It was a few years ago that I found myself suddenly journeying back to my childhood. Having travelled to Zurich in Switzerland I ended up in the Heidi Village in the Swiss Alps, a surprise trip arranged for me by an ex-boyfriend. This unexpected visit set off a chain of thought that took me back even further than early childhood: right down to my earliest idea of identity, inextricably linked to my name.
What power can lie in a name! It’s that specific-sounding vocalisation that make us look up, turn around to face or run away from the caller who, for a split second, wields such power over one’s attention that your whole being awaits for or escapes from what is to follow; as if you become a human colon paying heed, no matter how brief, to the unfolding of a list, a story, maybe even an act.
And so I realised at an early age that short little word which was and still is mine, despite being so light and short-lived on the tongue, supposedly encapsulated all that I was and am. It is that particular sound that made me prick up my ears and react right from the very start, only just held down by a plosive d at the start of the brief second and last syllable, making it dip down ever so slightly like a small, round fishing sinker, anchoring the other sounds and gathering them round in perfect proximity to each other. Like all children, it was with my name that I signified and claimed ownership on pictures, on the inside of the front cover of books and on scraps of paper. I learned that it was inside those five letters, a few straight and curved lines, that the magic of identification and the existence of me lay.
As a child living in a small South African town there weren’t many Heidis around, so realising that there was another little girl who lay claim to my name came as quite a shock. But there she was: my alter-ego on the other side of the world, yodelling away in a place which looked so pure you could cut your finger on the clean edge of the mountain air. Not only did she have my name, she also had the most wonderful life I could ever have imagined at the age of four! And so started my inevitable gravitation towards or an obsession, some might say, with this persona.
Swiss Heidi’s life seemed so completely the opposite of my African childhood where we spent our days trapping slow-roaming tortoises in backyards (large enough to play Tag in for all the neighbourhood’s children and their pets), building these laid-back reptiles spacious pens with stones, only always to find that they had escaped the very next day; spending the sunny hours of endless summer days in swimming pools – feeding off of each others’ boundless energy; playing rounders on dusty municipal greens in between small-town houses; warm summer winds enclosed us like an invisible blanket as we’d race after the ice cream van on our bikes just before dusk, after which the night-time sound of chirping crickets would rock us into a monotonous sleep, making us dream impatiently of the next day when we’ll spend our time chasing lizards by their detachable tails and of just maybe being lucky enough to find bulge-eyed chameleons and take them home to watch them catch houseflies with one quicker-than-lightning flick of their extrudable, sticky tongues. This was a time when the only call that sounded insistent and important enough to get us into the house was the call to ‘Come home right this instant! It’s dinner time!’
But in my young mind, Swiss Heidi’s world seemed ever more alluring, ever more wholesome than my own: in my mind, yet unformed but peopled with ideas and sensory perceptions, her exotic life included an unlimited amount of grilled cheese, goats milk and soft, warm bread rolls; the tinkling sound of bells around goats’ necks traversing the mountainside ever present – the Alps green in spring time like the inside of Peppermint Crisp chocolates and snowy white in winter (snow a completely foreign concept to me and one so exciting that for many years I would beg God on Christmas Eve to send snowy, European Christmas days – a prayer left unanswered every time); grandfathers who were forever wise, although moody, and kind, albeit blind, grandmothers; loyal goatherd friends who never got tired of exploring the meadows in between snow-capped mountain peaks; fir trees filled with secrets rustling in the breath of the mountains behind a wooden hut with cosy fires always burning inside and fluffy Saint Bernards who would forever welcome you at the door when you came back, rosy-cheeked, after a sleigh journey shooting down the mountainside to the village far below.
Within the framework of all this apparent perfection, the antagonist looked even more hostile: Miss Rottenmeier became the epitomy of all things evil and soul-destroying, the implementor of a system, a strict regime of dullness and sitting-down lessons, the destroyer of all things natural, the creator of lifeless cul de sacs.
Although it is true that one’s identity is made up of many aspects, not only residing in one’s name, I did read in an article once that many people regard an individual’s name as a crucial factor in developing one’s sense of self. Apparently it’s seen as a major force that helps propel people forward on various paths of life and career. Well, let’s face it: no great career had come of my childhood longing to start my day by gazing at the Alps through a perfectly round window, like a porthole, from the top of a mountain cabin. The article does go on though to mention that living up to one’s name can dictate future behaviour. Does this explain my unrealistic urge sometimes to set up camp in a field of wildflowers, an overactive imagination and an always nagging longing to be free from the demands of institutions, questioning the wisdom of working for days at and end, cooped up for most of your waking hours, when the world is such a beautiful place?
Or is it inherent to all of us to dream, every now and then, of a world more honest than the one we live in? Might it be that maybe, just maybe, I am longing for a world of innocence which WAS actually mine? It took me many years to realise that my childhood wasn’t quite so different from Swiss Heidi’s. Our worlds had one essential mutual ingredient: the freedom to roam which opened ever-widening horizons of imagination, enough time to experience what being a child is all about.
Little did I know that sleeping on hay wasn’t all that comfortable and that all that straw, coupled with a thick sack for a coverlet, would have brought on unbearable bouts of hay-fever and allergies. No amount of yodelling or grilled goats cheese would have been able to keep the Swiss cold at bay and I would most probably have frozen my little pinafore off in the Swiss winters and, let’s be honest, I really could never betray my heart that belong forever to the ocean and its sand dunes and not really to mountains. Majestic and awe-inspiring, yes, but not really my cup of tea.
So that day, as I was listening to the silvery sound of goat bells while inside Heidi’s warm wooden cottage, I thanked Johanna Spyri for making me dream so passionately of another life so that, years later, I could so fiercely appreciate my own.
As life has a way of creating its own irony, it was raining cats and dogs in the Heidi village that day and down the mountain I brought with me a memoir: a Heidi umbrella, an item I had no need for as a child. And now, whenever I open the umbrella like a shield, creating a canopy between me and the colourless London sky, I steal away to an overarching world, a parallel universe if you like, of fresh mountain air, green fields and never-ending summer days where we are all allowed to meander unfettered in a simpler time, stripped of all pretensions and filled with child-like exploration and unlimited possibilities.