Change is the only constant

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

Lao Tzu

To everything, turn, turn, turn!
To everything, turn, turn, turn!

A week ago today M was smiling as he walked through the front door after a day in the office. He had his headphones in his ears.

Kissing him hello, I asked, “Are you smiling at me or did you hear something funny on a podcast?”

“Oh no,” he said, “I’m smiling at you.”

I looked at him. He raised an eyebrow slightly. I said, “You’ve been offered a job.”

He said, “Yep.”

I said, “Where?”

He said, “Islamabad.”

And so, off to Pakistan we shall go.

M’s too modest to enjoy hearing me repeat the following story but it’s one that I enjoy telling, so sorry, M, look away now. The first time I introduced M to my colleagues in the job that I was doing when we met was at a broadcast exhibition that we were working at in Las Vegas. My colleagues were my Suffolk surrogate family, so their opinions on things like my new man and the lifestyle choices that came along with him counted. After dinner and a few drinks with M, my boss said that what he liked most about him was that while he could very easily hold his own in a conversation about all things cultural and political, he also gave the distinct impression that he could wrestle a crocodile before breakfast. That’s my man. And such a man, while doing a fantastic job and enjoying a lovely life of wine, freedom, food and frolicking in the hills on the French-Swiss border, really belongs out in the field. And while I don’t suppose there are many crocodiles in Islamabad, one doesn’t get much further afield than that, and I can already see his synapses firing in an altogether different way now that he’s contemplating being back out there.

And as for me… This is where I come into my own. This is where all the many goodbyes that I’ve ever said to the people that I love, and all the desire for new horizons, and all the optimistic anticipation of extraordinary adventures snowball together into something large and fast-moving enough to swallow up our beautiful life here and propel it onto another continent far, far away. (And I’m pretty good at packing boxes, too.)

The disadvantages of this lifestyle are manifold. I’m always away from my family. I constantly have to say goodbye to the amazing people who become my friends. I never speak the language of the place that I call home. And by the time I’ve started to get to grips with how a place works it’s time to move on to pastures less familiar. But there are also massive advantages. And one of those is that it makes life very, very long.

I assume that most people have read Joseph Heller’s brilliant satirical novel, Catch-22? One of my favourite characters is Yossarian’s friend Dunbar, who is “working hard at increasing his life span… by cultivating boredom.”

Heller writes, “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.”

His friend Clevinger argues, “Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?”

“I do,” Dunbar told him.

“Why?” Clevinger asked.

“What else is there?”


While I absolutely agree with Dunbar that since we only have one life we’d be foolish not to make it last as long as possible, experience has taught me that he’s going about it all wrong. For me life seems longest when I’m filling it with new places, extraordinary experiences, previously unimagined people and challenging new situations. Each year since I met M and moved to Jerusalem and then to Geneva and then to Ruffieux and then to Divonne has seemed to last at least three years… And I mean that in the nicest possible way! I want to stuff as many years as I possibly can into my years, and so far I’ve found no better way to do it than this. I may not know where I’m going to be living in two years from now, but I can be fairly confident that it’s going to be memorable.

One day when my lovely friend H came to visit M and I in the chateau that we happily inhabited in the French countryside, she said that the place really felt like home. Then we moved out of the chateau and into a bog-standard two-bedroom flat on the second floor of an ugly (but much more conveniently located) apartment building. And when H came to visit us here she said that this also feels like home. Her conclusion was that M and I have a home in one another. Thankfully, our home is portable. And from October 1st it will be located in an Islamabad suburb.

I hope H can visit us there too. And all the other beautiful people that I’ve met in France and Switzerland. And the amazing people that I met in Israel and Palestine. And all the people that I miss so much from my adopted homeland of England. And my friends and family in my native land of Australia. And anyone who might still remember me from back in the day in Japan. And whatever family I might still have in my ancestral homeland of Holland. And all the people that I’ve met along the way who’ve chosen new destinations, from Spain to New Zealand to Hong Kong, to make their own lives long and memorable.

Please come and stay. All the curries and rotis and rice you can eat are on me.

Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis

I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter


From the moment my parents carried me home from the small country hospital where I was born until the day that I left that home 17 years later, my address was reliably static: 13 Buckland Street, Northam, Western Australia, 6401. (My Dad still lives in that house, as I’ve described, although the address, bizarrely, has changed.) My parents built 13 Buckland Street and mine is the only family ever to have lived there. So if the walls of the house could talk they would tell stories only of us.

My memories of the day that I moved out, in spite of all the many intervening years, are distinct. As I was packing up the last of my stuff, ready to get in the car and leave the only home I’d ever known, Terry Jacks’ song Seasons in the Sun came on the radio. Yes, yes, I know that the song is a travesty of Jacques Brel’s original Le Moribund and that it’s been described as one of the worst pop songs ever recorded. But on that day my interest in it was piqued only by the fact that some of the lyrics seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. “Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me, I was the black sheep of the family…” “You tried to teach me right from wrong, too much wine and too much song…” “Goodbye Michelle, my little one, you gave me love and helped me find the sun…” The song is about death and although the only death that day was that of my childhood, it still managed to imprint itself on my brain as a farewell to loves and places lost.

I think that goodbye was even more poignant than it might have been because of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to leave any trace of myself in the house. M is 50 next year and still has a few possessions stashed at his mother’s place. But as I was the tenth of the twelve children that Dad and his second wife had spawned between them (six belonging to his first family and six to hers), the two of them had had just about enough of children and their paraphernalia by the time I moved out, so I was promised that anything I left behind would immediately be thrown on a skip. My departure, therefore, was fairly definitive.

13 Buckland Street

(The house as seen now on Google Earth)

I’ve moved into and out of many places since then, the last one always, of course, feeling like the most significant. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been moving our stuff out of the Chateau de Collonges, that gorgeously enormous, beautifully decorated, sublimely situated mansion, and into a standard two-bedroom flat on the first floor of a modern apartment building. True to the pattern that was established when I was 17, I’ve left no trace of myself in the chateau. I’ve taken down our paintings and rehung those chosen by the owners. I’ve unstrung the fairy lights that I had trailing up the stairs. I’ve rolled up M’s Persian carpets and run a vacuum cleaner over the empty spaces they left beneath them.

But the older I get and the more houses I live in, the more I believe that it’s impossible to remove all traces of oneself from a place. I can’t imagine another family inhabiting 13 Buckland Street but it’s inevitable that one day they will. And I’m sure that when that family moves in, they’ll be subconsciously aware of the fact that the walls still somehow contain some of the love felt by the young couple who built the place. The fittings will still reverberate with the laughter and tears of the six children who were brought up there. The air will still be resonant with the stoic optimism of a man who shared his daily life with two remarkable women within those walls, and loved and lost them both.

For as long as M and I were living in the dependence of the Chateau de Collonges, every day felt like an event. It didn’t feel as though we had to do anything in particular while we were there; just being under that remarkable cathedral ceiling, or looking out of the window at the chateau next door, or sitting by the enormous fireplace, felt special. I’m not sure if that feeling was created by the remarkable architecture of the place or by the resonance of the lives that were lived there before ours, but every moment there seemed to be imbued with significance. The house itself was a paradise of sorts.


I don’t have that feeling here in our new little modern apartment. But there is good news in that. While the chateau was a story in itself, our new home is no more or less than a safe and warm place from which to create stories of our own. We’ve only been here for ten days or so, but as each day passes it becomes more evident to me that while I don’t like to change the places that I live in, I very much like those places to change me. In the first week that we lived here, I attended my first photography club meeting, went to my first French class, swapped books with my friends at the end-of-year wrap-up meeting of the Geneva International Book Club, joined lovely friends to see the cinema release of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as directed by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011, had lunch on the shores of Lake Geneva with another lovely friend and walked down the road to the gorgeous Divonne Sunday Markets.


I was nervous about going to my first French class. The level of the group is a little above mine but I thought I might enjoy trying to rise to the challenge. After we finished my first ever exercise in the class, one which involved completing each written sentence with the correct form of the imperative, we went around the room taking turns at reading the sentences out loud. I counted the number of students around the table and the number of sentences left to read so that I could practice before I had to read to the others. It said, “Vous devez faire de ce monde un paradis.”

You must make of this world a paradise.

Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bubble guy

I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.


There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.


Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth
without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion (preface)


When I was a little kid growing up in rural Australia, my accent, strange though this may seem, was the subject of some curiosity. While other kids at seventies dinner parties might have amused their parents’ guests by playing the piano or pouring the perfect martini, I was most often called upon to intone the phrase, “How now brown cow.” The Englishness of my rounded vowels, which would have been enough to make Henry Higgins himself blush with pride, delighted my parents. Being Dutch immigrants, they themselves did not take credit for my apparently aristocratic turn of phrase, but they were none the less thrilled by it, especially my mum, from whom the words, “You sound so Australian”, were to be taken as a terrible insult.

Many years later, when I’d been living in London for three years and was having some sort of twenty-something crisis, I was talking on the phone with my sister, Pinky. “God, what I am doing living here?” I asked her. “What do you mean?” she replied. “You were destined to live there from the moment you how-nowed your first brown cow.” Pinky was probably right (and she was funny), and yet…

When I turned 40 I was able to draw a very neat line down the centre of my life; the first half had been spent in my home country and the second half away from it. Like everyone, I’d done some stuff in those 40 years, accumulated some experiences and seen some sights. And my brain, it seemed, had placed the memories of all those things in two quite separate categories.  Sometimes it seems like there’s one big filing cabinet in my head marked Australia and another marked Everything Else. And to push the analogy just a little bit further, one of those filing cabinets seems occasionally to get jammed into a corner behind the other and become less accessible. For example, my brother told me, when I was home in Australia a few years ago, that he was working with the husband of my primary one school teacher, and that she wanted to catch up with me while I was there. I had absolutely no recollection of who my primary one school teacher was. Mrs Gregory, my brother said. You must remember her. She actually taught you in grade two as well. I had no recollection. But then Big Bro arranged for us to meet at a party and as soon as I saw her face, which hadn’t changed at all in 30-odd years, it all came rushing back. The lovely Mrs Gregory! Of course I remembered her!

I sometimes wonder, when looking back over my life so far, whether my personality hasn’t become just as compartmentalised, through my various travels, as my memories have. I think I’m pretty much the same person from one context to another, but as it’s rarely tested it’s difficult to be sure.

During the four wonderful weeks that I spent with my dad this summer we had conversations, as one would expect, about all manner of things. During one of the many hours we spent chatting under the parasol in the garden, Dad expressed surprise that I, his Little Michellie, have ended up living in different countries and seeing a bit of the world. Of all my six kids, he said, you were always the one who needed the extra hug and to be reassured that she was loved. (He seems to think that I’ve since grown out of that. Word to the wise – I haven’t.) He’d never imagined that I’d be capable of gathering the requisite confidence to live and work away from the people who knew me best.

I think in a way, though, that it requires far greater bravery to stay within visiting distance of your own tribe. When I’m abroad, I can portray myself in whatever way I choose to have people see me. I can appear confident, self-assured and completely sorted, even when I’m not actually feeling any of those things. My online presence is an even more self-conscious construct; I am WA Woman to World. My Linked In status says that I’m a writer, researcher, reporter and subtitling consultant. Twitter has me down as a Yeasayer, eternal expat, constant reader and occasional writer. When Dad was here recently, though, I was reminded that I’m still just his Little Michellie, the fifth of six kids, Dad’s favourite second youngest daughter, the one who spent her childhood either laughing hysterically or crying hysterically. When I’m with my family I can’t hide behind who I’ve chosen to become. I just am who I am.

When that little Aussie kid with the alien English accent realised that the way she spoke was setting her apart from her peers, she rapidly reverted to her best interpretation of Australianness and left Henry Higgins cursing in the corner. Then 20 years of living in England gave the good professor a reason to wipe away the tears again.

But if you really want to know who I am behind the faux-British accent, just be around when I’m with my family. Didn’t know I had a soft side, did you?

All that bumbles isn’t a bee

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.



Chewing the cud.

My father is a very hardworking man. Even now, a few months before his 75th birthday, he struggles to say no when work is thrown his way. When my siblings and I were kids, Dad was determined to instil this work ethic in us as well, and he found it infuriating if ever he came home during a mid-morning break from work and found us still lounging around in our pyjamas. His determination on this issue bore fruit, too; none of his six kids could ever be accused of being workshy. My problem now, though, is where to channel that work ethic when I’m not working. Where is the line between enjoying an unexpected period of affordable unemployment, and becoming, to use my dad’s vernacular, a lazy good for nothing so and so?

On the last couple of days, when I’ve gone on my One-Hour Daily Walk, I’ve had the irritating feeling that I should be using my walking time constructively. Yesterday and the day before, I stuck my headphones on and listened to French podcasts as I walked. This morning, when I didn’t feel like walking, I realised it was because I wasn’t in the mood for studying French. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll use the time to think about a tricky plot point I’ve reached in a story I’m writing instead. So I headed out the door, my usual sunhat replaced by a serious frown and an ill-fitting thinking cap, and realised about half an hour into the walk that I still wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually do.

Then the thought occurred to me. It’s OK just to be at peace.

Much of the average life, it seems to me from this lofty position of unemployment, is consumed by the sense that if we’re not crazy busy, running around and seeing people and getting stuff done, then we’re not achieving anything. But how much of the stuff that we fill our time with is actually necessary or worthwhile? Should we really be complaining that ironing the tea towels is stealing away our leisure time, or should we just not bother to iron the tea towels? Do we have to be doing something specific with our brain during a daily walk, or is a daily walk constructive enough in itself?

When I was teaching English in Japan, an easy way of starting conversation classes was by asking people what they’d done on the weekend. One woman, whose children were growing up and becoming slightly more independent, often detailed all the housework chores she’d managed to tick off the list. On one particularly busy weekend, she’d managed not just to wash all the inside walls, but also to clean every individual picket on the white picket fence surrounding her house. Really? People do that? Another woman almost invariably said that she’d spent Saturday morning shopping for clothes. When I commented that she must have a lot of clothes, given the amount of time she spent shopping, she said that most weeks she ended up taking back the stuff that she’d bought the week before! We truly are all busy fools!

My Dad’s getting much better at chilling out these days. Next week he and I are meeting up in Amsterdam and we’re going to spend a week wandering around the streets of his home town, drinking Dutch gin and waving to the locals from our house boat. And I’m confident that not once will it cross my mind that I should be doing something more constructive.

People are strange when you’re a stranger

When you grow up as one of six children, as I did, A Room of One’s Own is an unknowable imaginary land. It didn’t even occur to me to fantasise about having my own room when I was a kid; our household was made up of two adults, six kids and four bedrooms, so sharing was just the way it was. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my little sister and I didn’t have the odd territorial dispute. Sometimes these arguments culminated in the drawing of physical boundaries, a line of masking tape separating my half of the room from hers. Figuring out where the border should lie was sometimes tricky, and at times I’d find myself separated from my beloved bookshelves, and once even inconveniently distanced from the door.

This desire for a space of one’s own does not seem to go away as one enters adulthood. The expression “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” while raising uncomfortable gender issues and frequently lending itself to the right wing in conversations about the value of life versus property, summarises what seems to be a fairly universal desire to have a little piece of the earth for one’s own exclusive use.

This is all very well and very understandable – who doesn’t have a strong desire for a place to call home? – but the problems begin when the issues of belonging and ownership are extrapolated out beyond our own four walls to include the surrounding towns, territories and regions in which we might wish to raise a flag, and from which we might wish to exclude anyone but People Like Us.

In my day-to-day life here in rural France, there is absolutely no evidence of the historical animosity between the French and the English which is sometimes still played out or parodied in modern politics. I’m sure that M and I are probably known in our village as That Foreign Couple on the Hill, but I’ve never experienced any antagonism and I feel just as at home here as I could in any place where I don’t speak the language. That’s why I was shocked, when out on my One-Hour Daily Walk a few days ago, to see a piece of graffiti which would suggest that I’m not as welcome here as I’d previously supposed.

photo 2

(For the few people on the planet whose French is worse than mine,
this translates as Foreigner, you are not welcome.)

To say nothing of the considerably less-than-Banksy-esque artistic quality of this message, Tippexed onto an electricity pillar box, the sentiment behind the scrawl is one that is so far removed from the international nature of my current existence as to render it almost incomprehensible. I’m Australian, born of Dutch parents, and cohabit here in France with someone whose British nationality I also now share. The couple from whom we’re renting our house comprises a Japanese woman and her Italian husband. This weekend we have some friends coming around for a barbecue and without giving it too much thought I’d guess that the passports they’ll carry with them when they cross the Swiss-French border will be from at least eight different countries and no less than four continents. So I can’t even imagine the feats of origami it would take to fold my mind small enough to fit into the cranial cavity of someone for whom foreigners are so terrifying that they would choose to ban them from their land.


(Danger of death with Le Pen as president? Yes, I expect there would be.)

Many people born and brought up in Australia tend to think of borders as fairly immutable things; when your home is “girt by sea”, as our national anthem so poetically puts it, it’s difficult to imagine how the outer limits of the land could be challenged. But borders do, of course, change all the time, and while some countries are champing at the bit to form strategic allegiances with others, there are also still regions for whom separation is the ultimate goal. Our house here in France is in the departément of Savoie, but when we cross the bridge to get to the nearest major town, Culoz, we suddenly find ourselves in the departément of Ain. Until recently, there was a white line drawn on the road at one end of the bridge, with Savoie written on one side and France on the other. It turns out that there is a small but significant group which seeks regional autonomy for Savoie and Haute-Savoie. There is also a party, the Ligue savoisienne, or Savoyan League, which supports the independence of Savoy from France.

Changing world map

(Go to the website and click on the timeline to get an idea of some ways in which the world has changed.

Separatism is not always a bad thing – the benefit of hindsight has told divorced couples and countries alike that two becoming one is often a bad idea from the outset – and the word should certainly not, in every instance, be lumped together with more divisive (as well as derisive) concepts like racism and religious segregation. But when the desire for separation is fuelled by nothing more considered than the fear of one’s neighbours, then surely some time spent getting to know one another would be better than time spent daubing blobs of mindless xenophobia on infrequently accessed public utilities.

Central Europe is currently in the throes of a heat wave and I noticed, on my Daily Walk earlier, that the cows are sheltering beneath the trees to avoid the burning sun, the cats are refusing to come out of the shade and even the scarecrows seem reluctant to be Outstanding in Their Fields. I’m hoping that the bigots, too, are hidden somewhere in the shadows, and that by the time they come out into the sunshine again they’ll have thrown away their masking tape and learned to play nicely with their little sisters and their foreign friends. Until then, though, I can only feel sorry for them… There shall be no shrimps on the barbie for them this weekend.

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.

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.


Patriotism – a dragon to be slain?

For a long time now I’ve kind of envied people who have a strong sense of national pride. I still remember when I told my Dad that I was making England my permanent home, having moved there years before from my native Australia. He said that he felt sorry for me because from that point on I’d never really belong anywhere; I’d be considered Australian in England and English in Australia. As a post-war Dutch immigrant Dad knew what he was talking about but I didn’t completely grasp his point for a number of years, so busy was I enjoying the novelty of my new home.

But then one night I was in a pub in London watching a football match with a crowd of English friends. A lot of them weren’t really into football but every single person in that pub – with the glaring exception of the expat girl in the corner – shared a patriotic passion for their country and a desperate hope that in this football match, England would triumph. There was no question for them. But I wasn’t English so I didn’t feel that blind sense of nationalistic love, and I realised that my loyalty to Australia had been diluted by the years I’d spent in England. Dad was right – the moment I boarded a plane out of Australia at the age of 20 I gave up my right to the rousing sense of community that made every other person in that room into a part of something bigger. I left the pub in tears.

Having said that though… I’m a little perplexed today by the increasing popularity of the idea that England should have a national holiday for St George’s Day. I completely understand the desire for countries to promote a sense of national solidarity, especially when their freedom and independence have been hard-won. I can get behind France’s Bastille Day, American Independence Day and Australia Day, each of which celebrates a historical event which has led to the formation of a free and independent nation (without, for the moment, getting into what that might have meant for indigenous peoples…).

But St George’s Day? In recent years I’ve been surprised, in my travels, by the widespread adoration of the saintly George, who I’d always associated with my adopted homeland of England. In Palestine I visited St George’s Monastery in the Wadi Qelt, and learned that George had lived in Palestine as a child and is patron saint of Palestinian Christians, many of whom have a stone-engraved picture of him in front of their homes to evoke his protection. In Coptic Cairo I visited a monastery where they display the instruments of torture apparently used in the vain attempt to force George to renounce his Christian faith, and where tourists are invited to seek St George’s grace by wrapping a chain around their necks and bodies. In Pérouges, a medieval city in France, I saw several representations of the saint, who is considered by local legend to have fought and defeated the dragon which appears on the city’s crest.

Coptic Church of St George

And these are just a few places that I happen to have visited. It only takes a minute on the internet to discover that St George is also considered patron saint or protector to Bulgaria, Georgia, Portugal, Montenegro and Ethiopia, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo, the city of Beirut in Lebanon and the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, as well as the Boy Scouts of America and sufferers of skin disease and syphilis, to name but a few.

Part of my pride in getting a British passport a few years ago (to sit happily alongside my Australian one) lay in my belief that I was officially joining the ranks of a people who strive to be rational, just and fair, and, to a very large extent, secular. This is why I struggle to understand why such a large percentage of the population wishes to celebrate, by virtue of a national holiday, a man who was born in Eastern Turkey,  moved to Palestine and became a Roman soldier, then went on to erm, slay a dragon, then become a martyr to his Christian faith. Yes, his bravery, fortitude and loyalty are to be commended, but isn’t there a better way of celebrating a proud and open-minded nation than this?

I’m open to suggestions.

St George's Monastery