Unknown to my younger self, I am sure that the path I have been on since I was a teenager was one leading me to a life abroad. It just wasn’t a direct path. Sure, there were signs, hints and indications in my youth that a life beyond the borders of my birth country was something I should prepare for. That my later life would involve speaking a second language should have been clear to me at an early age.
My first trip abroad was a family holiday to Tangiers in Morocco. The unfamiliar sounds of an unknown language spoken all around me, the rich vivid colours of North African wedding attire sparkling in the glaring evening sun, the enchantment of a music so different to Western pop, the smells of exotic food cooking in the streets all served to pique my curiosity about life beyond the borders of my home land.
A school trip abroad to La Rochelle started my long lasting love affair with France. I homed in on modern languages, namely French and German for my GCSEs and continued my French to A-Level. My love of the French language went beyond the allure of my Liverpudlian French teacher. A school trip to Berlin a year after the wall fell enticed me to be a part of something bigger, it lured me to take a closer look at the world away from my own doorstep. Foreign languages became an integral part of who I was, who I was to be.
I centred my university degree search around being able to use my French. I eventually picked a European Studies course in Bradford, which included a study year in Toulouse. I use the word study lightly. It was less of an academic study year, more of a cultural immersion. I loved the smell and bustling of the local bakery every morning, I loved watching the old man in a beret that shuffled to the local supermarket in his well worn but clearly loved checked slippers, I loved browsing at the snails in the freezer compartment as I did my grocery shop – week after week failing miserably to pluck up the courage to actually give them a try.
After graduation jobs with companies like Michelin kept my French alive but when I later chose a career in Human Resources the need to speak a second language soon dissipated. My path seemed to change, leading away from where I had been sure I would go.
As a teenager I’d envisioned a life for myself abroad, in France, where I spoke the language and loved the culture. Somewhere along the way I got distracted and forgot where I was headed. My linguistic mind stayed with me, laying dormant but patiently waiting whilst I strayed from the path I should have been on.
And then one day my little brother met an American girl, online in a chat room. I was clueless. I had no computer of my own and had no idea how you could ‘meet’ someone in a chat room. After what seemed like no time at all he announced he was moving to Long Island, NY to get married. One family globetrotter fled the nest. But my own path kept me firmly rooted in England.
I needed to write a dissertation to finish my Post Graduate Diploma in Human Resources but the absence of a computer at home made progress slow but Father Christmas (disguised as my father) saved the day and I became the proud owner of a personal computer. It became my indispensable companion. It was to put me back on the right path.
For a reason I no longer remember nor can imagine looking back, my brother’s once uttered words, “go try a chat room. It’s fun” popped into my head one evening. I did a search and ended in a chat room talking to a Mexican. Just as I was getting bored with the whole ‘chat room’ experience a pop up appeared from another chatter. This time it was a Dutchman. My boredom vanished.
Christmas and the millennium were closing in and my days were filled with MSN Messenger and an endless string of emails. After that fateful evening I never entered a chat room again. Online chatting turned into a phone call on New Year’s Eve. Talking on the telephone turned in to visits to each other’s homes in foreign lands.
Seven months later my wonderful boss moved on and in his place came a woman who had a reputation for clearing the decks and bringing in her own people wherever she went. Business trips that were planned months ahead were suddenly superfluous and I whispered to my dad that something was afoot. I knew something bad was looming. He told me I was being paranoid.
Then one evening, sure enough, I was summoned to the dragon’s den. She informed me that my position would end in two months. Walking home with tears streaming down my face I made a call to the Netherlands with my mobile phone. I shared the lowlights of my evening and told my Dutch partner that I needed to find a job fast so that my mortgage didn’t become a problem.
“Or instead of finding a new job there, you could move to the Netherlands…” he said and I could hear the smile on his face.
And suddenly I was back on the path I was destined to walk on.