Julie Kertesz is 80-year-old grandmother of five, with a PhD in chemistry. She’s a professional storyteller, keeps an active blog and posts photos to her popular Flickr account everyday. Did we mention she’s also an award-winning stand-up comedian? Joanne Lau spoke to this incredibly cool lady and learned it’s never too late for anything.
What is your name?
Julie. My actual name’s Judith, but my mother called me Julika after an actress in Hungary she liked with a daughter of the same name.
Where were you born?
I was born in 1934 in Transylvania, a province in Romania surrounded by mountains. I liked growing up there. We lived in the biggest city, but it felt small and quiet. The Second World War was happening all round, but I didn’t know it. Then, suddenly, when I was 10, the war caught up with me. In 1944, we had to leave the city and flee the Nazis. We were a Hungarian-speaking Christian family, but of Jewish origin. We fled to Budapest. The SS were already waiting at the station, but using papers from another family, we managed to live in hiding for a year before having to flee again from the Russians. During that year I began to write a diary because my mother didn’t want me to speak to many people around me. I never stopped.
Where do you currently live?
I’ve been in London for about six years. Before that, I lived in and around Paris for 35 years. When I came to London, I felt very alone. I went to various photography meet-ups, but didn’t connect with anyone. About six months later I joined the Toastmasters clubs. I’d previously been involved with Toastmasters in America, but hadn’t continued when I went back to France. I joined two clubs in London and made a lot of connections and friends. It gave me the courage to go out and tell my stories. I’ve told my stories for Spark London at the Canal Café Theatre. I’ve spoken in front of 500 people in Manchester, where I told my story about how, when I was 10, the war couldn’t break me. The story is told in the voice of my 10-year-old self with no reference to any knowledge I have now.
What is/was your profession?
One story I tell is called Mistaken Identity. It’s about how I completely changed professions at 48 years old. I started as a research chemist. I studied chemistry in high school but wasn’t allowed to go to university under the Communist regime as my father was a director in a factory and thus bourgeois. It wasn’t until I began working that I was allowed to study. I worked as a technician and studied for my degree by correspondence at an open university. In a way, it was a big advantage because I learned to how learn without someone teaching me.
So, I was one week away from finishing my degree, when a woman walked into the laboratory and demanded I give her my desk. I didn’t know who she was so I refused. She became agitated and I dared to tell her: “Don’t be hysterical. I cannot give you my desk because my boss is not here to tell me if this is OK.” She turned out to be the wife of the Romanian dictator.
Within three minutes I’d lost my job, been thrown out of university without graduating and declared an enemy of the people of Communist Romania. The wife became the director of the institute almost immediately after she finished her degree. She then became an academic, though everyone else did her work and she just put her name on it. I couldn’t tell anyone for a long time. Not until after their deaths in 1989.
I was one week away from finishing my degree, when a woman walked into the laboratory and demanded I give her my desk. I didn’t know who she was so I refused. She turned out to be the wife of the Romanian dictator. Within three minutes I’d lost my job, been thrown out of university without graduating and declared an enemy of the people of Communist Romania.
I wanted to leave Romania, but couldn’t. It wasn’t till I was married and pregnant that I finally got my passport. We moved to France and I began work again as a chemist and when the opportunity arose, I restarted my studies. In 1977, I got my PhD. I was working by day in the research institute, had two children, and studied for my PhD on the side. One reason I wanted the diploma was to have closure. The other was I was having problems with my husband and if I didn’t get a job with enough money, I wouldn’t be able to keep my children.
After my PhD and my divorce, I moved to America with my children and worked there for three years as a research chemist. As a non-American citizen, they didn’t want us to prolong our stay after my contract was over, so I returned to France. Finding a research chemist position in France proved near impossible. They told me I was too old, that I was a woman, and that I was not born there. It was very difficult and I needed work because I had my children. At 47 years old, I had to switch careers. I’ve learned you can use the strengths you have from one profession to another. They don’t have to be used do the same thing. In fact, sometimes you discover you can do things you didn’t know you could do. I had an interest in computers and some experience with public speaking through my time with the Toastmasters clubs. When I couldn’t find a job, I began learning and teaching a bit of computer programming – literally learning at night, then teaching it the next day. Then I started a company that imported computer products from America and sold them in France.
I was 60 when I left that job. A friend told me to do something until I knew what to do, so I read my diaries from beginning to end for the first time in my life. I decided to put them on Macintosh to save them for my children, but I realised it could be interesting for others, so I decided to publish them. (http://julie2004.blogspot.co.uk/) That was how I discovered blogging.
My second marriage ended when I was 70 and at that age, I discovered I would rather speak about my life day-by-day without publishing my diaries anymore, so I started a blog called Il y a de la vie après 70 ans (There is Life After 70). I did it to prove to myself and others there is something to do after 70. I also discovered photography. I did documentary photography, joined Flickr, and began to share a collection of my photos around Paris. It became very popular.
Now I have 50-60,000 pictures published in albums and groups and I use them for my blogs. I still photograph and publish every day, and people from around the world look at my photos. I get 15,000-20,000 hits per day
What is your secret talent?
One time telling Mistaken Identity, people began to laugh. I decided to try to make them laugh when I wanted rather than by chance. I decided to try some comedy workshops. At the age of 77, I discovered I had funny bones. I got the Silver Comedy best newcomer award and went on to perform in 20 different comedy clubs – I didn’t even know 20 existed before! After 20 gigs, I decided I wanted to do at least 77 because I began at 77. Now I’m past 77 gigs and still going.
Most of the people at stand-up comedy clubs are young and I am like the grandmother talking about personal things. I think one of the reasons people like my act so much is that they realise I’m 80 and I’m not from here and I give them courage. If I can do it, they can too. I hope I inspire people to learn and discover new things.
The most important thing I gained from comedy was that I began to look at my life through a comedy eye. When something bad happens to me now, I look to see how I can make something funny from it. It makes things less heavy and difficult to bear. I laugh about me having to shave and I have a published photo with shaving cream. I can laugh about losing my teeth and breaking my leg.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
That’s hard because I’ve shared so much about myself in so many places! How about that I read erotic romance? I don’t like pornography. It needs to have an emotional story behind it. Books like 50 Shades of Grey are like fairy tales to me. Thank goodness for my Kindle so my grandchildren can’t see my book collection!
Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?
Yes! Young people have the web. It’s great to get to know people from other places. Everywhere I go I meet bloggers and photographers I met through the web and they show me their cities and I show them mine. I’ve met a lot of interesting people like that. You know what I do regret most about not being a young woman now? I had beautiful breasts – young women now can show them quite a lot and we never could in my day!
What is your favourite indulgence?
I treated myself to some comedy workshops in Las Vegas and Los Angeles with Judy Carter. I like to tell stories, do comedy, take photos. Now I want to teach people how to tell their stories.
What are you most proud of?
My children and my five grandchildren. Three of my grandchildren are in America and two live here in London. They’re all wonderful.
What is your daily beauty regime?
Smile a lot. I have beautiful smiley wrinkles. That’s my idea of beauty.
What advice would you give your 30-year-old-self?
Laugh. Even if someone is not nice to you, you can begin again. I meet young people who tell me they’ve been hurt once and will never love again. You can have more than one love, more than one friend, more than one profession! It’s never too late for anything.
Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.