OUR CUSTOMARY CODE.
My somewhat unusual family do not so much live by ‘codes of conduct’ as immediate reaction to the customs of the people among whom they find themselves. My adorable wife, Francesca, I couldn’t live without her, seems to keep them in some sort of order but freely admits she cannot always follow their dialogue. This is odd too because she is a university lecturer in English, French and Italian and has an MA at one of the foremost universities in Europe. It was where we met some fifteen years ago.
The children were messing about so badly as we got off the plane that I was starting to get very cross with them. I had been called to a meeting at the UN in New York and so we had to cut short our stay in London before returning to Geneva where all of them went to school. Our youngest, Edgardo, or Eddie as most of us called him, was looking forward to the middle of September because at last he would be starting at the same school where his brothers and sisters were studying. It was an elite and expensive Catholic school which took children from the age of five, if their fifth birthday was before September the first in the year they started. They could stay there through to University age, that is they would usually have their eighteenth birthday in their last academic year.
Well for the eldest, Maria, it was just a normal back to school as she had had her twelfth birthday the previous April. Giovanni, John or Jean, depending on how he wanted you to address him that day,was eleven, born exactly one year after Maria, and the twins, Lucia and Violetta had celebrated their ninth birthdays in June this year. Of the others Dido, was seven the previous December, Aeneas was a year younger than her exactly and the last, Eddie, a year before Aeneas on the previous thirtieth of November. I stress these years and dates because they have a lot to do with what happened that day in New York. They were not exactly behaving themselves as we disembarked at Kennedy airport. I think it was Giovanni who started it. We were just about to go through customs, nationality visas and security checks, even though all nine of us has had diplomatic passports. My Italian wife Francesca was eyeing a last chance duty free bottle of her favourite perfume before catching up with us. But as I say I think Giovanni went up to the customs gate first.
The official smiled at him and, catching a glimpse of the diplomatic passport, politely asked him “And what is your name please young Sir.” My eldest son wanted to enjoy himself.
“Eh , ba, vous savez j’ai tant de nommes que je ne peux pas les souvenir. Attendez un instant.”
The stunned customs official had not realised we were French. Well we weren’t, but as the children were all born in diferent countries, save the twins, problems often arose. Giovanni seemed dumb and puzzled but the official saw a god given opportunity to show off his French. “Je m’excuse, Monsieur, mais je pensais que vous etiez Anglais. Pardonnez moi.” To which he reeled from the reply,
“I really cannot see why I should pardon you when I am not French, nor English for that matter. My name is John, if we must speak in this pompous language. Personally I prefer to talk in Spanish!” The official was starting to get a little annoyed, but as he did not yet know what status I had and therefore my children too he held himself in check.
“Okay then young man, why don’t we speak in Spanish?”
My son looked bored.”We don’t speak in Spanish, my good man, because I don’t understand a word of the language. It just sounds nice and I would prefer to speak it. That is all I said.” The officer was starting to lose his control.
“Alright then sonny, I think…..”
“WHAT did you call me? Do you know who I am? ..” he got no further because Maria saw what was happening and rushed up to the official and in a tone of genuine apology said ,
“Oh is my poor brother having one of his turns again? You know it is a strain, but we do try. If you wish to know he is Italian by birth and on his mother’s side, but Australian on his father’s. He suffers from mental hyper egotism and breaks out in the strangest sentences from time to time. His name is Jean Thomas.”
“Oh, poor kid I am sorry. I had better talk to your parents about him, Miss Thomas. Now what is your name please?” My oldest child must have started it all because in many ways she had the best sense of humour in the family. She decided to carry on the exercise in driving the customs official insane.
“Do you mean my full names?” The uniformed man nodded. “Well they are Maria, Cecilia, Gemma, Margarita, Jane.” He wrote all the names, spelling Gemma with a J only to be told that she did not intend to force open any safes while visiting America. The officer didn’t realise what she meant so she had to explain the spelling of her name and saying she thought her linguistic joke had been rather good. He nodded again. Then he asked, as a formality he claimed, my daughter’s nationality. A simple request for most people but he soon wished he hadn’t.
“Well there you have me, my good man. It is a rather complex subject. You see I was born in Paris, that’s Paris France not Texas, and so I can claim French nationality when I am sixteen. But I have not yet decided whether I shall. You see dear Papa is Australian so I have that option and with Mama being Italian I can also claim that nationality as well. But a new and glorious possibility is currently being dscussed at The United nations, though it is not the reasons why Papa has been summoned there on a matter of such global importance.
“You see it is trying to be made possible for any child to choose the nationality of their brothers or sisters and in my case that adds up to quite a few. I have written personally to the secretary General, a good friend of the family, suggesting that I should be allowed to choose the nationality of any country visited by Mama while she was pregnant with me, but as that comes to thirty four he has not yet replied!” The official was at the hair tearing out stage and merely showed Maria the form and asked her to sign it to say it was correct. He had taken other details, like age etc, from her passport.
“Yes that seems in order, but you have got my surname wrong. It is not Thomas, you must have misunderstood. That’s my brother’s second name, the family surname depends on which passport Papa is travelling on on any given day and he hasn’t told us who he is today. You had better ask him.”
Most people would have resigned by this time but not customs officer Smith. He thought he might continue with these kids and their mother. “And who are you two young ladies?” he asked the angels now staring up at him. He might have known something unusual would happen when Violetta handed him her passport and said, “Guess!” Smiling she added, “I am an identical twin. But am I the person in that photo or am I the little girl in this one?” And she whipped Lucia’s passport out of her identical twin’s hand. Officer smith looked at them both and said,
“You do look mighty alike, but surely your name is on yours, isn’t it?”
“Of course it is,” replied Violetta. “So is Lucia’s. Look, there, see in that lovely digitally reproduced font. It says L U C I A that proves it’s her. Of course it doesn’t prove it’s her passport, nor this one mine, but then you only have our words for it that we are who we say we are. But look, ask our mother, there she is, that tall lady just over there.” Officer Smith followed her finger’s pointing and went up to the lady and asked,
“Excuse me, M’am, but which of these two young ladies is which?” The aristocratic lady with an aquiline nose looked at him in amazement.
“Are you drunk young man? I have never seen them in my life before. What made you think I had?” He was starting to explain but when he pointed at the twins he found they had been replaced by two even younger children a girl of about seven and a boy some twelve months younger. He took a deep breath and asked “Are you members of this important diplomtic family?” Dido spoke first.
“From the way they tossed me on that funeral pyre you wouldn’t think so would you? Not even my beloved teeny weeny Aenee-us here did not try to stop them, did you teeny?” Smith was starting to get a headache. He let her continue. “I saw you interrogating my siblings. Such an interesting job. Do you use thumbscrews?” here she was interrupted by Teeny who hated being called by this name,
“No the civilised United States immigration authorities do not go in for that sort of thing, Dido, you should be ashamed of yourself. I apologise for my sister, Sir, she has no sense of decorum.” Aeneus had only recently learned this word and hadn’t a clue what it meant, but officer Smith cetainly seemed to like him using it. “I must tell you as well that she was born in Geneva so is from a country that has avoided getting involved in any major conflicts in modern times. I am still trying to work out whether this is or is not a good thing. Now I am a Spaniard, well born in Spain, so I can boast a long history of gallant bravery in the face of many mortal enemies. Do you have this problem in America?” By this time the poor official suddenly remembered he had to look at their passports and gave them only a perfunctory glance. As he was waving them through Aeneus turned and shouted to a small straggler behind him “Hurry up Edgardo, this chap here wants to torture you to make you tell him all about our secret mission to the land of the free.”
Poor Eddie looked tired and a bit bedraggled by the time he was interviewed at the customs desk and the officer felt sorry for any child who was the youngest in a band of seven such terrible children. “Hey don’t worry sonny, it only takes a minute”
“I believe that’s what Al Capone used to say before shooting people,” Eddie answered and as the customs officer posed his final question he was ready for anything. He asked Edgardo where he was born. “South Bend Indiana,” came the reply. Smith could not believe that such a small child could come out with an answer like that. But there was a good reason. For once it was true!
So finally Francesca and I presented ourselves before the flagging customs’ man and said we hoped our children had been helpful. He just looked at me, seeing from my passport that I was my country’s roving ambassador to any places of diplomatic emergency in the world and placed me about as high on the diplomatic ladder as one could be in his eyes. But then he’d never seen what my job actually entailed. “No trouble at all Sir, but it must be hard bringing up such an interesting family with the work you have to do.” I replied as honestly as I could.
“Well yes it is, but I could not do it without my wonderful wife here. She is responsible for the children’s basic manners and behaviour. I don’t know how I’d manage without her.” I think officer Smith knew and finally had to check Francesca’s passport. Now her English may have been fluent but she had never lost her Tuscan accent, so it was with a very definite hint of the mafia in her voice that she leant over towards the poor man and said,
“Thanks a lot for letting the kids through. I try to make them follow my example in all they do. By the way do I have to declare this bottle of perfume, or can we toss it into the diplomatic bag with all the other family loot?”