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.

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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?

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

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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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Freshly Pressed?

Here we are, five of our six. I'm including today a selection of my favorite photographs from my previous posts.  All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy! So glad you're here.

Here we are, five of the six Bradfords. I’m including today a selection of some of my favorite photographs from several of my previous posts. All of them, with the exception of this one taken by Rob Inderrieden, I took. Enjoy!

Hello, everyone. It is great to have you here.

Judging by the variety and number of readers this week’s Freshly Pressed incident (and what doyou call it?) has drawn here, we’ve got some rich times ahead. One of my readers suspected that I probably didn’t fully “get” what it means to be Freshly Pressed, but that reader was gracious in suggesting that it was probably best that way.

And I didn’t.

And it is.

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I don’t mind this little flurry of recognition. It would be false to say much else, since we serious writers ache to create something someone will find worth reading. And we’re a bit tired of being that Someone, reading to ourselves. (Oh, the echoing drone of one’s own voice in the caverns of one’s head.)

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So it’s heartening to have you here, reading as you apparently are. Your presence is invaluable to me, and I want to honor it with vivid, meaty material that will invigorate thinking and stir feeling, and open up the possibility of a nourishing connection between us, all of us.

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I write because for me, writing is a physical and spiritual imperative. Is it also like that for you? If the significant happens – in my world, or in The World – I feel compelled to engraven it, pin its largeness down, trap it somehow. Then I lean close and marvel at watching its complexity or simplicity crystalize on the page. My readers, I hope, share in that marveling, not, of course, because I am marvelous (although my husband seems to think I am, dear guy), but because the potential of our human reach irrefutably is. Words stimulate and facilitate that reach. Almost all of us, when we were babies, reached – and touched and connected and established ourselves as a teeny but proud pinprick part of humanity – first with words.

So. Here we are. May I explain some things?

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I write long.
You’ll want to get a drink. And oxygen tanks.

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I write books.
Two are in either the editing or legal approval phases as we chat right here, you and I.

The first to be published (with Familius and later this spring) will be Global Mom: A Memoir, and is about our family’s 20+ years on the international road. I’ve been posting excerpts of that manuscript here every week for some time, now.

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The second book is an anthology (with a chapter-long essay as introduction) on loss, grief, and adaptation. Its title is Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. Here, I post liberally from its 300+ pages of wise and varied voices.

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I also write short.
I am a published poet and will post some of my (long-ish) shorts here. I’ve posted several pieces already; dig a minute and you’re bound to find them.

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I also write creative personal essays.
Some have been published in journals and other blogs, and one recently garnered an award. I’ll post excerpts of them here, too.

I am beginning a children’s book
It will address loss and living onward and will be done in collaboration with a gifted illustrator. I’ll ask for your input. You’ll meet the illustrator if and when she’s ready to be revealed. Her work alone is worth hanging around for.

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And finally,

I am a poser of a photographer.

I’m learning to blend my newfound wonder for photography with my life-long and hard-core passion for the written word.

That’s this cozy sky blue/ocean blue blog you’re sitting in the middle of right this very moment.

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What else, you ask, can I expect when I come here to visit Melissa? (Besides, you mean, long-ish, probing posts that sometimes leak tears and sometimes crackle with laughter?)

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The last posts, as you’ve perhaps read by now, have treated some “Don’t Do’s” of co-mourning: Don’t judge or preach, don’t disregard or disappear, don’t enforce arbitrary deadlines, etc. Over the coming posts, you can expect me to examine the nature of “Can Do’s” in the face of great grief. In two posts from now, for instance, I’ll tell about the necessity of “Continuing” by introducing you to Antonini, a family friend, who was the last survivor of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Enough to reduce to moltenness any brittleness in our spines, that post should not be missed.

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Through the posts beyond that, and with your help, we’ll delve into the experience of the death of a beloved. What does it mean to a mother? A father? A sibling? Grandparents? A friend? An extended community? Strangers? What are the implications of tragic loss for our faith? For our non-faith? In other words, what can we learn, broadly and specifically, from death and other losses? What meaning do we deliberately or indiscriminately assign to suffering, to “mortality’s primary companion,” as one insightful reader here put it?

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At that point, I’ll update our Table of Contents. By then, Global Mom will be ripe for public consumption and you’ll probably want to return with me to those excerpts and our family’s years living in Paris, (where I last dropped off my readers somewhere on the rainy cobblestones near the Louvre), then continue to Munich, then Singapore and finally to where we live now, in Switzerland.

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There’s plenty to share with you about Switzerland, as there is about Sicily, where our daughter lives as a missionary (really – who’s going to believe this?) among the Mafia.

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And I will faithfully update you on news on Grief and Grace.

**

Before we all finish that morning cup, stretch our arms and brush the wrinkles out of our pants, a parting quote from Peter Wehmeier’s, Picasso und die christliche Ikonographie.

If I can claim a personal mantra as a writer, this would be it:

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In the face of death, art’s duty – indeed, her raison d’être – is to recall absent loved ones, console anxieties, evoke and reconcile conflicting emotions, surmount isolation, and facilitate the expression of the unutterable.

**

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Again, thank you for coming here. For all the reasons listed in that quote, I hope you’ll come often.

2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

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Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

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As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

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So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

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When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

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Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

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Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

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Take the TGV with us to Paris

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Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

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And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

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Thunder

Was awakened at about 4:30 this morning by the blast-shwoosh-bam of a thunderstorm.  It rattled the shutters, shiiiisssshed and teased in eerie whispers while the sky shook to the blinding flash of Zeus’ wrath.  Those veiny, scraggly arms of lightning, slapping the face of earth. I had covers up around my ears, eyes like ping-pong balls bouncing in that last little trill when you hold them against the table under your paddle. Skittish. A grown woman gone infantile.  All thanks to thunder.

Photo credit: Seekingalpha

The Swiss version of a thunderstorm is meek compared to the rip-roaring variety in Singapore, the kind I miss, the kind that uprooted a 30 foot-tall palm tree right out of our yard and laid it, like your toothbrush falling out of its holder, right across our neighbor’s roof.

Neighbor woman no happy.

So to avoid a lawsuit, which she threatened, that very week we had eight trees (four of which were towering, elegant palms) pulled out of our garden.  Had a team of sweat-shiny men come with their trucks and power saws and clear out nearly all the foliage around our home.  Man, did it look stark afterwards, like those odd altered pictures of celebrities without eyebrows.

But we did keep up neighborly relations.

I missed my palms.  And I still miss Singapore thunderstorms.

Photo credit: 123rf

But I cannot experience one anywhere, and neither can Randall, without thinking immediately of the most heinous and life-splitting thunderstorm in our memory.  Actually, it is in Randall’s memory, not mine, as he’s the one who lived it.  I have only heard him tell the story.

At the moment of that storm he was fast asleep in Munich, Germany and I was in Provo, Utah, probably tucking our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, and their cousin, Wesley, into sleeping bags on my parent’s basement floor.  It was Thursday, July 19th, and I’d arrived in Provo just that Sunday, eager to be with the children, who had gone ahead to camps and family in the American west, while I negotiated the move with Randall from Paris to Bavaria.

Claire was with her best friend, Caroline, at a youth camp called Especially For Youth on the campus of Brigham Young University.  They were sleeping in a dorm room. Caroline’s cell phone, by a stroke of inexplicable fate-luck-blessing-divine intervention, she’d left on all night long next to her dorm bed.  She would get a critical call on it in just an hour or so.

I had spent the day before, Wednesday the 18th, in Rexburg, Idaho, (first time there in my life), where I’d spent the afternoon with Parker just a week into a program at university called Freshman Academy.  It was a scorchingly hot afternoon, but we hugged and laughed and walked around together meeting other students and joking with Dalton, who was trailing his big brother, whom he idolized, showing him his most recent comic sketches.  Parker was the perfect older brother then, all complimentary and aglow.

We went to Wells Fargo Bank to open an account and dump some money in to get him through a week or so. The bank officer there, I can remember this scene in slo-mo, had turned his computer screen around to show us images of a “real cool place.”

“It’s the best place to just cool off. Not too far,” he’d told Parker. “Have to ask locals how to get there, though. Kinda middle of nowhere.  But every one goes there, ‘know? Engagement pictures, Family Home Evening groups, the works.  You been there yet, Parker? To Monkey Rock?”

He had. Once already. Which made me shake my head. Something about the place, those black lava rocks, the white froth of the 15 ft. water fall, the soupy lagoon, the canal. I’m not sure what, but it made my stomach turn.

Can I say it looked foreboding? Will you say this is retrospective sense-making, that I’m projecting my horror for that place on my memories? Will you stop believing me or anything I write altogether?

Still I insist: it did look foreboding.

In fact, Parker asked me while the man behind the desk went to get some forms for us to fill out, why I’d shaken my head at the man and had said, “That place. . .I don’t like it.”

“Mom, it’s their favorite place.  Don’t want to diss it. It’s great for them, you know. Besides, I’ve been there. It is cool.”

Right then, Dad called for Parker on my cell phone. He was calling from Munich, knew we were together in Rexburg, was jealous and eager to chat. Parker stepped away, walked up the small carpeted ramp that feeds to the back entrance of the bank, and stood there in his jeans and royal blue T-shirt.  (The one I still sleep with.)  They talked for a minute or two, I watched Parker laughing and doing the quick run down with his Dad.  I was the one who motioned he should get off.  We had these important forms to sign.

That would be the last time Randall would hear his son’s voice.  At least his human voice.

Because the next night there would be a water activity organized at Money Rock.  And in Provo, Mom would be tucking in two little brothers after a day with their cousin at the public pool.  And sister would be sleeping in a dorm room with her friend’s cell phone serendipitously turned on.  And Dad would be sound asleep in Munich, dreaming, maybe, of his flight scheduled for a day and a half later, the trip that would make for our family’s surprise arrival, several days earlier than Parker expected.  In Idaho.

What happened at this moment no one can explain, but Randall speaks of it in tones that change his color.  He slept soundly in that dark apartment.  The windows were ajar for fresh summer air.  There were no city sounds to disturb. Soothing, slow-breathing sleep.  Then instantly, the skies split with the light and sound of an air raid crashing across Munich. Bombs, firebombs, wall-shaking eruptions literally shocked Randall’s heart, throwing him to full sitting-up attention.

Thunderstorm. Unlike anything he had ever known in his life.  It pounded and howled, going right to his bones.

Alone and shaking, he flew out of bed, running through the rooms closing and checking windows, the huge explosions of light electrifying his movements, perforating the darkness, stabbing the eyes.  His heart raced.  The reverberations grabbed the old building and yanked it, it seemed, by the shoulders, like a furious bully manhandles a thin victim.  The rain flew sideways, debris flying with it, and hit the windows with metal-whip sounds, whipping, whipping.  And shriek-yowling.

It was 4:37 a.m.  The din lasted less than an hour. Then it drained away, leaving dripping sounds and big branches and soggy trash plastered all over Munich. When the sun would rise, the town would look like it had been in one of those little plastic snow domes you shook as a child. Only this dome was full of leaves, newspapers and your random sweatshirt wrapped around a plank of corrugated roofing.  Roughed up.

But Randall would never take notice of the branches or trash at sunrise.  Because after he would fall back asleep — big day ahead at the office, you know, regional meetings, he’d have to pack for the weekend flight, lock up the apartment, change some Euros to dollars, probably — after he would fall back asleep for a couple of hours, he would get a phone call from his wife.

“Honey?  You awake?  Something’s happened.”

Randall’s voice, in spite of sleep lost to the storm, would be crisp and alert.

“What is it?”

“No idea, but it’s serious. . .”

Minutes later, a follow-up call and the serious news became more detailed, much much more serious, and from that second and for many hours on end until he landed in the middle of the night on the Pocatello, Idaho airstrip, Randall would only run and run. Weep and weep.  Pray and pray.  The wife and the husband would meet each other in an ICU at the regional medical center. There, they would become, in the space of time it takes for one shaft of lightning to travel to earth, in the space of time for the clap of one thunderbolt to burst an eardrum, different people forever.  Struck, burnt through, electrocuted.

They learn that at exactly 4:30 a.m. Munich time (which would have been 8:30 p.m., Rexburg time), there was another kind of electrical release, a transfer of energy, we’ll say, taking place in the cross-cut canals feeding over the falls and into the lagoon of a common water hole called Monkey Rock.

Photo credit: naturedesktopnexus

Thunder

4:37 a.m., Munich

8:37 p.m., Monkey Rock

“. . .The sound that follows a flash of lightning and is caused by sudden expansion of the air in the path of the electrical discharge. . .”

—-N. Webster

At that exact hour, galactic detonation.

First, the splatting, cracking, then the sky above,

like the water below,

churning, foisting up,

whirling, dragging particulate matter into a current

surging, slitting with stiff slivers, splewing and spitting out,

Discharging at its will.

He who sleeps, sits up straight.

His heart hammers like the

rains that bludgeon in silvercold diagonal planks.

Rain, like those metal sheets rattled to make theater thunder,

wails and splutters, like a river

splatters as it hits stone.

Where you are.

Where he is

through the core of the earth to the paired side.

In this splitting instant

 creation is alarmed.

God’s dome claps an acoustic ka-boom

congealing in this sky-and-earth-quake

this subatomic shockwave,

sympathetic timpani—

(On earth as it is in heaven)

which fires currents through the sphere, shaking nature,

unhinging it.

Something big is being done.

Something big is being undone.

He who is awakened, sitting up, will lie back down.

He who is standing, grabbing hands, will lie down.

With thunderous voice buried under thunder—

a silent, glorious roar—

he will be sent to sleep.

And all at once, things are distilled.

Evanescence.

A sudden expansion of thunderbolt voltage bursts the threshold and

shoots into that pellucid vastness—

sends soaring above this banal torrent—

a flash of reversed lightning.

Startling.

Enlivening.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Blogglobal Mom

. . . Which should not be confused with Bloggable Mom, a different concept entirely.

A bloggable mom is a gal with children whose life is worthy of the kind of online pics and self-narrated captions that other people, for all sorts of reasons, “follow.”  Blogs have followers, I have only learned very recently, and ardent followers of blogs, (which I am not because I’m still so new to this blog world), know by instinct what is bloggable, blogworthy.

My son Dalton, I’d say, seems to have an instinct for what is bloggable.  He’s the one who came up with the name for this blog,  as a matter of fact, and subsequently feels part owner of its intellectual property, partly responsibile for its content.   Lately, he’s telling me a little too often for me to be comfortable, that the thing we just did (or saw or heard or burped) was a full-on “7” on the bloggable scale of 1-10, (10 being CNN-worthy).  Or it’s just a paltry “4” on the bloggable scale. Hardly worth having lived in the first place.

This is Scary with a capital “S” — also for Scream and Strange — and is worth returning to in a separate post.  For now, I’ll just say that this tendency to live with an imagined audience always in your peripherals, was the #1 reason I was one of the planet’s last blogging hold-outs. It took 10 years from the first time someone suggested, “You should  really have a blog,” to the day I launched this one.  Kicking, though politely. And Screaming, but with a lower case “s”.

(Ha.  Fancy that.  Particularly after my last post that was sooooo long, so “into it”, a friend and reader told me he’d have to sue me for damages.  He had to scroll so much he got reader’s, not writer’s cramp, and swears following my blog has given him an irreversible case of carpal tunnel syndrome.  I told him I was so terribly, truly sorry that I’m no lite blogger.  I do have a weigh with words. )

So, these 8-on-the-bloggable-scale topics Dalton is suggesting?

“Why not Cow Cat?” he asks me today at our kitchen island.   Cow Cat is this vagrant, overstuffed , black and white cartoon of a Holstein feline, a blimped out Cat in the Hat sans hat, that skulks across our low stone wall every afternoon at 4:50, reaches the same spot, stops, sits, stares. Lifts his tail to the air like a sailor lifts a finger checking for wind. Then Cow Cat sniffs.  Turns.  And skulks away just as he came. “Cow Cat, Mom.  He’s bloggable.”

I would surely hope not.

“Then what about the trash, Mom?” Luc asks, dropping his apple core in the compost bin, his cracker wrapper in the colored plastic paper bin, and his crushed-and-firmly-lidded water bottle in yet another  bin.  Which would be the crushed-and-firmly- lidded-water- bottle bin. “Swiss trash is serious,” he says. “It’s bloggable, dontcha think?”

Serious, yes.  But I would never put you through that.

Randall yells from the living room. “How about one on plugs, honey?”

“Plugs? What do you m–?”

“You know? About how I’ve had to cut the plug heads off of all our electrical appliances every time we’ve moved countries? Then splice the wires? Rig all those new heads? For the different plugs in every country? A post, honey. It’d be great. About all these chords, you know, that keep getting shorter and shorter?”

“You’re kidding, right?” I ask, leaning around the corner.

Then I see what he’s up to: cross-legged on the living room floor, paring knife in hand, six lamps —two short, four tall — lined up against the wall, their wires a tangle of what looks like your little brother’s bangs when you trimmed them with your round-tipped Crayola scissors.  Frayed ends everywhere.

“See?” he says,  holding up a white triple-pronged plug into which he’s trying to feed the wires of a shorter-than-normal chord. “There should be a blog for this.  And some mathematical equation for the correlation between the number of countries you’ve lived in and the number of inches your lamp is from the wall.”

He’s got something, my handyman. And it’s now I see that our table lamps have turned to floor lamps, and our floor lamps to wall lamps, shoved up to one socket like skinny boys at a junior high school dance clustered as if glued next to the light switch in the gym so, while they’re not out there dancing, they can get their jollies by switching the lights on and off.

(Those guys were in your junior high school, too?)

Electrifyingly bloggable or not, I’m not going to invite you all the way to this blog just for minutia. No plugs and sockets, nuts and bolts from me, friends.  Oh, no.  I am a Gesamtkunstwerk kind of blogger, if you hadn’t noticed. No sippy cup posts from me, I’m afraid.  If you come, plan on having to guzzle.

Unless, of course, there’s a fig tree in sight.

‘Cause figs? You bet. At least a 6 for bloggability.

Still, still. Bloggable Mom is not what this post is about.

It is about Blog Global Mom. About Blogging about Global Mom. About my forthcoming book, to get to the point, which has, as publication looms closer and closer, finally found its official (and not just “working”) title: Global Mom.

No. Not Earth Mother.

And no, not Mother Earth.

Global Mom, A Memoir.

Well. Sorta Kinda.

Global Mom, A Memoir: 8 Countries.

Yes, something like this. . .

. . .And this. . .

 

. . .And this. . .

. . .And some of this. . .

. . .And this. . .

. . .And this. . .

. . .This. . .

. . .At times, this. . .

. . .Others, this. . .

. . . Many times, this . . .

Never once like this. . .

Sixteen Addresses.

Yup, plenty of this. . .

. . .A few times, this. . .

. . .Once, as I recall, like this. . .

Five Languages.

. . .English, French, German, Norwegian, Mandarin, and . . .

One Family.

That’s some birthmark, lady

This is the book I have been writing in fits and starts on every possible surface and at all hours underneath all the living that has crammed these last many months ramping up to this, our 16th big move.

No, actually, it’s the book I was writing with a fountain pen on the graph paper of an orange Schülerblock thirty-five years ago when I was first a student in Austria.  And with a Bic in a spiral notebook twenty-four years ago when Randall and I lived in Hong Kong.  Then on a big awkward desk top Apple computer twenty years ago when we first arrived in Norway. Then on my oversized lap top fifteen years ago when we moved to France. And on a smaller lap top years later in Germany. And on my iPad years later in Singagpore.

And now, on a sleekish MacBookPro (or, when sitting in a waiting room, on my iPhone) in Switzerland.

I guess I was perhaps always writing this book.  Now, finally and thankfully, I’m not going to be the only one who reads it.  (Luc, at least, has promised he will.)

All of this segues us back to Blog Global Mom, because the whole reason I launched this blog in the first place, if you recall, was to introduce you to the book (then called 21st Century Mother, a title my publisher and I have concluded was not in harmony with the scope and color of my narrative), as well as to get daily practice honing concepts, exploring narrative styles, building chapters, and above all, getting your expert readerly feedback as to What works? What rings true? What reaches you, my readers’, nerves, minds, guts, hearts?

Blogging about Global Mom helps me to know what to  graft into — or take out of — my material before November 1, when the full submission is due and then the furious work of editing gets underway.

All leading up to a top-of-2013 publication.

Which sentence, as I reread it on my screen, makes me, oooooh, it just makes me want to blog my heart out.

Next post, I’ll tell about my publisher and how I found him.  I will also share with you, once a week for the next several weeks to come, trailers of Global Mom, A Memoir.

Just one last thing: “Blog Global Mom” should not be confused with Bloggobble Mom.

Or with Blogglowball Mom.

Both of which are something else. Entirely.
**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

We Interrupt This List. . .

For the move.

Someone asked me yesterday how the move to Switzerland is going.  Innocent enough question.  But it took an hour to answer.  Poor friend, she was just showing interest — maybe like you are, showing up here, reading this blogpost, peeking in with your soft smile — and I left her quivering.

I promise not to do that here.

Although, take a look at the length of this post. Nowhere under an hour.

Before I explain in relatively measured terms “how the move to Switzerland is going”, I want to be clear about one very important thing.  Full disclosure, flat disclaimer: I come from Mormon pioneer stock.  With that history ever present in my consciousness, I, more than anyone, twinge at wimpy whiners.  My ancestors on both sides, paternal and maternal, were X-treme survivors. The Daltons, Glaziers, Huntingtons, Jacobsens, Johnsons, Leavitts, Abbots, Woodruffs— they all left their homes in central Europe, Scandinavia and Great Britain to cross the globe at the price of  unspeakable sacrifice for their religion and a new (but still brutally demanding) life in the American west.

My husband’s ancestors, come to think of it, were X-treme pioneers, too. Pilgrims, actually. In fact, if you know the name of William Bradford, (passenger on the Mayflower, governor of Plymouth colony, founder of Thanksgiving), you’ve met our Grandpa sixteen generations back.

All this blood tramps stoically through my family’s veins.

These are family, and they left family, home, health, belongings, safety, beautiful Danish coasts and French valleys and English countrysides, languages, loves, and lost their own lives along the agonizing trail leading to the wild blue yonder. Mothers never saw their sons again after kissing them on the cheek on a damp Welsh harbor. Fathers buried their daughters under the desert’s sagebrush. Children lost their little limbs when they froze in the brittle bed of a hand-hewn wagon.

I’ve read many of their journals. I’ve marveled and wept at their conviction and heroism. (And can anyone call it anything less than heroism?) I’ve read in one sitting Of Plymouth Plantation with my brows furrowed, wondering, “Were these folks even human?”

And I’ve cheered Wallace Stegner, who in his introduction to The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, writes:

I should prefer to deal with the Mormon pioneers, if I can, as human beings of their time and place, the earlier ones westward-moving Americans, the later ones European converts gripped by the double promise of economic betterment and eternal life.  Suffering endurance, discipline, faith, brotherly and sisterly charity, the qualities so thoroughly celebrated by Mormon writers, were surely well distributed among them, but there also was a normal amount of human cussedness, vengefulness, masochism, selfishness, and gullibility.  So far as it is possible, I shall try to follow George Bancroft’s rule for historians: I shall try to present them in their terms and judge them in mine.  That I do not accept the faith that possessed them does not mean I doubt their frequent devotion and heroism in its service. Especially their women.  Their women were incredible. (Emphasis added. Shout-out mine.)

All this preamble to say that, as I tell you about our move from Singapore to Switzerland, I’m the first one to wag a firm finger at my pettiness.  Believe me.  Under my kind of family tree, any and all hardships shrink in the shadow.

But you might be curious anyway. After all, this blog is intended as a breeding ground for my book about living internationally for over two decades, and I can’t write about that without writing about The Moves.

This Move came at us a bit out of the blue. When Randall and I accepted the new post in Singapore, we had been in Munich for three years.  The understanding was that this job in Asia would last for several years, long enough, at least, to get our then 14-year-old, Dalton, who had already attended five different schools in three different mixes of languages, safely through his high school years.  To make matters worse (or better), both our boys had established important friendships with teachers and students here in Singapore—had gotten traction, let’s say—which for one son especially, was a tender, vital miracle. Safe to say they were thriving and remarkably, steadily happy.  A parent’s dream.

But what we’d dreamed would continue for our children’s sake did not, alas, happen.  Thus is life. The news that we were going to move at least two years sooner than promised hit our boys hard.  To give them a chance to catch their breath and let the swelling go down in their red eyes by school on Monday, we told them on a Saturday.

Luc called it a Sadder Day.

Almost immediately, Randall began doing two jobs at once, the one on this side of the planet, and the other one way over there.  This meant he was doing that 18 time-zones thing, a marathon he has long since mastered, though it does wear him down.  My man is King o’ the Red Eye, of leading meetings on 3 hours sleep spent on his side next to a stranger whose snoring he breathes in along with the germ-infested-cabin-pressured-recycled-air.  He’s the type who walks in the door at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, the dirt of Moscow or Prague or Buenos Aires still in the tread of his shoes, then spends the day loving his family, and, nine hours later, repacks his carry-on with his blood shot eyes closed and in half the time it takes to check for his passport while taxi’s waiting, he blowin’ his horn.

I write this to underscore that, just as the tectonic plates start shifting beneath our feet and when it would help for us all to be on the same one, we are, instead, doing it by Skype, 3:00 a.m. phone calls, texting.  My ancestors had none of this. Parchment and the pony express were the very best they could hope for. Think how SMS might have saved the martyrs of the Mayflower and the Mormon trail.

So here we are, texting our lists, negotiating our concerns and packing boxes throughout the three-month interim since Sadder Day. There have been micro-bursts of deadline-driven activities, all pulled by The Move, and they are getting closer together.  Like contractions. So here’s a quick-down of how labor’s going:

CLOCK IT BACKWARDS:  This means we start planning logistics from the end and work backward. We’ve researched and found that most Swiss or international schools begin end of August/beginning of September, and so we hope to be settled into a place by that date, which means we can function on a daily basis, even though it might mean out of cardboard boxes and which box, by the way, has all our shoes?

Getting there from zero takes one to two weeks, since I usually work maniacally, day and night, and often the kids work alongside me which makes for a party. So we want to be on Swiss ground with our goods delivered by the second week of August. This means sending off our goods 6-8 weeks before that date.

Which means the movers show up next week.

Which means everything must be sorted or sold or cleaned by then, and every last thing we own (down to the forks, extension cords and paper clips) must be itemized and, in some cases, measured and weighed.

Measured and weighed, you ask?  I learned this on one move where I estimated (instead of tape measured) the length of our beds and they were three centimeters too long for the only space meant for beds in the leeetle Versailles house we moved into. As a result, we were never able to fully close those bedroom doors. For three years, our feet poked out into the hallway.

You weigh things in case you have to employ a monts-meuble, (literally: furniture hoist, but it looks like an escalator without handrails) as we did in the heart of Paris, to get your things from street level up to the floor of your apartment. The movers need to know if your dresser requires the GRAND MONTS-MEUBLE, or the petit monts-meuble. Handy stats help expedite that kink in the move.

In order to have your things delivered to your future home, you need to have found and signed on that home. And to have that home, you need to determine where you will be living, the general geographic radius. To determine that radius, you need your children to be accepted in a school. So you get busy. . .

FINDING A SCHOOL:  For us, the school, as much as any other entity, has been the  geographic/gravitational center for our family’s life in each international setting.   Our children spend five days a week there, their circle of friends come largely (though not exclusively nor even primarily) from that community, and with the exception of the French school Dalton and Luc attended in Paris where parental involvement was not encouraged, I have spent a lot of time on those campuses as an active volunteer.

So finding a school is important.

It is also where we are sitting in a stalemate this time around.

Explanation: Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) is shaped a bit like a squashed croissant with Geneva at the far left end, Lausanne at about the half-way point, Montreux at the far right. The drive (without traffic) from Geneva to Montreux is 1 ½ hours.  Randall’s office (when he’s not in the air) is halfway between Geneva and Lausanne.

Before visiting Switzerland, and based on the best practical reasoning we could come up with, we targeted three schools; one close to Geneva, another close to Lausanne, another close to Montreux. We then used our trip of three weeks ago to visit each of them, talk with administrators and students, drive the roads and get a feeling for the areas. We applied to all three schools.

This means filling out applications, getting multiple letters of recommendation for each child, getting medical releases and detailed physician forms, having the kids write extended introductory essays by hand, getting photos taken, gathering school records for the last three years of school (which means requesting them from Munich), and finally having parent tours and interviews.

All done.

And we are still waiting to get acceptances. Acceptances are rather capricious, I am learning, and hinge on classroom availability, not academic ability or private donations. When a space opens up in a given class, the next person on the waiting list is slipped in, first come first sere, as tidy as a Rubik’s cube. Clickety-clickety-click.

You’d think.

Things aren’t quite as clickety as we’d hoped, because it could be that one son will be accepted, another not.  Will we put the boys in two different schools? Is that logistically possible? All three schools are at least a 45-minute drive from one another. What does that mean for transportation? How much do I love driving, (even if it is driving along the French Alps?)

Should I home school, if one or the other is not accepted in one of these schools? Or should we enroll one or both of the boys in local Swiss schools? It has been five years since they attended French school, and they’ve studied German and Mandarin in the meantime. Will their tongues be tied or even loosely knotted? Or will a bit of scrambling to get back up to speed in academic French be, in the end, a great thing? Knowing the tightly-coiled French system as I do, is it unwise to just drop a non-native teenager into its machinery? One that doesn’t have that certain DNA needed to fit into le gymnase? One thing is sure, that at Dalton’s stage with college applications looming, derailing him right now doesn’t seem prudent.  So  I have been surfing home-schooling sites, and am now well-versed in all the Swiss public schooling options lining the long and lovely Lac Léman.

No one can accuse me of not doing my due diligence.

Back to the issue: getting the boys accepted to one school.  This precedes another weighty factor, and that is. . .

FINDING A HOUSE: Did I mention the movers come next week?  And when they do, it is not only customary but it is preferable—even necessary—to know what your belongings will be dumped into on the receiving end. Why?

Let me take you back to the Goldilocks story of beds three centimeters too long.  Or taller tales, like, will there be a garage? A basement? A yard? Equipped bathrooms? Closets? Will there be a ventilation pipe coming through the wall just where the armoire must stand (since, holy schmoley, there are no closets)?

Will there be walls (for bookshelves or pictures) and not just windows? Windows (for the curtains I had to get for this home) and not just walls? Will there be a staircase so narrow, my child’s desk will not make the corner? Can I take the ping-pong table, last year’s Christmas surprise for the boys? Or must I take it, but only because it can double as dining table and master bed? Will there be a kitchen? (I have moved into two places where there was not one.  Just a water spigot and a lone light bulb dangling from a wire. We had to build).

Will there be room for a piano, or do I have to sell that family heirloom and pull out the electronic keyboard for the next five years? Will there be floors that need rugs, rugs that need cleaning, cleaning machines already on hand (washer, dryer, a mop), handy commerce, or a commercial dearth with the nearest loaf of bread a 20-minute funicular ride down a mountain?  Will the ceilings be too low for bunk beds, unless you can train your top-bunk child to slide in sideways and always sleep with his head turned sharply to the left?

Things like this. Details.

While in Switzerland three weeks ago, we visited as many homes as possible to get a feeling for all of the above.  There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us, and with my list of measurements and weights in hand, I am convinced we’ll be able to settle in just fine.  But the one place that will fit for one school won’t be available after next week.  The other place that fits for the other school will be gone after mid-month. And the home that fits for the third school will go to another party if we cannot finalize by the first of July.

Which we cannot do until, uh-huh, we know about a school. And if the schools grant an acceptance, they won’t hold that place indefinitely. They’ll want a commitment within a week of said acceptance.

Did I mention the movers?

My pioneer ancestors home schooled, which is looking really appealing right about now.  They also ate viper meat and slept under buffalo hides.  They also carried everything they owned in a rickety wooden wagon pulled by sickly oxen.  Or sicklier parents.

Poor, poor petty-full me.

Between now and a week from today, I am doing all I can to be ready.  Listing. Selling. Giving. Sorting. Cleaning. Measuring. Weighing. Waiting. Listing. Writing about listing. And Listing.

KEEP LISTS:

All my fan palms and blade trees are going to friends.

Books not touched in 20 years, going.

CD’s, loading.

Documents, color-coding.

Albums, consolidating.

VHS’s, finally hucking.

(I am quite sentimental, and my original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had to go, but not without a solitary, sniffly bang.)

And finally, here is where being a Virgo really kicks in. I put colored stickers on just about everything.  Slap me, but even pretending you have a system wards off the krazees when chaos overtakes your landscape.  So I’ll share:

CONCOCT A SYSTEM:

Blue sticker: Air shipment To live off of for the interval between your arrival and the arrival of your sea shipment, if it does indeed arrive, since it might end up at the bottom of the Panama Canal.  Which happens.

Green sticker: Sea shipment Remind me to tell you about our arrival in Rue du Colonel Combes and how the container had indeed made it across the ocean, but not without the ocean making it inside of the container.  What luck that all the movers were former fishermen from the coastal towns of Brittany, and for some reason some were actually wearing hip waders. Because when they opened the big metal door at the back of the truck, a briny cascade gushed out and turned our little street into a tributary of the Seine. More descriptions to come.

Red sticker: Suitcases for two months Before flying on to Geneva, we will move into temporary housing then fly from Singapore to the States, where we will spend two weeks preparing our daughter, Claire, for her entrance on August 1st into two months of intensive language training in preparation for her departure to Rome, Italy, where she’ll spend a year and a half as a volunteer representative for our church.  She will be packing strategically, for 18 months of hard work. The rest of us will be packing Kleenex.

Black sticker: Sell or give away It has been unfortunate when the movers have mistakenly wrapped up and loaded for shipment the tacky Oktoberfest beer stein with deer-antler handles, or the pressboard side tables purchased at Osco Bargain Barn when we were in college and $20 was a splurge, or the microwave so old and leaky, it could make hair sprout on your eyeballs.  The same movers left behind in a pile of “unclaimed junk” the irreplaceable framed photograph of grandpa Reed shaking hands with the Ayatollah, the wedding dress in an unmarked box, and all the bed linens.  Don’t let the dross fraternize with your valuables. For this one and only moment in your life, believe that segregation works. Mark ‘em.

Orange sticker: storage Keep a detailed list of what you put here. Take measurements. Take pictures. From all angles.  Be persnickety.  Think CSI. And keep them on file. You’ll thank me one day.

But I do not want your tacky beer stein as payment. Have one.

Still, if someday in a flea market in Duluth or Doylestown you should find a picture of a bald man with glasses shaking hands with the Ayatollah, you know how to find me.

AND KEEP IT ON FILE

AGAIN, KEEP EVERYTHING ON FILE

AND BACK UP YOUR FILES

Remember that you will simplify life by cataloguing the dimensions (and value and weight and condition) of your belongings.  You can avoid sawing off the end of your kitchen table legs (so it will fit under that pesky window ledge), as I had to do once.

Actually, it was only a darned centimeter, but I had to make it work, so I didn’t really saw them off.  I just filed them off.  So when people say to me, “Wow, you’ve managed all these moves. You must have so many files!”, I narrow my eyes and say, “You have no idea.”

So . . .off to managing the adventure of this life-on-the-move. This week our children are in final exams, Randall is in a neighboring hemisphere, and I am saying farewell to this fabulous city and to friends who have settled so deeply and broadly into my right ventricle, I feel the pressure, and it’s stretching my heart.  While we’re at it, the house is on the market again, so there are strangers visiting regularly with real estate agents. A miniscule inconvenience, I know.  My ancestors were being visiting by violated tribes of Apaches and herds of bison, just to keep things in perspective. It  means, though, that I have to be on hand in the house. And we’ve determined it is perhaps best I am clothed in something a bit more presentable than a bathrobe.

Oh, the demands.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Diversity 101

Speaking of the enormously appealing diversity of Singapore, I stumbled into some today.  In a mall, of all places.

Out to buy some sports gear as a family, we heard music playing on the ground floor of Novena Shopping Center.  The musician in me was easily lured, and while the others stayed upstairs to grab some lunch, I bounded down the escalator, iPhone in hand, bee-lining it toward the source. It was traditional Cambodian music being performed live with a troupe of, you guessed it, traditional Cambodian dancers. This is what I captured:

Just think: this is your run-of-the-mill mall on an average hum-drum Saturday of your typical ho-hum week.

The Cambodian number finished to make way for the Thai troupe.  And this is what I captured:

I weaseled my way closer to get still shots of these elegant dancers.  I especially wanted a close-up of their impossibly delicate hands with those hallmark curved fingers, maybe a well-lit angle of their polished faces, those eyes dipped low, the permanently beguiling smile, but I never go it. Because as soon as I got close enough to snap that perfect shot of dancer #3, she slinked down off the performance platform and took my hand, whispering, “Come dance, Madame?”

So while my kids shrunk in a far corner of the upper mezzanine, mortified by their Mom —“You leave her alone for two minutes, and look what you get,” muttered Dalton with half a smile—this is what my husband captured:

You’ll think I’m over-romanticizing, but honestly, I cannot step through the door into this city without happening upon all sorts of encounters just like this.  Granted, the Subway sandwich franchise you see in these shots betrays how westernized, sanitized, and, for some tastes, neutralized Singapore seems. “Asia lite”, some call it.  Having now tasted a fair amount of “Asia-dense” to make the comparison, I guess I have to concede. There is some truth to that claim.

But if in one banal mall stop I can get my teenaged sons their 6″ Chicken Bacon Ranches and I can kick up bit of Thai dust with the likes of these lovely artists, I am content to accept a whole lot of Asia lite.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

What I Will Really Miss About Singapore

Fifteen days and counting. Right now is always about the point in an international move where my brain flips into hyper-list-making mode, its primitive way of revving up my otherwise sluggish neurotransmitters. My iPad, lap top, Excel, iPhone and Post It lists are supposed to save me from missing vital cues during this stretch between point of departure and port of entry. They remind me to sell this. Clean that. Huck this. Turn off this. Turn on that. Find this. Lose that. Cancel that. Warn them. Beg her. Petition him. Close these. Open those. Wrap these. And stack everything (and everyone) else right over there, thank you.

One such list awoke me in the middle of the night and I’ll tell you, it was a rowdy roll call. It never let me go back to sleep again. After a typical tropical storm blasted open my eyelids at 3:00 a.m., and before I could close them again, I was busily scrolling down this list: What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.

For the next several days, I’ll post my list for you, (gathered from 3:00 to 5:45 a.m. and noted point-by-point on green Post Its) here. It’s by no means exhaustive and with the exception of #1, (which is the thing I’ll miss most, I think), these things aren’t necessarily listed in any specific order. But it gives you an idea. . .

#1. Diversity. The first night our family arrived in Singapore we spent wandering through the muggy, teeming streets of Chinatown. It was there where Dalton predicted in one simple phrase what we would gradually discover over our two years living here. On his left was a Buddhist temple. A few steps farther, a Hindu temple. Even farther, a mosque. Finally, a Christian church. From each of these doorways poured people dressed like extras from either the Chinese, Bollywood, Middle Eastern or the Midwestern movie, and a cascade of inscrutable languages poured out with them. My teenager turned to me and said, “This place is like living every day in Universal Studios.”

Raising the Red Lantern in Singapore’s Chinatown

And he wasn’t so far off. Singapore is craaazily diverse. Its population of about 5 million packed into no more than 224 square miles is composed of multiple cultures. The official languages are English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, its dominant religions Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. But there are dialects and splinter groups of all that, too. Walk any given road and you will see turbans next to Red Sox baseball caps, head scarves next to Hermès scarves, Punjabi suits next to Chanel suits, ninja abayas along side Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirts. In my neighborhood alone, there are Chinese-speaking Malaysians, Malay-speaking Indians, Tamil-speaking Indonesians, Filipinos, Germans, Canadians, Koreans, Japanese, Mainland Chinese, Irish, Australians and Kiwis, a Texan or two, and some pretty serious looking guys who look like native Singaporeans (whatever that looks like) but who don’t speak at all. Instead, they carry machine guns. They are the guards outside the home of Goh Chok Tong, former prime minister of Singapore, who is reported to have said that with all these cultures converging in one tiny place, Singapore is not a nation, but a “society in transition.” I’ll go for that.

Sultan Mosque in Singapore’s Arab Street

As I wrote, there is a Chinatown, Arab Street, Little India, and Peranakan corners. (Peranakans are, as I understand it, Malaysians with deep Chinese roots.) There is a Goethe Institute as well as an Alliance Française. There are German, Canadian, French, Swiss, and Dutch schools, not to mention the several international schools offering instruction in Chinese and English. Nearly 40% of the population is made up of “foreigners” like us, or like the truckloads of workers who are, my friend from Mumbai told me, mostly Indian themselves, here to work the heavy construction jobs that drive this city-state into the stratosphere. Or at least into the clouds.

I love that I can assume that just about everyone I meet on the street speaks at least two, if not three or four or more languages. (Now, if only those languages were on my own list. . .) I love that we get to celebrate all these flamboyant Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian festivals, that Hari Raya and Puasa and Chinese New Year and Deepevali now mean something to my children. I love that my own religion is set in a global context, and that my children see themselves—white, English-speaking and Christian—as a minority, that we absorb the truth that being any of those things is not the only valid mode of existing is this world. Living in the mix of such diversity reflects the true proportions of this planet we live on. There is immeasurable worth in that, I think, and should train us, I hope, to respect cultural codes and celebrate (and not denigrate) such differences.

Here’s where such cultural exposure gets real:  When Luc recently celebrated his 12th birthday, his 12 friends were like a mini United Nations with Luc as the only fair-haired kid in the bunch. What struck me also, is that as we made the guest list and I quizzed him about these friends, Luc never once mentioned that one was African or Thai or Indian, that they looked brown, yellow or any color at all. (He did, however, casually mention dietary restrictions: “You’ll know who Ali is, Mom. He’s got the biggest eyes and is Muslim, so, you know, he doesn’t do pork.”) And when I asked Luc after the party to help me write thank you notes to each gift-giver, Luc didn’t describe them racially. Instead, this gift here? It was from the kid who is the fastest in the class, and that one was from the funniest, the other one was from the smartest. And this last gift? It was from the one who could do the loudest arm fart.

So maybe not exactly like the U.N.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.