“Hallo,” came a voice over the fence as I was hanging out my washing (oh, the delight of clothes that have dried in the sunshine, absorbing the scents of freshly mown grass, thyme and roses). “Haven’t seen you for a long time,” she added.
I was surprised, actually, that my neighbour still recognised me after almost six years. It always unnerves me slightly when this happens: what is so peculiar about me that I should make such a lasting impression? Our contact had been slight, though it was usually when I was hanging up my washing so perhaps I was simply a bit of déjà vu for her. Anyway, she remembered my name.
I put down my pegs and walked over to her, making a fuss of the little black Labrador that suddenly appeared at her side shoving his nose through the palings. I explained why I had been away for so long, and then, rather embarrassed, confessed that I had forgotten her name. I expected her to tell me her family name. This is Switzerland, we have only exchanged small talk over the fence, and know nothing about one another really, so this seemed to me a classic case for the formal “Sie”. However, she smiled and said: “Hortensia.”
Telling a person to call you by your first name in Swiss German is an invitation to use the informal form of address, “du”, and although it’s common enough among young folk, it is not so usual among those of a certain age and older, as we are. So I feel quite flattered in a way, in spite of our having lived next door to one another for twelve years. That’s nothing in a Swiss village: you can be here fifty years, and still be strangers.
I responded with my Christian name, sealing the fact that we are now “duzis”. I have never met anyone called Hortensia before, and I was secretly wondering if she liked her name when she informed me that her daughter was also Hortensia. So presumably she does. You wouldn’t saddle your baby with a name you disliked, would you?
We chatted for a while as I finished pegging out my clothes, and she updated me on the latest garden news: she no longer has any hens, they all died of old age, as did the Labrador she used to have (I had noticed that this one seemed not only smaller but also quieter than its predecessor) and that the hedgehogs still frequent the gardens at night, probably nesting and hibernating under her shed. I was pleased to hear this, as hedgehogs seem to be dying out. And the crows have a nest in our other neighbours’ fir tree, which is why our dawn chorus is less enchanting than it was when the blackbirds inhabited it. I presume that the name Hortensia is somehow connected with the Latin ‘hortus’ meaning garden, so I was mildly pleased by the context of our conversation.
As I returned to my other chores, I ruminated on her name. Hortensia, I vaguely recalled, was an ancient Roman matron famous for giving a speech in front of the Senate, as well as another name for the hydrangea plant. Interesting: you wouldn’t name your daughter Hydrangea, would you? Oh, well, maybe nowadays you would. Nobody would blink any more.
I went back to my laptop and the family tree I’ve been working on. Aptly enough, it’s one of the German lines, featuring ancestors with evocative names we rarely hear nowadays like Apollonia, and the Three Wise Men: Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. I say apt, because there before my eyes was grandfather Ernst Friedrich Adolf Richard Traut. No, I can’t see any of my granddaughters wanting to name their babies after him.
And as I began browsing through a new family tree, compiled by a distant relative, I saw that Ernst FAR Traut (no, definitely; nobody would give their child those initials nowadays, I hope) apparently had had an older brother, Martin Traut. No middle name, I noticed. Had he been jealous of his younger brother, blessed with not one but three middle names?
Click, and there’s Martin’s son: Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut. Surely that can’t be just one person? Oh yes, it is, and there’s even a photo of him. He looks normal enough, thank goodness. But I can’t help wondering whether his father had indeed felt short-changed, and given his son a different name for every day of the week to compensate for his own meagre moniker. Or did he have a number of rich uncles he was trying to flatter? I don’t know if this side of the family had Jewish connections, but if not, Moses was not a fortunate name to bear in the Third Reich. Maybe he dropped it and used one of his alternatives?
I’ve been reviewing the Trauts. They seem to have a penchant for resounding names: Emilie Ernestine Friederike, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm, Maria Elisabetha Thekla, Anna Ida Lina, Karl August Ludwig Martin, Ernst Gottfried Bernhard and Ida Dorothee Augusta. But none of them can match Moses.
Incidentally, Moses Hugo Karl Adolf Bertold Otto Traut married Lina Ella Olga Leipold. Their children all had short names.