Posts Tagged ‘Gunther Grass’

My Box Camera

April 3, 2015

The family 1975.

A few weeks ago I bought a book by Gunther Grass (umlaut) titled ‘The box’.  On its cover it features a box camera and the words ‘tales from the darkroom.’ It is funny how a picture is able to recall memories deeply buried in the ashes of time passed all too soon. It was during my last year at high school in The Hague and rumors of my parents wanting to migrate to Australia were vaguely doing the rounds. I was fifteen.  I happened to pass a camera shop and became instantly smitten by cameras that were displayed in the shop window.

My dad was a camera fan and had one of those cameras that one could focus on the subject by a lens that was able to be moved backwards and forwards by a concertina type action. I think it was a Leica camera. However, with his six children running around the dining table ( while shouting) and the Dutch rainy weather forever keeping us inside, his photography took a background stance.  I don’t think he took many photos that I can remember, except some years later after migration to send back some photos to his parents (my paternal grandparents) whom he never saw again. My mother lost her parents at ten years of age during the Spanish flue epidemic.

When the migration plans became certain I was taken out of school and within days was working delivering fruit and vegetables to different embassies of which The Hague was full of. I did those deliveries on a sturdy steel bike with huge handle bars and large cane basket fitted over the front wheel. It was an industrial bike build specific for deliveries. The season was heading towards winter and storms were normal. However, I had my mind set on a box camera that I looked at numerous time in the window of the camera shop. Perhaps I inherited my dad’s obsession gene. I just had to have that camera.

My greatest joy was when a delivery had to be made to the American embassy. I was friendly with the kitchen staff and practised my English that I had been taught since  two years at primary and the four years at high school. I would be given a hot soup and a tip that made my heart leap into my throat. I had started to smoke already and apart from the tip was given packets of Camel. Can you believe and understand my total happiness? Smoking in the fifties was regarded a form of maturity and for men at least almost a healthy habit to engage in. Even doctors gave it the nod of approval while wearing the stethoscope and white jacket.

I did also at times, try and get my hand underneath the wrapped up fruit and remember snitching a few grapes,  while I single handed manoeuvred the bike again storm and rain. It was hungry work. I am not sure if the kitchen staff ever noticed the juicy  ends of the few missing plucked grapes. In any case the tips kept on coming and within a few weeks I went to the camera shop and bought the camera. I always gave my earnings to my parents but was allowed to keep the generous tips. The camera is the same as on Gunther Grass’ book. I am sure it was a Brownie Kodak with a strap on top and two view finders.

I can still so vividly recall taking my first roll of film. I think it might have been eight photos or perhaps twelve.  I took the  exposed film spool to the camera shop who told me it would be ready in a week or so. I could hardly wait for them to be in my hands. The photos were poured over for hours. I was totally transfixed by the idea of getting an image to be fixed forever to be looked at over and over again. They had serrated edges as well and in black and white.

I took the camera to Australia and even took photos on the trip over. The boat had a developer on board so my excitement knew no bounds then.

I wish I could regain some of that excitement again.imagesCAY6GIQF

The Cube of Sugar. (Het suikerklontje)

January 25, 2014


We went to see ‘The Book Thief’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although, the ‘enjoyed’ wasn’t perhaps the best choice of verbs. It’s very difficult to be confronted by war times washing over from the comfort of cinema seat and talk about ‘enjoy.’ I suppose ‘impressed’ or ‘stimulated’ ‘engaged’ might be better.

The cinema was packed mainly by young people. There was a constant chattering and laughter going on before the movie started, almost like a party. Lately the movies we have seen had a much older audience. They were quietly contemplating their deep thoughts and many also, just like us, concentrating silently on licking their choc-top ice creams. The only sound would be of the unwrapping the plastic bags surrounding the ice cream.

The problem with aging is how to get through the hard deep frozen chocolate crust to get to the vanilla softness underneath. My mouth certainly doesn’t allow anymore for the total circumference of the choc-top ice cream to fit inside to allow a good firm bite, neither do my teeth. I have to either try and break through the hard chocolate crust by biting at the edges, or allow the chocolate to thaw out a bit first. A younger person would have no problem with that. This much I could tell from the exuberance of the young audience at ‘The Book Thief’ breaking through their choc-tops within seconds.

The movie brought back some well buried memories in the graveyard of my early childhood which involved a sugar cube as well. In the movie the young German girl lost her younger brother and mother. She is taken in by foster parents whom, like so many, struggled with the pre-war period. Money and food & Fuel were scarce. As this young girl enters the house a sugar cube is offered as a gesture of welcome but as the girl is too frightened and shy to start talking, the cube is only given on the condition she calls her new parents ‘Pappa and Mamma’.

Around 1946/47 I was not just sent to Southern Belgium to fatten up, also on two occasions to “kinder Kolonies’ or children colonies that were set up to bring many Dutch kids back to health. While the Belgian experience was loving and caring, those children colonies were a bit cruel. Salty bean soup and only be allowed to sleep on one side are just a few that clog up my return to post war times. I did not like that. Worst was my mother visiting and then leaving me behind. That agony hurt like a splinter left un-pulled.

One day, as were all taken for a walk, singing an anti war and anti Germany song we were asked by our nurse to try and climb a ‘safe’ sand dune. Most dunes still had barbed wire and other war ornamentations cluttering around the environment. Bombs could still be lying around. Times were still anxious even though the war was over!

The first on top would get a sugar cube. A sugar cube was then a delight that many children would still have to wait for. Most food was still scarce and only available by producing a valid food voucher. I remember thinking I would win and get that sugar cube. As the whole horde started to ascent the dune, I went as if possessed. (I was the boy from the 1959 Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)

At each step the sand would give way and I would slide down half of what I had conquered in the previous step. But nothing would stop me getting to the top first and that promised sugar cube. The sand dune must have been much higher then, as in the reality of it all now, but…I did get there first. I had used the straw stumps to haul me up, something I remember the others had not thought of.

As the days went by a deep disappointment took hold of me. I wasn’t given the sugar cube. The salty bean soup wasn’t my only heartache. The hard world of adults and the uncaring nurses, (probably as starved as we were) but… they were our carers. I was totally devastated without my mum and without the promised reward I had so hard climbed for.

After some time I decided to front the nurse and ask for my sweet delight. She promised but did not give it. I finally spied her coming from a room where she slept. I ,after waiting for a few more days, entered her room and asked for my sugar cube. It was then that she took one out of a bowl and gave it to me.

No sweet has ever tasted as sweet ever since.(not even a choc-top.)