Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Gift For The Language

By Elliott Joseph

Reprinted from McCall's

Copyright 2010 Elliott Joseph

March 2010

I have always been interested in the problem of communication. Keeping oneself from being misunderstood in one's home, by someone who speaks one's own tongue, is difficult enough. So it may not seem surprising that when faced with the prospect of a European trip, I started boning up on my languages.
My wife, who regards preparation of any kind as a pitiful waste of time, viewed my long hours of study with the tolerance of a psychoanalyst.
"You'll never learn a language by studying details," she said. " Infinitive, present indicative, imperative -- that's all nonsense. The only way to get to know a language is by grasping its mystique."
"And what," I asked, "is that?"
"Oh, that is le je ne sais quoi of Spanish or Italian."
"That's French," I said.
"Language is something you feel -- like the dance," she said, ignoring me and waving her delicate arms.
"We'll see," I said. We did.
Our first problem occurred on board the plane. We were seated next to a left-handed Spaniard. He was at the window seat on my right. I foresaw difficulty rubbing elbows at dinner in those close economy class quarters, and dove into my phrase book for help.
"Dispénseme," I began, "habla usted inglé s?"
In return he smiled pleasantly. He was an elegantly dressed man, about my age, I guessed. His proud, brooding eyes seemed typically Spanish.
"Oh, good," I said. "Say would you mind switching seats with me? It's so tight here, and..."
His smile faded instantly into the cloudy reaches of incomprehension.
My wife leaned forward and smiled. The Spaniard smiled. I smiled. After a moment of awkward silence, my wife smiled again, and moved her finger back and forth a few times, and pointed to my seat. We both stood up. He looked at me, and I smiled. I took a step toward his seat. He got into mine.
"Well, that wasn't so difficult," said my wife.
"I suppose that's what you mean by mystique," I said, calling to her past the Spaniard. "What are you going to do with Lefty now?"
She didn't seem to mind him on her right, so we left him in the middle seat. The man remained puzzled by the whole thing, and we switched back before dozing off after dinner and the movie. In Madrid he tipped his hat and strode out of our lives.
At the hotel we were taken to a dark room overlooking a narrow courtyard. I was prepared for this and said to the bellboy, a shy, handsome Spanish lad of no more than eighteen, "No tiene buena vista."
"No speak English," he said, dropping his eyes. Undaunted, I opened the phrase book and pointed right to the line. The boy looked and shrugged his shoulders. Then my wife said it.
"No tiene buena vista." Suddenly, the boy lit up.
"Ahhh," he exclaimed, "no tiene buena vista! Momento, por favor." He picked up the telephone and minutes later we were in a beautiful room overlooking the broad avenida. I gave him too generous a tip, of course, and he bowed out of the room, nodding gratefully, first at me and then at my wife.
"Tone, inflection," she said. "It's how you say it that counts."
"Sure, after I showed him the phrase book."
"Perhaps," she said, patting her hair as she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror.
Whatever the explanation, the same thing happened again and again. For some reason she was able to understand waiters when they explained the menu, taxi drivers when they described the history of some interesting site and policemen when they gave us directions.
This was as true in Italy as it was in Spain, which I was thankful for, since we would be taking a car in Rome and driving through the countryside, where the language barrier might prove formidable.
We avoided the autostrada, sticking to the smaller roads so that we could see more of the towns and the people. The sun was glorious and I was glad we had chosen a convertible for the trip. The wind rushed by crisply, and my wife leaned her, now tanned, arm over the door and faced into the breeze, letting her hair blow as we drove through the morning.
This idyllic state ended abruptly at the gate of a quiet hillside village with the dull thumping of a flat tire. I set to work changing it at once, only to discover that the spare was also flat. A tall, dark-haired man of about thirty stood watching me.
"Che peccato," he said.
"He said it's a shame," said my wife.
"Ask him if there's a garage nearby."
"Is there a garage nearby?" she asked.
"Quasi dieci minuti."
"About half a mile from here."
"Well, I guess I'll start hiking," I said.
"Ma è chiuso a l'ora di pranzo," he said.
"He said it's closed for lunch," said my wife.
"Il ristorante è vicino," he said, pointing. "Voi andare a mangiare insieme?"
"He says we might as well join him for lunch," she said. "Come on. It might be fun."
It was fun, all right. For her. She and this fellow, a doctor, it turned out, had a wonderful time. They laughed. They talked. She in English, and he in Italian. They spoke about America and Italy, and art and literature and the theater and wine and food. They spoke about wine and food interminably. I had never known she was that interested. I tried to speak to him in English once or twice, but he looked at me quizzically. Of course I couldn't understand a word he said. Well, we sat there for about two and a half hours, eating and drinking and the two of them gabbing away and slapping the table. It wasn't until about four o'clock that I got the tires fixed and we were on our way.
"I've really got to hand it to you," I said to my wife. "You have a remarkable aptitude for romance languages."
"It's what I told you," she said. "Get your nose out of tense and case and possessives. Concentrate on the spirit of what you want to say. Get into the lyricism of the language. Don't listen to the words. Listen to the music."
I'll have to admit she had me believing her. I all but threw away my books, and then looked forward to Paris to watch her slice through the subtleties of French gender with that theory of hers. There was just one thing I had overlooked. "In French," my book had said, "all things are either masculine or feminine." It set me thinking.
On our first day in Paris I observed that my wife got nowhere with our hotel's patronne, and nowhere with our chambermaid, and nowhere with our waitress. And I was about to commit her great theory to the snide wastebasket of a rational man's skepticism, when to my profound surprise I found myself applying the theory on my own, with inspiring success.
It was to me that the girl in the parfumerie addressed her remarks. It was at me that the pert receptionist at Christian Dior smiled. It was to me that the chic woman at the Café Select on the Champs Elysées talked of France and America, and art and music and wine and food.
And you know -- as I was telling my startled wife that evening -- I had never realized it before, but there is really nothing in this world as interesting, as civilized and as mysterious, too, as the wine and the food of La Belle France.

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