Time in a Bottle

I hope that most people have another kind of memory image — one that brings back pleasant remembrances.

In 1973, singer/songwriter Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash at the height of his popularity. He had a huge fan base and several of his songs were released as singles just after his death and became classics of the mid 1970s era.  I was “keeping company” with a young woman who was to become my wife in 1976 and she was a serious Croce fan. She was a much more enthusiastic fan than I was but I enjoyed her enjoying Jim Croce’s music because that’s what we did in the 1970s…music was important.

One of those posthumously released songs was “Time in a Bottle”. The song was a classic love song of the era. It was probably included in countless weddings. 

 

If I could save time in a bottle

The first thing that I’d like to do

Is to save every day

Till Eternity passes away

Just to spend them with you

 

In the summer of 1975 I managed to talk this city girl into going on a backpacking trip to the Wyoming wilderness. This was very uncharacteristic of her and friends and relatives were astounded that she would agree to do something like that.  Going off to the mountains on a field trip with a guide and an organized group would be challenging enough but going off with one other person — on foot — was crazy talk.

We had a couple weekend trips to get in shape for the walk and check out our equipment. I had a stove that wanted to blow up in my face each time I turned it on.  We decided to take her car, which had a standard transmission, so I had to learn how to use a clutch. We had to waterproof everything and rub silicone into our hiking boots that weighed a ton. We tested out the freeze-dried turkey tetrazzini and granola bars. We packed and repacked but finally ended up carrying about 110 pounds of stuff in our two backpacks including the tent, sleeping bags, foam mattresses, food, water and that stove.

 

If I could make days last forever

If words could make wishes come true

I’d save every day like a treasure and then,

Again, I would spend them with you

 

We scheduled the trip for late July and finally hit the road, camping along the way. We agreed that we would stay in a real hotel with a real bed after we came out of the mountains but would camp as much as possible.  Half the fun of the trip was just getting there. At one point she decided that she wanted to see a buffalo so we were off on a wild buffalo chase in an overloaded Ford Pinto. We found a small herd but almost left the oil pan at the bottom of a ravine in the process.

We said goodbye to civilization, hoisted our packs and staggered around the parking lot for a while until we eventually disappeared into the Big Horn Mountains and Cloud Peak Wilderness. (We heard later that Jimmy Hoffa disappeared that day, as well…not backpacking)

It turns out that we had a great time. The mosquitos were bigger and the trout were smaller than we expected. We camped on a breezy ridge overlooking a lake and the wind kept the mosquitos away. We didn’t get eaten by bears or mountain lions and had only one serious encounter with a Mule deer. We saw only three people the whole time we were on the trail.

 

 If I had a box just for wishes

And dreams that had never come true

The box would be empty

Except for the memory

Of how they were answered by you

 

We came out of the mountains and went on with the trip. We stayed in that hotel. We had a close encounter with a bear at a later campsite. I convinced her to go camping again. We eventually got married and had a wonderful life together for 31 years.

The picture that most often brings this trip to mind is scratched and faded but the memory is bright and clear.

 

But there never seems to be enough time

To do the things you want to do

Once you find them

I’ve looked around enough to know

That you’re the one I want to go

Through time with

 

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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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Latest Comments

Ken Hartke Sofia's Bakery
20 May 2018
Thanks, Rosy, -- glad you liked it.
Ken Hartke I Promise
20 May 2018
I am so looking forward to your return -- I love your writing and wish you well. From my youth I've...
Stephen Evans I Promise
20 May 2018
Sometimes when I am dealing with deep anxiety I find that work (by which I mean writing), and the f...
Rosy Cole Sofia's Bakery
20 May 2018
I just love this, Ken. As appealing to the senses as a painting. Thanks :-)

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