This year will see a different Earth, regardless of how we feel about that
This is the third month of the Covid-19 pandemic here in Sweden, and while we have reached the plateau and our state. epidemiologist informs us that our R-number is below 1 right now (meaning that each sick person infects, on average, less than one person) we see no end in sight. Our rules of social distancing, no-travel, work from home, etc. are still in place and today, I feel a great deal of sorrow. Not only is it the fact that there seems to be no end in sight (experts speaking that this could be going on well into 2022 depending on when a vaccine becomes widely available) but the psychological effects of the pandemic are palpable, everywhere.
Isolated for weeks with no end in sight
While we’ve been lucky here to have avoided the most severe “lock-downs”, the rules here in Sweden are less draconic, but still: our airport had one flight per day for 7 weeks, we’ve worked from home for almost two months, theaters, playhouses, the opera, and all concert halls have been closed for as long. We had to cancel attendance at birthday parties and some planned dinner parties with friends have never made it out of the planning stage. And while our government is proud to claim that the avoidance of a total lockdown enables us to sustain our restrictions for a much longer time, I’m not sure I even want to contemplate another two years of this. I can’t even see summer coming without a trip to see my dad.
I’m not alone. I think loads of people feel the same, and while 99.99% of us follow the rules, some “idiots” have taken to the streets to complain loudly, armed to the teeth, which says a lot about their true intentions. But even regular people around the world probably wish we’d wake from this nightmare, that we’d be able to attend concerts again, go to the movies or drink a beer in a bar. Alas, that day eludes us.
The victims are found everywhere, from mass graves to the gig economy
Now, I mustn’t complain. There are people who’ve lost their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes. I have friends, family in much worse situations. I watch on in horror as mass graves are dug around the world to dispose of bodies nobody’s claiming. Not just in the slums of the poorest cities in the world, but in the west as well, e.g. New York’s Hart Island. For weeks, my most visited website ahs been the Corona page of John’s Hopkins University and every weekday at two pm I’ve been tuning into the press conference of our authorities to get the latest “scoops” in the fight against covid-19. I haven’t written a word of fiction in over two months. My mind just isn’t in it. I do grocery shopping for the elderly on the island which is super rewarding. Yet, looking back, my own life hasn’t really changed that much. Yes, I’ve lost a major consulting gig with great potential because of the pandemic, I probably sell fewer books because of covid. But my husband still works, our son is still going to school, and I’m used to working from home, have done it for a decade. My life is not much different than it was compared to last spring. What’s changed is the perception of it.
For the hundreds of thousands who’ve perished, and their loved ones, reality HAS changed, and this new reality is grim. For those hanging on to live in ventilators around the world, fighting for every breath, this new reality is about life and death. For people struggling to put food on plates, the new normal is anything but normal. For companies trying to stay afloat without their customers, covid-19 is a game-changer. This pandemic is altering our societies, our economies, and our way of life forever. And I doubt it will ever go back to the way it was before, and that makes me sad.
Is there a silver lining?
We don’t know what the future will look like. Will the clear water in the canals of Venice and the dolphins stay? Probably not. Will the people of Delhi be able to enjoy blue skies even after the pandemic? Not likely. There are reports of wildlife reclaiming their habitats as humanity (temporarily) retreats. Sadly, chances are the backlash will be swift. Although, there is hope. There is hope that the people of Venice will get used to seeing dolphins and will want them to stay and enact measure to protect them and the clear waters. There is a sliver of hope that the people of Delhi will cherish seeing the blue skies above them and will enact legislation to protect the environment. There is hope. For Mother Earth, our environment. There is hope that fewer planes in the air will help the climate, that politicians will make sure that the post-covid society will be more gentle to our planet.
Once upon a time, going places. Taken 30,000+ ft in the air.
In psychology, grief theory suggests a number of steps to go through: rejection, anger, depression, bargaining & acceptance. It would seem that I’m in the “depression” stage, right now. Eventually, you might see me talk about how “amazing” things were in the past (not sure though), but there will be a time when we come to accept what has been will never be what is, and I presume that is good. The world has always been changing and throughout history, events like pandemics have always altered societies, sometimes for good, sometimes not so much. But change is inevitable. It is up to us to make the best of the situation. I for one hope that we see a gentler, more caring society emerge, a society where we invest more in healthcare and the common services we all share and cherish in this difficult time (schools, elder care, libraries, etc.)
I will travel again…
I miss traveling, weirdly enough because I’m not supposed to, not because we had to cancel any trips. But I know that I will travel again. The wandering gene within me has not been switched off. And whenever, and however, restrictions are loosened, I know I will be going to the airport and board a plane to elsewhere, to meet new people, experience new things. Until then, I have Instagram and my friends around the world. As any seasoned traveler will tell you, anticipation is one of the greatest perks of travel. My next trip, to the undiscovered country, has me in anticipatory stitches right now.
I haven’t written a decent word of prose since March 4. I just can’t. My mind’s not there. I’ve been lucky to have been writing other stuff, but nothing new. We live in ding-ding times. But let’s not speak of that today. Because today is one of those special days in the life of an author when a brand new book reaches readers. Today is the release day for Matt–More Than Words. I’ve spoken before about how Matt first appeared to me, more than a year ago, on one of my walks, and just this morning I read an article in the Guardian about authors and their “relationships” to their characters. Interesting reading.
The cover of Matt–More Than Words
In this context, you may wonder how a character unable to communicate spoke to me…
Well, first and foremost, it may be worth pointing out that Matt is a literary character. I often have to remind myself of this distinction, as my characters feel so real to me, I see them out in the world and they really take on a life of their own. However, their world is physically contained within the confines of my skull (and that of other readers.) In a way, Matt finally gets to move out of my mind and inhabit others. But his conversations with me were more of a metaphysical kind, empathy mixed with telepathy if you will. But unlike many other characters, Matt didn’t speak to me in words, which made writing him more challenging than others, finding the right words tricky even.
Matt isn’t the only character in that book…
There is not a huge array of characters in this novel. Matt lives in a very, almost corona-adapted, world. He has his mother and his assistants, s’it. The biggest change comes from the constant change in assistants, and most of them are painted in sketchy colors because they come and go in a steady stream. There are two exceptions, Timmy and Colin. Timmy is also one of the people from whose point-of-view the story is told. There is so much going on in and around Matt that not everything can be told from his perspective. His mother’s and Timmy’s perspective were important from a narrative perspective. Both Timmy and Matt’s mother go through major changes in their lives and their journeys are supported by tertiary characters, the owner of a restaurant, parents, and friends. You’ll see.
When I last wrote a release day post, I promised an epic ending. I do no such thing today. I could tell you how the book ends. It is not the point of the book. So, yes, Matt will eventually find a way to communicate. The point of this story is a completely different one: it’s to highlight the plight of some of our siblings in society who are in Matt’s shoes, and how society is getting better at helping them to live life to the fullest. We have amazing tools at our disposal to enable help and assistance, if only we give them a chance. Matt–More Than Words is an exercise in empathy, to spend a few hours in the shoes of someone so very much unlike us, someone unable to tell his own story. I hope you will give Matt a chance. The eBook and paperback are available starting today, the audiobook will be coming shortly, narrated by the amazing Michael Bakkensen.
If you’ve read this post, and it’s 4/30, why don’t you join us today for a small release day party on Zoom? 11 am PST, 2 pm EST, 8 pm CET.
After three homophobic attacks in six weeks, I’m exhausted
It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have gotten used to the feeling of it’s over, we’re good, society has finally accepted us. Because under the veneer of legislative progress, there is still an underbelly reeking of hatred and disgust, there are still people publicly stating “we don’t hate the gays, just the acts”, etc. Friday, January 31, marked a chasm in my sense of security. It was late, after ten pm, Alex and I were watching TV, as we usually do on a Friday night. Tired from a week of work, I was half asleep when I suddenly heard a noise, less than two meters to my left, a loud banging followed by a male voice screaming “fucking faggots”! I literally flew out of my chair, my heartbeat pulsating in my throat, as I approached our back door to see what was going on. I open the door, look around and see a guy walking down the street, dark green hoodie, pulled over his head, low. Wearing slippers, I follow him, calmly, now more upset than scared, at the act. He starts to run, I follow as quickly as I can in my slippers but lose him to the night and the forest he disappeared into.
A sleepless night and the aftermath
I don’t get much sleep that night, and I end up taking a sleeping pill to get any rest at all. Monday night, a neighbor knocks quietly on our front door after our son had gone to bed. As I open the door to see what she wants, her first reaction is staring at me saying “I’m sorry I scared you…” That’s how visible my fear still is, 72 hours later… And it took weeks to get over this violation. No, I’m not trying to compare this to rape or physical abuse (been there, experienced that, too, sadly) but we often consider our homes our castles, our keeps. Places where we are safe, and we do not expect strangers to simply walk into our properties to harass us. It’s bad enough we have to endure this shit in public but in our homes?
Then came last Friday. Alex was tired and had gone to bed soon after ten pm. I was still up, trying to wind down, hanging in my chair, soul dangling, when the banging and the slurs scare the heeby-jeebies out of me, again. Once again, I follow, this time barefoot. Bad idea. I hear the young man’s footsteps as he ran away into our nearby forest. Not a good to follow without shoes. The next morning we talked about what to do. Alert social services? Report to the police? We decide not to because it’s just a waste of time since the police obviously have better things to do. Instead, having a hunch that this might be a troubled young man and since it is important to me to show that we’re not going to be scared (as much as we are, tbh, but we refuse to let our lives be run by fear.) Here’s my letter to the young man. I published it, after much deliberation with my husband on an island forum:
To the young man…
Who banged and yelled at our door last night, like a madman, for the second time in a few weeks.
Your consumer information did not come as a surprise to anyone in the house. We knew that long before you were born. As for “devils” [used to strengthen a curse in Swedish.], we are no deities, not in anyone’s book. Just ordinary people, with young children who sleep this time of day.
Both times I followed you a bit, but you are certainly afraid to talk to us. You ran into Arbores quickly, both times. Unsurprisingly perhaps.
I suspect I know what’s going on deep inside you. And that knocking on the door is more about something else you are actually knocking on, from the inside, your closet door. You would hardly be the first one. Homophobia is strongest among those who are most afraid to be discovered.
Our door is there to ring, the day you dare to talk. But then preferably daytime.
Poor mailbox, what did you ever do to anyone to deserve this?
Seven hours later…
The young man’s response came swiftly, just seven hours later, and I can only assume that my post hit a nerve. I woke at 1:30 am to a loud banging from outside our bedroom. Someone was going berserk on our mailbox. Naked, half-asleep, I decided not to get up. I hear a moped leave the premise. Too late. When I woke up in the morning, I see the damage. The mailbox is a wreck, and someone had unloaded all his hatred and rage upon it. Just ours. Nobody else’s mailbox was visited that night (as sometimes happens here, sadly.) This was a direct response to my letter. Had I hit a nerve?
Our Sunday was solemn, cleaning up the mess, going to town to buy a new mailbox, setting it up. We also bought our first-ever security camera, not something you really need on an island where many people don’t even lock their homes. But this was maybe not the last mailbox we lose, but the last time we do not identify the perp…
Regardless of whether the young man is closeted (and struggling with accepting himself) or just plain homophobic, the real question is: why? Why are we still having this discussion in 2020? Why would we make young people feel that coming out is more painful than unloading their wrath on innocent people? Why does being LGBT still cause so much pain and anguish? Could it be that despite all the progress we’ve made, our society still regards us as freaks? You don’t have to go far to experience that. Here in Sweden, it’s preached from the pulpits of churches (Pentecostal, Mission Covenant, Catholic, Salvation Army, etc.) and mosques, from political parties (Christian democrat, Sweden Democrats), from radical feminist groups (TERF) or go to neighboring countries like Poland (“LGBT free zones”) or Russia (“Gay Propaganda Laws”, “Chechen Concentration Camps”) to realize that our young are still in daily contact with views that there is something wrong with them. There is so much conflicting messaging out there, no wonder our young are still confused.
I was recently reading brochures on mental and physical health and young LGBTQ people are radically overrepresented in those statistics of people who are not well. And that is not because there is something inherently wrong with us (as the crazy lot will tell you) but because we’re bullied and ostracised. Every day. In every aspect of life.
There is hope
The outpour of support from our community was huge. Almost two-hundred-fifty people reacted and commented on my post. Yes, it wouldn’t have been advisable for the haters to do so publicly, and they abstained from doing so. They prefer the shadows obviously, but we had several neighbors visiting us that day, people came with hugs and flowers and many called to offer their help and support. That feels amazing and reaffirming to live in a community where we’re welcome and accepted. We’ve lived here together for almost twenty years, and I’m coming up on twenty-five… And we’re not alone. In our neighborhood alone, there are three LGBTQ couples living.
Yet I worry about the young man. Why does he feel the way he does? Is there a way to reach him without risking another $200 mailbox in the process? Without wasting half our weekend? And particularly, without the fear, the sense of insecurity in our own house? That’s really the worst part of it. I can’t describe how it feels to not feel safe in your own four walls. It’s awful. I don’t wish this upon anybody. I still hope to reach him. The bigger question is how do we reach the rest of them? The Putins, the Pences, the Kaczyńskis (incidentally, all three closet cases themselves), all those men and women spewing hatred against the LGBT community? To that, I still don’t have an answer.
Eleven months ago, today, I embarked on an incredible journey…
Just around the corner from here, shortly after I took this picture, Matt appeared to me for the first time. Taken March 28, 2019. Photo: private
Two months from now, the book will see the light of day. It’s funny to go back and look at the date a file was created. Thursday, March 28, 2019, at 15:46. I remember it well because the circumstances of Matt’s appearance in my life were unusual. He suddenly popped up as I was out and about walking across the island, as I did every Thursday back then. I vividly remember the spot, an area carved out by ice age glaciers just before you climb up a small hill, trees all around the path. After returning home from that walk, I began writing. A lot has happened since then, one of which is that I’ve barely blogged in recent months. My apologies. I’ve recently taken up a small consulting gig for an IT firm in town and I’m working more than 50% there, which takes two valuable days out of my schedule for writing. On the other hand, my bank account is looking more pleased than in a long time.
Matt: from hereon in
I finished the manuscript in January and have since been working on covers. it depicts a lighthouse in the fog, but unlike the white light of a regular lighthouse, the one on Matt’s cover is green, which is eventually how Matt will learn to communicate. With a green light, not a lighthouse. 😉 The next step on getting the book out include, of course, typesetting, editing, and proofing, but also the recording of the audio version. I can’t wait to hear the magic Vance will bring to this story.
To write about someone who’s “unlike” the author is always tricky. Last summer, I attended an LGBT event in the US where someone from the disability community quite vocally accused me of not knowing wtf I was doing because the back matter of my novel Spanish Bay used the word “wheelchair-bound” instead of “user” as the current nomenclature recommends. It was a harrowing experience because said person had neither read the book nor considered that the US isn’t the only place where people speak and use English. Don’t get me wrong. My publisher and I immediately updated the cover to reflect the updated language and I am well aware that language is a living matter that changes and evolves. And I am happy to learn about such changes. It wasn’t the message per se that shocked me, more how it was presented with the explicit accusation of not caring, of attention-seeking, of appropriation.
At the time I had already begun work on Matt, and I was deep in research about his capacity, physically, mentally and emotionally. Matt suffers from cerebral palsy and while I have close friends who live with this affliction, none of them are as impaired by it as Matt. My research had to go deeper and so I reached out to people in the field who work with people like Matt. While they may not have the same diagnosis, the effects of how their body responds are similar: lack of movement, lack of the ability to communicate freely. All the while writing and changing, with the fear of getting it wrong in the back of my mind.
We live in a day and age where minorities have more voice than ever before, which is a great thing. And unfortunately, some people tend to take (still) advantage of others, for personal gain, for political reasons or as the pun of a joke. When you write about a character for the sake of checking a box, I can understand that people might react. I sometimes feel the same when I watch movies or a TV show that highlights LGBTQ characters. Are they in there to tick off that box or do the creators genuinely wish to reflect the fact that we are everywhere in society? Not always easy to answer.
My characters pop up, out of the blue, but they obviously don’t do so without some sort of context. I have a very good friend to whom I speak almost daily, and as she is differently-abled herself, the topic of disabled characters in books comes up every now and then. I should probably write “the lack thereof”, as there are few books who showcase differently-abled characters in the main role. I was very proud of having written Spanish Bay, with the main character a wheelchair user (see, I learn), and I stand by my book, the story, and the cover. I guess Matt is born of the many conversations with Tracy, my upbringing around people with mental impairments (my mother’s best friend’s daughter, probably fifteen years my senior, was severely impaired, but that didn’t hinder us kids from playing together just fine.) As a father, I think it’s important to teach my son that the value of a living being is constant regardless of their physical appearance or mental capacity, whether we are talking about animals or human beings. At the core, I believe that this is what humanity is all about.
A fictional character, but
I have read many posts, comments, and reviews of books where people comment that the character “isn’t like me” and therefore cannot be realistic. Well, here’s my take on this: it doesn’t matter if a character isn’t like you, isn’t a mirror image of what you are like. That is true for many reasons. I don’t disavow Romeo and Juliet because they’re not like me (gay.) I don’t toss Harry Potter aside because he’s got dark hair where mine’s dark blonde. The problem is labeling books as being of a certain “kind”: this is a gay book (which kind of turns away straight readers) or this is a “disability book” as if it’s only meant to be read by people with disabilities. We have a tendency to box ourselves in so much that we expect to read fictional stories about ourselves rather than trusting various authors’ capacity to create stories that speak to the human condition.
I’m always saddened when people say “I can’t read your books, I’m not gay.” Well, my books are hopefully good enough to appeal to every kind of person interested in a certain topic, and hopefully, I’m a good enough author to bring people of different backgrounds closer to whomever, regardless. Empathy. That’s what this is all about. On the flip-side, labeling helps authors and publishers to market books. If you want to read about a gay character, you will find my books that way, even though the story may be about Alzheimer’s, or being of old age or, as in Matt’s case, being unable to communicate with your surroundings. But most importantly, if there is any message that spans across all my books, it’s that we are all human beings, regardless of who we are and the things we go through. You could say that I write about the human condition but from the point of view of a very specific subset of people.
Coming April 30, 2020
Matt-More Than Words is coming April 30 from my publisher, Beaten Track. And as with each and every one of my novels, I’m really looking forward to this one. It is an important story for a great many reasons, and I hope it will find a home in many readers’ hearts. Matt will also find another way to express himself. I am part of a write dance project and in May we’ll go on tour with our work. I am working on a poem about Matt, and together with an amazing dancer, we’ll perform a piece. I was intrigued by the challenge to put in words (poetry) Matt’s predicament of being unable to communicate, and almost more so about dancing the inability to move voluntarily. Izabell, an insanely talented dancer has taken early drafts of my poem and sent me a recording of an improv dance she’d created. Based on her dance, I went back and re-wrote the poem. We bounce off of each other to create a piece that hopefully will hold up and can be displayed to an audience here in West Sweden and Oslo, as we go on tour in May. Stay tuned, either here or on my Facebook page, for updates.
The world we live in is pretty depressing right now. Nationalism, tribalism is on the rise, social cohesion is in rapid decline, and all around us, conflicts escalate, wars increase and it seems that for every opinion uttered, two loud voices argue fiercely against, oftentimes regardless of the topic, just to spite.
Social cohesion is lost
When I was a child, there was a lot of social control. The society I grew up in exerted a huge amount of social control. One example I’ll always remember with shame was when I first bought a pair of torn jeans, paying good money for someone else tearing those pants apart in just the right places. It must’ve been either 1987 or 88. Wearing them for the first time in public, on my way home, an older woman on the trolley approached me and asked me if I couldn’t afford a whole pair of pants. That simple question is still haunting me, and it took decades before I wore torn jeans again. Social control at its worst, but social control also creates social cohesion, especially if it is used to make sure kids are safe (I had to yell at a kid the other day who jumped down on the tracks of our streetcar line as a car was approaching), etc. It feels we’ve stopped, be it telling people not to park in the wrong place, or whatever other transgressions (against laws!) people are committing. We simply look the other way and think that it’s not our problem. Thing is, our laws are our problem.
We simply need to differentiate between rules and legislation. If you believe it goes against your religion if a neighbor mowed the lawn on a Sunday, keep mum, as long as it’s legal. But if someone breaks the law and you see it, speak up. If you disagree with the law, speak up! Talk to your parliamentarian, raise your concerns, lobby for a change in your favor.
Societies drift apart
If you look at economical statistics over the past fifty years, it becomes obvious that the rich keep getting richer and the poor fall behind. The middle class is slowly disappearing, and it was the backbone of our western societies for decades. In the fifties, the average CEO would be paid about 20x what his workers were paid, in 2017 that number had risen to 361x. And that is simply insane. There is no reason for that. It’s not like the cost of living for the average CEO has risen more than that for their workers. I might argue the opposite, as tax burdens for the rich have been lowered all around the world.
There is a huge risk associated with societies drifting apart. The happiest societies are the ones with the least amount of economic inequality, while societies with a large economic inequality see effects on e.g. public health. And as we see societies drift apart, we also see tensions between generations (hashtags #okboomer #millinnials), between the “left” and the “right”, haves and have nots. Is there a breaking point? Are we heading toward a new 68-revolution? Or worse, a 1918-style revolution? Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon are just a couple of examples where entire societies are in upheaval, and where traditional lines of conflict no longer seem to apply.
Are social media (at least partially) responsible?
I have a theory that our use of social media has sped up this process. As the algorithms turn our lives into virtual ghettos where the only people we talk to are the ones most like us, where we unfollow or block views we dislike, or worse, report them, we rarely need to second-guess our own views and convictions. So how are we to learn? How are we to evolve our own views if all we ever see or hear comes from within our own chosen echo chamber?
To believe (as I do) that this also exacerbates extremist views is not far-fetched. We tend to idolize those we follow (fiercely) and dismiss everyone else as a scam, a fraud. I see these tendencies all around me, and we forget that most people, even politicians simply want the best for their societies, even if we may disagree with their points of view. Things get personal, very quickly, and we refuse to see other arguments, other points of view. Unfortunately, I feel this is also influencing global politics and adds to the tribalism around us, as wedges are driving between entire peoples.
What can we do?
I think the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to educate ourselves. When I woke up this morning, to the news that Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia, I accepted that as a fact. Then I read Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to it, basically calling it a military coup. Given Mr. Corbyn’s position, I was worried that there had indeed been a coup. Then I read a friend’s post on Facebook who said that he feared for something similar to be needed in the USA after the 2020 election, implying that Mr. Trump might not leave the White House even after a defeat. Someone else immediately and very angrily asked if he really wanted a right-wing military coup in the USA. Well, so far for disinformation and polarization.
I’ve since tried to make sense of this, and here are the facts: Evo Morales had been elected President for a fourth term recently, despite a referendum restricting presidents to TWO terms shortly after he’d won his third term. How he was able to even run for a fourth term? I don’t know. Mr. Morales was also accused of election fraud by international monitors. Public uprising ensued and it seems the military and police finally abandoned him yesterday, upon which he resigned. These are the facts we have. I don’t know nearly enough to make a statement about the military or police or who they support or not, whether they’re “right” or “left” (but ask yourself this: why did they support him for three terms?) It’s so simple to jump to conclusions. I reserve judgment until I know more. But it seems Mr. Morales love for democracy is limited. Why else stand against his own constitution and cheat to be re-elected?
What else can we do? Well, go vote! And resist the urge to protest vote. I know it’s enticing, to teach ‘them’ a lesson, but it might just backfire. Look at the US, and what Trump’s draining of the swamp has led to? Look at every nation where extremist parties have grown and come into power. Divisions increase, co-operation seizes. The American Congress, largely incapacitated, is a good example. Westminster another. But the list goes on and we see tendencies to this everywhere. Again, talk to your parliamentarians, tell them what you expect.
Here’s my wishlist:
We need to focus our public sector: less is more. Make sure infrastructure works. Invest in schools, social care, healthcare. Stop the divergence of the haves and have nots. Make sure people have jobs, meaningful things to do. Invest in security and safety so people feel safe. Work together to fight global warming, invest in commerce and global, open and free trade, but start to move away from constant growth. Find ways to improve the world, apart from simple economic growth.
I’m an optimist, I know, but I just can’t help it. As a father of a young child, I worry endlessly about the world I leave behind, the legacy we all leave to our kids and grandkids.
Is knowing a lot of languages always a good thing?
I’m multilingual, polyglot if you will. I speak more than one language. Doomed to it, as it were. In Switzerland, where I was born and raised, we have four official languages, and I just happened to go to school in that one corner of the country where they speak the country’s smallest language, Rhaeto-Romance, an odd mix between Celtic and Latin.
But, my mother tongue or my first language is Alemannic, which is the language spoken in e.g. Alsace, parts of southernmost Germany, Switzerland, Vorarlberg in Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s a Germanic language but lacks a formal written language. People often call it “Swiss German”, but that’s not linguistically entirely accurate, and it’s very complicated when you blend it Luther, German politics and history. Safe to say that Swiss German is what I’d consider most Swiss speak when they speak High German, language #3 in my life, first taught in fifth grade with a book I remember fondly “Deutsch für Ausländer” where we practiced for hours how to pronounce numbers and colors.
Trilingual by the age of ten, Hexa-lingual by age fourteen, Dodeca-lingual after uni
Let’s fast-forward a few years, to junior high-school, where Latin, French and Italian were added to the languages I had regular weekly lessons in. In ninth grade, English was added, and when I began to study at university, my choice subject added five more languages: Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.
Sometimes when you hear people who are multilingual being mentioned in the media you get the impression they all speak a multitude of languages fluently. I don’t, and I never even tried to pretend I do. I was fluent in French at the age of sixteen. Today I still speak it, but I often stumble and have to think about the words I want to use. It serves me for my trips to France, or so I hope, as we visit Paris next week. I was never fluent in Italian, but I get by. When it comes to the “dead” languages of Latin and Old Norse, there aren’t any people to talk to, as the Pope won’t accept my calls and the Vikings are long gone. Also, my studies, especially of Old Norse were not very in-depth. The same is true of Danish, Norwegian and particularly Icelandic. While I can read and understand texts, especially in the former two, thanks to the kindred spirits of all germanic languages, any native speaker will immediately call out my Swedish accent when I try to speak. Up here, we call that “Scandinavian”, this weird blend of our own language with that of our neighbors to make ourselves more easily understood. Often enough, Scandinavians resort to English instead.
Rhaeto-Romance, however, is almost gone. Having been bullied throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, the language became a scapegoat for my emotions and I refused to speak it to anyone or to read any books in the language. Today, I can barely understand people speaking it and even reading is tough. I regret my feelings, but it is what it is. The locals didn’t make it any easier by conjuring up a stupid writing language that was supposed to unite the five idioms but did more harm in the process. It came right at the end of my education and strengthened my resolve to not engage.
I still speak four languages without hinder…
So, what’s left? Alemannic (Saint-Gallese dialect to be exact), German, English, and Swedish. Languages 1, 3, 7 and 9. It makes no sense, right? After that, I’d say French (5) and Italian (6) would follow, then Norwegian (11) and Danish (10.) But still, I’m glad to have those four to speak. And write, right? Wrong.
Just a sample of what my native tongue looks like in writing, laced with some words spelled in German, probably for lack of knowing ‘how’ to…
First of all, #1 has no formal codified writing, and you should see text messages we send to each other. Everybody just writes anyway they like, in their own dialect, which varies from town to town. Trust me, even reading it is sometimes challenging. German is another thing entirely, as the stupid ministers of culture changed the way the language is written actively as I was in college and basically screwed it all up. I mean I can still write letters and emails, but I could never write professionally. I’d be ashamed to screw things up because, quite frankly, I have no clue what’s what these days. And I say this remembering that as a Swiss, “our” German is vastly different from that in Germany or Austria, and just to repeat, the Swiss written German, which we call “Hochdeutsch” is nothing, but absolutely nothing like Alemannic.
Which leaves Swedish and English. And I’ve always felt more comfortable writing my prose in English. There are also more English readers than Swedish ones, by a factor of a hundred or so, which made the decision easier.
…but hardly perfectly…
BUT, and I think monolingual people find the concept hard to grasp, I don’t speak any language perfectly. Not that anyone really does, but my point is this: you know the name of a flower in one language, but not in any other. When I returned from my stay in the US in 1987, I had learned a lot of specific terms around funerals, as I’d had to attend a couple, but I didn’t know those terms in Alemannic, my first language. Or any other language for that matter. And that is the case for every situational vocabulary. I’ve learned a lot of terms in English working for “corporate America”, words I have no idea what they’re called in Switzerland or Germany. Some I know in Swedish, etc.
It never ends. Right now, with a son in school, I learn a lot of terms related to school in English, as he’s visiting an English one, but I often struggle with the Swedish equivalents, not to mention the Alemannic or German ones. The list goes on and on.
The more languages you speak, the less you actually know, or so it feels
Sometimes I feel like I have NO language that is truly mine. I’ve not lived in Switzerland for twenty-seven years, so my Alemannic, though spoken regularly, is probably anything but current. My English is a mixture of the Sassenach learned in school, the American learned in High School in the US, and the international variations which are spoken all around me: Indian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Singapore English, Canadian English, and various other non-native flavors. Do I always know the difference between elevator and lift, truck and lorry, etc.? I wish… I’ve already mentioned my troubles with German, where I’ve never lived, a country where people speak very differently in Bavaria, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. I tend to pick up nuances and yeah, my Swiss accent will always give me away, no matter how hard I try to speak Standard German (which no human really speaks in their everyday life) rather than Swiss German, Pferd instead of Ross, etc. And my vocabulary is somewhat limited, especially with regards to “working” situations. To illustrate my frustration, allow me to use an example: a couple of weeks ago, my son asked me about barnacles and how they were attached to whales. I was at a loss, as I’d never even heard the word, not consciously anyway. I had to google. Look it up. And yeah, I did know what it is, in Swedish. But yeah, not in English. The facial expression on my son’s face, that he (English is his first language) knew a word I didn’t, was priceless. It won’t be the last time I get to experience that as he goes through his education learning more and more English, while I go on being lost in translation.
This is a weird situation to be in, especially for someone who uses “language” as his primary source of income. Not a good feeling. And I wonder how monolinguists feel in that situation? Do they simply learn the word? Do they forget again? It’s taken me weeks to remember this new word in English. And I typically, when I learn a new word, need to remember it in more than one language. But more than that, the feeling of inadequacy is that which lingers the longest. To be polyglot, multilingual also means the loss of a native language, a mother-tongue if you will. That is probably that which affects me the most, as we so often associate language with culture, leading me to questions like “who am I?” or “what am I?” I doubt I’ll ever have definitive answers to those burning questions.