Gisela was born in the Rhineland in 1949, on the wide and fast-flowing stretch of river where the winding Moselle flows into the mighty Rhine. She grew up in her mother’s family hotel – Hotel Zum Wilden Mann – in Neuwied, on the eastern bank, at the foot of the Westerwald, a beautiful patchwork of forests of beech and birch, oak and conifer. It was an environment rising from the ashes – emotionally, spiritually, and of course, physically. Her home was a forest of phoenixes: the near-obliterated towns and cities in her neighbourhood – Koblenz, a few kilometres upriver, and downstream ancient Cologne, growing back out of the rubble, the stupendous medieval cathedral poking its spooky spires at the twentieth century’s latest round of barbarism.
During her childhood, Hotel Zum Wilden Mann enjoyed something of a renaissance when the West German seat of government moved from Berlin, quartered by the Cold War, to Bonn, less than one hundred kilometres to the north, on the other side of the river. Politicians, international celebrities and local heroes would often take refuge in the hotel, out of the media spotlight of the capital. Her childhood was dominated by this fading glory, the old men obsessed with hunting, food and wine, her mother coping with the decaying hotel, her father deserting when Gisi was three, her brother Hansi estranged by the age and gender gap, and his own demons.
Whenever we visit the Rhineland and the Westerwald we inevitably bump into folk who are falling over themselves to talk of the Hotel Zum Wilden Mann. As soon as local folk realise Gisela’s identity, they can’t wait to tell us of how their Onkel Berndt trained as a chef there, or how their family used to have Sunday lunch in the restaurant, or what a tyrant was Opa Michael, or how generous was die alte Dame.
It’s bittersweet for Gisi to share these stories of her ancestors and the larger-than-life characters who populated her first two decades. She talks of the Hausmeister with the wooden leg who gave her whizzie-dizzies, and of the kitchen boys with whom she secretly traded Mutti’s cigarettes for icecream from the restaurant’s freezers. She learned how to run a restaurant from the hotel waiters, how to make Sauce Béarnaise from the Belgian chefs, how to prepare venison from the German ones. The hunting lessons that started in the forest trailing her grandfather continued in the courtyard, where the kitchen staff hung and prepared the carcasses, then moved to the kitchen where the chefs showed her how to use every piece of the animal. Finally, she would sit down with Mutti before the guests arrived for lunch to pass judgement on the handiwork of the chefs. It was her role even as a child to welcome the hotel guests in the dining room. ‘Gisela!’ Mutti would shout up the staircase, bidding her come down to charm some important personage – perhaps a wealthy industrialist, or a politician up from Bonn, or an opera singer, or a grumpy writer. No wonder she’s so unimpressed by social status: she never had to kowtow and she never chose to discriminate between the suits and ties of the waiters and the captains of industry. As a very small child she formed the helpful notion that all men in suits and ties were there to bring her lunch.
She was raised by her governess from the age of twelve months, Marga Dreja, a refugee from Silesia. Every summer they would travel together to Oberfranken to the family Höhn who rescued Tante Marga from the frozen Thuringian forest in the post-war chaos – to help with the harvest. These holidays gave Gisi a rare insight into the fast-disappearing way of life of the subsistence farmers of central Europe, which had endured relatively unchanged through centuries of war and famine and pestilence. To this day those memories influence Gisi’s way of gardening, cooking and – most importantly – seeing. Here she learned the importance of family and community; the unbeatable flavours of home-grown food; the difference between frugality and poverty; how to kill the pig and make Leberwurst and Bludwurst and twenty other items for your own consumption; that self-sufficiency is hard work. She grilled Bratwurst over pine cones then devoured them cold, and first enjoyed the exquisite taste of ‘Hutzel-birnen’ – small pears that grew in the backyard, cut in half and dried in the chimney. She learned about the best-ever potatoes: rake together all the leftover plants after harvesting, pile them up, set fire to them and then extract the residual spuds – now cooked – from under the charred plants. Hilda – the old Höhns Mutter – in a black dress with fine white diamond patterns and a big apron, would sit on the back doorstep, clutching the giant rye loaf, fresh-baked in the communal Backhaus, slicing it almost paper thin in long drawn-out strokes, then eating it with the home-grown, home-slaughtered and cured ham. They were still ploughing with horses so they didn’t even buy fuel; the only thing the Höhns regularly needed to purchase was baking powder. All this is in stark contrast to the flash hotel on the Rhine, with its Belgian chefs and suited waiters. She was a little girl with wide eyes and an inquisitive mind who was always wanting to know how the world worked.
Gisi left home at nineteen: for a bright and beautiful young woman in Europe in the Swinging Sixties, Neuwied was just not where it was at. She was lured across the Channel not just by Abbey Road, Carnaby Street and old Soho, she was also taken in by all that reasonableness and gentility, the tweed jackets with leather patches on the worn elbows, the profound understatement and self-parody. She’d already spent a few summer holidays enhancing her English skills – in Bexhill-on-Sea, of all places – and marvelling at Marmite, Branston Pickle and gin and orange. Then at the end of high school she decided to make a break for it. She took a position as a trainee housekeeper in the grand old Savoy Hotel in central London, where she had her own tiny bedroom up on the eighth floor, from which she could see the golden cross on the dome of St Paul’s. She studied English Literature, then took a post-graduate degree at Oxford University, then taught in the East End for five years, before fleeing Thatcher England with her young daughter Daisy in 1982. She taught in the public school system in Victoria for a few years and then worked in a women’s refuge, before moving to Alice Springs and further west, working as a teacher in Aboriginal schools, then as a health service administrator. Throughout these decades she has continued her grassroots activism in campaigns against uranium mining, war and injustice.