Saturday, July 14, 2007

My first Michelin experience

I keep saying to myself that the absence of posts for several weeks is due less to the absence of thoughts on all the matters linguistic than to my rather demanding job schedule that makes me inconveniently sleepy for the most of my free time.

Yesterday, however, I have experienced the first perks of this relatively new job, which sort of makes up for my somnambulic existence lately. For the first time, I ate at the Michelin-starred restaurant. In any restaurant, I normally read the menu thoroughly and many times before I make The Right Choice. I am not the type to look for typos, but I like to compare entries in different languages in order to get a better idea of what is on offer, particularly when choosing fish or figuring out about exotic berries. I would laugh in the process at an awkward translation or inappropriate use of a foreign word. (I still remember my amusement at discovering Crème Beau Rivage and cafe turistico americano.)

Yesterday, I was attracted by the dessert: Vacherin à la vanille eu au cassis, short and self-explanatory in French, translated and explained into a lengthy Layers of meringue, vanilla ice-cream and blackcurrant sorbet. I was puzzled about vacherin, which I knew was a French cheese, but its use as a synonym to meringue was unknown to me. It is the case, I checked today, apparently due to the similarity in shape between the cheese and the dessert, but I am not much convinced by this etymology. Any better explanations?

Friday, June 29, 2007

Latin for all

One evening, going home from the Institute, I picked up an old copy of Omnibus, magazine for teachers and students of Latin and Greek, to read after dinner. Omnibus is a curious word: being the dative plural of Latin omnis, all, everyone, literally it means 'for all'. By the way, the English bus derives, via French, from omnibus.

My acquaintance with the word comes not only from Latin lessons, but from a funny Latvian song about omnibuss that destroys kitchen gardens with all the vegetables -- I like the song but have no idea about its deep meaning. (The final double s in omnibuss is not a typo: in Latvian, all masculine nouns have to end on s, even if they are foreign borrowings that already have one s. In this case, you just add another s. For example, James Bond becomes Dzeimss Bonds.)

In my copy of Omnibus, a tiny article caught my attention. It contained excerpts from a Latin glossary, allegedly composed by Vatican authorities to help Latin speakers to cope with essential modern phenomena. I cannot help but reproduce some of its entries here. Lambrusco: acre vinum Aemilianum. Merlot: vinum rubrum Burdigalense. Sangria: potio mixta Hispanica. Scotch: vischium Scoticum. Vodka: valida potio Slavica. It made me smile, and think how an ordinary wine list becomes, by a mere fact of being translated into a different language, a source of laughter.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Deformation professionelle

I discovered blogs in spring 2006. More precisely, I discovered food blogs, which I was reading for months on end before realising that there existed blogs about things other than food. Anyway, the very first was Chocolate & Zucchini, which has remained a favourite ever since, for its recipes, its pictures, its design, its sense of purpose, its skillful marketing, and bien sur for the beautiful English of its author, Clotilde Dusoulier.

Last Tuesday, I had a chance to meet Clotidle en personne at the launch of her book at the French Institute in London. When I walked in, I saw the following picture: the publisher with a pile of volumes to sell; the author busy signing her books; technical guys fiddling with microphones; two tables with cakes and other edibles; and lots of rather lost-looking English people who did not quite know what to do. Were they allowed to taste the food? Was it appropriate to talk? Was it possible to talk in English? The worst of all, however, was the completely abandoned, unmanned tables with zucchini carpaccio, and slices of bread, and two savoury cakes, and some cheese biscuits, to which not many people were paying any attention at all.

Being an events organiser, this is a situation in which I cannot stand still: I walked in, went behind the table, and began offering the food and explaining about it. The food was delicious, I was having interesting conversations, and on the whole having wonderful time. 'Thank you so much for organising the event', someone said, assuming I was a part of the crew. 'Oh, not at all. I am just helping out', I replied. 'I am a professional events organiser, you see. ' 'What do you mean?' 'Well, I saw they needed some organisation, and I stepped in. Deformation professionelle.' I have no idea how to say it in English, though. It is such an un-English thing to do.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wanted: a (good) Greek teacher

I believe that majority of those who have learned a foreign language have done so in highly individual ways, by developing special tricks and techniques that work for them. My idiosyncratic mix is made of the following elements: strong motivation; visits to the country; reading the literature; romantic or at least personal interest; and a good teacher.

I promise to write about the first four elements at some point, but it was good teachers, or rather, scarcity thereof, that I was thinking about the whole of the previous week. The thinking has been triggered by a Greek party I attended last weekend. As the Greek parties go, the food was plentiful, the music traditional, and the guys hot. Linguistically, however, the party was disappointing, despite the presence of a woman who actually was a professional teacher of Greek, sent by the Greek government to teach the language of Kavafis and Elytis to the expats' children in London. The government might have its own selection criteria, but in my opinion, the very first quality language teachers need is the ability to speak beautifully themselves. The woman at the party did not: her language was hesitant, bland, primitive, as indeed the language of many people at the party.

In many cases, the best teachers I had were not professionals, but friends and acquaintances of mine. Probably, the best of them all was an Italian friend with whom I spent several months in Hamburg and who single-handedly transformed me from a so-so Italian speaker into an advanced one. (She also taught me to cook, by the way.) By the time I met her, I had lived in Rome, had read La Divina Commedia, and was chattering away with any Italian in my vicinity. She did not criticise -- it is only much later that she admitted that at the time I spoke with Italian words and English structure -- but she would listen to me, she would correct me only sometimes (she is very polite), but more important, she would speak herself. We did not have any formal lessons, now and then she would answer my question about grammar, but after a while, I realised I was improving dramatically. We learn a lot by imitation.

With the Greek teaching, on the other hand, I did not have much luck. Apart from a former Greek colleague who would teach me in one hour more useful phrases than my formal teachers would teach in a year, but who unfortunately lives far away, I am still looking. . .

Friday, June 15, 2007

Would you like a cup of coffee in Bulgarian?

I am convinced of the importance of learning useful set phrases at an early stage of language acquisition. Moreover, I believe that learning humorous, rare, idiosyncratic, and slightly odd words and phrases is extremely useful, too. Although these cannot be used in any circumstances, they would often open many doors - and hearts - of native speakers.

I am able to engage in more satisfying conversations with Greeks, when I reveal that -- apart from everyday's kalimera/kalispera -- I know to say palikari (a compliment to a Greek macho), briki (Greek coffee pot), phrontistirio (private school, the word originates from Aristophanes where it meant the 'thinking house'), and kouraviedes (my favourite biscuits).

Funny and odd phrases, being individual and easy to remember, can be also handy when you need to master complex grammar features. I learned the entire set of rules on the use of Italian subjunctive by making up sentences involving my flames of the moment. Seven years on, I have no idea where all those flames have gone, but I still remember by heart these rather obscene -- and mostly written in highly hypothetical or unreal mode -- sentences. Needless to say, I rarely make mistakes in Italian subjunctive.

I have a favourite phase, which I try to learn in any language, even in those I will never be able to speak: You have beautiful eyes. I must confess that few of those whom I have asked to teach it, be it in Armenian, Hebrew, or Hungarian, reacted adequately. Many were surprised, some shocked, but in some cases it was a true ice-breaker.

And I am always happy to learn a few phrases in any language, so when I meet someone who speaks a language new to me, I ask them to teach me some. My most recent attempt was at a Bulgarian colleague, and the response was more than adequate. 'Yes', he said happily, 'I can teach you Would you like a cup of coffee? and Would you like a massage? My collection of useful useless phrases is expanding!

Saturday, June 09, 2007


I am always impressed when people who have known me only for a short time say something insightful about me. I warmed up to my once-boss, a super successful businessman from Russia, when he observed that I was more a boutique than a supermarket person. Not an obvious thing to say: I routinely buy all my basics in supermarkets, am known for my love for bargain, particularly two-for-the-price-of-one type, and find shops full of latest fashion and arrogant assistants unbearably boring. Something exclusive, specialised, trendy, expensive, and luxurious, particularly when used as an adjective - a boutique hotel or a boutique recruitment agency - is what the word boutique implies in English (and in the languages that have borrowed it from English, as in Russian butik.)

But in French, where the word comes from, it is a completely different story: boutique is just a small specialist shop. (On my first visit to France I was amused to find boutiques SNCF.) The word's etymology reveals its humble origins -- in Ancient Greek apotheke means storehouse, depository -- and its family connection. Spanish small shop bodega and Italian bottega, (one day, I hope to become a regular customer of one), are boutique's sisters, and Apotheke / apteka, drugstores in German and Russian, and certainly in other languages, are distant cousins.

In this meaning of a small useful shops, yes, I am a boutique girl. I prefer buying my supply of cheese from my favourite small shop. If it were in London, I am sure it would have been called Boutique Cheese Shop Le Fromage something, but as it is in Paris, this time, it is just a fromagerie.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

To my first readers

I have been reading blogs for ages and thinking about blogging for a while, but it was exactly one month ago when I posted the first entry on my own blog. Blogging gurus say that four things matter in this increasingly competitive business: contents, design, promotion, and readers. Contentwise, it has taken a while even for most serious bloggers to find their unique selling point, and all of them have improved with practice. My web design has always been famously minimalist: I used to be a webmistress for a university society, and the webpages I created, to quote a colleague, could be read on a ten years old computer in Sudanese desert.

I have not really done much promotion yet, which made me pleasantly surprised to find the first readers' comments on my blog. They came from two countries I am fascinated with in equal measure, Spain and Italy. Bettina writes her Diario de una mujer normal, pictures of Spanish life full of useful Spanish expressions, from Madrid, and Saffron muses about food and life in the eternal city in Saffron and Pepper from Rome, the city to which I owe my interest both in cooking and in Italian literature. I am grateful to both of them and am very happy to have readers in these two cities: Rome and Madrid are where I actually would like to live, and if I am not there yet, it is simply because I cannot make my choice between the two. Perhaps, I should move to Barcelona, because of the sea, or to Milan, because of the industrial scene, instead?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A pig for James Bond

Do you remember when in The World is Not Enough James Bond together with a cute nerd Christmas are travelling inside the pipeline in a sort of a shuttle? In real life, the device exists under the name of pig, which has nothing to do with a domestic animal, but stands for Pipeline Inspection Gauge. I learned the term last week and find it amusing. First, because it sounds funny. Second, because the devise is aptly named: originally, the pig was used to collect dirt from the inside of the pipeline, and real pigs are traditionally considered as not particularly hygienic animals. (Although it is not quite true, say zoologists.) And third, because even such an insipidly named movie you can serve as a source of useful terms. I should go and see Goldfinger or Octopussy immediately!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Words from Africa

I know next to nothing about African languages. I do not speak any of them, and I have never tried learning one. Besides, which one to choose? Apparently, there are more than 2,000 languages spoken in Africa. My whole knowledge about the continent is minimal: I have never been there and am not familiar with African writers. The same is true about my ignorance about Asia, Australia, and Oceania, but whereas these areas leave me pretty much indifferent -- apart from Asian cuisines, that it -- I have inexplicable fascination with Africa. I always read articles and dossiers on Africa in The Economist and Courrier international, I used to search for best African restaurants in Paris and Geneva, and I have been known to respond positively to chat-up lines of African guys in public places. I even once accepted a job offer on the strength that it involved travelling to Africa (unfortunately, the company had downsized before I managed to set foot there).

And of course, I am fascinated with African languages, that is why last Saturday I attended Word from Africa in the British Museum, part of the African festival that London, a home for many people of African origin, has been hosting for several years. The programme promised many wonders: listening to poetry, songs, and story-telling in Tonga, Zulu, Hausa, Swahili, or Somali, and I was anticipating a linguistic feast. Alas, it turned out to be a more of a burned toast experience: haphazard organisation, poor acoustics (in the BP lecture theater! I wonder how it is possible), moderators who had mistaken the festival for a TV reality show, and the worse of all, mediocre performance. I have heard fantastic African artists before (mostly in Paris) and am confident that the continent has many original and talented artists, so when I walked off home, disappointed, I wondered what could be the reasons of that poor show. Lack of money? But surely with increasing interest of Western companies for African markets and resources, one could have easily found several sponsors eager to showcase their involvement. Institutional weakness? (an expression my once-boss would use to describe the lack of efficiency of many ministries and public services in the developing world.) Lack of skills on the part of organisers? Next year, I would be happy to run the show, just in case the BM is interested!

Friday, June 01, 2007

The most useful phrase I learned last year

People who learn a foreign language to use it (unlike those who are engaged in learning a language in perpetuo), know the importance of mastering useful set phrases from early days. Phrases like Sorry I do not speak X well, Do you speak English, or I would like to ... should be learned at the very first lesson. It does not matter that you do not understand the construction, which might include the subjunctive: thanks to theses little phrases, you will be able to conduct a polite and meaningful conversation. You can not come up with those phrases yourself: they exist, it is up to you to discover them and to make them part of your vocabulary. They convey the meaning precisely and much better than anything you, a non-native speaker, can come up with. Unfortunately, teachers and schoolbooks often neglect this principle.

In the early years of my acquaintance with English, the phrase that came most useful was I beg your pardon?. If I am not mistaken, textbooks do not mention it often enough -- in any case, I learned it when I landed in the UK -- but this phrase is a little gem. It is short, it sounds better than 'I am sorry could you repeat what you just said?', and it is idiomatic, that is, it does mark you as an insider.

Last year, the most useful phrase I learned came from the Brazen Careerist blog. The phrase it Do you have any reservations about hiring me?, coming from the post about turning an interview into a job. I learned it by heart and used at all my job interviews, and, as if by magic, it landed me two jobs. (The first job turned out to be a lemon, but this comes from ignoring the first advice Penelope gives: research the company).

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Un peu ronde, gironde

I was reading the second book of Mireille Guiliano about French women and their art of living for pleasure when I come across this expression: un peu ronde, translated by the author as a tad overweight. Usually, I like the way she translates French concepts into English (she was trained in one of the best translating schools in Paris and had a career as a translator for international institutions before moving into corporate world). But this time, I was quite uncomfortable with the tad overweight. It was correct by any account, but whereas I would happily and routinely describe myself as un peu ronde, I would never identify with the English phrasing: it implies that something is wrong. But then I thought, how would I say it in English? Probably, I would be happiest with a bit round, the calque from French. Curvy is not bad, although it describes the outline rather than the shape. Curvacious, voluptious, and even juicy are all correct, but they appear to be rather emotional and intimate.

In French, however, I once learned another great word. Several years ago at a conference in Spoleto , in a mixed French and Italian company, the conversation turned to the Italian word formosa, meaning shapely and beautiful. (We were discussing Roman statues, let me reassure you.) A professor from Brussels mentioned that there was a good old French equivalent, gironde. Its etymology is uncertain (I have checked), but I still remember the definition given by the professor. 'Gironde, he said, 'come Sophia Loren in tutto il suo splendore!'

Monday, May 28, 2007

Peu ou prou

Last Saturday, I went to the French Institute to listen to Philippe Thureau-Dangin, editor of Courrier international. I have been reading Courrier international for years: I like the concept, I like the broad international coverage, the way it presents different points of view, and even its use of advertisements. I really like the rubric Le livre, which introduces new authors and new books, often from places far away from obvious.

And I admire its use of French. The translations -- most of its articles are translated from articles in journals and magazines around the world -- are not only flawless and idiomatic, but often improve on the original in terms of clarity, logic, and conciseness, which are, in my opinion, the essential characteristics of a good writing. Once I compared several of its translations with English originals (all taken from reputable sources like the Guardian and the Independent) and could not but admit the superior skill of the CI journalists.

In real talk, the editor-in-chief did not disappont, and I who is always looking for new expressions, wrote down several. Peu ou prou was one of these. It means a little or a lot, more or less. Its unusual part prou originates, via old French, I learned, from the late Latin prode, meaning profitable. It is curious that the same Latin word resulted, again via old French, in proud in English. If Anglo-Saxon pride is something that makes you tick (not me), you can read about its carnival of the etymologies here.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Aller aux asperges

Of all the expressions Alicia de Galicia sent me two days ago, I particularly liked irse freír espárragos. I like asparagus, and am intrigued how such a innocent activity performed upon a delicious vegetable that we see only for a few brief months in a year has evolved to have a negative meaning. You can read a discussion of the expression and its English equivalents, some of which mention frying, here, but I found no explanation of its origin.

I decided to investigate asparagus-related expressions in other languages. It is the asparagus season, after all, and the foodbloggueuses du mondre entier (to borrow an expression from Sigrid) are busy cooking asparagus and posting recipes.

I did not find anything in English, but asparagus is a foreign vegetable in the UK. It surprised me that I could not find anything in Italian. Ancient Romans ate asparagus, and, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus liked to use the phrase celerius quam asparagi cocuntur, it was sooner done than asparagus is cooked.

But it is in French where the asparagus, due to its shape, has found a fertile ground. Aller aux asperges is used pour désigner la prise de fonctions d'une péripatéticienne, or to quote a reputable dictionary, chercher fortune sur le trottoir. My main discovery was a French site called Echolalistes, listing various lists, including La Liste des Asperges, listing a plethora of asparagine expressions. It also directs you, if you prefer, to the lists of other vegetables, but for the time being, I will stick with asparagus.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Garden flat

I heard about euphemisms in English from my university teacher more than 15 years ago. She was doing research on their role in British culture, an important role, she said. She gave us some Classical examples, mostly used by the Victorian ladies. I have not forgot this discussion, but was never quite sure what she meant, apart from the obvious stereotypes about the Victorians.

It dawned on me this year, when I was looking for accommodation in London and had to deal with estate agents' newspeak. (After the HR, my second least favourite group of people.)

May I ask you what the words garden flat evoke for you? For me, they bring to mind greenery, space, luxury -- a flat overlooking the garden, that is. Oh no: in the London housing market, it denotes a basement flat embellished with flower pots in the windows or with flower pots down on the stairs.

It defies me why people in London enjoy living in the underground holes likes troglodytes, but it least I understand what my university teacher meant.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Spanish teacher

Alicia de Galicia is the organiser of the London Spanish meetup, one of the most popular in London.

She is a talented language teacher. Alicia is her real name, and, she says, 'soy de Galicia. So, I always say to my students Alicia de Galicia, and they never forget.'

She speaks beautiful Spanish, clear to be understood even by a timid beginner. At the same time, she manages to slip in idioms that can be appreciated and adopted by an advanced fan of Spanish, like myself.

The first time I met her, I learned de pura cepa, which means de souche, which in turns means indigenous, but there must be a better way to say it in English.

The second time I learned tiquismiquis, which she explained means quisquilloso, which means fussy.

And the third time I learned estar en pelotas, which means estar desnudo, to be naked.

I am looking forward to learn more of these idioms.


What I like about Alicia, is that she would always go an extra mile (I wonder how you say it in Spanish) to teach you something new about her language. When I told her aboout this post, she sent me the the following email:

Y como sé que te gusta y aprecias el aprender nuevas expresiones aquí van tres más: (1) salir de Guatemala y entrar en 'Guatepeor' ... salir de una situación mala para meterse en otra peor (2) enrollarse como una persiana... equivalente a 'hablar por los codos' (cosa que yo hago a menudo) (3) mandar a alguien a freír espárragos... equivalente a decirle a alguien que se pierda, que se vaya a paseo, y a decir a alguien 'vete a la porra'.

!Muchas gracias, Alicia de Galicia!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

HR Latin

Penelope Trunk of the Brazen Careerist posted recently about the use and abuse of jargon at the workplace.

Penelope's blog is great. Is is full of good advice. Much of it is common sense, which is also good. It is useful to be reminded about basic values in difficult times.

There seems to be one category of people who often disagree with her, judging by comments. This category is the HR. (This is another reason I am so fond of Penelope. The HR have never been my best friends.) If the purpose of jargon is to obscure the meaning, the HR master this technique to perfection. They seem to be incapable of writing a job description so that potential candidates can understand what the role is about.

Recently, I have noticed a new development: the HR have embraced Latin. 'The position requires acumen or gravitas.' 'The onus is on a candidate to provide the right details.' 'An excellent salary & package is on offer here, including the kudos of joining a growing upstart business that is garnering quite a reputation.'

The words come straight from a Latin dictionary: you can check in Lewis and Short, one of the best available on-line. I surely remember reading them in Horace when I was at the university. However, I have never ever heard these words from any manager, middle or senior.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Elias Canetti und ich

Elias Canetti was born in 1905 in Ruse, on the shores of the Black Sea.
I was born in 1970 in Riga, on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

When Canetti was little, he spoke Ladino (at home), Bulgarian (in Ruse), English (in the UK where his parents lived for a while), and French (he learned it at school).
When I was little, I spoke Russian (at home). I then began speaking Latvian (as I went to ballet classes). I was forced to learn English (at school, where it was taught with a pronounced Russian accent I still cannot get rid of and where I was repeatedly told I was no good at it).

By the time Canetti went to University, German became his language of choice. He wrote all his books in German and received the Nobel Prize for it.

By the time I went to University, I had heard so much German at home, spoken by my mother when she did not want me to understand the conversation, that I decided to learn it. After spending a week with a grammar primer and doing der die das, I decided it was die hoechste Zeit to read a book. I chose Goethe's Faust. My mother refused to cooperate.

Many years later, I still remember the opening lines by heart. I have read many books in German -- although none by Canetti, but I have never learned the language properly.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hands down

Sometimes, in a flow of familiar words and expressions, you hear something new, something you are sure you have never heard before, yet something so appropriate, so fitting, that, after marvelling for a while at the beauty of the word, you immediately adopt it.

Last week, I was listening to Dick Fleming, one of the most seasoned interpreters working for the European Commission, interpreting a conference about interpreting. He was interpreting from German, a language which I understand enough to get the main idea and to appreciate the main structures, but not enough to follow a complex argument.

The speaker was describing main qualities necessary to train the aspiring interpreters and also to train the trainers of these aspiring interpreters (which is known as training of trainers). These qualities are not the same, the argument went, that you need to do philology, literature, linguistics, and other related subjects. For example, the trainers in Central and Eastern European Universities are often much better prepared and far more advanced in these purely theoretical subjects, the speaker said in three or so German sentences.

'In linguistics', interpreted Dick into English, 'they beat us hands down.' I had never heard the expression before, but the meaning was obvious: easily, without efforts. Of course, later I asked Dick about the expression and also looked it up in my biggest English dictionary. Hands down comes from horse racing, as you will find in the Mavens' Word of the Day.

They say that a good interpretation improves the original, and it was exactly what Dick's did. It was short, elegant, to the point. And, as they say it in German, it was der passende Ausdruck.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Language learning no luxury?

On Tuesday, I attended a discussion at the British Academy on language learning in British schools and universities, or rather, on the decline thereof, Language Learning No Luxury.

The decline has been dramatic, indeed: Dick Hudson, one of the panellists, presented a series of slides illustrating the falling interest in languages at all levels, from secondary schools to the higher education and research institutions. He and other speakers gave a plethora of reasons for this decline: boring curriculum, bad teachers, wrong methodology, lack of funding, elitist perception etc etc.

But what about mere usefulness? How useful are language skills in the business world? Or, to put it the other way around, what kind of jobs requiring language skills are advertised?

A quick Internet search of the top London recruitment agencies specialising, as they proudly put it, in multilingual recruitment, yielded the following results. The most frequently required positions with languages are PA and (tele)sales!

Hardly a rewarding career for a graduate.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bronze horsemen

I am an avid reader of The Economist: I like that I can fit its reading into my schedule on a weekly basis, I like its topics, sections, and special reports, and most of all I like its mastery of English. (No, I do not work for the journal. Yes, I would not mind receiving an offer).

In particularly, its artistry of titles has long been an object of my admiration. Last week, I was reading an article about recent events in the neighbouring Estonia. It is called Bronze Meddling and the title works on several levels.

Phonetically, bronze meddling echoes bronze melting, which reflects the topic of the article, melting down or removing former Soviet monuments. Etymologically, English meddle derives ultimately from Latin miscere, to mix, thus juxtaposing mixing (of metals) and interfering (into internal affairs).

Historically, for all of us who come from the space where Russian has been lingua franca, bronze brings to mind the Bronze Horseman, a monument in St.Petersburg to Peter the Great and an eponymous poem by Alexander Pushkin about the tzar and his 'window into Europe'. It was Peter the Great who first added Baltic territories to the Russian empire. All the subsequent colonising powers left behind their statues and monuments, landmarks still too loaded emotionally for both sides of the conflict.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Me Tarzan you Jane

I have a friend whom I have known for ages, and he has been looking for a wife all this time. He is pretty determined about it, too: to say, he had embraced the art of on-line dating at the time when the rest of us were struggling with our first emails, managed by pine. And, I must say, he has had an amazing array of candidates, which is not surprising, given his charms, talents, and good looks. He is still unmarried, though, and the problem is: he has high standards.

The bride-to-be should come from the same city (which makes sense), she should be blonde (de gustibus non disputandum), younger than he (a bit old-fashioned but fine), and be approved by his mother as well (utterly ridiculous, if you ask me.)

She should also have good grammar. 'Can you just imagine, he would complain to me about a new candidate, she cannot spell? She just wrote 'restaurant' without a 't'?!' This one, I used to laugh about: if you like the girl, does it matter that her grammar is shaky?

Here in London, I am not so sure any longer. 'I have been living in London for 2 years but I haven't got improve my English. I would like to meet people, practice English, and enjoy with them', an anonymous admirer wrote to me. 'I would like to get to know you better and share a bit about our cultures, dancing and languages together', wrote another. 'If you are interesting you can write me.'

Yes, I can surely write you off and suggest you enjoy with an English dictionary.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Bilingual cities

Tomorrow, I am going to Bruxelles, and I am feeling slightly apprehensive, which happens every time when I am in a bilingual city. Which language should I address the locals, if need be?

Sometimes, like in Brussels and Barcelona, I have no choice. I speak only one language of the two, and apologetically try to convey the message 'excuse me, I am not from here, and unfortunately do not speak your tongue, of course I would learn it if I lived here, but for now, shall we communicate in French or Spanish, or indeed in any language of your choice'.

In other cases, like in Riga, I speak both languages on offer, and then I try guessing which would be the preferred medium of my interlocutor. The message here is 'excuse me I really do not mind which language to speak, please tell me what you prefer and I would be happy to oblige.'

I often wonder whether other people feel the same and whether there is any correlation between the availability of two languages and the unwillingness to talk to strangers beyond the mere necessity, which is a sad characteristic of my home city.

Monday, May 07, 2007


'So, where does your accent come from?' The question would pop up inevitably in any conversation I conduct in English, even now.

When I first came to the UK , I used to be ashamed about my accent and rather upset that I could not manage to get rid of it. And I tried. I asked for advice. One friend said 'Just try talking without opening your mouth'. Another said 'What is wrong with your accent, I understand you perfectly all right'. But it was not what I wanted. I wanted to sound - if not exactly like the HM the Queen, but at least in a way that would not discredit what I was saying. Also, I disliked that I could be pigeon-holed based on my oh-so-foreign accent.

Until one day, an acquaintance said to me 'I like it that you have decided to keep your accent'. 'I beg you pardon?' I said. 'Well, with your linguistics skills, surely you could speak without any accent, if you want, he said. 'I like that you keep it as a part of your identity'.

And this it was. Ten years on, I still speak English with an accent -- but I do it by choice. Besides, and this is something I always knew, foreign accents are sooo sexy!