My parents gave me the wooden travel chess set for Easter, just after my eighth birthday. Scarcely had I made my first few attempts to play with it when I was overcome by the urge to write my full address inside. Melitta Breznik, Winklerweg, Kapfenberg, Styria, Austria, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. Reading that today, I find it a little embarrassing, but it also makes me smile. What surprises me is the mention of Europe – a word that, back then, was generally thought of as referring to a subcontinent. It hadn’t yet acquired the political dimension it has today. I knew from a school trip that on the eastern horizon, which we could sense in the distance from the top of the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna, there was a sharp border: the Iron Curtain, with barbed wire and watchtowers, a man-made division into Western and Eastern Europe of a region that geographically belonged together. What would a Czech, Polish or Latvian schoolgirl my age have written inside her travel chess set in 1969? Europe? When you took the train from Kapfenberg to Vienna and studied the rattling departure board at the Südbahnhof, the frontier of the Iron Curtain was imprinted on your subconscious over and over again; because, unlike today, the only names you saw there, in that high, gloomy hall with its 1950s charm, were those of frontier stations on our side of the border. Nor could you escape the art installation that hung from the ceiling on a long cable: it showed a blinking eye on a screen, and as you slowly descended the escalator from platform level to the ticket hall it emitted repetitive clicks, which could be heard at a considerable distance. The black-and-white eye didn’t belong in this desolate non-place of arrivals and departures – or perhaps it did, because it referenced the way the machinery of surveillance was taken for granted, part of our daily lives, and its acoustic and visual omnipresence was unpleasantly disturbing. The Südbahnhof no longer exists; it was superseded by the Hauptbahnhof, whose functional modernity provides an emotion-free departure point for a trip to Bratislava, Budapest or Brno.
Seen from Austria, ‘our Europe’ also sort of included Hungary, because some of the grown-ups still went to health resorts on Lake Balaton. Croatia was kind of included because people would go to the Croatian islands for their holidays, just as their grandparents or parents had done before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And then of course Slovenia belonged a bit as well, because the new wine always tasted better in the southern air, in the taverns just ‘over there’, across the border, rather than ‘over here’. Yugoslavia was always different; that border never seemed as impermeable as the one in the ‘real’ East. There was a Yugoslavian guest worker who lived in our workers’ apartment block; on the one hand, people didn’t want too much to do with him, yet everyone relied on his physical strength. He would turn over the garden for the old widow on the ground floor or heave crates of potatoes onto the lorry at the greengrocer’s to earn a few extra schillings for his wife and four children in Serbia. Our family only ever mentioned in passing the fact that my grandfather had immigrated in the 1920s in search of work from what was then Lower Styria in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Yugoslavia in the interim, now Slovenia. It was more likely to be noted that my grandfather, a skinny, taciturn man of whom I was especially fond, came from a hamlet that was called Breznik (now Brezni Vrh), as if this indicated a claim to ownership, or even a noble title of some kind. Decades later, by which time I had settled in Switzerland, I visited this hamlet while trying to trace his origins. I looked around the cemetery above Radlje in the Drava valley, asked the surrounding farmers about my grandfather and our ancestors, and was given a warm welcome. Calls were made to neighbours to gather information about ‘Eduard’; food was brought and my glass filled with wine and schnapps until I could hardly stand. I felt strangely happy and at home in this community, although ultimately I didn’t know if we were directly related. When I took my leave I turned to the elderly grandmother, who was wearing a traditional, brightly patterned headscarf, a standard countrywoman’s accessory in south-eastern regions. All day she had simply smiled at the excitement surrounding my appearance without saying anything. To her family’s surprise, she addressed a single sentence to me in crystal-clear German: ‘I am very pleased that you have come to visit us.’ She had spoken German as a child, but never used it later on; after the end of the First World War, when the borders were drawn more tightly around Vienna, it would no longer have been politic, as other rulers were calling the shots in the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes that subsequently gave birth to Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the Second World War.
My mother was from Frankfurt am Main, and when I was seven years old we drove across the border to Germany to meet her friend and walk around a city that, as my mother kept saying, didn’t look the way it had in her youth: wartime bombing had reduced many of the buildings to rubble. In the evening, when they thought I was asleep, I secretly listened to their stories about the fearful hours they had spent together during air raids while on Labour Service at the IG Farben factory. I heard about the air-raid warnings my mother had had to trigger at the telephone exchange before the roaring squadrons of bombers reached the city. Even today I freeze and a cold shudder runs down my spine when, at precisely midday on a Saturday in an Austrian town, the siren test slices metallically through the peaceful air. Our family’s story began back then, in the Second World War, when my father, as part of his job with the communication service of the German Wehrmacht, would telephone my mother to inform her of an impending attack and instruct her to sound the sirens. Eventually, between bomb alerts, they arranged to meet and go to the cinema. Decades later, it was the ghosts that had lodged themselves in their bodies amid the din of falling bombs, exploding grenades and salvos of machine-gun fire that caused their relationship to founder. My brother and I reluctantly bore witness to these ghosts throughout our childhood. To this day I can still hear the screams of the French forced labourers, trapped in a cellar opposite my mother’s workplace, who burned to death after an air raid: she told me about them over and over again.
Years later, I thought about these prisoners of war as I stood on a bridge over the Seine, watching as the sky behind the roofs of the Parisian apartment buildings was engulfed by the ‘blue hour’: it had an intensity I’ve never encountered elsewhere. It was the early 1990s, and I was in Paris for the first time. I spent a few weeks there around Christmas, whiling away the hours in the city’s cafes and museums, engrossed in writing my first book. The little Parisian apartment at my disposal was on the top floor of an old town house. In my memory I see the floor of the narrow kitchen with its square black-and-white tiles, the tall, ill-fitting windows, the winding wooden staircase that led up from the hall, the fake fireplace lit by gas and above it the mirror with bevelled edges in which I can still glimpse my reflection. There in the hallway are the beige suede shoes with the high heels that gave me blisters as I walked and walked around the unfamiliar city.
When I was ten, my mother and I travelled to Piraeus with my father, who wanted to show us the places where he had been stationed in the Second World War. We languished for more than forty hours in shabby train compartments, opening the window as far as it would go to mitigate the heat and the smell of sweat emanating from our fellow passengers. The journey took us past the prefab apartments of Belgrade, which seemed monstrous to me, a resident of a small Austrian industrial town. At a leisurely pace, accompanied by a basso continuo ‘ta-tam-ta-tam’, we crossed never-ending green fields, followed the courses of rivers and rolled ever deeper into mountain landscapes with countless narrow, dark tunnels. I remember long stops for no apparent reason at dirty, run-down train stations; the taste of the small, exotically seasoned lamb skewers sold by countrywomen at the border with Greece, which was still, in those days, under military dictatorship. For many years, always around Easter time, my father would travel to the country where he had spent a year as a young Wehrmacht soldier. Meteora, Piraeus, Corinth – I’d grown up hearing these auspicious names, and it was on this trip with my parents that I saw the turquoise infinity of the sea for the first time. We stayed in a small, whitewashed house in the port of Athens with a Greek man and his family, who hosted us and made us welcome. He and my father had shared some sort of experience during the war that they didn’t discuss when they spoke together in their broken English. A silent, amicable understanding seemed to exist between them for reasons that remained hidden to us. I was too young at the time to interrogate him about his experiences. Eventually, in later years, I stopped trying to retrace my father’s footsteps – stopped researching his time in the Wehrmacht, reading descriptions of the Wehrmacht’s terrible massacres in Greek villages, going through reports in English and German archives from the military units to which he was assigned. He took the secret of his friendship, perhaps also of his guilt, to the grave.
From the age of twelve onwards, England became increasingly familiar to me. My school friend’s mother was from London. She made curry with chutney for lunch, and at five in the afternoon she served biscuits and delicious English tea, the function of which I only came to appreciate much later, when preparing for my anatomy and pathology exams: it kept me awake over my books until late into the night. I often stayed over with my ‘English friend’; I would stand outside her front door, carrying a little rucksack stuffed with my nightdress, schoolbooks, and vegetables from our allotment, waiting for her to let me in so I could immerse myself in another kind of life: the ‘English’ life of her home. We would spend long afternoons in her room, listening to the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel, learning the lyrics by heart and singing them in our thin, girlish voices. Both of us were juniors at the academic secondary school; we used to rehearse little sketches and perform them in English class the following day.
A few years ago, I spent six months in London on a literature scholarship. My original intention was to work on my novel, but I was too distracted by my walks around the city. On a sudden impulse, I started researching the time my father had spent in a prisoner-of-war camp, and finally found what I was looking for in Romsey, in southern England. I contacted the local historical society, and a friendly elderly lady said she would be available to give me a guided tour. My father was there for two years, and in the months before his release he had been assigned to work on a farm near the camp. My mother once voiced a suspicion that we might have a half-brother or-sister in England.