Pardon Her French

By Lucy Frowijn

She leaned against a concrete wall that reached about the height of her waist and glanced over the lake with the marble tombstone in the middle. The fall had given the water a green glare. Atlanta was usually quite rowdy, but that Saturday the weather was calm and the Martin Luther King jr. memorial exuded a certain peace. Joke Barth felt herself getting emotional the same way she did years ago. “I just stood there and thought to myself: anyone who tried to make a change in this fucked up country died trying. This never should have happened.”

Joke Barth lived on the other end of the world when MLK jr. got shot in 1968. She left her Dutch roots behind as soon as she reached adulthood and moved down under together with her husband. After having lived in Australia for four years, they moved to New Zealand together with their newborn son and bought a small wooden house in Dunedin, a university city on the South-Island.

Life in New Zealand was not easy. Joke‘s husband lived his own life, she had a three-year-old son to take care of and although she worked full time, she could barely get by financially. She could only afford about three sets of clothes that she washed immediately as she got home every night, hoping that they would be dry the next morning for her to wear them again.

New Zealand and Australia, at the time, were known for their strict immigration policy. Joke explains how, while they were willing to give you a chance, as an immigrant you had to prove yourself and work in order to survive. “If you didn’t work you didn’t have any money and if you didn’t have any money you could sleep under the bridge. They didn’t care” she says.

“I remember being at work one day and receiving a phone call from the crèche because my son had caught the measles. The doctor said it could take weeks for him to recover and I panicked because not being able to work meant not getting any salary”, she says.

Despite the difficulty, Joke felt more at home than ever. She found a job at an engineering firm where she became the only woman in an all-man’s company, and the men took her in as if she was family. She did everything from administration to accountancy and was particularly fond of “Mr. Bennets”, her boss, whom everyone mainly saw as a grumpy old man. “We would joke around together. He’d make a mistake and say ‘Oh, aren’t I stupid?’ and I’d reply: ‘Well, Mr. Bennets, there’s no substitute for brains.” she says, clearly warmed by the memory of the man.

Joke explains how, while Australia and New Zealand might have been strict when it came to immigrants, it was never a matter of discrimination.

Dunedin was known for people of Scottish descent and Maori people, the indigenous people of New Zealand, to live together in harmony. Every year during ANZAC day (New Zealand’s and Australia’s equivalent of liberation day) everyone would participate in the parade, no matter what their origin, or skin color was.

Joke explains that it was precisely this peace-loving attitude that existed in New Zealand that led to astonishment about what was happening in the United States at the time. “New Zealand may have been on the other side of the world but its people weren’t retarded. They were completely up to date on what was happening in America”, she says.

When Martin Luther King jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, media coverage in New Zealand exploded. Joke explains how television coverage would just go on and on. Normally it ended at about 11 PM but this time it went on all night. She explains how the next morning her colleagues couldn’t stop talking about it either: “People were flabbergasted.”

But the matter also got very personal for Joke. She herself had moved to a country where she was a foreigner and while life was tough, she was welcomed with open arms. “I felt the pain right in my soul and I remember thinking: who the bloody hell do these people think they are?”

Joke went to the memorial in Atlanta years later: “I had to. It touched me so much back in 1968.” And so she stood there leaning against that concrete wall and commemorated those who died trying to make a change.

“In my work as a life coach I meet many different people on a daily basis, invite them into my home and advise them on how to turn their lives around. But I don’t judge people on their background” she says.

And that open-minded attitude takes on a special shape when combined with Joke‘s typically down-under bluntness as she said: “Why would you give a shit where people are from or what skin color they have?”

(Person on feature image: Joke Barth, 28)