When I was seven my father’s second overseas posting was at sea. He was the onsite chief geologist on a deep-sea drilling ship. He would be away for three months and then home for one, which meant that my mother, my two sisters and I could live wherever we wanted.
My parents already owned a holiday home in Burgenland, in the south of Austria that my father had bought for no other reason than that it was close to the Hungarian border, the country of his birth.
The house, although sound, was in dire need of an extreme makeover and my brave mother agreed to move there with us and kill two flies with one stone. We would have a home to live in and she would oversee the renovations.
Papa had already spoken to some of the locals who had assured him it would be a cinch to get builders in and have the house done up in no time. So we had packed up our very comfy life in Surrey, England and moved into the house located in a remote village about a forty-five minute drive from the capital Vienna. The plan was that my sisters and I would attend the British School there.
It was soon clear that the one and a half hour bus drive to school in Vienna and back would be too much for a five, seven and ten year old and being the ever flexible expats our parents decided to search locally. The big Catholic School in the nearest town, run by nuns, came highly recommended.
When the time came to enroll us into the school we seemed to check all the boxes. Were we catholic? Check. Were we baptized? Check. It was all going smoothly till they hit a small stumbling block; we did not speak German. The charming nun who was helping with the application forms had never faced a situation like this before so she picked up the phone and dialed for help. The assistance came in the form of a black robed Mother Superior, her stern face framed by a white starched wimple.
‘Grüß Gott,’ she greeted in a gentle tone, smiling at my mother, ignoring my father.
My mother who spoke fluent German unlike Papa, who spoke ski holiday German, explained the situation and was disappointed when also Mother Superior’s answer to the possibility of us three attending the school was a firm, ‘Nein’.
‘You are Hungarian?’ she asked now also smiling at my father.
The conversation between my father and Mother Superior continued in Hungarian, clearly also her mother tongue. Before long she invited my parents to her office for a drop of pálinka a Hungarian drink not for the fainthearted.
A solution was quickly found. My sisters and I would be privately schooled in the local convent inhabited by retired nuns. If after six months our German was up to scratch we would be allowed to attend The School.
And that’s how we ended up with our leather rucksacks on our backs being educated in the convent by an ancient nun who had previously been an English professor at Vienna University. Schwester Margit taught the three of us everything from Maths to German. At the end of each school day we would gather around the grand piano in the refectory that was in the basement and we three little girls would loudly sing the religious hymns in German that the Schwester had taught us. On warm days the large basement windows facing the gardens would be thrown open and nuns walking by in their black and white habits would pop their heads through the opended windows smiling delighted at the sight of us singing.
After a couple of months, with the help of wonderful Schwester Margit paired with the fact that none of the children in our village spoke a word of English which forced us to practice our German, we were ready to attend the real School.
With one problem solved we were faced with the next; the issue of our belief. Schwester Vladimira, a Croat, who taught Religious Knowledge, had discovered that I was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Horrified she had reported this straight to Mother Superior who being Hungarian, had said that she would take care of this.
In Austria boys and girls prepare for their First Holy Communion at school and the ceremony held in the town’s large church is celebrated with the entire class. Both my older sister Helen and I had missed this chance and so Mother Superior, taking matters into her own hands consulted the Bishop. Despite her persuasive arguments permission was denied, the Bishop declared that we had clearly not been brought up with God and were therefore not worthy to receive his flesh nor his blood.
When my mother, a good catholic girl, was informed of this she was outraged and requested an audience with the Bishop. Hearing the reason for his refusal, the fact that we hadn’t been taught the Lord’s Prayer, my mother had breathed a sigh of relief.
‘My daughters should have asked in which language they should recite the prayer, they know it in both English and Dutch. I will make sure that they now also learn it in German,‘ she told the Bishop.
Helen and I received our First Holy Communion on a Sunday morning in May at a private ceremony in The School’s chapel. The congregation consisted of my parents and one hundred nuns singing ‘Ave Maria’ as Helen and I walked down the aisle holding a candle each. My sister wore a pink Jackie-O suit and I wore the more traditional white dress, white gloves and a white lace veil. My sister looked beautiful and serene. I was missing two front teeth and with my veil constantly slipping and standing skew whiff on my head I probably was a sight for sore eyes, but walking up to the altar of the chapel to receive my, first ever, holy communion I felt like a princess.