Amarcord - an essay on multilinguism and diversity
By Paolo Panbianco on Wednesday, 20 May 2009 at 16:00 ·
At the age of 5, a long time ago, my father took us all on a very long trip: we crossed the alps, so high up that traces of snow still lingered on the sides of the road. We slept by the road, and by the evening of the second day we came to a really green place, full of cows. We drove into town, where my father proudly let us into an old building and up several flights of stairs, to an apartment with wooden floors overlooking a green valley. A monument with a golden lady looked over a great stone bridge. He then solemnly declared that this was going to be our new home, and that we all were to learn French, for this was the language that people spoke here.
"French", he went on to declare, "is very easy: it's like Italian, except that you have to add '-on' at the end of every word". It was 1977, and thus began a 30-year love-hate affair with Luxembourg.
The rejection phase came early. By my second week here I stared in dismay at a transistor radio on the kitchen table, stating in disgust: "It's not fair! Even the electricity here speaks French!".
I was never fully won over, but soon enough school started, and I found myself thrown into a courtyard with hundreds of other children. And sure enough, the normal kids spoke Italian, or French at worse, but there were lots of other, ludicrously blond, tall children who didn't. "Those are the Germans." I was told.
Hadn't they won the war or something?
What about those ones with the long hair? "That's the English section!". Ah! They were fighting the Germans, right? They're American, no? They were the good guys, we all agreed.
And why are those Germans there so quiet and discreet?
"Quelli sono i Danesi!"
Ah! Right! The Dutch!. What are they like? "They're ok. But they hit hard! They can't play football, though". Maybe it's because they wear rubber boots, I remarked, looking down at my trainers.
After a few weeks everything turned red, then all the leaves blew away from the trees. And then it started to rain. And it didn't stop for two months! And then came the snow. At the insistence of my mother, I too reluctantly swapped my soggy trainers for some unsightly rubber boots.
In the meantime I discovered I wasn't the worst off : in French class us Italians laughed at the Germans for their funny accent, and couldn't understand how it could be so difficult for "gli Inglesi" to make the distinction between "mon" maison and "ma" maison, or "le" voiture and "la" voiture. They were obviously very stupid.
But boy were they hard! The courtyard was a gruesome battlefield, clearly split into national zones, with demarcation lines, and no-go areas.
The French were nice. Of course : we could talk to them! We were allies.
The Germans were the enemy. We couldn't speak to one another : "They beat up one of ours! Let's get them back!"
The English we were unsure of. They were so hard! "They beat up one of ours! Let's get them back!".
Yeah right... You go first!
The others were minorities. No fight for supremacy there. No threat.
And thus the first year passed. With some black eyes, and occasionally a bleeding nose.
But we all got to know each other. The fights progressively turned into large football matches with a tennis ball, 100 against 100, English, Germans, and Dutch against Italians, Belgians, and French. The Danes sided with the ones or the others depending on the day.
And our French got better.
And some of us learned English. Some even spoke German.
"Hey, don't beat him up, he's in French class with me..."
But this French business, it seemed, was not working out for everyone, something that left me puzzled for years. If this was the lingua franca, how come people in shops were reluctant to speak it with me? I had done a big effort : I had learned French, yet the old lady in the épicerie would only address me in Luxemburgish. Much like the bus driver, and the postman, and the milkman in his Luxlait truck. I eventually learned that a milk carton cost 9F50, and I would hand him a 10F note while he went on about the weather, asking about my parents, and if I was good in school. Or so I guessed, for he might as well have been inquiring as to when I was finally going to learn a civilised language, or go back to my country in shame. I just nodded, red to my ears, and ran into the house with the milk. As I progressively discovered, there were countless people who were obviously very ignorant or very lazy and who were totally oblivious to the fact that in this new country you were supposed to speak FRENCH. After all, that's what my dad had told me, and he always knew better. And if I'd been able to learn it, how hard could it really be?
Years later, I caught my younger sister speaking French to the cat. In a single incident she epitomized our very simple grasp of the situation : there were those who spoke Italian, like us, and the others. And they were to be addressed in French!
Back in school things were no different. It seemed that some kids just didn't understand French. Bah! Retards! Untermenschen, obviously.
But some teachers couldn't speak French either, and parents. That couldn't be right, certainly?
A creeping doubt progressively started to shake the very foundation of my understanding of the world. Had my dad been wrong? Were there other normative standards for communication?
And then came the blond girls! Boy, they looked amazing. Like nothing we'd ever seen. And they laughed when we were playing football, and sat on the sides, and cheered when we scored. And they learned our names, which they would shout.
And soon we found out theirs : Kathrine, Stine, Signe, Elsine, Kristine, Pauline. They were not quite like the names we were accustomed to. And they were all ending in '-ine'.
And we laughed a lot when we heard of a guy called "Morten". And we couldn't spell Mads (Mès!), nor Guillaume (Ghyom!), nor William (Uìlìam!), nor Ciaran (Chiran!). But we got to know them all. And they got to know us. Then one of us kissed one of the girls. And then some of the girls kissed some of us. And all of a sudden we got invited to parties in big houses, with wooden floors and white furniture, where we had to take our shoes off coming in.
Eventually, by the time we turned eighteen, the distinctions progressively faded, until the entire concept of language and nationality became secondary. Fighting had turned into football, football into kissing, kissing into socializing, socializing into drinking, until we eventually graduated as a single class, 250 students strong, representing more than 12 nations.
If you think about it, it was a lot to ask of a small boy. In fact, it was a lot for all of us. It still is. But unknown to us all that riches was slowly trickling into our fabric, much like it will onto our children. It is important that we remember that this Europe we are building - not just as EU Officials, but as simple citizens - the Europe Schuman dreamt of, will not stay together through the mere force of its economy. Language, as I learned, was only the second most important tool in my baggage. When I reached university, at eighteen, in yet another foreign country, I carried in my bag more than a few apples and a jar of home soil. I had drunk Glögg with a Dane. I had studied Maupassant with a French class. I'd played cricket with Brits. I'd downed Bitburgers with Germans. To my studying fellows I looked like a strange hybrid, compulsively feeding on their culture with a maturity that defied their understanding and prompted admiration. No longer Italian, I touted my newly-found European identity as my most prized possession.
A lot has happened since then. I am older now. I live with a Dane, and speak Italian to my trilingual children. As I write Europe counts 27 countries and is considering the admission of the first secular Muslim state. The Berlin Wall came down when I was 17, but barriers have fallen further. Symbolically, 30Kms from here it was decided that people, skills, and goods should travel freely throughout Europe. Nationalist leaders can now rally their followers denouncing the Polish plumber, the Romanian doctor, or the Macedonian mason. These people never travelled beyond their borders. They seldom speak a foreign language. They fail to recognise that diversity improves the resilience of any ecosystem. And most importantly, they fail to see language as the bridge over that gap. They never learned French as a child, just to buy milk.
A middle-aged Estonian lady (my guess) is struggling to buy bread at the bakery. She addresses the baker in good English, but the girl behind the counter is at a loss. She's Portuguese. I help them out, and the lady leaves with her baguettes.
"C'est difficile avec tous les nouveaux pays", the girl says to her Luxemburgish colleague. "Ils ne parlent pas Francais!".
She seems puzzled.
Her dad obviously told her the same thing as mine, some time ago.