The International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 1

ib

A typical scene in our home lately:

Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed.  His eyes are gloopy and glazed.  He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00.  Courses started near 8:00.  One 30-minute lunch break.

“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”

“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”

He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.

students

Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.

“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”

“You’ll have to do whatever you can,”  another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”

ib banner

Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)

students 2

It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that.  Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you.  So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”

“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.

(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)

ib globe

What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic.  There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB Survival.com.”  But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.

Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.

In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.

So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.

 

 

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.

IMG_4358

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part II

From Global Mom: A Memoir

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

. . .[Monsieur B.] heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

**

credit: parisperfect

credit: parisperfect

. . .We returned to our apartments Monsieur B. and Madame B., those parallel universes split by a sliver of flooring. Against a backdrop of the Monsieur’s serenity, my native country’s vibrating map of red and blue “moral values” throbbed a garish neon nuisance across my mind—a mind already fuzzy from weeks of breath- holding over teetering politics, months of being on the global political alert.

That night in the Bradford’s cosmos, life felt so slightly perilous and slap-dash, with our six jostling bodies whirring like asteroids, weaving and whipping through what should have been a bedtime routine – our night time orbit — but which felt to me, at least, more like an enactment of chaos theory. Certainly the galaxy was off kilter, the Milky Way curdling, I thought, with our earth stuck in a hiccup rather than expelling her usual steady breaths. How could Monsieur B. just shrug off the recent events as “mere politics” when, as I was convinced, the whole globe was convulsing and reeling toward ruin?

credit: retinacandy

credit: retinacandy

Then, at nine on the dot, the Monsieur’s street shutters rattled their regular racket. Our Grandfather Clock incarnate chimed. A wad of laundry in my arms, I stopped for an instant to absorb the ritual beneath my feet, that common constancy like so many other banal patterns in a day, which, when noted anew, pin infinity in place and set fretting aright. In his cozy retreat from the world, Monsieur must have at least believed he was invulnerable to it, I reflected. And at his age, I thought, what else? Lining the level above his, all our shutters were agape as they always were, allowing our garrulous glow to flood the streets, whatever part of our private lives was not under wraps.

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

He’d watched foreigners come and go, Monsieur B. He’d seen the old open market that was once supplied by the boatmen delivering goods on the banks of the Seine one block northward razed to make way for the Senegalese Embassy and the Erik Satie music conservatory. He’d watched an adjacent villa converted into the bland headquarters of the American University in Paris and had heard the choir rehearsals, aerobic classes and karaoke nights through the wide-open stained glass windows of the American Church across the street. He’d heard more and more English-speakers just outside his windows asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower, (two blocks that way) or Napoleons’ tomb (two blocks the other way). He’d witnessed the high-pitched spectacle of four sweat-slippery men cursing in chorus at each other and at their weave of pulleys and cables holding our dangling long table which was to be hoisted through our windows. He’d quietly tolerated restrained ruckus, my occasional high-heeled prancing and Parker’s gym-shoed thudding overhead, and had graciously avoided even the most subtly judgmental political commentary as Franco-American tensions simmered and at times passed the boiling-over point. And he didn’t grow the least bit hysterical when his own French presidential elections kicked up dust in our own neighborhood, where camera crews interviewed candidates, pundits, the local political in crowd. There I was, practically salivating with curiosity at the whole scene, and there was Monsieur B. watching silently from his window, his ascot tucked in his camel blazer, a cup of coffee held in the right hand, the saucer in his left.

Stalking our flat that late autumn night, tidying room after room, I was ashamed that our comparatively super-sized portion of dwelling space was super-imposed, squat, right over the head of this frugal Frenchman. I cringed, feeling personally responsible for the astronomical U.S. deficit. Then I also thought of the thriving terrorist cell, which French intelligence had just exposed and exploded in a northeastern sector of Paris, eight Metro stops from our door.

To what end, shutters? To what end, self-imposed blinds? Was this gracious neighbor, this truly gentle man, what U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had in mind with his pejorative, “Old Europe”? And did French foreign minister, Michel Barnier have a chance at realizing a “New Day” in Franco-American relations, where an alliance wasn’t always tantamount to absolute allegiance, but where mutual respect reigns, and where, as Monsieur B. once said, “we value one another in a community?”

credit: parisiensalon

credit: parisiensalon

To be sure, in a few hours some version of the next day would break, and I’d be counting on the 8:00 a.m. downbeat from Monsieur B.

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Monsieur B., Part I

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Doggy Crêpe”) :

. . .We were reminded every day in the papers that life, as the planet itself, is a fragile and tenuous place. But in the immediate cycle of our family’s life, in its rhythms and patterns, things were briskly routinized, colorfully calm. Camelot. . .

**

credit: 123rf

credit: 123rf

Each new day in our village en ville  broke when Monsieur B. slapped open his metal shutters beneath us in his ground floor apartment. Our friend and neighbor lived the life of a well-mannered metronome. At 8:00 a.m., the ten shutters of his five windows clanked and clapped. At 9:00 p.m. a repeat of the same percussion, closing out the day’s pulsating hum of traffic, stiletto-clips on concrete and staccato street conversations. For almost fifty years he’d lived here on the corner of Jean Nicot and Colonel Combes—enough time, I imagine, to have watched things evolve a lot and to have gotten the shutter habit down to a reflex.

We, the American family of six, lived directly above him, and so he heard, no doubt, the muffled soundtrack of every detail, mundane or intimate, of the life of la famille Bradford. I begged him to forgive us for the bass pedal thumping of Parker’s electric drum set. I apologized for Luc’s night terrors and shrieking around 4:00 a.m. I’d thought of explaining why the toilet above his bedroom flushed thirty-three times during the night, but stopped short of describing the flavorful details of a whole family whopped by the flu bug. We just hoped he was a deep sleeper. I clasped his hand, pumping his arm in mortification while explaining why there had been a girl’s chorus howling, “You Ain’t Nothing’ But A Hound Dog” with a Cocker Spaniel yelping in syncopation, directly above his dining room table at what must have been aperitif time.

credit: formerdays

credit: formerdays

That was the hour when on Thursdays I always saw Monsieur B. sitting at a small square table next to his window there at street level, Monsiuer B. and three men friends sitting in their suits and ties, one always with a cigar in his lips, another always with a cigarette, all sitting at there respective (and I noted, fixed) corners of that table, lit by two old brass standing lamps pulled up just for the occasion, playing a soundless game of cards. Models for a Cézanne painting.

But Monsieur B. never once complained of the percussion and repercussions of our herd above his head. In fact, he never once hinted at irritation. When we greeted each other he was consistently radiant and gracious. At one of my fits of self-deprecation, he once smiled, saying in unmistakably elegant French, “We live in a community, Madame. We must value each other in such a community,” his sincere blue eyes reflecting the color of his trademark azure shirt.

I’d only seen him once without one of those brilliant blue shirts when, earlier than usual, I was leaving the building. He was at his door receiving a small wicker basket from Madame P., the gardienne who took in a little laundry money from this widower. That morning, he was wearing his camel robe and a bright blue ascot, which, even at 7:00 a.m., made his eyes shine and his thick shock of silky white hair glow like a million watts. My own private Maurice Chevalier.

filmjournal

credit: filmjournal

What I knew of Monsieur B. I learned by close observation and by stitching together scraps he volunteered during our neighborly encounters. Twenty years earlier after forty years of marriage and four children (all raised on this corner in the apartment less than half the size of ours), his wife passed away. The four children went on to have their own children (totaling well over a dozen in number), and on the evening of the highly-charge U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, his long-awaited first great-grandchild came into the world a week overdue.

This man, like our family, was sleep-deprived after the string of nights awaiting what was momentous news; Monsieur B.’s new generation and what we were convinced was our nation’s new generation.

When I took him congratulatory flowers late one evening, he and I chatted briefly, comparing notes on paternity and politics and what kind of future world would greet his newest offshoot. “Capucine,” Monsieur B. confided, “will be the little cabbage’s Christian name.” (Calling an infant a cabbage and a cabbage a Christian might strike one as odd, but the French logic works well from many angels. Capucine. Very crisp. Very Catholic.)

Proud of his baby’s first snapshot, the Monsieur was all gleam and beam while I was all gloom and doom, disoriented in a stupor from an election process that had appeared to have been slippery, questionable, un-American. Maybe I might have seemed, in the face of his measured manner, too oozing of pessimism, too panicky and reactionary. And maybe he was simply pleased about Capucine, this fresh validation of life, to take my anxiety too seriously. Whatever the case, he didn’t grieve with me. Instead, he heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.

credit: toutlecine

credit: toutlecine

(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Wednesdays With the Louvre

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post: “French School, A Scream”)

**

children louvre

At least as French, but more exquisite to me than sword fighting, was our Wednesday afternoon ritual. In fewer than ten minutes, even with traffic, we could drive from Parc Monceau to the Louvre, park, dart right in, take our lunch at one of the cafés near the glass pyramid (wherever there were the fewest tour groups), wipe our mouths, and, sketchbooks and pencils in hand, make our way to the Richelieu wing.  That is where we found our private sanctuary, the Cour Puget.

cour puget

The Cour Puget is a three-story tiered hall flooded with natural light. Its ceiling is a variation on the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. . .

cour puget ceiling. . .Its walls and statues nearly all bone-colored marble.  Entering, you might feel you’re walking into the reception hall of heaven. At least we did. At nine and five years old, our two youngest were normally kinetic experiments gone awry, but when we entered heaven. . .

cour puget 1. . .We all settled into a new rhythm that stirred our creative juices into a mellow foam. This is the setting that made the three of us feel we were artists. More important than becoming artists, though, we became each other’s intimates.

Once – and only once – we thought we’d wander over to the Cour Marly just across the corridor, check out what the Renaissance statutes there were up to; but it didn’t feel right, didn’t feel like our place. “Our place” was the Cour Puget, up on the top tier on a marble bench against the wall.  After a few minutes, one of us would be sprawled or curled up at the foot of the statue we were sketching.  The guards who rotated daily came to expect the three of us there at about the same hour every Wednesday afternoon. A nod, a reciprocated “Bonjour les enfants”, and we knew we were in our element.

“So, who do you think this guy is?” I asked, Dalton on one side, Luc on the left. We were staring up into the piercing eyes of Caton d’Utique.

caton dutique 2

“And check out the serpent,” Dalton said, turning to see a Mr. Universe Spartacus wrestling the beast to the ground.

images

“But why’ve they got this statue of John Kerry?” Luc asked, walking over to a bust of the French scientist, Cuvier.

cuvier

We would go home and Google the background of our favorite statues, then go back the next Wednesday to make up stories, stories we wove into a screenplay, we three floor-squatters.  Ours was an elaborate screenplay about the Louvre and its statues and all the lives embedded in stone. Dalton cast his imagined movie, role-for- role as we three sat with our sketchpads on our laps, capturing a young Joan of Arc or a dying marathon runner in the gentle brilliance of the Cour Puget.

images (1)
cour puget 4
mother child louvre

In every way those Wednesdays were a delight to me. The light, no matter what the weather outside, was always brighter during those hours than anywhere else in the world.  I was with my children, we had baguette crumbs on our sweaters, the sky was warm, we were surrounded by history and beauty and tourists, tourists we realized we were not.   We basked in great art and created mediocre art ourselves, but more importantly, we created a moment that defined the three of us as part of this place, part of each other. I saw to it that a woman in a Louvre children’s bookstore hung my boys’ two best completed works on the official corkboard. We laughed in the van that their artwork now hangs in the Louvre.
mom and kids louvre

**
(To be continued. . .)

Global Mom: Scooting Through Paris

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Sitting In A Franco-American Political Hot Seat”)

**

 

Randall bought a Vespa.

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

There she is, appropriately posed in front of Notre Dame

 

Creamy lacquer paint job, classic lines, toffee colored leather seat deep enough to take a passenger on the back. With it, he could whip out to Versailles to pick up Parker late at night when weekly youth church activities were moved from Paris to our chapel in that ancient suburb. And the two also sliced through the common knots of Parisian traffic to visit and help young families and widows from our church congregation. At every opportunity, Randall was out scooting and scouting the roads, weaving through stalled traffic, sailing past the honking horns and fists flying out windows.

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l'Alma

Mild traffic, off hours, heading across Pont de l’Alma

When he didn’t take the Vespa, he could easily walk to work, either over the Pont de l’Alma past the golden torch that stands as an unofficial memorial to the car accident that occurred there and took Princess Diana’s life, and up Avenue George V. . .

Monument known popularly known s Diana's Torch

Monument known popularly known s Diana’s Torch

Or around l’Étoile of the Arc de Triomphe and down Avenue Hoche. . .

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation.

Rond Point des Champs Elysées. Light traffic, mild coagulation. Inching. . .

View up the clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées

Clogged artery of Les Champs Elysées. Why Parisians love scooters

Or over the Pont Alexandre III, across the Champs Élysées, and then winding his way to the office. . .

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

Pont Alexandre III and Le Grand Palais

These streets also became our morning jogging routes.

flickr 2

We’d leave before morning traffic at 6:00 from our place near Pont de l’Alma and run along the Seine passing drunks stumbling out of the Metro but also centuries of architecture, political intrigue, artistic ingenuity, religious devotion and as much variety as one can get in an hour.

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We chugged past ancient citadel prisons and gothic chapels and the hidden apartments of international legends. . .

conciergerie

Past the Louvre at minute eleven. . .

louvre early morning

Past the Hôtel de Ville at minute nineteen. . .

hotel de ville

Over the Pont d’Austerlitz at minute twenty-nine. . .

austerlitz

And so on for another half hour past the Institut du Monde Arab. . .

monde arab

Notre Dame. . .

notre dame

Musee d’Orsay. . .

musee dorsay

Trotting at stop lights where guillotines once stood, where revolutions began and ended, over stones where American soldiers and German tanks and English carriages and Italian horses and white-coated monks and destitute writers and hailed composers and defected ballerinas and ermine-cloaked despots passed.

credit: 7eme aup

credit: 7eme aup

That’s some dense history to cut a 15k through.

flickr