Monday, November 23, 2009

Mother Tongue

I'm sitting in a small cafe/bar in a little town in Normandy, and evening is falling fast outside. The clank of the boats moored across the road at the harbor is just audible over the wind. It's been stormy all today.

I went for a walk in the gale, and when I came back I treated myself to a cafe au lait. For awhile I was the only customer, and the genial owner brought me my coffee and went back to his newspaper at the bar. The radio babbled in the background in French, and I surfed the free wifi (here's it's "wee-fee") from the cafe next door. A few customers came in, locals who knew the barman, and they chatted among themselves. Everything was entirely normal and alien, in that strange way it can only be when you're staying in a country not your own, and I was feeling a little melancholy with the weather and no one to talk to... until the opening chords of Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" came over the radio. Suddenly, everything seemed better. Maybe it was the caffeine kicking in, but just hearing that familiar song made everything brighter.

About a month ago, when I first arrived in the UK, I intended to write an entry about arriving somewhere where everyone spoke English after so long away. As I said in my last post, I spent a lot of time in England dithering about what to write about first, and so I ended up writing everything at once and posting nothing at all. Here is part of a draft I wrote up during that time:

Despite the fact that I am a writer, a reader, and a self-proclaimed English nerd, I didn't realize how much I missed being surrounded by English until I arrived in the United Kingdom a few days ago. Suddenly, a whole world of auditory delight has been reintroduced to me. I had forgotten about overheard snippets of conversation in cafes, talk radio, political TV shows, news, soap operas, road signs, town names, menus, small talk with waiters in restaurants, chit-chat in the supermarket.

I'll be in the UK for a total of 2.5 weeks, a reprieve from a milieu of foreignness that makes everything harder. I had forgotten that life could be anything except that way-- the last English speaking country I visited (besides Hong Kong and India, whose denizens speak English if necessary but not among themselves) was New Zealand.

In the weeks I spent in the UK I delighted in my linguistic surroundings. I spent time in pubs doing some harmless eavesdropping and was amused by road signs for towns with names like "Thornfalcon" and "Fivehead." I ordered food with ease, asked for directions on the street, and followed with some interest the appearance of British politician Nick Griffin on the important BBC political TV show “Question Time." Griffin, who fronts a xenophobic political party with a platform that some say is redolent of neo-Nazism, created a stir with this appearance, and I was gleefully able to watch the video with my British friends, read the newspaper stories that followed, and talk to people I met about their opinions on the subject. It was entirely refreshing. I felt that I was really participating in current events, in the vital present-day life of the country.

When, on the way from a friend's house to the train station one Sunday morning, I was treated to an episode of "The Archers," a British radio institution that has been on the air since WWII, I felt similarly. As the hedgerows, fallow fields, and orchards of Somerset flashed by, I listened to the dramas of the families this program has tracked for decades. Following the sounds of their lives, I learned the lessons tucked into the narrative, about everything from family planning to how to plant a vegetable garden, along with the rest of the British public.

Sitting in this cafe after the last chords of Wham! died away, all of this has been on my mind. I've felt especially keenly the importance of linguistic immersion during the past few weeks, which were spent in France and, briefly, Belgium. Although I speak slightly more French now than when I arrived--that is to say of the latter none at all, and the former the basics like "one coffee please" and "could I have the bill, please"-- I have missed the feeling of deep comprehension and ease that comes with knowing the language.

And while I recognize this loss, I'm not sure that one experience is somehow "less" than the other. There is nothing like sitting down in a crowded Parisian (or Norman) cafe with a glass of wine or a coffee and losing yourself in the chatter and cigarette smoke, the foot traffic passing by, or the boats clacking together in the wind. It's easier to remind yourself of the otherness of your circumstances, to feel the exotic close up around you, when you are surrounded by a language you cannot understand.

It's certainly something to consider, these factors, as small as a passing mood or the weather or as large as a linguistic barrier, that affect a traveler's experiences and perceptions of a place. Would Paris have seemed as enchanting and magical if I could have understood the man next to me complaining about his lazy wife or those dirty immigrants? Would I have felt so at ease in England if I hadn't been able to ask new acquaintances their impressions of Nick Griffin or the bartender which local Somerset cider he recommended? Probably not.

So one thing I've learned from this linguistic adventure is that you have to embrace your travel experiences as lovely and perfectly flawed in their subjectivity. Like everyone else, I am a bundle of strengths and weakness (linguistics among them), and for me England represents the familiar and comfortable, while France is more mysterious and secretive. For another traveler the opposite could easily be true. But that's part of the miracle of travel-- that and Wham! on the radio in a little bar in an unexpected place.


Lauren said...

Glad to have discovered your blog. Excellent writing! If I could have a superpower, it would be multilingualism.

Alissa said...

Thanks, Lauren! And re: the multilingualism, me, too! That's what I've always said when people asked me what super power I would want.

Danielle said...

I felt exactly the same way after months and months in Italy, and I speak Italian. It's interesting to read your words on the subject, having dithered an equal amount about what to write about England (for the record, I haven't yet written anything).