From One Campanile to Another

A few days ago, I was walking through the Berkeley campus at noon on a sunny November day. Towering above me was the recently-renovated centerpiece of the UC campus, Sather Tower, the Italian Renaissance-style campanile designed by John Galen Howard that was completed in 1914.

As I walked, bells began chiming from up above in the campanile. Just as Proust’s eating a Madeleine brought back past memories, so did the chime of those bells. Their music evoked a moment five or six years ago when my American friend Susie and I were walking through the main square of Ghent, Belgium.

It was a rainy Sunday morning about noon, and the bells of Ghent’s landmark belfry, the Belfort, were ringing above. Susie turned to me and said: “Look. The door to the tower is open. Come on! Let’s go up.” I followed Susie inside. Up, up, up we climbed the narrow winding staircase. The higher we got, the louder were the bells—54, according to the guidebook–of the belfry, which was built in the 14th century as a fortified guard tower. From the small, stone window-slits, we could see the medieval square below, with its grey cobblestone streets, gabled houses and slate roofs.

Upon arriving at the top, we saw, behind the glass of a box-like room, two carillon players, a man and a woman, playing a duet on an organ-like instrument. “My God,” gasped Susie. It’s Geert and Lizbeth!” The bells were so loud that I could barely hear what Susie was saying, but the expression on her face and the gestures she made indicated to me that she recognized the two musicians. And they, in turn, nodded their heads to Susie in recognition as they played.

That day, we were the only spectators up in the tower. Holding our hands over our ears, we listened –for about 20 minutes –to the bell concert, all the while watching the fist and feet movements of the two musicians. Once the concert was over, the man and woman opened the glass door and came out to greet us.

“Susie!”
“Geert. Lizbeth!”
“What a surprise to see you! What are you doing here?”
“I’m really surprised to see you, too, said Susie. “I didn’t realize you both were back in Belgium. I’ve been here for six months doing research at the university. This is my friend Hilary.”

After we shook hands, Susie said, “This is really amazing. I met Geert and Lizbeth in Berkeley a couple of years ago when Geert was the head carilloneur of Sather Tower. We used to be in a Dutch-speaking conversation group off campus. Jeez, what a coincidence!”

And what a coincidence it is, too, that although Susie lives most of the year in Belgium, the place I’m renting in Berkeley on Arch Street is just a block away from where she still owns a home!

Such coincidences prove to me yet again how small the world is becoming, how people work and spend their time on different continents, and how interconnected we all are. They also underscore the power of memory and the Proustian experience—of how hearing chiming bells and seeing a campanile in one place can bring back the memory of music of another bell tower thousands of miles away.

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Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 12:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Some thoughts on expatriation and “roots”

Being a long-time resident of France, I’ve tended to forget what it’s like to be an expatriate in a foreign country. I’ve felt at home in my adopted country and different from those who are only in France for a limited time. I haven’t shared expats’ initial concerns about language, housing, shopping, and culture shock. I speak French, have a French ex-husband, French sons and French friends, live on the French economy, and think in euros, meters and centigrade.

Now, however, after spending six months living and teaching in China, I can certainly relate to many of the concerns expatriates have when they move abroad. When I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t speak Mandarin; had to use sign language when I shopped; was shocked (at least at first) by all the spitting; and suffered from the pollution, the lack of green surroundings and the crowds.

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And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed my expatriate experience. It opened up a whole new world to me. I was no longer comparing French and American cultures but discovering a new, very rich and complex, one. Nor was I continually comparing “the French” and “the Americans”. Now it was trying to understand “the Chinese”, a people that is much more diverse, individualistic, helpful, welcoming, and fun-loving than we in the West are often led to believe. Of course, speaking the language and staying on longer would have allowed me to delve further into the culture and to interact more with the local population; I only perceived the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. But my perception of China and the Chinese has certainly changed.

And while I was in Shanghai I had one of most rewarding experiences of my life, that of volunteering in a Chinese orphanage.

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I think what also helped me enjoy my stay in Shanghai were the expatriate associations, both American and French, I joined while I was there. Through them, I made new friends, went on walking tours and visits of the city and its surroundings, took a few Chinese cooking courses, discovered local restaurants and jazz clubs, even journeyed to Tibet! I also helped re-launch an international social group in Shanghai, attended the Shanghai Literary Festival, and participated in a local Anglophone writers’ group. All this, in addition to teaching fifteen hours a week at the French lycée, kept me very busy; and I rarely had time to feel “alone in a foreign country.”

I left Shanghai in July. Having enough miles by then for an award ticket on Air France, I embarked on a trip through six western states of the U.S. visiting family and friends. The landscapes I saw in the west, as well as hearing and speaking my native language again everywhere I went, soothed my soul—so much so that rather than return to France at the beginning of September, I decided, serendipitously, to lay down my bags until Christmas and give living in California another try. I’ve done this three other times since my divorce ten years ago, but circumstances always brought me back to France, where I’ve lived for nearly 40 years. Now, however, I’m retired, my children are grown, and I haven’t yet been blessed with grandchildren. Of course, I miss my sons, my friends, and my apartment (which I’ve been lucky enough to rent out), but, otherwise, nothing in Paris now really obliges me to live there anymore.

So far, I love being back in the Bay Area and the life style here. I’m reconnecting with childhood friends and making new ones, taking some classes, joining local groups, and doing research for a new book at the UC Berkeley library. Despite how much I appreciate living abroad, I’m now discovering how good it feels sometimes to return to your roots.HK,Berkeley

(an adapted version of this post recently appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2009 edition of AAWE News Paris)

Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  
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