Month: November 2013

1 year of blogging – The search for kindred spirits and how I got here

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A whole year has gone by since I first wrote on this blog. I remember the night when I started, home alone and bored and sick as hell. I had no idea what I was going to write about but I was spending too much time mumbling in my car or starting conversations at the dinner table that struggled to take off. And even when they did, they rarely took the direction I hoped for.

Getting to know and spend time with kindred spirits gets more and more difficult with age. When in school, we choose our friends according to mutual interests, compatible characters and shared time. At college it becomes even easier: it’s obvious that most of those enrolled in a literature class will love reading and writing and will constitute great friend material. Once in the adult world things get more complicated. We have less time and more limits: we hang out more with those sharing our own routine and lifestyle (the gym friends, the dog friends, the school mothers, the husband’s friends, the grocery store friends…) because, simply, it’s easier than venturing into the unknown to meet that stranger that will share our obsession for Russian literature.

My longing for kindred spirits started early on: showing the schizophrenic behavior that somehow is my trademark, I went to a business school. Me, the Tolstoy-by-heart-and-only-interested-in-reading-and-writing-person. Studying finance and math and statistics. I wanted to show my high school teachers that I could do anything, despite their written suggestion to pursue studies in the arts. Of course, they were right and I was wrong. I suffered through 4 years of diagrams, equations, formulas and theorems I rarely found inspiring. But that gave me a vague idea of the practical world I struggle so much with, and so I learnt something. There were no kindred spirits there. Apart from a couple of fellow students that made a U-turn and are now photographers, 90% of the people I hanged out with in my early 20s became bankers, lawyers or corporate executives. I look at their Facebook pictures and I feel like a child. They have business cards with fancy titles and maybe they look at them before sleeping and feel better about themselves.

Imagine my surprise when I finally found myself in a press office, sitting among people who all seemed to enjoy books and films and tv and to stay up at night to build a different world. As a 22 years old journalist, I thought I hit the jackpot. I was being paid to do what I loved most and be happy. The honeymoon lasted for a few years. Then my first, enlightened, amazing boss took another position and welcome to reality. Journalism is to most people just a job. As in almost every job, it’s difficult to sail through it without hitting internal politics, compromises, disappointments, unfairness and deception. I had my fair share of these and realized what I really enjoyed about the job wasn’t witnessing the news, uncovering the truth or telling a story (in this era, anyway, images get way further than the most seductive literary voice) but observing the actors. The people behind the facts. Those who had power and those who had none. Those who struggled and those who made the calls. The facts, the news, then became a mere byproduct of the interaction among the characters involved.

I retreated into fiction writing and here I am. In search of kindred spirits again since it is pretty rare to bump into an Alain de Botton’s avid reader at the playground or at the school fair. There might be some, of course. But they’re probably all in disguise as I am, concealing their passions behind everyday’s duties and a dose of comfortable laziness.

For exactly these reasons I didn’t tell about my blog to real life friends for months. I didn’t want to ramble to people I already know in real life and I didn’t want to have followers that felt somehow obliged to sign up to the blog, out of politeness, kindness or affection. I wanted to see if there was someone out there at sea who didn’t know a thing about me and still shared some of my interests. I found a lot. Thank you to all of you, cyber friends and readers, for finding my message in the bottle. 

The dangers of selflessness

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Years ago, in the middle of an expat crisis (having gone in a short time from classic expat to embedded-foreign wife), I hired a coach. I had never been a fan of the coaching concept but, after all, I didn’t have enough time, will or money for therapy nor did I have enough friends determined to listen to my monologues for an entire hour a week AND give me valuable advices at the same time. So I hired. A coach.

We would talk on Skype in the early afternoon, while she was having breakfast in her Washington flat and I was already at my 5th coffee in my Brussels bureau. It lasted a few months before I realized I had started to regularly postpone sessions, making up excuses not to talk to her and cutting short our weekly 60 minutes. I don’t remember the details but at some point I figured out she kept dishing out nice-sounding phrases like those I receive on my Facebook newsfeed from Arianna Huffington. Stuff like “Live, Love, Laugh” or “Resentment is your first enemy in life”. First I stopped taking notes and then I stopped talking to her altogether.

There’s one thing I still remember, though. She talked me about famous people who had to disappoint their circle of friends and family in order to become who they were and to leave their mark. She cited Gandhi and, while reading his biography, I felt confused to learn that he practically obliged his wife and children to live in extreme poverty in order to conform to his own ideals. 

What about selflessness?, I thought.  Didn’t everybody tell me all the time that one should put others first, doing everything to procure happiness at every cost, even one’s own sorrow?

I have practiced selflessness as a mantra since I can remember. I was born with broad shoulders and a sense of humour, plus the intimate belief that anything in the world will look brighter after a brisk walk and a favourite drink. I am lucky for this. So lucky I always thought it was my mission to alleviate other people’s burdens. Boyfriend break-up? I am there. Monstrous boss? Come to see me tonight. Baby blues? There in 10 minutes with ice-cream. A row with your husband? You can stay the night, I’ll make you breakfast tomorrow.

In my twisted logic, other people’s issues and circumstances are definitely, always, more important than my everyday routine. At the age of 35, I start to ask myself when I will be able to put limits to this.

I was looking at my agenda the other day and I was scared. Beside my mother-and-wife usual duties my days are punctuated by meetings with people I don’t even like that much (let’s say, I like 50% of them), to talk and go over issues that don’t even have the slightest impact on my own life. 

I can’t resist the opportunity to give out a hand, some of my time and a listening ear to people in distress. Unfortunately  – and quite predictably – it seems to work only one way. 

How one becomes selfish? Is there a way to learn to do that? Or to say NO? A clear, loud and unmistakable NO?

I am taking lessons here. Teach me how to get rid of selflessness and regain control of my time without the guilt. Please.

 

 

A character for every language: anatomy of an expat’s (non) psychological syndrome

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When I started this blog, one of my main concerns was that I perpetually felt lost in translation. Or maybe not even in translation. Just lost. Sometimes misunderstood, some others not listened to and most of the times confused. 

There’re days I can’t speak French but only English. Or there was that day I had this very important job interview in Spanish and I kept hearing myself saying words in French instead. The most humiliating is when I am supposed to talk Italian with a fellow national and I can’t but finish my sentences in another language. I look then something between a poser and a plain illiterate and that’s certainly one of the reasons I have stopped being invited to the fancy fêtes where mozzarella and ricotta are flown in by plane and everybody complains about the Belgian weather and the lack of a decent espresso. 

According to this article I can stop googling “multiple personality disorder” and looking up specialists in my region. It might be all the fault of the language(s). 

Several bi- or multi-linguals have indicated a change in the way they feel according to the language they’re speaking. Personally, I tend to talk more and to form longer sentences when I am surrounded by Italians while when I write in French my sentences result short and (too) concise, lacking all that flowery stuff French-speaking people are used to. (That was one of the first remarks my past editors made. I told them I still think in English rather than in French when I have to articulate a complex thought. They didn’t like it). What stays the same across languages is my tendence to be blunt and to avoid any possible sugarcoating of unpleasant realities.

If a good night’s sleep, followed by a strong coffee, can solve some of the above issues, there’s one that can’t be solved. No matter how strong you focus and how much caffeine you use. As you can read on the Economist’s blog, “many bilinguals are not biculturals”. 

It took me a while to realize this. For a very long time (and it still happens sometimes), every dinner party with Belgians would end in the same way: I would say something in my usual blunt way and my husband would interrupt, extremely embarrassed, to warn the other guests that I didn’t “really” think what I said. Every single time we would drive home without talking. Me, hugely offended. Him, unable to understand why I had to be so opinionated (something inappropriate for Belgian society). 

I am bilingual in French but far from being bicultural. I’m partially responsible for that: despite my decade spent in Belgium I never willfully took the time to immerse myself into French literature, films, newspapers and TV. I did it a bit at the beginning to learn the language but after a while I felt too distant from the French-speaking world to develop a passion about it. So I missed my train and if I now know how to talk to Belgians in formal occasions, I certainly have troubles in measuring my words in an informal context. 

The passive exposure since early childhood to British and American culture (cartoons, films, tv, books, stories) plus the fact that I simply like it more, makes me more sensitive and less prone to being equivocated when I speak English. 

What’s your own experience regarding multilingualism and multiple personalities? What about multiculturalism? Do you feel you are as many persons as the languages you master?

Alice Munro and all those women who had to find the time

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Some time ago a friend sent me a link, just saying: “I thought about you while reading this. Have a look”. I have a certain aversion to links and seldom open them. Most of the times any email containing a link ends up straight in the trash. But this time it was real good. The article, published by The Guardian at the beginning of October, is a sort of anthropological study of famous writers’ daily habits. It took me a while to understand why my friend thought of me. After all, I don’ t indulge in alcohol and drugs (not as much as my creative side would like, anyway), don’t wake up at dawn, am unable to stick to a schedule and, most of all, I am not a famous writer.

Towards the end of the article I found the only lines I could relate to and felt something between elation and depression:

” Alice Munro.

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In the 1950s, as a young mother taking care of two small children, Munro wrote in the slivers of time between housekeeping and child-rearing. When neighbours dropped in, Munro didn’t feel comfortable telling them she was trying to work. She tried renting an office, but the garrulous landlord interrupted her and she hardly got any writing done. It ultimately took her almost two decades to put together the material for her first collection, Dance Of The Happy Shades”.

I have been writing since I learnt to and, to put it simply, there is not much I can do beside it. (cooking, maybe. But I only briefly toyed with the idea of making a living out of that). From the essays and literary competitions in school till the day I sat in front of a laptop as a professional journalist, I have felt that urge to put my thoughts and feelings into words, to observe, analyze and sometimes detangle lives, habits, dreams and weaknesses in my fellow human beings.

When I was on my own, I spent my whole day reading, writing, watching films and bad tv. It was great. Then life happened, and I wanted it to happen, don’t get me wrong. Those thoughts that once became words, letters, emails, essays now stay in my head for a couple of hours while I look at the chicken’s expiration date, pay the weekly grocery shopping and drive absent-mindedly, so that I always get lost and forget where I was going. They come while I talk to the children and suddenly I keep saying yes or no or I don’t know without listening to their question and they get upset and yell: “Mami, are you listening or whAt?”.

At some point, passed the early infancy stage, I thought I had it under control. I worked hard on a book I ended up hating for almost a year. And it worked. Then came November, and my first NaNoWriMo. I still remember the overwhelming joy on the morning of the 1st of November, 2012, sitting with a huge teapot in front of my unfinished novel. Unfinished, but still loved, every time I lay eyes on it. I walked on clouds for barely a week. Then pneumonia hit the house and goodbye literary aspirations. More or less at that same time, I started this blog. If I can’t keep focus for longer than a day, at least I’ll be writing something.

I wasn’t new to blogging: I’d had a couple in my 20s. One that covered the time between my engagement and my married life. It was fun but once at the end of the ride, I didn’t think it could live simply as an online, public journal of a too ordinary life. I tried out another one on being a new mom and lasted a couple of months. Truth is, I had some lyrical moments while busy with prams and milk bottles and my friends urged me to cheer up a larger audience but I realized almost immediately that it didn’t define me. It was, and it is, a part of me, probably the best. But I felt like I was talking of an arm, when I wanted to write about the whole thing.

I started this blog impulsively while high on powerful antibiotics and thought none would listen. Plus, I struggled between languages for a few days because I had never written actively in English (sauf emails and some crappy free-lance articles) yet I didn’t want to stick to my native language, which I don’t master  they way I used to. The first like happened in the middle of the night. When I found it in the morning, I laughed. it felt like when I was six, and got an obsession for putting letters into glass bottles and then leave them to the sea. Someone actually found that bottle this time.

I have blogged as much as I could this past year. And yet, it is not enough. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks in and out of the hospital with one of my children (he’s fine now, thanks) and as every time a small disaster hits home, I go back into brackets and wait, silently, for the storm to pass.

I maybe suck at running my household but I feel I am not alone. How many women, out there, put their dreams in a drawer to dive into real, happening-now, heartbreakingly bare life and at the same time keep opening an inch of that drawer some nights, when everybody’s sleeping, just to make sure those dreams are not gone?

I chose to raise my children in total freedom and every day I am more convinced I couldn’t have it any other way, given the circumstances of my everyday life and the joys of the job. (Yes, it is filled with joy. And a few migraines. But there’s strong stuff to cure that).

Still, I can’t but wonder: what was Alice Munro thinking during all these years, when she was filling lunch boxes in the mornings and getting up in the middle of the night to change a wet bed?