Not Your Ordinary Housewife
Author:Nikki Stern

Not Your Ordinary Housewife By Nikki Stern

 

 

1

 

 

The news reports were using phrases like ‘freak weather event’ to describe the red dust storm that enveloped Melbourne one afternoon in February 1983. When it struck, I was delivering a consignment of my glass sculptures to a gallery in Hawthorn. Luckily, it was the last stop on my list. As I stood trapped inside—the lack of visibility preventing me from driving the short distance home—I thought again of the trip I was about to take. My plan was to spend a year doing art while wandering the great galleries of Europe. I was itching for adventure and would let destiny decide my fate.

 

Lately, I had found myself in a career cul-de-sac. After completing an art and design degree majoring in glass studies, I had spent a year at Adelaide’s artisan paradise, the Jam Factory Craft Centre, a heritage building that housed a gallery and numerous craft workshops, including a world-renowned glass studio. Participating in several group exhibitions, I had earned the moniker of emerging glass artist but then I developed pterygia—a nasty eye condition exacerbated by the heat of the furnace. As a result, I had decided to change trajectory—henceforth I would concentrate on works on paper: ink drawings in my distinctive cartoon style, collage and photography.

 

I stayed briefly with my mother in Melbourne before heading off. Dory’s beloved Egon—her husband of 50 years and my adoring father—had recently died and she was bereft. As their only child, I had always been the focus of her overbearing Jewish angst. She harassed me mercilessly, distressed by my appearance. In her eyes, I seemed too alternative, bordering on punk, whereas I saw myself as merely arty alternative. My dark hair was partly dyed blonde and I wore predominantly black and white. I guess when I thought about it, she was right—there was definitely an element of edginess about me.

 

With Amsterdam as my base, my aim was to find a new artistic direction. Backpacking would allow me to drift, away from the grip of my overanxious mother. I could survive for a year on my savings—the Aussie dollar was at an all-time high and living would be cheap if I was careful.

 

On the day of my departure, Dory extracted a promise from me to write regularly. At the same time, she stuffed into my address book a sheet of paper containing dozens of phone numbers.

 

‘You might need these in an emergency,’ she said in her thick Viennese accent.

 

I scanned her parting gift. It was a neatly written alphabetised list of countries, each with a number of contacts. Many I knew from my childhood—artists, musicians and dancers. Perhaps it was because she had lost nearly all her family in the Holocaust that Dory had a plethora of close friends. Her empathy for the suffering of fellow human beings endeared her to a vast array of people. She was a person with high ethical standards, not in a religious sense—for she was atheist—but in a humanist sense.

 

‘I can’t just call these people up and come and stay,’ I explained. ‘Like, for instance, the Countess of Harewood . . .’

 

‘Well, I’ve given you her townhouse address, not Harewood House. I’ve stayed there a few times—it’s basically a palace. Turner painted it. It’s open to the public now, you know?’

 

‘Well, I’ll take the phone number, just in case, but I have all my glassblowing contacts. Anyway, I’m going to be staying in youth hostels, or sleeping on the train . . .’

 

‘You never know what might happen.’

 

Dory was often full of pessimism. Escaping Hitler had taught her that. Why couldn’t she say ‘Have a wonderful time, just be careful,’ like an ordinary Australian mother would? In the end, we argued over trivialities and I left without saying goodbye.

 

Quite quickly, my memory of our parting faded as I flew towards Europe. I knew I would have no trouble meeting people. One of the subtle skills Dory had bestowed on me was her amazing ability to strike up an acquaintance with strangers. She could make friends in unlikely places; people were attracted to her ebullience. I too could be like that, talking easily with most people.

 

I first landed in Rome and wandered its streets, soaking up the ambience. People stared at me with my dyed hair and new-wave clothing. I roamed the corridors of the Vatican, overwhelmed by the beauty of the art, all the while remembering Egon telling me how the Vatican officials helped so many Nazis escape to South America after the war. At the gift shop there, I bought two diaries—one to record my experiences, the other to document the galleries I would visit as I criss-crossed Europe on my rail pass.

 

I was keen to see Vienna, because of its deep significance in my life. My parents had fled just days before Hitler’s annexation, leaving behind everything: family, friends and property. It had always been a subject far too painful for direct conversation, and there was inevitably the tragic subtext that accompanied any mention of the Holocaust. Neither Dory nor Egon had been able to visit Vienna for many decades; when they finally did they said little on their return.

 

Vienna’s giant Ferris wheel at the Prater had dominated the physical landscape of Dory’s childhood. I took the ride, and from its summit I looked around me and wondered which of the tiny houses below had been hers and how I could ever comprehend her life here. I bought her a postcard featuring the wheel. Because it symbolised her lost life, I knew that she would see the photo and weep. She often shed tears, but now as I tried to write, I was doing so too. I was stuck for words and I could not adequately express the emotions I was feeling.

 

I knew I needed to be more tolerant of Dory’s neuroses. Her pathological over-protectiveness of me was a result of her unimaginable loss. But crying was something I almost never did. I theorised that it was because I had been in an orphanage for my first eight months and that babies in that situation soon learned the futility of tears. It was not that I didn’t feel emotion—for I plainly did—but I rarely expressed it overtly.

 

Feeling suffocated in Austria, I travelled to Germany. I felt compelled to visit Dachau, the concentration camp where Dory’s mother had perished. I took the short bus ride from central Munich. It was a glorious day—my 27th birthday. I spoke to no-one, just looked and contemplated all that was around me. The barracks, the ovens—it was all unfathomable. I took some photos in black and white. These perhaps might be the basis for a change in my artistic direction. I wanted to express in images what I could not in words: the horror of this place. Later that evening, I cut off all my hair—a sign of my new ability to face the world, I hoped.

 

I travelled through Belgium and decided to spend the next month in Paris. By day, I rode the Metro and wandered the streets. I’d started drawing again, in between visiting still more galleries. I had absorbed so much art that I was feeling inspired. For weeks at a time, I hardly talked to anyone as I wrote in my journals. I was drawn to the urban life that made the city so alive: the buskers, the street musicians and the punks. Somehow they always seemed to notice me.

 

Despite my unease with my own appearance, men found me attractive. People often told me I was beautiful, but I assumed they were being insincere. At best, I would have described myself as moderately attractive; not ugly, but passable. I remember my German teacher once telling me that I had a stunning smile, and how shocked I had been. I knew I had prominent white teeth, including two extra wisdom teeth, but I had never thought of my smile in those terms.

 

I began to tire of the men in Paris. I was being constantly followed and harassed; I wanted to tell them all to fuck off. It seemed that a young woman on her own was taken as an open invitation. I was feeling vulnerable, but I longed for something to happen. I knew that at last it was time for me to go to Amsterdam.

 

 

 

 

Ever since reading The Cow Who Fell in the Canal as a child, I had wanted to go to Holland. I remembered how my parents occasionally commented: ‘The Dutch were so compassionate to the Jews during the war—their Resistance was one of the strongest.’ And then, of course, there was Harry Vanda from The Easybeats—God, did they all look as gorgeous as him?

 

On arrival I knew I could live in Amsterdam. The city encapsulated the zeitgeist of the early 1980s like no other in Europe. I felt at home. People offered me accommodation, seemingly without wanting anything in return. One casual conversation with a man on a bus, during which I told him I had gone to a concentration camp on my birthday, resulted in him giving me his apartment keys; he said he was going away and I could stay there. When I protested that he didn’t know me, he replied that anyone who went to Dachau on their birthday must be okay. Later I posted back his keys, thanking him for his generosity.

 

Then I met Jeff at the Bimhuis, a contemporary jazz haunt well known throughout Europe. He was an English trumpeter living in Amsterdam and was going on tour. He offered me his centrally located apartment—which I gratefully accepted. A photographer, Frans, who moonlighted as a barman at the Bimhuis, invited me to dinner and photographed me. Although we slept together once and I knew he wanted to see me again, it was to remain a one-night stand.

 

No stay in Amsterdam was complete without a visit to De Melkweg, or the Milky Way. It was a former dairy converted into a unique multimedia centre with myriad attractions: live music, a cinema, shops and the famous market hall. The latter was the drawcard for the tourists—a large space dotted with stalls openly selling marijuana. There were blackboards displaying the variety, such as Lebanese or Moroccan, and the price per unit weight. There was also a host of other products, including hash cookies and cakes.

 

Unlike most of my fellow backpackers, I had not come to buy dope, although I was curious to see why the tourist books recommended this place. Instead, I browsed the bookshop, looking for something in English. I had recently finished the Jack Kerouac novel I had brought with me and was craving something to read. I hated to be without reading material—I would even have settled for a few crossword puzzles.

 

I was chatting to one of the staff, enquiring if there were any English-language bookshops in Amsterdam, when I was interrupted by an approaching young man who spoke Dutch. Without warning, he switched to faultless North American English.

 

‘Do you want to smoke a joint?’

 

‘No thanks,’ I replied.

 

‘Well, how about we sit down and you can keep me company while I smoke one?’

 

I considered my options; I was by myself and the night was still young.

 

‘Okay, but I really don’t smoke much,’ I said.

 

‘I’m Paul, by the way.’

 

I looked at him as I introduced myself. He was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a red lumber jacket. Tiny John Lennon glasses perched on his ski-ramp nose; an army surplus canvas bag with a stencilled anarchy symbol hung over his shoulder. I had known people from my student days who dressed like him. Invariably, they had posters of Marx and Bakunin on the walls of their share households.

 

From the bookshop, we made our way to a large round table at which sat numerous tourists in various stages of joint-rolling. Paul took out his dope paraphernalia: a plastic mixing bowl, a packet of cigarette papers and some filters. We chatted while he engaged in what was clearly a ritual he enjoyed.

 

‘I don’t get it—you’re living in Holland, right? But your accent is American,’ I queried.

 

‘Canadian . . . Well, mid-Atlantic, actually,’ he clarified.

 

‘And you speak Dutch?’

 

‘Actually, my Dutch is better than my English. I can put on a funny Dutch accent if you want,’ he said in perfect imitation of Netherlands English.

 

I laughed. ‘So you’re bilingual?’

 

‘Trilingual, actually. I speak pretty good German. Most Germans think I’m a native—they just can’t quite pick where I’m from.’

 

‘I speak a little myself, although I’m very rusty,’ I admitted. ‘My parents spoke German when they didn’t want me to understand something. Stupid really, ’cos I could have been bilingual.’

 

‘And my French is not bad,’ Paul continued. ‘I was in this ritzy boarding school in Switzerland. Actually, my parents just wanted to get rid of me, so they sent me to Lausanne. President Mugabe’s kids went there too. I came out speaking fluent French.’

 

He took off his glasses and I studied his profile. It was one of those typical Dutch faces with high cheekbones and lean planes ending in a strongly chiselled chin. Undeniably, he was strikingly handsome—boyish, but not naive. The more he spoke, the more I realised Paul had that certain something—that je ne sais quoi.

 

With extreme dexterity, he had rolled a large trumpet-shaped joint. It was a work of art, perfect in every way. Judging by its size, I concluded I was expected to participate.

 

‘So how did you end up in Canada?’

 

‘Well, I was born there. My family was from Rotterdam, but during the war it had the shit bombed out of it. It was a parking lot—flatter than usual. So, my grandparents emigrated to Canada. I think it was ’cos the Canadians liberated Holland after the war. They had eight kids, so it can’t have been easy. Then my mom got knocked up—she was only nineteen . . . Anyway, I’m gonna smoke this joint,’ he said, flicking his lighter while inhaling deeply.

 

I was having trouble digesting so much information at such a fast pace. His arrogance astounded me—or was it merely confidence? I practically knew his whole life story after only a few minutes.

 

‘Who are your favourite authors?’ he queried as he handed me the joint.

 

‘Jeez, I don’t know. I have lots.’ The question had thrown me. It seemed the sort of thing children asked in primary school, akin to ‘What’s your favourite colour?’

 

I pondered. ‘Okay, well, I love Michael Wilding—he’s an Australian writer you wouldn’t have heard of. Writes stuff about share households in Sydney. Then, my second favourite would be Richard Brautigan—he’s brilliant, and I’ve read all his books. You probably wouldn’t have heard of him either, although he’s American. He’s been compared to Kerouac, who’s probably my third favourite. Anyway, what about you?’

 

‘Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke—they’re my two favourites. I love sci-fi. Who are your favourite bands?’

 

This was starting to feel slightly inquisitorial, but I kept playing the game. ‘The Beatles . . . and AC/DC,’ I said. I couldn’t think of any others as the dope I had accepted from him was starting to take effect.

 

‘You’re kidding—they’re my two favourite bands as well. Have you ever been to an AC/DC concert?’

 

‘Yeah, a couple of times. Actually, I was there when Angus bared his bum.’

 

‘Wow!’ He drew back heavily on the joint. ‘Hey, you wanna see my drawings? I’m a cartoonist. I’ve done some stuff for the Milky Way—they used one of my drawings on their promotional T-shirts.’

 

Paul reached into his canvas bag and pulled out a sketchbook. ‘This is my Jesus Christ series. I’ve got a variety of captions for the same image of Christ on the cross. See, the caption here says: “Fuck crucifixion, I’d rather be stoned”. You get it? A pun on stoned. And there’s another caption that says: “So much for Legal Aid”.’

 

 

I studied the black ink drawings as he flicked rapidly through the book. There were self-portraits as well—he had an uncanny ability to capture his own likeness. ‘Hey, they’re great. Really great. Very professional—I’ve been doing a bit of drawing on my travels, but nothing like this. They’re kind of MAD magazine style. Offensive yet funny.’

 

‘Yeah, I know. My grandmother would hate them. She’s devoutly religious—Dutch Reformed. Black socks and all that. She used to drag me to church and I had religion rammed down my throat, and now I draw outrageous cartoons about Jesus. Ironic, really.’

 

‘You could easily make this a career—you’re very talented,’ I said, and I meant it.

 

‘Well, I’m just finishing my final year of school, but then I want to go to art college.’

 

‘Jesus, how old are you?’

 

‘Nineteen. Why, how old are you?’ he asked.

 

I wasn’t usually coy about my age, but I knew I didn’t want to tell him of my 27 years. ‘Older than you,’ I quipped.

 

As if sensing my unease, Paul changed the topic. ‘I’ve just met my father for the first time. My mother would never tell me who he was, and I met him last month after an uncle felt sorry for me and told me his name. He lives in Montreal, so I called him up and told him I was his son. He was having breakfast. I think he just about choked on his cornflakes.’

 

‘What? You just called him up?’

 

‘Yeah, what else was I supposed to do? I told him I was coming over to meet him. Apparently, my mom got knocked up in the back of a ’57 Chevy. When he found out about me he skipped off to Mexico, leaving her to deal with the pregnancy. Luckily, I’d saved some money from my job at my stepfather’s car wash, so I bought a ticket to Montreal.’

 

‘How did the meeting go?’ Paul was starting to interest me—like a great anecdotist, he was reeling me in.

 

‘Okay. Well, not great. I don’t think he wanted to know me. He kept introducing me to people as a friend from Holland. Anyone only had to take a look at the two of us to realise this was bullshit.’

 

‘That would have made you feel pretty awful,’ I commiserated.

 

‘Yeah. But I’ve got two half-brothers and they’re great kids. Plus I’ve got another half-brother from my mother. I’m the only one with my particular combination of parents. What about you? Do you have any siblings?’

 

‘No, I wish I did. Actually, I’m adopted. I’ve never met my birth parents . . . and I’m not likely to, either.’

 

This information seemingly tumbled out. I had only ever told two people about my adoption, both long-term boyfriends. It was just too private and painful. Yet here I was telling a total stranger intimate details of my life. He was so disarmingly honest about his own situation that I felt comfortable enough to share my secret.

 

The joint was finished now and the Milky Way was closing.

 

‘You know, it’s the Dutch Queen’s birthday tomorrow— Koninginnedag. It’s a huge event—crowds of people in the street, parades, stalls, lots happening. If you’re not doing anything, meet me at the Leidse Plein at noon.’

 

The truth was I had no plans and it sounded fun: a taste of real Dutch culture with a real Dutch native, and Jeff’s apartment was only a short walk from the Leidse Plein.

 

‘Here, I’ll write down my contact details just in case.’ He pulled out a sheet of scrap paper and in the neatest cursive script wrote his name and phone number on it.

 

I looked at his name—Paul Van Eyk. ‘Are you any relation to the painter?’

 

‘Yeah, so my family tells me. They dropped the ‘c’ in Van Eyk when they moved to Canada. Before that, it was spelt the same way. “Jan”—that’s John in English—is my middle name too. It’s kind of a family tradition.’

 

‘Wow! That’s amazing.’ I was truly impressed and recalled the van Eyck masterpieces I’d viewed in Belgium. Judging by his prodigious talent, there could well be a genealogical connection. Either way, I would meet him for the Queen’s birthday celebrations.

 

 

 

The 30th of April is a date etched into the Dutch psyche at an early age. It is the biggest celebration in their calendar—a public holiday commemorating national unity. The streets teem with people and bicycles, and it heralds the approach of their all-too-short summer.

 

I hadn’t had much time to digest my meeting with Paul from the previous evening, but I knew I wanted to see him again. I was intrigued and attracted. His extreme candour had caught me off guard and I wanted to get to know him better. I fervently hoped he wouldn’t think me too old; I contemplated whether he was too young for me.

 

Miraculously, I found him in the crowd. He waved enthusiastically. He was wearing a white sailor top, although everyone around him was in orange, the national colour derived from the historical House of Orange-Nassau dynasty.

 

‘I wasn’t sure if you’d turn up,’ he said as he embraced me.

 

‘Yeah, well, I wanted to see you again.’ I was always forthright in matters of the heart.

 

‘Great. Me too. I’m really glad you came. I can dink you around on my bike. Today, the whole country parties. I wanna teach you about all things Dutch.’

 

Paul’s energy and enthusiasm were infectious. He seemed to want to do everything all at once. He wanted to teach me Dutch, show me landmarks and tell me about himself, in between asking questions about my background. Netherlands history was obviously dear to his heart, and I could see his national pride and passion oozing through our conversation as he spoke of how his people had suffered under German occupation. I loved it when he spoke Dutch. Effortlessly, he would switch between languages.

 

‘Have you been to the Anne Frank House yet?’ he asked. I wrapped my arms around his waist while he pedalled furiously. ‘There are two places every tourist should go: that and the Milky Way. You have to see Anne Frank’s House first, because most people who go to the Milky Way get so stoned they don’t remember anything about Amsterdam after that.’

 

‘Yeah, I spent a few hours there. It’s very moving. I was brought up Jewish, so I know people who’ve had similar stories.’

 

‘Wow! I love Jewish people.’

 

‘Well, we weren’t religious, but it was the culture with which I identified. Growing up, I was certainly on the receiving end of anti-Semitic taunts like Dirty Jew.’

 

‘I’ve often wished I was Jewish.’

 

Paul’s reaction was fascinating. I felt a real connection with my adopted heritage, but never before had it been greeted with such enthusiasm. I would have to try to find out why.

 

‘You know, Amsterdam has a strong connection with the Jews,’ observed Paul. ‘It’s always been a very tolerant place. Look at Spinoza—his family fled Portugal and ended up here.’

 

‘Yeah, I remember reading about him in first year philosophy.’

 

‘So, how about a joint? I know I feel like one.’ Paul propped the bicycle against a bench and sat down to catch his breath.

 

‘Mmm . . . I think I’ll pass,’ I said. ‘I’m not used to smoking and I got pretty ripped last night.’

 

Again, I watched as he tore off his rolling paper and blended the mix in his plastic bowl. He sniffed his thumb and forefinger, as if sampling the bouquet of an expensive wine.

 

‘You sure you don’t want some?’

 

 

‘Well, maybe one toke—just to keep you company.’

 

As he lit the joint, I was conscious of his attentiveness and his studied, deliberate movements, designed to enthral. And the truth be known, I was attracted to him. Very attracted. I could feel myself falling for him.

 

It had been an astonishing day and I didn’t want it to end. My head was still spinning from my ‘Dutch lesson’—the landmarks and language were becoming familiar. I was already feeling at home in this picture-postcard world of narrow streets and canal houses. As my personal tour guide, Paul constantly entertained me with stories, often putting on accents and voices. His sense of humour had engaged me and I wanted more.

 

‘How about we go back to your place,’ he suggested. ‘I want to see some of your drawings.’

 

I was mortified—there was no way I’d be showing him my artwork. The few drawings I’d done on my travels were clumsy and not fit for anyone’s eyes, let alone a potential love interest.

 

As we climbed the stairs to Jeff’s apartment, Paul said: ‘I want to draw you. You have a beautiful face.’

 

I was embarrassed by his obvious flattery, although it wasn’t the first time an artist had wanted to draw or photograph me.

 

We sat on the couch and he sketched. I was keen to see how he saw me. When he finished, he turned his sketchbook around. He’d made me look stunning.

 

‘Oh, God, you’ve flattered me,’ I said. ‘I had my portrait done when I was five and the artist gave me really big eyes and thick lips.’

 

‘But that’s how you look. You’re gorgeous. I’m not exaggerating your features.’

 

‘But my skin’s terrible. Look at all my pimples.’

 

‘It doesn’t matter—you’re still beautiful. You could be a model.’ He paused. ‘Do you wanna make out?’

 

I was floored. ‘Make out’ wasn’t an Australian expression, although I could figure out roughly what it meant. Did it involve sex, or was it just heavy petting? I wasn’t sure, but I was keen to find out. I was smitten.

 

‘Okay,’ I said. I climbed the ladder to the loft bed and he followed.

 

A coyness paralysed me; I had lost my natural forwardness as I waited for him to make the first move. Paul, unexpectedly shy, was nervous and tentative as he kissed and caressed me. Sensuously, we undressed each other as I savoured each moment. His touch had awakened a new sexual frontier in me and I knew I would do whatever he wanted, like putty in his hands; I would give myself to him completely without wanting anything in return. As our bodies entwined beneath the covers, I inhaled his sweet scent, the sweat from the day’s cycling providing a powerful aphrodisiac. He was passionate and considerate. His body was spectacular—youthful and muscular.

 

Our breathing quickened as he entered me; I gasped as I let the full force of my emotion take me to the edge: orgasm upon orgasm.

 

This was no ‘notch on my belt’ lusty fuck-fest; this was intense and I had tapped into a deep well of emotion. It was not about sexual pleasure, although there was plenty of that; rather, I was on a higher plane of passion than I had ever experienced before. There was an undeniable purity about our coupling. I basked in his presence, like a sunbather soaking up rays.

 

He made love to me all night and I knew by morning that I was in love.