Saturday, 21 May 2016

On Belonging and Identity

From time to time, it suddenly hits me. I don't belong anywhere. I left my country, where I grew up. Left my family behind, the familiarity.  There are moments where I feel at ease where I am now, lots of times actually. But then , I suddenly realise, I've not been to a family wedding for a while. Only heard of family members passing away over the phone, not been to see them one last time.

I left home 19 years ago. Another three years, and I would have spent as many years abroad as in my home country. In my heart, I still feel totally Algerian. But I feel definite connections with the places I've lived in: France and England.

But then, it only takes a random sentence, some get-together, to feel excluded. I don't belong. Despite my language and cultural proficiency, I am not French nor English. Actually, I am not sure I still belong in my home country either. And I certainly do not belong in Switzerland!

Ramadan will start in a couple of weeks. For the last eleven years, ever since BK1 was born, I spent most of it in Algeria. There, activity is reduced, life slows right down. Nobody expects you to take kids to the open-door swimming pool in the searing heat while you haven't had a drink or anything to eat for the last 12 hours. Nobody plans a school musical show preceded by nibbles at 5pm. Nobody wonders why on Earth this crazy nursing woman of four kids would abstain from eating or drinking from dawn till dusk.

This year is different. Because the girls are still in school for almost the whole duration of Ramadan, we'll only be able to fast the last few days in Algiers. And it makes me sad. It makes me long for my childhood smells, the market stalls,  the anticipation of sharing a long-awaited meal with my parents, the long evenings, the rituals.

Today is one of those days.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

That Swiss Habit

If you take the train to Basel, then step off the train into the station, prepare to be welcomed by a dreadful smell. Not the cows, not chemical industry... cigarettes.

Lots, and I mean LOTS of people smoke in Basel. everywhere. train stations, outdoor swimming pools, children play areas, you name it, if it's "outside", it's allowed.

A couple of weeks ago, we were visiting the scenic Wasserfallen. I sat down on a bench with BK4 asleep in a sling, enjoying the sun and the view. Next to me was a pregnant young woman, smiling broadly at me. Sat opposite to us was a young lady, in her early twenties, who found nothing better than to light up.
I mean, seriously?

A quick google shows Switzerland is ranked 21 out of 185 countries for tobacco consumption. Unsurprisingly, it is the third consumer of tobacco in Western Europe after Greece and Spain, and well ahead of Germany, France and the UK.

Having lived 10 years in the UK, I have come to associate smoking with lower social classes, rightly or wrongly. The National Health Service offers many programmes to quit smoking aimed at young adults with low incomes, particularly in council estates.

Here in Switzerland, it seems smoking does not discriminate: young, old, women, men, low and high income.

I find the habit difficult to reconcile with the idea of a people who like the great outdoors, are keen hikers and cyclists. The good news though is it seems smoking uptake is declining.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Why I'll never Learn German in Switzerland

When we made the decision to move to Basel, two years ago, I thought: "Finally, I'll be able to learn German!".


Well, my German has definitely improved but it is nowhere near the level I was hoping it'd be two years down the line.

I've come to realise that Basel is not the place to learn German. Basically, the Swiss do not like to speak German. Many prefer to speak French or English to me rather than Hochdeutsch.

I guess there are many reasons for this.

To start with, people here have their own language, which is unintelligible to most German speakers. Being Algerian, I know exactly how this feels. Algerian Arabic is virtually impossible to understand for anyone who does not come from the Maghreb (time to brush up on your geography!). The best I can do to make myself understood is to speak Classical Arabic. However, I do not like doing so. It somewhat feels false, artificial, forced. The Arab world uses Classical Arabic to read and write, but no Arabic speaker has it as his/her native language.

Secondly, the Swiss may have an inferiority complex with respect to their northern neighbours. With its 80 million inhabitants, strong economy and stature in the world, Germany has the capacity to intimidate many European countries. I have witnessed quite a few Swiss people apologise to the BabelDad for their supposedly bad German!

Thirdly, the Basel area is highly cosmopolitan. Not only does it border Germany and France, but also a third of its population originates from foreign lands. English (and to a lesser extent French) is a preferred Lingua Franca. Moreover, in my experience, Swiss people like to practise their English whenever they get a chance.

In conclusion, I am confident I will learn German, eventually. But it will not be through immersion as I'd originally thought. It will be because I want to and I will put a lot of effort into it.

Ich schaffe das!

Monday, 29 February 2016

BK2 is a pentalingual 8 year old!

BK2 is 8!

We celebrated her second birthday in Switzerland by inviting a few of her friends to a party. As all the children sat down to eat, we realised it was a pretty multicultural/multilingual bunch. Check this out:

BKsAlgeria, GermanyArabic, French, German, Swiss, English
BoyAustralia, New ZealandEnglish, Swiss, German
GirlNetherlandsDutch, Swiss, German
GirlSwitzerland, HungaryItalian, Swiss, Hungarian, English
GirlNorway, GermanySwiss, German, English, Norwegian
BoySpain, AustraliaSpanish, English
GirlSwitzerland, GermanyGerman, Swiss

By virtue of living in Switzerland, nearly everyone speaks more than one language to some extent. But these children with their 10 nationalities and 10 languages are multilingual and multicultural. They live their diversity on a daily basis, switching between languages all the time inside and outside.
And we love that!

Friday, 19 February 2016

Ski Camp

BK1, who will be 11 in March, is currently taking part in a ski camp. Two firsts: going to a holiday camp and skiing.

She's a mere two-hour drive, but she could be at the other side of the world, she's been gone for 5 days today. I can't wait to see her tomorrow and hear all about it!

Meanwhile she sent me the following messages via her friend's phone.

Bonjour hadawin nadna. le snow ouw vraiment vraiment high. Est-ce que ça va el tmec. Eneya ou Anna ana nrcdo kdem each other ou berech kenna ne cuddleo ma each other. Comment sont les autres? Caien une notre Fille ou ai vraiment vraiment funny. Je pense peut-être gdro ne bio friends ou Anna aussi. Koli hello end les autres ou blic eni OK. Miss you. Le Internet hana ouw Rubbish. Bye Bye
Geh ouw bien. Rachna fok la piste rouge le whole morning. Ou berk tacht 5 fois. Krib rocht fok la Piste noire
 Next time anyone asks me what do the girls speak, I'll show them this!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Arabic "Camp"!

The girls have just gone back to school after their two-week long Herbstferien (Autumn holidays).

For the last ten days, I have been teaching BK1 (10.5 years old) and BK2 (7.5 years old) how to read and write in Arabic. We have been doing between 10 and 30 minutes every day, following the Algerian textbook for 6-year olds. I can already see a lot of progress: BK1's reading and writing are improving, and BK2 has started to read too!

Here you can hear both girls reading (deciphering) a sentence, without me first reading it to them.

You can hear BK4 babbling (shouting!) in the background. It's hard going, I was in my bathrobe, and BK3 was on the iPad. But hey it works somehow.

I hope we can keep the momentum now that the girls are back in school. We'll have to downscale the frequency and duration of lessons. Now that they have gained confidence in their skills though, I am hoping we will manage a weekly session, life permitting.

You know what the best thing is? BK1 said our daily lessons have been FUN!

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

BK1 can read Arabic!

When we landed at Algiers Airport a few weeks ago, I noticed BK1 (10 years old) looking at the signs in Arabic. I said to her casually that I was hoping she'd be able to read Arabic by the end of our 6-week stay. She then squinted at the sign and spelled out "ma-t-a-r م ط أ ر " (airport), just like that. Turns out she could already read!

During our stay with my parents, particularly at mealtimes, BK1 would decipher the Arabic writing on bottles of water, lemonade etc. Granted, she has a limited grasp of what the words she is reading mean, but still! How many 10-year olds are there who can read in 4 languages?

Compared to our friends' son, who at 10 years of age passed his Arabic GCSEs successfully, grasping how to read is neither here nor there. However, compare that to the vast numbers of kids of a similar age, born to both Algerian parents and who are unable to speak colloquial Arabic, let alone read or write classical Arabic, and I feel sort of ... satisfied.

Yes, the road is long before BK1 achieves some literacy in Arabic, but we're on it :)