L’etranger in a strange land

Just as some parents of small children use spelling as a secret language when talking to each other in front of their kids – “Where are we going to spend C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S this year?” – my parents used to communicate above the heads of their children in their shared mother tongue of Dutch.

Mum’s and Dad’s respective families each arrived in Australia on the wave of post-war immigration that hit the country’s shores in the early fifties. Dad landed in Fremantle on his fourteenth birthday, and although he didn’t speak a word of English, it didn’t take long for him to become as proficient in his second language as he continued to be in his first.

When those two young Dutchies, my Mum and Dad, got married and had their first baby in 1963, they decided to raise her as a bilingual Dutch-Aussie child, and so happily chatted with her in both languages. Two or three years later, though, they realised that while other kids of her age were starting to speak, my sister remained pre-lingual. Fearing that they were setting her at a disadvantage (and not realising at that time that bilingual kids sometimes take longer to speak but then acquire an easy fluency in two languages), my parents abandoned their bilingual plan and spoke to their first and subsequent children only in English. And so although my eldest sister understands a bit of our parents’ mother tongue, it’s all double Dutch to the rest of us. Listening in to Mum and Dad’s conversations would have been tantamount to eavesdropping.

This, I think, was the beginning of my hopeless monolingualism.

When my eldest siblings were at the school we all attended there were no foreign languages on the curriculum, but by the time I got to secondary level a brilliant new school principal had introduced French. I took the class and managed to pass my exams, even when I got to WA’s equivalent of A-levels. But given the distance between WA and any decent-sized French-speaking community (the closest, Mauritius, is nearly 6,000 kilometres away as the crow flies), conversation practice was almost unheard of and language immersion unimaginable.

When my partner and I were living in Jerusalem I took a French class for a while, guessing, (correctly, as it turns out), that my partner’s career was bound to bring us to Geneva at some point. The teacher of that class, a Moroccan Palestinian lady, took an instant dislike to me that my fellow Australian classmate and I found hilarious. In one of the first lessons we were going around the room practicing sentences that began, Je suis… Most students were saying, Je suis grand. Not being especially grand myself, I broke the pattern by saying, Je suis blonde. The teacher, hovering over me to examine the inevitable inch of regrowth, scowled, Vraiment? Vous êtes blonde?

Undeterred, I carried on with the classes, and when the second term was set to begin I took myself back to the French Cultural Centre in East Jerusalem to re-enrol. I was so keen to get back into it, in fact, that I turned up before the centre had opened for the day, and so went to the café/bookshop next door and had a coffee at one of their al fresco tables. It was then that a young scallywag (by far the politest word I can think of), swooped down and stole my iPhone from the table in front of me. Suddenly distracted by dull jobs like filing a police report, cancelling my SIM and ordering a new phone, I forgot about my French ambitions that day, then somehow never recovered them.

During our four-month stay in Geneva last year, before we moved out into the wilds of the French countryside, I was sure that my French would never improve in the city, as every time I spoke my revoltingly rusty schoolgirl French, the locals would do their ears a favour and switch as quickly as possible to English. I thought that being in the countryside and in a less international environment than Geneva would force me to speak the language more, and I’d increase my fluency by stealth. But oh, how I underestimated the untapped levels of my own antisocial nature. Here in this lovely house in the middle of nowhere I’m now able to almost completely avoid conversation of any kind. I think I’m even forgetting how to speak English.

An old friend of mine in London used to say that I was wrong to always assume that bi/multilingual people were necessarily smarter than your average bear. I still do, though. Anyone whose brain is capable of shifting without clunky gear changes from one language to another – or even with clunky gear changes, for that matter – automatically wins my awe and adoration. I’m ashamed to say that that sentiment has historically worked in reverse too; my grandmother was about the same age as I am now when she moved her family across the world from Amsterdam to Australia, and the unremittingly poor level of her English was a source of constant amusement to us all. Sorry about that, Oma – these days I doff my chapeau at any and all of your valiant attempts to speak a new language against the wishes and wilfulness of an ageing brain.

One of my biggest practical challenges when M and I became inhabitants of the Holy Land was getting used to driving on the right-hand side of the road. Previous to our time there I’d only ever lived in countries where people have the good sense to drive on the left – thank you, Australia, Japan and Great Britain. Somehow, though, without causing death or too much mutilation, I managed to acquire the skill of driving on the right. When that started to come naturally to me, and I then did enough trips back to the UK and Australia to know that I could happily switch from one to the other, I suddenly felt like whole new areas of opportunity had been opened up to me. I could confidently steer a car around any place in the world (though I knew then and I still know now that I’ll always draw the line at Cairo).

I’m hoping it will be the same with French. One of these days all the work that I put in at home, poring over books and listening to CDs, will come pouring forth and I’ll find myself suddenly fluent. I’ll then be found driving around on the right side of France, chatting with anyone who’ll listen, feeling smug in the knowledge that I’ve become one of those clever and awe-inspiring individuals that I’ve always looked up to. In the meantime, though, Je ne parle pas encore bien le français.

There’s no place like homes

“This is your home. This isn’t nowhere. And it’s not dull.”

Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller

It took some time for me to appreciate it but the truth is that the tiny corner of the world that I grew up in is rather beautiful. With a population density of one person per square kilometre, Western Australia has plenty of space to roam around in. And if Perth, the nearest metropolis to my hometown is arguably the most remote city on Earth, then Northam, where I spent my childhood is… Well, let’s just say a bit on the quiet side. Its isolation, gorgeous weather and easy security made it a great place to grow up and, so I thought when I was seventeen, an even better place to leave.

I was twenty years old when I graduated and had my first chance to do any independent travel and I was desperately keen to experience culture shock, a novel concept in a country whose landmass is a whopping 7,617,930 square kilometres. If you get in a car at my childhood home and drive for two hours (or even two days), the landscape might change (or possibility not, depending on which direction you’ve driven in), but the people, language and culture will be pretty much indistinguishable from the place where you started. There’s no shortage of beautiful things to see, but the vast distances between places means that you need a lot of time to see them.

Australia and Europe

(Thanks to mypostalcards.wordpress.com for this image.)

So one of the things that I love about where I live now, in the southeast of France, an hour’s drive from the Swiss border, is the proximity to any number of extraordinary places. If culture shock is your kick, you really don’t need to go too far for a fix, and there are concepts of language and nationality here that would have blown my tiny landlocked Australian country kid’s mind if someone had gazed into a crystal ball 30 years ago and told me where I’d be laying my hat at the age of 42. For example, when my partner and I drove down to the French Riviera for four days over Easter, the fastest way of getting there, from our starting point in France, was through Italy. And if that didn’t blow my mind surely the fact that we live in France but my partner works in Switzerland would have. And the thought that Switzerland has four national languages would have done for me.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in France and Switzerland (you know, the day when Jesus rose body and soul into heaven; anyone who wants to discuss secularism at this point should be reminded that we got a national holiday out of it), so, as ever, we seized the opportunity to point the car towards somewhere new. (Well, new for us, that is – the place that we ended up in was, according to the signs on the buildings, already rather well developed in the middle of the sixteenth century, another concept which is almost unfathomable to this child of the New World.)

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Biel/Bienne, a town so bilingual they named it twice, prides itself on its linguistic prowess. All of the street signs are in both French and German, six per cent of the population speaks Italian, and to cater for the tourists, many shop owners will also be sure to make themselves understood in English. The first place in which we tested the veracity of these claims to multilingualism left us unconvinced, as the waiter was dumb with incomprehension when we ordered café au lait and pain au chocolat. But the town earned its stripes when the waiter in the restaurant where we had lunch welcomed us in French, took our order in English, spoke to the customers at the next table in German and bid us a fond farewell in Italian, all without breaking a sweat.

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Biel/Bienne is a beautiful three-hour drive away but happily for us there are also sights of historical and natural significance much closer to our doorstep. On Saturday we had some visitors to Ruffieux (I’ve been told that Canadians are like Australians but with culture and this couple are the living proof!) and we decided to show them one or two of the sights around our current home. The four of us jumped into our Golf and drove the ten minutes down to the Lac du Bourget, which is the largest freshwater lake in France, and then around its shores to the Abbaye d’Hautecombe.

Churches are, of course, nothing new to me – my partner says that the years of church-going I endured as a child earned me a black belt in Catholicism, though I’ve long since rescinded my claims to the title – but the Abbaye is something pretty special. With its origins in a religious community that can be dated back to 1101 and its claim to fame as the burial place of the great and good of the House of Savoy, the Abbaye’s history is almost as impressive as its position right on the shores of the lake. It’s no wonder that, after being overwhelmed by the beauty and history of this place, we had to retreat for a drink at O’Lac, in the shadows of the Chateau de Chatillon, before heading back to our humble abode for drinks in the view of the setting sun.

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I’m so fantastically glad that this little piece of France is kind enough to welcome us as temporary residents. But home is, of course, a relative concept. These days I still have the privilege, whenever I go back to Australia, of being able to visit not just the town that I grew up in, but also the very same house, as Dad remains steadfastly in the abode that he and Mum built to accommodate their growing brood in the sixties. My nieces and nephews still swim in the pool that I practically lived in as a child, and when I sit in Dad’s study showing him how to navigate his way around the Internet, the passageway outside of the room is still dimly illuminated by the nightlight that used to quell my fear of the dark when I saw it from my childhood bed.

Dad objects these days when I refer to Northam as home; fair enough, I guess, as I haven’t lived there for 25 years. But for as long as that nightlight continues to burn outside of my old bedroom door, Dad’s driveway will always remain a place that I’ll set my satnav to return to.

 

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A big room full of books

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.

Francis Bacon

I’ve never really known where I stood on the great “find your passion and follow it” debate. I guess the fact that my degree is in English Lit and Communications means that I followed my passion for books at least as far as university. But when the time came to earn some dollars/ yen/ pounds/ shekels/ francs/ euros to finance my other passions (travel, food and wine being uppermost amongst them), the pursuit of activities that someone would pay me to indulge in became an inevitable necessity.

I was thinking about this as I entered the Palexpo convention centre in Geneva for the Salon du Livre on Friday. The physical space I walked into was utterly reminiscent, at first glance, of the places I spent so much time in when I was working in the broadcast industry – huge, high-ceilinged, temporarily carpeted spaces packed with stands staffed by people desperate to sell their wares.

Me at Screen

(Me in a previous incarnation.)

There was a big difference this time though… When I’ve walked into exhibition centres before, I’ve been confronted by the bewildering technologies behind the dubious joys of television. The halls of Palexpo on Friday, however, brought me face to face with…books! Writers of books! Sellers of books! Children learning to love and appreciate books! Surely this was heaven, and the kind of environment that I should have been working in for my entire adult life!

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The enormous and immovable grin with which I walked around those halls prompted many a book tout to try their luck at selling me stuff. Their shoulders almost invariably slumped, however, when I responded with my usual, Pardon, je ne parle pas bien le francais, although a few accommodating traders switched optimistically into English. One enthusiastic new-business owner asked me to become an ambassador for the ingenious bit of kit he’s developed to encourage reading and multilingualism in kids. (My French isn’t good enough to really be of any use to him, but I did think his product was brilliant – http://www.lirekit.ch/).

I also had a conversation with the marketing director of a publishing company that a friend of mine is employed by. (Now there’s an example of someone fortuitously following her bliss – 24 years old, living in Geneva’s Old Town and with a fulltime paid writing gig… You go, girl!). I walked away from their stand with a copy, en gratuit, of a tome that my friend has worked on, and moved swiftly on to a talk being given by the Stanford University Librarian on The Future of Books.

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I was encouraged to hear Michael A. Keller explain that the definition of books has now had to be broadened to incorporate digital editions. The fact that my partner and I move countries every two years means that the purchase of heavy paper volumes makes little sense for us – most of the 350 kilos we shipped from Jerusalem to Geneva consisted of the books we’d accumulated during our stay there – but I still feel a pang of guilt every time I visit Amazon online to invest in another download for my Kindle. If only I could make these purchases from an independent bookseller, who Michael A. Keller described as a “threatened species”.

Perhaps the best thing about working in an industry which is not directly related to one’s bliss means that one’s joy doesn’t have to be sullied by the confines of commercialism. I can read and enjoy books and not have to worry too much about their profitability. I can attend gatherings of the Geneva International Book Club and talk with brilliant and inspiring minds about the most influential books of all time, without having to be concerned about the books’ bottom line. I can give my honest opinions about books that I read, love them or loathe them, without hearing a whispered warning at the back of my mind that my frankness might affect my bonus.

Yes, the books on my shelves are my bliss, and the time I have to read them is my passion. The stuff I’ve had to do in the nine-to-fives of my life just paid for my bliss to be there.

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The travails of le travail

After I graduated from university in Australia a very long time ago I panicked about finding a job. I had a plan to go and teach English in Japan but I needed to put some yen in my pocket, and fast. My panic lasted for a week, until I signed up for a job at Austudy, the Australian government department that gives a living allowance to students. And from that day on I was always in fulltime employment. I was never interested in a career, as such, but I was lucky enough to always find jobs that I loved and that paid well enough to make my life livable.

And then three years ago I met a man who invited me to live under the same roof as him. No problem there – it was a rather marvellous invitation, in fact – except that his roof was in East Jerusalem. It’s tricky, I discovered, to hold down a fulltime job in the UK when Palestine is your primary place of residence.

My boss, however, was brilliant about it. He asked me to take responsibility for maintaining the company’s relationship with a technical partner in Tel Aviv, and also to continue to attend all the major broadcast exhibitions I’d been to every year before, in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dubai, London, Las Vegas and Singapore. God bless ‘im. So I carried on my working life pretty much as I had when I was still living in England, spending some time in an office, some working from home, and some on planes to faraway lands.

My old colleagues would tell you, if you were ever lucky enough to meet them, that I clung to that job with my fingertips. The situation was not really sustainable but I was determined not to let it go; it was only when I’d started to think about the possibility of giving up work that I realised how much I defined myself by it. But as anyone who’s ever travelled out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport will tell you, it’s not an activity that one should engage in any more regularly than necessary, and I finally realised it was time to pull the plug on my super long-distance commute.

It’s a very disconcerting thing to give up a great job when one has little to replace it with. My partner was prepared to support me financially (again I say God bless ‘im), but I soon realised that work meant far more to me than just a pay cheque. For example, one of the first questions that new acquaintances ever ask you is, of course, what you do for a living. I always had an answer to that. These days, when I meet people and they ask me what’s brought me to Geneva, I’m reduced to talking about what my partner does for a living. Eugh.

I know that saying goodbye to the nine-to-five is the dream for most people on the planet, and I do appreciate how utterly privileged I am, but I wonder how many people in the same lucky position as me could actually manage to fill all of their new time constructively and give structure and purpose to their newfound freedom. For parents of young children, of course, it would be a doddle – 48 hours crammed into one day would probably still not be enough time to achieve all the stuff they have to get done. But in my day-to-day life it’s just my partner and me. So what does one do with the dream of having unexpected time on one’s hands?

One way that I occasionally keep myself on the straight and narrow (by which I mean not opening that bottle of French red wine at lunch time) is by volunteering. In a few weeks I’m going to be a volunteer reporter at a UN conference that’s taking place at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. As there will be 3,500 participants, many hands will be needed to make it happen. When I met with the organisers last week, I asked them if it’s ever difficult to find skilled volunteers for all the many positions they need to fill, from translators to IT support staff and photographers to multilingual receptionists. They replied that it’s actually quite the opposite; people whose CVs should allow them to command six-figure salaries are tripping over each other to be granted the chance to give their time for free.

I think it’s partly because of the phenomenon of the “trailing spouse” – (some) men and (mostly) women who give up their own careers in order to be able to live in the same countries as their partners, who are in itinerant jobs with international organisations. These people (by whom I mean me and my friends) seem to be largely underutilised in the paid labour force, often because it’s impossible for them to get working visas in their temporary countries of residence. And so they give their time without expecting fiscal reward, sometimes out of altruism and sometimes just to have a reason to get out of their pyjamas.

Something else that keeps me from drinking dry the cellars of the winery down the road is the fact that my partner has challenged me to finally write that novel that I’ve always dreamed of writing. I have no excuses any more, right? And then there’s the fact that I’m living in France and my French is appalling and I can only get away with sign language for so long… And there are all those piano pieces that I’ve always been desperate to master. And there’s the weight of responsibility in the knowledge that there are at least a billion people on the planet who’d give anything to be unencumbered by the heavy weight of the daily grind…

Right, I’ll just have a cup of tea, then I’ll do something to try to make myself worthy of this opportunity.

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