Last week I participated in an incredible event. A large multi-national corporation celebrated it’s 60th anniversary by inviting the top executives, together with their spouses, from every country that they do business with to a three day symposium in Vienna. For those spouses who did not wish to attend the international speakers (similar to the Davos Summit), they arranged an incredible variety of exclusive cultural events.
I was torn with which to attend, so the first day I did cultural events (including a tour of Vienna, the castle, and a small Master Class with the Director of the Vienna Symphony) and the second day attended the speakers. Every evening was a fantastic dinner with all attendees – once held in a museum – closed to the public – the other time in a castle. While the seminars were conducted in English, with spontaneous translations, the tours were offered in several languages. Multilingual tour guides held up signs “Spanish” “Farsi”, etc. It was here that I began to feel rather provincial.
You see, I can only speak English. Well, because I live in Canada I have had years of French – both in school and by reading every package sold in this country. I know that FREE is GRATIS in French and SORTIE means EXIT. In fact, if I had to I could both order in a restaurant and shop in a somewhat bungled version of the French language. And in France, anywhere but Paris the locals greatly appreciate your trying to speak their language. In Paris, as in Montreal, when you try to speak high school French they roll their eyes and speak English.
Now I was one of the very few who could speak only English. (The other uni-linguists were all guests from the U.S.A.) The vast majority of attendees were fluent in at least three languages, and often four or five. They could be conversing in Swedish, greet someone in Italian and then order their drink in German. More than just the language, most of these people had lived in many different countries. A woman whose husband now works for Coca Cola in Atlanta was originally from Australia and had lived in Dubai and Istanbul. My host had lived in Sweden, Mexico and Switzerland, before coming to Canada. The first evening I spent with an entire group from Saudi Arabia – only one of whom was an actual Saudi – they rest were from all over the world.
I have lived my entire life in Canada. In fact, except for a brief sojourn in Montreal (in 1970 – not the best year for Montreal). I have spent my entire life in the Greater Toronto Area. My husband moved several times with his family growing up and we made a conscious decision that our children would live in the same town until they finished high school. I have no doubt that this has been both a good and bad choice for them.
Certainly spending a year Lisbon, or Shanghai, would dramatically enhance my children’s experience in dealing with the world and the people in it. They would have experienced different languages, culture and an incredible array of food options. However, the fact that they would have attended an International school wherever we lived perhaps would have given them a skewed and privileged version of the both the world and country they lived in. On the other side, my son is getting married in June and two of his groomsmen are friends from the first grade. I don’t imagine that would have happened if he had lived in 7 cities before he finished grade school.