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Thursday, December 23, 2010

#Reverb10: To future self

Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (December 21, #Reverb10)

Salon du chocolat
1. Chocolate is good for your soul. It is unlikely that you, my future self, will ever have any doubts about the validity of this statement, but I just want to make sure that there are no weird ideas on this five years from now.

2. If in doubt, wear short. Just as chocolate, it is good for your soul. It is cold? Thicker stockings should do the trick. Wet? That's why you have those lovely wellies (your n-th pair, in fact). You don't have the shoes to match that particular skirt or dress? Puh-lease.

3. If you know where you want to go, you'll find a way to get there. It sounds simple, because it is simple; but, really, how many of you know what you want?

Marche du Noel
4. Listen to your intuition: it never failed. Your mind will find a thousand and one excuse for why you should keep the status quo, in whatever field of life, but if your gut is telling you to run, head for the nearest exit.

5. Time is a scare commodity: use it well.

Does anyone else want to have a go at advising his/her future self? It's a fun exercise--you might want to try it in between two heavy meals, TV watching and trips to the cupboard where you are hiding the sweets. Joyeux Noel!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

If you had to describe 2010 in three images...

...what would those be?

I've been struggling with this self-imposed task for a couple of days now. At times it seemed that three pictures would be not nearly enough and at others I thought I could sum up the whole year in just one photo.

These are not necessarily my best photos this year, or my favorite ones, but each tells a piece of the story that was 2010.


I have a theory that one should not go back to places where one had been very happy, and so I stayed away from my university town for years. It is a strange theory, but loosely based on the idea that you cannot step in the same river twice--going back to the place that holds so many happy memories, but without people who made those memories possible, would have to be disappointing. So it was that with a big lump in the throat I sat on the bus from Sofia to Blagoevgrad, going to one of the regular alumni reunions that I never attended before.

It was amazing and completely uplifting to walk the familiar streets, to pass by all the special places, to see people I hadn't seen for years; the most amazing was a complete sense of belonging, finally. I have a feeling it was somehow the tipping point of the year--from then on there was energy, drive and happiness where it had been lacking before. For those in the know: AUBG is still AUBG.


More than any other, 2010 was the year of foot-the-ball (copyright: Terry Pratchet). First there was a warm up in the shape of the Champion's League and then came the World Cup, probably the best in years. It had all the elements of a gripping telenovella: suspense, drama, twists and turns, scandals, surprises and, of course, tears. It was fantastic, and it left a huge hole in the shape of a round ball once it was over. On a side note: if you love football and you haven't read "Unseen Academicals" yet (Terry Pratchet), do so, and you won't regret it. Hilarious!

Bookstore, Carouge

In Bulgaria, it is a custom to put fortune-telling pieces of paper wrapped around small branches into Christmas banitsa so that you know what the new year will bring (other than cholesterol) while you are munching on cheese-filled pastry, grease trickling down the chin. My fortune for 2010 was learning and I think banitsa never got it so right. It's not just that I learned (or am learning) to dance salsa, or re-learned to ride a bike (think Critical Mass, 22km to Szentendre, and many miles clocked on the hilly terrain of Peak District) but it's more about re-learning to be me, with a huge sense of relief.

That was 2010 in pictures for me. What about you?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter solstice

Today is the darkest day on this hemisphere and the official beginning of winter, though with two heavy snowfalls already in these parts, we switched to winter mode (and mood) at least a few weeks ago. But today we get an official reminder that three more months of cold, grayness and possibly quite a lot of snow lie ahead. All in all, not a day with a great joy potential and long winters are not something I usually enjoy or look forward to, but today is a great day because it is, in a way, the worst of the season. It only gets better from here.

Tomorrow, we will have two more minutes of daylight, the day after tomorrow will be four, and so on. Of course we won't notice any of that for weeks to come, but at least we can be safe in the knowledge that things are getting better, and that we are moving (crawling maybe, but let's not split hair!) in the direction of something beautiful (a.k.a. spring, sun, long days). That's the power of incremental change for you.

Besides, 21st always means that holidays are near, and some well-deserved rest will soon be enjoyed. Or some well-deserved skiing, skating, or reading by the fireplace with a mug of cocoa (the sound of kids bickering muffled in the background).

Happy winter solstice, then, and enjoy those two more minutes of light tomorrow!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Two left feet or a dancing queen?

It has been about five years, and possibly more, since I wanted to learn to dance salsa. Come end of the year and I would put it on my mental list of NY resolutions, again. These are some of the excuses I came up with, at various times, for missing yet another dancing season:

1. I was too busy with two small children
2. Husband was traveling too much so we would miss too many classes or I would have to (shock, horror!) dance with some stranger
3. Taking classes with the said husband would imply a complicated logistical babysitting operation
4. Too costly
5. I wouldn't understand the instructions in Hungarian

All of them are so lame that I am embarrassed to even write them. The real reason? I have long suspected that I had no gift for dancing. I was convinced that I had two left feet and would very likely make a fool of myself and get completely frustrated by that dancing business. So assuming I would not be brilliant I was afraid to try and fail--enter lame excuses--but kept wanting to push myself outside of that particular comfort zone. Ah, the internal struggle...

Then I moved to Geneva, found a course next door, during lunch time, at a reasonable price, so I had no choice but to bite the bullet and face the scary and fascinating world of salsa learning. Of course, I am loving it! The joy of learning something new and the pleasure of sheer physical exercise are immense, and now that we are two months into the course, there is a certain camaraderie forming in the group. We might still not know each other's names, but everyone dances with everyone else and we end up joking and laughing a lot. It's great fun.

Certain skeptics (you know who you are) will say that salsa is simple and what's the big fuss? Except that I don't think it is. It might be easier and less sophisticated than, say, tango, but there are dozens of different steps and variations within steps, if you want to go beyond the basics. There is no preset choreography--you can mix and match the steps as you like, with only a few exceptions--so you need to read your partner's signs very well if you are to be in sync.

Salsa is the kind of dance in which the male dancer leads, so he decides what is happening next. The really fascinating bit for me is that he should communicate his intent only through gentle movements of his hand. If he wants you to turn, he lifts your arm; if he lets go of your hand, you are both turning; a gentle push on your back lets you know that the next is dille que no.

The entire communication lies in his hands, literally, which is why salsa is usually more difficult for guys to master (or so my teacher says). We are supposed to just follow the cues, even if being led does not come naturally to some of us ("You have to let him lead!"--teacher to me). It doesn't take long to realize how much smoother everything flows if the person you dance with knows how to lead as opposed to moving about indecisively. Sending mixed signals, in salsa just as in real life, is a big no-no.

Back to the title: as of today, I can officially announce that I do NOT have two left feet. Dancing queen? I'm not sure there are huge reserves of untapped talent here but the keyword is: fun.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Those quadrilingual kids

Homework time
Two months ago, Boris and Andrej did not speak a single word of French. I can only imagine how completely lost they must have felt those first days in French public school, unable to make sense of anything around them. We had taught them, strategically, to say "Je veux faire pipi" (I would like to pee) and with that they were thrown in at the deep end.

Thinking rationally, I expected them to learn fast, or at least faster than your regular kid, because they already spoke three other languages fluently. But reality seemed too formidable--so many hundreds and thousands of words, plus grammar. How could they cope with that?

In a way, they had never learned a foreign language before--they simply had three native languages. I know that this is an unscientific view, since everyone is supposed to have only one really native language, the strongest of the ones you speak. But Boris and Andrej were exposed to three languages simultaneously, and picked them up more or less at the same time (Bulgarian lagged a little bit, then caught up). We could never say which one was the strongest.

During the last year of our life in Budapest they switched to speaking Hungarian among themselves, even though the quality of the other two languages didn't suffer. When they moved here, they continued using Hungarian during play. Then one day about a month and a half into their French schooling, I overheard them speak French to each other. They were parroting the words and phrases heard from other kids and it was a limited number of sentences that they used, but it was French alright. They just quietly dropped Hungarian and adjusted to the new reality. Of course, they are far from full comprehension and fluency, but ils se debrouillent beyond my most generous expectations.

I don't think they are exceptionally gifted--they just grew up in weird linguistic circumstances, and many of our friends' children are exactly the same. When you think about that ability of children to absorb whatever language is thrown at them you wonder why, even in countries with multiple official languages, bilingualism is such a hard sell. In places like Switzerland you'd think they would had bilingual kindergartens from here until next week but, in reality, multilingualism simply means that different regions speak different languages. That is a real shame (on the positive side, that means I can live here and not have to learn Swiss German--whew...).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Switzerland 101

in Luzern
Before moving to Switzerland I associated the country with chocolate, secret bank accounts, and murky role in the WWII. Add to that the Alps and the iconic cows (think Milka) and that would be the extent of my knowledge.

For the first time in my life I am living/working in a country of which I know so little, and whose history, culture and society hardly even registered on my map prior to coming here. I was equally a foreigner in Bulgaria and Hungary, but these countries meant something to me through centuries of shared history. It might have been shared at knife- or gun-point most of the time and we might interpret it very differently, but at least there was shared recognition of historical events.

No such thing here. Even living in the UK was very different because I had been so steeped in British literature, language and pretty much anything Britain-related that it never even felt foreign--just quirky, and mostly in a likable kind of way. With Switzerland, there are neither commonalities, nor prior interest, only some vague ideas and stereotypes.

I tried my friend Amazon for some Switzerland 101 resources to boost my shaky knowledge base (it is embarrassing if all of your information about a country comes from a guidebook) but it is surprisingly difficult to find books in English that try to explain Switzerland to foreigners beyond the practical advice on living, working, getting around by train or buying property. Many of the books that the above-mentioned guidebook recommends for further reading are either out of print or strangely expensive (must one be rich to be interested in Switzerland?).

One that I manage to get through a colleague was excellent; it's called Why Switzerland by Johnatan Steinberg and it tries to answer why we should care about Switzerland and what it is that makes it so special. It's a good overview of Swiss society, with chapters on history, culture, religion, etc but the most amazing--and also the most confusing--was the one about the voting. I have never heard of a voting system so complicated. I may need Swiss voting for dummies but in the meantime I am going to try something called Swiss Watching--yet another Brit promising to unmask Switzerland beyond banks and skis. It's got raving reviews on Amazon, was Financial Times 2010 book of the year, so even if it is half as entertaining and informative as it is branded, it must be a good read. I wonder if it will cover voting?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

If anyone can manage snow...

...that should be the Swiss, right? The country of Alps, Jura and Saleve gets plenty of it every year and lives off it quite nicely, too, so you would not expect any surprises there.

And yet, Geneva was plunged into absolute chaos few days ago when it snowed for 24 hours, resulting in about 30cm of snow cover. Traffic was mad, people spent hours stuck in jams, buses were completely out of schedule if they came at all. Wednesday morning TPG decided to cancel all buses and trolleybuses, then changed the decision few hours later, but nobody had any idea when or if the buses were going.

On the French side it was even "better"--our prefecture simply decided to cancel both of the buses that link us to Geneva, and we were left to either navigate uncleaned roads, or walk to work.

What was that all about?! I heard a few explanations:

1. The Swiss don't use salt or grit on roads (for environmental reasons or not to damage roads) so cleaning is very difficult
2. Geneva does not typically get that much snow so the city was caught by surprise

I would venture a third: maybe we just live in the wrong part of Switzerland? We consider the Swiss the paragon of efficiency and punctuality, and Switzerland as the place where things just work smoothly (at least that was my opinion before moving). But that might be Switzerland on the other side of the rostigraben, and not Suisse Romande? Here we could easily slip into a discussion on what it really means to be Swiss or if there is such a thing as being Swiss, but we won't--not on the account of 30cm of snow.

There is a silver lining, though--possibly because they don't use salt on the roads, the snow remains clean and very white, so we've had a truly fairy-tale landscape these days. The funniest thing is that I haven't enjoyed snow this much in decades, traffic jams and all...

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's disability to you?

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and my colleagues have just launched the first in the series of videos in which people with disabilities talk about what it means to them. This is the story of Faustina from Tanzania--I think she is fabulous.