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Mired by a surname

The quest to belong

GROWING UP IN Brisbane, my feelings of belonging to this country were jolted by the sound of my surname. Despite its presence on this continent for around eight generations, it wasn’t Anglo-sounding like the majority of surnames of people around me, and it became a point of ridicule. My earliest memories of this were in kindergarten when kids with playful minds would taunt my presence with the chant ‘falk and knife’. I never knew where the knife came from and asked my parents. They didn’t know either, but I have to commend those kids: it was a canny riff compared to the others I would hear later in life, and a prescient one for my path in life.

It wasn’t just kids who shone a spotlight on my surname. Whenever the school year began, I would wait nervously while the teacher made the roll call. The hope was he or she would see my surname, swiftly comprehend how to pronounce it, and move on to the next. Through much of primary and high school the opposite happened. Teachers would seize on seeing my four-syllable beast, proceed to break it down into bite-size morsels, finishing their tortuous attempt with a scrunch of the nose or a chortle. More often than not a lilt in their tone of voice would follow, asking for their attempt to be confirmed or corrected by the pupil in question. Their eyes would find mine, I would say the name how we said it as a family (For-ken-my-er), and wait for the titters from my peers. The scene would lodge in everyone’s brain and from that moment on, I would be marked as the kid with the difficult surname.

On reporting these events to my mother, who had taken on the name Falkenmire when she married my father, she cast a warning I would heed for the rest of my life. We are the only Falkenmires in the address book, she said. That means anything you do will stick and be carried around with you for the rest of your life, like add-on luggage you never get to offload. But there are plenty of other unusual names in my class, I countered. Bedi (Indian), Marzano (Portuguese), Chong (Cantonese) and Seet (Singaporean), and not to forget my female compatriot in roll-call terror, Zikowsky (although teachers seemed to have an easier time with her surname than mine). Yes, my mother conceded, but everybody remembers Falkenmire. Trust me. Now go look at the address book. I did and saw it alone and beaming among the endless braille of letters, our home address hugging it closely. I asked my mother what the name meant. She didn’t know, and nor did my father.

In high school, my surname was cumbersome for my friends’ tongues. They were used to one- and two-syllable names that rolled out of the mouth with little breath. Like Blake (meaning one who was either dark or pale), Woolmer (a pool around which wolves drinks), Clare (bright and clear) and Miles (a soldier). Falkenmire was an obstacle to their ease of engagement, to the laidback lifestyle of Brisbane. Did I have a fix? I consulted my father who had grown up in Tamworth, the town the Falkenmires had inhabited since the nineteenth century. The solution was easy, he said. Why don’t I use the nickname people used for him: Falky? Everyone uses a nickname. I reported this nickname back to my friends and they adopted it with relish. My new levelling, easy-to-pronounce moniker also made first impressions easier to negotiate. Girls on the bus and new teachers digested ‘Falky’ without the usual rigmarole I was used to, but I was uneasy using it. It was not my real name but a shadow of it, an abbreviation, a representation. Falky was my agency to the Australian way of life, but I was an unwilling party to the contract.

People opted for the complete version of my surname in rare moments. Like the girl from our sister school who used to yell out ‘Fuckamire’ before running off. I never found out it if her intent was antagonistic or complimentary. Or my German employer at the local shopping centre who said my surname out loud on my first shift. Sounds German, he said. What does it mean? I asked. It means nothing. Your ancestors probably used to belong to some pitiable small town, he said with bitterness on his tongue, before returning to his office at the back of the store. And then there was the girl I liked (Poulter: meaning keeper or seller of poultry) asking me why my friends called me Falky. I spelt out my full surname as an explanation. I prefer Falkenmire but you have a choice, she said: Falky or Falkenmire. Which is it? I couldn’t decide because both seemed like impositions. A disunity between me and what people called me had taken root.

 

BRISBANE FELT LIKE a large family house in the ’90s, one I desperately wanted to leave. A job opportunity came up in Sydney and I took it without looking back. There my surname became a drop in an even bigger ocean of names. Among the Hansons (son of Han) and Moores (of dark complexion) were a more or less equal representation of Marcinettis (son of Marco), Bolots (maker of bolts), Huangs (yellow) and Maliks (owner or king). This more palatable diversity eased my surname apprehension but did not quell it. People still took exception to my name, including some South African Jews who had kindly decided to hire me because my first name, Benjamin, was a good omen. Benjamin was the last son of Jacob and Rachel, leader of the Benjamite tribe, one of the twelve of Israel. By the way, did I know where my surname came from? It sounds Germanic. I didn’t know then about the Ashkenazi Jews, a diaspora population who had resided along the Rhine River and spoke Yiddish, and carried Germanic sounding surnames that mine could have descended from. Was I one of them? No, I wasn’t.

Around this time I learned through my father that my great uncle had drawn up a family tree for the Falkenmires. The tree zigzagged its way back to a small independent state within the kingdom of Prussia (a pre-German empire) called Nassau. A bunch of Falkenmires, presumably the entire clan, left Prussia around 1850 for the shores of the new world. No explicable reason was given. The Franco-Prussian war was still twenty years away. Were they persecuted? A family scandal? A large-scale drought? There were no answers, only passenger arrival records. The Falkenmires that made it to Australia set up shop in Tamworth, where the wide valley and gentle hills would have reminded them of their provincial origins. Decades later, my great-grandmother gave birth to nine children who populated Tamworth. Her picture would later be hung in the local church, and her son, Ken Falkenmire, would open a cricket academy not far away that is still training young hopefuls. I imagined Tamworth as an oasis for a Falkenmire, where the surname implied understanding and familiarity instead of difficulty and distance. But I wasn’t in Tamworth, nor was I about to move there. Instead I was staring at the unanswered questions at the top of the tree.

Having left my job for study, a scholarship opportunity came up in Germany not far from the old Duchy of Nassau. Enough of hearing about this country, I thought. It was time to see it. Perhaps they would see my surname and identify it. Tell me of the age of Falkenmires and where they used to farm. Direct me to a distant relative who would point to a family crest with colours and animals I could claim membership to and ship a copy back home and place above my desk and say, there it is, my identity. In case you are asking.

To my disappointment, none of this happened. My appearance (white, almost six foot, mouse brown hair, block head, avian nose) warmed me to the locals. I was mistaken for being German a number of times, locals initiating conversation in German before I apologised and informed them English was the only option. But I was also mistaken for being Swedish and French. As I travelled south from Cologne to the Bodensee, I stopped near Wiesbaden, where the former Duchy of Nassau resided. I gazed out at the landscape and told myself, this is the region where my family came from, but the words failed to land anywhere, my eyes darting from hill to tree to eroded castle, unable to focus on anything of meaning, anything that I could count and process into a sense of belonging.

When I finally made it to class, it was a dire case of déjà vu. There I sat among hundreds of students, most of them German, waiting for the lecturer to read through the roll of students. By the time he reached ‘F’ I couldn’t deny my excitement. Here I was, thousands of miles from Australia, performing my rite of passage, and this was a symbolic moment. The lecturer reached my name and all went well for the first half – Falken – but he paused on the ‘mire’ and apologised because he did not know how to pronounce this part, nor where it came from. Could the student please clarify?

In addition to studying the German language in the following six months, I also investigated surnames posted on student boards and signage around the city. From this questionable research I gleaned two hypotheses. One, my surname was a combination of two different parts, Falken and Mire, Falken meaning one who looks after or hunts with falcons, and Mire meaning a swamp or bog or a situation where you are stuck in one, or possibly a mutation of meyer or meier or mayer, meaning ‘someone who lived near a lake or pond’ (a mere). And two, I was unlikely to find out anything more. A dead end had been reached. The irony was I returned to Australia with a greater understanding of my surname yet fewer answers about what it meant to me and who I was. Yes my heritage was somewhat Germanic, but ‘somewhat’ isn’t a very Germanic measurement.

Back in Australia, a craving to return to Europe nibbled at my concentration. Australia was marching to the hills of wealth while Europe was still licking its global financial crisis wounds. I preferred the pensive, nostalgic atmosphere of the wounded to the wicked determination of the aspirational. An opportunity came in the form of my Danish partner and her expiring Australian visa. Where did we want to go? Not Germany, I said. I had mined enough there. There was one city I had always wanted to live in, that I had visited before and been drawn to by something beyond words. That city was Amsterdam.

 

MY FIRST SURNAME encounter in the Netherlands was a visit to the council office to register my visa. The official took my passport and pronounced my surname perfectly on the first go. Astounded, I smiled and told her she was the first stranger in my life to perform that feat. Welcome to Holland! was her response. This experience birthed a clear and naive rationale: my family originated from the land of clogs! Further Wikipedia searches backed up the claim. The father of the Netherlands, William of Orange, who under the edict of Calvinism united the Netherlands to see off Spanish occupiers and their Catholic religion in the late sixteenth century, was born in the House of Nassau. Since 1815, all Dutch and Luxembourg monarchs have been senior members of the House of Nassau. I may not have been royalty but I had discovered my ancestral home. I signed up for Dutch language classes and opened my eyes and ears, ready to validate this uncanny discovery.

I discovered the Dutch, like me, could be open, direct and warm. I discovered my long hair was mirrored around me, even by senior men at a Dutch bank (although I refused to adopt their liberal use of hair product). I discovered they were very tall, the tallest in the world in fact, and if I stood on my tippy toes I could just pass for mean height. And I discovered their love of bicycles, a love I developed at an early age and rekindled in adulthood. But as the years passed, the doldrums of daily life demystified this gullible love affair. I learnt the Dutch were a nation of quirky surnames, like Boomsma (son of a Boom?) and Banga (sausage maker?), mine being just one of the pack. Dutch language, despite my best efforts, didn’t roll off my tongue like German did. Their lack of courtesy and insistent openness about all matters – including family problems, lovers and illness – grated against my belief that restraint and dignity are two cousins in the family tree of pleasantry. In sub-zero winds and just-above-zero rain, I did not love riding my bicycle to work. When I travelled outside of the city in search of the enriching countryside the Dutch spoke fondly of, I found flat plains of reeds and water (mires?) that stumped me in their monochrome-ness. And I became tired of their line of questioning in social settings: how is your Dutch? How was I integrating? Did I like it here in Amsterdam? Did I want to become Dutch? Against the tide of immigration and globalisation, the Dutch were trying to hold their identity firm. I woke up one morning and decided I did not want to become Dutch. My partner suggested a return to Australia, but Australia still felt like an unexciting submission to a norm I didn’t feel a part of. I had found a sense of belonging in Holland, but I believed this sense should be wider and more fulfilling than just glints and shots.

The following two years we moved to France and then Denmark, the home of my now wife. This peregrination offered up unremarkable information to my surname quest. France deals in Germanic-sounding names as often as they buy baguettes, and the Scandinavians have their bevy of Falks, Falkens and riffs on both (Falkenberg, for example). My surname was like a visa to both countries. It was not exotic at a time when exotic was undesirable, and it had remnants of names they had seen before. Both facts made things easier for me in those countries rather than harder, and I was thankful for it. But in a state of repose I began to miss my homeland’s sharp contrast in diversity, its throwing up of names that differed wildly and unexpectedly from my own.

 

AFTER SIX YEARS in Europe, I landed back in Sydney. I was surprised to learn it was no longer my surname that pinned me as different but my character. I had a global English accent, developed over the years from communicating with people from all corners of the world who could not easily discern an Australian accent. I wore different clothing, had a desire to ride bikes on Sydney’s unforgiving roads, was sensitive to the fallout of the global financial crisis that had hit Europe hard but barely touched Australia, had a Danish partner, and demonstrated an appreciation of well-designed small interiors and cheese on rye bread for breakfast. Where are you from? I was asked for the first six months in Sydney.

It was not a one-way street. Estranged from Australian social etiquette for so long, I felt awkward among family and friends, watching from a distance like a zoologist observing the captured. The captured spoke of property prices in Sydney instead of employment vulnerability. I only liked a glass of wine with food rather than finishing an entire bottle. Refusing to sit down at a table for languorous periods, Sydney people were efficient with their dinner table meals. In conversations about politics, I couldn’t line up Denmark’s free education and the Dutch’s irrepressible attitude to a work-life balance with the corporatisation of education in Australia and the paltry hours my full-time working sister was able to spend with her two young children.

Caught in this discomforting tide, I took refuge among European friends and Australian friends with overseas partners. Their connection and distance to the country aligned with my ambivalent feelings about being home yet feeling like a migrant. Like me, they didn’t eat at the usual times, abhorred the television and enjoyed different movies. Holiday discussions were inextricably tied to family visits and the politics of airline choices. Most importantly, there was more space in conversation for difference and ideas, for complexity and difficulty. Fewer words were needed to find common ground. They were a refuge.

I have been back ‘home’ for three years now. Time is a visa to perspective. I have watched my Brisbane accent slowly re-emerge while my global accent fades yet fights to survive, its point of resistance being the letter ‘r’ (pronounced with a curl of the tongue by the Dutch, a curl my tongue is unwilling to completely let go of). Fewer words leak from my mouth, which could be interpreted as laconic Australianness but is more a reflection of the distance between my country and me. This distance shortens in moments like watching the cricket (particularly against the Old Enemy) or gazing at a currawong on the TV aerial of our apartment. It lengthens when I talk to an Australian who hasn’t lived the other life and whose sense of belonging is an unconscious act of proprietary, a right bestowed at birth. This gap will never be crossed. I know this now. To want to belong is a desire and there is no surname or experience that can satiate it. There is no one place where I will feel completely at home. Home is a construct you build: out of family, friends, pleasures and comforts.

With this in mind, I have made one conscious adjustment to my surname, having dined out on it with Falk and Knife in Europe. I often pronounce it Fal-ken-my-er to account for the lack of a ‘u’ in the first syllable that often confuses Aussies with Faulkner (also meaning a person who hunts with birds). One part Euro, the other Aussie. It is an innocuous adjustment that is loaded with meaning. On the one hand, it marks a full stop to my desire to belong. On the other, it reflects the two windows of perspective I now have into the same home.


From Griffith Review Edition 61: Who We Are © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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