Samuel Clemens, (a.k.a. Mark Twain), called himself both an innocent and a tramp. In fact, both of his famous quasi-fictional travel memoirs are called just that. In Innocents Abroad, Twain catalogues his first extended trip roaming from home. In Tramps Abroad, he canvases central Europe, including his journey through Switzerland, mentioning Geneva specifically.
So it’s no surprise I’ve been thinking of Twain this past week while I’ve been in Switzerland (in Geneva, as you know), not roaming, but homing. Or at least looking for one. And I’ve had Twain whispering to me, too, while in Paris, the place our family still calls home. Paris is where we not only lived the longest of all our assignments, but where we last lived together, all six of us. We lived just two blocks from this tower, where we used to walk our dog, Josephine:
While house-hunting last week (and for the 14th time in my married life), I couldn’t help but think about what it means to not have a fixed home address—when global roaming spans not just a chapter or two, but the entire sequel-after-sequel series of one’s life.
At the same time, I was reflecting on what it has meant to find a house, compared with what it has meant to find a sense of home.
Before I get ahead of myself, though, I want to share the good news:
We found a home.
Er, I mean a house.
It is in this village:
Why this house and why this village?
And as important, how?
I’ll explain. The first rule of house hunting anywhere is location, location, location. For us that meant location (school), location (work), location (church), which is where we know we spend a lot of time. For Randall, who will travel a lot, it was also important to consider the commute to the airport and train lines. Everything, ideally, would lie within a 20-minute drive from the house. (That alone was a steep order to fill. But we did.)
Since work, church, airport and train stations were fixed locations, it was school (the piece of this puzzle that fell into place last of all and just in the nick of time), which narrowed our search pretty much to a pinpoint on the map.
Nathalie, a local relocation expert, knew the dimensions of our geographic area, family, furniture and budget, scoured the market and then showed us around. Having Nathalie was a luxury. I have not always had a Nathalie.
You want to hear about house hunting without the likes of a Nathalie?
Upon our January arrival in Norway, without as much as a full sentence of Norwegian in my locked jaws — locked as much from fear as from cold, I’ll just say — we had no relocation help. Well, I take that back. We had the local newspaper and its column of classifieds handed to me by tall, beaming Turid, Randall’s then assistant. She said, as she nodded gently into my bewildered eyes, “Kanskje kan du begynne her, Melissa,” (which to me sounded like “kahn shuh kahn dooo buhyinnah haehrrrrrrrrrr.” And then my name. Which all made me go arctic.)
I did begin there, as Turid told me to, with those infernal want ads. This meant picking through each inscrutable paragraph with a norsk-engelsk ordbok (dictionary), writing up my list of Norwegian greetings and questions on a legal pad, and following up with my imagined responses to imagined questions the imagined Norwegians on the other end of the line would ask me.
Then I would begin talking myself into making the phone call.
(The last part, the self-convincing part, took longer than all the other parts combined.)
Sometimes I survived said call only to hear that the person needed to call me back.
Which meant I had to answer the phone.
Have you ever answered a phone in a language you do not speak?
Ah. Then you haven’t lived.
The phone would ring. I would panic. Frozen in my tracks, palms clenched and heart suddenly in my throat, I’d eye the awful vibrating monster from across the room and creep up on it sideways, grabbing it after the twelfth ring, palms slippery with sweat.
It’s one thing to face a foreign language in person; you get all the benefits of eye contact, miming, props, that whole ornate context. Worst case, you can wager a guess. But when you cannot even see your partner, it’s a whole other deal. The rich nonverbal subtext is absent and all you’re stuck with is words, words coming at you like bullets in the dark, and no way to dodge them or take them or fake understanding until something you really do understand—a conjunction, a “ja” or a “nei” — comes along to save you.
There in those early days when I was anxious to find a home for our young family to live in, seeing time quickly running out to do so, and knowing I had to do this over the phone, I found I had to adopt a certain posture to get through it. I would first purse my eyes firmly shut, press a hand over my free ear and crouch perfectly still in a remote corner. Sometimes I would get the gist of what my caller was saying. But even shrugging my shoulders could break my concentration, and I’d be lost in the cute clatter of Norwegian that was hippety-hopping from the receiver into my ear.
Once lost, it was hard to get my footing in that jig again.
All that talk about all those Norwegians speaking perfect English? I knew they existed, those folks, and I eventually met them. But only after I spoke fluent Norwegian, of course, when I didn’t need their English. When I really needed them, they weren’t dialing my number.
And might I add it’s tough to get someone to rent you their house if they’re convinced you’ve got the mental capacity and vocabulary of a two-year-old with a severe stuttering problem, and a high-pitched staccato delivery that might indicate a drug addiction.
Functioning in the adult world in a new language renders you immediately that two-year-old — the Little Person — who stands dumbfounded and gaping, tugging on the pant leg of the closest Big Person, asking for an explanation. When, after mad mental scrambling, you finally rush in with the right word ! And then you gather enough nerve to actually spit that word out, but you’re then met with a Big Person grimace and the echoing void of total, blank incomprehension. Either the topic you’re addressing was bled dry several page turns ago, or you missed the point entirely.
What you wanted was to meet them on— and in — their terms. What you end up with is meeting them where your eyeballs hit belt buckle level, stripped of the great protective armor of speech, wordless wafts whipping around everything that is exposed. Everything like your pride.
There is hope, though. I’m here to say that I did it. I survived the language gulag and even found a wonderful house, which became our very happy home. Norway, actually, became our very happy home. Our roots go so deep there. They always will.
Which was a really long way of giving you an idea of the positives of finding a house and, more importantly, finding home.
It was a long way to bring you back to where we are, starting all over again, and this time in Switzerland.
Nathalie showed us a few houses. Unlike Singapore, with its prodigious expatriate community, Geneva, in spite of all its foreign influx, has a real housing and schooling dearth. For every fifth housing or schooling option available in Singapore, there is maybe one in Geneva, if that.
But we’re so grateful the choices exist at all, and most of them are pretty good.
On this most recent 48-hour trip to Geneva, we narrowed the search to two houses. Personal and peculiar things ended up tipping our choice in the end. For us, the factor that counted more than anything was being in the heart of a village, a setting that says authentic and community.
“Authentic” means a medieval water trough outside your front door.
So when you come visit, reader, you need never worry about having a convenient place to bathe. (And what could better evoke a sense of “community” than public bathing?)
Around the corner from the water trough are other Swiss village essentials, like la boulangerie:
. . .and la patisserie or viennoiserie:
. . .and la pharmacie (with its identifying croix verte or green cross):
. . .and although it ‘s not my denomination, there is l’église bilingue in the neighboring town:
. . .and two steps from our door is le restaurant avec terrasse:
. . .and the rentable vélos you can take for a five minute ride to la gare that has regular trains that link you to Geneva on the west all the way to Lausanne, Montreux, Zürich, Basel, Bern and Lugano, on the east:
. . .which vélo you can also simply ride through les jardins:
. ..or five minutes down to le lac:
All of this lies just past the street side guest bath.
And good news: when you visit, if that water trough happens to already be in use, there is always the fontaine du château:
I’ll stop here to slip in something I’m noticing is making my cheeks warm with worry. I’m afraid when I post these pictures that I could make this seem too. . . well. . . picturesque. Cute. Quaint. Guidebooky. As Twain himself wrote of tourists stampeding through 19th century Europe, they came to skim off a type of “touristy distillation”, as one writer notes, with “attention focused not on the day-to-day life and culture of their inhabitants but, more narrowly, on the picturesque difference that separates the exotically ‘foreign’ place from ‘home.’”
I have a bit to say on that topic. But for now I’ll just suggest that cultural sampling, not cultural integration, is the primary aim of touristing. Residing, on the other hand, means focusing on the day-to-day life and culture of a place. Residing means integrating. And the prospect of just that, of diving into the history, community, boulangerie, épicerie, patisserie and all the other “quaint” “-ies” — even the quaintly irritating Swiss bureaucratie — and finding home there, gives me a truly colossal charge. I do hope you’ll stick around here to see how home happens.
I had to catch that noon flight to Paris where I would meet Randall for the Saturday afternoon ceremony I’ve mentioned previously.
But first, the owner of the house wanted to meet me. I believe (in fact, this was confirmed by our agent), that I needed to be vetted.
Good. This is how integration starts.
The owner of the house, an older gentleman to whom I will refer as Monsieur B., had a sincere glint in his eyes, which I could see even from where our real estate agent and I sat on the other side of a quiet outdoor café table in the cool protection of the shade of a rim of trees. He wore a buttoned-down cotton shirt with hardly a wrinkle, held crisp with his upright posture.
After asking general questions about professions, education and our former places of residence, Monsieur B. mentioned that he and his wife are parents of five grown sons.
“Cinq fils?! C’est la vraie richesse, Monsieur,” I told him, since five grown sons does indeed feel like the greatest wealth to me.
He agreed, and then discreetly asked about our family.
“Madame Bradford,” he asked, “vos enfants, ils parlent aussi le Français?”
“Oui, oui,” I told him. Our children also speak French. All four of them.
I watched his carefully folded hands with a pianist’s fingertips, knowing that in perhaps some other culture, he’d dive headlong into asking the particulars of each child. But he was Swiss. Restrained. Private. Which helped me quickly direct him into a conversation about Gregorian chants, a point of common interest. His enthusiasm charming, his smiling eyes widening as I talked of music and the soirées musicales we plan to hold in his home. Which we’d like to be our home.
And it seems that music, as much as French, was our shared language.
“Madame Bradford,” Monsieur B. asked as we walked away from our half-empty glasses of mineral water and into the sunlight of the parking lot so I could hurry to the airport, “Vous avez parlé de vos trois enfants—deux fils, une fille. Et l’autre enfant?”
It’s true, I’d answered his questions about three children: deux fils—the two boys — who will move with us to Switzerland and, we hope, into his home. And I’d been able to tell him of notre fille unique — our only daughter— who will leave in August for her year and a half of volunteer service for our church in Rome, Italy.
Yes, I had told him about those three children.
“Et l’autre enfant?” He repeated the question as we reached the car. “L’aîné? Un fils, non?”
I turned to him, considering his question, “And the other child? The firstborn? A son, right?”
I squinted into the sun, which caused my eyes to water, naturally.
I cupped my hands like a visor over my eyes, shielding myself with a shadow.
“Ah, Monsieur. Il a déjà quitté notre maison.”
Which is not an outright lie. That son has, in fact, already left our house.
I did in that instant what I have learned so well over these nearly five years to do—so well, in fact, that I can do it seamlessly. I act casual, flippant even, making a flipping gesture with my hand, oddly enough. Like swatting l’autre enfant into the past. Out of the picture. Gone. From our house. With one relaxed flick of my wrist.
All to protect polite Monsieur B. I wish to protect him from the startle that experience tells me he would get the moment I were to speak the bare truth, and he would then have no words, realizing he has tread — unwittingly, innocently — onto difficult and disturbing and sacred ground.
All to protect Parker, too. I know I must protect him from the other possibility of having his shortened life shortened all the more into a sentence fragment, delivered with those averted eyes and hands waving or clutched at the chest, and that familiar verbal sprint back onto the comfortable soil of the quotidian: “So, do your other kids like music [or soccer? or moving so much? or the weather?]”
That lunge from the blazing heat of truth’s sunlight back into the safe shade of life-as-we-all-wish-it-could-be-and-should-be.
How many times have I stood right in this moment?
So I feign lateness for my flight, put on sunglasses, and duck into the car.
And as I drive off, I put my hand to my neck, aching in my very throat to tell this kind gentleman, this father with five living sons, all about my oldest son.
At the other end of the flight to Paris awaited an experience far removed from house hunting and the stern irony of hiding a son who has supposedly “quitté notre maison.” The same son who has not at all — and never will — leave our home.
When the assistant headmaster of the American School of Paris, Aaron Hubbard, asked the parents of Parker Bradford to come to the stage while he announced the background of the Parker Bradford Spirit Award and this year’s recipient, I looked out into many faces I knew among the hundreds seated at the American School of Paris high school graduation ceremony. I had seen some of those same faces last year at the 2011 graduation ceremony. And others the year before. Others the year before that. And still others in 2008, the first year this honor was granted.
These faces I know are the faces of those who also know Parker. Wherever I go, I am always drawn to those particular faces. Because when “home” is a flexible term that reinvents itself every three or four years, it presents a special challenge of having to retell your whole story — pain and wonders and all — to total strangers. No one can blame them if they cannot fill in the blanks of the plot.
They have no idea that there are blanks at all.
But most of this year’s faculty members— Parker’s history teacher, music teacher, French and Spanish teacher, his coaches, counselors, mentors —- not only know our story but know very well the big blank that is left in place of this big missing boy. As importantly, these people are characters in our story, have actually been writing that story with us all along, and were there in June of 2007 when Parker was their student, a senior like all the seniors sitting in this year’s ceremony, looking awkward but solemn in thier blue caps and gowns.
Positively itching to just get on with life.
Most of those faculty members would never guess this, but their eyes that look into mine and wince or search or glisten, bring me home. Their words—especially the word “Parker”— spoken with the kind of familiarity a favorite pair of jeans has when you can pull them on in one movement, those words bring me home. Their silence, too, when a memory of my son snags their heart, it brings me home. Their laughter at shared memories of things Parker did — his booming voice down the main hall, his three-pointer at the buzzer, his impersonations of their colleagues — also brings me home. Their willingness to ask how Parker is now, what our experiences are that continue our relationship with him into the present tense, into the here and on to the future. This is home.
When, the morning after this year’s ASP high school graduation and the presentation of the Parker Bradford Spirit Award, I stood again and also by invitation to offer the invocation at our church meeting in the overcrowded chapel our family attended for years, I sensed home. There, I saw in those many faces people who knew and loved our son, who have written into their lives the ongoing narrative of our family. And I was brought to tears, brought home.
When Randall blessed the bread for the sacrament, kneeling in the same spot and saying the same beautiful French words Parker used to recite, I sensed home.
And when the widow in the row behind me, the one Parker used to visit monthly with his Dad by riding on the back of Randall’s Vespa, when she leaned forward and whispered over my shoulder, “Je me souviens. . .”, “I remember. . .how Parker always blessed the bread, too”, that felt like home.
“So then, uh. . . where is your home? Exactly?”
You can bet I get that question a lot. But I never know how to answer it adequately. Maybe that is because the question itself is inadequate or altogether the wrong question to ask in the first place. Home means something more than a where. It is not a structure, not an address, not a city, not even a country. I am beginning to wonder if home is even a place at all.
Home, perhaps, is a disposition of the soul, an acknowledgment that I share with another soul a certain intimate narrative. That narrative, that story, twists and curls and splutters and flows, it folds back on itself defying conventional chronology, suggesting timelessness while weaving the strands of our most consuming questions and even exploring those questions for which we have no language yet.
Home, then, might be the nexus of many individual narratives, not a fixed port, but a portal through which lives have passed and are passing, seeking definition and connectivity. Home, for me at least, has come to mean that sense of intertwining, one of unity and comfort, a state of being where you no longer need to tug at the seams and hemline of your spirit to feel at ease. It’s when you feel something deep and native within you expand, enlarge, illumine.
Truth itself, I feel, is a part of home. My religious beliefs, for instance, comprise my sense of home. And, when I was a freshly returned missionary at 23 years old, I felt such an overpowering sense of home with Randall, it was uncanny and undeniable. So I just had to marry him. It wasn’t that being with him was like being “at home.” It was that he himself was home. Together, still, we are each other’s home.
Which helps me understand why, when he composed those books about leaving home and roaming abroad, Mark Twain wrote a trusted companion right into his narrative. The character named “Harris”, is a figure based on Reverend Joseph Twichell, Twain’s friend of over 40 years. In the figure of Harris, Twain literally —and literarily—took “home” with him on the road.
And it was to Twichell, who had christened all four of Twain’s children, that Twain turned during those black years when he lost three of those same children;
. . .his only son Langdon at 19 months,
. . .his daughter Jean to a sudden fit of epilepsy,
. . .and his lively, lovely Susy.
Twain’s words to Twichell:
Do I want you to write to me? Indeed I do. . . . The others break my heart but you will not. You have something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates. And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life—the outside of it—as the others do—and the inside of it—which they do not.
Finally, it was the Reverend Twichell, who had married Twain to his wife, Olivia, who received this note from the author when his adored Livy died:
I am a man without a country. Wherever Livy was, that was my country.
Countryless. Homeless. Exiled. Expatriate. Nomad. Pilgrim.
I am only just beginning to understand those words.
But no matter where I might find myself, home, quietly yet quite remarkably, always seems to find me.
(Corner street sign from the village. I will see it every single day.)