Clueless in Paris, London or New York

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I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!
Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home
Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

Ireland – far away, up close

Time to say goodbye
Time to say goodbye

Some things, like impressionist paintings, are only clear when you take a step back. Not having lived in Ireland for a decade there are certain things I am seeing with fresh eyes. As I near the end of a four-month sabbatical in Dublin and contemplate the return to my life in Switzerland, it’s a good moment to cast an objective eye on the homeland.

Cold comfort: I now understand why we like to live in terraced houes, in the city at least. Huddling together, as penguins know, is the best way to keep warm. I’m not entirely joking when I say that the only thing keeping me here right now is my electric blanket.

Irish houses have chronic insulation issues and heating – what time you turn it on, how big your bills are, how useless storage heaters are – is a big topic of conversation. This issue should be the central plank of any political party manifesto. I think the political leader who makes our homes affordably warm is destined to win the affection of the nation.

Gale force: A note from the second windiest country in Europe (after Scotland). The wind is wreaking untold devastation on the hairstyles of Ireland, a problem that does not get the recognition it deserves. You could have your hair set in iron cladding and it would still get blown to bits. If there was some way we could marry the wind resource with the home heating gap we would be set up for life. Anyone, anyone?

Comfort eating: You have to have something with those endless cups of tea. The Irish are the biggest chocolate, cake and biscuit munchers in Europe and the selection of crisps is second to none. Yes there may be public health implications but it is also worth celebrating the sheer wealth of delicious treats available.

Storytelling: I don’t think Irish people live more dramatic lives but they certainly have the ability to turn life experiences into good stories. This comes across a lot on radio – I’ve often been stopped in my tracks by the voices of people recounting something powerful. Amongst my own friends and family I’ve had evenings here where story after story is told which could provide the plots for several novels. Speaking of which, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are writing novels. The competition is going to be stiff!

Rule bending: Travelling with three children on the bus every day I have experienced plenty of instances of friendliness and kindness from bus drivers which never ceases to amaze me. There have been other situations where the ability to apply common sense or compassion over the rules has made life easier for me. It’s not something you come across as often in Switzerland.

The next twelve days will be all about letting go and saying goodbye again. But that’s OK. The trip has gone really well overall and I think I can say I found what I was looking for.

Getting away from it all

New horizon, old horizon
New horizon, old horizon

There are the restless years. The years of trying out jobs, hairstyles, places to live. That era of cycling home with your shopping bags swinging from the handlebars and spending everything you earn. You get caught in the rain, you never have a decent coat and you laugh a lot.

When you are living lightly, unencumbered by pots or pans, children or a hard-to-replace job, changing location is as simple as walking away. You don’t own anything you can’t carry, you don’t owe anyone anything. You book your flight and you go.

Then before you realise what has happened, the landscape of your life has changed. It takes a team of men a full day to move the furniture you have accumulated. You actually read through the quarterly statement from your pension plan. Gardening magazines find their way into your home and you become concerned about booking holidays early.

Middle age. There’s no getting away from it, that gradual drift towards Sofa, the god of comfort and inertia. Or is there?

One of the great things about my sabbatical visit to Ireland (now three-quarters over, tick tock!) is that feeling of having defied the pull of middle age just a little. Packing up and setting off for new horizons was a part of my life I thought I would never have back again, or at least not until my children were raised. But it has come to pass, and this time, after a decade abroad, I have returned to the original horizon of my youth, Dublin Bay – and it feels good.

Has anyone else found a way to feel free again? I’d love to hear about it.

You’re looking fierce well altogether

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This phrase, which I overheard on the street today in Dun Laoghaire, adds great flourish and emphasis to the standard ‘you’re looking very well’. You can also be fierce upset or fierce busy in Ireland. In my first week back I am feeling fierce well altogether myself.

Maybe it’s the street where we are staying, ten minutes’ walk from my childhood home and from the sea.

Or the morning we spent on the sea shore, climbing the rocks and looking for crabs.

Being there for my little nephew’s birthday.

My membership card for the Irish Writers’ Centre arriving in the post.

Bumping into old friends at the Sunday market in the park.

Sitting out in the back garden with my mother and knowing that for a change we have time on our side.

A tall order for Ireland

Sandcove beckons
Sandcove beckons

Is there any way the next four months in Ireland can match my ridiculously great expectations? How many gallons of tea, Jamaica ginger cakes, meaningful conversations and seafront walks will it take to satisfy me?

Small recap: After ten years in Switzerland I have taken some time off to return to Dublin to write, spend time with friends and family and give my children a chance to be more than just visitors to Ireland.

I am finally going to connect to the everyday rhythm of Irish life again, without the pressured merry-go-round of arrangements and catching up that my shorter visits home have become. At least that’s the hope.

More than one person has warned me that what I am looking for cannot be found. They perceive me as longing for le temps perdu – the way things used to be. Could they be right? I do know it’s not the same country I left ten years ago and that time and circumstances have changed us all but do I really accept that?

So what is it I am looking for? There are concrete things like my mother’s Sunday lunch, family birthdays, a dip in the sea at Sandycove. On the cultural side I’m looking forward to my first book festival in Dun Laoghaire, an evening or two at the theatre, the writing course I’ll be attending at the Irish Writers’ Centre. My children will come home from school, happy I hope, with a few phrases of Irish and a stronger sense of their other identity.

But it is the people I have missed the most. Close friends and family in whose treasured company I passed the first thirty years of my life. People I’ve only managed to have snatched moments with for too long, not only because of the distance but because of the demands of a growing family. A reservoir of unshared stories and experiences has built up behind the dam. It’s in these relationships that the greatest potential disappointment or reward of the trip lies.

Fellow blogger Karen O’Reilly returned to Ireland with her family earlier this month for good after 11 years in France.

http://getrealfrance.blogspot.fr/2013/08/taking-leap-moving-back-to-ireland.html

A lot of the reasons she gave for her decision echo my own but in my case the move is temporary. I hope the time in Ireland will soothe the homesickness I feel and help me commit more fully to my future in Switzerland. Whatever happens I think the regret of not following through on this idea would definitely do more harm in the long run. With just over two weeks to go before we leave Switzerland, any last minute advice or warnings are welcome!

Green light for return to Ireland

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In the author description of Douglas Kennedy’s latest book Five Days, we are told that the writer divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Maine and Montreal. Is he serious? You have to wonder what kind of lifestyle that involves. A lot of fridges to clear and restock.

Most of us are confined to one geographical base at a time but that doesn’t mean we don’t dream of other possibilities. Last year I met an Eritrean refugee who risked his life crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, mournfully reconciled to living in Switzerland, while longing to go back home.

A lucky few have holiday homes and can shuttle between two different lifestyles and even climates. Wealthy Northern Europeans love to buy up properties in Spain, France and Italy. You can only admire their good sense.

This year I will be ‘dividing my time’ between Switzerland and Ireland, leaving Switzerland in August, ten years to the day since I arrived here to live, and staying on in Dublin until Christmas. The germ for this idea came around a year ago and the trip has come together thanks to a little serendipity and perseverance.

Last summer I had a conversation with my sister about my wish to live in Ireland again someday. Working out when my youngest child would be independent, I reckoned I could possibly arrange something around the age of sixty. This reflection shocked me to the core and started me thinking.

A short time before that on a flight from Dublin to Geneva I met an Irish woman who had lived in France for 20 years. She was married to a Frenchman and they had four daughters together. She told me she had twice moved with the children to Ireland for a school year, staying in her old family home. She was able to keep up her small travel business from Dublin and her husband, a teacher, used all his holiday time to visit them.

Moving forward to the end of last summer, one of my colleagues went to Florence for six weeks to do an Italian course, thanks to a creativity fund in work. I found out more about the fund that supports employees wishing to pursue various projects.

Now it just so happened that I had a very active creative project in progress – writing my first novel. I looked at courses in the Irish Writers’ Centre and found one that would be ideal for me. Everything was telling me to seize the moment.

My funding application was finally approved last week and I went ahead and booked the flights. What I have gained is the most precious thing of all – time. Time to write, time to spend with friends and family, time for my children to get to know their origins and time off from being a foreigner.

Wish me luck!

10 things to love about Switzerland

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I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?