When in French…

wheninfrenchLauren Collins’ memoir, When in French: Love in a Second Language is a stunning read. Treats await the reader on almost every page – whether it’s her flawless prose, her rendering of complex linguistic concepts and anecdotes, the honest and relatable portrayal of her relationship with her French husband Olivier, or my favourite, her sly and understated sense of humour with a knack for finding the irony in even the most ordinary situations.

It would be easy to not like Collins – as an American who grew up in an upper middle-class family, she attended Princeton then got her foot in the door at The New Yorker, working her way up to a coveted and prestigious writing position that sent her on interesting assignments all over the world. Then, on a whim, she decides to become their London correspondent, easily gets herself a work visa and after only three weeks in her adopted home, meets the French man who will become her husband. They marry and eventually live in Geneva followed by Paris. It sounds like a fairytale. What makes her likeable, and her memoir relatable, however, is her brutal honesty: when she moves to Geneva, she makes it her mission to learn French, which, it turns out, is not so easy. She finds the city and the people conservative and backwards. Her and Olivier argue and face the usual relationship problems as she tries to pressure him into marriage. She refers to her in-laws as ‘Les Fockers.’ She is self-deprecating and often portrays herself as awkward, annoying and clumsy. She’s also gutsy and is not afraid to go there.

As she fumbles with the French language, we are on her side. Not only is her prose revealing and entertaining, but it is also educational. No need to ever again read a boring journal or newspaper article about the theories of Chomsky. Collins is quite the armchair anthropologist and has done a stellar job of including a range of linguistic theories that are so intricately and subtly woven into the narrative that you barely even notice you’re lapping up Linguistics 101.

I eagerly wanted to share some of her most outstanding nuggets and zingers here, but I think it best you do yourself a faveur and read this formidable book in its entirety. Here’s a little sneak-peak of what’s in store:

Schnapsidee – the way a German would describe a plan he’d hatched under the influence of alcohol. Pilkunnussija – Finnish for “comma fucker,” a grammar pedant. In Mundari [a language spoken by some ethnic groups in India and neighboring countries] ribuy-tibuy refers to the sight, sound, and motion of a fat person’s buttocks. Jayus, in Indonesian, denotes a joke told so poorly that people can’t help but laugh. Knullrufs is Swedish for postsex hair. Gumusservi means moonlight shining on the water in Turkish. Culaccino is the Italian word for the mark left on a table by a cold glass. Words like these are marvelous. We make lists of them, compile them into treasuries, trade them over any dinner table at which holders of more than one passport have convened. (The German, armed with Kummerspeck – “grief bacon” will always win the day.)’

Tune in, Tokyo

14712861_10153714705356853_3737233960148924578_oI found a cheap ticket to Tokyo so faster than you can say ‘konnichiwa’ I was on my way to spend a few days with my dear friend Ai. We survived living in a small cabin together as we sailed around the world some years ago, and a year and a half ago, Ai, recently heartbroken, came to my rescue in Seoul as I found myself in the same predicament. Her calm, strong presence was healing and comforting to say the least.

I have lived in Tokyo and spent a lot of time there over the past ten years. It’s a megacity, that’s for sure. I’m always amazed by how it stretches into infinity, as if it was its own galaxy. Lucky for me, Ai lives in a upscale residential ‘hood in central Tokyo. Despite its central location, her place was incredibly quiet and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Tokyo – despite being home to millions of people and gazillions of stores, restaurants, cafes, clubs etc, it’s so eerily quiet.

When we weren’t eating ourselves silly, I spent some time visiting my old haunts – the glitz and glamour of Roppongi Hills, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, the craziness of Shibuya, the peace and quiet of Yoyogi Park. After some hours of this, I remembered the reasons I chose not to live there longterm: it’s a giant concrete jungle with an incredibly confusing subway system with little English available. Navigating it can be exhausting. One also expels so much psychic energy on deciding where to go, what to do, what to eat, what to buy. It’s the paradox of choice: there’s just so much choice, it’s hard to decide. Even buying something as simple as a toothbrush, one is confronted with fifty different shapes, sizes, functions and colours. When I remarked about this to my friend, who had spent two years living in the undeveloped Solomon Islands, she said, “I know what you mean. Life was in a way easier in the Solomons because I had no choice about so many things.”

Another thing that struck me was the rampant consumerism and materialism. There are just so many shops! For everything! And shopping is a kind of national sport. I think the Japanese economy would collapse if people stopped shopping for even a day. Of course, no one, apart from perhaps the Italians, does aesthetics so well. The sheer array of beautiful (expensive) things for sale is mind-boggling. My favourite store, Muji, with its Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, is what heaven looks like and I spent an hour just walking around and touching all the things that I may one day own (if I win the lottery).

But my absolute favourite thing to do in Tokyo is to just walk around the narrow, winding streets of its diverse neighbourhoods and observe people go about their daily business. The sushi chef hard at work, a little old lady petting a stray cat, a boy riding his old-school bike home from school, a gaggle of salary men on their lunch break playing Pokemon Go in the park next to a patch of lotuses, a family taking their child all dressed up in kimono to visit a shrine. People are also unfailingly polite and always greet you with a smile, even if you’re shoving a camera in their face.

A friend once described Tokyo, the Big Daikon, as Fantasy Island. There’s truth to that. Anything you want, you can get it. From north to south, east to west, there’s so much to do and see. Even if you spent a year just walking around and exploring, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the city’s terrain. There are too many secrets that the city won’t reveal. And that’s good news for someone like me who can’t get enough of this beautiful, maddening, confusing city that doesn’t sleep, and despite the constant flickering of neon lights, is oddly quiet.

Awkward Encounters on Gili Meno

img_4881Now that I have a new computer, I have been able to download and actually edit some of the thousands of photos I have been hoarding on various memory cards  for the past year. So today I will release some of my photos from Indonesia’s beautiful but tiny Gili Meno island, not too far off the coast of Bali. Warning: travel essay equivalent of ten year old suburban white girl lyrics comes first.

Some context: Gili Meno is known as ‘Elizabeth Gilbert Island’. It was featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love as the place Liz goes alone for ten days at a low point before the shit hits the fan. Here she tries to confront her demons and make sense of the chaos and pain. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but recently she has said that it was a mistake to do that while in such a state of depression and despair. What she in fact needed was an entourage of therapists – so don’t try this at home folks.

Anyway, Gili Meno was forever etched in my mind after reading that book and I decided I would visit when I made last minute travel plans to Bali last year. I would take a side trip there (alone) and bask in the beauty and solitude (and also spend large chunks of time trying not to brood and ruminate over my recent heartbreak). A friend also told me about some kind of turtle sanctuary on the island. This was another pull factor – turtles!!! As usual, I didn’t make any plans and just plodded along with only a Lonely Planet guide. It took a couple of boat rides to get there and on one of them I started talking to a young Canadian woman on a gap year (is everybody who travels in that region on a gap year?) Accommodation options were limited so she suggested I follow her to an eco-hostel. This means everything is made out of bamboo and there is no hot water. OK, I thought, I’ll rough it for a few nights. Upon arrival my friend (whom I suspect is living off a trust fund) promptly disappears into a copy of The Power of Now and into the arms of a rugged Eaton-educated ‘gappy’ and so I have a virgin cocktail at the outdoor bar and chat to the American couple who own the place. I’m a little surprised at the age gap between them – the woman seems at least ten years older, but this is the age of Madonna and Demi Moore. I’m even more surprised, however, when the guy starts flirting with me. Wow, this is awkward. Not just because his wife is standing right there, but also because he’s not my type. I slither off my stool and head to the beach to watch the sunset. I later learn that his partner is in fact his mother. Note to self: live on a tropical island in order to preserve youthful appearance.

The next day I’m determined to see an elusive sea turtle while snorkelling (and after a few attempts, I do!). I also check out the ‘turtle sanctuary’ which was perhaps the most disappointing experience of my adult life – there’s just a bunch of smelly little turtles flapping around in what appear to be baths. There’s a woman there to take care of them but you can’t really touch them or, as in my imagination, ride on the back of them. And there’s still 9 more hours until it gets dark. I fill the few days I’m there with snorkelling, exploring, taking pictures and reading. I have a few conversations with the gaggle of strapping young British men who are probably related to Prince William and Hugh Grant. They’re here for volunteer work which involves building more bamboo things. They sleep outside in hammocks (with their shirts off) and enjoy the company of the ubiquitous drunk, loud-mouthed Irish girl.

While I’ve been assured that the island is safe, I do feel slightly scared when I walk around in the evening. The muslim call to prayer occurs at sunset and the island being undeveloped and populated by only a few small fishing villages, does feel eerie. Nevertheless, I don’t let that stop me. I head to one of other beaches around the coast to watch the sunset. There are a few local kids running around and only a few white people lounging on chairs, beer in hand.

I spot a young-ish looking white guy sitting on the stony sand, playing around with his camera. We start talking and compare lenses. Turns out that he’s Canadian and bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders (he later tells me that his nickname is ‘Ned’ because he’s so nice. I don’t have the heart to tell him otherwise). We order some juice and he tells me his life story – of how he recently got concussion and was unable to do anything except lie in a dark room for three months with no movement or stimulation and how he was wracked with anxiety. I feel compassion towards him and don’t begrudge him the fact that he’s traveling for an entire year or more by living off his savings after quitting his corporate job. He became heavily involved with all kinds of energy healing modalities, and after we’ve eaten an 80 cent dinner of rice and vegetable curry made by a woman in her house, I find him sitting opposite me cross-legged doing some kind of non-invasive reiki on me. What does one say in that situation? I just tried to stifle a laugh. Millions of stars pop out in the now ink black sky and it would be very romantic if I actually saw Ned as more than a friendly fellow traveler. I don’t. He offers to walk me home which I gratefully accept, not sure that I could find my way back in the dark. We see the faint glow of light and hear the happy, drunk slurring of whippersnappers. It’s time to say good night. “Do you know what would make this night even more perfect?,” asks Ned. I start to feel uncomfortable. “What?” I ask. “If I could kiss you,” he replies. Talk about awkward. “Um, I don’t think so,” I quip as gently as possible. “I had fun hanging out, but let’s leave it at that.” It pains me to see the hurt expression on his face, but I don’t look back as I dodge toads and stones on my way back to my creaky bamboo bunk.

And your reward for reading (or more likely scrolling) through that are these photos of gorgeous Gili Meno.