Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Learning to Look

Learning to Look

Looking Up. Montreux, Switzerland. 2013.

I sometimes wonder which of my five senses I would least like to lose: my sight, hearing, smell, touch or taste.  

My eldest sister, Alison, grew up profoundly deaf and her ability to communicate despite her disability has always inspired me. She visited me in Geneva this weekend and I hoped to talk to her about her hearing. I had planned to ask her questions about how it felt when her cochlear implant was inserted, over ten years ago now. You can read a bit about cochlear implants here if you'd like to know more. 

Alison in Swizerland. December, 2013.

People often ask me if we use sign language in our family, and the answer is no, Alison lipreads. I think this is such an incredible skill and I really admire her ability to do this in big groups of people. I think growing up with Alison made me a lot more effusive, using gestures and facial expressions to communicate. In a way, I think she made it easier for me to strike up conversations with strangers, whether we shared a language or not.  

After a while the thought of grilling my sister on her holiday seemed a bit naff, and actually, I just wanted to enjoy the weekend with her. I soon realized though that by simply spending time with Alison, I observed so much more than usual. The birds, the markets, the mountains; visually, everything seemed a bit clearer, a bit brighter. It felt as though everything was in high definition, just for the weekend.

Seagulls in Geneva. December, 2013.

We took a train from Geneva to Montreux at the other end of the croissant-shaped Lac Léman and couldn’t have asked for better light. The sun was so bright, the sky was so blue, and the mountains were topped with perfect peaks of snow.

View towards Valais from Montreux. Switzerland, 2013.

By the lakeside we found birds swimming and sat to watch them for a while. It's incredible how much character birds have when you can sit long enough to watch them. 

Takeoff. Montreux, Switzerland. 2013.

A family soon came and joined us. When I heard them speaking Arabic I decided to try out mine. I said, in my happiest voice, and shakiest Arabic,  ‘merhabar fils Suisseria!’  - welcome in Switzerland! - and tried to explain that I was studying some Arabic in Geneva: ‘ana darastu fils al madrasa fils Geneva.’ 

Making friends by the lake: an Iraqi grandmother visiting her family in Switzerland. December, 2013.

There was a grandmother, a mother and two children. They were from Iraq, though the mother and children were living in Sierre, Switzerland. We soon switched to French, then her little son tried out his English on me, and I once again tried to tell them a bit more about myself and Alison in Arabic. 

I asked Alison afterwards if not knowing a completely alien language could compare to deafness. She said no, it was something different. I first learnt French in Togo, West Africa, and two years into my life in Geneva, I feel pretty comfortable in a Francophone crowd, but I remember in the first few months feeling completely out of my depth in conversations, nodding enthusiastically but understanding little (not unlike these ladies). It was disorientating, embarrassing, confusing and above all, absolutely exhausting. I lost my voice sometimes, not knowing how to form sentences, preferring to listen intensely. It's the closest I can come to empathizing with Alison's deafness, and even then, it's worlds away from her experience. For her, every conversation requires courage, and I admire her so much for entering into those conversations. She has a great reputation in the surgery where she works as a Health Care Assistant, making her patients feel safe, comfortable and cared for.

She also pointed out things and made me see so much more than I would normally have seen on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Like this incredible sun slipping behind the mountain at dusk

Like this lucky moon-seeking paraglider

I felt like the whole weekend was full of looking, seeing, and looking again. We looked more than we spoke, and actually, the silence we shared inspired me to write this. It's beautiful to see what is quietly on display if we choose to look a bit closer sometimes.

The quiet grace of pigeons. Montreux, Switzerland, 2013.

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