My parents were refugees from Hungary. They left their home country in 1956 with my sister who was six at the time. She still remembers running through forests with gun fire echoing around her. They made it across the border to Austria where they were placed in a refugee camp. My parents never spoke about their experiences of 1956 in the same way they hardly ever spoke about the war years unless it was some amusing anecdote. Whatever happened then was in the past and there was an invisible red line drawn across the page to separate it from the present. Everyone in my family abided by this rule. It was only when I began to search for information of these years that I discovered that Luxembourg had accepted 250 Hungarian refugees. My parents and my sister would have been part of that elite group. This had happened four short years before I was born.
By 1957, Luxembourg could boast that the refugees they had accepted had quickly found permanent employment, specialising mainly in handicrafts. My father was one of these skilled workers. He quickly established himself as a leatherworker who could make bespoke leather handbags of the finest quality. By 1960, he had his own shop which he ran with a silent partner. It was one of the finest boutiques in Luxembourg, specialising in crocodile skin handbags.
The individually crafted handbags he made were placed ever so carefully in the shop window or hung from hooks along one of the wood-panelled walls. A large crocodile skin hung on the opposite side. I loved looking at that crocodile skin and the shapes I could see and feel when I ran my fingers along the bony scutes. I felt the bumpy ridges and smoothness in between. The skin was black and shiny and didn’t look anything like the small stuffed crocodile on the gramophone cabinet in our lounge room. That crocodile was a baby crocodile with short feet and sharp teeth. Its skin was a dull grey and quite bumpy to touch. It was a present from Seppi, the crocodile man.
Seppi only came once or twice a year to sell his crocodile skins and I couldn’t wait until he bounced into the living room, full of stories of the Sahara and the Nile. He spoke of faraway lands in Africa where he saw nothing but sand for days on end. When he was in Africa, he drove a jeep and hunted crocodiles. He told captivating stories about being thirsty and constantly almost running out of water. I sat on his lap and listened to his stories until they mixed with the stories I invented for him. When Seppi was away, I came up with my own adventures for him in that mythical place called Africa. Whenever I saw him, he always chewed gum and I began to save sticks of chewing gum I sometimes found on the kitchen table. I loved Seppi with all my heart and told him that I couldn’t wait to grow up and marry him. He laughed and said,
‘You’ll have to do a lot of growing, young lady,’
and gave me a bear hug before leaving on another one of his long trips. I often thought of Seppi chewing gum as he drove his jeep over sand dunes, looking for the next oasis. At night, I saw the crocodiles he would hunt, swimming in the river of my dreams.