Stephenson was born in Italy to a Serbian-French mother and Bosnian father. Most
of her working life has been spent in the international airline industry. She
lives in Sydney and has one son. Faeroes' Child is her first book.
interpretations and any errors in this book are entirely my own, while the
people and their names are as real as their personalities.
have attempted to portray them faithfully.
I have used the old spelling of the Faeroe Islands throughout this book as that was the spelling used in my time there in the 1950s. Today, it is more common to see the islands’ name spelt as Faroe Islands.
My early childhood years were
spent among the age-old survivors of the Vikings on a group of islands in the
middle of a vast, hostile ocean. There I lived with my mothers, none of them my
own. I had no direct contact with my real mother. All I knew was that she lived
at the opposite end of the world, surrounded by oceans that were much calmer
than ours. Our backgrounds were vastly different, that much I also knew. Mother
had spent her childhood in the landlocked state of Serbia in a cultured Slavic
For a long time, I had accepted
but never understood the notion that my mother and I had to lead separate lives.
Mother had mastered the art of concealing her past and only rarely did she
disclose her true feelings. For my part, I had knowingly wiped out all memory,
even any reference to, my childhood. I lost any desire to unravel the threads of
my past. But that would soon change.
So it was that I found myself,
some forty years later, flying towards the Faeroe Islands, islands so small that
they are often omitted from maps, appear as an ink smudge or are not even named.
What I found out there was as unexpected as it was astounding and it
required a major revision of the memories of my early childhood.
I had chosen to fly rather than
take the ferry service that was still operating from Denmark. My first tortuous
passage across the North Sea, when as a child I had spent the entire trip being
seasick, was etched indelibly in my memory. For the two-hour long flight on
Atlantic Airways from Copenhagen, I had purposely asked for a window seat on the
port side of the aircraft, as I wanted to catch sight of the islands as soon as
they came into view.
Except for the English businessman seated next to me, the other passengers seemed to be locals, not all flaxen-haired but all with distinctive Viking blue eyes. Impatiently, I watched the unusually calm sea for any sign of land. Then I noticed a swirling mass of reddish-grey mist in the distance. I pressed my face against the window. Yes, there it was - the protective layer of fog that holds the secrets of this ancient archipelago. As we came closer, the islands suddenly appeared as if by magic, jutting out of the mist like giant upside-down ice cream cones dipped in chocolate. These were the immense rock pinnacles of the Faeroes. We flew closer and more islands came into sight, their resplendent green mantle now clearly visible, but paled by the curtain of mist. These were the storm-tossed Faeroe Islands, situated in the bleak North Atlantic, halfway between Iceland and Shetland; the islands I had first come to in 1949.
IN ORDER TO understand my curious childhood and the circumstances, which brought me to the edge of the Arctic Circle, it is necessary to travel south to Italy, to the port city of Genoa, where I was born to unwilling parents some months after the end of World War II. Before stopping here, it is essential to journey further southeast to the former Republic of Yugoslavia to the home of my half Serbian, half French mother.
My mother was born in Stara Pazova, about half an hour's drive northwest from Belgrade, in the agricultural region of Vojvodina, where her family had a country estate. The youngest of five children, she grew up in a privileged household. The family house was in the city, complete with maids, valets, a chauffeur and cook. Mother was named Dušanca (pronounced Dushanka) but she was nicknamed ‘Beba’, as one of her brothers had trouble pronouncing her name.
Her paternal grandfather, Vjovoda (Duke) Radomir Putnik, was the well known Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief of the Serbian Army, who led Serbia to victory in many battles and also served as Minister of War during the Balkan wars. Even though Mother had not known him - he died four years before her birth - she was immensely proud of the old Duke's character and war record.
Mother's Serbian father, Dušan Putnik, was a pacifist, a lawyer by profession and a patron of the arts. He played the viola rather well and insisted that his children learn a musical instrument, which they did reluctantly. He was a founding member of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra and every Saturday afternoon a recital was held in the music room on Jevremova Street. He was a strict father in the Victorian sense.
Her mother, Denise, was of French and Greek background. Her father was a Greek shipbuilder, but most of the family lived in Paris where Denise met Dušan. Whereas Dušan was severe, Denise was gentle and his cutting remarks and autocratic demeanour were balanced by her gentleness and benevolence.
Already as a child, Mother showed signs of having inherited her father’s sharp tongue and wit, which pleased the old boy no end, so she was often let off the hook from extra music practice and disciplinary measures. She was bright and clever and her father adored her, as did everyone else, except possibly her older sister.
grew up to be tall and fine-boned, with large brown eyes, flawless light olive
skin, manageable thick brown wavy hair and a high Beethoven forehead that
contained a lot of brains. She was amusing and very attractive. Papa Dušan
insisted that all his children study law at the University of Belgrade, but
Mother convinced him to let her study arts at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she
stayed with her maternal relatives. Her favourite brother, Djordje became a
doctor. Her other siblings, Bogdan, Sofija and Radomir obeyed their father and
studied law. Djordje loved birds and used to carry them around in the pocket of
his coat or jacket. The brim of his
hats all had distinctive V-shaped beak marks.
He had his own nickname for Mother, Kobac,
Serbian for swallow hawk, which summed up her searing powers of observation that
developed from an early age. From
Mother's description, their country estate had more animals than Noah's Ark.
Djordje had a pet owl there and, for a time, Mother kept a spider monkey.
Interesting and eccentric relatives would come to visit. Uncle Sava always arrived for lunch with a trunk – a trunk full of toys for the children. He was also the size of a trunk, hulking and avuncular with a broad noble face and a huge moustache. His slim son, Cornelius, became a spy during World War II. Mother's aunt, Ann-Marie, fell in love at the tender age of fifteen with a man in his forties. She wanted to marry him, but her parents would not allow it. So she went on a hunger strike until the family relented. Two other aunts, Radmila and Ruydoka lived for a time at the court of Tzar Nicholas II in Russia, returning to Belgrade before the February Revolution in 1917 and bearing interesting tales from the imperial household.
sister, my Aunt Sofija, known as 'Pepa', flirted briefly with communism while at
university, much to her father's despair and for a while took to wearing
workmen's boots and walking in the mountains with the peasants as a sign of
solidarity. She married Milutin Stojadinović, a doctor from a
well-connected family. The Stojadinović family lived in a rather sumptuous
villa in central Serbia in the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja, where the Romans
built the first spa in the second century AD. They also owned a hunting lodge in
the nearby Goc Mountains, where Tante Pepa would sally forth on her solidarity
walks. All in all, our family could hardly be described as a dull clan.
new capital of the first Yugoslavia, where Mother grew up in the 1920s, saw a
great rise in cultural activities. A
rich variety of immigrants from across the new state of Yugoslavia and Europe
swelled the numbers of intellectuals and professionals. Dance, theatre and opera
benefited from the flood of Russian émigrés fleeing the upheavals in their
country, elevating the arts to Western European levels. Literary journals and
publications abounded. The hundreds
of cafés were filled with authors, artists and musicians, and restaurants on
the Sava River served delicious Serbian specialties roasted on charcoal grills.
The Terazije, a wide boulevard traversing Belgrade, was alive with a mixture of
bohemian and fashionably dressed citizens.
flourishing times, Mother’s future looked rich and promising. Heads would turn
when Beba walked, no, made an entrance into a room. It seemed she had the world
at her feet. Then at 7.15 a.m. on 6 April 1941, without warning, Germany invaded
Yugoslavia. Belgrade, previously declared an open city, was savagely bombed.
In an instant, Mother's cosy world fell apart.
The German bombers continued their attack for four days, killing over
2,300 people and wounding even more. The Germans destroyed churches, hospitals,
schools, the Palace and most of the residential houses.
Many fled the city. Mother
and her immediate family were initially unharmed even though they lived in the
centre of the city. With the
entrenchment of German occupation, the situation grew more dangerous by the day.
The Germans took control of all urban centres and all cultural life quickly came
under their control. Soldiers from
the Yugoslav army were deported to prisoner of war camps in Germany. A special
police force made up of Volksdeutsche was hastily established. No one was safe, and
concentration camps around Belgrade were soon set up for offenders. Mother
desperately wanted to get out of Yugoslavia.
My father, Branko Pavlović, came from a humble background. He was born somewhere in Bosnia; I have been unable to find out exactly where. Ten years older than my mother, also tall and good-looking, he had already been working as an architect in Belgrade where they met at the introduction of her brother, Radomir, at the start of Word War II. Branko was also keen to leave his country and had the connections and means to do so. My parents were married in Belgrade in the autumn of 1942 shortly before Mother's 21st birthday. The Nazi occupiers continued their aggression on the citizens of Belgrade. Mother's cousin and his Jewish wife were captured and put into a concentration camp, where they perished. Given the deteriorating circumstances, my parents decided to leave Yugoslavia.
'Your father was a commoner, but he was my ticket out of war-torn Belgrade. He had excellent connections in the black market.' This was how my mother would later describe my father to me. 'He was very diligent, just like you. My family adored him'. Mother always maintained that her family was intellectually active, but physically lazy. This about summed up the information that Mother was willing to reveal about my father, occasionally adding little gems, such as: 'He made his money during the war from dealing arms.'
Early in 1943 my parents left Belgrade for Vienna by plane and from there continued by train to Trieste. My father had somehow got hold of, or been put in charge of, transporting King Petar of Yugoslavia's Cadillac on the train. It was an overnight trip and my parents slept in the Cadillac. To me, this story is only plausible because my parents knew King Petar, who had been driven into exile. My parents lived in Trieste in great comfort according to my mother.
‘Lovely theatre. Performances continued uninterrupted, despite the war.'
referring to the lovely Teatro Verdi with its splendid recital hall and
neo-classical façade, similar to that of La Scala in Milan. Trieste was a
melting pot of culture and ethnicity, so perfectly suited to my parents, except
for the matter of the war, which forced them to move to a safer country. They
decided on neutral Switzerland, where they tried to gain entrée as political
refugees, but were refused. However, after offering the requisite financial
encouragement, they were accepted and took up residence at the lakeside Bauer au
Lac Hotel in Zurich. Mother always managed to be stylish even in adverse
parents got from Trieste to Zurich remains vague, but it would not have been
without danger. Mother loved to tell the story of an incident that occurred on a
deserted alpine highway before crossing the Swiss border. A Gestapo agent
stopped the car my parents were driving and demanded they get out of the car. It
was the middle of the night and pitch black. Mother showed her courage by taking
out her Baretta handgun, which was conveniently strapped to her upper thigh.
According to Mother, my father cowered in the car while Mother got out and,
well, finished the guy off. They proceeded without further incident.
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