Within an hour of my arrival, at breakfast a few weeks ago, Nick gave me the rundown on Australia. One of the first things he told me was that Australians love to “infantilize” everything. So it isn’t “breakfast”, it is “brekkie”. Among the better known others, it isn’t “good day”, it’s “g’day” and so on. Back then I imagined that there were a few choice things that got shortened, and these were just a part of the evolution of language here. After several weeks of living here, I now think it is no part time cultural tic, but a full-fledged mania for reducing everything to the absolute minimum. “Uni”, “avo”, “bikkie”, “cuppa”, “ute”, “barbie”, “mozzie”, “ambo”, “footy”, even “unco” (which is short for, I swear to you, “uncoordinated”), and on and on. I wonder what the origins of this reductive desire are? Is it, as my friend Nick explained, a result of an emotional need to cutsie up everything? Did some large immigrant community bring with them some heavy diminutive use from their native language and it spread through the culture? (although diminutives, while cute, tend to add letters to words rather than reduce them, i.e. mesa becomes mesita. So perhaps that is the wrong track.) Something to think about…
The above phrase is salam alaikum, the traditional greeting in Arabic which means “peace be upon you”. I am back in Morocco for work once again, and it struck me yesterday that I should really be learning some Arabic phrases and words to use while here. I realize that I fell into a little bit of a mind trap by assuming that because I was already speaking a language that was not native to me (French), I was already making the appropriate effort. But that is not a good way to really engage with a culture, especially since the fact that French is so widely spoken here is a result of colonialism. That said, I suppose you could consider modern standard Arabic somewhat of an import as well, since in Morocco they speak an Arab dialect known as Darija. I am told that the dialect is not especially intelligible to people from, say, Egypt, although everyone that speaks the dialect can easily understand the standard version spoken in other parts of the Arab world. In any event, I am going to set a goal for myself of a few, well-pronounced phrases before I leave.
A couple of days ago, Olaf told me he had to go to a “reunion of his old classmates” (basically a high school reunion, they were all together in school from the age of 13 to 18), and asked me if I would be interested in going. I said sure, as it seemed like it could be a strange, fun event — especially if I could show up as his flamboyant gay partner dressed in something tasteful like chaps and a neck scarf. But alas, Olaf had already been out of the closet at that time, so my enthusiasm for giving a shock to his old classmates completely deflated and I wore jeans and a sweater. I really should have thought the whole thing through before going, though, as when we got there it was a little awkward to make all his friends speak English. Despite what you may have heard, it does not come all that naturally to most Germans, despite their English being far superior to almost any American’s German skills. Not wanting to get in the way of their reminiscing, I stayed a bit off to the side and checked email for a bit at first, then was lucky enough to hang out with the other odd man out in attendance, a guy named Fred who was the partner of one of the other gays in the village, and who (like me) knew no one there. The reunion was held in a pub in a mini mall in kind of suburb of Hamburg, not far from where they all grew up and attended school. Through my conversations with Fred and the surroundings, I learned quite a few interesting things:
1. The pub we were in was called Humboldt, after one Alexander von Humbolt (and/or his brother Wilhelm, it wasn’t clear). He is apparently quite famous here, although I had never heard of him. His work apparently laid the foundation for the field of biogeography (something I had also never heard of specifically, so there you are). To be fair, most people in attendance couldn’t exactly explain what he was known for off the top of their head. Fred thought he had invented the compass or something (although that I knew had in fact been invented by the Chinese.)
2. Octoberfest is more celebrated in the south (and was already over), but for some reason this pub was decorated to celebrate it, and we had Octoberfest beer and food (Brätwurst and Sauerkraut)
3. After using my translator app a few times and discussing various things with Fred (whose English was quite good), we realized that the Germans have no word for wander. We were attempting to translate the word for hiking, which in German is Wandern, obviously from the same root as our word for wander. But when I explained to Fred that it was different from hiking in that there was particularly no destination implied with the word wander, he explained to me that the Germans had no single word for this. They would have to say something like “to walk or hike with no destination”, which I found hilarious. Of course Germans assume there is a point or destination to everything. Why would you just “wander” with no idea where you were going? I also realized that the word quite neatly describes much of my life outlook. I love not knowing where I am going exactly, that is where I discover the most amazing things.
So Xmas eve was, in fact, a dinner party. And it was mostly, but not exclusively gay. And everyone was dressed as lumberjacks. And Spanish was the main language, although there were hearty doses of English and lesser portions of French thrown in. Most of the people there worked at the UN, and most were interpreters for a living. And in one of the funnier twists to the evening, one of the other guests arrived and started talking to me with a kind of secret complicity, like he knew me, but I could not figure it out. He looked vaguely familiar, but I was sure we had not met before. Finally, he let on that we had been chatting online earlier in the day. Christ, sometimes I can be really dense.
And yesterday, Xmas proper, I met my friend Sian for our traditional Jewish Xmas lunch of Chinese food at Grand Sichuan in Chelsea. Following that, Craig and I had planned to cook dinner and had a few friends over to share the Xmas meal. As the food and most especially wine flowed, our conversation naturally turned (as it seems to among gay men) to bad/funny dating stories.
All in all, a pretty nice Xmas.
I haven’t been to a European vacation destination in quite some time. It isn’t that I haven’t been to Europe in a while, or even that I haven’t been on vacation in Europe, but those others were not places that masses of people from different countries were on vacation themselves, as it is here in Mykonos. And so I had forgotten some of the cultural adaptations people make to get by. Chief among them is the use of English as the lingua franca. Somehow it tickles my funny bone to hear everyone chattering away in their own languages until they meet others from a different place or need to order a beer or pay for a sunbed. This “English” is transactional and simplified, more of a pidgin really, and I even find myself speaking it when dealing with anything service related. After the transaction is complete, you can see people switching back to their primary language to drop some offhanded insult or complaint or complimentary but semi-lewd reflection about an admired body part. The risk of people understanding that second language here is quite great, so I think it is more about providing a fig leaf for otherwise socially unacceptable remarks. I notice even Arnaud and I adjust our language choice to who is around us (French or English) and thin layer of desire to be understood or not, or subconsciously to be perceived as from one place or another I suppose, which can have its own uses. If there are a bunch of embarrassingly loud Americans or an annoying French couple behind us, for example, we will choose the opposing language to communicate in ourselves. And this is another feature of this type of vacation that I find hysterical; No matter the country of origin, everyone has notions of what the “others” are like, and look for people to fit the stereotype they hold in their head or to break it. And given the various proportions of nationalities represented here, the fixed assumptions are greatest for those groups (such as the Italians who seem to outnumber other groups). Still, one of the chief motivations for people to come here is precisely to meet and interact with (and potentially bed in some cases) a variety of people from a variety of places, and to feel more connected to each other and our common humanity. And that is kind of sweet.
I really can’t avoid it anymore, it has become too much of a hindrance and embarrassment. Here I am, my fifth or sixth time in Germany (and my third long term stay), and the German I know is practically non-existant. Sure, most people speak English here, but less than you might think. And it makes me feel too guilty to make people translate everything for me. So I have started learning, and in case you are wanting to learn a language, I discovered a pretty awesome website for doing just that. It is called busuu.com, and I am really loving it. They offer a lot of different language courses, they run you through these really helpful exercises and lessons, and all the basic stuff is free. If I get to the point in my language learning where I will want to pay for some advanced stuff, I will probably go ahead and do so, I am that happy with the site. They also have an iphone app that runs through most of the same exercises and is likewise pretty sweet. While I don’t expect to become anything like fluent in my few weeks here, I actually have a much better expectation of what I will be able to accomplish, largely thanks to this site and my own guilt-and-frustration induced motivation. So ultimately, that makes me kind of happy. If I could change one thing about the site, it would probably be the visual design, as it looks a bit like a workbook one would have used in grade-school, but that is a small quibble given how great the instruction is.
The NY Times has a fascinating article this morning on a subject that I have given some thought to in the past, and have discussed with my polyglot friends at length. Namely, does language shape how we think? The author gives many compelling examples (and some counter examples) but the upshot is that yes the structure and vocabulary of our language can indeed influence to a significant degree how we see the world. One of the things I love about language is how lyrical and fluid it can be. Learning other languages, I have noticed how different we can be as people in those languages. It is as if we are playing the role of a Frenchman or Spaniard, and with friends of mine who speak multiple languages, we can confirm that the personalities we have in one language do not always line up so neatly with those in others and our native tongues. This is due to so many things. When we learn a language, we are very much influenced by those around us who are native speakers, and we pick up many of their mannerisms and choice of vocabulary. We also are in a different time and place in our own lives when first mastering communication in another tongue. And then there is the image of how we should speak floating in our heads, as imaginary and subjective as could be, but still an ideal we fix upon. Tie all these elements together and you have the making of a personality. And that personality may not always agree with your other ones. In some ways we are living in another world when we speak another language well, and that is quite a feat of magic, to be able to live several lives. One becomes most aware of these differences when they are pointed out by others, or when we need to translate something that really has no good equivalent in the other language. Sometimes I will be deep in a conversation in another language, and catch a glimpse of my other self. I sense the difference, but not necessarily how it “reads” to other people. For me the greatest value in learning other languages is that it forces us to conceptualize outside of our normal headspace, and expands not only our understanding of what is possible, but our connections to other people. It allows us to erase the hard edges of “other” and break down the fictitious wall between “us” and “them”.
One of the surprising and wonderful things about my neighborhood is that Spanish is spoken everywhere, on the street and in every shop and restaurant. I knew of course that some Spanish would be spoken here, but I had no idea how pervasive it is. It is spoken more than English. This mostly gives me a great opportunity to practice, and the people at the local hardware, laundry, and (of course) Mexican restaurant are really nice and helpful when it comes to improving my Spanish. In many other places (the shoe store and Radio Shack for example), they will switch from Spanish to English with me, even if I have heard them speaking Spanish and speak Spanish to them, which is a bit of a shame, as it leaves me wondering if my Spanish was so bad they felt the need to speak English, or if they just feel it is easier. In any event, I have learned (at least, according to the woman at the hardware store) that the majority of Spanish speakers in this part of Manhattan are Dominican and the next biggest group Mexican, with a fair amount of Puerto Ricans thrown into the mix. And there are a fair amount of word differences between the groups, which makes things even more interesting.
Just an FYI for those of you IMing in multiple languages. In English (or at least American English) form, we have our “lols” and occasional “hahas” to denote that we are laughing (or at least want the other person to think we are). In Spanish (or at least in Mexico, Peru, Spain, and Argentina) they tend towards imitating the sound of laughter (like our occasional “haha”), rather than saying they are laughing (like our “lol”) and thus will use the phonetic (for them) “jaja” or “jeje” when indicating delight. Brazilians, I have been learning over the past few days, will abreviate the Portuguese word for laughter (riso) and always put it in the plural “rs” (and sometimes “rsrsrsrs”) which is like saying “laughs” (or “laughslaughslaughslaughs”).
Anyone else out there with special knowledge care to share what some other languages use for this purpose?
Of course, the much derided smiley is universal. :)
At breakfast this morning I met a fascinating trio. An Argentine visiting from Barcelona, a Brazilian woman who lived many years in France and now runs a pousada in a small beach community south of Recife, and a French man from the Alps region. The French man spoke French and English, the Brazilian woman spoke French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, and the Argentine spoke Spanish and English, although he understood some French. So the conversation bounced between all of these languages and it was a lot of fun spending a little time with this group, evaluating how central the concept of saudade is to the identity of Brazilians, discussing music and travel, etc. I said my goodbyes and headed back to my room to pack, as I am headed back to Sao Paulo. I will meet my cousin Josh there in a few days and we will travel to Rio by rental car, stopping at several places along the way.