[I’m travelling around so much that, this year, the blog is going to take a summer holiday too. Meanwhile, here’s a short story written and set in Liège twenty years ago, before the euro, before smartphones, before Two Days One Night, and well before the more recent news headlines about that city.]
“Ça va?” asks Pascale as we bump over yet another pothole on the way up a mountain to her parents’ house for Sunday lunch. Actually, a mountain might be too poetic a name for it. It might be a slag heap. There are so many of them, decaying slowly on the outskirts of the city. At first glance they look like volcanic cones full of exotic promise and then close up, all you see is the disappointing reality of industrial decay. I met Pascale last week in an old attic, which has been the local chapel since the council ran out of funds to heat the church. I squeezed in among dozens of Catholic refugees, kneeling on the bare boards. Pascale took pity on me because she thought I was a refugee too, at first. I threw my clothes in the bin the next day. But she was actually closer than she realized.
“Now you can meet some real Belgians,” she says encouragingly to me. “It must be quite hard being British abroad and not being a typically British… What do you call it? A lager loot.”
Continue reading “Fallen Angel”
How ethical is it to start working in a country where you don’t speak the local language?
Before I started teaching English in Poland, this question didn’t trouble me in the slightest. When I taught in Sardinia, I spoke enough Italian to get by; and nobody in Cambodia expected foreign teachers to speak any Khmer at all. But Polish is inna para kaloszy (a different pair of shoes) for me as a British English speaker. On the one hand, it almost sounds vaguely familiar (Polish is now the second most widely-spoken language in England) and at first glance, looks deceptively approachable (unlike Russian, Polish is written in the Latin alphabet). On the other hand, its sibilant shushes shimmer past my ears without me being able to understand a single word. And when it comes to speaking, even common everyday words look like a collection of leftover Scrabble tiles: where do I start with wszystko (all), jeszcze (yet), or even cześć (hi)?
Continue reading “[For the Oxford Words blog:] Is Polish the most difficult European language to learn?”
Sighing with relief, I looked around the rows of old-fashioned single desks, wondering who the unfortunate Marjorie was. Our fierce and flame-haired Italian professoressa was picking on lone students to perform grammatical acrobatics. It was eight o’clock on a dark December morning and my Introduzione all’italiano module was not going well.
“Marjorie!” – poor girl – “dico a te! The third person plural imperfect subjunctive of redimere, now! In a complete sentence!”
That’s when I realized that everyone, including the professoressa, was looking straight at…me. I was (apparently) “Marjorie”. At that moment, impaled on the imperfect, I did indeed ask myself why I had chosen to learn Italian on my year abroad (as well as realizing that introduzione might not translate culturally quite as expected). And yet there were dozens of us in that optional class, tackling the trapassato remoto. Italian remains the fifth most widely-taught language in the world. So why are we all in love with la bella lingua? To find out, I asked some friends who have all studied Italian at some point to tell me why they chose this language in particular.
Continue reading “[For the Oxford Words blog:] Why learn Italian?”
We were lost – having turned off a brand new and completely empty motorway that cut across the lush green hills of the West coast of Ireland in a quest to visit my Irish mother’s third cousins twice removed. So we finally pulled up next to an old road sign, which confusingly said:
← Knockroe Knockroe →
My English sister turned on the satnav and said “OK, tell me the name of the street.”
“Sure Knockroe hasn’t any street names,” said my mother.
“Postcode? Everyone has a postcode!” tried my sister, frantically tapping the satnav which was largely blank.
“There are no postcodes in Ireland!” said my mother.
“But how do you find anyone?” said my sister, with all the exasperation of someone born in Generation Y who now finds themselves inexplicably without a signal.
Continue reading “[For the Oxford Words blog:] Lost in translation…so I was: adventures in Irish English”
Every now and then, a bus pulls up in the small, dusty town of Tympaki, on the olive-strewn Massara plain, and spits out a handful of surprised tourists on the street corner with “Change! Change here!” before rumbling off on its labyrinthine route. I wish I could say this happens every hour, on the chime of the bells in the Orthodox church, but I can’t be certain, because I am one of these tourists, blinking in the brightness of a Cretan afternoon.
Tympaki looks exactly as it did this morning and will do this evening, and in the silence, a moped whines by. In the “bus station” – a counter with a clock – a woman dressed entirely in black is lifting box after box over the counter in a harried way.
“What?” she says, looking at our timid group, all white arms and legs.
Continue reading “1001 Words: Zucchini Flowers”
Whether or not ça sent le printemps [spring is in the air], where better to head for a break than Paris, the city of light itself, to soak up the café culture with a crêpe, a croissant, and a copy of L’Equipe all sous un soleil de plomb? But if your budget won’t stretch to travelling abroad despite your craving for a café crème, there’s a aperçu [taste] of France a little closer to home – just take the Circle line.
“We’ll always have South Kensington”
According to the 2011 census, London is home to more expats from France than from any other European country apart from Ireland, and many of them can be found working, if not living, in one of the most affluent and attractive areas of the capital. Stroll down the southern end of the newly-pedestrianized Exhibition Road in South Kensington and you will pass crêperie after café after croissanterie. Chairs and tables pepper the promenade, heralding the newly arrived premières tiédeurs du printemps [first warm days of spring]. Waistcoated waiters sail through the larger well-known French boulangeries-patisseries such as Paul and Le Pain Quotidien, while nearby Bute Street is bursting with independent boucheries, bistros, and brasseries. One eatery declares proudly in a window that it’s reached the finals of the competition to serve “the best cup of coffee in Europe”, a claim that cannot really be left untested at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.
Continue reading “[For the Oxford Words blog:] Paris in the spring?”
There was one thing I wanted to know as the plane touched down: were we actually abroad? On the one hand, everyone was driving on the left, paying in pounds, and speaking in English (albeit with what sounded like a faintly South African accent). On the other, everything was the wrong colour: yellow telephone boxes, red squirrels, and green pound notes (yes, pound notes – remember them?). As we wound our way through a lush forest of palm trees on the way to the capital, I looked at the bus ticket the driver had given me and saw:
Bouônjour à bord d’la beusse
It looked like French; or rather, it looked how French might look through a tropical haze. In fact, it was my first glimpse of real Jèrriais, the native language of Jersey – rich, colourful, and full of quirky phrases. I’m not sure if I ever worked out whether we were actually à l’êtrangi (abroad) or not; but I did learn this handy Monday-morning response to Comme est qu’ tu’es? (How are you?): J’sis coumme eune pouque mouoillie (I feel like a wet bag).
Continue reading “[For the Oxford Words blog:] Jèrriais, the language of Jersey”