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?”

Yes!

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.

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)

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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?

My Old Man’s a Dutchman

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs
and returns home to find it.

George Augustus Moore, The Brook Kerith

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My dad’s more of a philosopher than a scientist but even so it seems that he may have found a way of avoiding jet lag. To ensure that you’ll hit the ground running after a 24-hour journey across the world, all you have to do is emigrate from your homeland, live in a foreign country for 60 years, learn a new language, raise six kids and reluctantly retire. Then 60 years later when you fly back to the place where it all began, you’ll be so full of joy at being back in your mother country that the concept of jet lag won’t even occur to you, and you’ll spend a week running around the country with the energy of a man a third of your age.

OK, so the evidence may be apocryphal but that’s the way it worked for Dad when he flew in from Australia last week to spend four days in his hometown of Amsterdam and then travel south to see a live performance by his favourite musician in his hometown of Maastricht.

Last Monday morning at 6:00, I was waiting at the arrivals gate for Dad’s flight to come in from Perth via Kuala Lumpur, having myself flown in from Geneva the night before. This was to be the first time I’d seen Dad since I’d spent a month with him in Australia after the sudden death of his second wife eighteen months earlier. I knew that he was a little nervous about travelling alone so I was not just looking forward to seeing him but also anxious to make sure that he was OK after the long journey.

Passengers coming out at Arrivals 2 could exit from one of two doors, so I was standing back a little to ensure that I had a good view of both when a man approached and spoke to me in Dutch. Embarrassed as always about my linguistic incompetence I confessed that I don’t speak Dutch, at which point he seamlessly switched to English and said, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve been watching you since you were sitting over at that café earlier. Your face is so full of love, anticipation and excitement, I just had to come over and ask who it is that you’re waiting for. They’re very lucky to be so well loved.

Soon the man’s wife arrived, as did one very much loved Old Man, and I was relieved to hear that all Dad needed to recover from the flight was a nicotine fix. As we headed outside Dad filled me in on the details of his journey and I realised that I should never have had a moment’s concern about him travelling without a companion; a man of Dad’s charm and chattiness will never travel alone. People had gone out of their way to help him along the journey, showing him to his connecting flight and waiting with him as he collected his luggage at his final destination. Ah yes, I remembered, people are kind.

Once the fix was in we took a train into Amsterdam Centraal and then a taxi to the houseboat I’d got the keys for the night before. The taxi driver entered the one-way street on one side of our canal, the Prinsengracht, and was about to cross the bridge to go back the other way on the side of our houseboat, when Dad joked to him that he could just let us out there and we’d swim across. OK! said the driver, slamming on the brakes and waiting for us to get out. Ah yes, I thought, that Dutch sense of humour! I remember it now!

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I’d thought that Dad might be keen to get some rest after his epic journey across the world but the first thing he wanted to do when we got to the houseboat was unpack a gift he’d made for me and carted all the way from Australia. When we were kids, Mum and Dad had a nativity set that they’d set up every year in the fireplace of the house that we all grew up in, the house where Dad still lives now. (By some amazing coincidence of the orientation of the earth, it’s only at Christmas time that a small, rectangular shaft of sunlight shines down the chimney each year and falls directly onto the little baby Jesus in the centre of the scene. To six little Aussie kids in the seventies that seemed like something of a miracle.)

Now that Dad’s finally given in to the joys of retirement one of his hobbies is making nativity sets reminiscent of that one that we all loved as kids. I knew that he was making one for me and I also knew that he was going to the trouble of making it flat-pack so he could carry it in his suitcase. What I didn’t know was that he’d based the structure of my nativity set on the photographs he’d seen of the house that M and I are renting in France. Within minutes of our arrival on the houseboat, Dad had constructed an instantly recognisable Petit Chateau. We left it set up on the kitchen table for the four days we were there in Amsterdam, so that every time we got home to our little houseboat in Holland I also got home to my little house in France.

Petit chateau

Once the Petit Chateau was constructed, Dad was keen to get out and soak up some of the vibe of his old hometown. Within minutes of stepping off our houseboat we’d seen the famous Skinny Bridge and stumbled upon the De Magere Brug café-restaurant, which immediately became our local. It may only have been ten o’clock in the morning in Amsterdam but Dad was on Perth time and four o’clock in the afternoon was certainly not too early for his first Dutch gin of the day! It was also his first proper opportunity on this trip to chat with people in his mother tongue; at this little café and in every place we visited in the days that followed, I watched as Dad’s town and its people re-embraced him as one of their own, laughing with him and enveloping him in a warmth and solidarity that’s surely reserved for a returning prodigal son.

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One of our first intended ports of call after that liquid sustenance was the street that Dad’s family had lived on until they commenced the five-week-long boat journey that would lead to a lifetime’s stay in Australia in 1952. Dad remembered from his childhood that we could take a No. 13 tram from somewhere near Dam Square. When we looked around for a while and couldn’t see a tram No. 13 Dad started to wonder whether his 60-year-old memories might be muddled, so we got on another tram going vaguely in the right direction. Dad rapidly realised that we weren’t heading back to his old haunts, however, and after a long walk and a short journey on a metro train we were eventually led back to the correct tram – the No. 13 – which took us right to Dad’s old door.

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After Dad and I had spent four beautiful days in Amsterdam, the holiday got even better when one of my four gorgeous sisters flew in to join us from her home in Inverness. One of the first things she commented on was that the woman sitting at the table behind us in the airport café looked exactly like Dad’s sister. It was true; everyone in Amsterdam could easily have passed as one of my sisters, my brother, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. The twisted diphthongs and guttural consonants of the Dutch language were a strange and beautiful music to our ears too, reminding us as they did of our childhood.

When my sister and I checked Dad into his room near the Vrijthof Square in Maastricht, we sat around chatting and at one point got onto the subject of passports. I became a British citizen about four years ago but haven’t got around to getting my British passport yet so I still travel on an Australian one, and I also have a Swiss Carte de Legitimation. Dad also has an Australian passport, having decided just before his fifth child was born in 1970 (me, as it turns out), that he should be naturalised Australian to avoid being dragged away from his family in the (however unlikely) event that war should break out in Europe. And my sister, having been born to a pre-naturalisation Dutch father, has been able to claim on that heritage to get a Dutch passport. The irony is that Dad, a fluent Dutch speaker and the most Dutch man you’ll ever meet, is no longer able to get one of those, having renounced his citizenship all those years ago, although I have no doubt that with a few quiet words and a joke or two in the right ear Dad could manage to rectify that.

My now Dutch-Scottish-Aussie sister, (let’s call her Kalinka here, as Dad does), has decided that there’s something other than a nativity set that she’d like to have created for her in Dad’s wood-making workshop. Just as we were leaving Maastricht on our last morning in the Netherlands, she saw some ornamental Amsterdam houses in a shop window, and realised that there could be no more fitting gift from Dad than a symbol of his beloved homeland. She put in her request to Dad and he assures her that when he gets back to Australia her wish will be granted.

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I made a wish before I left the Netherlands too, though I’m not sure who will ever be in a position to grant it. My wish is that when I return to my hometown of Northam in 35 years from now, which will be 60 years since I first left, I’ll be welcomed back with the same warmth, joy and enthusiasm that Amsterdam offered to my Dad during our wonderful stay there last week. I think to have any chance of this wish ever being granted I’ll first have to ask Dad for some charm lessons… Oh, well. Happily I have  a few years to work on it.

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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.

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(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.

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(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. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/maps-interactive/maps-in-time.htm)

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.

Give us this day our daily walk

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

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I don’t know what they’ve been putting in the water in England lately but I’m not sure that I like it. It seems that all the people that I could previously rely upon to be slovenly sofa-dwellers like me have taken to…eugh, I can barely stand to say the word…running. In fact, it’s not just in England. My six-year-old niece in Australia did a 5k run for charity the other day. Six years old! Five kilometres! What the hell’s going on? Where is everyone suddenly getting their energy and motivation from?!

OK, I have to admit that I’m a little bit inspired by all the activity I’m seeing around me. I draw the line at running, mind – my two friends whose running shoes jogged them straight into the operating theatre for major knee surgery last year are proof enough to me that running is just not natural – but I guess I can be driven enough to walk. In fact I have few excuses not to. Job? Er…no. Kids? Uh-uh. Dangerous highway on my doorstep? Not so much. All right then. Walking it is.

I know that two walks do not a habit make, but having donned my hiking boots yesterday and today and found a perfect one-hour walking circuit that starts and ends at my front door, I’ve realised what a fool I’ve been to neglect this opportunity for the last six months. It’s gorgeous out there! And I feel great when I get home! Why didn’t I do this before?!

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When we lived in East Jerusalem, our lovely apartment was six kilometres from town, so all the things that we spent our leisure time doing required at least a brief stint behind the steering wheel. (I did occasionally go walking around where we lived but the requisite consideration of the modesty of my attire followed by the inevitable attention of locals curious about the obvious outsider meant that my strolls were rarely leisurely.) So when M got a new job in Geneva, I was determined that we’d live right in the thick of things, so all I’d have to do to get to where I wanted to go was step out of the front door and start walking. We had that for a while, too. For a gorgeous four months, we lived in a lovely apartment in Jonction, Geneva, (so named because it’s the point at which the Rhone and Arve Rivers meet), and our feet and the occasional tram took us to all the lovely places we wanted to visit. But then, of course, this house came up for rent and all my plans for inner-city living went up the 18th-century French chateau chimney in a majestic plume of smoke.

People who regularly indulge in this exercise thing often say that physical activity gives them the time and space to think. I’ve never really got that – all I used to think about on the rare occasions that I panted and sweated my way around the gym in Jerusalem was the fact that I couldn’t wait to go home – but my new Daily Walk might, it seems, be a step in the right cognitive direction. For example, it occurred to me as I walked today that all the things that I want to do are still on my doorstep, it’s just that the things that I want to do have changed. Nice, huh?

I keep watching as my friends keep running further and their running times on given distances improve. Have no such expectations of me, please. My One-Hour Daily Walk, for as long as the scenery around here remains so utterly breath-taking, will remain my One-Hour Daily Walk, and will continue to start and finish at my front door. What I can promise, however, is some pictures of the ever-changing but always beautiful scenery, and a bottle of wine on the finish line to anyone who’s prepared to come and join me as I go up the hills and down the dales of this gorgeous corner of rural France.

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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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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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