I don’t know how many people would be able to pinpoint a precise moment in time for the start of a liking, but I can do that for at least what I consider my greatest passion. I can set a starting point to my enthusiasm for languages and world cultures – and also say the exact moment I began being interested in particular ones, but that’s another story, so let’s talk general first.
In May that year my grandma stumbled on the hose while watering the plants in the garden and broke her leg. It is irony of fate to be known for having lots of good qualities, but definitely not a green thumb, and the only one time you look after plants, you are struck by nemesis from the vegetal realm! Anyway, her thigh bone was still too good to be replaced by a prosthesis, so the doctors decided in favour of natural healing, a longer but more lasting cure. That incident cost her a long stint as a bedridden patient first, and later walking on crutches with limited mobility.
As a consequence, my family wouldn’t be able to leave for the summer, and my brother and I would have been stuck at home, if my aunt hadn’t offered to host us at her place and let us have a seaside holiday. At 12 years of age, this was going to be my first unaccompanied air trip, my first holiday without my parents, and abroad to boot! It was bound to be a really exciting month.
But the greatest excitement came when I set foot in my aunt’s house and all of a sudden was cast into the experience of a very different family life. For a start it was in a foreign country, and in a place swarming with holiday-makers from several places around Europe. Then our aunt’s home was a case on its own: it was not only different habits and different relationships that I was confronted with, but the very fact that it amounted to a concentrate of international culture, with a French uncle and two daughters that had been born of an Italian mother, respectively in Belgium and Spain. Step out of the door, and I was exposed to even stronger radiations from what was not yet called globalisation, but was certainly something in the making.
French was used at table, Spanish outside the house, Italian with our aunt, and English also came into play as a school subject because our cousin had just started studying it at school, just as ourselves at home. When my aunt was once giving my cousin and me an English class, I remember telling her that being in that place made one feel like learning all the languages of the world. I would have expected a sympathetic reply, but she sternly warned me I should start by learning English well.
Once at home I painstakingly took her advice, as I was by then convinced that languages would be my companion in life. At home I diligently started doing extra study, memorising lists of new words on books I had unearthed from the cellar, or focusing on new grammar points. It was something I did with real pleasure; it made me feel so mysteriously powerful to be able to call a mushroom a mushroom in English, for instance. Once, I remember promising myself to study as hard as possible to stand out and never to accept growing up to be someone mediocre in my knowledge.
The English phase lasted though my teens, with a trip to England at 16. Before leaving, I conceitedly thought I was already perfect (maybe I wouldn't even need to go abroad to learn!), but I came out with a broken nose, because my shyness, varied accents and fast pace of speech made using English not quite as easy as ABC.
Another turning point was meeting Elisabeth, a French girl who could speak my language, in addition to English, as fluently as I would never have thought possible. She became my unacknowledged myth, my paragon and I, her challenger. That illuminating friendship happened a few months before leaving to France where I was to spend a semester as an exchange student. She served to personify a real goal, even though I soon realised her self-assurance played a big role in allowing her to be what I could only dream of becoming. It was not just a matter of technical knowledge and knack in picking up the language or the accent: buoyancy and promptness of word were also qualities I felt I needed, but was sadly lacking.
However in France I was rewarded with great satisfactions, as I quickly became proficient so that people would sometimes take me for a Frenchman. Speaking with strangers gave me the thrill of showing my skill, but soon after also the uneasy feeling of hiding behind a stolen identity, until inevitably I would trip over a hesitation in speech or a misplaced word and the humiliating where-are-you-from question was only seconds away before it was popped; or, if the worst came to the worst, it fluttered in the person's mind, uncertain whether it would be a proper one to ask, just to prolong my agony.
After the French phase, came more languages, more starting points, more borrowed identities, German, Spanish, Arabic and lastly Chinese. Of all I clearly remember a decisive moment that marked my interest for Arabic, meeting fellow-traveller John in Morocco. A young English army commissioned officer, he had studied in Yemen and could speak it in what sounded a very decent fashion. Arabic had been up to then such an abstruse concept and a distant language belonging to an outer world, that it had never crossed my mind that someone might deliberately try learning it. But after Morocco things were different, I had started building bridges with the Arab civilization, even though it took one more year and a trip to Egypt, before I bought myself a self-study book and started on my own. But if I follow this lead, I risk rambling into a very long and complex love story…
These starting points have had no ending points. All have melted into myself to forge a personality that is difficult to typify. I have different souls and hope to take even more on. All are equally important to me, and all belong to me as much as I belong to the cultures that I have absorbed. My love for humanity is expressed by my desire to know and understand what is different and distant, and I have found no better tool to do so than learning a language to feel on a par with those I want to communicate with.