Tempo Rubato [Stolen Time]

Collage on painted notebook, 1998

I remember rather clearly my last day of first grade in primary school. At least, the souvenir I fabricated of it is very clear: I said goodbye to all my friends with a lot of excitement, knowing we would all meet in September with enough summer stories to keep us going until Christmas. My biggest worry was to find time in my vacation to write to Elian, my boyfriend, who would spend the next two months in Brittany. I was very fond of him. In my souvenir, my parents came to pick me up at school and while we were heading towards the parking lot, my father told me I would not return to this school in September since the whole family was moving to Brussels after the summer.

This came rather as a shock — I was living in Nancy, France, back then. I had no idea what Brussels was, I think it must have been the first time I needed to visualise the shape of a country, its limits, and another country touching it. The concept of borders was also a big surprise. Fortunately, I was told that Belgians spoke French (at least half of them), therefore the language wouldn’t be a problem for us and that anyways, in my new school every one can learn in their mother tongue. Nonetheless, I will have to catch up on my non-existant English pretty fast, since my fellow pupils started learning it in their first year while I had never heard of English. This little piece of information stayed with me the whole summer.

The idea of being behind was not exactly easy to take. Until now, school was pleasurable since I was very good in all topics. I could count, read fluently and had a spotless spelling in French for a seven year old — a big asset for the love letters mentioned above. Anticipating September, I asked help from my grand-parents. This was useless, as they only knew German, Alsatian, or Yiddish which led to even more confusion. The rest of the summer vacation is somewhat vague in my memory, but I am quite positive that my father taught me how to pronounce English letters.

The first day of school in Brussels was rather challenging. I heard so many different languages in one day, my head was spinning. I had no idea how to grab or process those new sounds. Even the Belgians who shared my language, used bizarre expressions and pronounced words in a funny way. If I had to describe my life before the move, I could say that it was rather soothing and reassuring, compared to these first days in Belgium. But maybe it’s me embellishing reality: I did have my share of anxieties before the age of seven, too. For example, learning how to ride a bicycle didn’t come easy; the Christian folklore scared me to death — especially Père Fouettard, the ‘whipping father’, who assisted St Nicholas on his travels quizzing children about the Bible and beating them if they answered incorrectly; I also worried about my parents getting killed by lightenings on thunder nights.

Next to anxieties, there was quite a lot of thrilling too. The French school had this big exciting project which was the selection for music and dance sections, due to start in second grade. I remember having to go through all kinds of tests — I can still see myself walking in the diagonal of a hall and being watched, which felt awkward, and a piano in front of which, I had to repeat specific sounds. I was then asked to choose between ballet and music. It was a tough decision, as I liked both. By the end, the old black piano my father bought second-hand, helped with the hesitation and I was due to start in the piano section the following September. Instead, we crossed the border and took the piano with us. Actually, this piano got rather famous for its tendency to break poor movers’ backs. Nevertheless, it stayed with us in the many homes that followed.

In Brussels, learning English ended up being much easier than expected. I loved the possibility of expressing myself in a new language; I even got so passionate about it, I decided to think and speak to myself only in English — my way to gain some control over this new life. I still wonder sometimes, what would I have become if I’d stayed in France and studied music. A pianist, a singer, a composer? Maybe none of those, I could also be an astronaut with a strong love for music. It doesn’t really matter, I’m learning music now.

Love, Ethel