before. Marital tension was throbbing throughout the day that I spent with them. On saying goodbye, he sadly offered me the advice; ‘don’t ever get married’.
Finally, the ideas of returning to Australia had been bedded down in my mind but had to be put into action so we decided to contact Thomas Cook in Rome in order to book return tickets by boat. I think it was going to be the Flotta Lauro sister ship, the Roma. We wrote a few times, but true to Italian tradition at the time, our letters were not replied to or acknowledged. By that time summer had reached its peak and August had announced itself. The thunderstorms were increasing in intensity and at time there were electrical black-outs as well. In the meantime the news from Holland included that my ex chess-master uncle had died suddenly and that my aunt was coming over to stay in our part of Italy together with a far away distant niece or cousin. They had managed to get accommodation in a large farm house or ‘gasthof’ within walking distance of our chalet.
It seems that for poor uncle, neither the chilli sambal nor the speculaas biscuit were of any help, death stalked him mercilessly, without even having the generosity of giving a dying man a chess game win. I wondered if he kept blaming his ex-wife until the very end.
One afternoon, we decided to follow Frau Johnson’s advice and look for mushrooms. The mushroom season apparently had arrived and none too soon. The pancakes cooked on lard with the occasional diversion into boiled potatoes with some mince patties was getting to me. Bernard was somewhat indifferent towards mushrooms. I loved them, especially the kind that was growing wild in that part of the mountains. They were Funghi Canterelli; you know those mushrooms, they were yellow ochre coloured and had serrated edges with a rather tall and thin stem. With garlic and Italian tomatoes they would be perfect at any time. We climbed up the mountain behind the chalet and soon found buckets of them scattered like confetti underneath the umbrella of birch and pine trees. It was a hike up that was tiring and exhilarating at the same time. We came home just before another thunder storm. The flies were in frenzy, banging head long into the glass windows and spinning wildly on the floor in their suicidal death throes. The storm was the most spectacular I had ever experienced. Wild flashings of lightning below us but above the now obscured village with the mountains rumbling in support of nature’s whims. Next day we ate some of the mushrooms in a spicy soup and I decided to dry the rest on newspapers outside in the sun.
While getting increasingly concerned about the lack of response from the travel agent, Bernard booked a train to Naples to sort out the travel arrangements and book the boat back to Australia for both of us. My Aunt Agnes and obscure niece or Cousin ‘Elsie’ had arrived and while Bernard took off to Naples I undertook to entertain the visitors. Aunt Agnes had rarely ventured outside Holland and was totally dependent on familiarity of environment and food. It soon came out that the uneven road on which to walk, the steepness of hills, not having the right sliced white bread without her favourite margarine, and the oversized Italian peas were too much and she quickly took a train back. I immediately became very friendly with Elsie, who, on many previous times before our immigration, I had met and as we now had both grown up, we started to take more notice of each other as members of the opposite sex. In no time did I stalk across the corridor one night and entered her room, without as much as a single word. I crept under the sheets and she welcomed me with friendly Dutch gusto. A few days later, somewhere along a flowing creek and during a brief and exploratory bout of cunnelingus, (what is a bit of that between distant cousins?), I noticed while getting up from the grass, a male head quickly ducking down. We had been sprung!
This is not to suggest that my experiences with girls had been all that extensive. On the contrary, so far it had been a bone of severe discontent that my teenage years and early adulthood had been so devoid of female contact or friendship. A brief couple of outings and a stolen furtive kiss, or at best a hand held on a breast of a scrubber of a widgie barely tolerated by a gum chewing girl, was about the length or short of the extend of my sexual encounters. In fact, the Dolomites had been more than generous to me. The most enduring encounter, at least in my mind had been that Finnish girl in Lienz. She had given me the most lasting impression of a woman that I really thought came close to being ‘normal’ and very attractive with those eyes and non-flinching honesty. I still often thought about her and that meeting on the mountain side.
Elsie was also a lesson in friendliness and open-mindedness without those silly Anglo manners of affectation and pretence that I had experienced in Australia. While the Dutch were accused by the Australian Yvonne of being too polite, I though the Australian girls to be unimaginative and too matter of fact, inclined to be part of ‘the boys’, perhaps in order to be accepted.
Bernard wrote a letter saying he had managed to book the Flotta Lauro ‘Sydney’ to depart at the end of September and meant to stay in Naples until departure. He had booked a room at a hotel in Piazza Garibaldi square opposite the large main railway station in Naples. He was running short of money and could not afford to go back to the chalet anymore. In any case the chalet’s short term lease had run out and I was staying at the ‘gasthof’ where Elsie had booked her accommodation. (Albeit in different rooms) She was now going to meet up with her parents at Chamonix on the border of France and Switzerland and had also given up her room at the quest house. This now gave me the option of either continuing where I was or join Bernard in Naples. I decided to do the latter and lifted part of the way to a major town where I caught the train to Naples. I soon found the hotel near the station and met up with Bernard.
The money that we had left now had to last until our departure so we divided the total sum by the number of weeks left. This now forced us to mainly live off pizzas and coffees, with the occasional dish of pasta. I soon was torn by the idea of joining Elsie at Chamonix, could not really see myself in Naples for the remaining five weeks, eating pizzas. When I say pizzas, I mean the baked risen top resting on a bottom crust with a delicious fresh tomato and basil sauce spread over and with molten cheese. Pizzas with pineapple and ham or all the other things they put on the modern detested American pizza, at that time was not available in Naples. Just as well. Despite the lure of pizzas and excitement of the busy and noisy Naples I went back again by train and joined Elsie and parents at Chamonix. The romance rekindled somewhat, but nothing too serious or lasting. We climbed up a mountain as high as a glacier but were almost stoned to death by tourists higher up who thought that no one would be silly enough to climb without a guide, and started hurling stones down the slope. The passion had calmed between us and the initial intensity had abated to the level of taking a lukewarm bath. A major discomfort was the sleeping in a bath. While Elsie and her parents stayed in a fine hotel, I did not have the money and the youth hostel was fully booked out. The only option was for me to get smuggled in each night and sleep in the bath, sitting semi upright. After about twelve days or so, there was another final goodbye and back again to Napoli. I never saw Elsie again but had taken a photo of her in her bra which I kept for some years. I tried hitching a lift and wore thongs with a satchel over my shoulders. I remember getting a lift through tunnels connecting Switzerland with Aosta in Italy and caught a train from the station where I was dropped off.
After many hours by train, with lovely offers of chicken lunches with small bottles of wine during stop-over’s, bought from food sellers at rail station, and lively conversations with other passengers, I arrived at glorious Naples and soon joined Bernard in the hotel and spent the last couple of weeks in a most fascinating city. Those weeks in Piazza Garibaldi were far more exciting than what I had experienced in Amsterdam, mind bogglingly interesting with a city roaring with life. Coffee lounges packed until morning. The locking of all shops between two and four for the siesta, how civilised! Naples was dangerous, decadent but so beautiful. The old Naples with its narrow streets did allow cars which seemed hardly able to move through, especially when another car came from the opposite side. There were shopping stalls everywhere, shoe stalls next to fruit and vegetables spilling out well onto the road, chaotic and claustrophobic with kids everywhere. They soon tried to befriend you, and sometimes little hands would be found to be wandering near pockets and wallets, but all done with a smile when pushed away.
In the meantime, Bernard had worked out a plan on how to start our business when back in Australia. We would have enough money to put ourselves up with printed letterheads and matching envelopes, standard quote forms, receipt books and a registered trade name. We would live in my parent’s fibro garage and would also buy a second hand vehicle, probably a station wagon or utility. We would re-invest any surplus money in more gear such as ladders, steps and paint, employ tradesmen as needed and concentrate on building a reputation as reliable and efficient painting contractors. This is how the last few days were spent, lounging in a coffee places of which the whole Piazza Garibaldi seemed to exist off. Somehow we had also still managed to find a library with English books. I read ‘The summing up” by Somerset Maugham. With Bernard no one would ever go without books.
We boarded the ship and settling had become a routine. We had booked the cheapest possible fare which meant we shared a dormitory below deck and near noisy engines. The food was of course Italian with free Chianti and lovely baked bread, many osso buco, cottoletta alla Milanese, ravioli di Napoli, focaccia al rosmarino, pizza marinare. Our first stop was of course Messina in Sicily. Hundreds of Sicilians boarding the ‘Sydney ‘had to say goodbye to whole villages with the drama of people having to be restrained from hurling themselves into the harbour in their heart rending and final goodbyes. We sauntered the decks, experienced travellers, taking in all the emotion and mayhem of those departing souls from family, friends and momentarily forgotten foes as well.
The next stop was Malta and then through the Suez Canal with the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps farewelling us down south. At Port Said, the spectacle of young boys diving to retrieve coins thrown in by passengers and coming up with glistening bodies and coin between teeth. Before boarding the boat we bought some clothing items along those narrow streets of ‘old Naples’. Bernard had bought some t-shirts and me a pair of rather snazzy shoes, so I thought, with a kind of coiled rope at the toe end of the shoe which was slightly tilted upwards as well. Bernard soon teamed up with a French couple who intended living in Australia and were bound for Brisbane, sunny Queensland. They were keen bridge players and it soon became apparent that the wife liked Bernard and vice versa, there were incidents of toes meeting toes under the table and soon it was full on. Bernard thought the husband a bit of a fool and dullard, while the wife was in awe of meeting a poet and English as well. After a couple of weeks he washed one of those Naples t-shirts and when he tried to put in on, just prior to another game of bridge, that he discovered the shirt had shrunk at least by one third of its original size. It just about reached his navel now. I discovered that, like many of us, Bernard did not enjoy being laughed at; even so, I took the risk and exploited the Schadenfreude by laughing heartily. Is that what amuses you, he said sternly?
The Flotta Lauro’s, Sydney had birthed at Aden on the Arabic peninsula and took on many more passengers, the largest group being Indians. After Aden, the boat would sail straight to Fremantle, Perth, Australia. This was a long and boring stretch of travel, and sometimes through heat, boredom and possible anxiety about what those migrants would meet in Australia, tempers would flare and fights become more common. The police on board sometimes had to lock up difficult passengers. The cheap tax-free alcohol was also often the lubricant for violence, especially amongst a few of the beer loving Anglo Saxons. Those large Passenger Boats were of course well equipped to entertain passengers, and had a library, game rooms, a couple of swimming pools, childcare facilities, a small orchestra and dancing almost nightly. By and large anyone on a five week boat journey would have the best of times and it was also the cheapest way of travel between Australia and Europe. There was also a photographic shop with film developing possibility.
Bernard’s romance with the French girl was going strong and had overcome the shrinkage of his Naples t-shirt, and as is often the case on shipboards, romance flourished amongst many of the passengers, especially with the smart and suave uniformed Italian officers and crew. I noticed Bernard ordering the occasional bottle of wine during Bridge games and hoped he was not putting our kitty for starting own business in any jeopardy! My fear was not totally unfounded when after arriving at Fremantle in Western Australia, a list of names appeared on the official notice board, that luggage in the ship’s hold would not be released till debts of wine or other items by the named passengers would be paid for. Amongst the passenger’s named was Bernard. He quickly stopped the wine ordering, after all, we could drink as much ‘Chianti’ as we felt like during eating times, any bottle ordered away from mealtimes was put on the slate.
The arrival at the Port of Fremantle in Western Australia was again on a Sunday, we walked through the deserted town the same as our family did back in 1956. In the preceding years Fremantle had not grown any more exciting and with the contrast a few weeks before in Naples it could not have been any greater. Those poor Italians, I wondered what they were thinking, sauntering through the windswept and forlorn streets, empty of people and empty of spirit. The same Sunday papers were being blown along the pavements and the hot sun was shimmering above the asphalt, a fata morgana of life in existence without much visible proof. Bernard telexed family in England to transfer some money to Sydney and he hoped it would be available when the boat finally landed in Sydney. I had also telexed my parents and told them to expect having to pay some money for the luggage to be released which of course I would re-pay as soon as I could get to a bank once landed on terra firma. After the again unforgettable entry through Sydney heads and berthing at circular quay my parents came on board and paid the amount owing. After getting off the boat with our suitcases, dad drove us to Revesby. My father was a driver not unlike Mr McGoo of the cartoon movies. How he managed to avoid major accidents proves there is a God after all. Driving through busy Sydney and having to stop uphill for a red light, he kept stalling the car so many times that the light turned green and red several times before he managed to drive off. Drivers behind us were shaking their clenched fists. We both swore never to ever get into the car again with Dad behind the wheel. He once enraged a driver that much that he followed dad home all the way, then challenged him to put up his fists and prove his manhood. My very anxious mother dragged both apart, no doubt remembering her husband’s murderous intentions with that woman upstairs and a knife, just after the war in Rotterdam.
Self employed Painting Contractors.
The previous held feelings about Australia had softened considerably and as the aim was now focussed on doing something creative instead of just blowing in any direction, I concentrated on achieving financial independence. Apart from doing art courses, I had also done a course in quantity surveying by correspondence and achieved some sort of certificate. I have never understood what made me chose quantity surveying, but there are some things that I have been unable to unscramble from my memory. The painting business certainly enjoyed the advantage of having learnt how to work out quotes from lists of quantities and specifications and the many jobs started flowing in. Huge office blocks, rows of Home Units, even the additions to The Art Gallery of NSW came our way. A number of painters were employed and ladders and scaffolding were reaching skywards all over Sydney. Sometimes, at great heights and danger, I took to those swinging stages dangling from roof tops, whereby a platform was suspended from the roof by steel cables and lowered up and down by means of winches. Sometimes the steel cable would wind on one side of the winch and then without warning would slip causing the stage platform to drop a few feet. This alone caused many to just about pass out with fear and refused to work on those, no matter what money was offered. I lacked fear of heights and understood the way those winches worked, besides, the money was good. We lived in my parent’s garage and saved money as never before. It did not take long and we decided to buy our own places. We each bought a one bedroom apartment in the middle of Potts Point, Sydney, one of the most salubrious parts with coffee lounges, hotels, shops and prostitutes, sleazy, a bit dangerous but as close as one could get to a feeling of life in a cosmopolitan city. Importantly, it also had a good library within walking distance. Not that we actually lived in them! Not at the beginning.
For a short while we also lived in a house in Paddington which we were painting. The owner was a Maltese woman of generous spirit and voluptuous proportions. She offered to rent a room to us while we painted her house, both inside and outside. She was friendly to the extent that one morning she came into my room while Bernard had gone to work and much to my surprise lifted her skirt while standing next to the pillow, were at the time, my head was resting. She wore no undies and sweetly suggested I should get some French letters, ‘soon’, she added. Her husband was a sick man but kept a loaded shotgun in the wardrobe. Valetta, which I had visited on the trip back which was the only city of Malta, was beautiful. Its people were very outgoing and in the case of the Maltese lady in Paddington without undies, very honest with their intentions and needs.
Bernard’s affair with the French girl had come to an end when she decided to visit him in Sydney. Those ‘on Ship- board loves’ were so often doomed. The evening stroll on decks with Dean Martin’s ‘oh sole mio’, filtering through after just having dined and wined, how could real life ashore survive let alone imitate those conditions? Just prior in coming to Sydney she had sent him her complete one metre pony tail. It arrived in a box, all coiled up. God knows how many years it took her to grow. Bernard was somewhat perplexed by this box of hair. Why had she cut it off? Was it some kind of voodoo? When she arrived unexpectedly at my parents place, Bernard took her by train to Sydney. When he came back, it had all finished and he never saw her again. The fibro living quarters, Bernard’s paint spattered glasses, the reality of breaking away from her husband. It was so unlike the balmy sub-tropical evenings on the ship with Bernard reciting her poetry but, and still, with safety of husband and income.
Love and marriage.
With the business booming, having bought an apartment each in Bohemian Pott’s Point, the years going by, the issue of relationships started looming and pressing. We both thought that our lives needed sharing with someone from the female gender. I was still under the spell of the Finnish girl that I had met a couple of years earlier. Her utter calmness and serene composure never lost its appeal. We had written a few times, exchanged photos. She was still finishing her University degree in Finland and was living with her brother who was teaching at the time.
Bernard, who since the French girl debacle did not want any more complications, put an advertisement in a magazine. Much to his surprise, a Japanese girl answered. Her name was Tsuyako.
My Brother Frank’s condition had not improved. He had now spent several years in Sydney’s Callan Park Mental Hospital and he would come home at most week-ends irrespective of whatever condition he might be in. Despite my parents attempts to try and get Frank’s condition assessed before he would come home, there did not seem to be a system in place to do the basics of care for people suffering from a mental condition. The unpredictable behaviour was so bad that most of us would just keep out of his way and even find places to sleep-over elsewhere while Frank was home. We visited Frank and this would be terribly sad. He was housed with many others under the most primitive conditions. There were guards walking around with bundles of keys and other visitors would tell stories of staff stealing from patients. Frank told us he would be wrapped in wet sheets when difficult and locked up in a cell by himself. He was heavily sedated and appeared drowsy and for my parents it must have been heartbreaking. Was this the Australia of the information films viewed back in The Hague by the Australian Consulate? Was this the ‘better future’ for their children? The Commission of Enquiry into The Affairs of Callan Park had finished a few years earlier but conditions had not improved. While we were all hopeful that some magic cure would lift the burden and Frank gain some balance of sanity, the reality was the reverse. It was pitiful how at times, the decease of Schizophrenia was blamed on upbringing and that somehow my poor parents had done awful things. We also became more aware from other Dutch migrants that Holland would be a far better place for Frank to be looked after.
This was a terrible dilemma for my parents. How could they possibly have Frank looked after in The Netherlands and the rest of the family living in Australia. Of course, the family here would give an arm and a leg for a solution and council would be sought from the local church or Dutch Consulate. In fact, many of our friends were besieged in getting involved in the problem. I decided to give Frank a job painting with others on a block of town houses in Balmain NSW. It went alright for a while and I was pleased that at least he had something to look forward to with a routine of getting up, going to work and earning some money. One day we were sitting on a stone ledge about 3 meters above the lower ground when Frank without provocation and without any warning took a swing at me. I felt awful but took him back to the hospital. He left the car quietly, walked through those awful entrance gates and knocked on the ward door that was always closed, to be let in. He did not look back. As a result of the Royal Inquiry into Callan Park Hospital the management changed and the previous Superintendent left and started the infamous Chelmsford Private Hospital, later known as a charnel house of unimaginative horrors where scores of patients were put to sleep permanently.
The effect of all this was that I had achieved much but that the domestic situation had to change. I was looking for a way that would give some happiness and more content into my life. I urged my parents at the same time to consider the advice of friends and others to try and get Frank good care back in Holland. While Holland was on its knees during the fifties, much had changed since. The social programs such as pensions, good medical care and education were the world’s envy and Holland was going through an economic boom. Fewer Dutch citizens were now willing to risk coming to Australia and European immigration to Australia was being replaced by migration from Lebanon, Turkey and other Asia-minor regions. Even after the war when Holland was struggling, social conscience was well established and to take care of society was at the forefront of any political party’s program. It would still be many more years when Frank would be repatriated back to Holland.
My resolve to move ahead on a personal level slowly started to take shape and once the idea was bedded down I asked the Finnish girl to marry me. She was taken aback and answered; don’t they engage before marriage in Australia? I went out and bought a small diamond silver ring and posted it out to her. The last few years, no matter what or who I met, the experience with her back in Austria was never to leave my mind nor was it ever surpassed. I was sure she would be the best choice. With those eyes and smile, those quick witted replies she gave me on that mountain side. Her mocking humour, her calm and serene pose, so very confident and so beautiful with soft skin and gentle demeanour. We never did kiss.
She accepted my proposal for marriage and I did not wait long to arrange another boat trip to Genoa, Italy. This included again the previously taken trains from Italy but would now also include the trip by boat trains from Germany to Denmark and then Stockholm Sweden, and ferry to Vaasa on the west coast of Finland. This time it was the Flotta Lauro ’Roma’. The travel agent for Thomas Cooks in Sydney was Mr G.Diacomo, who had arranged my previous trips, he knew me from sight. Bernard in the meantime had Tsuyako in the gondola of his marriage. We would close the painting business and both go our own way. I wanted to try and wait what would happen and was keen to get over to her first of all and take things from there. The apartment was let out and the rent paid the mortgage with savings in the bank, I could now afford to take a year off. I also knew that on my return to Australia I would have no trouble resuming my contracting business again. By now I had done some paintings and decided to take a sample of those in the suitcase to show my future wife. My future wife! Was I presumptuous then? How would we be together, not having seen each other for a few years? So much can happen and the previous perceptions of each other could well have been based on a fantasy or on something that we wanted to see but that was simply not there. The day of departure could not come quick enough and after saying goodbye to my parents I was off again. My parents were as surprised as anyone including myself in taking a trip so far away to get married. Have you actually met her, my parents asked? Yes, I have, she was in Austria on a holiday and I had coffee with her! After showing a photo of her, they at least knew a bit more. Even so; you had a coffee and now you are getting married? Yes, I am. So having a coffee is your base on spending the rest of your life with someone, my dad asked?
Yes, for me it is, I answered.
The boat trip by now had become a routine and as I had forwarded dates and ports of call, I just seemed to spend time looking for the next port-of-call to look for her letters. I wrote letters of love and happiness and included future plans, living in chalets and Finnish Forest huts and received same from her declaring love but no plans for forest living. I was most disappointed not to receive a letter in Aden, was heartbroken, and sought solace in extra Chianti and the company of quiet Timo. Timo was a Finnish boy on his way back permanently to Finland from Australia. He was a nice boy but difficult to get much word out of him. I must have driven him mad with questions about Finland. He was impressed when I confided in him that I was getting married to a Finnish girl. I felt his aim to going back to Finland might have been in tango with mine but understood there was no one definite in sight yet. During the five weeks on board I did manage to play chess and also got to know a few Aussies on their first big trip to England. One of them told me I was mad for getting married after I told him I had not slept with her.( I never told anyone I had not even kissed her.) What, he exclaimed! – You haven’t tried it out-? -You haven’t even exercised the old ferret-? Geez, what’s wrong with you-? But we love each other, I proclaimed. Oh mate,’ love is nothing but a bit of fucking hair’, he wise-cracked good humouredly. He was a very overweight man with ridiculous shorts on and wearing bright yellow thongs. From morning till night he would stand with enormous feet planted wide apart and hold court to whoever would listen to him, sculling endless beers in the process. An Aussie larrikin if ever there was but his ideas on relationships were not very considerate towards the opposite sex. He also totally ignored any female and was clearly bonded to ‘mates’ more than women. He was one of those older generation males, whereby any man showing publicly any interest in women were almost considered to have homo-sexual or sissy tendencies. Why would a real bloke be interested in sheilas, was often implied at social events, with men and women strictly segregated according to the norms of the fifties Australia.
Police extracts and Fingerprints.
After, what seemed like days of train travel, I finally arrived in Stockholm late afternoon and had some time to kill before the ferry’s departure and sauntered around visiting an historic tower and did sight-seeing. The departure of the ferry was late in the evening and arrival at Vaasa, Finland was scheduled for next morning. In my last letter to Helvi’s (my futures wife’s name) I had given her the name and date of departure of the ferry from Stockholm, so hopefully she would be waiting for me on the wharf. Needless to say, the nerves, now that the moment of meeting again was getting closer, were on edge. The promise of spending our lives together was based on both of us having thought it out and even there was a very large portion of spontaneity from both of us, I was reassured by that we would have as much a change of a successful life together as anyone. She did not seem a person who was frivolous, or would suffer fools gladly. My greatest fear was that she would see me as a fool or at least as a person who could at times indulge in emotional or rash decisions. After the long train journey between Genoa Italy and Stockholm, then the overnight ferry trip to Finland, sitting up in a kind of deckchair I was getting exhausted. Next morning, there she was waiting on the wharf. We recognized each other and waved. She looked so lovely and her smile was as I remembered with her head at a slight angle. She wore a golden tanned outfit with smart shoes and a little hand bag. After I got off the ferry, we walked towards each other and kissed briefly. Our first kiss! We looked at each other and all my fears left immediately. I knew she did not see me as a fool.
Of course, the only language we had in common was German. She had studied German and Swedish. I had only used German with her back in Austria, so it was not all that easy a start at the beginning. Both of us a little shy and somewhat overcome by it all. Nothing like a Hollywood film whereby they run and leap into each other and the male picks up the lady and spins her around. Nothing like that at all. A little English from Helvi at times came in handy. Even so, sometimes we had to start the sentence again and hoped that it would make sense. She immediately started her infectious laughter, which got me through some difficult patches, not just then, but for decades into the future as well.
We caught a train to her parent’s farm house which was quite a distance away. We arrived in the afternoon and the first person I saw was her youngest brother of 9 years who scattered away. I was introduced to her parents and shown the room where I could put my suitcase. The room was in the attic upstairs, had a double bed with lovely windows and a feeling of space. I sat down on the bed and opened my suitcase and gave her a present, also some Indian brassware for her parents.
The farm house was a typical Finnish farmhouse, double story with a ladder permanently fixed to the roof. A large solid timber structure with lovely proportions and generously sized windows on both levels. The exterior colours were Indian red or Sienna on the bulk of the wooden timber slabs of the house with yellow-ochre on fascias and trimmings and white windows. It was the end of July and weather was beautiful and balmy. The day-light would last till well into the night and the whole aura of the farm and surroundings with all her sisters and brothers present was serene and accepting. I felt very welcome but in an undemonstrative way that only those that know a bit about Finland and its people will understand. Everything about Finland seems understated. It’s beautiful and world class architecture, the simplicity of design and form are unequalled anywhere in the world. Helvi’s farm house reflected all those attributes. Nothing was superfluous or just there to decorate or embellish something. Nothing was deliberate either or studied or taken from decorating books. No, the Finns must have a special gene and just know what looks good. They are the most honest in the world. Perhaps that’s what explains the beauty of Finish design and architecture.
We enjoyed each other over the next few days and enjoyed each other’s company, got to know each other better. In a way, we had to fast-forward and make up for the years that we had not seen each other and had only communicated by letters and sometimes a photo. Every house in Finland has a sauna. The sauna on the farm was about twenty metres away and Helvi’s older brother fired the sauna up and he and his girlfriend took a sauna and afterwards we took a turn. The heat is immense and my first sauna lasted about five minutes, the heat is a wet heat whereby water is thrown on hot stones which have been fired up by a wood fire underneath for many hours. This water hitting the hot stones exploded in a hot and searing steam. Helvi looked ravishing, all nude and glistening with steam but the heat of the sauna was too much for this sauna novice. I had to get out. She laughed.
We had promised to marry and Helvi had bought a lovely white dress. It was simple of design and had a crocheted outer layer on top with a white under-dress or petticoat worn underneath our. We had made some arrangement with a local Lutheran priest to organise a wedding. This seemed a serious business. The first meeting with this Priest was mainly spent on him saying ‘emm’, and also sometimes ‘ahhh while looking at a book. He promised he would think it over ‘emm’. The difficulty seemed to be marrying a foreigner in a small village. Of course, Helvi and her family were not religious. The Lutheran church is part of the Finish state system, not unlike the Church of England in the UK. This village Lutheran vicar was no hero and could never have been accused of indecent haste in marrying anyone. This went on for a few more weeks. The ‘ah’s and um’s were still forthcoming but now interspersed with long periods of contemplation in which no sound would be uttered, just the three of us breathing through nostrils or mouths.
This was not getting anywhere, the marriage was not urgent. We decided to not visit the Lutheran vicar or priest for any more marital advice or arranging a marriage. It was an obvious torture for the man. Instead, we decided to just get married in an office instead. This was not so easy after all but at least we were given concrete advice that I had to obtain an extract of any police report and an extract of any finger print records from Australia. This was obtained in due course with no known police or finger print extracts, and after a week of receiving them we went to Jyvaskyla and got married. Helvi was wearing a lovely woollen knit turquoise dress and Ii had bought a suit for the occasion. We had a couple of photos taken and that was it. We married in late Autumn1964. Helvi’s white wedding dress we hand-dyed a dark Venetian red and gave it to her sister. Prior to the marriage ceremony we organised for a cottage on the edge of a lake near Jyvaskyla to be rented where we would spend a lovely holiday (or a honeymoon for the more conventional amongst us).
Of sauna, tea and criminals.
The wooden cottage was divided in downstairs and upstairs sections. We had downstairs and this consisted of a large sitting cum bedroom and a comfortable kitchen with a large wood fired slow combustion stove and heater. The sauna outside was one of those ‘good ones’ which would take a day to heat up which was part of the ritual that the Finns were world renowned for. By this time the winter had settled in and already at Helvi’s parents place we had experienced minus 30centigrade. Our cottage on the lake was heated with wood that the owners had stacked outside. The train-line ran past this little enclave not too far away but across a frozen lake and to catch a train one would just stand along the track and wave arms. The step into the train from knee deep snow at ground level caused great hilarity amongst the other train travellers. We would sometimes get into Jyvaskyla to shop or see a concert. One evening we went to see a concert at the town hall which had been designed by the world famous architect Alvar Aalto. We came back in the pitch dark and had to find our way through thick snow in the night and around the frozen lake, how lovely and precious it all was. During one those very short days in which the sun would rise and set within a few hours we packed a bag with cups and billy can, took a walk across the lake and when arriving on the other side went into the forest, we made a fire and boiled tea in a billy filed with ice. Near the house there was a well from which we would get all our water. It always amazed me that despite the temperature sometimes reaching minus 30 or more, the water in the well never froze.
The top floor which had its own staircase was rented to some boys who used to get drunk and rather loud but never threatening or abusive towards us. In Finland drinking alcohol by mainly men is a big problem and during winter very dangerous. Frozen bodies would sometimes be found when inebriated men did not arrive home nor had the sense to stay within centrally heated railway stations. Railway stations were often frequented by drunken men. The boys upstairs were once surprised during the day when police knocked on our door and asked us in Finnish about the boys upstairs. It turned out they were looking for them so we pointed upstairs and the boys were taken away. They were friendly enough to greet us and say goodbye on the way out! I wondered what sort of life they would have led.
The few weeks in that wooden hut were so much more than romantic, and with the snow and frozen lake, the extreme cold but with warm wood fires and searing saunas, the walks over frozen lakes and shores, with cups of tea under the firs and birches, they were the best time we could have had. We got to know each other. Helvi loved all the things that I loved, especially the simple things. What good fortune, that meeting in Austria a few years before! Perhaps listening to Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela might conjure it up better, or the romantic ‘Laura’s theme’ from Doctor Zhivago for the more sentimental?
The words of the Indian man on the bus to Cairo, of why do you want to be blind in love when choosing a partner or mate for the rest of your life, came to be prophetic words? The meeting in Lienz on the Dolomite’s mountain road did not result in falling blindly in love or made us mad about each other. There was a smouldering of feelings afterwards and thousands of miles apart, that calmly and with time, became strong enough for us to get together and together we became. We loved now.
Fire on the Achille but first class on the Roma.
Helvi still had to finish her last bit for her University degree which she did during the last month. We decided now to go to Australia and my wife had to go through the immigration mill with health checks and all the other requirements. She was promptly given the all clear and her passport duly signed, being married to an Australian resident made the going easy.
The Achille Lauro was finally booked to take us to Australia sometime in January 1965. We wanted to go on the Flotta Lauro’s Roma but both the Roma and Sydney had been withdrawn for different routes to South America. However, both The Achille Lauro and its sister ship Angelina Lauro suffered serious fires, so our date had to be cancelled but the shipping agency then compensated us for the delay and booked us on the Roma first class. What a turnaround but what good fortune. Both the Roma and the Sydney were taken off the South American routes. It was the last trip for the Roma to Australia according to the information we were handed. We were promised an unforgettable journey. Little did we know that within a few weeks Helvi would be dancing with the captain.
The last week was spent packing our suitcases and saying farewell to all the family and friends. We were in for a long journey to Genoa and by the time we arrived there we were very tired and cranky, vaguely remember having a quarrel whereby Helvi refused to walk with me and in busy Genoa crossed the road and pretended I did not exist. The goodbye to her parents a couple of days earlier could not have been easy. They were getting old and it’s was not as if one could pop over to visit every now and then. This was serious and pretty final as well. Helvi never saw her dad again but did see her mum a few years later with two of our three children. Let’s not get too far ahead on this story though! The trip over was another but different adventure to the few weeks spent on the wooden hut in the forest. To be surrounded by nothing but water for five weeks tends to train the focus on people rather than external things. It is not as if you can go for a long walk or take a trip to the city. Travelling by first class meant that we were in the dining room with perhaps just forty or fifty other people plus some of the crew, Captain and some of the top officers. We were seated with an elderly aristocratic Italian couple on their way to Melbourne where their son was working as a concert pianist. Of course, we drank some very fine wine without dinners and the four of us got on very well, a white Italian wine called ‘Suave’, is what I still remember. The free Tuscany ‘Chianti’ in tourist class would of course not do in first class, no, that’s why we were not too stingy with the quaffing of the best of wine, and thought the ‘Suave’ would be free and part of the first class service, or so we thought, until we were presented with a sizable bill at the end of our boat trip.
Chess game and English lessons.
There was an opportunity to teach English to the many Greek and Italian migrants on board and I offered my services to the Australian Migration Officer who organized all the documentation for them as well as giving English lessons by the use of English proficient travellers. My group was about thirty or so of Greek men and women and their children. I knew I had a knack for teaching and was often accused of acting as one, you know the type, always trying to give opinions, wanted or not. At the same time I joined the ship’s chess competition and during those few weeks slowly climbed up the chess ‘on board hierarchy’. It was rumoured that the ship’s doctor was a bit of a ‘master’ and remembering the reference I had for my uncle in Amsterdam I thought I would be lucky to reach the level high enough and play against him.
The English lessons were going very well, if there is one thing that I learnt about Greeks is that they love laughter. The English lessons at the beginning, I did not speak a work of Greek, was mainly by pointing out items or persons and saying the word in English and then writing the word on a black board. So, pointing to a female was ‘woman’ after which ‘she’ would be ventured. A man was ‘he’. They were quick witted and soon understood and laughed uproariously when pointing to a girl and asked if it was a ‘he’. The next lesson was about people having different trades or professions, carpenters, nurses, butchers, typists etc. Greeks are very capable and when coming to the word ‘painter’ and imitating the slapping of paint brushes against a surface, several hands would fly up indicating they were painters. Amazingly and very funny was when the trade of butcher was explained, some of the painters hands went up again, they were both painters and butchers. However, when nurses came up and I went to the previous bi-capable tradesmen to ask if they were nurses as well, the whole lot went into convulsions. They were the most responsive group of people I have known. I wonder now, forty years on, what happened to all that enthusiasm and cheerfulness. No doubt many are grandparents, many might have passed away and many have children who became doctors, professors, wealthy entrepreneurs and some might have returned to Greece. That is life.
In the meantime Helvi and I were sometimes asked to go to Tourist class to help out with entertainment and dancing. One evening we and our dignified and aristocratic table mates were invited to dance with the Greeks and Italians in the tourist section. In no time was Helvi beseeched by the Greek students to dance, both men and women. The evening was topped by the Captain asking Helvi for a dance as well. We all swirled and danced the night away as never before. We went back to our cabin with a bottle of chilled Suave and did some more dancing.
Not only was the giving of English lessons so satisfying, my chess was also going well and the only person to beat right in the middle of the Indian Ocean and about a week away from Fremantle, was the Ship’s doctor. Unbelievably I won against the doctor and therefore the tournament and declared the Ship’s champion. All those games with the cancer dying and ex-chess Master Uncle in Amsterdam and with Bernard giving those handicaps at the beginning, had given me enough skill to have reached a reasonable level in chess. The fortnight sailing between Yemen’s Aden and Fremantle Australia was as always difficult, no more ports or sightseeing and with arrival imminent, many started to realize that after arrival, the business of starting a new life so far away from friends and family was rapidly approaching. The English lessons were also getting to an end and it was the children who were picking the language the quickest. They did not mind making mistakes and also studied the books that they were given at the beginning of the trip. Many parents unfortunately could not read or write, but many children had, at the very least, been taught the beginnings of literacy. The schooling in the parent’s time must have been neglected with children needing to help out the adults with work, perhaps often to just survive. Sometimes the kids ended up teaching the adults. This was also the case in my own family. Both my parents had gone through high-schools and my dad had enough English to get by at the beginning but was reticent in his dealings with others. My mother who had little English but was not at all shy in making mistakes or be laughed at. She in a way, because she was far more sociable and outgoing learnt English quicker and also made friends with neighbours easier.
Huge seas, arrival in Sydney.
The Roma had finally birthed at Fremantle and as it was, unbelievably another Sunday, I prepared Helvi for the quietness of the streets and even though streetscapes were empty, I assured her that people did live in the houses that we walked past. I don’t think she was disappointed in my summary of Fremantle on Sunday. Some of the Greek people who were destined for Fremantle and Western Australia farewelled us and waved back to us from the wharf. Greeks are the most hospitable and friendliest people on this earth, spontaneous in showing their appreciation and willing to share their last crust with total strangers. We now had almost another week of sailing through The Great Australian Bight, a stretch of sea and water notorious for monstrous and mountainous waves.
This time they were momentous, waves as large as multi storey houses were making the ship roll and heave with a sickening creaking and groaning of the boat’s structure. Everything was tied down and deckchairs were roped up, even the dinner plates were not put on tables unless people were seated to hold onto the crockery and cutlery. Most passengers were too sick to think of food, and the sturdy paper bags that were hanging around the most conspicuous places, in case of a spontaneous vomit, did show that all was not well with many of us, including many of the crew as well. I had heard that the pasta loving Italian were the last of most sea faring nations to develop steady sea legs. Indeed, history has shown the many fine things the Italians were capable of making on ’terra firma’ but it also shows that sea travel was never their strong point. The Venetian gondola was at least within minutes of solid ground and would rarely experience even the slightest wave, except perhaps when a motorised pleasure craft would set up a ten centre meter swell.
Amazingly, we were just about the only people not to have even the slightest feeling of discomfort. Helvi thrived as never before. How is that for a wondrous woman? No sea too rough for her. What great fortune with not even a skerrick of nausea. The Captain praised her while we were tucking into a huge pasta marinare with yet another bottle of Suave. What Italian lacked in seaworthiness they made up with charm. The Captain certainly had charm and an eye for a beautiful woman. Helvi was as happy with his attention as she was with anyone who would take notice of her and was always very sure and in command of any situation and with charm as well and consideration would keep attentive men always within the accepted boundaries without ever offending anyone in a rare rebuff. She was very natural and totally at ease even though a bit shy as well. But not so shy that she would tolerate fools easily! Her upbringing in a large family whereby the kids had to look after each other might have something to do with it. A couple with nine children and running a farm with having to milk cows twice a day, summer and winter, manage a forest, growing crops and so much more, could not possibly indulge children too much. People now with just one or two children are seeing councillors because they cannot cope and feel they are being overwhelmed by it all.
After the Australian Bite, it was Melbourne but not a Sunday. We went into town by train, drank a beer and visited a large and fashionable store. After another day or two, a glorious entry through the Heads of Sydney. We had arrived.
10 015 words.