Cultural Connections: Austrian native now calls Hyattsville home
By Julia Gaspar-Bates
Born in Vienna just after World War II, Gloria Felix-Thompson said her childhood was filled with constant reminders of the war, including having an Allied doctor billeted in her house. “I remember standing in the front garden and watching the Allied soldiers patrol by in their jeep. They were friendly. They had confiscated part of the house my parents lived in. There were a lot of destroyed buildings, and you watched the rebuilding going on. Because Austria was small and compact, you saw a lot of the wounded returning. I saw, very early in life, people without limbs.”
The shadow of the war left an indelible mark on Felix-Thompson and her friends. She explained, “We tried to figure out how to resolve the horrible Holocaust and our parents’ shared guilt with the fact that we loved our parents. This particularly hit us hard during the teenage years, when we read everything we could about the Holocaust, and there was no answer to that question. You resolve that you will do anything or everything possible to prevent anything like that happening again.”
When she was 7, Felix-Thompson’s beloved father died suddenly. Despite this significant loss, she recalls having a happy childhood in which she was raised by her formidable mother, a successful businesswoman. “My mother was what the women’s liberation [movement] was all about. She was an incredible role model for my sister and myself.” Felix-Thompson was also surrounded by her large, eccentric Hungarian extended family, who had emigrated to Vienna when her mother was a child and instilled in her a strong sense of formality, along with a love of paprika.
One memorable event occurred when Felix-Thompson was 10 years old, just after the Soviets had invaded Hungary, and refugees started pouring into Austria: “My family still had close ties to Hungary. Word spread that there was a woman in Vienna who had a big house, so my aunt’s neighbors sent people. For several weeks, Hungarian refugees stayed in my home. It was a lot of fun, because in a normal Austrian orderly house, you don’t have people sleeping on the floor. There was a lot of excitement and activity. People would make friends and play with you even if you couldn’t talk to them. It was like a giant sleepover.”
Felix-Thompson said that in Vienna, “you have an orderly life but also a carefree life. You can get anywhere on foot in 10 minutes, but you also have many new influences, such as the U.N. and OPEC. There’s a formal but also a relaxed atmosphere. There are scores of parks, and people are relaxing there. It’s a wonderful way of life.”
After finishing school, Felix-Thompson moved to Germany, where she eventually met her husband, Douglas, an American who was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force.
“It took two and a half years to get permission to get married and get my visa to come to the U.S. It wasn’t easy, because he was marrying a local girl. We had to fulfill the law of three nations to get married.” When they finally got her visa, thanks to the help of a Michigan senator, Felix-Thompson joined Douglas briefly in his home city of Detroit before they moved to Washington, D.C., so he could attend University of Maryland.
After living in Georgetown and Alexandria and adopting their son from Central America, they decided to move to a more diverse area that would be a better fit for their mixed-race family. They discovered Hyattsville after seeing their house advertised for sale in The Washington Post as the “last of the vanishing breeds in Hyattsville.”
Felix-Thompson reported that she didn’t experience major culture shock after moving to the U.S., although she was a bit surprised by the informality and familiarity among people, friends and strangers alike. “We were not a touchy-feely family, and there is lots of hugging in the U.S. I wasn’t used to people you barely know throwing their arms around me. When I first came to the U.S. and people would ask me my name, I would say ‘Mrs. Thompson.’”
Having lived in Hyattsville for over 40 years, Felix-Thompson appreciates the old homes and tree-lined streets that remind her of Vienna. She also enjoys the rich cultural diversity. “You had the plumber, the Swedish university professor, the winos, neighbors with a huge stuffed giraffe. The crazies were already present, and this was just fine with me.”
Because she dislikes flying, Felix-Thompson hasn’t returned to Austria since the late 1980s. Yet she has maintained ties to her homeland over the years by hosting a Franz Schubert festival, honoring its famed composer, with an Austrian and German string quartet. She added, “Sometimes I long for the formality of Austrian culture because it gives you structure. I miss the language, and I’m afraid that I’m starting to lose some of it. I miss having three to four newspapers every day.”
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