10 Truths About Learning Languages: Let Me Motivate You!

My first kiss was Austrian. Age fourteen, early evening, standing at a fountain in front of a bus stop in Salzburg,  saying goodbye to my Latin-looking crush. Named Horst.

You’ll forgive me that I didn’t make it kissless to sixteen.  But talk about thrill.

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad perm and Hash buckle jeans

Fourteen in Florence, with Maxi, Horst, Kelly, a bad Toni perm and Hash buckle jeans

Not about the kiss, mind you, but about having understood word-for-word the sweet goodbye promise Horst whispered into my ear, as clear to me as if he’d spoken English. With that, a surge went through me – ba-shwiiing! – and my passion (even more for languages than for Horst) was ignited.

Five languages by 40, I decided right there as I hugged teary-eyed Horst good-bye, stepped onto my bus, and pulled out into the sunset and my dusky future.

Did I know what I was vowing myself into? Of course. . .naw.  But it was my first kiss, the sun was setting over Salzburg’s Festung, and, well,  forty-years-old? Humph. That seemed as far away from 14 as did my hometown back in the Rockies.

Now, well past forty, I can look back on my decades of learning languages, and share some truths I was to come to know after getting “bitten” by a love for language.  And for Horst.

First visit to Rome's Coliseum

First visit to Rome’s Coliseum

1) It’s Work

Hard work. Inevitably, there will be times your head will hurt like your quadriceps did when you hiked Kilimanjaro with a piano on your back.  Or like your biceps did when you singlehandedly pulled that boat filled with molten lead out of the bay. That kind of hurt.  Why? Because your brain is doing gymnastics. While wearing chain mail and armor. With the sheer voltage of all the neuro-transmission blazing away in the brain while you try to learn a new language, your gray matter could honestly light up Fenway Park on a Saturday might. It’s that demanding. To stick to the task, you’ll have to be pretty motivated.

(A love interest never hurts.)

2) Ego? Leave it at the Door

Our Dalton insists this be no more than #2 on the list.  Although he phrases it like this: “Be ready to be so embarrassed, so humiliated, so reduced by the mistakes you’ll make, that you want to dive under a table and pull huge brocaded drapes over yourself while you crawl out the nearest door.”  And then he goes on; “You’ll ruin any reputation you ever had of being even this smart. Be prepared to look really, really dumb.”

This, of course, happens when you’re learning languages at any stage of life after your childhood years, when you’re oblivious to people’s judgements of you and the bloopers you’ll pop out in your new tongue. Think of being stripped down as close to the bone as you can be.

Then go below the bone.

There. That’s how self-assured you’ll be while learning a new language.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

My baby brother Aaron, who began learning German in an Austrian kindergarten. He still speaks it along with other languages.

3) Younger, Better

Which makes you want to learn all your languages before the age of 12 or so. (Before 8 is reported to be even better.)

My polyglot friend, Irina, will never unlearn her Russian or Bulgarian, learned at home and in primary school.  And her Czech learned from extended family from  her early childhood on? Also like a second skin. Her French, perfected during university studies in Paris, took a bit more effort because she was older, she admits; but it has become a polished – native – over the years.  English, she began using in earnest later in life, as she did Italian.

The research is extensive about how nimble the child’s brain is with regards to language acquisition.  You know this already. But did you also know that the acquisition of a foreign language (or two, or three) before puberty will increase general cognitive ability, acuity with other subjects, and lead to greater academic tenacity overall, will facilitate a closer understanding of one’s native tongue, heighten cultural sympathy, and lead to deeper compassion?

4)You Can Get By, But You Can’t Get In 

If you move to a foreign country, lucky you!  You have every opportunity to adapt to a new culture and learn a language. If you chose, however, to not integrate and not learn the language, you’ve missed an opportunity.  Of course, you might get by. Even well.  But as research proves, you cannot enter in.  By “in”, I mean into the deepest heart of any given culture without at least a rudimentary facility with the language.  Think of it like this: the language of any people is like the smell and taste and sight and sound and texture of their cuisine. Until we have it in our own mouths, chew on it, swallow it and digest it so that it’s a part of us, it’s almost as if we’re staying in the living room and never going into the kitchen where it’s whipped up. In the living room we’re in their “house,” yes. But we never really taste what makes them who they are.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

First glimpses of Geneva, Switzerland, over 30 years ago.

SA19 1977 IT Slz CH259

5) The More, The Easier

We talk glibly about laying tracks for language learning. But that figure of speech might not be so wrong. Once your brain has been trained (or tracked) for a second language, it is more capable of laying another language on top of those same tracks.

Beyond that, when the languages are related (Germanic, Romance, etc.), the structures and vocabulary are similar, and the learner has a distinct advantage.  For example: German, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish and Icelandic are language cousins.  If you master one, you already have an aptitude for acquiring the next language cousin.

6) Your Ear Helps Your Tongue

My mathematical skills are abysmal.

Subabysmal.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello.

Still fourteen, and still playing the cello. Back then.

Which seems to surprise people when they learn that I love to learn languages.

“But. . .I thought language was all about math,” some say. To which I say,”If language had anything to do with math, I would have dropped out of this international lifestyle on day one.”

So how do I do this language thing?  Where I lack the head for quantum physics (or algebra), I make up with an ear for music. I was raised by professional musicians, and was a professional musician myself (a concert soprano) for years. When I approach a language, I am listening primarily for its music. I hear its cadence, its rhythm, its tones and phrasing.  And then after listening and watching everyone’s mouth while they speak it, I do what I do when I sing: I mimic. I learn languages the same way I prefer to learn music. By ear.

The grammar (or math) of a language I figure out later, osmotically. So I don’t ruin the whole melody. (And that takes  a lot of #1).

7) Stockpile.  Then Spew.

You know, of course, that children are stockpiling the rudiments of language for months – years – before ever producing it themselves.   Your snooglie-wooglie isn’t just passively watching your lips while you coo and patter away while feeding her those strained peas.  She’s hurriedly building language basics.  In the process, she’ll grunt, squeal, howl, belch and cry – all efforts to transform what she’s stockpiling in her brain into the complex coded cooing system you’re feeding her with her peas.

Then one day, it all erupts into active language: “Peeeeeeeeeeeeeas!”

And she’s off!

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

Chen Xihua, my Mandarin teacher, visiting me in my new home outside Geneva, Switzerland.

With adults, it’s really not much different. You’ll sit in your Mandarin Sunday School class (well, at least that’s what I did). And at first you’ll only hear a string of undecipherable sounds. You’ll watch everyone’s lips. Like they’re feeding you strained peas. And since they’re loving folks, they’ll try to spoon feed you.

You’ll manage a grunt.

Then your brain will snatch a word. A little conjunction, maybe. Or two words. You’ll squeal. You’ll howl.

The next week you’ll grasp a full phrase. (And that’s where you belch.)

Then next month, you understand whole sentences, concepts, a paragraph! You’re feeling so confident, you might raise your hand. . . to . . .to make a comment. Which you do. But you can only say a sentence or two.

That’s where you cry.

First, you stockpile the words. Then you produce them.  Don’t be surprised if you have to receive for several weeks. Or months. One day, just watch.  You’ll be spewing your own peas.

8) Not All Languages are Created Equal

Languages are different, ranking in difficulty because of size and complexity of vocabulary, grammatical structure like number of declensions, jargon, syntax, tones. A fellow blogger, Richard, has been learning Somali in his home state of Minnesota. If you want a peek at how linguists rate the difficulty of languages (and Somali rates stratospherically on that scale), stop in on his blog, Loving Languages.

Depending on your mother tongue, certain languages will be (or should be) easier than others. Nadja, my Swiss German friend, speaks Swiss German, High German, Dutch, and English. And she claims they are fairly easy for her. She studied French growing up in Switzerland and has perfected it living for many years in Paris, and also learned Spanish to serve a full-time mission for our church. Maybe – maybe? – Somali would be a challenge for her, given that it is neither a Germanic nor a Romance language, being completely unrelated in structure and tones to what she has already learned.

9) Classroom Vs. Street Language

“What you taught me was German. I trust you. But it ain’t what they’re talking at me here!”

This was a letter from a young volunteer for our church, who had been in our near-immersion courses in the Missionary Training Center where my husband and I had instructed for a combined five years.  Sure, we’d given this missionary all the rules and phrases, and had done so in the cleanest, most comprehensible High German we could.

But he’d landed in Basel.  Basel’s Swiss German sounds as much like High German as Beowulf sounds like The Nightly News. There’s some overlap. I swear it. But I’m not finding it.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

My first ever visit to Switzerland. Fourteen again.

When you learn language in a classroom, it is bound to be too artificial (and static and padded) an environment for you to have to navigate the true break-neck-speed bumper-car  world of active language exchange. Don’t be surprised when you land in Palermo and your crash course Italian doesn’t match the dragon blaze coming out of the mouth of the rabid taxi driver. Or when the three semesters of high school Russian drain out of you in a lifeless puddle as you face down a burly train conductor in Moscow’s Kalishnikovo station.

10) Promoting World Peace

I’ve noted that visitors in a new culture who say, wincing with disdain, “Oh, that’s soooo French/German/Italian/Norwegian/Tanzanian/Russian” are most often those who’ve not made the effort to speak that language. They’ve chosen, in effect, to remain outsiders, the ones left standing in the living room, never eating the feast.  (#4)

Learning another language besides your mother tongue allows you to look at people in a totally different manner, as real, complex, multifaceted and fascinating creations. And once you really have it swirling in your cells, it becomes part of who you are, and your judgements of that culture and of its people will be altered profoundly and permanently.  You will have melted down the rigid walls of prejudice, xenophobia, rigidly destructive hyper-patriotism, and will be on your way to becoming an active agent in healing the too many breeches in humankind. You will be a vociferous defender of those people and their culture. You will – imagine this – sincerely love them.

Even more than I thought I did Horst.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

Salzburg, Austria, 1978. View over the Festung.

**
What truths about learning languages would you add to this list?

What languages have you learned, and how?

What has learning languages done to your view of yourself, others and the world?

Wise Words on Words: Talking About Multilingualism

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my friends?

How many languages do you think are represented in this group shot with my  friends?

In my recent post about How To Raise A Multilingual Child, I described a bit of our family’s 20 years of living in many different countries where, for the sake of survival as well as for integration (which is ever my goal; I always want to be mistaken for a native), we have learned to speak a number of languages.

This is no big deal. At all. Hardly worth licking your lips at when you’re a European or Asian or African.  My friends from those cultures just nod (and yawn) as I tick off what few tongues we’ve learned to speak. Why? Because they’re all speaking four or five as a matter of course.

Mmmm. Vegetarian Roti Prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

Mmmm. Vegetarian roti prata at my favorite dive in Singapore.

(My dearest Indonesian friend back in Singapore speaks Bahasa and six other distinct Indonesian dialects.  She also makes her way through in Mandarin. And Hokkien.  To boot, our relationship is in English.)

In such a broad world context, there’s simply no getting snooty about speaking a couple of languages. In truth, these friends of mine from all over the place wonder out loud why my Mandarin isn’t a whole lot better.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore's Chinatown.

The Yu Gong, or old men, gathered in Singapore’s Chinatown.

Back Camera

Disclaimer: I’m finding it hard to keep encircled by a Mandarin-speaking community while living here in French-speaking Switzerland.  And while in Singapore, I never lived in full Mandarin immersion. Yeah. That’s right. I have this whole long fancy list of excuses!

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partners) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

Cute hiking buddy (but poor conversation partner) on Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore

While I whip up some more posts on the pluses and minuses of multilingualism and nomadic multicultural living, you might want to stop in at Ute’s lovely blog

If you are serious about investigating expatriate life and learning what its foundational demands and rewards are; if you are a parent who longs to offer a broad world view to your children; if you just want to dialogue with someone who is a seasoned world citizen, then I suggest you stop in and chat with Ute.

Otherwise, there’s me. I love your visits, too!

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

Anyone Can Love a Language. . .

As I said, lots of people are talking about languages, and doing so in different languages.

My last post (which seems to have struck a chord with a few of you), was referenced in this following excellent post. And so here’s a reblog for you.

Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom.

Thank you, Loving Language!

How many (and which) languages are spoken among these four girlfriends living in Geneva, Switzerland? (Answer in italics at the bottom.)

How many (and which) languages are spoken among these four girlfriends living in Geneva, Switzerland?

Ten: English, French, High German, Swiss German, Norwegian, Russian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish.  Oh.  And Urdu.

How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS

God is German.

At least that’s what I thought when I was four. By that age, I’d heard more prayers in my home in German than in English (prayers over the food, at bedtime), which was just part of my parents’ method of keeping their second language active and inspiring us kids to some day crack the Teutonic code. We all eventually did.

scienceillustrated.com

scienceillustrated.com

Then we moved to Austria the year I turned fourteen. I found myself plunking through Mozart piano duets and small talk in German with an instructor whose German (even my adolescent American ears knew this) had an accent. I just couldn’t pin it down. And I wasn’t nosey (or fluent) enough to get into an involved conversation about where she was from.

It was only decades later, after having mastered German better than Mozart, that I discovered this piano professor had been American (a transplant from Minnesota), and that my parents had conspired with her to make those hours at her Steinway not only about hammering out scales but also about nailing down German verb conjugations.

Mom and Dad knew intuitively what I’ve learned throughout over twenty years of raising four children in eight countries while learning five languages. To achieve close-to-native fluency, you must have three things:

3 MUSTS: Opportunity, Necessity and Community

“Opportunity” can be a foreign residency, as I was lucky to enjoy many times in my youth, and as my children have been given due to our globally nomadic lifestyle.

njfamily.com

njfamily.com

But not everyone has that kind of opportunity. Take heart! There are others: A parent might speak a foreign tongue. Or there are neighbors/relatives/friends who speak another language. There are immersion classes at school. There is someone somewhere in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, I promise this, who fluently speaks a language other than yours. “Opportunity” comes in all sorts of variations of contact with another language.

Still, none of these opportunities –  foreign residency included – can guarantee that you or your child will learn the language. Proof of that is seen in every immigrant community where the members stick in their native tongue cluster, never becoming functional in the language of their host country.  Have you witnessed this anywhere? Everywhere I have lived in the world there seems to have been an expatriate “ghetto,” where folks function (sometimes for years, even decades) without learning the language of the people surrounding them.  That’s what we call a lost opportunity.

So clearly opportunity alone won’t unlock the doors to speaking new a language. What else does one need?

Opportunity+Necessity

There must be opportunity + necessity, so that the brain kicks into gear and latches onto a language in earnest. We’re talking a modicum of desperation. Often, if we know there’s an escape from the difficulties and pain and humiliation of learning a new language, we’ll quickly swerve into that exit. We’ll revert to our mother tongue. We’ll wave off the pesky role-play, giggle, and speak English to the piano teacher.  Or we’ll simply go silent and retreat.  It takes the pressure of real need to heat up those brain cells and stoke our motivation to learn. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of language.  Including your or your child’s next foreign one. You’ll need to create a situation where your child has no choice but to speak. That is half your battle.

serabeena.com

serabeena.com

Necessity + Community

I recall smiling so broadly one day, I nearly strained a cheek muscle. We were less than a year into our new home in Norway when I happened around the corner near the play room and overheard a conversation between our five-year-old Parker and Maria, the friend he’d invited over that afternoon to play. I couldn’t tell who was Norwegian and who was not.  Parker had crossed over.  Maria, with her white curls and sparkly blue eyes had been a major language magnet for our boy. Yes, we lived in Norway.  (Opportunity). And luckily, our son desperately wanted friends. (Necessity). Just as fortunately, Maria – along with kindergarteners and teachers, and our church, soccer, skiing and neighborhood friends – wanted to be our on-site language technicians. (Community).  We all fell right into linguistic stride. Parker – and the rest of us at the time – learned to speak fluently, and we’ve worked at keeping that language alive ever since.

Beyond the ideal situation of enjoying a foreign residency as we did in Norway and other countries, what can one do to approximate opportunity, necessity and community?

multilingualkids.com

multilingualkids.com

3 Bests: Parents, Domains, Schools

Inna is Russian and Joseph is French. They live in Germany. Their work requires that they master English.  They are raising their two children quadrilingually, with each parent consistently speaking his or her mother tongue. German, the children learn in school. English, they learn at church.

1) Speak it! If a parent speaks a foreign language as a mother tongue, that must be his or her language with the child. That practice must be consistent and should begin at the child’s birth. Science has found that until the onset of puberty, children’s brains are able to absorb and order several foreign tongues at once. The earlier the start, the easier the acquisition, and the better the chances of learning with greater facility more languages later in life.

2)Earmark domains.  For Inna and Joseph’s children those domains are 1) home, 2) school and the community at large, and 3) church. Seek out or create domains – places (Spanish-speaking grandma’s on weekends, summer vacations to your Japanese family), activities (soccer in Portuguese, flute lessons in Polish), or relationships (the Italian uncle with whom you Skype, the Swedish cousin to whom you telephone, the Korean pen pal) that will be completely and consistently immersed in the target language.

3)Formal Instruction.  Even the very best course isn’t going to promise native fluency. But a great instructor can give your child an excellent departure point.  Insist that your foreign language teacher be a native speaker, and that he/she teaches the natural approach, which emphasizes in those earliest stages especially verbal interaction and listening comprehension over dissecting the mechanics of grammar. Classes should be taught in the target language, not in the student’s native tongue with mere interjections of the foreign language.  Ask about teaching methodology, favoring classrooms with creative and interactive musical, theatrical, tactile and kinesthetic programs.  The more play there is, especially for younger children, the more effective the language learning will be.

3 BOOSTS: Exposure, Media, Incentives

1) Foreign Exposure. Can’t go to a foreign country? Can’t send your teen on that summer immersion to Montreal? Can’t see sending your twelve-year-old to that week-long Spanish camp? Then bring foreign to you in the form of foreign exchange students. Or how about encouraging Skype exchanges with a Beijing student? Or find local cultural festivals where you can sniff out new friends and customs and simply hear the language floating around you.  Scour your local papers for events/connections in the target language.

2)Media. Listen to the target language in music, DVD series and in television programs (especially those with your native language in subtitles. This is a major key to how Scandinavians and the Dutch learn English so well and so early. Their imported television programs aren’t dubbed, but are subtitled in their native language. The French, in contrast, impose French dubbing.) For older children, there are multiple resources via the Internet where your child can actively converse with true native speakers.  I have purchased audio books and the corresponding hard copy, so that my reading children can listen and read along simultaneously.

3)Incentives.  Heidi, whose children have learned Norwegian, English and German, paid them for letters written to grandparents in all those languages.  Irina, who speaks five languages in her home, rewarded her boys for acing their French and English exams.  When our own children have done something as simple as ordering food at a restaurant in the target language, or something as substantial as giving a public address in that tongue, we’ve rewarded them well and openly.

**

Whatever your methods of encouraging multilingualism, be prepared for brain fatigue and resistance.  It is enormous mental work to assimilate the complex codes of a new tongue. When Randall and I were newlyweds, we instructed German both on the university level as well as at one of the world’s leading language immersion centers, the Training Center for prospective full-time volunteers for our church, known as the MTC (Missionary Training Center.)  The university setting was a typical academic one, three classes a week, so far from total immersion, although we taught our classes primarily in German.

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only spent a record 76 hours within the MTC walls. Period.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

But what was astounding and gratifying was to experience moments of serendipity and excitement, when the student felt the shutters of her mind and her world being flung wide open.  When you offer this to your child, you will experience along with her the out-and-out thrill when she discovers not just a new language, but a new world and a new self it that world.

firenzemoms4moms

firenzemoms4moms

**

What have been your experiences with learning another language? What worked? What didn’t?

How have you offered opportunity+necessity+community to your family so that they have learned another tongue?

Can you share a story that illustrates the agony and the ecstasy of gaining fluency in a new language?

And really. . .Why bother with other languages, anyway?

Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Bit of the Backstory

Cover (3)

How does a book cover like this happen?

First, you live the story.  You move with your partner’s professional positions to several different countries, raising a family all along that bump-‘n’-swerve road, picking up languages and friends and a strange mashup of social codes on the fly, keeping a flimsy grip on your sanity some of the time, discovering depths of experience and breadth of  understanding most of the time, acquiring the kind of training that stretches and reshapes you and galvanizes your scraggly gaggle of a family, welding you to each other, to humanity, to this planet.

This life fits you. You fit it. So much so, you can’t imagine anything else, and you fling yourself again and again into the swirl, even forgetting to wash your hair the week of that sunny Sunday morning when your friend, Parson School of Design student Erin, calls up, singing, “The light’s good today, guys! Want to get some candid fam shots by Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower on our way to church?”

You’re busy writing all these years, of course, because that is what you do. (Far more than you wash your hair, if you really have to know my grooming habits). You’re writing about this life and how it yanks and pumices and oils your soul.  And then you discern, as you approach a decade of this nomadic life, a distinct inner voice that says you need to get this written into a book.  So you begin capturing the first phase of your nomadic family spiel, the move from Broadway to Norway. “Now is the time to write this story,” the voice persists. “You won’t have another chance like this.  Capture your early family right now, in this unfiltered light.”

So you obey the nudge, and you sit and write that book.  On a big Norwegian table placed squat in the middle of your Paris apartment, you sit.  You write so much you feel frustrated because, zut!, Paris is out there! Why crouch with your back to it, writing? (Because doesn’t everyone in Paris do just this? Crouch somewhere writing while the tourists stride around town?)

A band of motley literati friends critiques your pages.  You change things, change them again, change again and again and realize your own written voice sometimes gets on your nerves. You need a major break from yourself. You need to pack that voice into industrial-sized envelopes and get it into someone else’s ears. You send these fat envelope babies to a bunch of fine publishers with offices in big American cities.  Seventeen of them.  Even before you lick the stamps, you’re feeling like a fool, not to mention a misfit in the face of those distant, hard-edged cities and their mysterious publishing fortresses.  They loom and intimidate, those fortresses, leaving you sleepless and self-flagellating, needing as treatment the equivalent of fity hour-long heated eucalyptus oil full body rubs of reassurance.

Not a one of the seventeen publishing fortresses opens their drawbridge.

All the rejection letters are variations on one polite theme: “We wish you only the very best in your future writing endeavors.”

Well, see? What did I tell everyone?  

So, you tuck that manuscript away, way in the bottom of one of the 400+ boxes you’ve packed to leave your several years in Paris for a new life chapter in Munich.

And the next week, three days into a vacation in the States, and one day after visiting your eldest at his first college dorm, you get a phone call.

That call sends your story – all stories  you’ve ever known or written or told – into a screeching spiral which in its blackwash vortex sucks the air out of the universe. Your story – the old one pinned on paper and crammed in the bottom of a cardboard box, or the new story that your body writes as it crawls through coldening tar – feels massively irrelevant.  There is no more story.  There are no more stories.  There is no use in telling. There is nothing. Everything you now know is unwritable. What remains?  All there is, is loss.

**

Four years later, you’re quietly aware that even though you now live in Singapore where the air is as humid as living in the drying cycle of your dishwasher, there is somehow air to breathe. The cosmos has stopped screeching, reeling and jerking, and in soundless streamlets it has begun to fill back up with meaning. Not the meaning it had before. But meaning far more dense, immutable, textured like a freight rope lassoed around the underside of reality.  Though at times inexplicable, there is a story happening, a weighty narrative materializing as if it were writing itself, drawing you onward.  You write it out, riding it out, the story, and as you do, you move with it.

Your husband, the one you feared at times wouldn’t survive the vortex or its ghostly post-ravage landscape, is regaining traction.  He can laugh and joke and walk upstairs without getting winded.  Then one day, from out of the blue, a noted scholar contacts him, asking him to be one of several subjects for her book on lives like yours; nomadic but anchored lives that circle and recircle the globe.

He agrees. He does the interview. The scholar publishes her book, Cultural Agility, and it quickly becomes a seminal work in the field.

Wise and brilliant friends are constantly encouraging you to keep going, keep writing your stuff, keep knocking on fortress doors. When one such friend suggests you might tap-tap on the door of a publishing house that is just that – a house or a cottage literally, and not a fortress – you end up sitting in the CEO’s kitchen. The man is accessible, responsive and committed to producing your work.  He doesn’t just want to publish it (although he’s eager to do that); he wants to discuss it.  He even wants (get this) to take part in editing it himself.  You Skype at all hours from your opposing sides of the planet, discussing both the literary endeavor as well as the business aspects of such a book project.

“You’ll need to do some things,” Mr. CEO publisher says in one of countless Skype sessions, “which might not be comfortable at first.  Like, you’ll need to begin a blog.

Panic sits on your shoulders like a silverback gorilla in full heat, and you say something to the effect of, “Other options, sir? Like, let’s see. . . swimming around the whole of Australia? Through shark infested waters? In a Lady Gaga suit make of raw sirloin?” You’ve fought long and hard to reenter the world. But enter the virtual world?  That kind of exposure? Can you do that and not disintegrate? You begin chanting an Homeric epic saga about all the reasons blogs (and perhaps publishing altogether) are not for you.

“Start a blog right now,” kindly CEO sir says. “No later than next week.  Right when you begin your move from Singapore. And,” he adds, “I’m sending a contract right now.  Get me your finished manuscript in six months.”

Soon you have all these blog-followers, and you are carefully thriving in that connectivity, and these follower-friends begin chiming in on the progress of the book. (They’re even bossy about designing the cover. They simply take over.)

The scholar who quoted your husband in her book? She’s now quoted on the cover of yours.  Her blurbs are enough to make you run for cover, (neither you nor your own children would ever call you a “role model for all parents”), but you’re hoping everyone will overlook the endorsements’ effusiveness and focus on that darling little ISBN tattoo.

And this time around your twelve-year-old takes your photo for the back cover. For which event, thank goodness, you decide to wash your hair.

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Global Mom: Toot-a-Loo!

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Monsieur B., Part II”)

etsy.com

etsy.com

It was late April. The whole world descends on Paris in April. Throngs walk the wrong way up the wrong roads on the banks of the Seine, missing the Musée d’Orsay entirely. They walk with maps flapping out of their back pockets or unfolded and held so high they miss steps and fall over poles or into potholes and get injured. They maneuver through the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, dodging other visitors who, on tippy toe and with upstretched arms, point their camera periscopes over the shuffling masses. They get pushed in the crowd past the Winged Victory and practically into the Mona Lisa and always seem to lean a few inches too close to the Delacroix or the Ingres or the Corot so the guards, hot and bothered with swollen ankles, have to lunge from their seats and bark a reprimand.

And who can blame a single soul for wanting to be a tourist? Paris, from April through September, is magnificent beyond what you’d ever imagine. It is because it is magnificent, and because everyone (including myself) is telling you it is, that everyone comes to Paris right then. And all of this can make this magnificent town miserable.

You can count on Paris being like this except in August, (again, a forewarning) when the residents of Paris go on vacation. Restaurants are closed, the cousin from Basel has stepped in to man the carousel in the Luxembourg gardens, the only good meal is at a tired fast food chain with lethargic-eyed, part-time fill-ins and napkins made of recycled mothballs. Streets are almost quiet compared to their September crush, which is called la rentrée—the school re-entry—and that school restart means the business restart which means the traffic restart when means the stress restart.

The sogginess of early April has evaporated, leaving the trees in front of the Église Americaine fluffy and bright, with splotches of sunlight dancing on the cobblestones upon which I am strolling. I’m strolling in head-to-toe seafoam green—heels and a linen suit—as an exception to my normal wardrobe, (jeans and ballet flats or black Converses) because I’ve just come home from an important appointment. It is barely chilly enough to wear a silk scarf. I’m in this linen outfit with its matching shoes and matching scarf, and I am strolling. Strolling our doggy Josephine, strolling la-dee-dah-dee-dahing je ne sais quoi-ing in full sun-speckled springtime ease along the Parisian sidewalks of my neighborhood.

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condenaststore

This is one of those harmonious moments when I ache to grab those few people who hate Paris (or hate the French or French politics or what those folks claim is “snooty” politeness or “snotty” elegance or “pungent” crudeness) and, with my arms stretched wide above my head, say, “See? This is what we mean! Enraptured. Don’t tell me you’re not.”

Next thing, I hear voices. Loud voices. Voices speaking English. Fog-horning English.

The voices belong to two grown women. I see them approaching me. As I hear them and watch them, I keep walking my pooch and prancing delicately in my green heels, if you remember. And oh, did I forget to mention the large black sunglasses? While I promenade keeping a low sunglassed profile, I hear the amplified ladies coming closer. My breathing quickens. I zoom in on a particular cobblestone and whisper to Joey, “C’mon girl, do your business and let’s split.” Joey, though, has leisurely bowels. I turn my back to them as their voices approach. And when I do, I feel an essential part of me start to shift. But before things shift completely, I listen.

“Chill out! You never did get to reading maps right. Now look right here. Look! You listening? Look: this right here says Ei. Fel. Tow. Er. Eiffel Tower. Now I’m telling you, it’s somewhere close. Real close.” This woman yanks the map from the other woman, muttering just loudly enough for me to hear, “Should have never let you hold this thing in the first place.”

I focus on Joey, my canine distraction, twirling her leash around one hand, and put my cell phone to my ear pretending to be engrossed in the most important call of my life. They come closer. I’m lipping a fake conversation, trying to avoid that uncomfortable moment of being witness to fraternal street violence. I’m just not dressed for breaking up an assault.

“What you mean should have never let me hold this thing? I swear you’re the one got us all lost up in those streets by Noter Damn. Think I’m going leave it up to you this time getting us to the Eiffel Tower? No way, girl. No. Way.

They are acting like sisters. Or at least they’re dressed as such: both in tennis shorts in a pale color, and both in T-shirts with capped sleeves. Neon colored fanny packs. White, terry-cloth lined visors. The last three items listed, all with American flags that glittered. One of the sisters, the one who has spoken first, has nails I can see from this distance. A huge part of me wants to swoop in and strut with them arm-in-arm right down the street and to the Champs de Mars. But their anger at Paris seems beyond repair. Anything I might say will be rebuffed, useless.

I’d like to write that I considered a few approaches; “Hiya. You two look lost. Can I help?” or, “Hey, ladies, if you’re looking for the Eiffel Tower, I’d be happy—”

Those don’t enter my mind.

I straighten my shoulders, adjust my scarf, loosen my clench on Joey’s leash, drop my fake phone call into my handbag.

“’Ello?” I make my voice small and perfumy. The two stop bickering into their map and look up. “I am zo zorree,” I sing, “but I am zeeing you are een. . . trubbéll? I may ’elp you, non?”

“You. . .you from here? You French?” one woman asks, quieted.

“But oui!”, answers la Parisienne, who, smiling, extends her hand, stepping lightly in heels and pulling her Cockér with her. “Juste ovair zair! Zees ees my, ’ow you say?, neighbor-’ood? I zink? We are veree, veree luckee, are we not? We find each uzair?”

I smile. One of them smiles. Joey tilts her head. Seriously?

You see, I had this French thing down pat. I’d practiced this accent every time I’d found myself at a dinner table where language acquisition came up in the conversation (which happened in every single multicultural gathering), and friends occasionally gave their light jabs at the typical, broad, American accent with its cardboard corners and vowels as vast as the prairie. I just loved it when, at about the moment things got sufficiently mockful with people mimicking the wrooowerly broahwerly American accent, I could slip into the conversation in an English with the thickest Inspector Clouseau accent. Hardly comprehensible for all its curlicues deep in the throat, the impossible “th” sound, zee veree, veree, veree tight, uh, ’ow you say? wowel sounds, non? And I would then explain that I had yet to come across a full-blooded Frenchman, even among my friends who are ridiculously gifted linguists, who spoke English absolutely sans trace—without a trace—of a French accent.

So I am perfectly rehearsed for this street performer moment. In less time than it takes to spread a crêpe, I’ve made the fatal shift, consciously positioning myself to do one thing and one thing only: make these two fellow Americans fall desperately in love with this city, this country, with all things French. Even, if necessary, with moi.

“And-uh,” la Parisienne asks, escorting them to a bench, “Where-uh eez eet zat you bose leev? Amaireeca, I ’ope?”

We sit down together. I ’elp zem fold zeir map. Joey whimpers. “We’re from Detroit. Michigan. Know it? Here just a couple of days, you know, doing all of Europe in three—”

“Meecheegan? Detwah? But zees eez a veree, veree wondairful place. But, zut!, I do not know eet. I ’ave only been to, oh, ’ow you call eet? Zee Floreed? To Miameeee.” I slap both hands on my lap hoping they love Florida.

They nod, looking me a bit up and down. “We go to Lauderdale, Fort Lauderdale, mostly.”

“Ah, yes, zee Floreed. I love your countree, love zee peepel. Zo wondairful, zo friendlee”

The woman closest to me has fingernails, I can now see, with miniature frescoes painted on them, each an emblem of the U.S.A.: the Statute of Liberty; the Liberty Bell; the Flag; The first line of the constitution, “We the People. . .”

“Hiya, poochie,” she says, “you only speak French huh, sweets?” and she reaches down to Joey, petting her head, which makes my heart trill a bit. The other woman is retying her Reeboks.

“Oh, yes, yes, oui, oui, I weel show you zee Tour Eefell. Eet eez veree close,” and I walk them to the corner, right under the windows of our apartment, down to the intersection of Rue de l’Universtié, then point. Joey drags her hind legs.

“You go-uh, ’ow you say een Eengleesh? straight on an zen, at zee end of zees road, you turn zee right. Voilà! You weel zee your Tour Eefell.”

By now both women are cooing at Joey while barraging me with questions about what the French think of America, Do they all hate us, they ask, is French food really so good, have I tasted snails, where can one get a good milkshake? Which questioning is just as well with me, since I am trying to keep my side of the conversation really low, knowing that at any moment a neighbor, Monsieur B. for instance, might walk out on the street for his afternoon promenade and bump right into me, la Poseur Parisienne.

Sweating under my scarf, I’m feeling duplicitous and conniving on one level, but patriotic and conniving on another. I know, as I walk these two endearing women to the corner, that I am doing my two countries, the U.S. of A. and la France, a magnanimous service.

“Ladeez, wen you come to zee end of zee road, I weel teach you zum zeeng I learned in Miamee. You know zees zeeng you zay een Engleesh, ‘toot-a-loo’?”

They nod, “Toot-a-loo, yeah.”

“Eet eez from zee Frensh! Een Frensh wee zay, ‘À tout à l’heure,’ weech eez to zay, ‘Zee you een zee ’our.’”

“No kidding! Ha! Toot-a-loo comes from France?”

“Now. Leesen: Wen you are to turn zee right-uh, you weel zay to me, “‘A tout a l’heure’.  An zen I weel zay to you, ‘toot-a-loo.’ Good?”

I watch, nauseated and nervous with glee-guilt, as the two women saunter down Jean Nicot. There they go: fanny packs, Reeboks, visors, right past our boulangerie, past Luc’s best friend’s apartment across the street, all the way down to Rue St. Dominique.

All anyone can hear as they walk down the street bumping each other and laughing is the two of them hollering, “À tout à l’heure! À tout à l’heure!”

When they turn the corner, I am still standing there as I promised, my Joséphine on the leash, my scarf draped just so, my heels nipped neatly together, my arm waving and waving. “Toot-a-loo!” I sing to the women of Detroit. “Toooooot-a-looooooo!”

letthedogsseetherabbit

letthedogsseetherabbit

The Frozen Sea Within Us

For my 100th post, I pay tribute to an author who has inspired me since the first time I read him.

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Roger Rosenblatt is one of those language crafters whose sparseness and blank-stare honesty catch me right here, square in the throat.  One paragraph of him, and I want to huck anything I ever wrote and start all over, one hand and all adjectives tied behind my back.

Intimate. Precise. Reduced. Penetrable. Bruised. Wryly funny. And rumbling with electricity like thunder in your breast pocket.

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Rosenblatt also buried his daughter, Amy. Two of his books, Making Toast and Kayak Morning describe, respectively, his life at impact and a year later. From Making Toast:

Amy Elizabeth Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, pediatrician, wife of hand surgeon, Harrison Solomon, and mother of three, collapsed on her treadmill in the downstairs playroom at home. “Jessie and Sammy discovered her,” our oldest son, Carl, told us over the phone. . . . “Mommy isn’t talking,” [Jessie] said. Harris got to Amy within seconds and tried CPR, but her heart had stopped and she could not be revived.

Amy’s was ruled a “sudden death due to an anomalous right coronary artery”—meaning that her two coronary arteries fed her heart from the same side. . . . Her condition, affecting less that two thousandths of one percent of the population, was asymptomatic; she might have died at any time in her life.
––Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast, 2, 3

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I’d travel far and pay a hefty price to merely sit for an hour and listen to Mr. Rosenblatt talk about his daughter Amy, about his writing about Amy, and about his writing, period. Maybe you’ll feel likewise after the following, the last page of another Rosenblatt book, entitled, Unless It Moves The Human Heart:

You must write as if your reader needed you desperately, because he does. If, as Kafka said, a book is an ax for the frozen sea within us, then write with that frozen sea in mind and in view. See your reader, who has fallen through the ice of his own manufacture. You can just make him out, as he flails in slow motion, palms pressed upward under the ice. Here’s your ax. Now, chop away and lift him up by the shoulders. And what do you get out of this act of rescue? You save two people; your reader and yourself. Every life is exposed to things that will ruin it, and often do, for a time. But there is another life inside us that remains invulnerable and glimpses immortality. For the writer that life exists on the page, where it attaches itself to every other life, to all the lives that have been and will be.

…To be the writers you hope to be, you must surrender yourselves to a kind of absurdity. You must function as a displaced person in an age that contradicts all that is brave, gentle, and worthwhile in you. Every great writer has done this, in every age. You must be of every age. You must believe in heroism and nobility, just as strongly as you believe in pettiness and cowardice. You must learn to praise. Of course, you need to touch the sources of your viciousness and treachery before you rise above them. But rise you must. For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing– word after word after word.

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Amen, Brother Rosenblatt.

Amen.

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The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Tanzania and Juvy

How do you land a job as an assistant warden in a Tanzanian juvenile detention center?

Entrance to Arusha, Tanzania Juvenile Detention Center

Entrance to the Juvenile Detention Center in Moshi, Tanzania

Approximately the same way you end up serving as a full-time LDS missionary in southern Italy.

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You prepare yourself. You apply. You close your eyes, open up a letter, then open those eyes to see where you have been assigned.

And you ratchet up your Swahili.

(Or Italian.)

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Since her childhood, Claire has had this fixation on African animals. And since her youth spent in Paris with its dominant francophone-African population, she’s felt a keen interest in all things African. And so during her junior year at University, (where she studied Humanities with an English emphasis and French and African Studies as her double minor), she began inquiring seriously into different service programs that would take her for a semester as a volunteer to the Big Continent.

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Clinton Foundation?
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Gates Foundation?
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Peace Corps?
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Green Peace?
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Kenya? Sudan? Ghana? Cameroon?
Mali, Malawi, Botswana?
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Working with endangered animals?
Endangered women?
Endangered children?
With entire populations endangered by AIDS?
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After months of research and telephone interviews, we settled on a reputable program based in Arusha, Tanzania, in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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As is required for an LDS mission, Claire had to have a certain level of preparation and stability and a strong endorsement in order to be considered for this program. She filled out lots of forms, submitted letters of recommendation, and was finally accepted for the fall 2011 program.
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What she did not know on the outset was precisely what her assignment in Tanzania would be.

She could have been placed to work in a hospital, or in one of the many shelters for battered women, or could have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha.

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

But. . .our girl was assigned to juvi.

I can’t say her initial reaction to the whole juvi idea was effusive. And just between us, I had my reservations, too, of course. Teaching delinquent male teenagers (some in for serious crimes like murder, I was told, and some for minor and trumped up infractions like disrespecting their elders) in a caged environment? Every day? So I asked: uh, so, any chance my daughter’s going to pack some heat? Wear Kevlar? Who gets to be her body guard? Because she’d never be left alone with felons. . . right?

. . .right?
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After less than a week teaching her twenty or so charges at juvi, Claire had fallen fiercely and irreversibly in love.

Next post, I’ll tell you more about the young men my Claire calls her “Boys”, the ones who call her “Teacha Claira”, the boys-made-men who won my daughter’s heart, the ones who, that last day in late December when we came as a family to pick her up and take her away into the wilderness, were silenced with respect, motionless on their low, dilapidated wooden benches. Sad and adoring. Concerned and apologetic when they saw their “Teacha” was wiping tears.
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These boys were the same “criminals”, by the way, who showed their depth of love for Claire in a most visceral way.

They begged and insisted she come back the next week after Christmas. “A big party for you,” the leader boy named Prosper told her, his eyes glinting with pride, yet weighted as if he were forty. She must come back because all of them wanted to give her something “very special.” And so Claire managed to come back.

She left well before dawn from where our family was camping out in the Serengeti and by means of three modes of transportation driven (or flown) by the kindest locals, made it back to her juvi where the boys were waiting, she told me later, all lined up, shy, sober and smiling.  Practically happy with themselves.

Prosper escorted her into the courtyard on whose walls they’d painted a mural together that fall.  He was eager to show her their extravagant gift.

“Please. For you, Teacha Claira.”

And there is was, fresh and bright, a most luxurious offering.

The boys had slaughtered her a goat.
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