Thursday, 29 May 2014

Foreign Bodies

The question I dread when meeting new people is not "So, what do you do?" or "Can I see some ID please?", but "Where are you from originally?"

I've given a number of replies to this over the years, ranging from "Nowhere, really" like some sort of unstable, short-lived element, or mysterious moll about to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke, to flat out lying and stating "Canterbury". It depends how long of a conversation I'm willing to get into at the time.

When people find out I was a Foreign Office kid they usually think it's pretty cool. And yeah, I had some amazing experiences I'm incredibly grateful to my parents for. The smell and heat of a new country hitting you as you leave the airport. The opportunity to taste exotic foods. Learning about different cultures and traditions. It forced me to learn how to get along with new people, to integrate myself into cliques and OH BOY, the cliques, they never stop. It made me open-minded. I think it's also why I spend so long watching people interact before I dare to contribute to a conversation. (Unless I've had a skinful, of course).

There were also all the wonderful houses, cars, and even servants the Foreign Office provided.

As adults, we tend to look at that sort of lifestyle and think, "yes, that sounds brilliant, how wonderful!" And as adults, it would be a great experience, because we are better-equipped (I would hope) to deal with the challenges and opportunities it would present.

But imagine being of school age. Imagine always being the new kid. And once you've settled into a routine, got to know the inner workings and caste system of your school's particular kiddie politics, formed alliances, it's time to move on again.

Every school has it's different playground slang and quirks. Maybe not so much now, in this age of great connectivity and (over)sharing. But I didn't know that at Devizes School wearing your rucksack on both shoulders instead of swinging casually off one meant you were 'gay' and 'sad'. "Mum!" I cried when I got home. "The other kids say I'm sad!" Mum: "Why, what are you sad about?"

Or that in Sunny View School there was no assembly - likely owing to the range of religious beliefs or whatever represented by the attendees of the school. I remember traipsing about before the first class wondering where all the cross-legged children praising Jesus were sitting.

I had to give a presentation once and accidentally used the word 'naff' as a descriptor. The whole class fell about laughing and didn't believe it was a word we use in the UK.

I remember girls giving my lunch box (steady...) funny glances, because all they'd have was a tiny sandwich flattened to Mars Bar proportions by tin foil.

Actually maybe it wasn't the lunch box they were looking at funny

There's also the being torn from your first crush thing. That sucked.

I have only happy memories of the BSN. Apart from the whole having to learn Dutch thing.

Fuck me, I am BAD at languages. I'm still learning English, FFS.

Following the 'Where are you from?' question usually comes 'Wow, I bet you speak so many languages then!'


Why don't I speak Dutch, or Spanish, or French, or German, or Gilbertese, or Flemish?

Say it again, Sam.

I was learning French when my parents decided they'd like to take early retirement in Spain.

The school I went to in Spain bred super-pseuds, real redbrick material, people who've gone on to hold jobs I barely even understand the title of. "Ah you'll be fine picking up Spanish and continuing your French!" the teachers said, and promptly put me in the top sets for both to see how I'd cope.

I didn't. I'd just come from Devizes School. I went from being top of the class in pretty much everything, right to the bottom.

When people learn I didn't follow my parents into that career, sometimes I see their faces cloud over, as if they're thinking, "oh, so you're not interesting now". Their faces still crestfallen from learning I don't speak eight languages.

A 'normal' child would've flourished under such conditions, but I went further into my shell in my teenage years, worrying that something I'd say would sound strange, in awe of the intellects of the children I went to school with, and became more aware of the frumpiness of my comfy clothes when attending a school with a no uniform policy. But I had a couple of fellow weirdos to hang out with and listen to the Manics and Radiohead and Jeff Buckley with, so that was alright.

I've talked before about the whole introvert thing. Now you've read about some of the contributing factors.

I'm not ungrateful at all, I'd like to reiterate, for the chances I've been given in life. I just wish I'd had more confidence in grabbing them. Too much time spent learning how things tick, while time was ticking.