Thursday, 1 January 2015

Disharmony in the family

Family dysfunction


Always smiling for the camera. But I rarely encountered smiles in real life

The first memory that I had that indicated family patterns was when my beloved grandmother died in 1970. One would have assumed that as a 14-year-old I would attend the funeral that is what I would have liked to do. When she died I found my parents whispering and keeping things quiet, and when it came to the funeral a family friend Miss Bower was brought in to look after me while my parents went the funeral. This upset me no end and have never forgotten not being able to attend my grandmother’s funeral.

I have noticed a real inability in the family to deal with difficult emotions or difficult people. The family just shuts down and nothing ever gets mentioned or the person who was originally responsible for making other members of the family aware of some aspect of the shadow will somehow get blamed. I have noticed this time and time again and it has been a constant source of pain, especially in relationship to my brother.

Several early examples of things that were really painful have stated my mind. One example was when I was staying in the home of an old Russian friend who had died in a car accident while I was overseas (I was renting the house for a period). The whole feel of the place reminded me of a Russian dacha; there was a large section with an orchard at the back sorrowful arm.

I invited my mother over to have a look and she brought my brother Jeremy along whose only comment was that it would be perfect to knock down the house and subdivide the section.

After I had broken up with my erstwhile wife Natasha and she was moving to live in Belgium my brother took her to the airport. She was, predictably overweight with her luggage and was forced to leave some things behind, including a stereo set which she left in my brother’s keeping.

Natasha asked me if I could bring listeria over to her in Belgium and I was happy to do this and I mentioned this to my brother. When we were sitting on the plane together travelling to England I asked him about this and he said that he had sold the stereo. When I asked what right he thought he had to sell somebody else’s property he responded with the now familiar self-righteousness and said, “you don’t owe anything to Natasha!”

Admittedly this whole affair had been very stressful for my parents and cost them some money. It is also true Natasha’s motivations were far from clear and it seemed at least from the outside, that I had just been used. Seeing things from the inside, and having some understanding of the culture, I knew that things were a lot more complicated than that.


Natasha and Robin - the two newly weds, Leningrad, 1979

When Natasha and I were married in Leningrad I travelled to Russia with my sister Kathy and my cousin Rosie. We were joined in Leningrad by Jeremy. We will all looked after, wined and dined and nobody had just spend a single penny – so much so that I family, on leaving Russia got into some difficulties with the Customs explaining how they had all these gifts with them when their records show that they hadn’t spent any money.

When Natasha arrived in New Zealand, as a Russian she had some expectation that her generosity might, in some way, be reciprocated.

My parents, especially considering all the problems that this had landed for them with, were incredibly welcoming an open to Natasha and her accompanying family and had a warm relationship with them.

I can’t remember all the details but Jeremy displayed towards his new in-laws all the generosity of an accountant.

There was always self-righteous anger and unspoken resentment behind this.

On that 1982 trip to Europe Jeremy arranged, as he did for the whole family cheap tickets that he was able to get as an employee of the New Zealand for me to fly to Europe. Although he was perfectly aware of what my plans were, to stay in Europe, he did not think it was his responsibility to explain to me that the ticket only had one month validity. When it came time to return home I realised this and on raising it with my brother (can’t remember exactly what he said), all I got in response was self-righteous anger. As I remember it was only when my mother either pleaded with him or call the riot act, I don’t know which, that he reluctantly arranged another ticket home.

After my mother died in 1984 we all inherited some money from her. Both my brother and I, I think, invested some of this money in the stock market which was in a bubble at the time. I did the irresponsible thing and withdrew some of that money to cover the costs of an overseas trip.


"Happy families"

'Happy families' - three generations

I spent about 16 months away before returning in October, 1988. I knew that my first stop would be by brother and my sister-in-law’s place and as a then vegetarian my one nightmare was that the first meal offered to me would be roast meat.

Well sometimes nightmares come true, and indeed, the first meal was one of roast beef. I am sure that they were fully cognisant of the fact that I was vegetarian and that is why they are cooked the roast beef. When I showed some reluctance to eat the meat part of the meal that aroused considerable anger at me. If I showed the intention to grow and silently meditate then there would be anger at the “fact”that I wasn’t “pulling my weight”. Not only that while I had spent my money to travel round the world they had lost their hard earned income in the stock market collapse. In short, because of this, I was a "bludger”.

June said she wasn’t prepared to cook for me any more so I can bloody well go and buy us pizzas. I went out with Jeremy to buy pizzas the dinner and when I got back sister-in-law June completely lost her self-control and refuse to eat anything bought my by me told me to leave the house and not come back until I had “change my ways” and that I would die a lonely old man.

I did in fact get to come back but every interaction with my sister-in-law was fraught – for example, at a party they were talking about the difficulty of maintaining sufficiently low weight on yachting races. I tentatively mentioned that perhaps spirulina might be an answer. Again June went apoplectic with rage, “how dare you say this! I am a dietitian!” I remember leaving the better end dining table and going for a long walk in toning loving kindness meditation, “May I be well. They June be well.” The fact was, I was livid.

Fast forward to my relationship with Pam, the first experience she had of my brother was when he and June visited Wellington. He rang me to tell me that he was going to visit us later, so we put off any plans for the afternoon and waited for him. We waited for several hours and no Jeremy. In the end, I think I rang, and I think all he said was “I couldn’t come – I had to play a game of golf”

Jeremy was always nice to Pam but acted towards me with the contempt that I could not even begin to understand.


When my sister Kathy and her husband David were coming out to New Zealand from England it was understood that I would stay with them also. Once I had bought tickets and was getting ready to go by brother dropped the bombshell, at the last minute, that I was not welcome to stay and if I want to come I could stay on the other side of Auckland with his mother-in-law, Florence.



Naturally enough I was pretty upset and said so and when he responded with his characteristic self-righteous anger I said this was simply how I thought – hence response was that I was holding on to past experiences and I “shouldn’t think that way”!

A normal family relationship. With my sister Kathy and brother-in-law David


Kathy and David kindly spent the money on a ticket so that I could join them in Christchurch for a few days, a face-saving and compassionate solution.
In the early 90s my brother contracted a very serious auto immune condition that affects the kidneys, Good Pastures Disease. Naturally we were very concerned about Jeremy’s health and we rang every week to check on how he was. We usually spoke to June who was very frank and informative about his condition. We even drove up to Taupo to see my brother, taking care to stay elsewhere. The meeting was convivial and warm but Pam took June shopping to get her out of Jeremy and my hair so we could spend some time together.

When I mentioned this to Jeremy a wee while ago he professed to have no memory of our having visited or my having rung him regularly. I am sure, that even if he was so out of it with his condition that his wife would have mentioned it to him later on. Surely he must’ve known.

When my partner Pam suffered from melanoma and when it was touch and go whether she would fully recover or not Jeremy was always kind and invariably asked, on the phone to help Pam was.

The thing was that never once over the years has he asked after me or my health, or about my work, or about anything else that was personal to me.


Striking a pose at a family gathering - my brother is quite the public speaker

2003 likely first Centennial of an accident in Rotorua when a tourist party was caught in the geyser eruption and my grandmother’ s two sisters were killed. Pam and I travelled up for the reunion and in the morning of the ceremony I went to visit June and Jeremy in their motel room. No mention was made of arrangements so I went back to Pam who wanted to take a walk to the lake front. There we met Robina who was also there for the reunion and we had a nice chat and continued a walk.

We came back to find the motel is empty so we drove into Rotorua and somehow found the group in a restaurant having breakfast. Jeremy was livid that we hadn’t turned up for breakfast despite the fact that we knew nothing about it and turned out that everyone was about to leave the ceremony and we weren’t ready. I can’t remember the details but somehow, on this occasion June saved the day and we made it to the reunion.


Straight out of Hollywood - the smiles that belie the reality

From that day essentially, my brother has never not spoken to me and I have on more than one location, written to him saying that I wanted a friendly relationship with him but that I felt that he would have to take the first step.

That first step was never taken.

Another nail in the coffin, it would seem, was when we were invited for the one and only time to their holiday house in Taupo over Easter. Unfortunately, Pam’s aunt died and we had to attend her funeral so had to cancel our trip to Taupo. Needless to say, the invitation has never been repeated and I feel that we have never been forgiven.

I have seen Jeremy only three times in the intervening years, the first being at a family reunion in Christchurch when he never came near me except to suggest that I might want to speak to h his son Richard. A text I sent suggesting that we meet up went unanswered.

Leaving for overseas in 2008 I did get a chance to stay the night with them and as it turned out they were leaving for holiday from Auckland airport at about the same time so we shared a shuttle. I was waiting for some chance the whole time to have a chat with them but that was always some urgency or they were bickering. I did have a photo opportunity as June photograph Jeremy and I putting on false smiles.

Jeremy did come down to Wellington and we spent some time together – I suspect mostly because he needed a lift to our uncle’s funeral in the Wairarapa. However, this was a reasonably convivial meeting, may be because we were both free from June’s overpowering presence.

Since then the most of the period the only contact we had was through Jeremy sending emails with cute little puppies or giving some argument for his right wing views or in favour of the State of Israel. In the case of the latter he managed to provoke the response but I’m sure that he was looking for and when I destroyed his arguments, one by one, line by line, he became furious.

When I became seriously ill I sent him emails letting him know but have never had any response.


Me in late 2014

When I found out that I had a malignant melanoma I rang him with the delusional thought that he might perhaps engage. All he said was “gotta go, gotta go, can’t talk – we’ve got to go out to dinner”. This was followed, in the weekend, by some texts explaining he couldn’t ring because he was a guest of my cousin’s.

Needless to say, that was it – I never heard anything from him.

Just occasionally he might respond to an email that I send him – ostensibly friendly – but without ever engaging personally.

This has always been incredibly hurtful to me and I have always struggled to understand why my brother has treated me in a way that I would not treat my worst enemy. I can understand that he might have some unspoken, maybe unacknowledged grudges, but being a reasonably empathetic person I find it very hard to understand how someone could allow their relationship with their sibling to become so poisonous without any attempt to resolve the situation.

I am left with the feeling that often arises that I might leave this life without being able to restore a normal, if not friendly relationship with my elder brother.

I am fairly confident that I am not making this up, or that the situation is not entirely of my own making, when I hear similar stories and complaints from others.

If I am at fault it is probably not being able to fully let go and still wishing that I could just pick up the phone and have an opportunity to “chew the fat” with my elder brother but the sad fact is that that has never going to happen and it makes me very sad.

As I have become increasingly unwell but it is not only the situation that is gnawed at me but generally, as it relates to my larger family, the phone has been silent, and nobody, has but a single time, enquired after my health.

I have had cousins that I have always kept in touch with, and tried to support in times of trouble so it is a matter of sadness that in terms of my family, I have to bear this alone.

I have made a determination that I am not going to be, as usual, the only one to get in touch.

I feel blessed that I have a wonderful partner and good friends – also I have rediscovered a very old, and dear childhood friend and we are able to share with each other much of our pain.

I often feel that it must be a matter of my personal karma that my condition goes largely unrecognised as well as undiagnosed by the medical fraternity. If nothing else it is a hard lesson of letting go of any attachment to the idea that things should be any one particular way

POSTSCRIPT

Over the Christmas period, unsolicited by me, I got a Facebook "friendship" request from my brother, which at some urging I accepted. During that time I have not heard a single word from my brother: in fact, a Christmas telephone message from Pam went unanswered.

Today when I checked I found that I have not only been "unfriended" - as well as blocked - by my brother.

I have to conclude that he used his status as "friend" to lurk on my Facebook page and, in the ab sense of any direct communication from me, has risen to a state of righteous  anger over criticism of his beloved Israel (when one of it was meant for his eyes in the first place).

I did get a brief communication letting myself and sister, Kathy, know that his wife June has breast cancer. The whole communication reeked of total denial of the situation and even concluded with the words, "there goes summer!"  The inconvenience of his wife having chemotherapy, one presumes, was going to get in the way of summer in the Taupo cottage.

Being a reasonable empathetic person, I sent a card off with a single line, "my prayers and thoughts will be with you" and communications have been limited by me to one-line acknowledgements. I would never cut anyone off, but in view of past history I am no longer willing to reach out, only to have my and cut off.

If my brother ever reached out and began with an honest acknowledgement of the roots of his enmity I am sure I would find (as I always have) the ability to respond with love.

But then again, pigs will fly: I have learnt to recognise that, due to his own disabilities and led by his wife, that this will never happen and I just have to live with the consequences.

Through the 70's

University and the ships

As far as school was concerned, basically I was out of there as soon as I can and I left school at the end of the sixth form, not waiting for the seventh form and bursary. 

Instead, at the age of 17, I enrolled in university studies at the University of Canterbury. I took my favourite subjects, Russian and history as well as in another subject - I’m not sure why -  education, which I neither completed nor sat the exam.


I excelled at my Russian studies, because I took to the language like a duck to the water and was very good at the grammar and translation, far beyond the abilities of my fellow students who would have been hard placed to string a Russian sentence together. I remember a Soviet teacher based at Otago University, Nadezhda Pomorantseva, saying something basic in Russian such as "hello, how are you?". 

She could have been talking double-Dutch to the Russian class, but I could understand her.

The old university site in central Christchurch - now the Arts Centre


The University arts faculty was in its final year of being in the historic city site before moving out to its new, concrete campus out at Ilam. I loved the the old university with its stone buildings where generations,  including Sir Ernest Rutherford, had studied  It was a breath of fresh air after being down the road at Christ’s College which I had nothing to do with.

This was the year I befriended a Russian seaman from Riga on a ship called the Polina Osipenko, Arkady Bogdanov. To this day I still have the recordings that he made for me with a simple microphone of his favourite artist, Polish singer Anna German. I also took him back home to our house in Halswell where he met my mother. He was amazed, when I took him to the centre of the city the next day and who should we meet on the street but my mother! He couldn’t get over it.

At about this time I joined the New Zealand-USSR Society which held monthly meetings in which films were shown or there were occasional guests from the Soviet Union.

My Russian lecturers at university were Alex Lojkine, a Frenchman with Russian roots who delighted at showing us students up as complete ignoramuses, John Goodliffe, who taught Russian language with a strong north English accent, and Henry Wrassky, who came to New Zealand from Moscow via WW11, Austria and Melbourne.

Henry and I  maintained friendship for many years after I left university. Many times we solved the problems of the world over a glass of vodka or his beloved cognac.


A contemporary picture of my friend and Russian lecturer, Henry Wrassky, taken in Poland with his Russian wife (L) and Polish cousin (R) in 2007 on a trip when I accompanied him back to Russia. 


I also loved my history studies, especially the first two years which covered European history right through from medieval times through the Reformation and Renaissance, the Enlightenment, French revolution, 19th century and finally the events which so captivated me in the 20th century.

I can’t have been a very good historian, at least from conventional point of view because my marks, although enough to carry me through a major did not single me out as a good student. 

Generally speaking (with the notable exception of Russian) I was a C+ student, partially because I insisted on marring my progress by parting with the conventional view of history and writing essays interpreting my subjects from a Marxist point of view. 

This obviously didn’t go down very well with the establishment.

The arts faculty moved to Ilam in the second year of my studies

The new environment did not suit me in the least and once again I felt lonely and isolated and I remember walking between the buildings in cold windy weather not knowing a single soul. I also remember the sensation of feeling something akin to having a skullcap on. It was the closest that I felt to real depression.

I found my social contacts outside the university and took solace by removing myself where I could from the mainstream and decided, despite the fact that I was ‘bourgeois’, from an ‘aristocratic’family to join the Communist Socialist Unity Party. 

It gave me some sense of belonging within a society from which I felt estranged. There were still people who had experienced struggles from the 1930s, the war and whose worldview was created largely by the 1951 lockout dispute.

Even here I was not really a conformist. I knew enough about history to know that the official Soviet history was bunk, and consigned important persoanges to being non-persons. However, I continued with this course right through the period that coincided with my time at university.

I have to point out that in some way I was acting unconsciously and had no concept either of what was best to me or how to ‘get on’. I just followed what interested or appealed to me and put the rest aside.

It wasn’t until some years later, in my 30s, that I started to grow up and become a little bit more mature and considered in my thoughts and actions.

But more of that later.

In my second year at university I moved out of home and for the first time went flatting, sharing a flat with one other person. I started making new friends, largely through my extra curricular activities.

One was a burly, very friendly fitter-welder by the name Tony Bashford who I met through the Soviet friendship Society.

I also met my first girlfriend, Lesley Hurrell the same way. 

She was coming along to the New Zealand USSR Society out of cultural interests. We started to go out together on Saturday nights and I remember going to some of the wonderful films that came out in the 1970s and then going on to the only cafe that was open after the movies finished for hot chocolate. 

I remember her visiting me at my flat in Carlton Mill Road and then taking her back home to Shirley on the back of my Honda-50 scooter on icy, freezing-cold Christchurch nights – and this was a time when we used to frequently have pea super fogs that were so thick you couldn't see more than a few feet in front of you

Communism

Working on the railways, 1987 - my 'proletarian' persona

SUP meetings, which were held weekly, were a pretty boring affair. Quite how the government and the security service saw these people as a threat to national security is quite beyond me. 

It is true, I’m sure that the Soviet government did give money to the party but that was simply due to inertia and Soviet policy – a sclerotic and aged Soviet party carrying on an old standing policy of supporting an organisation that without its assistance would have folded up in five minutes.

The head of the party in Christchurch was Frank McNulty who was the head of the meat workers union and whose hour of glory was the crushed 1951 waterfront dispute.

The person I had the most to to do with was Mike Creel who had been a conscientious objector during World War II, not because he was a pacifist but because at the time he supported the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact. He was the president of the New Zealand-USSR society in Christchurch, a rather dour man who remained an unreconstructed Stalinist.

The people that I immediately was attracted by when I met them were Robyn Black and Ron O’Brien. They were in their late 20s when I was in my late teens and they provided perfect role models.

They had only comparatively recently returned from a year in Moscow studying at the Institute of Social Sciences which was a large institution in the north of Moscow that trained members of Communist parties from around the world and representatives of the liberation movement.

They were not only enthusiastic Communists but they were also hippies who practised yoga, smoked pot and sunbathed nude outside their wonderful ramshackle downstairs flat off Hackthorne Rd.

I think, like me, that they were essentially nonconformists and certainly didn’t fit in to the very conservative values of the party – and were no doubt the objects of some suspicion.

For the young rebel from a traditional family who was still basically wet between the ears, meeting Robyn and Ron was certainly a revelation and I spent many happy hours round at their place reading their books, eating rye bread for the first time in my life, learning how to develop film and print photos in their wonderful laboratory. 

There was an interesting wall at the back of their house for it not only housed their photographic laboratory but also a secret entrance to a space where they grew marijuana under artificial lighting.

It it provided a place where I could witŠ¾ness, I would say, rather than participate, in the wonderful counterculture of the mid 70s. I remember some of the wonderful people in their and their circle the parties, the joints that were passed around and the music which was a cross-section of some of the best music of the day – much of it protest music.

Ron and Robyn cut quite a figure for me – Ron, the seamen, with his long moustache and leather jacket - Robyn the feminist, in her dungarees who would try on any job whether it was out as a truck driver or a masseuse at a sauna bath.

These were wonderful people who played an important role in my life at the time who were also independent thinkers in a conservative and insular society. 

I wonder what happened to them in subsequent years and what direction life took them. I did encounter Ron once briefly at Auckland airport when I was leaving for overseas. It was an awkward interaction and there was no time for a catch up.

I have memories that have become dulled with time of peace marches and mass demonstrations on Cathedral Square against policies of the Muldoon government, of the wonderful Resistance Bookshop, of meetings of CAFCA (campaign against foreign control in Aotearoa) and of a night-time raid of Wigram airbase which went completely unnoticed.

I’m sure that if I was doing this today my activities would not have gone unnoticed by the security forces, if not of the NSA. I would probably be on a no-fly list and almost certainly have fallen on the foul side of the law for something that was harmless, of almost zero threat to the security of the nation, and was only an act of rebellion and dissent.

As a young and active member of the New Zealand-USSR society I came to meet many interesting people, members of the Soviet elite that visited New Zealand periodically.  The would almost always come in delegations that sometimes included luminaries such as the composers Bogoslovsky and Raymond Pauls, but sometimes - like Eduard Nukhovich, Vladimir Trukhanovsky, come on their own, hosted by the local friendship society.

I remember during the New Zealand Games that were being held at the time being invited to dinner in a restaurant to honour the Soviet athletes. Apart from meeting such luminaries as a Soviet heavyweight wrestling champion and the famous gymnast Olga Korbut I remember that seated at another table was Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and a group of his cronies.  Muldoon turned his char towards our group and glowered  at the table of Soviets and their New Zealand guests.

After three years at university I was offered personally an opportunity to study in the USSR by the then Soviet Ambassador, Oleg Selyaninov. He was the one who was accused by Muldoon of handing over an envelope of money to the Socialist Unity Party. This was preposterous; the party never represented even the slightest threat to the security of the country and was just this old and sclerotic as the country they admired.

That meant I had several months between university and when I left. During this period I worked on the railways at Waltham Yard which was really an insight into the old working class before neoliberalism arrived on the scene. In a way it was a case of “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”. Everybody was ready to leave the moment 4. 35 came and any overtime was paid at time and a half. Quite apart from that, that was pilfering on the railway that I witnessed.

This was not quite the end of the world that was destined to end in the 1980s.
I continued to visit Soviet ships in Lyttelton and to improve my spoken Russian. I have some clear memories of that time – many cups of tea and discussions with a good-natured first mate on the M/S Anyui, the (who was always the political commisar). I had the opportunity once to sit in on one of the obligatory political meetings where the commisar delivered a boring and not very heartfelt lecture on world affairs while the crew either knitted or played battleships, whichever was more appropriate.

In hindsight it was this cynicism and disdain that help to sink the Soviet Union just a little more than a decade later.

I also recall hi-jinks with the couple of seamen (one was the ship’s doctor) from Leningrad vessel. They had obviously made contact with a couple of the ladies of the port for I transported them over to somewhere in Christchurch where we had a party with copious quantities of vodka. The lads disappeared for some time with their lady companions. Finally they remembered that they had better put an appearance on the ship and I drove them back, so drunk that I do not know to this day how I did it. I drove the ladies home and was given, gratis, my first experience of sex, which no doubt due to our mutual intoxication, was not earthshattering.

Off to Russia


In September,1977 I left for Moscow on my first overseas trip for 10 months studying at the Moscow Institute of Social Sciences.

I think what I learnt most from that trip was the Soviet art of rendering unto Caesar what was due to Caesar and of not speaking one’s real mind.



I developed a good friendship with the son of one of the lecturers, Boris who was the same age as me and studying to become an economist. We had a good relationship, and he took me to visit some of the more interesting sites in Moscow such as the Sheremtyevo Palace. Boris was quiet spoken and diffident (perhaps because of the political realities) and our relationship was remarkable less for what we said and more for what we didn’t say.

Revisiting the Institute in 2007. It is now the Finance Academ7


I’m glad to be able to say that we re-established contact when I went back to Moscow in 2008. Boris is now a professor of international finance at the University of Finance, which is now, ironically, situated in the very same building that I studied in in 1977/8.

I was also a regular visitor to Sophia Sergeevna, the elderly mother of my Russian lecturer back at Canterbury, Henry Wrassky. She lived in two rooms at the back of someone else’s apartment in a lovely old wooden building that has now long since given way to ugly apartment blocks.

A view of surrounding buildings where I was staying

I was able to explore the city and enjoy access to tickets to the theatre and ballet -something that was not so easily accessible to the general population, although the tickets were, by any standard, cheap.

At the end of this period I took the train to Denmark and then a ferry to England where I met my family. I remember my mother (who had a romantic attachment to the “green and pleasant land” of England (in particular close). I remember, as we drove through the flat country of Essex are saying “this is not the real England!”

The whole family was together in England, except for my father and after spending time at the fine house that Cathy and David lived in,Birling Place we went for a short trip together to Paris. It was wonderful to do things with my family; eating baguettes with French cheese and wine; wandering the streets and taking in the atmosphere of the Paris that was on holiday. For some reason I particularly remember the Place de Pigalle with all at sex shops. My mother, looking at a sex toy, exclaimed “how lovely!”

I remember taking the train back to Moscow and the border crossing from Poland to Russia; we all had to disembark while customs officials went through our luggage. I remember they took for themselves my biro with a sexy lady but for some reason allowed me to keep the latest record, which I bought in Paris, of Vladimir Vysotsky (the Soviet bard).


I’m coming back to New Zealand I had a few months working at Sunnyside, the local psychiatric hospital as a cleaner, before having a very memorable summer.

Natasha


On returning, I would spend quite a lot of time with my friend and lecturer Henry Wrassky. One day he said he would like to introduce me to someone interesting. We met at the home of Marina Page who lived in Sumner, a short walk from my parents house. Marina had her cousin Natasha, from Leningrad staying with her for the summer. I remember Natasha lying with her back to the window pane reading a book and taking very little interest in the conversation.

I don’t recall any more how things went but have a recollection that Wrassky said something about us getting together and for whatever reason that’s what transpired. Natasha (who was, at 34, 12 years older than me) started seeing quite a bit of each other. That was the start of a bit of a romance.

Problems started when went, very reluctantly, to stay with cousin Marina in her cottage at Hanmer. Natasha arranged for me to pick her up in hand mark and started a trip together to the West Coast. We stayed in Greymouth and then travelled down, through Hokitika to Franz Josef glacier before returning to Christchurch (and trouble).

Escaping - on the road, south of Holitika, late 1978

I was in love – or it might be more accurate to say I was in lust, with Natasha who was in deep trouble with her cousin Marina for betraying her trust and, not least, seducing a young man from an old Canterbury family – Marina always had a deep appreciation of that.

When Natasha flew out to return to Leningrad I accompanied her to Melbourne and Sydney. We stayed with old friends of Wrassky whom we are managed to offend, not least by Natasha leaving blood on the sheets. We had a fine old time together in Sydney with no one looking over our shoulders. I remember walking a lot, seeing the Sydney Opera House, drinking beer. We entered one pub where there were only men who cleared at Natasha for daring to enter a “men – only” drinking hole.

Coming back to New Zealand – I remember it Christchurch airport having to wait until the last for a Customs search which was extraordinarily thorough, I presume because I hardly had any luggage and wasn’t carrying back the obligatory shopping – I settled, more or less back into the last year at University.

The obstacles made, what would have been unobtainable, not to say ill-advised for the normal person had they even ended up in this situation, all the more determined. Wrassky, who by now regretted having ever brought us to together tried his best to dissuade me from going further with my odyssey, even saying something about women not being as fertile as long as men.

My parents probably knew better than to try and persuade me out of my delusions and were remarkably long-suffering, even supportive. There were many difficult, and expensive trunk calls to Leningrad. It was a real feat getting through to the operator in Moscow and persuading them to connect me with Leningrad. I remember one time, trying to get through, asking “is this Moscow?”, “No! This is South Africa”. All of this would have been quite impossible had I not been able to practically take over from the New Zealand operator and explain myself and Russian.

All of this was very stimulating.
On Red Square, Moscow, with Natasha, summer, 1979

Next came the preparations for travelling to Russia and fulfilling the bureaucratic requirements of the Soviet government. Natasha’s letters were very matter of fact (I wish I had kept them) and explained how I needed to have documents, witnessed by a notary public and by the Soviet Embassy proving who I was, that I had no criminal record and so forth. The Soviet representative at the embassy,Nikolai Parshenko, was embarrassed and apologetic about the red tape. I think he was on our side.

Some time in our winter I took a trip to Leningrad, met the family, got the blessing of Natasha’s mother, Nina Petrovna and spent some time with Natasha. I had to go on a tourist visa which meant having to stay in a hotel at monopoly Intourist rates. It also meant that whatever we did during the daytime I was not able to stay with them and Natasha was not able to sleep in the hotel.

I remember one amusing episode returning back to the hotel in the evening and the babushka who guarded the floor and gave out the keys refused and insisted on asking “where is your delegation?” The officious old woman refused to believe that I was an individual and staying on my own so I had to go down to the service department and explain myself before I could get into my hotel room. That was Soviet reality!

On that trip I flew out of Copenhagen which meant taking the train from Leningrad through Warsaw, where I spent one night and then on to Copenhagen.

I remember arriving in Warsaw where after the sparse shelves of shops in Moscow and Leningrad the Warsaw shops had piles of cabbages. I remember staying in the Hotel Bristol on Nowy Swiat, which is now one of the most swish streets in Warsaw but was then pretty dingy and I remember how they served up the obligatory meal with potatoes, a small piece of steak and tinned peas. I was also very pleased with myself that I was able to buy some sweet smelling Polish aftershave from a kiosk.

Other memories which come to mind are visiting my Danish friends who I met a couple of years before in Moscow, drinking Danish beer and then the trip back, which started with the Lufthansa flight being 10 hours late, being put up in an expensive hotel, the next flight being also late as well as the connecting flight from Sydney being late as well – I arrived approximately 24 hours later than scheduled. Luckily I was young.

Fast forward to November and I again, was flying to Europe, this time to London where my sister Kathy and my cousin Rosie took the train to Moscow. I remember it as a pleasant trip with guard bringing us free cups of tea. In Warsaw I was sure that we had plenty of time so the three of us went for a walk, (minus our passports) and when we strolled back a very red-faced guard asked where had we been, we had held up the train.

Fantasy marriage - Palce of Marriages, December, 1979

We arrived in Moscow, met by Natasha and then travelled on to Leningrad in style, on the “Red Arrow”. I remember Cathy and Rosie meeting the family going to pick up Jeremy from the railway station, he had arrived from Helsinki; walks through the frigid streets of Leningrad, photos on Palace Square and then later on the wedding itself which was held in the Palace of Weddings, which was a very formal and very Soviet ceremony.

I remember saying goodbye to my family at the railway station, spending some more time in Leningrad and then moving on to Moscow. One way to save money was to travel by train as much as one could because the train journeys were a lot less expensive than the hotel accommodation, and also rather pleasant.
That winter was one of the coldest they had had in Russia for several years. I remember being told how water pipes had cracked in the cold and I have recollections of walking some of the most beautiful parts of Moscow, such as Kropotkin Street and around the Novodevichii monastery, which was closed in those days, it incredible cold – minus 24° C.

Telegram from my parents to say I had passed my exams

One of the aspects of visiting Natasha were long shopping lists, bringing items like sheepskin coats made in Christchurch, or some item of stereo equipment – all of this could be resold at huge profit and help to finance the whole endeavour.
All of this must’ve placed a tremendous financial burden on my family, for all know I had learned some of the money and cashed in on some insurances my father had to subsidise much of this.

I don’t really know what my parents thought about the strange situation, but they were amazingly supportive, never tried to dissuade me and greeted the new arrivals with great warmth when Natasha and her family finally arrived in the country in August the next year.

Can’t have given any thought to how I was going to support this new family. I had started a job at the Department of Trade and Industry as assistant advisory officer, really a fairly low level clerical job, deciding whether import licences would be granted, or not. This was in the days where the policy was still one of import substitution and fostering local industry, one that would go down the gurgler just a few short years later in the Rogernomics neoliberal policies.

Natasha arrived with her full contingent, consisting of her mother, Vera Petrovna; her aunt, Nina Petrovna in nine-year-old daughter,Zhenya. A wonderful cottage had been found for us in the middle of Sumner, ironically just over the fence from Natasha’s cousin Marina. I think Natasha’s family thought that third arrived in Paradise and were living in a dacha, as if it were a summer holiday, even though, to my shock, they were lighting up the fire every day going through the firewood as if there were no tomorrow. Zhenya started at the local school and was taken under the wing of my mother, ‘Granny Moll’.

Natasha had arrived as a whole lot of books on computer programming – I took her word that she was experienced in this area but it didn’t take that long to realise that this is not her area of expertise there were no prospects of her work in this area. So, for the time we were together, we will all supported on my very meagre salary.

Unfortunately Vera Petrovna had a heart condition and after about a month took a bad turn. She was seen by the doctor and have some ECGs which said nothing, but was called back from work one morning to be told that she had died from a heart attack.

Whatever hard exterior Natasha had, or whatever skills in wheeling and dealing in the Soviet system, the death of her mother within a short time of arriving in a new country dealt her a severe blow and I had no skills to be of much support and it didn’t take long to learn about the chasm that divided us culturally.

She was not emotionally invulnerable as I think some others tended to think that in fact very emotionally vulnerable, which was shown by the fact and she revealed this to me that at some stage (I can’t remember what the immediate trigger was) she closed herself off in the covered and developed a debilitating skin condition, psoriasis.

She often didn’t speak to people that she wasn’t close to and seemed haughty and rude. She was, I think, shy amongst people she didn’t relate to what I know she loved and respected my parents greatly, even if she was capable of whisking away one of my dads bottles of gin.

I’m sure that she had a not so secret inner desire to be accepted and taken them to what she (and her cousin Marina) saw as one of Canterbury’s “aristocratic” families.

The relationship was based on open (on my side at least) pure fantasy. People only saw how I (and my family) we used by Natasha to get out of Russia and find a better life. This was certainly the position of her cousin Marina who had taken great offence at Natasha’s behaviour when she was staying with her and was livid when in her eyes, she “targeted” “the scion” of the great Westenra family.
I still, 35 years later, see this as, to put it politely, an oversimplification. Although there is some truth the whole thing was not concocted and the truth is a lot more complicated.

Things started to fall apart when her ex-husband, Misha visited her from United States. I’m not sure of the ever met (probably not) but I can’t imagine the vehemently anti-Semitic Marina ever accepting the Jewish Michael! Following closely on that, Natasha went back to Leningrad to sort out her affairs and I learnt indirectly that she had been in contact with other husband… and I’m sure that’s when the possibility of a move from New Zealand to Europe arose.

What transpired in the months following was that… had managed to marry a Finnish woman, to divorce and turn up in Belgium.

The relationship deteriorated rapidly, there were some unfortunate scenes between us during which time I took refuge in a vodka bottle and eventually, I was asked to leave, and went back to live with my parents.

My wife was persuaded by her lawyer to take out a non-molestation order and quickly moved to get a separation agreement, as well as the New Zealand passport under the name Westenra, (which was very convenient) and to arrange to leave, with her family for Belgium where her ex-husband left for her.

We kept in sporadic contact until I left for a trip to Europe. After a few days in England I was met off the ferry by Natasha and we spent a day or two together in Brussels.

She disappeared off the radar completely for some years until I found her, and she was living in France. 


Visiting Natasha in France


When I returned to Moscow with Henry Wrassky in 2007 I saw her in Moscow and amongst other things was treated to lunch in the opulent Cafe Pushkin. After some time in Poland and visiting my long-time friend Gerti in Bamberg, Germany I was treated to a ticket to visit Natasha on the Cote d’Azur. The meeting was very amicable and felt more like a family visit them to and an estranged spouse.

We shared many recollections, and even the promenade around the peninsular of…was somewhat reminiscent of old times in Sumner. I was met like a long lost friend and treated with characteristic generosity even if the quid pro quo was to accompany Natasha in her large Mercedes (playing CDs with old crooners like Dean Martin) on long shopping trips, or on a wonderful (but over-long and very tiring) trip along the Cote d’Azur, through… and Menton to Italy where we had dinner.

I met Zhenya (Eugenie Westenra) who was living in Monaco and working for the Credit Suisse catering to the needs of Russian millionaires who needed some place their money. This was in 2007, in the heady days before the 2008 financial meltdown.


I have often wondered what has happened to them in the days since then, but apart from one solitary phone call when Pam spoke to her, Natasha has once again disappeared off the radar.

That is so characteristic.

……………………….
Here’s an excerpt from my diary of my last visit to Europe.


8 August 2008, Provence
Une villa au Meditteranee!


I think I really have to pinch myself – a completely different world from Bamberg. 9.30 and already thermometer says 27° C!

Cypress trees and tall hills covered with buildings that are as reminiscent of Italy as a France. Cicadas sing shorter notes here I think.

Was met at the airport after a bit of a wait by Natasha – and undersized person in an oversized Mercedes. In the old days she didn’t/and couldn’t drive. Airport seemed empty and provincial, but apparently it’s the second biggest in France. I wasn’t that impressed by what was on offer in Frankfurt and Zurich. Nothing much to eat – but Swiss chocolate and Moevenpick ice cream on the Swissair flight.

Can’t remember much of the drive back – dry, hot, amazing French buildings – very dense buildings along the seaside and on the steep hillsides.

Met by Zhenya and her daughter – nice but slightly awkward (from my side) conversation – I was tired. Zhenya also suffers seemingly from some form of chronic fatigue – sleeps a lot, both the office but doesn’t spend a lot of time there.
More later…

After a slow start took off with Natasha to Eze, a small village between here (St Jean Cap Ferra) and Monaco. Situated on steep slopes of 400 m – it has a church with narrow winding paths leading up to a fortress. The Romans were here but present structures date back to the 14th century. Belong to Provence, then to Kings of Savoy and then France. A lot of time in highbrow shops and art galleries. Down below bicarb Park is a perfume factory and museum. Apparently all French perfume comes from grasses grow nearby – this is the source.

Shades of the old Natasha – in and out of shops, looking at all the beautiful things. In the evening a nice one and a half hour walk around the peninsular of Cap Ferra. All slightly reminiscent of Scarborough and Flowers Track etc .
In Eze that is an expensive hotel with the customer’s luggage is carried by donkeys.

It has been an adjustment – from Gerti’s flat in Bamberg to this amazing fellow on the Cote d’Azur was to Russian women working one, Raiya- (a Chechen I think) the other looking after the wee girl,Nastya (Anastasia Charlotte Westenra!!). Zhenya works for a local branch of credit Suisse and works with the rich Russians who live here, bringing business to the bank. She obviously earns well (she has brought some millions of euros to her employer) – this was the problem with Nastya’s father – in Moscow, who found it hard to accept that she was earning several times more than what he was. She studied economics at Brussels University and Russian politics at the London School of economics. Since I knew them in Brussels, when they were struggling to keep themselves going, they have lived in Switzerland, London, Moscow – and now the Cote d’Azur. As I understand it Natasha is following Zhenya and running her own travel business from wherever. She has someone, who she describes as being like a son, running a bureau in St Petersburg – specialises in Tours from Europe with the cultural (or whatever,) theme. She has her own guides stop she gets referrals from European travel agencies and she pays them.

.


Feel exhausted today after a rough day yesterday. Met up with Natasha’s Georgian friends and drove to Menton and looked around the most amazing old town – the last town before one hits the Italian border. Lots of photos, lots of waiting while certain people did the shops, a good proportion of the day went into shopping stop


Then went to a cafe to have tea in the most amazing array of cakes and sweets et cetera – one piece would have been enough for the sweet tooth, but had to sample everything. By this time would have been ready to turn around, but no, onwards to Italy. Stopped in one town while in its business and then on to San Remo… More shopping, a little bit of sightseeing – by this time it hardly care less – and then to cap it off) after all the wonderful eateries on the street that we bit bypassed] went to some expensive cafe – more tea with pastries! By this time I felt pretty pest off. Then back to the car (a huge Mercedes that doesn’t fit the roads here) a’s ships nd a long trip back, finding the way; yet another stopped walk around and night Bazaar in Menton. By the time we got back it was 12:30 a.m. and I was stuffed.

Today I think I am suffering, primarily from the diet. Tired and a little depressed – basically need space, simplicity and hanker for home, or it least Birling Place.…
This has been a difficult stay for me. Especially the resins. I have been ups and 730, ready to go down to the village to look up the Internet for Z – it is now 8. 30 and nobody has stirred is – so I can see that Natasha will get up late and normally no time for what seemed urgent last night.

Similarly, there would be announcements such as open quote after dinner we will drive up to the village, – and then nothing would happen. Then yesterday I was told we were going to the beach only to find we were going on a shopping expedition instead.

I have spent a lot of time this waiting while Natasha disappears into a shop to look at shoes, onions, or whatever, I have found it all a bit claustrophobic, unnerving and frustrating. There is an uncomfortable feeling of being dependent on someone else, to go somewhere, when and if they want.

This on the one hand. But on the other, the unbounded generosity of paying for my ticket, taking me around, offering the most incredible delicacies – champagne , all sorts of French breads and sweets, being on the beach with its chaises longues and glasses of wine, orange juice etc – it cost $40 a day just to sit on the beach.

All of this is brought up feelings of rage, in adequacy, frustration – most of all, not really being my own person. So while I know I should be grateful and happy I feel in a pressure – let me get out of here full!

Apart from anything else observing the life of the well off is not a comfortable experience – all the expensive cars, rich food, the throwaway society, all the talk of who has what, expensive cars, jobs, helicopters to St Tropez. It is, to put it extremely mildly, unsustainable. On Saturday, when I went shopping with Natasha in her huge Mercedes, forgetting to take with her any bags from home – all the unnecessary expenditure, the use of plastic bags – all produced a sense of despair.

Natasha is a powerful woman in people seem to be attracted to her. When people speak to her on the street and French there is a good connection. She does seem to be able to help the people around her – so the money flows in and out. She seems to have a sincere belief in spirituality (eastern and western); she is impressed by Alexandra David Neel and a bit borders on; also a fairly innate understanding of energetic medicine – she latched fairly quickly onto the principles of NAET. I did some basic muscle testing on them and then Natasha went down to use the Internet to find some local NAET practitioners. Zhenya is pretty sick with chronic fatigue and unable to work at the moment (she sleeps a lot of the time close bracket and has all the classic symptoms of CFS/candida. I hope someone here is able to help.


Who wee daughter, Nastya, is delightful and bright for her age perhaps I should think of myself as some sort of “would be” Grandad!! All in all there is some familiarity, but in general a very different world from what I’m used to!