Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea*

I am like a woman who keeps being lured towards the mad, bad lover, while a perfectly nice guy is standing around, available.  I have always been fiercely judgmental of women like that.  Why don’t they think with their brain instead of their heart? I have always asked.  And here I am, torn between two cities, vacillating between the gentle kindness of Norwich and the ruthless excitement of London.

When I tell people in Norwich that I am frantically looking for a job, they receive my need as a personal plea.  They stop, listen, ponder and give advice.  More often than not, they also give me a lead.  An e-mail address, a ‘phone number, someone’s name.  Here, there is none of the frequent “Hmm”, “Err” or “Ahh” and fleeting “I wish I could help” of my Londoners, before they slip back into their own rushed lives.

Here, I met and talked to a man – a musician – who said, “What can I tell people about you, to help you get a job?”

Here, in four weeks, not one person has asked me “what’s your accent?” and that makes me feel accepted for what I am.  Here, I am not a misfit or a fool.  Though what I am, I do not yet know.

There is an aura of contentedness around the city.  It is I who am not yet content.  What do I miss most? – How can I admit this without appearing stupid, or spoilt, or shockingly superficial? – I miss hearing and speaking other languages.  I have spoken almost nothing but English here.  Two weeks ago, after the new Pope was elected, my friend A. Skyped me from Rome.  Hearing her speak Italian was like listening to Vivaldi when one is tired and sad.  Speaking Italian to her was like savouring delectable sweetmeats.  I drank and ate every word with voracity.  I feel as though I have been eating the same dish for a month, and the dish lacks salt.

Someone I met on my street told me of a café where people meet once a week to speak other languages.  I rushed there like a thirsty traveller who has been given directions to a fountain.  A group of very friendly, smiling people having coffee around a large wooden table.  They greeted me with spontaneous warmth.  Within seconds, something jarred.  Something in the body language; in the topics of conversation.  Then I realised what it was.  They were not native speakers of the languages they spoke so fluently.  They were all British.  Once again, I felt that lack of salt in my food.  Once again, I wanted to kick myself for caring about something so insignificant, when I had before me such kind, accepting people.  People who are willing to help me.

I remember spending a week in Abruzzo, once, where I spoke nothing but Italian.  At the end of the week, I began speaking to myself in English and French, to stop myself going mad.  I would feel the same in any other prevalently monolingual place.

The blood of three nations runs in my veins.  I first saw daylight in a fourth, and entered adolescence in a fifth.  From childhood, I was fed on four languages, and taught to think in four different ways.  I cuddle animals in Russian, argue in Italian, reason in French and write in English.  I am like the patterned costume of Arlecchino.  I need all my hues around me.  I need to inhale more than one colour to be able to breathe.  How can someone made up of bits learn to live in a whole?

Norwich is what you make of it – I hear almost every day – but you need to give it time.  Time.  How much time? And how much money?

My American adoptive aunt always says, “You can have anything you want in life.  You just can’t have everything.”  At my age, and with my (lack of) prospects, I cannot afford the luxury of even so much as looking at the moon – let alone wishing it had a fence around it.

I guess, when all it said and done, it all comes down to which man shows he means business, and offers an engagement ring.  In my case, my fate depends on which city will offer me a job.  To the city that gives me that, I shall be true.

In the meantime, I wish I could tear out my brainless heart, and think with my head.


Scribe Doll

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20 Responses to Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea*

  1. Hemingway says:

    I think you really gonna appreciate Norwich if you have to come back to smelly old unfriendly, busy, rushed, hassly London again – even with some many languages, Londoners struggle to communicate with each other!

    • scribedoll says:

      Oh dear… That does sound a little jaded… I did live in London for over eighteen years, as you know, so it’s not as if I am not familiar with its hassles… ;–)

      Great to hear from you, my friend Hemingway! Your comments have been missed.

  2. denizsezgun says:

    And probably you’d feel so high in Istanbul, where you can hear 100 languages at once in Istiklal Street after 6 pm every day 🙂

  3. denizsezgun says:

    “I need all my hues around me. I need to inhale more than one colour to be able to breathe. How can someone made up of bits learn to live in a whole?”
    so perfectly describing how/who I am 🙂
    Another great, great, great post from you!

  4. Anna says:

    Haha Katia, “тихий ужас” – that’s the phrase I frequently use when I need to express my attitude to something negative). But please, don’t be ashamed! There are mistakes, of course in what you have written in Russian, but not so gross. And it looks and sounds so cute, really!!
    Wishing you all the best,

    • scribedoll says:

      You see what I mean?! It’s so embarrassing that I can translate Russian literature into English but can’t even write a simple note in Russian without making stupid spelling mistakes :’–(

      Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my mother tried to employ Russian tutors but, even though I was a very hard-working and motivated student, Russian was the one subject I rebelled against. I found every excuse known to man, woman and child, to cancel my lessons and not do my homework. I don’t know why I had this resistance. Perhaps because I spoke Russian at home, and yearned to break away from my family. Who knows what goes through the head of a stupid child. Now, of course, I wish I had applied myself.

  5. Anna says:

    hip hip hurrah! I have access to the page again! Katia, this post is heart-tearing. I can feel your inner pain of being torn into two parts. And now (to console you as much as I can) I’going to write in Russian. Я понимаю, как тебе должно быть тяжело в моноязычной среде, коль скоро ты привыкла к мультикультурному лингвистическому пространству. Я тебя прекрасно понимаю. И хотя мой родной язык только один – русский – я всегда хотела говорить на английском с кем-нибудь. НО! Не с такими же, как я, для которых английский иностранный, а с native speakers. Потому что это абсолютно другое! То же самое происходит сейчас с моей дочерью. У неё куча друзей по всему миру, она говорит по-английски, знает (не настолько хорошо, правда), французский. И, побывав летом в Италии, влюбилась в итальянский и стала его изучать. Она обожает этот язык! И ей тесно в рамках русскоязычной среды. Katia, is it not possible to go back to the London School of English? Anyway, I wish I could help you some way or other, but unfortunately I’m too far away (. I will keep my fingers crossed for you.

    • scribedoll says:

      Oh, Anna, thank you so much for your note in Russian! That is so thoughtful and kind. Я к сожаленю по Русски почтьи не граматна. могу читать, но так как нукогда не пишу… Очень стыдно! Как моя бабушка говорила: “Тихый ужас!” Я всегда надеюць что когда будут денги, бозьму часные уроки но, конечно, никогда денег нет!

      Анна, мне очень приятно что мы так б контакте. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your steadfast support and friendship.

  6. Katherine, As always, I find lots to think about in your post. I currently live in a city slightly larger than Norwich and have lived in larger cities (Hamburg, the Washington D.C. metro area). I’ve also enjoyed visiting big cities: Paris, Tokyo, Boston, New York, Rome, etc. I loved visiting London when I lived in Cambridge from 1985-86. I completely understand being torn between a small, friendly city and the excitement, ethnic diversity, and cultural offerings of one of the world’s large cities. I, too, love hearing other languages, even ones I don’t understand. I did not grow up with as much diversity as you did, but I did grow up with both English and German. My grandmother spoke very little English, and at every family gathering on my father’s side my dad, aunts, and grandmother spoke German. My dad and aunts also spoke German to keep secrets from us kids–another powerful incentive for learning the language! 🙂 Your friend shadowoperator has a good point. If you had a decent job in Norwich, you could afford to visit London and even to spend holidays/vacations there if you choose. You and I both know how frustrating it can be to have so many cultural opportunities at one’s disposal and to not be able to afford any of them except as a rare treat. Madison has a large, foreign student population as well as a large, Hispanic immigrant population. Spanish has effectively become the second language in the States. Even buses in Madison have signs in both English and Spanish. (I’ve learned only the most basic Spanish, but I still enjoy trying to learn more.) I also know of three German speakers within a three-block radius. Does the university in Norwich have a foreign student population? Would it be possible for you to connect with students and/or faculty who speak the languages you do? Visiting faculty might be even better conversational partners than 20-something students as hopefully the faculty would have lived long enough to have some depth and a wider knowledge of the world, although spending time with my 18-year-old son and his girlfriend can be rewarding, too. They have such zest for life and energy! There is a woman down the street from Berlin who is married to an American. Perhaps there are some expats in Norwich. Have you read Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky? Nemirovsky was a Russian Jew whose family fled the Bolsheviks. She became completely fluent in French and wrote her novels in that language. When I read the notes she had made for her envisioned “suite” of five components in one long novel, I was struck by how Nemirovsky must have thought in multiple languages. She included thoughts in Russian as well as English among the original French. Having learned another language well enough to think and dream in it, I can completely understand how different languages express different aspects of your personality. Being able to think in another language is such a gift; it gives us access to another world, another way of thinking. I think that’s an important part of who you are. I hope that if you stay in Norwich, you can nurture that part of yourself. In the meantime, you need a job to keep body and soul together. Could you do translation? Are there any jobs in the language departments at the university? One of the nice aspects of living in a small, friendly city is the helpfulness you’ve experienced. I hope one of those kind souls finds you the perfect job!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Christine. No, I have not read Irène Nemirovsky. Her ‘Suite Française’ is on the shelves of all the second-hand bookshops I frequent – perhaps, one of these days, I should pick up a copy. I am sure there must be some expats in Norwich. I just haven’t met them, yet. As for jobs, I have applied for a few (including at the local university) but no success, yet. The trouble is, there is actually hardly anything to apply for here. I sent my details to four temping/recruitment agencies five weeks ago, and they still haven’t got anything for me! I am currently under contract with a publisher, translating a book – but it isn’t really enough, alone, to keep body and soul together.

      A lot of it, I am told, resides in the usual and universally applicable “getting to know people”. That takes time and, more importantly, money. So here I am, networking furiously, and hanging on for as long as the money lasts.

  7. Tracy says:

    I am so thankful you wrote about fountain pens because that is how I ended up subscribing to your blog. What a treat for me it is to sit down Sunday evenings and read about a life so different from mine! I pray you find a job and several multi-lingual friends in Norwich. It sounds like a delightful city and four weeks is hardly time to get to know it. Perhaps it’s like most hidden treasures and only reveals its deepest secrets to the patient? May you have the patience (and money) to see them come to light.

  8. Meant to ask, do your dreams offer guidance? You can ask for a dream.
    And I feel like sharing one of my favourite stories with you, beautifully told.

  9. You are having the kind of experience that comes along to each of us at least once in a lifetime, which for me was a choice between being taught and being a teacher, of sorts. We like being taught; it gives us something to lean on, someone whose opinion we can rely on, a friend who is stronger than we are. Then, there comes that day when we “graduate,” and have to find a way of sharing what we know with others, a way of being someone that OTHER people can lean on in their turn. That’s the difference between having a relationship with a man who leads us a merry chase (and the emphasis here is on the word “leads”) and the man who looks to us sometimes for inspiration (“looks to us” is the key expression here). There’s a similarity between the two experiences. While I won’t pretend that I think you can EASILY have Norwich and London at the same time, if you have a job in willing Norwich, then you’ll have money and eventually vacation time to go up to London and maybe visit old acquaintances or just the city itself. And THAT’S a way of having a threesome without being promiscuous (he!he! sorry, my sense of mischief got the better of me there). As to the teaching element I was talking about, maybe it would be possible to take it a bit more literally: could you maybe see yourself as a language coach for those welcoming folks in Norwich who had you in to their languages-speaking club, as a teacher (giver) for a change instead of an equal sharer? These are the only solutions that occur to me now, but I would like to think they might help. For myself, I have one friend who consents to teach me things periodically but whom I can also discuss things with by making a contribution myself to the discussion, and now I have several people whose manuscripts I am reading for free, because I enjoy being able to teach little tidbits I know about writing. (As you can see, I go for the threesome idea intellectually, if not literally!). And having been a thorough windbag by now myself, I should thank you heartily for the Peggy Lee clip and get off! Have a fine Pascal season.

    • scribedoll says:

      Wow! I’m in two minds. As for teaching, I am only qualified to teach English as a Foreign Language… And there are so many of us! Basically, unless I find a job in Norwich before my money runs out – it’s back to the big smokey city.That’s what will decide it, in the long run. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment.

  10. KiM says:

    Stick with it and soon you’ll be singing “Everything’s coming up Roses”!

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