Languages: Turning Enemies into Allies*

“S and I got engaged!” I announced to my family, just before my second year at university, showing off my emerald and diamond ring.

My grandmother did not miss a bit.  “Congratulations, my sunbeam! Does he speak any languages?”

“No.”

“Oh, dear,” she said, her smile waning.  “His family has no means, then?”

 

Right or wrong, I come from a family where it is taken for granted that any parents with sufficient funds will, as a matter of course as evident as the movement of the planets, make sure their offspring learn, first – languages; second – to play a musical instrument.  To understand this, it is important to know that, for our family, music nourishes the soul, whilst languages enrich the brain.  For us, learning languages is not a luxury or a hobby.  It is a necessary tool of survival.  It has been engrained in us over the past four generations that you could lose all material possessions in a heartbeat, on the whim of a natural disaster or a change of government.  Before you know it, you might have to move to another country and, for that, the more languages you have at your command, the better.  As Dolly Levi says in Hello, Dolly! “If you have to live hand to mouth, you’d better be ambidextrous.”  I imagine that families who have lived in the same country for several generations, or who own property, such as houses, might find it difficult fully to enter into this frame of mind.

 

My grandfather used to say that, with every new language you learn, you acquire a new personality.  He was right.  Speaking a language is not just about finding your way on holiday.  It is about being able to switch between different ways of thinking and feeling.  I am more or less quadrilingual.  I feel most comfortable debating issues in English, cuddling children and animals in Russian, expressing outrage in French, and joking in Italian.  When asked which is my mother tongue, I stumble.  I do not actually know.  What is a mother tongue? Is it the language in which you formed your first words, as a baby? If so, I would say, Russian.  Or is it the language in which you are most proficient? In that case, I would say, English.  However, as a teenager, I would have said, French; and, a couple of years before that, Italian.

 

I did not enjoy the process of learning any of these languages.  In fact, I positively hated it.  It was an uphill struggle filled with frustration, humiliation and long periods of hopelessness.  I did not choose to take classes in these languages for fun or interest.  I learned them fast, forced by circumstances.  In a way, my survival depended on it.

 

I was born in Italy, to a non-Italian family.  My Russian-bred, Armenian grandmother, who shared with my mother the daily job of bringing me up, taught me Russian.  It was the language we spoke at home.  As soon as I ventured out, I learnt to play in Italian with the neighbours‘ children.  Because, in those days, in Rome, speaking a foreign language in the street would attract relentless stares and gaping mouths, I would switch to Italian as soon as I was out of the family flat.  When I was six, my mother sent me to the Overseas American school in Rome.    Children learn languages easily.  Every new word is a building block.  They do not slow down their thought process by translating in their heads, or by complicating matters with grammatical logic.  They simply imitate and associate.  Within a few months, I was fluent in English, complete with U.S. accent.  So, I spoke Russian at home, Italian in the street, and English at school.  All was well.  That is, until we moved to Athens.  I was eight.  Thanks to Russian I could just about distinguish the Greek Cyrillic alphabet but the language, itself, was nothing I could relate to my existing tongues.  I made friends with Greek children and their parents.  We played in the clay garden, and went swimming among the rusty jellyfish in the ice-cold, limpid sea.  After a few months, I could hold my own in Greek – at least enough to play with my Greek neighbours.

 

My first language trauma hit me – in more ways than one – when I was nine, and we moved to Nice, in Southern France.  The headmistress of the local state school decided that it was paedagogically sound to put a nine year-old who spoke no French, into the Cours Préparatoire of five and six year-olds.  Recess was torture time.  Most days, I would be surrounded by the said five and six year-olds, pushed back against the school yard wall, and kicked in the shins by their miniature feet.  The ritual included shouting things at me which, of course, I could not respond to, since I did not know what they meant.  I repeated some of the words to Madame, hoping for an explanation, but she glared and waved her finger at me, saying, “Non!” When I tried to retaliate physically, I was told off in no uncertain terms by the permanently yawning Madame, for picking on les petits.  My wordless gesticulations and pointing at my black and blue shins did not appear to convey the message clearly enough.  The only thing to do, was to spend every evening, before bed, memorising a few words from Le Petit Larousse Illustré.  Luckily, I soon learnt to produce guttural ‘r’s, elongated vowels, and enough words to string into sentences.  I moved to another school, was put into a class of older children, and learnt to topple little plastic soldiers with glass marbles during recess.  I was on my way to becoming an honorary Niçoise.  When, at the age of nineteen, I scored 14/20 in writing and 18/20 in oral, in French, at the French Lycée in Rome, beating my French boyfriend to the slight annoyance his mother, I felt I had arrived.  

 

Arrived – just in time to pack my suitcase for England.  All I knew about Albion, was that half my blood came from there, through my father.  Of course, my English, neglected during the years of contending with French, had turned somewhat rusty.  I landed in Cambridge, on a cold, damp, September night, and went to sleep in an attic room with a sloped ceiling and a luke warm radiator.  The following morning, I awoke to the cawing of jet-black crows hopping on a bright green lawn beneath a lead grey sky.  I was brimming with hope for my new life in a country which, I felt, was my home by right.  

 

The English did not kick.  They stung.

 

“What did you say? Oh, how quaint, I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that.”

“Where did you acquire that American accent?”

“Gosh, you do have a healthy appetite.”

“Are you cold? Really? I guess we’re brought up to be quite stoical, here.”

“Well... I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly...”

 

After many a night crying myself to sleep, I vowed to beat them at their own game.  I began memorising words from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, keeping a journal in English, referring to – rather than pronouncing – the ‘r’, and mentally repeating after people, as they spoke.  I forsook French entirely, and missed the rigueur of its grammar.  English was like water.  It slid out between your fingers as you tried to grasp it.  So I learnt to swim in it.

 

A few years later, when I had to explain the language of a Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, to a group of native English actors, I had a lovely feeling of – well, just how could I put it nicely..?

 

My languages have graduated from enemies to allies.  They are my Virgils, guiding me through various dimensions of thoughts, hopes and emotions.  They are my spies, which I send out on reconnaissance missions.  They are the Arlecchini who capture laughter for me.  They are the faithful servants who bring food to my table.  They are my steadfast allies, no matter what the government of the moment.  They are the architects who build me a bridge, whenever I want to cross a river.

 

Scribe Doll

*This piece was first published on Wordpress on 14 October 2012

I am thankful to Orna Raz for reminding me of it with her brilliant piece Please Leave Me a Note: The Language of Personal Notes 

 

   

 

 

 

   

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The Marriage Gift

It's kind of funny, you might like it: Free download of The Marriage Gift today on Amazon - http://www.amazon.com/Marriage-Gift-Stephen-Evans-ebook/dp/B00A13YTUI

 

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In The Absence Of A Personal Moment

When I left for Chicago to tour the different Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses around the city, my husband reminded me not to forget the camera.
 I had longed to see those houses ever since we moved to Iowa City, only four hours away. But with two small children at home it was not so simple to just take off and go. Then a friend suggested that we could drive to Chicago for a couple of days, to see Lloyd Wright's work especially. We could stay with her good friend whom she wanted to visit. The latter was in town for the summer at a home of a third friend who had just moved into town.
 
 I was delighted, and soon afterwards we found two days when my husband was able to take care of the girls. On the drive there my friend supplied several details about our host: he had just graduated from law school and worked for the community. I didn’t think to ask but, because of his modern Israeli name, I assumed that he was Israeli.
 
 When we arrived to the house it was apparent that, in spite of his name, Barack --which in Hebrew means  literally lightening and metaphorically swift or rapid-- was not an Israeli. You may have guessed by now that the young man, our host, whose last name I didn't know until years later, was Barack Obama.
 
 Barack shook my hand politely and quite formally; it was gracious of him to invite us to stay at his home and I was thankful,  but that was all. We stayed there for two days and didn't have even one personal exchange. I remember the distinct feeling that here was a busy young man who was focused and distant.
 
 People who met President Clinton, especially in Israel where he is still immensely popular,  report that even in the briefest of meeting he comes across as personable and warm. When he came to the funeral of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin he shook hundreds of hands. Many people said that somehow he made them feel special.
 
 That was not the feeling I got from meeting young Barack, quite the contrary. Back in 1985 I was already thirty and he was only twenty four. At that age it was a huge difference, and our circumstances could not have been more different. He was just starting out his public/civil career and I was " just a mother" which meant that at that point I had no career at all.
 
I could not claim that, from our brief encounter, I sensed that Barack would go far. However, from my perspective a man who, on the one hand was generous, and on the other hand did not waste unnecessary time on socializing with his guests, was made of different, perhaps stronger material.
 
Apart from the civil handshake, I don’t have anything else to report, yet perhapse the absence of any personal moment could also reveal something about one's character.
 
 b2ap3_thumbnail_FLW-house.jpg 
 
As my husband suggested I did take the camera and shot some photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, but none of Barack or the visit to his home. Till this day I remember in great details the different houses which I saw at that visit almost thirty years ago, they touched my heart; Barack didn’t. 
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Good Reports

 

Last Sunday Gerald took us down to Cape Girardeau to the hospital to join others there to offer our emotional support to his brother Garry, who had been told his wife needed to have her life support stopped.  With great anguish and emotional trauma, Garry did what Ginger had said she wanted under these conditions.  And she started breathing on her own.  Her daughter Vicki spent the night with Ginger, and by the next day, Ginger even said a word or two to Garry.  

He and their son Kerry began making the arrangements to take Ginger home to the farm—just as they had been explaining to her they were trying to accomplish while she was in the nursing home those three months.   They secured a hospital bed and hospice was made available to them.  They received some training about her care. By Tuesday late, the ambulance took Ginger home.  All reports are that Ginger is very happy and peaceful being back at her beloved home, and her family is very happy to have her there.  She is communicating some, and everyone feels good that God is in charge of her life now—not artificial support.

My brother Jim was in the hospital waiting more repair or some kind of work done on stints following the surgery done Friday on his 86th birthday.  On Monday that work was postponed until the next day to let his kidneys recover more from Friday’s procedure.  Tuesday’s phone call said he had the surgery on the stint on his right side of heart but was being kept in the hospital over night following that morning’s work just to be sure all was well.  Later he could face what needed to be done of the left side.  However, evidently the problems on the left side were more serious than hoped because he still had more chest pains. So yesterday his wife Vivian’s phone call explained that another surgery had worked on his left side.  He was supposed to go home today unless I heard differently.  His two daughters live locally, and their only son has come down from the quad city area to stay with them and help during this recuperation just as Robert did last fall following the four stints put in at Springfield. So I am relieved that my brother is home where I know he wants to be, and Vivian and their children are there taking care of him.  

Other good reports include the local news that the two young girls who were injured in the tragic accident coming home from Evansville are doing good and preparing for their start soon as new high school students.  I am sure that they both have much work and pain ahead of them before their recovery is complete.  But since one had not even been expected to live (and might have never recovered if she did live), people are so happy and excited about progress that one doctor described as a miracle.  It has been satisfying to know of the prayers and the concern that our community had shown for these young people as well as for the family who lost their loved one in that accident.

 

Katherine’s hospital stay at Carbondale, which coincided with mine in Marion, seems to have helped her not only to get over her latest IUT but in other ways also made her stronger.  When Gerald and I have gone by, she looked good and was cheerful, the house looked well kept, and things seemed to be going as well as when I was going in to help.   

Our long-time neighbor Edith Tanner, whom we had received a message about when we returned home last Sunday, did pass away on Tuesday.  And so did Russell Stapleton, our neighbor on the other side of our Pondside Farm house. Our children played with their children, and we know how much they loved their parents.  Russ served through terrible times while in service during World War II, but he never complained about it. 

Then he and Mildred endured the deaths of their two oldest sons in recent years.  I liked seeing the photos of their younger days displayed at the visitation Wednesday night.  And I loved the story Bruce Beasley told me as we visited together as our long line moved forward toward the casket. Mildred had told Bruce she knew Russ really loved her because when they were dating, he walked up from Pope County each weekend to stay with his relatives so he could visit her and take her to church.  Then he would walk back home to Pope County. Yes, that is certainly proof of true love as was his faithful care of his family and his long years in the coal mines. What their many years of service meant to our community is immeasurable.  Russell and Edith were both wonderful neighbors, but both had lived long lives and were no longer healthy or able to do the things they loved.  I consider death a wonderful blessing as we age, and I know that both are in a better place experiencing a happiness we cannot even imagine.

 

 

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