Friday, December 23, 2011

on the Learning of Languages

My enthusiasm for foreign languages far exceeds any talent I have for them, but I always try to arrive at a new place with at least a running jump at the language.  When planning a trip I lay in language books, though most of them I do not look at, and learn most of what I will use from a Berlitz phrasebook, which turns out to have the basic forms that I need to get around as a traveler. Beyond that, I learn from studying newspaper headlines and signs in shop windows and listening to people around me after I get there.
    This informal approach can, of course, have amusing results, as when in Zürich a friend, noticing that I was able to order breakfast in German, asked me to negotiate on his behalf with a streetwalker.  It turned out that a word that I had picked up from conversation did not mean exactly what I thought it did and hilarity ensued.  At least I thought it was hilarious; he did not think so.  A word that I thought meant “horsing around” turned out to mean “violence”, which I had told her my friend was looking for.  But I guess that’s how one learns a language. 

I have never cared about being fluent in a language, but have always been content to know enough to be able to travel on my own.  This requires a fairly small vocabulary  --  a few hundred words, at most  --  and a handful of constructions.  “Please”  “Thank you”  “What is it called?” “Where is the . . .”  “I am . . .”  “What time . . . arrives, departs . . .”  “What does it cost?”  “I need a room.”  Not much more than that and the basic numbers and days of the week and I seem to be able to get around.  You’ll need more if you intend to strike up a social relation, but this will give you a foot in the door. 

I have, of course, been in awe of the great travelers who seem to be at home in whatever exotic language they encounter.  Richard Francis Burton, the disorderly Victorian explorer, was said to speak twenty-nine languages (thirty, he said, when you count pornography) and he has left us with a description of how he did it:

“My system of learning a language in two months was purely my own invention, and thoroughly suited myself.
    “I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart by carrying them in my pocket and looking over them at spare moments during the day.  I never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.  After learning some three hundred words, easily done in a week, I stumbled through some easy bookwork and underlined every word that I wished to recollect . . .. Having finished my volume, I then carefully worked up the grammar minutiae, and I then chose some other book whose subject most interested me.  The neck of the language was now broken, and progress was rapid.
    “If I came across a new sound, like the Arabic Ghayn, I trained my tongue to it by repeating it so many thousand times a day. When I read, I invariably read out loud, so that the ear might aid memory. . . .  whenever I conversed with anybody in a language that I was learning, I took the trouble to repeat their words inaudibly after them, and so to learn the trick of pronunciation and emphasis.”

Burton’s method appeals to me, as most of it is something that can be done before I reach the country.

In the square in Chichicastenango the most beautiful woman I had seen in all Central America passed by and smiled and said something to me.  I have absolutely no idea what she said.  We mustn’t let that sort of thing happen, must we?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Coffee Hour at the Temple of Doom

Travelers turn up in odd places.  One Sunday at coffee hour after church I was talking to an older lady whom I knew in the way that you know other people in the congregation and mentioned that I had recently been to the Yucatán.  She smiled wistfully, as older ladies do, and asked if I had been to Uxmal.  Then she told me how, when she was a young girl in college, she and her roommate had gone to Mexico one summer and at Uxmal she had climbed to the top of the pyramid and spent the night there, in order to see the sunrise.
    By her age, that would have put her there sometime in the ‘forties, long before any development or tourist facilities, when Uxmal had scarcely been scraped out of the dry jungle and so much that I had seen when I was there I knew from old photographs were then still rubble scattered in the brush.
    But here was this perfectly normal-looking church lady who as a young girl had gone with her college roommate into that remote and ill-policed Treasure of Sierra Madre country and slept on the top of a pyramid in order to see the sunrise.  I could picture her, a slim-waisted young woman standing on top of the Pyramid of the Magician, perhaps in high-topped boots and riding breeches, hands on her hips as she watches the sun break over the flat scrub of the eastern horizon.
    She finished college and went on to some sort of career, marrying a nice fellow, a scientist; they traveled as appropriate to business and for pleasure; they raised a couple of normal, successful children and she now was quite content to reminisce over coffee about an adventure she once went on when she was a young girl in college.

A nice little story to remember, should I ever be feeling too full of myself.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Queen of the East and her feral Cats

Let us remember the elegant and intrepid Lady Hester Stanhope, granddaughter of Pitt the Elder and “Queen of the East.”

    “In the end, with her pension cut off, and overcome by debt, she became increasingly reclusive.  Her servants left, stripping the house as they went, and in 1839 she walled herself up alone in her decaying mansion [in the Syrian hills] where her decomposing remains were found a month later surrounded by feral cats.” Times Literary Supplement, 7/15/05.

The cats are essential to the account, as Lady Hester would undoubtedly have understood.  Otherwise, it’s just an elderly recluse dying alone.  The feral cats make all the difference.

It’s a shame that stories can’t be entirely atmosphere and exotica: a remote, decaying mansion in the Syrian hills, liveried servants and villainous cats (or vice-versa).  No plots or characters, only shadows and empty corridors and dust floating in the sunlight of an empty room, a closed door without a handle, leatherbound books stacked in a corner, the creak of a floor board, an overgrown garden, a feral cat watching from atop a wall  . . ..  Put me in a world like that and I am content and have no need for character or plot, though I suppose it might be more appropriate to poetry than to prose.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

a travel book by its cover

In conjunction with a list of a hundred "most celebrated travel books", the travel writing site World Hum included a slide show of “Five Great Travel Book Covers”.

They are all nice covers, but none of them have the dramatic or evocative impact that we are accustomed to on the dust jacket of a novel.

Looking through my own bookcase, I find a similar situation.  The covers are much too earnest, much too concrete to the traveler and his journey.  Too many are based on photographs taken on the spot and carry the suggestion that what is important in the book is the place visited and not the writing or perhaps not even the travel in getting there.  And if the writer is not someone I know and want to read  --  or he didn’t go someplace that I am currently interested in  --  I am unlikely to pick up the book.

Better is the approach of the Oxford cover for Abroad: British Literary traveling between the wars, by Paul Fussell, with its massive looming black bulk of an ocean liner seen from water level, like one of those 1930s posters.  Or Little, Brown’s cover for Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good, showing Waugh, tweedy, with a pipe and glass of porter in an armchair, staring out impishly, as if he were thinking of something fiendishly clever and is obviously the sort of person whose stories you would like to hear, wherever he had gone.

Perhaps the cover of a travel book presents some peculiar difficulty, some restraint on the imagination not present in the cover art of a novel.  Some writers, it is said, think about the design of their cover before they even write anything, much as they imagine themselves being interviewed fawningly on NPR, but I confess that I have no idea what a dust jacket for my own writing might look like, though I don't think my subject matter gives itself much to photography.  That's what publishers used to get paid for.

[The link above apparently doesn't work anymore, but you won't miss much by not seeing it, which was pretty much the point I was making.   But look at <worldhum> anyway; it's a nice site.]

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Winter Journey

Snow has come late this year to the valley of Lake Champlain and reminds me of another year when I left on a trip and there was snow in the forecast.

For years we drove from Chicago to Cleveland to spend Christmas with my wife's family, a long but not difficult day’s drive across the Interstate.  Not difficult if the weather were clear, but storms blew in off the prairie and Arctic air came down from Canada across the Lakes and over the big snow mitten of Michigan, and one year our departure coincided with a forecast blizzard, so we decided that that year we would play it safe and take the train.

We had traveled by train before and  --  this being the route of the Twentieth Century Limited  --  we imagined ourselves Nick and Nora Charles at cocktails in an Art Deco club car, and dressed with a casual elegance appropriate to the occasion, though we also brought warm coats as we would be moving around Chicago beforehand and who knew what might await us on the frozen tundra of Cleveland.  This turned out to be a fortunate precaution.

Our train did not look like the Twentieth Century Limited.  It looked rather more like the old passenger cars that I had ridden as a little boy in southern Illinois.  Very much like them; so much so that, had it not been so cold, I suspected they might also have smelled like them.  But fortunately it was cold.

We asked about the club car, but received no satisfactory response.

But we were sure that once the train got moving things would sort themselves out and we pictured ourselves sipping a cocktail in the warmth of the club car as our train glided through woods and snowy fields beneath a wintry moon.

But our scheduled departure time came and went, and we did not.  But we had a comfortable seat and it was pleasant to watch the bustle of the terminal outside our window.  Snow was blowing about and the warmly-dressed travelers bustling along the platform with gaily wrapped packages made a merry Christmas scene, and we did not mind the delay.

Eventually, we began to mind the delay, but then the train pulled out of the station and we were on our way, over the hills and through the woods and across the prosperous farm country of Indiana and Ohio to an old-fashioned family Christmas.

To the south of the great rail hub of Chicago, big-shouldered hog-butcher for the world, are the rail yards, a vast expanse of parallel tracks, stretching as far in either direction as the eye could see that dark, snowy night, a sea of black and silver and industrial gray.  And that is where we stopped.  Our late afternoon departure had been delayed into the evening and it was now quite dark and the only light outside our window were the dirty yellow bulbs under metal shades on iron poles spaced at such intervals along the tracks as they seemed intended more to orient than to illuminate, back-lighting falling clumps of snow that seemed to pick up speed as we watched.

But inside the train there were the reassuring sound of engines and motors, with their promise of warmth and locomotion.

And then we noticed that the sounds had stopped.

A passenger making his way back from the front of the train reported that we had no engine and apparently no crew.  I chose to think of this as a good sign: that they were all off busy getting us a better engine for our trip.

Of course, without an engine we were not getting any heat in the coach, but as long as we kept the doors closed I was sure this would be no problem, and I was sure that at any moment we would feel the comforting jolt of a new engine being coupled to our train.

But why go on?  You know where this is going.

We were stranded in the darkness in a blizzard on a cold train in the frozen wastes of the Chicago rail yard with no engine and no crew and no indication that anyone knew we were there.  For all we knew, there were wolves prowling outside.  And there was no damn club car.

We sat there for hours as the temperature inside the coach converged with that outside.  We wrapped ourselves in everything in our luggage.  We found a package of crackers and discussed which of the other passengers we should eat first when it came time for breakfast.

Eventually, someone noticed we were there  --  or perhaps they found they had to move us to make way for another train  --  and a bit before dawn we were underway and had a quite pleasant trip on a bright, sunny morning across the snowy fields of northern Indiana and Ohio.

After Christmas, we flew back.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

I meet the Condessa

After we had recovered from our long drive down, I went with El Patrón to visit the Countess at her small villa in a nearby village.  An elegant lady, of graying blond hair, dressed in a loose cotton shift, her only companion a monstrous Great Dane the size of a small horse, who lies at her side on the couch, his great head, mournful-eyed, resting on her lap.

El Patrón had come to consult about servants, as he has fired the staff at his house, accusing them of having planted scorpions in his bed and a viper in his bath.  The Condessa clearly knows of such things.  She is plainly an aristocrat, despite the unpromising appearance of her present estate.

On the wall of the next room is a large oil painting which I guess to be of the Condessa, it being sufficiently modern in style that such identification must be guessed at.  Yes, says the Condessa, it was painted when she was a dancer.  Did I know of Martha Graham?  She had danced with her.  The film “Black Orpheus”?  Yes, the Brasilan film.  The Condessa did the choreography in that film and was herself responsible for introducing the Bossa Nova into the United States.

Which led to a story.  One of many.  Of how she brought the first Brasilian Bossa Nova dance troop to New York, children she had found in the slums of Rio, and how the ungrateful rascals, despite her many and explicit warnings, had smuggled in twenty kilos of marijuana hidden in their instruments, for which she had vouched in customs.  When she found out she let them do their performance and then, three hours after they had finished, she had them on a plane back to Rio, smarting under her curses and tongue-lashing, for her father and grandfather had been admirals and she knew how to speak with the voice of command.

Then more stories.  Of a local magnate who for his malefactions had been expelled from Europe by his family and sent, with scarcely a million to his name, to the most distant place they could think of, which was of course here, where the fellow had grown rich by dint of hard work, lies and ill-doing.  The Condessa admired his piratical skills, but condemned him as ungenerous.  One may forgive all sorts of villainy, she explained, if accompanied by a generous nature.  But this pirate was a tightwad, for whom she had nothing but contempt.

Cold beer was brought and the Condessa took time to admonish the two young men who were working on her house and the young woman who was listlessly sweeping the floor.  The house was small, under construction as Mexican houses seem always to be, with building litter in the yard, piles of tile and bags of cement scattered about.  The Condessa was planning a water tank and  --  when funds permitted  --  a swimming pool.

Money, one gathered, was a problem at the moment, but one so formidable a woman would solve as she had solved other such problems in the past.  An American admirer, whose name is a household word, had recently given her the automobile of his former wife, which the Condessa’s son was driving down from the States, along with twenty cartons of the Condessa’s favorite cigarette, a brand unfortunately unavailable in the Republic.  Twenty cartons, said the Condessa, he is a fool, as are all twenty-year-olds.  They will think he is a smuggler.  It is always for the innocent offenses we are caught.

Our conversation then turns to the chronic misbehavior of Latin men.  Mexican men are awful, said the Condessa.  They cheat on their wives and if they are caught they arrogantly say ‘so what?’.  Not at all like an Italian man.  He will cheat just as much, but will lie about it and claim to be ashamed of himself.  Whereupon the Condessa launched into a long and amusing story of the time she caught her Italian lover in flagrante delicto, and of the preposterous and operatic exertions he made to redeem himself, by sleeping five nights beneath her window, with gifts arriving hourly  --  jewels, candy and flowers  --  accompanied by florid and abject protestations of his love and remorse.  After five days of course, she relented.  Who could not?