Friday, 30 March 2018

Uphill, word by word

I used to be good at languages: French, Latin, ancient Greek. They seemed so easy back when my brain was young. I was an A student all the way. So, when we first planned a serious trip to Italy when I was in my late 30s, and I decided to pick up Italian, I was in for a shock. French plus Latin equals Italian. Easy! Er, actually, older brain plus little time equals constant struggle. I'd start a sentence in Italian, and end up in French. But I was game, and I managed to ask several things in Italian, and even understand a few of the answers.

When we lived in Slovenia for five months back in 2008, I tried to pick up the language, but we were living in our own little family unit, homeschooling and travelling, not immersed in day-to-day society. And Slovene is notoriously hard, a highly inflected Slavic language that hasn't bothered to modernise to a simpler version as most European inflected languages have. I ended up with a lot of nouns, a few adjectives and phrases, but few verbs and no sentences. I could, for example, go to the deli and say, "turkey, two hundred grams, please." Everyone spoke good English, since it's taught in school from the beginning - and Italian, since we were on the border, so I muddled along with a mix of three languages.

But now I'm going to be living there for around 20 years, and I know I have to learn, old dog or not. I started the way that makes sense to the academic me, step-by-step through the grammar. But, if not the proverbial two steps back, it was a continual retracing of my footsteps. Then I took a leap of faith (for a nerd) and decided that I'd just learn. Anything, anyhow, any way I could, because something is better than nothing. I also committed to five minutes a day. Just five. I can do more if I feel like it, but that's all I have to. I downloaded the 50 languages app and started skimming through the lessons, over and over. And gradually, it's sticking. I've deciphered a couple of news headlines on the university media pages: "UP teden 2018" - ah, university week. The Innorenew Center does something "prvo leto" - hey, that's for its first year.

Whatever I'm doing, I keep going over words in my head, and sometimes there are breakthroughs. For weeks, I couldn't learn the words for "granddad" or "uncle". Then, the other day, I was playing with my toddler, and he mentioned "grandad". "Dedek!" I thought, then, "Can I remember 'uncle'...'stric'!" Woo-hoo!  I have useless phrases, like "Peti dan je petek" (the fifth day is Friday), "Jem sendvic" (I'm eating a sandwich - in case you didn't notice) or slightly more helpful ones: "To je moj sin" (this is my son - useful when you're a geriatric parent!).

Some days I'm excited and confident about eventually speaking a new language, some days I'm terrified and doubtful. I'm probably still a "D" student, which is disheartening, but also strangely freeing for someone who's used to being that A student. I just I tell myself that's "D" for "dedicated" and trudge on.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Starting over

You know all those books about people who throw up their lives and go off for a year in Provence, Denmark, or around the globe to eat, pray, love and embrace hygge, that sort of thing. Actually, I don't, because I've never had the slightest interest in reading about it. But here we are, committed to selling almost everything we own, and, in mid life, moving our family (the two children who still live with us) thousands of miles away to new jobs in a country where we barely speak any of the language.

"Slovenia," we tell people, adding, if we're reasonably sure the person isn't allergic to the mention of the "T" word, "It's where Melania Trump is from."

We didn't wake up one day, like Mole, to say "bother spring cleaning" and set off into the world. It crept up on us over a decade. In 2008 we spent about half the year in Koper, my husband on a Fulbright scholarship, me homeschooling and enjoying the time off "work", all of us travelling just about every week. I remember announcing that Slovenia was a country I could live in, unlike the US, where I was sinking, year after year, into a deeper melancholy. Kind and generous as Mississippians are, I just never became American. (Yes, I know it's ironic that I'm going to Europe where, as an Englishwoman, I'm about not to be officially European.)

With the late birth of a third child, we were starting over and needed a new direction. Positions in the UK were not forthcoming; the University of Primorska, on the other hand, was ready and willing to welcome us both. I stopped half asking, half praying, "How can we get to the UK?" and instead asked, "What is the next, best, move?" And one day, it dawned on me that the answer was there: Slovenia.

It's been the secret that consumed us for months - furtive planning, vague answers to the innocent question of what we were up to nowadays. We couldn't let the news get to my husband's department until he had his work permit in hand. And all those months of inner, secret reflection somehow made my fingers freeze every time I sat down at the keyboard. I wanted to write, but what? Tell about the past 5 months in retrospect? Make it funny, cultural, informative, the online draft of a memoir?

Finally, I told myself: just write. Something short. Break the deadlock. So here it is. And there we're going.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Quick Lit March 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for reviews of the past month's reading.

Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own
Sometimes you can't remember whether or not you've read a book - that was the case with this one, and it was nagging at me. I knew the famous parts for sure - about needing a room of one's own to write fiction, and the fable of Shakespeare's sister - but had I read the whole thing or only extracts? So when it was a 99 cent Kindle deal, I had to buy it. It was interesting to read Woolf's call for upcoming female researchers to uncover the hidden fiction of women ninety years ago - when I have the fruits of those labours sitting on my shelf. Her ideas on fiction and predictions of the outcome when "womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation" offered lots of reflection and internal dialogue.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath - Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
OK, so maybe it wasn't a great idea to pick up this book after we decided to sell almost everything we own and relocate to Europe - but (phew) it clarified a lot of the decision-making process we'd gone through. This is written in a very clear and engaging manner, with a huge range of examples that cover both personal and professional decisions, a handy pneumonic, short summaries of each chapter, and further resources on the website. I found myself beginning to apply the ideas straight away.
It influenced my toddler too. "Where's your green book?" he asked after I swapped it for the drab back and brown To The Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse
Reading A Room of One's Own inspired me to re-read this one, which I prefer to Mrs Dalloway (though Orlando is my favourite). It was an old paperback I used in college about 30 years ago, and has tiny notes written in pencil between the lines. I can't read a word of them now. I'm sure it's because the pencil must have faded. Ahem. I'd forgotten how beautiful it was, or maybe I didn't appreciate it when I was barely an adult. Now, like Mrs Ramsey, I'm nearing 50 with a small child, married to a professor who deals in abstracts (though mine studies pure maths, not philosophy), and am prone to reflect on life. In a skillfully interwoven stream of consciousness style, the novel covers two days - before and after the First World War - where the lighthouse symbolizes the metaphorical light that shines on the inner lives of the Ramseys and those the enigmatic Mrs Ramsey draws into their sphere.

Herman Melville - Moby Dick narrated by Frank Muller
I'm glad I listened to Moby Dick, and I'm glad I listened to Moby Dick. Another one that's been on my TBR list for decades. I knew I ought to read it, but I'm also an anti-whaling vegetarian. I once bought a cheap paperback copy that struck guilt in me for years until I gave it away. For a while, I even comforted myself that I got the gist of it by reading my son's Cozy Classics version: Moby Dick in twelve words and felt puppet pictures. What finally tipped the balance was my elder daughter telling me how she sat next to someone on a plane who was going to a Moby Dick readathon. It was a double aha moment - why not try out my library's digital audio service and slay this literary leviathan at the same time? No, this isn't a review - but you know what Moby Dick is about and whether you have a white-whale-sized bout of guilt over not having yet read it. I definitely recommend trying the audiobook route.

Oops, spoiler

Jenny Colgan - The Little Beach Street Bakery
I needed to cleanse my reading palette after all those masterpieces, so I broke my usual mould and tried something in a contemporary setting. If cosy chick lit is a genre, this is it. Flora Mackenzie is a paralegal in London, far from the remote Scottish island home she left in disgrace. But when a billionaire client needs an islander to go back and make his case against a wind farm, Flora can't refuse the boss with whom she's secretly in love. I loved the aspects of island life and baking, but I can't say I felt invested in the love life of a twenty-something. Despite that, Colgan's plot twists made it a real page turner (or is that screen swiper nowadays?).

Robert McClosky - Blueberries for Sal
A classic, and maybe one that isn't for children with separation anxiety, but my little guy liked it. For those who haven't read it, Little Sal and her mother go berry picking on one side of Blueberry hill. Meanwhile, Little Bear and his mother are working their way up the other side. Sal and Little Bear stop to rest, and when they get up to join their mothers, they just follow the nearest one they see... I guess you could read it as a sweet story of how motherhood transcends all barriers or a horrid tale of separation and neglectful parents. But we thought it was fun. A plus is the blue and white illustrations throughout.

I guess animals and islands were my theme for the month. Hope the lion of early March is giving you plenty of excuses to curl up with a pile of books.