Posted in Family, Personal life

How My Childhood Made Me A Citizen of the World

cover of December issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click to read the whole issue online

In my Young by Name column for the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser – written during the build-up to the UK general election – I reflected on how my upbringing has affected my world view – and my love of languages.

From an early age, I counted myself as a traveller. Born in an era when most British families took holidays in their own country, and only one a year, usually in the summer, I had a fortunate head start at the tender age of eight.

An American Road Trip

My father’s job as a computer engineer required that he spend a year in the USA, and he took the whole family with him – my mum, my older brother and sister, and me. Initially posted to Philadelphia, he was asked after a month to relocate to Los Angeles.

Photo of my dad with tour guide looking at old photos
My dad impresses our tour guide on the HMS Belfast with photos of his seafaring days

My father’s natural sense of adventure had been nurtured by his earlier service with the Royal Navy, including two years during the Korean War on HMS Belfast, now a museum on the Thames. He negotiated swapping our expenses-paid plane tickets for petrol, and so began our great American road trip in the family car. Our scenic route was designed to take in world-famous, memorable landmarks such as Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park and Las Vegas. Before I turned nine, I had seen more of the US than many American adults.

The Railways of Europe

His subsequent posting to Germany during my last four years of high school saw me hopping on and off trans-European railways in my school holidays, a confident solo traveller. Only recently, as my own teenage daughter started travelling abroad independently, did my parents reveal that they were much less insouciant about my train trips than I was.

East, West…

In adulthood, I have made countless journeys abroad, not only for pleasure. Business trips have taken me as far afield as Hong Kong and the Caribbean. Yet now, with the likelihood of trans-European travel becoming less straightforward post Brexit, coupled with concern for my carbon footprint, my appetite for foreign jaunts is waning.

A World of Languages

graphic of Duolingo owl
The cute Duolingo owl is your personal cheerleader as you learn new languages

Therefore my recent decision to start learning more foreign languages may seem incongruous. I already have some French and German from my schooldays and a little tourist Greek from evening classes, which for many people might seem plenty. But when my daughter introduced me to Duolingo, a free app that makes learning another language fun, she sparked a latent desire. The languages offered by this app are not only the obvious ones from the the school curriculum. Hankering after Hawaiian? Keen on Klingon? Duolingo has those too.

I’m starting with Latin, because I’ve long wanted to have a better grasp of the roots of English. But Latin is only a small part of the picture. Our English language has of course been enriched by many more tongues since the Romans left English soil, via immigrants, invaders and imported texts.

Whatever happens politically in the next few months, nothing can take away our rich linguistic culture. Every time I pick up my pen, I celebrate our long heritage of the blending of Anglo Saxon with French, German, Greek, Latin and many more European languages.

As JFK almost said at the height of another politic crisis, “Ich bin Europäer”.


cover of Young by Name
The cover illustration is a watercolour by my father

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, which I’m compiling into books. The first volume, Young By Name (the name of my column in the magazine), covers the issues from 2010 through 2015. The second volume, taking us from 2016 through 2020, will be out at the end of 2020.

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cover of The Pride of Peacocks
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Posted in Travel

Vianden: The Perfect Centre of Europe?

On the bridge across the river in Vianden
On the bridge across the river in Vianden

On our tour of Luxembourg, we become more cosmopolitan by the moment. We’re soon used to being in a country at ease with three languages in its daily life (French, German and Letzeburgesch). So it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to visit the part of the country known as “La Petite Suisse” – “The Little Switzerland”. One more country for our collection will not go amiss.

Vianden has taken its pseudo-Swiss connections very seriously, with copious Swiss-style chalets nestling alongside its riverbank. Heidi, come out, come out, wherever you are!

Soaring above this little riverside town, reaching even above the spectacular mountain-top castle, is a chairlift, echoing Swiss ski resorts. The effect is charming, if surreal.

Portuguese Ambush

The hot stone on which I cooked my steak
Should have taken this picture BEFORE I cooked and ate my steak

On the evening of our arrival, which happens to be our eleventh wedding anniversary, we eat out at one of thse chalets, a Tyrolean-themed restaurant called Das Heisses Stein (The Hot Stone). Not surprisingly, it serves dishes associated with Switzerland such as cheese fondue and – something new to me – a hot stone cooking system. My husband and I (but not our vegetarian daughter) are each provided with an oiled, heated slab of granite and a raw steak. We are instructed to slice the steak and set it atop the stone to sizzle to our preferred degree of doneness.

The author and her husband on their 11th wedding anniversary
Well, you’re entitled to be slushy on your wedding anniversary

Our very helpful waiter, attired in authentic Swiss lederhosen, turns out to be Portuguese, speaking exellent English. What brings him all the way from the Algarve to La Petite Suisse? I enquire. His sister was already working here, it turns out. We find further evidence when we visit the town’s two souvenir shops next day.

In the first of these shops, alongside the badges and mugs bearing “Souvenir of Vianden” slogans and images, are handbags made of cork, cigarette lighters bearing the Portuguese national flag, and, for balance, a selection of Spanish and Portuguese flags on plastic sticks.

Shock Finnish

The second souvenir shop is unexpectedly called The Finn Shop. Once we step inside, all becomes clear. Here we find Moomin-themed gifts and badges emblazoned “I love Finland”. Not the obvious souvenir of Vianden.

Laura inside the Heisses Stein restaurant
Inside Das Heisses Stein – no place for a vegetarian

Surprisingly, there are very few souvenirs of Vianden itself. My daughter has to work hard to spend her holiday money on this trip, eventually settling for a plastic doll in national costume (phew!)

The multinational connections do not end there. In the Hotel Victor Hugo, named after the great French writer who spent some time in exile here, we are served by a young boy apparently of African descent, possibly with Belgian Congo connections.

You Say Orange, I Say Orange

Vianden Castle, Luxembourg
That’s some castle

Touring the castle next day, we come across a large room lined with photos of world leaders visiting Vianden, from my own Queen Elizabeth II to Russia’s Gorbachev, from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to President Allende of Chile. A family tree fills one wall of the room, explaining the direct blood relationships of the local lords with the Dutch and French royal families – but not close enough, it seems, to prevent the eventual Dutch owners dismantling the castle in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and selling stones for scrap. Shame on you, House of Orange! It’s taken the Luxembourgeois most of the twentieth century to restore the place to its former glory.

Such a cocktail of nationalities is bewildering. I’d expected this country to be cosmopolitan, but this complexity is beyond all my expectations. And all offered with such good, tolerant grace by these proud people who “woelle bleiwe wat mir sin” (“we want to remain what we are”).

Viking sign outside Das Heisses Stein restaurant
So who invited the Viking?

And then it occurs to me: if ever there was a venue tailor-made to host the Eurovision Song Contest, surely Vianden is it? Luxembourg, I’d give you douze points any day.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some others about our Easter trip to northern Europe:

The Benefits of Speaking a Foreign Language

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Nous Sommes En Panne: The Tale of our Luxembourg Camper Van Crisis 

Posted in Travel

Lost in France

Senlis - Office de tourisme
Office du Tourisme, Senlis – Image via Wikipedia

Every time I go to France, it is my ambition to be mistaken for a French woman.  This is not so much to do with my linguistic powers, but with the ability to appear effortlessly elegant.  I’m not sure why I feel this compulsion, given that I’m usually such a scruff, but feel it I do.  And I’m on holiday, so what the heck, I’ll self-indulge.

So I’ve planned my holiday wardrobe carefully, packing crisp, simple linen shifts (well,  the two that I possess, anyway).  A trilby serves as a sunhat – a regrettable necessity for my English fair skin.  (I don’t suppose that French women wear sunhats unless they have to).  Simple leather flats, just a couple of pieces of jewellery and a totebag complete the look for a stroll down to the market through the ancient cobbled streets of Senlis, half an hour north of Paris.

When I pause at the tourist office en route to ask whether there’s a swimming pool in the town, the helpful assistant, Raphaelle, asks me which country I come fro.  I experience a fillip of triumph that my accent is not immediately identifiable.  This gives me the confidence to decline her kind offer to converse in English.

Having established the pool’s whereabouts and opening hours and that it’s découverte (open air) – a welcome discovery on this hothouse of a day – I head down the hill to the market.  Carefully I choose the best strawberries in the most promising barquette , hoping I’m indistinguishable from the milling French housewives.  In my exchange with the stallholder, I take a different approach to my grandmother’s tried and trusted “speak English in a very loud voice”.  Instead, I speak French in a very loud voice.  I not only to sound more confident but feel more confident too.  To my delight, the old farmer running the stall treats me just the same as his other customers.

“I think I’m getting away with it,” I smile to myself.  Even so, I am filled with admiration for those war-time spies who successfully infiltrate a foreign country, passing themselves off as native.  Travelling as I am with my husband and his unique approach to the French language, recollections of the English policeman’s comical Franglais in “‘Allo, ‘Allo” are never far from my mind.

On my way back to the camper van, I browse the rails outside a couple of dress shops, now selling off their summer ranges at a discount.  I note contentedly that the most popular style is very similar to the dress I’m wearing.

In a little cloud of self-satisfaction, I potter back up the cobblestones.  I’m reaching the outskirts of the shopping area when a white Renault Clio pulls up alongside me.

“Madame, s’il vous plait?”

A pleasant looking Frenchman leans out of the window to peer up at me, enquiringly.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” I venture, loudly.

He fires off a rapid, complex query as to how to find a particular address in Senlis.  My smile disappears.  He might as well be asking directions to Mars.  I’m fooling no-one after all, not even myself.

“Desolee, monsieur,” I falter in a small, low voice.  “Je suis une étrangère.”

I am a stranger/foreigner.

He nods and waves in sympathy before driving on.  My confidence shattered, I take a wrong turn, lose my way, and for the next fifteen minutes, I am Lost In France.  When the camper van with its GB sticker eventually appears on the horizon, this tiny piece of home territory is a very welcome sight indeed.

Posted in Family, Travel

La Lingua Franca

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...
Image via Wikipedia

If my daughter ran the world, it would be a much simpler place.

“Why do people have different languages in other countries?” she asks as we drive past French roadside hoardings.

I explain that languages evolved before man developed the means or desire to travel abroad. Once we started travelling, I add,  we imported words from other languages. (I often worry whether my improved explanations are academically sound; I wonder how any parent can have the confidence to home-educate a child.)

I try to think of a few French words that migrated into English after the Norman Conquest.  Oh, “language” – that will be one of them (as in la langue Francaise) – and “conquest” (la conquete).  She doesn’t look convinced (or even convaincu).

Her skepticism is catching and I find myself looking out for bizarre examples of this alien lingo.  As we cycle round the city walls of Montreuil, I espy a poster advertising an event.  In large type, the name “BIGOT” stands out.  Riding shotgun after Laura, I don’t have time to check the details, but I am disappointed to realise that it can’t be a political poster.  It lacks the dreadful photo that seems indispensible in mainland European electioneering.

I’m always astonished that any politician is elected on the basis of these huge, insipid mugshots.  They’re usually posed against a bland studio backdrop, showing over-groomed and coiffed men and women smiling straight at the camera.  All the politicians look phoney.  This approach certainly wouldn’t work in Britain, where most MPs are elected in spite of their hairstyles rather than because of them.  I’m amazed that it works abroad.

Food advertising here seems to follow the same pattern.  We pass a giant poster displaying nothing but a tin of sweetcorn, the face of a woman looking vaguely startled, and the price.  It does not for a moment make me want to buy a tin of sweetcorn.  Yet presumably to the French shopper it is persuasive, as there are similar advertisements everywhere we go.

Driving in the camper van later that afternoon, we pass a shop under the name of “COFFIN”.  I’m not sure I’d want to take advantage of the sign inviting me to fill my house with its products – until I realise that it’s not an undertakers, but a furniture store.

Soon afterwards, our van’s cooking gas cylinder runs out.  Seeking a replacement, we spot one marked “MALICE” on the service station forecourt.  I do a double take.  Is this a special brand aimed at the terrorist market?  “Malice – le gaz ideal pour ceux qui preparent les bombes chez eux”?  Might be hard to get that one through customs on the way home.  (We settle instead for “Le Cube” – a square brand of cylinders, which seems rather a contradiction in terms).

Later, searching in one of the van’s cupboards for a spanner, I rediscover a handy translating gadget that Gordon has tucked away and forgotten about.  Laura is intrigued by the concept and he shows her how it works.  You input a word in one language and choose the language into which you’d like it translated.  Et voila!

But for Laura, two languages are not enough.  She inputs her own name in English, then translates it  into another language,  then translates the translation into a third language, and so on until she runs out of languages. Eventually it emerges in German as “Kopfsalat” – which I am pretty sure means “lettuce” (literally “head salad”).  We are all quite tickled by this Chinese Whispers effect, and she spends much of the rest of the day speaking aloud in a language she has made up all by herself.

And to think they say the English aren’t good at foreign languages…