OUR PEOPLE: German glamour at home in Rotorua

By Jill Nicholas

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AT HOME: Herbert and Gisela Blum have made Rotorua their home. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
AT HOME: Herbert and Gisela Blum have made Rotorua their home. PHOTO/BEN FRASER

Call it kismet, fate, an alignment of the stars. Whatever you choose it was totally unintentional that Our People found ourselves talking to people within weeks of each other whose countries were enemies on Europe's World War II battlefields.

First it was Holland's Josie Yetsenga (Our People, April 2) then quite out of the blue Herbert and Gisela Blum. Of course we knew they're from Germany, but war was the last thing on our minds when we met. It was modelling we wanted to discuss with Gisela.

An unbelievable youthful 79 - "I guess I've got lucky genes" - she's trodden catwalks across Europe in haute couture from most of the world's leading fashion houses; it's a career she's continued since the couple joined family in Rotorua 1997. Here she does it for charity, in Europe it became her livelihood - at 40.

With her two children teenagers, she was looking for a fashion-related hobby; a tailoress by trade, clothes had always been her passion.

The modelling course she chose had only just begun when she was spotted by a big wig from Dusseldorf's major fashion fair IGEDO, Europe's biggest.

"He came in, pointed at me and said 'this is my model'. I said 'no no, I'm too old'. He said it was me he wanted. I was shocked, there was a lot of learning to do, working on my self-confidence, that was very hard."

How the war entered the conversation at this juncture we're unsure, but it did.

Gisela recalls little of it other than her father was an officer based in Eastern Europe. Unlike Herbert, she saw him relatively regularly, his was only with his family once in three years.

"He was an engineer, forced to join the Army a month before war began [September 1939] his job was repairing cannons firing at aircraft over Poland, France, Russia. When bombs began falling on Dusseldorf we were evacuated to a village 400km away, working in the fields."

Both insist their parents weren't Nazi supporters, that "joining up" was not their choice.

"The 1930s were a very scary time for Germany, if you made a joke about Hitler you were ... " Here Herbert whistles, leaving the outcome to our imagination.

The day he first saw Gisela is imprinted on his memory as clearly as a copy made by the Gestetner company that became his career.

"I was biking home from school, this open-sided tram came along, she was sitting in the last carriage, I saw her black hair, beautiful face and thought 'Phowwwww'. I rode behind the tram until she got off but was too shy to say anything, then two years later a miracle happened."

It came disguised as an invitation to a cousin's birthday party, Gisela was another on the guest list.

They were together three years before they married - 59 years ago.

"My father said I was too young, Herbert wasn't good enough for me," a giggly Gisela stage whispers.

On cue Herbert adds that his architect father-in-law remained frosty for years "then towards the end of his life we became nearly friends".

Our chat meanders back to Gisela's fondness for fashion; she's the type who's glamorous in her gardening gear; her garden's another creative masterpiece.

She can't recall ever buying an outfit, clothing outlets may do it hard without Gisela's patronage, fabric shops are a different story. She makes every stunning outfit she wears, hats a speciality.

It's safe betting that Gisela and daughter Ines Friese have won more local fashion competitions than any other women in town, with their edgy European elegance these natural knock-outs deserve to.

It was Ines who introduced her parents to Rotorua. In 1991 her husband, Gerhard, whisked her out of Germany to help him manage his father's Whakaue St motel.

Gisela and Herbert were heartbroken, bemoaning the loss of their grandsons, then 9 and 6.

For Gisela the separation was nothing a crash course in English couldn't fix.

"It was about flying, words like 'departure', 'arrival', 'ticket', how to fill out forms on the plane. As soon as I arrived I had this beautiful feeling in my stomach [about New Zealand], better than butterflies, it was the spirit. Six weeks later I went home to Herbert and said 'their country is another world, it is beautiful, beautiful, so much nature'."

When he visited he was equally enthusiastic. "We went home and Gisela asked me 'can you imagine living the rest of our lives in New Zealand?' I said 'yes please', we went to the embassy in Bonn, asked if it was possible to come so we could bring our family together, the answer was 'yes'. We sold our house immediately, were here at 5.30am on September 11, 1997."

En route into Rotorua, they detoured down Oturoa Rd. "Ines had seen this house she thought was perfect for us, it had a great view of the lake but when we got there it was totally foggy, we couldn't even see the paddocks. It had 2 acres, in Germany we had 500 square metres," they recount.

Two days later they bought it, "turning it into a little park".

Three years ago the steep lawns got the better of Herbert, they moved to Ngongotaha's outskirts where their garden is as glamorous as Gisela, its centrepiece a fountain that came with them from Dusseldorf. "I gave it to Herbert as a thank you because one time he looked after my disabled mother for six weeks so I could come to New Zealand. I never get homesick for Germany, now when I'm there I'm homesick for New Zealand, it's our country, our family's country."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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