Photo credit: Yves Alarie
When the Chernobyl accident happened on the 26th of April 1986, releasing the largest quantity of radioactive materials ever freed in one technological accident, it became a global catastrophe that no-one was prepared for and one which would impact the lives of millions of people, including my family’s and mine- almost overnight.
A year earlier my parents had moved the family to the lake-side town of Konstanz, in South West Germany, on the border with Switzerland. Unfortunately Konstanz had been heavily hit by nuclear fallout from the accident and was very quickly declared a ‘hot region’. Because the Cold War was still underway, Germany was divided between two governments- East and West- which meant there was a total absence of coordinated policies at a national level. Spontaneous measures were undertaken by local authorities and within individual households, including our own.
My parents wasted no time in briefing my siblings and I on all the necessary precautions we would have to take to not get contaminated- by what, I wasn’t sure. I only remember that I struggled to change habits so suddenly. A whole set of new rules was made up in a haste it seemed, which went against the grain of what it meant to live life as a seven-year old.
This involved never picking up things that had fallen on the ground outside (‘even if it is your favourite toy’, my father warned my two brothers and I), never sitting or lying in the grass (‘this applies especially to you two grown-ups’ my father pointed to my two older sisters who were becoming teenagers and like most teenagers liked to congregate outside and just...sit on the ground), no more ball games, no more skipping ropes, sleeping in tents in the garden, and for heaven’s sake if it rains, come home immediately and have a shower, change your clothes and always, always be careful to take off your shoes and leave them outside the house. And whatever you do, my father said, when you are at your friends’ or at school, don’t drink milk, no more dairy products, no potatoes, no salads, no rhubarb. Don’t eat anything that has grown in the earth, OK? We all nodded. We had been lectured before, my siblings and I, but this was a different type of lecture my father was giving us. The new rules and regulations seemed far-fetched and surreal.
It so happened that our next door neighbours, the Muellers, a lovely family of four, were the proud owners of a large vegetable garden which yielded vast amounts of lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes and especially rhubarb. There seemed to be lots of it, all of the time. I was friends with Hannegret who was the same age as me. Together we dressed our Barbie dolls, ate sweets and drew ponies. Her mother made the most delicious rhubarb crumble I had ever tasted in my entire little existence. After the Chernobyl accident however, I would have to restrict myself, my mother reminded me. “Remember, no milk and no rhubarb crumble, even if she insists, is that clear?” I nodded compliantly.
“Nein, danke. Ich habe Bauchweh” would be my auto-reply to Frau Mueller when she offered me a slice of mouth-watering rhubarb cake, holding it on a spatula in mid-air where it floated like a hot fluffy cloud made of sugar and caramel. My conscience got the better of me and I would place a dramatic hand on my tummy to indicate a sudden imaginary stomach ache-just to, you know, be more credible.
“Are you sure?” she would ask again, as if she suspected something. I winced and nodded. There was something so reassuring in her tone that I felt embarrassed and silly for lying. It didn’t help that she looked like the Virgin Mary from the Children’s Illustrated Bible we had to read at school.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad this contamination thing. Afterall, the Muellers were still alive and well, I contemplated. I noticed no change in Hannegret’s behaviour or physical appearance despite the fact that she ate the thing almost every day of the week- or so I thought. I failed to understand why my parents were stricter than Hannegret’s parents. When I shared my conflicting thoughts on the issue with my older brother, Robert, who was nine years old at the time, he warned me:
“If you eat rhubarb cake, you’re going to glow in the dark!” That didn’t seem like such a terrible thing to me at the time. Nevertheless, in my child’s brain, Bauchweh became synonymous with rhubarb crumble which in turn became synonymous with radiation and death . And so I erased it from my mind and appetite and indulged in it again for the first time as an adult, after 25 years of abstinence.
In 1987, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer and spent several months being treated in hospital. It was only when he recovered, that life seemed to return to a certain normality. We went back to eating fresh fruits and vegetables- ones that had been produced locally on the small monastic island of Reichenau (now a World Heritage Site), which lies West of Konstanz. Local authorities had replaced the contaminated earth to remove the radioactive iodes- referred to as cesium 137, which were responsible for increasing cancer risk.
If memory were a temperature and a colour, those “Chernobyl days” (as we referred to them in the family) were a cold, thick grey. We got on with our lives but it was like the Chernobyl cloud literally hung over our heads all of the time. It followed us around like a shadow, even when the lights went out at night. I remember experiencing moments of deep frustration at not being able to do normal things, like kicking a ball around outside with my brothers, doing roly-polys and cartwheels in the garden. Having to be careful all the time was exhausting. I desperately wanted things to be normal again.
Which brings me to this current pandemic and having to chuck any sense of normality out of the window, once again. This time it’s different though because I have developed this thing called resilience, the mother of all coping mechanisms; something that is built gradually over time through the steady encounter of all kinds of shit-storms in life.
It’s the young ones I feel sorry for. Most kids and adolescents don’t know what resilience is- how could they when their lives have only just begun. Having to wear masks and endure forced lockdown (when their minds and bodies are meant to be expanding, interacting, learning, discovering) though a necessary evil, seems horribly unjust. On a recent Zoom call with my nieces and nephews (seven of them altogether, aged between seven and fourteen), they expressed their frustration about the whole situation but were surprisingly positive too. Most of them admitted being kept awake at night because they worried about school, family and friends but they also enjoyed the time spent with family and being able to do their homework in their pyjamas. Perhaps that is ultimately their saving grace; youthful optimism as opposed to hard-won resilience. Come to think of it, if I had the choice, I would choose the former.