‘Curse you Christopher Columbus,’ said Magdaléna, my great grandmother, when her boat finally approached New York. She’d mistaken the Statue of Liberty for the explorer who discovered America. After 18 days beteg as a dog in steerage she wished the country had never been found. It was 1912; the year the Titantic sank. Instead of drunken Irishmen reeling around below deck, her boat was full of miserable Hungarians who had never seen the sea before (Hungary is, of course, landlocked) and never wanted to see it again.
My great grandparents were economic migrants. They’d heard that the streets in America were paved with gold so upped sticks with their six children. My great grandfather Mihaly eventually got a job in the Singer sewing machine factory in South Bend, Indiana. The streets were far from golden and they ended up living in a house with a dirt floor. Money was tight, living was tough and Magdaléna was a notoriously mean woman. She took the wages from all her children (working despite being underage) and according to family legend, buried the money in a jar in the garden. When she suffered from illness in later life she could be seen digging holes outside the house. The jar was never found.
My grandmother Erzsébet married a Dutch immigrant and they went on to raise five children on a chicken farm. When one of her daughters nearly died from pneumonia they didn’t have enough money to pay the doctor so gave him two freshly-dressed chickens in lieu. It’s said peasants in Hungary are so poor there’s only two reasons they’d kill a chicken: if the Hungarian was sick, or if the chicken was.
Lena Szarka, the Hungarian heroine of IN STRANGERS’ HOUSES, takes inspiration from the struggles of Magdaléna and Erzsébet. Lena works as a cleaner in London who is forced to turn detective when her friend goes missing. Her experiences in Islington in 2016 are very different to what my grandmother came across in Indiana in 1912. But uprooting everything in the hope of discovering a better life – that’s the same.