Worldly duo took chance on Japan, find beachhead

Alana and Michel Bonzi build bridges with beach cleaning project in Fujisawa

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

Ask Alana and Michel Bonzi where they are from and their first answer is they are citizens of the world.

Married 14 years, their relationship has spanned four countries and three languages on three different continents.

Alana, 46, is a university lecturer, writer and business consultant. She is also in charge of marketing at Soleil Provence, a French school she has been running with her husband in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Alana was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up speaking English and French. “Even though Trinidad used to be a British colony,” Alana explains, “everybody actually spoke French — and some Spanish — until the turn of the 20th century. In my family, for instance, my great-aunt used to speak French Creole. Only later people adopted English as their first language.”

Asked if she considers herself bilingual, Alana is not so sure. “Michel thinks I’m bilingual; I think about all the mistakes I make,” she points out, laughing. “You could say I’m fluent, but I’m very shy when it comes to speaking to other people in French.”

Michel, on the contrary, isn’t self-conscious and doesn’t mind making mistakes as long as he gets himself understood. “I’ve always been interested in foreign languages and originally I wanted to become an English teacher, but at the same time I wanted to travel, so I decided to teach French abroad instead,” says the 45-year-old native of Provence in southern France.

In 1995 Michel ended up in Canada, and it was there that he met Alana, who had moved to Toronto after graduating from high school in order to pursue her studies. “We actually met on the train which connects Toronto to Montreal”, Alana recalls with a devilish smile. “It takes five hours between the two cities, so it’s an ideal way to meet people and get to know each other well. When my female students ask me how they can make friends with foreign men, I always tell them, go abroad and take a train: You will have plenty of chances!”

In July 1996 came the next big move, when Alana came to Japan. “It was completely by chance: I applied to the JET program without knowing beforehand where they would send me, and it happened to be Japan — a country I almost knew nothing about at the time.”

Homesickness kicked in as soon as Alana arrived in Tokyo, and only got worse once she found herself in the middle of nowhere, in Kyushu’s deep countryside. “I was in this tiny village in Kagoshima Prefecture, surrounded by fields and amagaeru (tree frogs). At night there were absolutely no lights outside. It was so dark that when I walked to the grocery I couldn’t even see my feet!” Culture shock was so strong that she thought about going back to Canada.

“She would call me and complain about the exotic food she could barely eat, the frogs . . . ” Michel recalls. “So I decided on a whim to join her, in December of the same year, and immediately started doing the rounds of the not many language schools in the region, pestering them until they agreed to start some French lessons.”

“Now I can laugh about it all, and I realize how good an experience it was for us,” Alana is quick to add. “We were able to experience all those old customs and traditions which have all but disappeared in the big cities. We were also forced to learn Japanese as quickly as possible because nobody really spoke any English. We even got married in Kagoshima, so our experience was definitely good, but the first few months I was like, what the hell am I doing here?”

After five years in Kyushu, Alana was accepted by a university in Tokyo into its MBA program. Commuting every month, though, was out of the question, so the couple decided to relocate to Tokyo and start afresh. One thing leading to another, Alana was offered a part-time position at Keio University. “I was assigned to their Fujisawa campus, south of Yokohama, so it was just natural for us to settle in a place whose proximity to the sea reminded us of our respective roots in Trinidad and Provence.”

It was there that the Bonzis launched their next enterprise: a French school. “From the start we wanted to do it differently and give our students the whole French experience, as if they were visiting a home in Provence. So we bought a two-story house, devoting the first floor to our classes, and welcomed everybody in.” Indeed, the aptly named Soleil Provence is a small piece of France where one can learn the language and take part in cooking classes, wine and cheese tastings and other cultural activities.

The school’s seaside location also inspired them to start the Fujisawa Beach Cleaning Project. “At Keio I lecture on corporate social responsibility, which stresses a company’s duty to pursue its business without harming society or the environment. That made me think about my new home,” Alana says.

“Fujisawa is a lovely sea resort, and Kugenuma Beach is a nice surfing spot. Michel and I felt very welcomed from the start, and we wanted to give something back. The good thing about the project is that we managed to act as a bridge between the Japanese and foreign communities. We were nicely surprised when we did it the first time, back in October 2009, because more than 100 people showed up even though we couldn’t advertise the event properly. Since then we have been doing it twice a year — once before the beach season starts, in April, and once soon after it’s over, in October.”

In less than two years the project has grown to attract 350 people through word of mouth and increased media coverage, bagging 138 kg of trash and marine debris.

Apart from the cleaning itself, the beach project has become a social event many people look forward to. “Everybody gathers at 9 a.m. for orientation. The actual cleaning starts at 10 a.m. and goes on for a couple of hours. After that we party until about 4 p.m.”

Not all the reactions to the project have been good. In particular, a March 2010 story in Japan Today attracted some nasty comments about what someone called the “pathetic” and futile nature of the project, even though most people concentrated their criticism to the beach-goers’ lack of civic sense and the municipal government’s unwillingness to tackle the problem. “At first I was a little bit surprised and even thought about writing a reply,” Alana remembers, “but then I realized that when you do such things, you can’t make everybody happy, and anyway half of the people who posted a comment actually defended the project.”

“I remember some foreigners approaching us at the beach and taking us to task because we were sponsored by a couple of big ‘evil’ companies,” adds Michel. “I mean, come on, we are so tiny we need all the help we can find. They should have joined us in doing something good for the community instead of bashing people on the head because of their supposed lack of political correctness.”

“In the end,” Alana adds, “we realized that the cleaning is a good and necessary thing, and it’s an excellent way to educate people, but the real essence of the project lies in acceptance and inclusion: be open to everybody regardless of their nationality or background, and accept all the people for who they are.”

But who are the Bonzis? After 15 years and so many adventures in Japan, Alana finds it hard to answer this seemingly simple question.

“The fact is, I feel at ease in each of my jobs, that’s the problem. I love to help Michel run the school, but at the same time I want to develop my personal projects, like my teaching, writing, and my consulting agency. Unfortunately in Japan many people get confused when they don’t get a clear, straight answer, and they don’t like it. But for me there’s so much more about myself than what I write on my calling card.

“The hardest thing in a couple is to recognize roles. In Soleil Provence’s case, for example, Michel is the boss; he is the one who makes the final decisions, and I always defer to him. But that’s not always easy because we are a couple and things sometimes get muddled up. In this sense our marriage is much easier to manage because we really don’t have any definite roles in the house. Take cooking, for example: We both love to cook, so usually the first one who enters the kitchen is the one who makes dinner.”

“And if neither of us has a good idea,” adds Michel, “we order pizza or head out to a neighborhood joint.”

For more information on Soleil Provence and the Fujisawa Beach Cleaning Project: www.soleilprovence.com and www.pwrnewmedia.com/2011/fujisawa_beach_cleaning/brochure/index.html