Georg Wilhelm Frederick Hegel had a theory, which, to put very simply, essentially boils down to the notion that it is only through recognition in others of both that which is familiar and that which is different to the self that enables you to be aware of who you are as an individual.
What I have found disconcerting in Geneva is the combined recognition of familiarity and alienness that has highlighted my awareness of being British in a way I have never previously experienced.
On the one hand, life in Geneva isn’t a million miles away from my life in London, geographically and culturally the difference between the two places is not all that great. I go to work Monday-Friday, I go for runs in the evening, I might do my shopping on Saturday or meet friends over the weekend.
On the other hand, there are so many little differences between living in London and Geneva, such as being unable to buy a decent loaf of bread after 7pm or the bureaucracy involved in opening a bank account, that I am constantly being reminded of my otherness.
But the biggest difference here, that factor that makes me feel the most alien, comes from my inability to really speak French. Whilst it is true that there are so many expats here that an awful lot of people speak English, including my entire workplace (collectively they also have an impressive number of other languages tied down), it isn’t true that everyone speaks English.
When I am on a bus, doing my shopping or waiting for the kettle to boil in the kitchen at work and everyone around me is speaking French it’s hard not to feel a sense of isolation and not-belonging.
To be honest, I did not think the language issue would be such a problem. I got an A* in my French GCSE when I was 16 and I thought my French was okay. I knew I wasn’t fluent but thought I was a long way from being a beginner.
But my French, it turns out, is rubbish. And not in a ‘I’m terribly sorry my French fails to meet the highest standards, when actually I can speak in a perfectly intelligible way’ kind of rubbish but in more of a ‘Bobo no French speaky good’ Yoda-gibberish kind of rubbish.
My actual comprehension isn’t that bad but this just makes my inability to find the right words, or any words for that matter, all the more frustrating.
Partly I blame the UK education system. When it comes to languages we don’t make much of an effort, with only one hour a week from the age of 11-14 that’s compulsory. I don’t know whether we don’t really try because as a nation we are lazy and think that as so many other people can speak our language we don’t need to bother or we simply lack the confidence to put ourselves out there and really have a go. Whatever the reason, learning languages isn’t taken seriously in the UK and I’m suffering the consequences.
But I also accept responsibility for my own failings and recognise that a large part of my problem is that I don’t like looking stupid (and it’s hard to learn a language without looking a little stupid from time to time). I might have my philosophy that it’s better to try and fail but it’s a much easier philosophy to abide by when you try something and it turns out perfectly first time.
I am trying to remedy the situation. I attend French lessons twice a week, try to listen to French radio and watch a bit of French television. I have started talking to my cats in French.
Yesterday I went to see a great Italian play with French subtitles (Gieuseppe Patroni Griffi’s ‘Gli amanti dei miei amanti sono miei amanti’, which googletranslates as ‘lovers of my lovers are my lovers’, featuring the very talented Nicoletta Zappile – showing in Geneva until 25 May).
But learning a language is not easy and accepting that it will be a slow process doesn’t make it any easier.
I dread my French lessons, being called on when I don’t know the answer and making error after error. I interpret every mistake I make as a personal rebuke and reinforcement of the belief that I cannot do this and I am going to fail. Of course, I pay no attention to what it means when I give the right answer, it’s always easier to focus on the negatives.
It’s hard to stay motivated and keep trying but this is what fear of the reaper is all about (see About this blog and why I called it ‘fear of the reaper’). If every challenge faced was easily solved then it wouldn’t really be a challenge would it?
The satisfaction I hope one day to derive from being able to keep up an interesting French conversation is what keeps me going for now. Although I wouldn’t be disappointed to wake up tomorrow and discover I have become fluent overnight with no effort on my part required at all.
Who knows, maybe I’ll even be able to write an intelligible blog post in French one day?