Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Swan (Part 7): Frontier Crossings

VII. Frontier Crossings

The Russian Princess

The frontier between Switzerland and Italy lay somewhere across the middle of the Lago Maggiore. The Swiss customs post was on the quay where the small lake steamers landed. Its arrival was always watched with interest by the local population, hoping (mostly in vain) that something exciting might happen. It did once. Among the many foreign residents was a Russian princess who earned her living by language lessons and smuggling.

Lago Maggiore
          One fine day we were all gathered on the promenade, drinking the local specialty: a mixture of coffee and chocolate, and looking hopefully at the rapidly approaching small steamer. It made fast, the passengers disembarked, amongst them our Russian friend, and went through Customs. And then something marvelous happened: Madame la Princesse had evidently purchased a goodish length of Italian silk and had cunningly wrapped it around her thin frame. As she was approaching the silk had come loose and was trailing behind her like a long and colourful train.

          The Customs officials were still busy with the last passengers when we rose like one man and ran towards our friend. We formed a ring around her and in the centre the smuggling lady was rewrapped by turning her round like a spinning top.

The barracks of the Bersaglieri

          From the window of our house halfway up a hill, I could see a small town at the other side of the lake and I decided one nice sunny day to walk there and if necessary stay one night. I set off early in the morning and carried a nightdress, toothbrush and my passport in a bag. 

          Most of the way went through vineyards. I only met one person, a middle-aged man, with a red rose in his buttonhole. On approaching me he stopped, removed the rose, handed it to me with a kind greeting and went on. 

          When I got to the Italian frontier my passport was stamped and I carried on in the same direction. The small town seemed to be no nearer than when I set out on my walk. Quite unexpectedly, I came upon a large building and did not have to wait long before I discovered what it was: barracks of Bersaglieri, and as I came nearer I found suddenly every window full of military faces and the air was filled with their cries. 

          Fortunately my Italian was not good enough to understand what they said but I could guess that they all invited me to come in for a cosy visit. I suddenly gave up, turned round and crossed the frontier once more, this time into Switzerland. The Swiss Customs insisted that I had bought nightdress and toothbrush in Italy. After prolonged haggling I got them in duty-free and just managed to catch the last bus back to Ascona.

The kiss

          The railway station in Basle was divided into three sections: French, Swiss and German. Trains from all sides and with all sorts of destinations always gave one the impression that they did not quite know where they were to go and what to do. They were shunted from one platform to another, officials were walking along once on the left and then on the right of the train—a thing I did not now when I leaned out of the window of the train to Amsterdam and beheld a most attractive looking man in uniform who gave me a brilliant smile—so brilliant that I felt compelled to blow him a kiss as the train finally slowly pulled out of the station and gathered speed. 

          However, it stopped and reversed and back we went to the platform, but on the other side. The brilliant smile was there, waiting for me like a cat watching a mouse-hole, and obviously determined to transform the airy kiss into something more substantial. 

          I hastily locked myself into the loo, not to be used whilst the train was at a station but in my case it was simply a funk hole. And there I stayed until I was sure that we had left Basle well behind us.

The Kaiser's moustache

          The launching of the Imperator, at that time one of the largest passenger steamers of the world, was made into a royal occasion in that Kaiser Wilhelm had accepted an invitation to fling the usual champagne bottle against its bow In his honor stands were erected all along the way he would walk from his car to the actual launching platform and filled with invited guests, amongst them relatives of the workmen who had helped to build the steamer.

          Mother's youngest brother had designed it and father was one of the directors of the Hamburg Amerika line, the owners, so that we children were not only present but also in the front row. 

          I regret to say that we had never mustered any respect for Emperor Willy, and William and I had decided that it would be a fine thing to pull the Kaiser's moustache, that rather silly looking affair with the waxed ends sticking up.

The Imperator
          A crescendo of loyal shouts indicated that the great man was approaching and we both leaned forward, aiming at his face. We did not make it—he ducked and at the same time raised a pair of white gloves which he was carrying as if to swat a couple of tiresome flies. I can still see his face with a sort of forced smile—royalty always has to be nice to small children even if they don't carry gifts—and we sat back, slightly disappointed but at least we had tried.

The Prince

          The German Embassy in The Hague had decided that a special reception was due to a German general, von Lettow-Vorbek, who had defended the German colony of West Africa in such a manner that it had evoked the respect of his enemies and he returned with his men after an honorable defeat. 

          The Queen's consort, Prince Hendrik, gave father and me a lift to the port where he was to disembark. I was clutching a huge bunch of lowers. When the ship finally landed and the general appeared, ready to go on land, I was pushed up the gangway and handed over the flowers with an almost inaudible greeting. He bent down and gave me a hearty kiss and at that moment the cameras clicked and the astonished world saw an unknown lady being kissed, trying in vain to defend herself with flowers, in their morning papers. For a while afterwards people teased me and I blushed, but it was a one-day wonder and soon forgotten.

Berlin and the black cape

          Berlin was for me one of the least likable cities and I invariably lost my way. Friends who invited me often felt inclined to send out search parties but I usually arrived, albeit rather late. It did not increase my love for the city when a friend of mine had presented me with a very elegant black silk cape, lined with bright red silk. I rather fancied myself and quite innocently walked along Kurfurstendamm where I made an entirely wrong impression. I finally had to take off the cape, roll it up and put it under my arm after practically all males had tried to date me.

May Day in Berlin

          One of the places I did like was the so-called Alte Museum where they had a room in the basement with replicas of some of their most beautiful exhibits in plaster of Paris, reasonably priced and ideal for presents. I was there on the 1st of May, not really aware that May Day was a red day of people marching and Police and soldiers ready to suppress any revolt.I seem to have had a fatal attraction to machine guns. In this case I lost my way in the basement of the museum and instead of going to the exit I walked through some dark passages until I finally saw daylight, heaved a sigh of relief and found myself at the bak of a group of soldiers, crouching on a balcony overlooking the street, heavily armed with machine guns.

          They did not hear me until the last moment when I suddenly and unexpectedly arrived at their rear. They must have suspected treason and they spun round in obvious alarm. They were furious—I was apologetic, showed them my plaster of Paris purchases and demanded a guide to the exit. Eventually we all laughed but I did not really enjoy the little episode until I was safely home again.


          Home in this instance was our ideal holiday place in the neighborhood of Potsdam where one of mother's brothers had a dream house in one of the most beautiful gardens one can imagine. He was a landscape gardener and author of gardening books which had been translated into many languages. He was the kindest uncle imaginable.
Henry in Uncle Karl's garden
          One day he decided that his white moustache made him look too old and he had it dyed a dark brown. But he found that it was too dark and in order to lighten it a bit he retired into the bathroom and treated it with peroxide. A cry of distress made us running and we behold uncle Karl with a bright green moustache. He admitted that the colour was suitable for a gardener but went back and shaved it off.
          He used to wake us in the morning by playing a record of Handel's Halleluja chorus on the staircase.

          He kept pigeons, all white, and they had taken a fancy to William. One always knew when he was coming back and turned the corner into the forest path, leading to the house, as a cloud of white pigeons flew off at high speed and descended on him. They never took the slightest notice of me.

William, Siegfried, and Uncle Karl's pigeons
The old coachman

          Transport at that time was by carriage, drawn by two donkeys. It was a strange contrast, coming from sophisticated Berlin, to be conveyed home by donkeys. During a very heavy thunderstorm to our horror, the old coachman was hit by lightning and the donkeys brought him back, quite dead.        

The palace

          Friends had a grace and favour residence in Sans Souci. It was very strange to sit with these friends on their veranda on a warm summer evening and listen to the sound of a flute, coming from the actual palace where the old King used to play. The first time we heard it we thought we were imagining things but it was explained that the caretaker was a passionate flute player and nobody had ever objected to his playing the one instrument that belonged there.

"Don't tremble"

         Mother's young sister and I were one day confronted with an unusual task. Cook had taken an unexpected day off and we had to cook a meal. Neither of us had the slightest idea of cooking and what we eventually produced was funny if it had not been so sad. 

          We boiled potatoes in their skins and then mashed them without taking the skin off. We all chewed bravely on sand and small stones. 

          But worse still was our attempt of cooking spinach which we cooked with too much water and then tried to get it into an edible shape by using generous helpings of cornstarch and proudly presented a green pudding. 

          Uncle Karl eyed it with a benevolent expression and said, "Don't tremble, I will not eat you."

Grandchildren of astronomers

          I must have been under a year old when I was obliged to view the Moon through a large telescope. Not that I can remember anything about it, but I do remember looking at Jupiter's Moons a few years later. 

          Grandfather was the German Astronomer Royal and all his children were born and brought up in the royal observatory. Grandfather used to tell us that all children and grandchildren of astronomers were always welcomed by other astronomers, and he was right as we found that we were admitted to Greenwich where ordinary mortals could not step.
Hully's bookplate, made by Lottie,
with the Royal Observatory in the upper left
          I have only vague memories of the observatory in the centre of Berlin but I very clearly see the house in a suburb where he spent the first years of his retirement. Later he went with his gardening son to the enchanted place near Potsdam where he died at a ripe old age. He was well over 80 when he decided to learn Chinese to exercise his brain. He also rode a bicycle although his children insisted that it was a lady's bicycle so that he could fall off more easily.

          The house in the Berlin suburb was surrounded by a large garden with greenhouses for our uncle and a pond for our delight in the centre of which stood a bronze stork, spouting water. 

          Grandmother was an artist. She painted and she made the most delightful drawings for us, some of which still exist.
Hully nursing Lottie, dated December 9, 1902
probably by grandmother Ina Paschen Foerster
Fresh milk

          Milk was delivered by a well-known firm and the girls who carried the milk cans from the float to the back door had coloured overalls and embroidered over their bosoms were the words "fresh milk" which had to be deleted after strong protests which I only understood many years later. I still think they should have left them on.


          The easiest frontier I can remember—long, long ago—was the one that ran right through the middle of a village street. The inhabitants were constantly crossing from Holland into Germany and back again, and nobody bothered.

          Next in comparative ease was crossing frontiers on father's diplomatic passport. The disadvantage was that it tended to inflate one's ego so that later crossings as an ordinary traveller were borne with the bad grace of one who has known better times.

          I once entered a foreign country without noticing it—simply by turning away from the glittering water and the sun-drenched shore of a South Bavarian lake and walking into a cool, dark wood. My energies revived and I went on and on until I found my path barred by what looked like a barber's pole, guarded by two men in uniform. Their faces lit up at the sight of a potential customer. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint them as I did not carry my passport but I was thrilled to think that I had actually got as far as the Swiss frontier. They were even more thrilled because there was no denying the fact that I had reached a frontier—only I was approaching it from the Swiss side. To this day I do not know how I managed to slip into Swiss territory but I do remember that it took a very long time and a great deal of persuasion before I was allowed to reenter Bavaria without a passport.

          Many years ago I lived in the Irish Republic and did my shopping in Northern Ireland, just across the border. The actual dividing line between the two countries consisted of a large ornamental iron gate across a country road, watched over by a few Customs officials in a small shed. The border was closed at 9 o'clock every night and if one arrived later it cost half a crown to have the gate opened and one's car thoroughly searched for dutiable goods. Later still the place was dark and deserted and one had to drive off the road into a rather muddy field, around the gate and up again on the other side. I alway thought it was not quite the correct thing to do but even the most law-abiding citizen is disinclined to spend the night on the wrong side of an ornamental iron gate, waiting for the sun to rise and the Customs officials to reappear.

          I once stayed in the most southerly part of Switzerland. The house was right over a beautiful blue lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and far away, at the Italian end of the lake, there were the outlines of a small town. This town had a magic attraction for me and one fine morning I could not bear it any longer and set off in the direction of Italy. I walked for hours through vineyards and through olive woods, the snowy mountains on my right, the blue lake on my left. Late in the afternoon I crossed the Italian frontier, waved through by faintly amused looking officials. My eyes were fixed on my small town and my heart was beginning to sink because it was as far away as ever. If I had paid a little more attention to my immediate surroundings I would have noticed huge military barracks along one side of the road. They were full of Italian soldiers and at the sight of one solitary female several hundreds of them rose like one man, stuck their heads out of the windows and roared like hungry lions. The sight and sound unnerved me. Then and there I abandoned my dream. I prayed that the iron bars across the windows would hold; I turned and fled back to the frontier which I had crossed only a few minutes earlier. It was an ignominious retreat and the wild hilarity of the frontier officials rubbed salt into my wounds. My consolation was that I would never have reached my small town—anyhow, not before the next morning.

         For all I knew the border between Switzerland and Italy ran through the middle of the beautiful blue lake but as most of the traffic between the two countries went across the water, the actual frontier formalities were carried out on the landing stage where the regular steamer from Italy arrived punctually every day at noon. This was the signal for the population to go down to the piazza, to walk about or to sit at little tables and partake of the local mixture of hot coffee and chocolate, to gossip, to watch the arrival of friends and to scrutinize strangers. I shall never forget the day when the old Russian princess stepped off the boat from Italy, talked her way through passport control and emerged, waving her hand gracefully at her many friends. We waved back but the happy smiles froze on our faces when we beheld a ghastly phenomenon: like a comet the princess began to display a tail, and it got longer the further she walked away from the lake—she was trailing yards and yards of Italian silk behind her. The next moment her friends rushed up to her uttering tender expressions of welcome and forming a protective ring around her whilst the inner circle hastily twirled the old lady round and wrapped her up again in her smuggled silk. The Customs officials gazed at the shimmering lake, quite oblivious of the fact that behind their backs nature was reversed in that a butterfly was turned into a silkworm cocoon. Granted, I did not cross this frontier myself, but it was delightful to watch and it had a happy ending, at least as far as the naughty old princess was concerned.


  1. What a totally priveleged and colorful past Charlotte!! Glad you escaped the group of men with machine guns. I can't imagine what you must have been feeling right then. A few years ago we accidentally chose a vacation time in Cabo San Lucas when the city was preparing for a world conference. People who came to the car windows to talk to us often had machine guns!!! They were mobilizing maximum security for the conference. Truckloads of soldiers were all over the city loaded with machine guns too. Your story reminded me of this! All I wanted to do was enjoy the beach and eat good food...Thanks for the terrific story. I was just wondering why I hadn't seen any writing from you in awhile. I can't believe everything you had already done by 5th grade when I met you!!!

    1. Cabo San Lucas, for adventure & relaxation: great food and beaches, and machine guns, too! My own childhood was quite calm and relaxed—this Charlotte Heckscher is my father's sister (we have the same name, which is fun, but also a bit confusing). She was a child during WWI, and a youngish woman during WWII, and now here I am going through a box of her letters, memoirs, and diary. Trying to do something more satisfactory with this stuff than throw it out or ignore it and leave it to my kids to eventually discard. Still not sure what I'm doing...

    2. I finally realized William was indeed your father, Charlotte. Well, I find this fascinating. To think that your childhood friends come from an entire tradition and history rich like this one. I am also fascinated that your father was such an ill child, an underachiever, and then blossomed later. I feel I can somehow sense this type of history inside of you even though you don't talk about it. Do you feel any of it actually inside you? Sometimes we feel some of it, or sometimes, as you say, it just seems remote and one feel quite separate from it.

    3. I am speaking of you as my childhood friend when I say "your childhood friends;" I mean, MY childhood friend!

    4. What a beautiful question! I do feel it inside of me—but hidden, like I have amnesia and feel compelled to find this history or I'll be incomplete. And the fact of all these heirlooms, artwork, letters, photos, passed down for generations makes me kind of desperate. Every object has its own life and story attached to it that deserves recognition. But I think this is a lot of my own obsession; my sisters aren't that interested, nor are my kids.

      Because you ask that question, it makes me wonder about you, Betsy. Do you feel connected to your family's history or are you solidly standing in the present?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. is where your comments are, thanks so much for writing back! Hmm...I think I am really back and forth in time focus! When my work gets busy I run around in the present. When less busy, I find myself looking up info about where family members are buried, especially my Grandparents' siblings or extended family as there are so many I never knew. Our family was the one who moved away from the Midwest; we moved to NJ when I was 5 and I always missed seeing them. In summers we went back. I thought about them lots as Lilia grew up and have eventually reconnected on Facebook. Still think of my grandparents often as I play old hymns on Sundays. I believe I do feel connected to their history but like my own person too, not quite like any of them. But as I get older I notice certain qualities that never go away and I definitely feel a kinship. I see, for example, many who were fond of physical work rather than offices, many helpers, many who talked tirelssly about people and their lives like I do, some disowned, some ambitious. I have lots of questions that can never be answered!

  4. So, Charlotte, how can one stare at the photos of people who look like oneself and not be at least mildly fascinated, especially if they were nice to you? If they were not nice, well may be less interested. With writers like those in your family, you can learn a lot! I would be reading too. I am one who never quite fits the mold, and when I reflect on where I came from, it then makes more sense. I feel more like I can just go with it. Does that happen to you?

    1. I never met most of the people in these pictures and I identify much more with my mother's family, whom I knew. But I think it's interesting to see how a person lives a life, what they choose to save, and say—especially in a diary. And then what does it mean when difficult feelings are, for the most part, left out? I just found another huge folder of her stuff and I'm still waiting for emotions, for something truly private.