Yes, I might well be writing this in Spanish. I don’t. Pure chance! Much of my life has depended on chance. Of course, the same will be true of many.
Had that captain of police at Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, been down with a bout of malaria (and most whites at Livingstone came down once or twice a year) his letter would not have been dictated in time – the letter saying that a visa for three Fraenkels was available for collection at the border post. There were no more than three or four white policemen at Livingstone and their captain doubled as the territory’s immigration officer. In that case we might have had to accept another offer that had reached us two days later — a visa for Peru.
My parents had never applied for that Peruvian visa. Some good soul in the USA had provided an “affidavit” which guaranteed that if ever we became a charge on the state of Peru, he would support the three Fraenkels, his dear relatives. In fact – as far as my parents knew – he was not a relative at all. Claiming to be one made his financial guarantee more convincing. God bless him! No doubt he hoped we would not ever call on him to make good his offer of support.
If neither Peru nor Northern Rhodesia nor a third possibility – Swaziland – had come on time, we may well have died in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
My parents opted for Northern Rhodesia because both spoke some English but no Spanish. However, they thought of Northern Rhodesia as no more than a temporary stop-over while awaiting visas for South Africa where we had relatives – genuine relatives. Similarly, Peru was considered a stepping stone for the USA.
In fact, Northern Rhodesia became home for my parents for most of the rest of their lives. Scenically and culturally most of the territory was dull: a plateau of flat grassland, mile after mile after mile of it … and a few dull copper mining towns, usually with a single hotel but several bars.
Peru, on the other hand, would have been far more exciting. Ruined Inca palaces – the most glorious at Pichu Minchu – many in worked stone, others in decorated adobe. Pyramids; mountain cemeteries; narrow stepped terraces on the flanks of mountains, skilfully protected against erosion – narrow strips of soil to grow crops. Numerous tubers related to the potato. The great altitude – Cusco at 11,000 feet – would have set our hearts racing. Yes, it might well have killed us off young but we would have lived our lives more fully than flatfooted flatlanders.
Great Spanish churches in a colonial baroque, many built on the foundations of Inca temples. Northern Rhodesia had nothing to rival all this. But – that immigration officer had escaped his regular bout of malaria. His letter reached us in good time.
Hence — I write to you in English.