My mind wanders when attempting to present interesting stories about my life in 2012. Instead it came up with the memories of arriving in England 20 years ago. I had managed to get a scholarship under the Erasmus programme to study at Warwick University for a year. In return a student from Warwick would spend one year at Leuven university, my base. I was 20 and craving a break from the path I had been laying out for myself. I had no idea how much that would change me, and I am so glad I took that leap.
At Warwick I found myself falling into a crowd of foreign students, who were all trying to get to grips with the specifics of living and working in England and relishing being different, in equal measure. We wanted to get under the skin of Englishness, but we would not be mistaken for being English, oh no! We would do things that we wouldn’t have back home so we would stand out as Norwegian / Israeli / American / Dutch / Greek / Flemish or whatever we all were. The key was that we all expected to go back home again after our English adventure; we weren’t really trying to integrate, merely understand to better utilise for our own purpose. We learnt that:
There are squirrels everywhere. Funny at first, then you see them for what they really are: furry rats.
English humour is very dry indeed. It suits me.
The word “interesting” is often used to mean the opposite: when people say it in a trailing-off tone, their attention clearly wandering, you know you’ve been boring your audience witless.
English people really do queue in a disciplined line and stand on one side of the escalators. Everyone does it, so you join them.
English people are not really more polite than the rest of us, they only say “sorry” as they bump their way through and use polished words with sharp meanings you only understand once your English skills reach a certain level.
You could not find decent coffee anywhere near Warwick in those days. I had to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, which caters for Shakespeare tourists, to get coffee. Of course one could drink a perfectly good tea, but tea just doesn’t always cut it does it.
I also learnt that I did not miss my boyfriend and told him so during a visit back home.
In hindsight I have never felt as free and rich in options as I did then. Even if I went back to Belgium I know that my year in England has been decisive for my later choices in life. Up until then I had completed school and gone to university as expected and dated a decent but uninspiring boyfriend for years whom I might have ended up marrying because there wasn’t anything wrong with him. Except that, when pulled out of my comfort zone, I unearthed more selves who all wanted things he could not have provided. Unfortunately for me the process of finding more layers to myself continued, so I still ended up making a decision that did not work out on the long term.
Eventually I ended up back here in England less than 10 years later. Another decade on and my children have gone native, and I found myself struggling to find the right words in my own language. I’m not even sure what language I dream in.
You can get good coffee in the shops now, just not in offices – you still get nescafe when you ask for a coffee.
I feel much more a part of England now, I have a stake in it. Not sure which, but I live here so I am entitled to an opinion. I no longer consider myself a passing visitor. I am settled. Man, did I just hear myself say that? It may be time to move on. Where shall I go? Let me think; definitely somewhere the sun shines…
Some of you may know that I am an exiled Fleming / Belgian (pick which ever means anything to you) in England. This is not usually very relevant, I have learnt the language as any immigrant has an obligation to do and I pay my taxes. My children barely speak Dutch anymore. Now the holidays have finally arrived I am simultaneously exchanging emails with my family about Christmas preparations (they will be coming over here) in Dutch and trying to write a blog post. My brain is doing strange things to me, mixing both languages and coming out with creations that would probably appear absurd to you good readers. To me it makes sense though, I understand it all. That lovely Ciney Blonde I’ve drunk to ease me into the holidays will not have done much to unscramble the language area in my brain, I suppose. It seems to free-associate better though. More connections than clarity.
Now might be a good time to play multi-language scrabble with my kids: any language goes, as long as a dictionary can prove the word exists. Or with anyone else who cares to join. Husband hates it: he pretty much only masters English. But, we all have stuff to get done. I shall have to leave you with a picture of my lovely Belgian beer paraphernalia instead:
And here’s some Belgian humour for you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OIJRMqYAA0
Let’s pretend the world is actually about to end, at 12.52 pm GMT on December 21st – the Mayan Apocalypse. How would you spend the final days of your life?
Husband’s vote is to open our Christmas presents – those that are already in the house, giving up on those that have yet to wing their way here with family – now so we can get some joy out of them before we snuff it. Not a very inspired choice perhaps, but one I put down to his positive nature. He can’t even fake-believe that the end is neigh. That, and the fact he can’t pass up a chance to snort at the extreme naivety of some people. And, if we are brutally honest, because he knows there is a man-toy waiting for him under the tree and he is a child at heart.
The kids are sold on opening presents early, obviously. My son demonstrated his growing maturity and cunning by adding swiftly that he’d like to see his girlfriend one more time. Ah, to be 16 again!
And me, I ask myself – what would I do?
I would splash out on the credit card and take my family to an idyllic tropical paradise, the gentle lapping of the sea lulling us into pure relaxation in our hammocks under waving palm trees. We’d be tired from exploring the unbelievable riches of life above and below the waterline, having followed fishes, admired corals and anemones, and stalked elephants, lions and leopards. Shush, all these creatures live in my paradise; they all deserve a loving farewell. We’d have a few great last meals and talk under the stars.
Perhaps you were expecting a loftier target for my last days on earth. But it is too late for that, I shall have to face whatever reckoning there may be on the merits of my life lived so far. I have strived to live a good life, and I am actually pretty proud of most of it. The things that didn’t pan out were well-intended none the less. You have to take a risk sometimes. On the whole I don’t regret much of it. Now all I want is to pay tribute to the marvels of this Earth, and exit happy.
Sunday afternoon. I find myself with some time on my hands. I’ve done the Christmas shopping (don’t you love the interweb? I have family with obscure wishlists you just can’t fulfill by going to the local shops) and most of my chores around the house. What next? Spurred on by Fish of Gold and Rarasaur I had a look at the Daily Post, just in case I could come up with some scribble for the day. And what do you know? I got 2 in 1 – today’s prompt and yesterday’s all wrapped in one:
I must have been about 5 years old. It was a balmy July day, and my mum had decided to take us to the seaside. Yay us! We couldn’t wait to get into our swimsuits, fumbling inside a bathing towel mum held up around us. Slap on some sunscreen – or did we not even bother with that in those days? I can’t remember – and we sped into the surf. Mum stayed with the cooler bag and the towels on the beach. Reading, probably, although I wasn’t following that at the time. She must have been, because otherwise there would have been no place for the Hero in my story.
We rolled around in the waves until we were cold and hungry. Well I was. I left the waves to roll on without me, turning to the beach. What a vast expanse of sand. I started walking in the general direction of where I knew my mum must be. How could I have drifted off so far? I plodded on through the wet sand, the broken bits of shell hurting my feet. And then I stopped. Right in front of me was a colony of jellyfish run aground in the sand, waiting for high tide to take them back to sea. They were the nasty stingy ones, and they were everywhere. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t dare cross the jelly field, and I couldn’t see a way around it. Why wasn’t my mum here to help me? Where was she anyway? I must have started crying, for suddenly a man appeared next to me out of nowhere, asking if I wanted help getting across the jellies? “Yeyeyeyessss please…” I must have stuttered. All I can remember is being scooped up and carried around or across the nasties and delivered safely on my own two feet in dry sand. My Hero! Whom I will never know. And then my mum came running.
Words are fierce creatures. They have to be, I guess, to be in with a chance of surviving into the next generation. There is such an array of words to choose from, and if they don’t get picked often enough they’re out of the dictionary. Begin to form a thought in your mind, and it gets inundated with words offering themselves as just what you were looking for. Some people cut through the onslaught so swiftly you’d never guess any thought process had taken place. They present compelling arguments crisply, then sit back to read your response as it is forming in your head. Their expectation freezes you like a rabbit in headlights. All the words are scuttling away into the curtains of your mind. What do you do?
a) You spew those words that didn’t get away fast enough, improvising some form of structure as you go along. You’re working so hard you don’t notice you’re not actually making much sense. At least you keep talking. Nothing worse than silence.
b) You take on a relaxed, pensive air, pulling away from the gaze just long enough to summon sensible words and arrange them carefully, but not so long it looks like you are clueless. Then you make your point and project your expectation onto your opponent. Score.
c) You return their gaze with a highly interested expression. Soon the well-spoken people will feel compelled to elaborate. Clearly you enjoyed their expose so much you want more. While you half-listen (you got their point the first time) you prepare your response and you win points for being a star audience.
Other people seem to enjoy trying out various ways of making their point out loud, never quite settling on one. It could be they are incapable of deciding which words best describe their intent. Or maybe they don’t bother understanding their audience, so they simply see what works.
Then there are those people who have a clear point in mind, but feel compelled to make endless detours on the way. I’ve often wondered whether they do this so that when their point isn’t well received they can tell themselves it doesn’t matter because at least they’ve had a nice conversation, or whether they are actually scared to make their point.
I detest having to sit through the clutter in other people’s minds. Give it to me straight, so we know where we stand. And if you have nothing to say, don’t say it.