The teacher on playground duty calls me over.
Have I done something wrong? Can’t think of anything, but you never know.
I walk over to her, and a few girls gather ’round. They smell blood.
“Marilyn, what country do you come from?”
Children have already asked me that question. But this is the first time an adult has. What’s wrong with me? Do I look different?
“I was born here.”
“Oh. Well, what country do your parents come from?”
My parents? This is really serious! Why does she think we’re foreigners?
“They were born here, too. So were my grandparents.”
I threw the grandparent bit in for free. How far back does she want me to go?
“I’m fourth generation Australian.”
Not quite true. One great-grandfather was born in Wales. But I think all the other “greats” were born here. Close enough!
Similar questions from children never bother me. They’re only children. But this is a teacher! There’s got to be something wrong with me! I mustn’t be normal!
The bell rings, so that’s the end of that.
Many years later, in 2003, on Radio Haute-Angevine, in France, I tell this story to Jean-Francois while I’m his guest on Aux reveurs eveilles [Daydreamers' Gathering Place]. He chuckles and says,
“Didn’t she mean, ’what planet do you come from?’ ?”
I was a foreigner for nearly four decades in France. It was my accent. Most people didn’t know where I was born and guessed all sorts of places. I was often English, but also Dutch, sometimes German. Once, I was told that I spoke like the women from the North. My mother-in-law said that I knitted like them too. French women don’t hold their knitting needles the same way.
Once, in a bar, an acquaintance was complaining about “foreigners” coming to France. I reminded him that I was a “foreigner”. His reply was,
“Oh, you’re different. You look French.”
So, apparently, foreigners are people who don’t look like you. Which means that all men are foreigners to me. Sounds right.
While being interviewed in France for State-funded courses susceptible of helping me to find work, I would be asked if I spoke a foreign language. Having answered in the affirmative, the next question would be which one? To which I would reply,
“Non, non, non! Foreign language!”
“Mais, oui! French is my foreign language. English is my maternal language.”
Confusion. Fluttering of eyelashes.
“Yes, yes, of course! We’ll just put down English. Do you speak it, read it and write it?”
“Of course I do – it’s my maternal language.”
“Ah, yes! That’s right!”
More confusion. Big smiles.
To help things along, I would add that I also spoke, read and wrote French – my foreign language.
At this point, my public servant interviewer would often call for aspirin.
One last hope! Perhaps I’m not French, nor even European, in which case, no State-funded course, therefore no more interview?
No such luck! Dual nationality!
Make that two aspirins.
When I started getting into the papers in France, I was “Australian”. I remained “Australian” until the dreadful day that Australia bowed to United States pressure to honour a treaty or two, and illegally invaded Iraq.
I was so ashamed that I was afraid to go out for days. Hunger finally drove me to the shops. However, people were really kind to me. No-one mentioned Iraq in my presence and newspapers started calling me “Australian-born”, or “of Australian origin”. I think that the French only accepted me as “French” when my other country attacked Iraq.
We had all been so proud of being French when France stood up to the United States and refused to join the aggression. The Americans wrote and said bad things about us in their media and also put a ban on the importation of many French cheeses, supposedly because the way that they were made was dangerous for American health. However, everyone knew that it was in retaliation for not obeying orders. So my friends and acquaintances, including in the media, all understood how I must feel about what Australia had done.
When I returned to Australia, firstly in 2004 to be with my dying mother, then to settle here in 2005, I thought that I was coming home. It turns out that I left home to come to Australia. And I’m a foreigner again. Or still. I don’t really know any more.