My parents just visited my husband,my son and me in Berlin for three weeks. It wasn’t really a ‘holiday’ for me in the literal sense of the word. It was more of a 21st century obscure job description soon to exist on Linkedin but one that people probably are already posting on craigslist. A job wavering at the fault lines of round-the-clock minder at a senior citizen’s residence, a domestic butler mashed with a holiday and event planner.
They were in Europe for a variety of reasons: the fear of old age, impending death or worse, Alzheimers, pushed them into action and so they registered to a attend a legal conference in Italy. From there, they would embark upon an epic, 4 hour long train journey reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel (and one that took me hours to coordinate in an excel spreadsheet) which would see them arrive at a remote Austrian train station near Innsbruck where we would pick them up for a few days of hiking and skiing in the Alps.
When you have been living on the other side of the planet for more than 5 years and you see your parents on average once a year, the intense time spent together becomes something of a novelty. A rarified experience. There’s a concert to plan here, a dinner to plan there, a calendar choc-full of cravings to fill out the long winter weeks of their stay. It is exciting before they arrive. Yet, actually it is the most unnatural state of being – no one in their normal every day lives spends that much time their mum and dad, unless of course they are a newborn baby. Even during school or uni days, my sisters and brother and me would be out during the day at classes, then be home mostly for dinner and as little as possible on the weekends. Then when I moved out of home in Sydney, the Sunday weekly lunches became their quest for the holy grail: they were a king and queen holding court at their castle for their daughter who had been married off to a prince in faraway lands.
The more time you spend away from them, the more precious the time you have together becomes. I realise this now being a mother of a two year old. Everyone who has moved out of home knows how much your parents will actually try to dissuade you from doing the very thing they know is in your best interest – to help you become a more independent person, to try living out of home, doing your own washing and learning to budget. Deep down, you will always be that little baby to them – helpless, dependent. They want to be wanted.
It its a distended hyper reality, where time and place become blurred for everyone. You’re no longer a 34 year old mother to a 2 year old who has learned a new language from scratch, started a new career from scratch but a 16 year old acne-ridden teenager who can’t yet drive, who has homework to finish before the weekend. Whilst they are still hopeless with technology and forget to charge their iPhone 3 which is too old for whats app and viber (at least they have a mobile now) . They forget their keys so they are standing outside your door for 2 hours with their grandson in -1°C before you come back home from work. They ask you to randomly google “Andre Rieu Concert Berlin February 2015” and you do. Hoping that no positive search results are returned. And lo and behold, the man is performing in Berlin. In February. 2015. Right on the day of their 37th wedding anniversary. And so my husband and I went along to Andre more out of a strange combination of duress and guilt than any particular wish to see the dutchman. But there, amongst all the grey-haired danish geriatrics who’d travelled to Berlin for the concert, there amongst all the other German lovers of waltz, of kitsch and of schmalz, mainstream opera and pastel-coloured costumes worn by the musicians, was happiness. My parents genuinely loved this concert, the cheesy jokes and the pre-rehearsed humour. And the arias. Nessun Dorma and the Berlin Comedian Harmonists were lovely though. It was an adult Disneyland, a fantasy ride on the flying tea cups for a few hours.
It was actually surprisingly entertaining.
One thing I love about my parents which they tried to impart to my siblings and me was the art of not being a snob. Of just being yourself and being open to new things, giving everything a try before you can really say you hate something or someone. Being a snob was probably the highest cardinal sin anyone could commit in the eyes of my mum and dad, worse than adultery (ok maybe not, but it was high up on their list). Mum always tells the story of the successful law school friends who she spots around the city and who are now barristers, magistrates or other big wigs and they pretend they do not recognise her. She says how she feels sorry for them that they think they’re too good to even say hello to the other mere mortals of this earth.
In hearing these stories again during their stay with us, I am reminded how my parents’ childhood and early adulthood shaped so much of who they are as people. And I simply love telling their life stories. I celebrate them and wear their stories like a badge of pride because they are a part of me too and reminds me about the moments I don’t find my parents ridiculously embarrassing.
My mum migrated to Sydney with my grandmother and her siblings in the late 1950s in highly traumatic circumstances – my grandfather had already escaped their village in Macedonia a few years before and fled for Greece as this was the time of the Greek Civil War which was a complicated political situation which I won’t go into here. Essentially he needed to end up at a refugee camp in Greece to be able to be processed as ‘stateless’ to enable him to get on a boat to go to Australia. Anyways, he did not tell my grandmother where he was going just that he was going to end up in Sydney.
They had little contact for three years and my grandfather worked so hard at a few different jobs toiling in factories so that he could buy a house for them in what is now a very trendy Sydney suburb in order to bring his family to Sydney. My grandmother was on a boat for 6 weeks with her 3 children, one suitcase and one tub of home made cheese. For my mum, her childhood and adolescence was characterised by challenges: her parents could not speak english, she was constantly their translator, they had no telephone at home, she had to work hard and prove herself, she felt awkward. And yet, she was one of the few women in the early 1970s who scored a place to study law at Australia’s most presitgious university. One out of a handfiul of women and one of the only ones (if not the only) whose parents were not university-educated or came from Anglo stock.
My dad, on the other hand, became an orphan when he was around 18. My grandmother died shortly after the birth of her 8th baby and not long after that, my grandfather was out tending to his sheep and was suddenly electrocuted by lightening while waiting under the big tree with his flock not far from their farm. Growing up in socialist Yugoslavia, he thought he wanted to be a pilot and then ended up being accepted to be a vet technical assistant at the local agricultural technical university. Without parents to guide him, he relied on his older siblings, friends and teachers to watch over him. They encouraged him to keep studying and told him that he could be more than a vet technician. With this encouragement, my dad enrolled to study vet science in Belgrade. The Big Smoke, a city where you could drink coca cola, where socialist brothers from Cuba and Ghana came to study, a place with an imposing central railway station and the former royal residence of the exiled Serbian royal family. So far away from the mountains of Mariovo. My dad was a student of Tito and also a soldier in his army. In between studying anatomy and bovine disease with one Serbian textbook (which is similar to Macedonian but a language all its own), and sharing the only pair of Levis jeans between 6 classmates whenever one of them had a Saturday night date and hoped to get lucky, he had compulsory military training for 9 months in Mostar, Bosnia. That was back in the golden age of Yugoslavia where everyone lived side by side, everyone sang folk songs in Croatian, Macedonian and Bosnian.No one thought Socialism would die, no one thought Tito would die. No one thought that their neighbours or friends would die in a war still thirty years into the future. “We were so naive back then, there were so many things we just didn’t know, things we couldn’t know “, my dad has told me on so many occasions. About a decade before Tito died, my dad had the foresight to come to Australia and live with his sister, my aunt. But before that, he worked as a railroad labourer in Vienna for 6 months, whilst his papers got processed and then boarded a flight to Sydney.
It was there a few years later that my parents met at a dinner dance and three months later were already exchanging vows, legally hitched and on their way to Brisbane on the train with their dusty blue Holden in the last carriage. My dad had to re-do the last 2 years of his vet science degree (the first three having been recognised). I think their love story is typical for those in their generation – you meet someone, and you are supposed to get engaged and married quickly before starting a family. No one can ever really judge or know another person’s relationship. For my parents, the way they described how they met, I don’t think they fell madly in love with each other, as in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton kind of love or Romeo and Juliet love. I actually think they probably just loved each other from the very beginning and grew into that love as parents to four kids. ‘Love’ in the sense of compatibility, companionship, parenting and team work. 37 years later, they can’t have been wrong about each other because they spent that anniversary with us. And Andre Rieu.
You see the thing about having your parents around 24 hours a day for a few weeks in your small German apartment in the middle of winter is that after the first 72 hours of euphoria where you catch up on all banalities like how was your trip, what kind of films were on the plane, how was the transit in Dubai, then reality kicks in. You start to remember why you had so many fights with them as a teenager, why their reminders to wear 3 jackets and two hats outside in case you catch pneumonia make your blood boil.
But also why, when you see them playing with your own son and dragging him around on a toboggan for hours on end when its blizzarding outside, how they laugh together with him, how they dote on him when they are out and about, how they are kind of clueless about how to build lego bricks but can still come up will all manner of creative games including indoor football, or ‘kill the mouse’ and how sometimes, when they are tired they will plonk their grandchild in front of the TV and you are (kind of) ok with it. All of this reminds you why a large part of who you are is really them in another, different shape and form. How what we learn as kids comes from them: the way we laugh, cry, interact with others, how we learn to love and respect.What we hold dear and what we disregard.
We’re our own people, and it is often difficult to look back and accept lots of annoying things about ourselves because we see that directly reflected in our parents. If you want to know where you are going, you have to know where you have come from.