Ready to sail away
Come down oh my proud sultana
Flower of my passions
Of the warm and diaphanous night
Let us leave forever. (Transliterated and translated by Christina L. Sztajnkrycer)
The romantic lyrics of Sur Les Flots du Bosphore are a far cry from the didactic texts found elsewhere in the notebook. Instead, they conjure an exotic, orientalist scene: moonlight shining on the Bosphorus Strait, the skyline of Istanbul (referred to by its former name, Byzantium) in the distance, a sailboat and a passionate lover promising escape to a new life. I wonder whether Estrella saw herself as the romantic runaway rather than the dutiful French student and “citizen-Jew.” Does the song bear hidden clues to her inner life?
The cover art of the sheet music for “Sur Les Flots Du Bosphore.” Illustration by Leon Pousthomis.
Through the magic of the internet, I locate some original cover art for the sheet music, which designates it as a “Valse Orientale”–an Oriental waltz. Might Estrella have seen the music for sale, festooned with this very artwork, while out strolling in Neuilly or in Paris? Did her teachers encourage her to sample contemporary French popular culture as part of her education?
In light of her life’s trajectory, I believe it is not a coincidence that a song about a boat is the final text in Estrella’s notebook: my great-grandmother’s life was marked by migrations both geographical and cultural. Having earned her teaching certificate, she returned to Rhodes after World War I and taught French briefly in the island’s Alliance Israélite Universelle school. Within a year, however, she had embarked on yet another life-changing journey: she sailed to Capetown, South Africa to meet her future husband, a Turkish entrepreneur named Haim Galante. Once settled in British colonial Africa, Estrella never again taught French.
The song’s reference to the waves of the Bosphorus also has symbolic resonance for Estrella’s story. The Bosphorus (or Bosporus) Strait runs through the city of Istanbul, connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The waterway serves to separate the European and Asian sides of Turkey. My great-grandmother’s life, likewise, straddles dual influences. As a Jew growing up on Rhodes, her first language was Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish dialect that links Sephardic Jews to their Spanish lineage. As a pupil and later teacher for the Alliance, however, she was a designated ambassador of French culture—a savante (a learned person), as girls who had completed their schooling were affectionately called in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean. Estrella’s life and her languages reflect a unique mixture of East and West.
Assembling Estrella’s story has been a focus of my genealogical research for over a decade now. I can’t shake the feeling that her notebook, while on its surface a perfunctory chronicle of a teenager’s classroom exercises, generates a significant memoir between the lines. Granny Galante, as she was known, died the year before I was born, so I never had the chance to hear her talk about her choices and her changing landscapes. For me, Estrella’s French verses comprise a mystery worth unraveling, one that may ultimately reveal the savante in my own family.