Cosmic Prose

Natasha Regehr


I told a fib today. It was easy, because it was in French.

You see, I’ve been seeking a new artistic outlet that will allow me to get out into the community and interact with other people. By “new artistic outlet,” I mean something that fosters self-expression but that will take me away from my 9-5 life of intoning “do-re-mi-fa-sol” on repeat five days a week. By “community,” I mean “outside of my all-consuming place of work.” And by “other people,” I mean “nice strangers who speak French.” Because this is a linguistic undertaking as much as anything else. Continue reading

Here Goes…

Expat life is full of comings and goings, and right now I am feeling the goings much more than the comings. I am suffering the loss of some of my favourite people, and I find myself tempted to retreat to my magnificent new bedroom to while away the hours in comfortable solitude instead of mustering the energy to go out and intentionally cultivate new friendships.

Does anyone else out there understand how uncomfortable it is to watch others socialize freely and effortlessly, but to remain on the outside of their banter? Does anyone find the thought of trying to weasel your way into others’ already-established friendships borderline-terrifying? Does anyone find the thought of spending long, unstructured stretches of time with large groups of people absolutely excruciating?

If so, perhaps you can help me to remain accountable to my new Anti-Isolation, Starting-Over, I-Can-Do-This Social Policy – drawn up just this morning, with a mixture of dread and optimism: Continue reading

China, Revisited: Unforgettable, Indeed

I would be remiss if I did not share the official report:

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China, Concluded: The Great Escape

That last post was a little too light-hearted for its content — or rather, for the trajectory of its content.  Because what happened next was not at all funny. Continue reading

China, Continued: Prison Break

If you made it to the end of my last post, you may have noticed that I alluded to “another story.”  This is it.

I am trapped in a prison compound in the depths of China.  Today I plot my escape. Continue reading

Impressions of China: Birth to 43

I went to China last week, after 43 years of waiting.  Here are  some impressions: Continue reading

Lost for Words

This is how it feels to be a speaker of another language.

At first, you feel a little flabbergasted: “OMG! I’m actually in [insert country]! And they really do speak [insert language] here! Pretty much exclusively! It sounds so [exotic/romantic/guttural/alarming/melodic/robotic] ! I can’t believe I’m really here! Let’s play charades!”

Gradually, wonder gives way to mild curiosity. How do you say [insert unknown word]? You learn to say “hello” and “thank-you,” and the world begins to open up to you. You are a participant. And people think you’re cute. Like a pet. You can now do tricks.

But eventually, your tricks become old, and inconsequential. You can’t ask for directions with “hello” and “thank-you.” Your questions remain unasked, and therefore, unanswered. You are entirely reliant on the goodwill of benevolent translators, if you manage to find them. And then you try not to manifest yourself as the pathetic, clingy personage that you know you have become.

You feel tense. Stressed out. Apprehensive. Uneasy. It is unsettling to not know what is going on. You feel like you have no control over your environment. Decisions are made without you. Actions are undertaken without explanation, and you pour all your energy into trying to divine their purpose – only to find, more often than not, that there is no comprehensible purpose at all. Humans just act that way.

On top of all that, you feel illiterate, especially if the script you see around you is drastically different from your own. You know those signs say something important, but you can’t make it out. They tell you how to do something, or where to go, or what is forbidden. But any proficiency you once had with associating symbols and sounds is now eradicated. You are no longer a highly educated individual. You have devolved to preschool status.

Yes, preschool. Or perhaps infancy. You are reduced to making unintelligible sounds and gestures in order to acquire your basic needs. Perhaps some onlookers find this endearing. Others see you as a novelty; still others perceive you as a target. But most just find you a nuisance or a nonentity, and choose to overlook you.  

This is when you begin to feel invisible. People talk around you and through you; you are simply not there. Unlike anonymity, this is not a chosen invisibility. You are unseen, whether you wish to be or not.

Sometimes, this spirit-like existence feels a little surreal. You drift outside of yourself, and you observe the speakers as if they are part of some absurd social experiment. Do they really understand what they are saying? They must, because they respond to one another with what appears to be recognition. Really, it’s a wonder that any language “works” at all. What on earth are they communicating about, I wonder? Is it something that would interest me, if I knew? 

Which brings me to one of the lesser-known by-products of other-lingualism: boredom. It’s stressful and brain-consuming to try to untangle the intricacies of human interaction for any length of time, and eventually, your circuits overheat. You shut down. You tune out. And then the boredom begins. Because, you see, propriety requires that you continue to look like you’re listening, even when you aren’t. You cannot amuse yourself with other more engaging activities, or have an interesting conversation with some other human being who understands you. You are forced to retreat entirely into your own thoughts — which tend to be dominated by your feelings of invisibility, illiteracy, and unease. This is a dangerous descent.

If you are lucky enough to be studying the language that surrounds you, you have a slight advantage. You can assert your presence and perhaps generate a response from someone else. You can figure out what the signs are about, even if you can’t pin down their meaning. The language loses some of its mystique, and you find that if you listen hard enough, you can crack bits of its code. This can lead to moments of elation, but they are always tempered by the awareness of the vast expanse of the language that remains locked to you. Triumph and disillusionment walk hand-in-hand; there is always still so much to learn.

So even with the pleasant ripples of intellectual stimulation that come from mastering bits and pieces of the language, it still comes down to an overwhelming linguistic fatigue, followed by the inevitable gnawing boredom. Couple that with a naturally introverted demeanour, and a mild social anxiety that manifests itself even within your own language group, and you get a little slice of misery.

Remember this when the other-language-speakers among you come out of hiding. They are starving for the same human interactions that they observe around them everywhere they go; and they are trying; but they are tired. They are so tired. An unlearned language weighs more than you realize.

We who speak other languages have one suspicion, and that one suspicion gives us a speck of hope. We are people, and the speakers around us are people, and people of any linguistic shade are inclined to form relationships. We suspect that relationships may be possible, despite the barriers between us, and we yearn for them. We yearn to share our dormant sense of humour and our long-buried stories. We have stories, you know — each one of us. We have a past, with cataclysms and victories and mundanities that shaped us into the interesting people we are, behind our silence. We think that perhaps you have stories, too, and that some of them may run parallel to ours; that we could meet somewhere, in these stories, if we just knew how to get around the cultural divide. We want to know you. We want you to know us. But we are vulnerable, and we are tired, much too tired for words.


I was warned, when I first moved to Morocco, that I should not expect to accomplish more than one, or maybe two things on any given day. One could, for instance, go to the doctor or to the bank, but not on the same day. Or even the same weekend. You see, businesses close when they’re not supposed to be closed, or the roads to said businesses close, or the parking lots close, or the place you think you need to go turns out to be entirely the wrong place altogether. Street addresses, if they exist at all, are not always chronological (this I learned on a five-hour dermatology expedition). And, if you do manage to a) find, b) access, c) park near, and d) enter your establishment of choice, it’s entirely likely that whoever’s inside won’t be able to help you anyway. You need to go to the other location, they say, or bring some obscure document, or (most commonly) COME BACK TOMORROW.

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Bake a Cake

The most delightful thing just happened.

I was late for lunch, because it’s the week before concert week, and I’ve been making up the classes that I missed last week when I was sick.  Like, really sick.  Vomiting sick.  The only kind of sick that would keep a music teacher from her students two weeks before the first big concert of the year.  So I forfeited the dearest part of my day (lunch, of course) to rehearse with the students who missed their classes while I was busy vomiting.  

Therefore, when I finally had a few minutes to breathe, the cafeteria was closed.  I was devastated.  Yes, I had vaguely suspected such an atrocity might occur, but it was a chance I had been willing to take.  I knew I had to risk missing those tantalizing beef kabobs for the sake of the concert cause.  And the children, of course.  The children.

So there I was at the cafeteria counter, gushing with gratitude when the kitchen staff agreed to prepare a plate for me (bless them bless them bless them), and I saw a whole pile of kids sitting around the picnic tables outside, with nary a teacher in sight.

“This is perfect!” I thought.  “I have someone to sit with while I eat my lunch!”  And so I did.

I sat down, right in the middle of all the little ducklings.  They were stunned, but pleased.  I heard some of the children calling out each other’s names in a rhythmic sort of way, and I mused out loud, “Hmm! Sounds like someone wants to bake a cake!” And I started to sing.

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C’est l’amour…

What does it feel like to fall out of love? Could it be happening to me?

French is supposed to be the “language of love,” is it not? We had a sweet, sweet honeymoon phase, French and I. Every day we seemed to know each other twice as well as we did the day before. I was blissfully unaware of my relational faux pas, and everyone else just thought they were cute. Every little sentence was a triumph. Every lesson brought new possibilities. And the grammar… Oh, the grammar! What passion we shared, those participles and I. The verb tenses! The day I first learned passé composé, and could finally talk about things that had already happened… Stories started sprouting everywhere!

It’s true, French and I did take a little break at one point. I spent two months sequestered among Anglophones over the summer, but I never stopped longing for the langue de l’amour. I signed out workbooks from the library and continued the relationship in a one-sided, long-distance kind of way. When I returned to the Moroccan Promised Land of language acquisition, I was disappointed to find that both my teachers had deserted me (as if I didn’t already have an abandonment complex). “I miss you! I love you! I want you back!” I wailed into my sorry little unilingual void.

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