French est difficile

June 29, 2011

Today is a special day. I conducted my first full conversation in French. Bad French, but French nevertheless.

The key to mastering French is to practice, practice and practice. My problem is that my theory and grammar is good so when I speak, I am aware of exactly when and how I am butchering this pretty language. I feel shy, self-conscious and endlessly apologetic. Then I give up. In typical English fashion, I capitulate without trying hard enough and I ask, ‘Parlez-vous Anglais?’ I then expect the locals to stumble along in pigeon English, which is as difficult for them as French is for me.

Alastair needs a full medical check up for his life insurance. I located an English-speaking doctor but it is difficult to find one with an English-speaking receptionist too. ‘Never mind, ‘ I thought, ‘This is a good opportunity and, come hell or high water, I will book this appointment in French only.’ And I did.

I imagined the conversation beforehand and wrote a script using Google Translate. As soon as the receptionist answered the phone, I breathed in deeply and bulldozed into my first sentence.

There were some unexpected obstacles. I forgot my telephone number, which veered me off script. I was surprised she asked Alastair’s date of birth so I racked my brains at high speed for ‘1976’ in words. I explained the appointment was for my husband and not for me. She asked if it was his first time with this doctor and I realised I didn’t know how to conjugate the verb ‘to come’ off the cuff. I replied that it is the first time I am coming to the doctor (je viens), which caused some confusion. ‘Is the appointment for you or your husband?’

Vendredi a 8h30. Mission accomplished.

French is difficult. People say that there is a part of the brain that is dedicated to processing and absorbing languages. These neural pathways in my brain have been neglected so they are overgrown and choked with weeds and other foliage. Every day I clear out the blockages with vocab, grammar and reading drills. My brain responds with sack-like uncooperativeness. I wonder if it is harder because I am older. When I was at school, my brain was soft and elastic, like dough in a baker’s hands. Now, in my old(er) age, it’s more resistant and set in its English ways.

Alastair’s company is very generous towards their employees. They hired a Russian to give staff and their spouses French lessons for a month. When the course was over, there was an outcry because the staff wanted more lessons so they could count higher than ten. The company gave in and bought more. For the past three weeks, no one has pitched up and I’ve been the only pupil. It’s just Tatiana The Russian and me.

These days learning French is my primary mission in life so I take my lessons seriously. They are on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the office boardroom and I arrive well in advance, just to be on the safe side. The company keeps a stash of water bottles, pens, notepads and bonbons for the staff who have meetings in the boardroom during the day. I miss the free stuff that comes with working for a corporate. Before every lesson, I take a bottle of water (or two), a new notepad, a pen and one of every colour bonbon. While I wait for my teacher, I lay out my notepaper, my textbooks and reading books in parallel and I place my new pen perpendicularly above them. Sometimes I arrange my bonbons into the shape of a millipede while I listen for Tatiana’s footsteps. By the time she eventually walks through the door, I am bouncing in my chair and raring to go.

Every lesson I read aloud from children’s books such as ‘Cats and Dogs’ or ‘TomTom and Nana’. Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I see Tatiana yawn. Not an outright yawn though. It is one of those stifled yawns where the mouth opens slightly and the neck thickens outwards. Sometimes I see her blink rate increasing, like mine does when I am really bored or tired. Shame, I don’t blame her. She spends all day teaching people how to speak beginner French. If I had to listen to someone stumble over basic things like, ‘Millie is 4 years old. Millie has a dog. The dog is called Paco’, my head would also get a bit woolly.

Tatiana said most people read in clipped monotone so I am sensitive to the poor woman’s needs and I read with gusto. When a man speaks, I put on a man’s voice, when someone is angry, I speak in a really angry voice, when a dog barks, I give a deep, guttural WOOF.

My French lessons are both physically and mentally exhausting and I sleep well on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I can’t wait for the day when French words will roll off my tongue, like the English ones. Learning a new language chews up brainpower and I feel I permanently chug along in mental 1st gear. All I want to do is slide into 5th, put my foot flat on the accelerator and tear down the French-speaking freeway, just like a local.


It’s hard to find work you love, especially with so many donkeys around

June 17, 2011

When I was completing my accounting training contract in Johannesburg, I worked on a series of hellish clients.  Every few weeks I moved to a different job that was as monotonous and soul-destroying as the last.  My brain grew dry and stiff, like a sponge that’s left out in the sun for too long.  If I was lucky, I got to crunch numbers around a boardroom table but most clients chucked the auditors in dusty old offices or rooms that looked like air raid bunkers. Once I was assigned a desk in what I am convinced was just a big cupboard.

During one particularly crummy audit, a group of us clerks sat around a boardroom table and pounded our calculators in morose resignation.  A colleague’s phone rang and pierced into our silence.  She answered it and said, ‘Mom, I can’t talk now.  I’m at work.  And this work is worse than licking a donkey’s arse.’

I have searched for my dream job for over 6 years and, let me tell you, most jobs these days involve licking a donkey’s arse.  In this economic climate, companies have the upper hand.  Employers can be audacious enough to demand human beings do mind numbing work because they always have a supply of cap-in-hand candidates who are desperate to do anything for money, even if it involves licking a donkey’s arse.

Identify your strengths, find your passion, do what you love and live happily ever after … ?

I have devoured books by Marcus Buckingham, Stephen Covey and every self-help guru, organizational psychologist and career expert under the sun.  I own at least 200 books on psychology, careers, the workplace, recruitment, CVs, talent and strengths.

These books say that a great job is one that reflects the worker’s inner voice.  If you love what you do, then you are most likely to be successful.  Playing to your strengths, loving your work and finding your passion is the key to a fulfilling, meaningful job.  One author wrote that discovering personal calling or purpose is a ‘career imperative’.

These ideas do most people more harm than good.

We are told we must listen to our inner voice.  But what if, like me, you have a couple of inner voices and they often speak at the same time? I’ve looked all over for my purpose, my calling and my passion and I can’t find them anywhere. They’re like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  I’ve also been told that life is short, which puts me under more pressure to find my calling and discover my strengths ASAP.  I’m exhausted and I’m panicking.  God, where have you hidden my passion?

This is what the love-your-work, find-your-strengths and do-your-passion books don’t tell us:

1.  Some people don’t have the luxury to do a job that plays to their strengths or reflects their passion.  They grin and bear donkey’s arse jobs because they are single or they have dependants and they need reliable cash flow every month.  They don’t have the option to translate their passion into a 9-5 job because it would be irresponsible.

All the do-what-you-love mambo jambo makes these people feel really bad about themselves and their situation.  They read about a mental and spiritual high in the workplace and they long to experience it too.  They wonder if they’re missing out on something special and this makes them down and depressed about the inflexibility of their situation.

2.  Many of us are good at odds and ends but don’t have an amazing, obvious skill that is easily translated into a career.  Few people can match their strengths to a job in the way jobs currently exist in the world.

3.  By the time we have discovered who we really are and what we would love to do, it may be too late. If you want to integrate your special gifts into a job, then you better make sure you discover what they are before you’re around 22 years old.

After that, you can use your gifts in your personal life, in your current job or in some entrepreneurial capacity but don’t expect to use them in a completely different career or a new job.  Why?  Because no one will hire you.  The HR gatekeepers want linear CVs.  They are not interested in career changes or whether you’ve found your passion later in life – in this job market, they want continuity, qualifications and 10 years experience.

4.  Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ‘The tallest oak is not the tallest oak because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.’

Sometimes a fulfilling, meaningful career depends on factors outside your control.  Often finding a happy job is serendipitous.  It’s about being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people.  In South Africa these days, disabled black women in their twenties have a smorgasbord of great job opportunities.  It is unfair but it is the nature of the political and economic climate and it’s beyond our control.

Maybe the purpose we’re searching for is not the purpose we’re supposed to find

Just before I moved to Switzerland, I told a work colleague I was searching for my life’s calling.  He said, ‘Maybe you don’t have one’.

I was incensed.

He explained and I calmed down, ‘Calling isn’t a silver bullet.  Purpose is not always something we DO.  It is something we BE.  Calling is about your character not your career.  Maybe you don’t have one big task to do in your lifetime.  Maybe you are called to do something different every day.  On Monday, you are called to speak less and listen more.  On Tuesday you are called to apologize to someone you hurt, on Wednesday you are called to be a caring friend to someone in need.’

‘Doing’ our calling and finding a purpose in what we do is dependent on so many factors beyond our control.  But ‘being’ is in our control.  God esteems faithfulness not results.  Results are out of our control but faithfulness is within our power.

I am beginning to think that God doesn’t care about my career.  Not that he doesn’t give a toss, I just think he doesn’t mind what I do as long as I do something.  I’m sure he does not want me to be lazy or play on Facebook all day but I think he’s also teaching me that my career is not worth such intense fuss and faff.

Maybe we don’t need to work in a sexy, rocking, 24 hour high of a job to BE really well.  The reality is we aren’t all given opportunities to DO something really cool but we all have the chance to BE.  You can BE while doing anything, and the donkey’s arse jobs pose the biggest challenge.

I have always believed that if I pour my life into something, it should be into a chalice and not down a drain.  What the world sees as a chalice is sometimes a drain in the big scheme of things.

You may feel as if you ‘waste’ a lot of your life by licking donkeys’ arses.  You may feel you are pouring your talents and gifts down a drain because you’re not using them in a job that mirrors your passion or changes the world.  Maybe, your current calling is to try your best, keep a look out for something better and just BE in your current situation.  When you’re dead and doing a post mortum of your life at the pearly gates, you may find that what you thought was a drain, was actually a chalice in disguise.

My latest epiphany

June 6, 2011

I know myself so well, almost too well.  While navel gazing this weekend, I had an epiphany.  It dawned on me that I am becoming a little unhinged.

Recently I have broken two of the Ten Commandments.  I covet my neighbours’ possessions and I have idols – my newly acquired love of material goods and my obsession with my non-existent career are examples.  CS Lewis wrote, ‘We do not break the Ten Commandments, we only break ourselves against them.’  I have bust myself against the you-shall-have-no-other-gods-before-me and the you-shall-not-covet ones.  It is draining and toxic and I’m drawing a line in the sand.  Enough is enough.

Al and I owned almost no furniture before we moved to Switzerland.  I had few possessions other than a pile of 250+ books.  During the past three months, we have bought cupboards, a bed, a dining room table, six matching chairs, two couches, two bookshelves, bedside tables, lamps, two office chairs, a BBQ, two ottomans, curtains, plants and a few other odds and ends.

These possessions are ruining my life because they are consuming my life.  I searched high and low for them.  I traipsed around furniture shops investigating good value at low prices.  In a place like Switzerland, where there are so many rich people who throw money around like confetti at a wedding, this is difficult.

I am jobless so I spend all day with this new stuff.  I look at our furniture, I clean it, I rearrange it. I remind myself it is all just stuff, just material possessions and I shouldn’t fuss so much about aesthetics, the symmetricality of my cushion arrangement or how I can retain the new leather smell of my couches.  It doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things.  My head knows this but my reflexes don’t.  My head’s on ice and my reflexes are on fire.

I remember my Mom once told me the story of a man who bought a brand new, shiny car.  He took his key and scratched the side of it.  His friends were flabbergasted.  ‘Why on earth did you do that?’ they asked.  He said, ‘I love my new car.  It is perfect and I want it to stay this way.  I am going to live in fear of someone scratching it so I thought I would be the first.  Now I don’t have to obsess and stress and be neurotic.  I am free.’

These material possessions cost triple the amount we would have paid in any other country.  My woolen lounge carpet alone cost CHF399 which is more than I would ever dream of paying for a silly little carpet in the UK or South Africa.   I didn’t have much choice because it was the cheapest aesthetically pleasing, non-slip carpet I could find.  When I first glanced at the price, I thought it was CHF39.99.  I looked closer and blinked.  CHF399.99? Does it have a built in motor?  Can it fly?  CHF399.99 is a lot of money for a square of tapestry that just sits there, doing nothing.  I thought if I have to spend that much on a carpet, I am going to jolly well look after it so it lasts forever.  So, in my defence, there is a bit of method in my madness.

The carpet is the straw that’s broken the camel’s back and produced my grand epiphany.  This weekend I crawled on my hands and knees like a dog, picking individual crumbs off it.  We are having some high-energy houseguests soon and I’m contemplating hiding the carpet under my bed.  I don’t want six dirty kiddywinkle feet dancing over it.  Is that unhinged and obsessive?  Alastair said no but it maybe he’s just keeping the Queen of the Manor happy.

Poor Al.  I know he’s suffering under my boredom that drives my quest to keep the house spic and span.  I have banned soap.  Not all soap, just the one that comes in a bar because this kind makes the bathroom a bitch to clean.  I have decreed that only liquid Dove soap is allowed.  When I first passed this new law, I regularly heard a little voice calling me from the bathroom. ‘Juuuuulie …Jooooooooleeeeee’.  I opened the door to see a wet Al sitting in the bath, staring at me with his brown puppy dog eyes and presenting me his cloth Oliver Twist style.  He asked, ‘Please may I have some real soap?’  No!  And I shut the door.  That’s that.

That’s my latest news.  I’m just plodding along and striving to keep the Ten Commandments.  After my epiphany of the weekend, my mission for this week is to murder my Swiss companion The Green Monster, who I believe is behind all this trouble.  He has to go.