Jubilation

I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.

Sylvia Plath

Wild flowers. Wild.
Wild flowers. Wild.

So let me ask you something… When was the last time you felt jubilant?

It’s a nice word, isn’t it? All jooby and succulent. Jubilant. The very sound of it makes me feel like jumping up and down.

Jubilation is a bit different from happiness, I think. I’m very good at recognising and appreciating happiness, and I it feel it in various guises all the time. I’ve had some fairly low points in the last couple of years – we all have to have them, right? – but if I look at even these difficult times as a collection of moments then the bright, happy ones definitely dominate the dark. When a lovely friend came to stay with us in the Chateau last year she commented on the frequency with which I uttered the words, “Ah, I love my life.” I hadn’t even noticed. I do love my life. It’s not perfect but it’s gorgeous and it’s mine.

But jubilation… That’s something different. Jubilation requires a whole special combination of people, place, serendipity and circumstance to bring it into being.

In my old working life, when I travelled a lot, I felt something fairly close to jubilation every time the plane that I was strapped into left the runway. There’s nothing like take-off, when you can feel the thrill of a new adventure in your gut as the force pushes you back into your seat. My lips involuntarily broke into a smile every time. I loved it. But it wasn’t quite jubilation.

I do remember feeling jubilant once at work. We were at a broadcast exhibition in Amsterdam and we made an unexpected sale. My friend and I literally danced in the street afterwards. (And yes, when I say literally I mean literally.)

But jubilation…

Ah, yes. I remember another time when I experienced it recently. There was something of a build-up to it. First I’d auditioned for a part and got it. Then I spent six weeks rehearsing and getting to know a group of amazing women. Then we had a dress rehearsal three days before the first performance and realised we still had a long way to go. Then we heard that the show was sold out so the pressure was on to make it great. Then we came off the stage after a brilliant first night and ah, there it was…

Jubilation.

Have you ever seen the episode of How I Met Your Mother when they talk about the Woo Girls? Even if you haven’t seen it I’m sure you can imagine. They’re the girls (and I have general consent now, to use that word to describe women of all ages) who celebrate any utterance with a “Woo!”

“We’re having a drink.” “Wooo!”

“Tomorrow’s Friday.” “Woooo!”

“We’ll all die one day.” “Woooo!”

I am not a Woo Girl. But I have to admit that that night I woo’d.

And now that the play is over I still love my life.

But I’m looking for my next hit of jubiliation.

“Wooo!”

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?

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.

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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