The Comfort of Words

I was thinking recently about my career and why I’ve spent so many years working with words. I spent a whole lot of my childhood living in countries where I didn’t understand the language, and over two years in a school where they didn’t speak to me in mine. Writing, reading and my imagination were my escape and constant companions.

I was born in Australia but as a baby our family moved to Greece for two years and then onto Spain for another two years. We came back to Australia for three years before moving to Sweden. Two and a half years later we moved to the UK. After yet another two and a half years we moved to Brussels. We only stayed for one year before relocating back to Australia. I was nearly fourteen. That’s the short version.

I was eight when we moved to Stockholm and schooling options were between the American School and the French School. Starting in the American school we and other embassy kids were picked up by a stretch limo to be taken to school. The US system was very different to ours though so we were pulled out. I seem to recall there may have been some low-grade bullying in the snow-covered playground as well. My parents then thought what a brilliant idea it would be for us to learn French when living in Europe. My sister and I went to the French School for the next two years. Isolated in a world where kids spoke Swedish in the playground and French in the classroom, we were ignored by the teachers. I’m not sure why no one considered getting us French lessons 😉 You know that old assumption that kids pick up languages by osmosis? I’m here to prove them wrong! Mind you, I can still say a few phrases in Swedish and I DO have a good French accent or so I’ve been told.

My only way to escape boredom was to daydream and make up stories. I also amassed an impressive truancy record with as many creative variations on excuses that I could manage. Slipping in the snow when leaving the house worked a couple of times. A tantrum where I clung to the door with my parents peeling off each finger didn’t work. Being sick worked quite well and came with added bonus of bed-delivered meals and extra cuddles.

English TV was a rarity and I can’t remember watching anything except the story of Helen Keller (this one I think). . Books were our escape but English books were not easy to find in abundance. We also wrote frequent letters to family and school friends at home. Despite culling a few times I still have a pile of the letters received over the years of travelling. These tenuous paper fragments were the only way of communication and very cherished.

At ten I started a diary that continued for around six years. I am appalled at how shallow I was as a young teenager, but I will no doubt need to be reminded when my own Miss 4 reaches that age. I also wrote a fair amount of angst-ridden poetry that will never be shared. I still write every now and then and always take notebooks when I travel. And books of course.

Living in the UK for close on three years was a wonderful life, with loads of books and comics and TV. We moved to Belgium when I was about 12 where we went to an International school with expat kids who lived the sort of life we had.

It was at school in Brussels that an English teacher noticed how fast I read and how bored I became when my classmates took too long to finish the book assigned.

My English teacher gave me the job (bless him) of reviewing new books being delivered to the school library. It was a fairly new school and I remember boxes of books in the library ready to be packed into the shelves. Of course that teacher was an angel – I’m sure my reviews as a 12 year old were as dismal as they are now!

What bliss. For the first time I had as many books to read as I wanted, and a purpose and a role to play in determining their benefit for others. What a clever man. He would have no idea that he probably shaped my future career and certainly encouraged my love of books.

I’m lucky I stumbled my way into Publishing at 22 and worked my way up with a few detours into web and mobile content and now a focus on digital. Since my early twenties I’ve worked with words one way or another. Not creating the words but working with the wonderful teams of people who do so. Blogging has been a joy as it has allowed me to write as often as I find time on subjects I feel passionate about. And of course, if you’ve managed to miss the news I’ve recently had a book published!

I still remember how books gave me so much companionship and enjoyment when living as a stranger in a strange land. Thank you to all the authors out there who wrote the words and created the stories to inspire my imagination.

Words matter.

10 thoughts on “The Comfort of Words

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I remember books being like good childhood friends too. I was fortunate to have a mother who loved reading aloud to me when I was very small, and great stories too (like Winnie the Pooh and The Hobbit). Was glad to hear of your enlightened teacher – what a blessing. I was not so fortunate there. I remember finishing a book before everyone else and asking my teacher what to do next. She told me I couldn’t possibly have finished the book, that I was very naughty and I needed to go back and read it! To this day I still have a fear of people not believing me… thanks Mrs Campbell!

    • Thanks for your words Melissa. How unforgivable of Mrs Campbell! You are lucky that your mother read aloud to you. What we now know about childhood literacy we know how important it is to have books in the house and people to foster and encourage that love of words. With the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and the work that they do I often think about what they say: “Can you imagine a world without books or reading?”. No I can’t and I realise how lucky I am.

    • Talar ni svenska? Och tack!Yes, it WAS a great adventure at times. At other times it was just hard relocating and being the new kid. Probably gave us good life skills in ways.

      • Ja talar inter svenska. Min sambo talar svenska – han är svensk.

        In my fantasy, I’d have loved such opportunities as a kid, but obviously it had its challenges. (My comment was dictated by wanting to practice my Swedish and being thrown up against my limitations.) I’ve always wanted to learn another language – had plenty of opportunities and never mastered one. What we miss out on, relying on translations.

        • I’m afraid you’ve gone beyond my limitations of the Swedish language! Yes, in fantasy it was a wonderful life. Quite unreal in many ways in terms of the experiences we had and our parents were always trying to emphasise that. Children accept what happens but in retrospect it was not the most secure life.

  2. No wonder you’re such a clever life writer – what an enriched childhood – the travels, the inner life, the love of words… and now, a published writer. Congratulations Anna. Looking forward to the launch.

  3. Love this post, Anna. The idea of books as childhood companions and a source of comfort is so powerful. Thanks for writing this personal post. Fascinating!

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