I am a trailing spouse. What a derogatory term that is, with its implication of an unwilling, dead weight being dragged behind their high-flying partner. For the last fifteen years, my husband’s career has dictated our movements, from the UK to Italy to France to the US to Switzerland. This has entailed many obvious sacrifices, but huge benefits too, which are sometimes less obvious. It’s not the life I planned for myself – but when has anyone’s life gone to plan?
Now the trail has ended with us settling permanently in Geneva, Switzerland. In this international city, home of the UN and countless multi-national organisations, there are thousands of us ‘other-halves’. Mostly women, and most who have had much more difficult journeys than me, living in far more exotic places, war zones, never knowing when they’ll next be uprooted. For some, a light has gone out in their eyes. I can see it in the school car park. Expat life is harder for the non-working partner, who has to cope with the vulnerability of their lack of identity, at the same time as bearing responsibility for family life and domestic tasks in an alien environment they didn’t choose. It’s exhausting and can be terrifying, every day. But these practical and emotional challenges make you resourceful, so that somehow you keep going, even when you feel close to giving up.
In any case, settling for good in Geneva meant I could no longer wallow in martyrdom, could no longer use the excuse of impermanence to avoid putting down roots. This was it, for life, and now I had to find a role for myself under the severe constraints of having four small children in a country that does not make it easy for mothers to work. Furthermore, shortly after arriving I discovered that I would not be insured to do my professional job here; in fact, it doesn’t even exist. After numerous career experiments, I had retrained as a breastfeeding counsellor, a highly-valued position in the UK where the NHS relies on auxiliary and voluntary services. But in Switzerland the midwives do everything, and even if my French-speaking had been up to standard for working in one of the maternity hospitals, they simply didn’t need me.
What was I going to do? Organise school bake sales, go to the gym? It wasn’t enough. This was a time of simmering panic; almost forty years old with only a few hours a day to offer to an employer, and a resumé so schizophrenic that no-one would ever take it seriously. We had moved countries so often that I had never had time to get promoted in a job and progress beyond junior level, so that I would be competing in the Geneva job market against people half my age. One day, in despair, I started writing. And I didn’t stop, until the day when I realized I had become a writer. I certainly didn’t plan it, but that’s what happened, and with two years of hindsight I can see why.
When you live in a foreign language, humiliation becomes a way of life. I arrived in Switzerland with a fairly decent level of French, having done A-level French at school and lived in Paris for a while. But in some ways, this limited ability made life more complicated than if I had been starting from scratch with a wide-eyed innocence. In the school car park I watched the cohort of Japanese mothers, here for two years only and with absolutely no intention of learning a word of French. Happy in their clique they felt no pressure to enter the francophone fray, and I envied them.
I had enough French to start a conversation but not finish it. Enough to fool people into interacting with me, only to then disappoint them. And a HORRIBLE accent. Sometimes I would have sleepless nights rehearsing exactly what I was going to say to the plumber on the phone the next day, or constructing friendly questions I might dare to ask the lady in the news kiosk. My husband is francophone – he grew up here – and it was impossible to explain to him just how exhausting it was, having to translate in my head every single word I uttered, making a complete fool of myself, repeatedly, every day as I persevered.
The only possible way to cope with this level of linguistic stress is to embrace the humiliation, to accept it and bathe in it. And once I let go of my inhibitions in this way I discovered an unusual new freedom, where fear is transformed into wonder; vulnerability is transformed into daring.
To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home. (Theodor W. Adorno)
When you don’t speak a language well you lose control over the impression you make on people, because you can’t say exactly what you mean. Without the power of nuance, you are unshackled from the burden of self-consciousness, because if you think too much about people’s opinion of you, you will agonise over all the ridiculous things you just said. For someone like myself who has suffered all her life from shyness, this was a revelation. Speaking in a foreign language is like acting. It gave me the detachment from words and meaning that paradoxically liberated me from fear of self- expression.
And lack of self-consciousness manifests itself in risk-taking behaviour. I started doing things I never would have done before. Living in a foreign language is a bit like shopping with monopoly money. It feels exhilarating, and not quite real. Shortly after arriving in Geneva I joined a heavy metal band and began playing the guitar on stage. Recently I even started singing as well. There’s no way I would have dared to do anything like this back in the UK. But here, it’s as if I’m not really doing it, as if I’m living in daydreams. Now I work as a music journalist; I go to heavy metal concerts, throw myself into the moshpit, interview famous bands in person and on the telephone. Sometimes in French. In fact, I prefer doing it in French! Would I have dared to do this in the UK, where I might have had other, safer options? Not likely.
Struggling with a foreign language gives you a new-found appreciation for your own mother tongue. You rejoice in the richness of your native vocabulary, your complex explanations, your conversational techniques. When I speak English now I feel powerful, whereas I didn’t before. When I make short trips home to Liverpool and realise that I can say a scouse ‘Thank you’ instead of my ugly-accented ‘Merci’ in shops and restaurants, I feel almost dizzy with the freedom of it. The words flow better than they ever did when I lived in the UK.
Along with the renewed appreciation for English came a desperate urge to communicate. To prove to myself, and show others, that I wasn’t the strange, half-mute woman-child who comes across in Switzerland. This was a primal urge, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that the music I chose with which to express myself was extreme metal. I scream, growl and roar, make unintelligible noises, like a caveman, or a baby, or an animal. A subconscious retreat to a time before formal language, all done in front of an audience.
And this primal need to communicate benefitted from new powers of observation and analysis. In order to adapt to a foreign culture you need to notice everything. Everything – all the glorious minutiae of life and landscape that you didn’t notice before. The sound of the tram as it glides into the tramstop; the way that Swiss people greet each other; the quality of the light on Lake Geneva in the mornings. And when you only understand fifty to sixty per cent of the words people are saying to you, you have to be more aware of their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. I don’t understand half of what Swiss people are saying to me, but I guess their personalities and wishes by their actions, movements and expressions. These powers of observation are the tools of a writer.
Another tool of the writer is loneliness. And I was desperately lonely that first year. I was doubly-marooned since my husband, having deposited us in Geneva, ended up working abroad for much of the time. With no purpose to your day or evening, and no-one with which to share that lack of purpose, you are forced to think about what does give your life meaning, what does make you happy. Having never had any desire to write creatively before, suddenly I was staying up all night typing, my laptop glowing in the dark. I wrote everything; short stories, song lyrics, poems, news articles. Some of it was terrible, confessional drivel. But I posted it straight on my blog, or blithely submitted it to publications, with no fear of rejection or criticism given my new abilities to cope with humiliation.
So living abroad made me lonely, introspective, brave, and fascinated by language; there are no major revelations here, and of course the figure of the expat writer is a cliché, especially in Switzerland. I’m a member of Geneva Writers’ Group which is a huge and supportive collective – there are hundreds of us, washed up on the shores of Lake Geneva and searching for meaning through our writing. Many of us feel that we lack a true homeland. As time goes by I feel less and less connected to the UK, and yet I will probably never become a Swiss citizen, never vote in Swiss elections, never have a paid Swiss job. As the philosopher Adorno has remarked: ‘To those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home.’
The scenery helps, of course. Padraic Rooney’s book ‘The Gilded Chalet’ is a wonderful history of the foreign writers who have been drawn to and inspired by the Swiss landscape. And I take my modest little place amongst them. My world is framed by the Jura on one side of the lake and the Alps on the other, the impossible peak of Mont Blanc a constant reminder of immensity.
It’s also no coincidence that all this happened at a specific time in my life. Recently I read a fascinating article by historian Susanne Schmidt on the true story of the midlife crisis. Citing Gail Sheehy’s 1976 book Passages, Schmidt showed that while the midlife crisis is commonly associated with men buying sports cars and having affairs, it was originally a feminist concept. It referred to the natural dissolution of traditional gender roles as women approached the age of forty, when they were able to release themselves from the confines of domesticity and motherhood, and find new identities. Somehow men have made it all about them, but in fact it is the woman who is in crisis. This is a natural process, for women with children or without, and I arrived on foreign soil at exactly this time in my life.
And I’ve been very lucky. I found music websites willing to publish my work, and then I found the holy grail of a publishing deal. A dream come true, since it doesn’t usually happen this fast. Perhaps if I hadn’t had this good fortune of finding a publisher I would have given up by now. Forced myself to go to language school, get a work visa, retrain and find a job… or maybe embrace the PTA, organise school events, volunteer, go to the gym, and find meaning that way. If happiness is the goal, who’s to say whether one activity is more worthwhile than another.
But I can’t imagine not writing now. After two years in Geneva, my French is much better. I no longer have to translate everything in my head, and on a good day, I switch between languages without even realizing. But on a bad day that old feeling of vulnerability returns, and I still make an idiot of myself constantly. If I cannot communicate properly with the spoken word, the written word will do it for me. The inspiration continues to flow. And if I ever hit writer’s block… I’ve always got my screaming and growling to fall back on.