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.