Wonderlust

Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.

Ray Bradbury

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In La Chautagne, the area of south-east France that M and I currently inhabit, the weather isn’t so much a talking point as a cast of characters. In the last nine months I’ve had a brief introduction to all of them and I’ve been looking forward to getting to know them all better, to seeing how their temperaments might change from one year to the next and how that would alter their interactions with one another. But just as I make the reluctant transition from shorts and Birkenstocks to hiking boots and a Barbour jacket, and the landscape swaps its summer greens for the rustic oranges and reds of autumn, M and I have decided to pack up and move again.

In the line of work that M’s been in for the past decade, he’s always had to live in the accommodation that’s been provided for him, and that accommodation has always been in cities. So when we had a chance, on this mission, to put a roof over our own heads, we chose a big old roof in the French countryside. But man there are some drawbacks to living how the other half live! Yes the house that we’re renting is huge and beautiful and yes the countryside around it is spectacular (it’s amazing how much more bang you can get for your buck when you move away from the city) but it’s in the middle of nowhere and much to my own shock and amazement, I actually really miss having other people around!

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When we recently scoped out a possible new hometown and spoke with a potential new landlord, New Landlord told us about the highlights of the environs and asked if we’d seen them.

Have you been to the lake? he asked.

Not yet, we answered.

Ah, you have to see the lake! he said. There are people running and people swimming and people walking with their pets and…

There are people?! I responded? Brilliant! When can we move in?

And so we’ll be downsizing, erm, rather a lot. Our new home will be a third the size of our current one, we’ll have neighbours upstairs and down, our outdoor space will be measured in centimetres rather than acres and we’ll have to buy all our own furniture… And I can’t wait.

There are actually a number of practical reasons for our planned departure from the wilderness, not least being the fact that M currently has a one-hour-and-forty-minute commute into the office each morning, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there might be more to it than that for both of us. If I’m totally honest I fear that we might both have become infected with wonderlust…

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It’s no secret that wanderlust, our new condition’s close cousin, got into our veins a long time ago. I’m sure that what my Mum used to describe as growing pains when I was a kid was actually the gnawing ache for distant places that as an adult I’ve been more easily able to recognise, articulate and remedy. And M no doubt caught the affliction on one of the many trips he did as a child to the far-flung places where his Dad worked for the UN.

But if wonder is a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable and lust is an overwhelming desire or craving,*  then given the symptoms, I am self-diagnosing the lesser-known condition of wonderlust. The insatiable desire that both M and I have to see as much of the world’s gorgeousness as we possibly can during our short stint on the planet only becomes stronger as we slip inevitably closer to the time when we’ll shrug off this mortal coil, and so we have to cram in as much of the unfamiliar and inexplicable as we can.

I’ve read in several places recently that some sharks, including great whites, have to keep moving forward to stay alive, and there’s part of me, I think, that identifies. While the idea of perpetual motion is utterly exhausting and in some ways I’d love to just create a home and stay there, I fear that wonderlust would overwhelm me if I tried to stay in one place for too long, however much I might love the place and the people in it.

And so for now, as I count down towards the end of the three-month notice period we’ve given on the rental of our current home, I’ll start wallowing instead in that other affliction of the geographically restless – nostalgia for a home you’ve loved and will never live in again.

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* Thanks, Dictionary.com

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.