lundi, février 07, 2005

So you wanna be a boxer?

This isn't the first time I've learned to live in another language. Eleven years ago in an uncharacteristic fit of spontaneity I gave up my job (I hated it) and moved to Paris with my new boyfriend, whom I had known for all of six weeks. We're married now and we've got three little boys, so kids, be careful, what you do in the interest of being footloose and youthful, it can land you in half a lifetime of very early mornings before you say 'I do'.

Anyway after six months of living together in our beautiful 35 square metre studio in the Marais, said boyfriend carried out his threat to move to Israel. I wasn't interested, so I went back to London. It took me six months to face up to how much I missed him, at which point I packed my bag (some books, a double duvet and a change of clothes) and flew to the Holy Land, an accidental Zionist if ever there was one. I really didn't want to be there at first, but I worked hard at the language, accidentally landed myself a job I loved, got married, had a baby. And loved my life in Jerusalem.

After 3 years we moved back to London. Not only was I now married with a child, but I was also the proud owner of an old sofa, a futon, a kitchen table and lots of baby paraphernalia. That's what comes of taking your eye off the ball for all of five seconds. You become a grown up.

Now seven years after that move we're back in France, and I am relearning the art of being a foreigner. I am totally grown up now of course, but I find the experience of changing language oddly infantilising. Just as I see sometimes how perplexing the coded adult world can be for a child, so I am now confronted with a whole new code to hardwire into my brain. It's not just a question of language fluency, but of performance, of gesture, of modulation and tone, of metaphor and allusion. And the closer I get to it, the more I realise how far I have to go.

I always think of speaking another language as being akin to touching a sculpture with gloves on. When you first start it's like you're wearing a boxing glove - you can maybe, just, make out the form, but only in the crudest way, and you could never even guess at the material it's made of. The more you gain fluency, the finer your gloves get, so that you can increasingly feel the contours, and even, as you get more fluent, guess at the material - leather gloves give way to wool, which give way to silk. But you will never get to take off your gloves, and really know what wood, or bronze or stone feels like to the touch - however fluent you get, you will never really know the language you adopt as you know your mother tongue.

It's a fantastic thing, to speak another language. Fantastic, and exhausting, and sometimes, treacherous, for you never really know the person that you are in that other language, and sometimes I suspect you come across quite differently to how you think you do. At least, I suspect I do.