An Interview With...
Nicole Szulc Ginn
What is your occupation?
I am currently semi-retired. I still do some writing of op-ed or commentary articles for US, UK and now Spanish dailies, and I will be involved during this US campaign season working for Americans Abroad for Kerry. Our main task is to get the vote out: many Americans who have lived abroad for many years are under the mistaken impression that they can no longer vote. But if they were ever registered to vote in any state, they can re-register and vote in November, and we must get that information to people. Of course we hope they vote for Senator Kerry, but that is up to each individual voter. [Op-Ed is short for opposite editorial. In journalism, an op-ed article is an article which expresses the personal opinion of the writer. These articles are usually found on the page facing the editorial page in a newspaper.]
Where have your worked?
I have worked for the Center for National Security Studies as a researcher, Radio Exterior de España as a translator and announcer, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner as a staff writer, Pacifica Radio, National Public Radio where I was first a stringer and later the foreign editor, NBC News as a field producer in Miami covering Latin America, NBC Radio as a Paris correspondent, Christian Science Monitor TV (World Monitor) as diplomatic correspondent, and CNN, Noticiero Nacional de Colombia and Equavisa (Ecuadoran TV) as a Washington correspondent. I left journalism in 1996 to go to Bosnia as an official of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation Europe (OSCE) seconded by the United States State Department. I left that job and full-time employment in 1999 when I came to the United Kingdom to marry my husband, a senior officer in the British Army I met while we were both serving in Bosnia. We are now moving to Mallorca.
What were your favorite subjects in school? What kind of student were you?
I was a reasonably good student. It's funny how when you think back all those years, what you thought you really hated doesn't seem quite so awful. But throughout school, my favourite subjects were always history, languages, English and art. I remember being cowed by science and math, but I'm pretty good at both now, so I guess something seeped through.
How many languages do you speak?
I am trilingual, but I speak 5 1/2 languages. I am very specific about this: I speak English, Portuguese and Spanish equally well. They are, as it were, mother tongues. I am completely fluent in French, and speak Italian well. The half is Serbo-Croatian, or Bosniak, as it is now called.
How did you learn all those languages?
My father was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, but he himself was born and raised in Poland, and fled with his family to Brazil via France during the War. In fact, I'm first generation American on the Szulc side -- my mother is of Scots-Irish ancestry from Akron, Ohio (don't ask!). I was born in New York, but moved to Brazil when I was five, and where we spent 6 years. That explains the Portuguese. Though I went to a British school, it had a split curriculum, so half my classes were in English, the other half in Portuguese (we are talking primary school). But it was a school that started us on French and Latin when we were six, and my Polish grandmother, still living in Brazil (as were all my father's family), believed that all well-brought up young girls speak French. And so she did with me. But while all this was going on, the family all spoke Polish amongst themselves, so, although I never learned it past Baby Polish, it has been inside my head all my life.
We moved back to Washington for my junior high, where we had Latin American, Spanish-speaking servants. So I began to learn Portunol. Then we were transferred to Spain in 1965. I went to the American School of Madrid and then I moved to Madrid High School (Torrejon HS) for my last two years for a surprisingly good high school education. By that time, because we lived in Madrid, had Spanish friends (and those servants again) my Spanish is nearly perfect. I then went back to Spain in 1975 as a journalist, where I spent five years working for a variety of Spanish publications. And even after a nearly 30 year absence, my Spanish is just as good as ever. Spaniards think I'm Spanish.
Where did you learn French, Italian and Bosniak?
I went to college briefly in Paris, but it was enough to get my schoolgirl French into proper spoken and written French. I picked up Italian sort of on the hoof -- I had all romance languages so firmly in my head that one summer, when my father was on temporary assignment in Rome, I picked up Italian.
When I went to Bosnia at the ripe old age of 46, I had enough Polish still hanging around my brain that the local language, which is very similar to Polish, was easy to pick up. I wouldn't say I speak it nearly in the way I do the others, but after three years (and no formal lessons) I was able to get by very nicely.
What did you study in college?
I was only in college for two years, where I studied History, Political Science and International Affairs, Spanish, French and German.
When you were a little girl, what did you dream of doing when you grew up?
I don't remember being very clear on that. In my years growing up, little girls were still geared toward marriage and motherhood. But I always loved what my father did, was fascinated by politics, so going into journalism just came naturally. Had I stayed in college I would have majored in History and Political Science, and minored in Economics, as my father told me those were the things one needed to know about to be a good journalist. Never journalism itself or, horror or horrors, Media Studies.
When did you decide what you wanted to be as an adult?
Journalism picked me. My first job was in 1964 working for the Director of Press Information and the Democratic National Committee. I never looked back.
What path did you take to reaching your goals?
I have to admit it was mostly luck, knowing the right people and then working incredibly hard.
Did the fact that your father was a renowned journalist help or hinder your career?
I think I've answered that. I never could have done it without him.
Do you have brothers and sisters? Did they learn languages as easily as you did?
I have one brother who is a great deal more talented than I am in writing and music. He is a video editor and a musician. He is, however, dreadful with languages, as is my mother. My father gave me his language genes.
How has your multilingualism impacted your life?
Obviously I have a talent for languages, so learning them has been easy and fun. My languages have given me career opportunities I never would have had otherwise. When I was a young journalist with very little experience, it was my languages that got me hired by NBC News, where, in turn, I learned to be a proper journalist... and I was launched! I have been a writer and broadcaster -- both TV and radio -- in Spanish and Portuguese, as well, of course, as English for over 20 years.
But there is something more fundamental: because of my languages, I have been able to live and work easily in so many countries. Partly, it is my adaptability that makes me open to new places and cultures. But it also makes me able to understand the nuances, the history and the way people think in ways I never would if not for my multilingualism.
Do you have any advice for students who would like to follow your career path?
For anyone who ever plans to live and work outside their home country, being completely immersed in other cultures is the only way to ever "get it," in my opinion.
Where do you live now?
I have retired to yet another country: the United Kingdom. Well, Wales, actually. I have not undertaken to learn Welsh. But after four years, I'm starting to understand it anyway! I can certainly read it: it is an Italo-Celtic language. And an update to that is that I am moving to Mallorca next week.
How long have you lived outside of the United States? Was it ever difficult to come back "home"?
I've counted it up, and I've lived in the US about half of my life, and the rest of it looks to be abroad. I remember it being hard going back to the States from Brazil in 6th grade. But not for long: I became an American little kid pretty quickly. Then, when it was time to go to Spain three years later, I wanted to stay back, even to go to boarding school in the US. Thank God my parents refused. Over the years, I've gone back and forth -- three years here, ten years there. But I am totally clear about who I am: an American, without any hyphens, though I'm entitled to a few. And now, I have been granted British citizenship, so I'm a dual national. As the saying goes, I'm at home where I hang my hat.
Are your children Americans?
My stepsons, now in their late 20s, were born of Polish parents, naturalized French, in Mexico. They moved to the States when they were babies, but had French and Mexican nationality. They were bilingual Polish and English from the moment they began speaking. That bilingualism opened their minds so that in later years they have become fluent in both Spanish and French. For my older son, that too has had important career implications -- got him a job doing Latin American Risk Assessment at one of the big brokerage houses. They both took U.S. citizenship when they turned 18, and are very proud Americans, but they are also proud of their Polishness and their Frenchness. And they are completely at home wherever they are. We all count ourselves very lucky indeed.
Do you have any advice for parents and children who are required to live in different countries?
Take the kids with you -- DO NOT leave them back home in boarding schools. If possible, send them to the local schools, but if not find a good British or International School, or failing that an American one. Encourage them to make friends with locals and learn the language well. It will serve them well for the rest of their lives. Don't worry if the siblings speak the local language to each other -- it's their way of learning. Whatever you do, don't agonise about them not being American enough. They will be international and thank you for it one day.
If you could live your life all over again, what changes would you make, if any? Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Other than to avoid some of the men with whom I've become involved, je ne regrette rien. [I do not regret a thing.] I guess that would also be my favourite quote.
- 26 June 2004
26 June 2004
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