Posted by: patenttranslator | February 8, 2016

Transplanting Yourself Into a Different Flowerpot Every Few Years Is Good for the Soul

Just like it’s a good thing when a flower or plant is repotted after a while because the nutrients in the original soil tend to become exhausted, I believe that it’s generally a good thing for people to also transplant themselves every now and then, perhaps every decade or so, into a completely different environment.

Already as a child for some reason I wanted not only to see other countries inhabited by people who spoke other languages, but also to live in those other countries and really experience the world those other people saw, while speaking to them in their own language. I didn’t want to simply travel, I wanted a chance to become somebody else in one lifetime, preferably several times.

Is that too much to ask? It probably is, but I didn’t worry about it.

So I bravely repotted myself a number of times, first from Prague to Nurnberg to Germanize myself for a while, and then from Nurnberg to San Francisco to become an American, maybe for good, while still in my twenties. Then the delicate flower that I was then (and still am now!) repotted itself after several years spent in the magical San Francisco soil (it would be eventually a total of 10 years in the city of San Francisco and 19 years in California) into the soil of a very different flowerpot in Tokyo.

If you’ve studied a difficult language like Japanese, the country and its language and culture are for a long time just an abstraction in your brain. Then you suddenly find yourself in Japan, surrounded by a language and culture that is very real and concrete, and it’s a major shock to the system. But it’s a beautiful shock making you see everything that you know of the cultures and languages of your own country or countries in a different light.

The process of jumping out of one flowerpot and into another one is relatively easy if you’re young and nobody depends on you. It’s much more difficult as you grow older because once you’re a little bit older, you first have to convince your spouse and children to go with you. And the thing is, most people will end up with a spouse and children without really trying too hard. That’s just how things tend to work out in life.

As one gets older, the safety of what’s familiar and comfortable suddenly becomes much more important, and so do simple but important pleasures and creature comforts that one often has to abandon when moving to an unfamiliar country, or even moving to a new place across the country.

I remember how once on an office lunch break I wandered into an electronics store in the Hamamatsu-cho section of Tokyo near the office where I was working at the time to look longingly at big new TVs. It must have been at the end of 1985 or the first part of 1986. All the TVs were showing a new film with Sylvester Stallone—Rambo II—on the big screens. I wanted to finally have my own place so badly, with a comfortable sofa in a comfortable house and a big TV to watch dumb movies on it to my heart’s content.

Instead, I was living in a tiny Japanese room at my in-laws house, sleeping on a mattress that was rolled up and stored in the closet every morning. Even though it was a big house by Tokyo standards, there was no space in the room for a comfortable sofa. The only piece of furniture was a Japanese kotatsu, a small lacquered table covered with a blanket (the room looked almost exactly like this picture from Wikipedia, including the tiny TV in the corner, except that the blanket was purple-brown, not blue). Based on the heating system used 30 years ago in Japanese houses, you stuck your feet into the kotatsu and turned on the kotatsu’s electric heater when you were cold in the winter. On the plus side, the system was very environmentally friendly. On the minus side, your feet were hot, but the rest of your body was cold.

Since in addition to my regular office job, I was also typing my translations on Saturdays and Sundays on a small word processor placed on top of the kotatsu, you could say that the kotatsu was both the heating system and also my first translator’s office.

At first I was immensely enjoying the novelty and challenges of my new exotic Japanese flowerpot. Those floors with tatami mats were so different from what I knew in Europe and America. The whole room was saturated by a strange but pleasant smell emanating from the rice straw that is used to manufacture the mats. But when you have to commute in crowded trains to your work in downtown for an hour and half each way, as I had to do five or six days a week, and leave the house at 7 AM only to get back late in the evening, it wears you down pretty quickly.

About six months after my Rambo II reverie on a lunch break, I was on a plane back to San Francisco, with my wife, who curiously didn’t try at all to convince me to stay with her in Japan, even just for a few more years, although at first that was plan A. She must have been secretly relieved that I had finally had my fill of Japanese culture.

No matter how fragile and delicate flowers we may be, most translators really have no choice but to move to a foreign country and live there, preferably for a few years, if we are serious about the language or languages that we are studying. There simply is no other way to learn a foreign language well.

Non-translators don’t really need to do that. In some countries, people stay in the same flowerpot their entire lives. When I was growing up in a small town in Southern Bohemia called Český Krumlov, I had four very good friends. We hung out together all the time, from first grade until graduation from high school. We were the Five Musketeers.

When I visited the town nine years after I left once the communist regime finally fell and I was able to return, I didn’t know where my friends lived. But I figured, well, it’s Friday night, Bohouš will probably be in a pub in the town square that used to be his favorite place. So I went to the pub – and there he was at a table in the middle of it, grinning from ear to ear and waving at me to join him and his buddies. Two of my old friends still lived in the same tiny town and two of them had moved: one about 15 miles south, and one about 15 miles north. I am pretty sure they still live there now.

When it comes to moving long distances, America is very different from a small European country. People here move all the time from one state to another, often hundreds or thousands of miles, without giving it much thought. That too has its disadvantages: for example, I would like to live not too far from my children, but at this point I have no idea in which state my two sons (who are now in their mid twenties) will eventually live.

In a big country like the United States, and maybe other big countries like Brazil or Australia, you can transplant yourself into a very different flowerpot without leaving the country, that’s how big the differences are between different states. And there is also a huge difference between living in a big city and a small town.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who also happened to be a stoic philosopher, wondered in his book Meditations written about nineteen hundred years ago what it is that makes people move from one place to another. I can’t find the exact quote on the Internet, but I think it was he who commented in the book that I red a few decades about about how futile it is to keep moving from place to place if you are moving in order to escape yourself. You can’t escape yourself, the book said, because wherever you go, you will be taking yourself with you [paraphrased].

But is that really true? I thought so when I read the book as a teenager. But a few decades later, I would disagree. I didn’t move to different countries to escape my old self. On the contrary, I was moving from place to place not only to learn new languages, but also to find myself in this manner.

Had I spent my whole life in the same flowerpot as the rest of the Five Musketeers did, I would have been a very different person now. I don’t know whether it would have been better or worse had I stayed put, but I do think that jumping from one flowerpot to another, and doing it in one lifetime, is probably much more fun.

It may even mean that you live more, or somehow manage to squeeze more than just one life into what was originally supposed to be only one lifetime.


  1. Please don’t forget that my partner Vlad’ka and I are awaiting your visit to Kutná Hora but we’d be equally willing and happy to take a hard-earned sabbatical and track you down in Český Krumlov :).
    All the Best!!
    Michal and Vlad’ka

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you. I will keep it in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you! Whenever I used this comparison in the past people looked at me as I had two heads! Now I know I am not crazy, what a relief:) I believe that every person has a limited number of moves before a nervous breakdown. My last move was on quite a small scale only from a county to a county to be with my other half, and it involved moving into his house. I told him from the day one that if he ever falls out of love and wants me out, he will have to kill me because I am not moving ever again. I had reached a point when I needed to transplant myself out of a pot and into an open field. Let my roots grow.


  4. “Whenever I used this comparison in the past people looked at me as I had two heads! Now I know I am not crazy, what a relief:)”

    No, you are not crazy!

    (Said Mad Patent Translator.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As my multiple repottings were motivated mostly by self-preservation rather than a desire to find myself, I can’t quite agree but I really enjoyed reading a bit about your life in Japan. I would love to spend some time there, in a land where I can’t understand nothing at all. To be practically mute and deaf, and culturally clueless – that would be a very interesting experience for someone who lives by words 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “As my multiple repottings were motivated mostly by self-preservation rather than a desire to find myself”

    Thanks for your comment, Anna.

    Would you care to go into more details?


  7. Well, I was a very sick child when they repotted me to Czechoslovakia in 1960’s (a paradise compared to some other places). And after over 2 decades there, with formative years spent during “normalization” in Prague – I think many of us left not to seek fortune and glory, or ourselves, but because we were deeply, irreversibly, perpetually and bitterly sick at heart. I loved being in Germany even though I could not stay for all sorts of reasons; if I did, today I’d probably be branded something unspeakable, as that seems to be a new European way to deal with citizens’ discontent. Eight years in Boston were lovely but after yet another winter flu that lasted several months it was either Florida or growing a fur. So here I am, looking at the ocean from my window, very much aware of fragile ties that bind us to one place. I don’t kid myself about being able to live anywhere but if there is another interesting repotting in the future, why not? Now, that part about convincing the spouse… yes, that’s the hard one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, that’s quite a story, thanks for sharing.

    There is probably at least one more repotting (přesazení do jiného květináče – that was the original title of the post in my head when I woke up this morning) in my future.

    Timing is everything when it comes to a proper repotting, I think. The trick to convincing the spouse is to make him or her see the next repotting as a logical inevitability based on proper timing. But it is tricky, at least as tricky as knowing when to sell your house when the prices are high, just before they crash again.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nice post, I like very much the idea of repotting!

    It has always been a good thing for me. I have looked for a pot where I fitted best at different stages of life, and I don’t regret. My reasons have proven to bee good, despite they were regarded as bizarre by my Basque environment. We are 2 out of 12 school friends to have dared to leave my hometown, for some the best place in the world, for others the only place in the world! Now unemployment is changing habits.

    Currently, I have my pot in a greenhouse for the cold & rainy times and go back to my previous pot in the warm & dry season. At this time of my life, I find it to be a good deal.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Love Celine Dion! Thanks for the awesome post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Not sure that you quote is from Marcus Aurelius, but memory may have some tricks?

    I know this one from Seneca:
    “A quoi sert de voyager si tu t’emmènes avec toi ? C’est d’âme qu’il faut changer, non de climat.”

    I found only the second sentence in English:
    “You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.”

    An other antique quote that applies well to your post is from Augustine of Hippo:
    “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

    Nice for those who spend their days in books and pages?


  12. “A quoi sert de voyager si tu t’emmènes avec toi ?”

    Yes, that’s it, thank you. It might have been Seneca and not Aurelius. I read it when I was 18, so I can’t be sure.


  13. Thank you, Steve, for this very good post.

    I agree that moving from one country to another do not help if you are only escaping yourself.
    My multiple repottings made of myself a different person, yes, I also cannot tell if I would be been better or worse if I had stayed at one single place, but I cannot imagine spending my whole life at a single place.

    The most important thing my repottings have taught me is love and tolerance.
    Love: all people are the same everywhere in the world. It sounds trivial but it is true. We all have the same needs and aspirations. Normal people share the same positive values.
    Tolerance: nothing is a matter of course. Everything I do in a certain way can be done in another (or many other) way(s). My way of cleaning/cooking/living/dressing/etc. is not better than yours, just different. We are all foreigners almost everywhere and we could all become refugees quicker as we think.


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