Going back to my roots: Truth or Lies?

In my last post, I mentioned that I am learning things about my family’s past that I didn’t know before.  I am aware that there may be stories that might be uncomfortable or painful to re-tell.  Some might say that there is no point knowing as that is all in the past and most of the people are dead.  They may be right, or maybe not.  Anyway it has got me thinking –  I have a lot of free time on my hands at the moment.

In the British film Secrets and Lies a web of secrets has been woven around one particular family.  People are misjudged and issues and dynamics are created based on hiding events from the past.  When the truth comes to light, instead of breaking up the family, it eventually brings them together.   In this case, the truth was shocking, but  it was nothing so sinister that would destroy these people.  In this case, the truth had set them free.

Online at Global Post, I came across an article entitled Torn Between Identities in Argentina. It is about the genetic testing being carried out on children that were removed from their families during the rule of the military junta.   Many children whose parents were killed ended up being raised by people who supported the dictatorship instead of being given back to remaining family.  The grandmothers never gave up looking for their grandchildren.  Now that DNA testing is available, many suspected adopted children are refusing to take the test as they have feelings for the families that raised them.  Some people feel that the law is unconstitutional because if one is suspected of being a kidnapped child, they can be forced to take the test.  If the parents are found guilty, they can go to jail.  In some ways this is a Catch 22 situation; where does one’s loyalty lie, to the one that raised you or to your biological family?  This was a terrible time in Argentina’s past and many people have gone unpunished for crimes that were committed.  But what about the children?  Most of them will be adults by now.  They will have lived a whole life under a lie.  How will the truth affect their mental state?  Will knowing the truth create more suffering?  Or will it create understanding and compassion?  As is usual in situations as this, politics have some bearing in this situation.  Politics aside, I believe that this is a moral issue based on atrocities of the past.  How can we allow atrocities to go unpunished when so many still suffer and when there is a way to learn the truth?  The truth can indeed hurt, but with time and care one can overcome these things.  The children that were given to families were innocent.  However, as adults, they know the difference between right and wrong.  If they learn who they really are, then punishing those involved might guarantee that this type of thing wouldn’t happen again because of the consequences, no matter how long it took.  As the saying goes, “you can run, but you can never hide” (especially from yourself).

This year, a book entitled The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My SS Grandfather’s Secret Past and How Hitler Seduced a Generation by Martin Davidson was published.  I haven’t read it yet.  It is about a young man’s discovery about his family’s Nazi past.  It must have been very shocking for Mr. Davidson to find out the truth about his grandfather.  However, without having read the book, I am making the assumption that he now has a better understanding of the man.

The whole idea of this book resonates with me.  As I mentioned in my previous post, there are secrets in my own family.  Some more open than others.  I mentioned that no one liked my grandfathers.  There was good reason, which I really won’t go into here.  There are things that I know that are quite despicable and I used to ask myself ‘why?’  Delving into the past has answered some of those questions.  I have better understanding.  Understanding events of the past doesn’t make the things that I despise any less despicable.  Cycles of events and family dynamics are very difficult to break or change.  It can take generations.  There were things about my family that I didn’t know until I was in my 30’s.  It was distressing information.  It was distressing for the people telling me and I was distressed to hear it.  I eventually got over it and I was able to have empathy for all those involved.  I was able to move beyond the restrictions of my upbringing.  Better late than never.  Some people never know their parents or how they got to be the people they are.  I don’t think it is necessary to share everything, but I do think communication is essential.  It can make all the difference in having an ah-ha moment.  Ah, my mom is like this because of this thing that happened when she was little.  Ah, dad is like this because my grandfather used to do such and such.  If I talk to my children about my upbringing, then they can understand why I do the things I do.  Maybe they will make better decisions in their lives than I did.

If learning from History is so important, then why do so many people hide the past?  Why do we care so much about what other people think?  If someone does something so terrible, it is understandable why one would want to hide it.  But instead of hiding this terrible thing, why not accept responsibility?  Because of self-preservation.   We all want to live.  Lying can become easier than telling the truth.   When I was young, I would lie to avoid getting smacked.  Sometimes I got away with it.  The outcome was the same for telling the truth or found caught lying.  Living in  fear of the outcome meant that it was easier to risk lying.

I know what it is like to have lived with someone who hid the truth and who has lied about their past.  The sad thing is, the truth didn’t come out until it was too late.  I had been sucked into the web of lies by the time everything started to fall apart.  The really sad thing is, none of the lies were really necessary.  The truth was never really that bad, only in the liar’s mind.  Lies are manipulations to control outcomes and people.  We all do it on occasion.  The people who do it all the time are considered sociopathic.  I learned all about the lies and why someone would do it.  Having understanding didn’t make the situation right, but at least I had information that allowed me to move on with my life without bitterness.  The lies were destructive to my relationship, but not my life.  Although I went through a terrible situation, I came through it a better person because I had more information.

I don’t really know what life was like for my grandparents and my great-grandparents.  I don’t know anything about their upbringing.  I do know the effect it had on my parents and Aunts and Uncles and how it trickled down to me and my siblings and my cousins.  I would like to know more about what life was like for my grandfather’s generation.  What was it like to leave their country and what hardships had they suffered?  How did they feel about building a new life in America and was it really any better or worse than they thought it would be?  What frustrations and humiliations had they endured?  I may never know.





Going back to my roots

Some of you may be aware that I am a first generation American.  My parents are immigrants from Hungary.  They arrived in the USA around 1951, before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.  I recently went to Budapest with my daughter.  Although I had been there before for a long weekend, going with my daughter was quite poignant.  Here we were both looking at a part of our heritage and both of us looking at it from completely different perspectives.

I grew up with the Hungarian language, food and music.  I knew many Hungarians from church and family.  I had seen photos of Budapest in family albums.  For awhile, I was fluent in the language.  My daughter never experienced these things, except for the occasional Hungarian meal I would make.  I don’t think she was a big fan.  The two times I have been to Budapest I have had deja-vu.  I feel like I belong there.  There is a familiarity that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced in other cities and cultures.  Yet, I know the whole while that I am just a visitor.  I barely speak the language and I have never experienced anything close to what Hungarians my age have been exposed to.  I am embarrassed to say that I really don’t know much about the history of the country.  Since my last visit, I have ordered many books in order to learn about my cultural past.  I think it is going to take me awhile to get through them.

While I was growing up, my parents never really talked about the past.  After all, they were just children when they left Hungary to live in Germany.  They saw some awful things and went through some difficult times.  Coming to America gave them a new start and they embraced their new culture and lifestyle wholeheartedly.  There is no point dwelling on the past.  This is true for many immigrants wanting to make a new start.  Even so, there are many who are proud of their heritage through the generations.  It is not uncommon for a third or fourth generation descendent to proudly say that they are Italian, Hungarian, German, etc. – even if they have never even been to the land of their forefathers or speak the language.

In a manner of speaking, I am also an immigrant.  It may not be so obvious to some people until I speak and people hear my American accent.  Eventually, others get used to it and probably don’t give it too much thought, like an Irish, Scottish or Welsh accent.  It’s relatively the same language.  I have lived in the UK for over 20 years and my accent is the obvious thing that makes me different. Some things you just have to keep.

As I am getting older and my children are becoming independent, and the fact that I live far away from family members, there is this urge for me to connect with what is left of the family and get back to my roots.  Finding out about the death of my Aunt two years ago made me realise how distanced I was from my relations, when we used to be so close.  My father’s side of the family has been easier to keep track of as it was smaller than my mother’s side.  Still, relatives were scattered all over the USA.  Looking back, I realise that it had been my grandmothers that kept the families reasonably close together while they were alive.  No one liked either of my grandfathers and as soon as the grandmothers had gone, the families dispersed.

This sense of family nostalgia has urged me to try to find cousins and Aunts and Uncles.  The internet has made it easier to find people.  Thank goodness for Facebook!  I have been able to reconnect with relatives that mean the world to me and have even discovered new ones!  By rediscovering family, I have been able to help build bridges between  some of us.  Though some bridges have been re-built, it may take a bit more time before some are willing to walk or drive over them.  However, adding someone back to the Christmas card list is a start.  Now, if they would just pick up the phone and talk to each other I would consider that a minor miracle.  I live in hope.

My daughter is writing her dissertation on immigrants and part of it will include information about our family.  My cousin’s wife had started a family tree a few years ago.  I decided to branch off and focus on my mother’s and father’s side of the family.  This meant that I had to ask questions and search for people I had lost contact with.  This all started before I went to Budapest with my daughter.  We were hoping that we would be able to expand on what we had learned while we were there, but there really wasn’t a lot of time to do that as sightseeing took priority.

This paper has been a catalyst for me delving deeper for information and continuing the search for family.  A whole generation of those with the most information have gone, apart from one person.  There are so many questions to ask, but I wonder if I should be asking them or let sleeping dogs lie.  I am grateful to my new-found second cousin for sending me photos and documents.  I am learning things about the family I never knew before.  There are intrigues and secrets.  Should they be told or should they stay buried?




Three Days in Lille: Day 3 – A Bit of Culture

Our last day started off a bit grey, slightly damp, but surprisingly mild.  Our train didn’t leave until 20:30, so we had one whole day left to explore.  After breakfast we packed our bag and left it with the hotel, to be collected later on the way to the station.

The Place de la République is a beautiful square with the Palais des Beaux Arts (1892) on one side of the square and the Préfecture (1865) directly opposite on the other.  There is a fountain in the middle in front of the Palais and a modern sunken garden with seating opposite the Préfecture.

We had passed by or through this square many times to and from our hotel.  I thought as the weather was not so great, we should at least go into the Palais to look at the art collection.  There is an entrance to the front of the museum.  In this instance, there was a red velvet curtain covering the doorway which made us think this was not the case.  It is there to keep the draft out.  The museum was very quiet and fairly empty, which I found unusual compared to other art museums I had visited.  We paid our money and checked our coats to look at the collection.  The building is quite grand without being over the top.  On the main floor there is an interesting collection of ceramics from the area and other parts of Europe.  There is also an amazing collection of sculptures.  There were a few little pieces by Rodin that I wouldn’t have minded taking home with me.  After viewing everything on this floor, Amor and I had a break and ordered some coffee from the bar.  It is also possible to order alcoholic drinks and they also serve lunch.  Our coffee was excellent, very strong.

Upstairs is where you will find the painting collections.  There is everything from Dutch Masters, Medieval and religious paintings, Renaissance and some modern.  We made an effort to look at everything, some we liked and others not.  Even if I didn’t like a painting, I could appreciate its’ place in history and the talent and work behind it.  Every once in awhile, I would come across a piece that was truly amazing and inspiring.  Oh, the joy when that happens!

Downstairs, in the basement, there is an incredible of collection of scale models of the former French Netherlands from the 17th – 19th Centuries.  These are truly amazing masterpieces of miniaturization and we spent a lot of time here viewing them all.

A visit to any museum is not complete without a visit to the museum shop.  I purchased a copy the English version of The Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.  It is a wonderful reminder of the beautiful works we had spent the past few hours viewing.  I am looking forward to reading more about the museum and the collection.  The shop also has the typical tourist items such as pens, notebooks, pencil sharpeners, plus some more expensive items such as silk scarves, china cups, jewellery and sculptures.  If the rate of exchange had been better, I might have been tempted to buy one of the scarves as they were very beautiful.  The website listed at the end of this post is very informative thereby making it easier to plan a visit in advance.

When we went outside we were pleased to note that the weather had brightened up.  Where to next?  I wanted to go back to The Old Town.  I am a sucker for bright colours, plasterwork cherubs and wrought iron railings!  We went back to Grand Place in search of food before going to The Old Town.  Being on the constant lookout for sustenance in a country where you don’t speak the language and are on a budget can be tiresome after a few days.  We went into the nearest establishment, The Hippopotamus Restaurant Grill, a chain restaurant.   The prices on the fixed menus were reasonable and I ordered a steak, with salad and chips.  Amor had Thai kebabs to start and a steak with baked potato.  For a chain restaurant, the food was cooked very well and the portions were reasonable.  We skipped coffee and dessert. This was to be our last meal of the day.  If we had wine instead of beer (€5 per bottle of Kronenbourg white beer) the bill would have been more reasonable as the drinks cost almost as much as a meal.

After lunch, we walked towards The Old Town.  We ended up on streets we hadn’t been on before, which is what I had hoped we would do.  I was still searching for another café/patisserie for coffee and cake, but no luck there.  After a nice long walk and to kill some time before we went back to the hotel to collect our bag, we went into a bar, for a beer, and a pit stop (another pissoire).  That is where I got the news of my exchange.  Hallelujah!  We had another beer to celebrate the good news!

On the way back to the hotel I took these photos of the Chambre de Commerce, at night.  They are not that great, but it gives you an idea of how lovely the place is, even in the dark.

We also stopped into a supermarché as I wanted to see if there was anything interesting to bring back home since we had some room in our bag.  Amor found some of the local beer that was on offer at our last restaurant for €9 and being sold in the train station for €12.  We paid €2.50!  We bought a bottle each of Les 3 Monts and Ch’ti, both of which were very good and is recommended if you like blonde beer.

We collected our bag and walked back to the station.  I was a little bit sad to leave as we were just really getting to know and love Lille.  The journey back was a Disneyland nightmare and full of kids making a racket.  Who in their right mind takes kids under the age of 10 to a theme park!  Having a little snooze was out of the question.  Fortunately the rest of the journey, once we got off the Eurostar, was uneventful.

What I have learned from my trip to Lille: Lille is a walking city and is very compact.  The city map makes everything seem further away than it actually is.  Exploring the city in sections was a sensible idea as it gave us an opportunity to take our time and wander at our own pace.  Until the last day, we didn’t go into any of the museums or tourist sites as we wanted to take advantage of the good weather.  By going down a street that is not on the tourist route, one might discover something interesting.   It is very difficult to get lost in Lille.  Wear comfy shoes for walking as some of the older sections of town are cobblestoned, which can make walking difficult in heels.  Unless you have issues with mobility, or are just plain lazy, forget about purchasing a City Pass.  It may let you into most museums for free with unlimited access to public transportation, but how much of it are you actually going to utilise before you realise that it was easier (and cheaper) to walk, and you were only able to go to one museum per day?  I can’t see it being economical unless one is on a strict and regimented schedule to cram in as many museums in one day as possible, or unless the weather is particularly hideous that it is better to be under cover at all costs.  We were fortunate with the weather and walked everywhere.  A three day trip was just enough time to explore and visit a few attractions and to get the feel of the city.

Most Essential Items: The two guide books in my first post were invaluable.  Compared to the MapGuide, The AA guide had more detailed information on the history of Lille, the top ten sights, shopping, eating out, and a couple of walks.  The MapGuide was really useful as the city was divided into sections, with fold out maps of each section, and with basic information about the tourist sites in the area as well as shopping and restaurants.  My camera goes everywhere with me.

What I would do differently next time: The next time I go to Lille I would most likely start my day earlier.  Depending on the weather, I would make an effort to visit more of the attractions such as the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, the Befroi de l’Hotel de Ville (Town Hall Belfry) and the many parks and green spaces.  I would eat less food, or eat different food.  I enjoy eating potatoes in any shape or style and am particularly partial to chips, which are served with everything, but there was a bit of over kill on the carb front.  I normally don’t eat wheat and didn’t think a  baguette or piece of cake would an issue, but my digestion can’t handle it and I would really need to be selective with my meals.  As the Euro is almost on par with Sterling, budgeting meals better can mean that there would be more money for shopping!  I would drink wine instead of beer – it’s cheaper and isn’t made of wheat.  I would also pack fewer clothes.  If I needed anything, I could always go into one of the many shops or markets and pick something up!

Palais des Beaux Arts, Place de la République – http://www.pba-lille.fr

Hippopotamus Restaurant Grill, 2, rue Faidherbe – http://www.hippopotamus.fr/