Chapter 10 Oxford…again

January 1st 1979. The first day  of a new year ending a decade that was mainly spent in Holland. A year that  was going  to bring  a number of important and some far‑reaching changes   in my life.   However, the first event of that year was not very auspicious.  We were spending that Christmas and New Year skiing but not as usually in Zell am See in Austria but in France in a skiing resort called Les Arcs. I had come a long way since the first tentative short slides. I loved skiing for it  gave me an opportunity to move that little bit faster and it also gave me a feeling  of  self-respect each time  I changed my crutches for skiing poles. That day, the first day of that year, my Lebanese skiing instructor,  Kamal, promised to take me  on a whole day run from the very  top  of the skiing resort down  to our hotel. I woke   up  with a swollen  left leg, but after some debate I decided I could not skip such an opportunity. As I cannot feel that leg at all I could never know if something was wrong with it or not. I still had three day of  skiing left.  It was a beautiful  sunny day, the sky was the dark blue which is so particular to the snow-covered Alps. Kamal decided we should first have a warm‑up  run on the beginners slope. Sitting on the chair‑lift going up Kamal, pointed out to me his other private students and their various faults and idiosyncrasies. We laughed about these poor people. The first half of the slope I skied down with no problems, accompanied by the usual encouragement from Kamal  to go faster. Then I made a beautiful turn on a mogul, but too fast for me, and had  fallen down,  sideways. As  I softly lowered myself into the snow I heard an ominous crack, ” No, it can’t be!” I thought   to myself. And I tried to stand up. However, it was! My leg moved in an abnormal circular motion above my skiing boot. I sat down again. Then I started  gesticulating and shouting to Kamal, who was further down telling me to get up, that I thought I broke my “ham”! That is, I was trying to say; ” I broke my leg” in French but instead  of saying “jambe” I said ” jambon”. Once I convinced Kamal that it was indeed broken he told me to wait  and  went  of to  get the stretcher people. Meanwhile I saw my parents going up on the chair lift  and I started frantically to wave to them. However, before they could arrive my brother Marek,   got to me first. As I was explaining to him what had happened I realised that I had a three‑day skiing pass left, which was more than likely not going to be used up. This struck me as very tragic, and for the first time the tears arrived. Meanwhile, during all the commotion  among the parents, myself and my brother, the stretcher‑skiers arrived. My leg was immobilized in an air‑filled ‘plaster’ and I was gently taken down to the first aid station, where I told the doctor again that my “ham” was broken but that I could not feel my “ham”. My brother  at that point informed me what I was actually saying, and I broke out into uncontrollable giggling which started off Marek telling me jokes and to the utter astonishment of curious onlookers around, kept me laughing all the way to the hospital.

When I was writing this chapter, I was on my skiing holiday in Zell am See praying that I won’t break a leg again, especially as my “court jester” Marek,  was not present.  It took me sven years after breaking my leg in France to gather the courage to go skiing again. Now I once more go skiing whenever I can. Partly to boost my moral, self‑respect and to prove to myself and others that whatever happens I can and will ski. I  do enjoy skiing, I even love the activity but each time I   come of the slopes in one piece I breathe a sigh of relief.

When I returned to Holland and to school after our skiing trip, my whole leg in plaster and having to be back in the hated wheelchair, I became more and more unhappy about my situation in the school and with the problems at home. that were caused by a difficult time in the marriage of my parents.  I think that I was ready to set out on my own, to leave the protective environment of home. I was nearly 19, still at school with younger people, with no real goal in sight  regarding my future. The goals I had set myself before were achieved, I could walk, I could bike, I went to  a ‘normal’ school and I could take care of myself when I didn’t have a broken leg. So I begged my parents to enquire about the possibility of going to England. They  did and the  great day arrived when my mother and I left for England for an interview with the headmistress of St. Clare’s Hall in Oxford. I had visions of magnificent old buildings surrounded  by acres and acres of ground; these expectations were due to the   descriptions of English public school in the famous Enid Blyton  books that I used to devour. When we arrived at 139 Banbury  Rd., Oxford I was deeply disappointed by the way the school looked. It was (and is) a collection of buildings that used to be normal family houses, and the only surrounding grounds were the roads leading to and from Oxford centre. But the atmosphere of the school was from the very beginning very friendly and I liked the headmistress and all the other people I met. The headmistress, Miss Anne Dreydel OBE. was also disabled; she had suffered a spinal injury, during a bombing raid in the war, and she understood the problems that face a disabled person in this world who wants to lead a normal life and fit into our society. I convinced her that I would work hard and that I wanted to join her school very much. To my great happiness she accepted me. I was to start in October and  do the International Baccalaureate course instead of A levels.  We left Oxford to return to Holland, to finish my year there, and to prepare myself for leaving home. I  was happy that I got accepted but I was scared by the idea of being away from my parents. I did not know whether I  could cope on my own, yet another hurdle to overcome and to prove to myself that I could live without them.

Back in Holland I had to tell my best friend Ellis  that I would be leaving and going off to England. In retrospect it did our friendship a lot of good, for we were spending all our time together, at school and at home, and in the end we had nothing to talk about, and our friendship was entering a difficult stage.

The day dawned when I was at last leaving for Oxford, against the protests of my Dutch teachers who thought I would not be able to cope physically being on my own and would not succeed academically. Their motto was “better safe then sorry”, my motto had started to be “better to try and fail then be sorry for never trying”!

My mother was to accompany me all the way to Oxford and stay for a few days with our good friends there. We also were going via Cambridge to accompany my brother Marek back to his University. I was sad to leave Ellis behind, and scared of what was to come. With trepidation I waited in the car for us to leave to catch the night boat from Harwich. Suddenly Ellis ran out of her house (we already said goodbye many times) and stuck an envelope through the window, then she ran back in. On the envelope instructions were written that it could only be opened on the boat. Very well, I would do that (no, it wasn’t a bomb!).  The journey on the ferry was all but pleasant, we had a cabin deep down in the hull of the ship and there were force 9 winds blowing relentlessly.  The ship made her way through the waves with great crunching groaning and moaning noises and we were tossed about like tennis ball at Wimbledon. Marek couldn’t stay in the cabin and went up to the bar, how I wished I could have gone with him, but my mother forbade me, so instead I cowered in my bunk expecting the ship to keel over any minute. Then I remembered Ellis’s letter. I opened it, It was a poem about staying friends however far apart we may be. It put me into a much better mood, knowing that there always will be my friend Ellis whatever happens. And indeed, during all the years I have spent in England, during the years when Ellis got married, had a child, and led her life while I was and am leading mine, we always find time for each other, especially on special occasions like her marriage. This year it will be the 40th anniversary of our friendship.

We arrived at last to a sun-filled England. The next few days were spent in discovering the beauty and pleasures of Cambridge and then of Oxford; punting on the river Cam, and drinking my first Pimms. However, the fun ended and school started. My mother returned to Holland and I was left alone in one of the houses where pupils of St. Clares Hall resided. My house was run by a young French woman from Bordeaux who was married and had a little child. Later we became friends. There were about twenty other girls staying in our house from all walks of life and from all different parts of the world. At first, due to my extreme shyness, I didn’t talk to anyone and closed myself off in my room feeling utterly unhappy and having second thoughts about leaving Holland. Then I proceeded to get a flu with high temperatures. Suddenly all the girls in the house were there to help and would stay in my room chatting away. I made lot of friends and never wanted to leave again. When I returned home for the holiday after my first term I was very happy, I had succeeded in living alone away from home and I was beginning to stand on my own two feet (with crutches ). I had proven to myself and those people who tried to dissuade me  that I was capable of success.

         The mixture of people from all those countries provided a wonderful mixing pot of knowledge and experiences that all could share in. The most poignant example for me was when I became extremely good friends with a Chillian girl, called Adriana. She had to leave Chile because of the extreme right political movement in power at that time while her family were active in far‑left politics. Her Mother had indeed been arrested and tortured. Adriana was alone in England, sent away for her own safety. And there was I a refugee from Czechoslovakia, from the extreme left. Yet we managed to agree on many points, we managed to respect each other’s ideas when they differed and to overcame all our prejudices just to be friends. There was another example of this kind of friendship; two girls, one from Lebanon, a Muslim and another from Israel, they too became friends, only to have to hide their friendship from their respective families. Tolerance for all races, religions and political situations was indeed prevalent in that school.

My two years spent at Oxford were most of the time quite wonderful. I enjoyed most of my lessons, the teachers were good and seemed to really care whether their pupils did well or not and unlike in my school in Holland the pupils seemed to want to learn.  The two years passed  much too quickly and I was very sorry indeed reluctant to have to leave.

Also during my stay at St. Clares two other events occurred which had an effect on my life. Firstly I managed to get my driving licence. This had its funny and less funny moments. I had a good teacher, who used to be a racing car driver. The day of my first exam came and went, I failed for not looking into the mirror often enough, and for a few days I walked around feeling depressed and sorry for myself; it was the first time I had actually failed at anything ‑ and I didn’t like that feeling. My second test was only a week away, when my mother who had come to visit me had left the country (England) with the only pair of car keys I had. In panic I phoned her and she sent them back from Holland: would they arrive in time?  Every morning I checked the post; no keys. One day before the deadline, the keenly awaited envelope arrived. Relief! Quickly I had a few more lessons and then the dreaded Exam followed. During the exam while turning left and trying to avoid a car turning right I drove over the corner of a pavement. ‘That’s it!” I thought and before I could help myself I exclaimed  aloud “Shit!”  Full of horror I looked at my examiner, He sat there, face impassive, writing on a piece of paper. After the dreaded questions which seemed to go on forever,  in a voice of an undertaker he said, ” I have to tell you that…” he paused and continued in the same manner ” you have passed”. I couldn’t   believe my ears. I wanted him to leave the car quickly before he could change his mind.

Happily I drove myself back to the school and celebrations. The next morning was Saturday and I persuaded a friend of mine to go out very early for a drive, that way we would avoid any traffic. We set out a six in the morning driving happily through the pretty and winding country lanes around Oxford. Time went by very quickly and I had to get back if I wanted to avoid most of the busy Saturday‑shopping traffic. However, we got lost! And when  at last we came back to Oxford I found myself right in the centre of Oxford at ten in the morning peak shopping time!. Quickly I had to learn to cope with irritated drives who couldn’t find a parking space and with window‑shopping pedestrians crossing the road ignoring any traffic that might happen to be there. But we arrived back at school safely, the car still in one piece, tired and very hungry.  Maybe I became too blasé about driving, and only a few months later I was involved in a minor accident that, however minor, taught me a valuable lesson: that the car is a potential murder weapon! It was after my final exams at the school but I had decided to stay for a few weeks more as my friends were also staying  and I was helping with the production of the first year‑book of our school.  One early morning I was driving into town to get some photographic paper for the year‑book  photos. My mind was on other things, and as I was turning left a cyclist hit my car from the side. I managed to stop and see the cyclist fall of her bike and slid on the road. Shaking like a leaf, I parked the car off the road and got out. Thankfully, the cyclist had only very minor injuries and torn jeans. But all day long and during the police enquiries on the same day I was in a shock, and couldn’t stop crying. In the evening, however, my friends forced me to drive them around, so that I would get over the fear of sitting behind the steering wheel. I think it was a lesson needed and I was happy that it wasn’t a more serious accident.

Early during my stay in St. Clare’s I came into contact with “soft drugs”. Up to that point, in my protective home environment I had only heard of drugs occasionally and then only when it was being stressed that these were extremely dangerous substances that would kill and destroy you immediately. When at first I met a Swedish girl, who blissfully told me she was using drugs  and growing the drug plant at home I was shocked to the core. But as time went by curiosity and inquisitiveness overcame the shock. But it was not until I met and befriended B. that I ventured to try some of it for myself. What a disappointment the first time turned out to be! We managed to “smuggle” a minute amount of marihuana over from her boyfriend at the University. I remember walking through the dark streets of Oxford with the offending substance wrapped in a tiny piece of paper in my pocket. I was positive that everyone could see that I was doing something illegal and that I would be stopped and searched by a policeman and the he would take me away and lock me up in jail.  Of course no one stopped us, no policeman was interested in the slightest about us and we got back safely into our house. Then, full of anticipation and nervousness of being discovered during this illegal activity, I watched as B. put some of the brown powder into a rolled cigarette. There were, however, some minor problems: I did not smoke and thus found inhaling the smoke from the cigarette an extremely unpleasant experience. The amount of the actual drug in the cigarette was so tiny that it had no effect on me whatsoever as I tried bravely to puff my way through the tobacco.  B. found this all highly amusing in her state of drug intoxication; she was high on her previous intake at her boyfriend’s hall. I did not find it at all amusing but only managed to get more frustrated as coughing I tried to inhale the cigarette smoke. But to no avail; in desperation I thought of trying some glue‑sniffing but gave up that idea because I knew that could be really dangerous. So in disappointment I went to bed.

Only once during the few time that I took “soft drugs” did I actually really enjoy the experience.  Another friend of ours who had her own flat, managed to obtain some fresh “grass”. We could just roll it into a cigarette paper and inhale the drug without the need to inhale the tobacco. I experienced an instant high. And we fell about the place giggling like fools. Suddenly the phone rang. As our friend answered, her giggling stopped, and she went white as a sheet. It was the police! They wanted to talk to her about her bike that she had previously reported stolen and were sending a couple of officers  to her place. They would be there in about ten minutes. Frantically we cleaned up, threw all the windows open to get rid of the treacherous smell, and B. and I disappeared into my car parked round the corner. However, we could not drive away for I felt in no state to drive as yet. We saw the two officers of the law come and go up to our friends flat. We half expected to see them leave with our friend handcuffed and taken to the police station. But after what seemed like a long time they left alone. We were safe!

From time to time up until my second year at University I would occasionally indulge in this vice, but in reality the effects on me were no more like drinking a couple of glasses of good wine, which I found much more to my taste. Also, at the University I saw a girl who lived in my hall-of-residence, a friend of mine, progress from “soft‑drugs”, to “speed” to finally and ultimately end up using heroin. She was addicted and could not stop. Her mental and physical deterioration was horrible to see. I resolved never ever to even touch that stuff again. I do not know what happened to her but I doubt that she became the lawyer that she wanted to become.

Sadly, I had to leave Oxford and the school I learned to love so much. Sadly and tearfully we said goodbye to people that, by the very fact that they came from different parts of the world, we knew we would never see again. These friends who had shared for two years all the happiness and sadness that accompanies life and who had become part of a family.

I had to wait much longer to find out whether I had passed my final exams and even more worrying whether I had managed to get the grades that the University of my choice, Sussex, wanted of me. On the day that my Chemistry/Physics teacher Mr. L. and his family came to visit me in Holland on their way through that country, the envelope containing the answer to my immediate future dropped through the mailbox.  I had passed and I could go to Sussex, to study Biochemistry.  It was the happiest summer that I had had for a long time.

I had managed against all odds to finish my two years at Oxford, and against all predictions of my Dutch teachers I got the grades to enable me go to University. Towards the end of the summer I went to visit my old school in Holland and told my teacher the good news. Only one teacher, my old chemistry teacher, seemed happy for me, the other teachers went as far as to say that it was a mistake for me to go to University at all; that due to my disability I would not be able to cope academically. I shrugged off their pessimism and went off to Sussex. If up to then I had had listened to all those who said I could not do this or that I would in all probability be now in an institution unable to move at all. I wasn’t supposed to have lived, then, to be able to sit, let alone to walk, albeit with crutches.  Now I could take care of myself for most things. I was more or less independent. Not that it was always easy and the next years proved to be a trial that I nearly failed to come through.