Picture it: Lisbon, 1980. Cobblestone streets winding their way through neighborhoods of crumbling buildings from the 1700s. The twinkling blue of the Pacific visible from every hillside and the enticing aroma of freshly baked, crusty bread beckoning from every corner. It was a city in the infancy of its liberation from oppression. It was dictator-lite, if you will. All the brutality, but none of the infamy.
Anyway, back to our story.
In those heady days of unrefined freedom, crushing shortages and general civic collapse, a young man found himself at a crossroads. He had dreams, much too big to be realized in the underdeveloped podunk landscape of a struggling new democracy. He was impatient, and he had heard stories full of wonder. Tales of riches spun by young idealists just like him. Willing to work hard on the certainty of all that was promised in far away lands.
The decision was, where? The heady jungles of Brazil? Advantage: he already spoke the language. Disadvantage: routine beheadings and the highest rate of spear gun killings in the world.
So where? Australia, America, Britain? No, none of those would do for our intrepid dreamer. Not when the frozen tundra of very northern Canada beckoned with a guaranteed job and vague allusions to easy prosperity.
So how does this bell-bottommed man fit into my origin story? Here he is, for reference:
And here I am, age 5, and at his mercy. Brace yourself for gratuitous ‘throwback-Thursday’ style photo:
That was the before picture. We also captured my exact reaction upon disembarking from the rickety plane that shuddered its way onto the icy tarmac significantly north of the 49th parallel. In November.
Thanks dad. He really couldn’t have planned it worse. Rip your wife and only daughter, who know zero English, from the bosom of their loving family to an isolated, barren village of 9000. Where they know exactly one person. At the very precipice of a winter so enthusiastic, so unforgiving, that it literally went down in history. The year local high school students were let out of school to help locate and dig primary students out of the snow drifts. Let me clarify for those of you in the back. The snow and wind were so fast and furious, children were buried as they walked to school. Oh yeah, that was the perfect time to convince his reluctant family of his genius.
Anyway, it was done. This was our new home. And five year old me got a rapid introduction to the dynamic world of ESL. English as a second language. Even without speaking a word of this maddening new dialect, I knew I needed to shed that particular label ASAP. The locals sniffed it out like sharks circling chum.
So, I went to work. Sesame Street was my jam. I never turned my nose up at Mr. Dress-up either, and I most certainly did want to be Mr. Rogers neighbour. I consumed, inhaled, every source of English language available to me. I mimicked the enunciation of Big Bird before moving on to Reading Rainbow and finally adopting Strawberry Shortcake and all her fruity friends as my own. Y’all, I dragged that Strawberryland quilt into my twenties. I learned to hand sew for the sole purpose of patching its tearing, yellowed seams.
In the midst of all that sugary 80s children’s programming, I fell lusciously in love with this infuriating lexicon. I reveled in each new seemingly impossible word. Each mind bending discovery of grammar defying creation. Explain again how way and weigh are pronounced the same? And slough can mean both a snake shedding its skins and swampy ground, depending on how you choose to pronounce the exact same combination of letters? Who had allowed this to happen? How had society not descended into chaos of misunderstanding?
And yet it didn’t. There was a beauty, an elegance, to the limitless available synonyms. Entire reference books cataloguing similar, but slightly different, choices. A unique necessity of the English language. Worlds of infinite shades of distinction opened up. This was seriously cool. I was hooked. And forevermore the challenge of crafting the most beautifully balanced, intricately nuanced sentence held my fascination. All this to say, I’m a word nerd.
To this day, I lose time stalking the ideal combination of characters and syllables to perfectly convey precise meaning. Trusty thesaurus always within reach.
Love & Light,