From a tiny village in the Swiss mountains that lives from tourism, came Steven. Adventurer, traveller, experiencer and remarkable at languages, he decided to pack his bags at the young age of 15 and leave off to secondary school to find himself. Like the beginnings of those indie movies your hipster friend wants you to see, Steven’s first experience in a larger town (of around 50,000 inhabitants) was a real adventure. He insisted on studying his five years of college (as per the Swiss system) in French, a language that was unfamiliar to him. He had moved into a home for boys, although it was run by military men and the order and the discipline constrained Steven as much or more than his previous town. Six months had gone by and he left the home to live with a woman in a different house, where he stayed for one and a half years, before she moved town and Steven had to find temporary accommodation with his Italian teacher. At 18 he moved to a small, shabby underground studio where he began to live independently.
Steven tells me that living on his own for the first time and moving away from his family forced him to discover and confront the tedious reality of household chores, which can be the norm if you don’t live in a hotel (which he did!). After spending some time in his first studio, he moved elsewhere nicer until, at the age of 22, his travels abroad begun. The first in his family to receive a university education, he spent half of his gap year abroad in London and the other half in Madrid. In both cities he received language qualifications and, combined with his experience in francophone Switzerland, he learned the true meaning of travelling: adaptation. When Steven talks about adaptation, he not only means changing your habits to your host culture; he means changing your way of thinking, your mannerisms, your self-expression even, to be understood. When he landed in Madrid he could not speak Spanish yet when he left he was fluent.
“This is true, travelling is about adaptation! But the only thing is that I don’t want to sound like I am all for perfect adaptation and that in fact adaptation is at all possible. Quite the contrary.”
Languages and travelling… can we really separate them at all?
Steven thinks not. As an International Relations graduate from Sussex, and a Gender postgraduate in London, he knows that identity is structured around language. However, once you are a multilingual being you face the challenge of representation.
When you travel and you learn new languages and new forms of expression, you go through a process of rediscovering yourself and the world. Steven reflects that he is forced to rebuild his identity and his qualities: not only does he need to learn to speak anew, but also to be funny, sarcastic, ironic, romantic. At the end of the day, Steven thinks there are multiple versions of him living within his body simultaneously at peace and at war with each other.
“I have had to discover myself many times.”
Steven explores the notion of the hybrid through multilingualism. He reflects that learning each language is a process that creates a curiously independent, yet co-constitutive identity to, say, an ‘original’ one. However, these new identities are almost never fully developed, as they never reach their full potential if we don’t achieve the required fluency and comfort in a given language and culture.
“There are too many linguistic and cultural barriers when in processes of adaptation, as you try negotiate old with new identities and amalgamate them into amorphous and fluid forms of being that change their shape according to situation and location. So I think there is always an element of failure to adaptation. It is always failed adaptation or precarious adaptation”, he says.
Steven is fluent in English, Spanish, German, Italian and French. For him, learning a language is living the language. At a price. Picture this, we have a limited space inside our body, and when we make space for a new live, a new language, we sacrifice some space reserved for the other. “We can’t communicate our whole being”, says Steven. Take gender. How would you explain your understanding of gender in another language that is not your mother tongue, or in fact English? Steven raises the ultimate paradoxical question: “What are languages good for? They always fail to represent you.”
“You pay the price of fragmentation because you are never completely fluent. So in the end, I feel sometimes incoherent and fragmented in my identity because I have gone through five ‘failed adaptations’ that constitute me.”
Steven, the traveller, can create a new home with ease. He has developed the rare talent of becoming attached to the present (in time and space) and the people in it. However, he does not travel light and usually recreates the same room or space that gives him stability wherever he goes. He sometimes thinks he should be better at staying in touch, and is jealous of those who can easily maintain life-time long relationships. But because he adapts and renews himself, he has found that there is no stable Steven and that keeping in touch can be difficult. There is no intrinsic identity that stops you from living.