a wandering woman writes

Monday, July 16, 2007

Eurospeak, mint and chamomile

There's a language I'm growing to love as much as Spanish.

I call it Eurospeak.

It's that odd dance of fully formed sentences, long lists of related words, and universal gestures that lets Southern Europeans communicate when they don't quite share a language.

In Lisbon, we spoke Spanish and decoded complex responses in Portuguese. After 4 days in Italy, I had learned only one full phrase in Italian. It's the phrase I heard most often, as I wandered Assisi with my 5 words of Italian: El español sí se capice.

And it is understood! In Portugal, in Italy and as the lovely man above taught me, in French Catalunya.

Of all the conversations I enjoyed in Prats de Mollo, the one that has stayed with me - and I suspect will long stay with me - took place in an odd mix of catalan and castellano. The stunning French Catalan you see above had just gathered chamomile and mint for his tea, and I had just completed a surprisingly vertical hike on a very hot day.

I'd been alone since morning, chasing butterflies (photos to come) and making wrong turns (French hiking directions). I remember noticing this gent working in his garden as I passed his house, tucked all by itself on the mountainside, just where the steep col starts its more gentle slope back toward town. I wished he'd look up at me panting my way down the hillside. I longed to let out my best bon jour and stop a while.

A few minutes later, he found me. I had just landed on this bench in an ecstatic, exhausted heap when I watched him come round the corner from his house. He spotted me and stopped, as if to consider something. A few minutes later he raised his head decisively, seemed to mark a silent beat and slowly started to march toward me. I finally let out that bottled-up "bon jour".

And so he joined me on the bench. He described the tea that mint and chamomile would make and asked about Salamanca, and Chicago. He was skeptical about the presence of a pottery in town, until his friend, "El Español", arrived and quietly informed Mr. Camomile that he didn't get out enough. He'd missed four years of a very nice British potter and his wife, and a workshop where foreigners and villagers alike learned to work with clay.

"El Español" turned out to be a Spanish Catalan who didn't seem to speak much castellano. (I found myself wondering how many years you can live in France and still be known as "El Español".) The pride with which he announced he personally knew someone who spoke castellano (a Galician-born sister-in -law) made me wonder with whom the poor woman was speaking her native tongue.

We chatted a long while. My companions seemed to do quite well with my Spanish. I grabbed what I could of their local Catalan, and resorted to waving my hand over my head when they'd completely lost me. After every language jam, we'd try a little French. Then I'd take my best guess in Spanish and we'd gradually settle back into Eurospeak.

My friend of the chamomile and mint laughs easily, and finishes his sentences with a brilliant, eyes-dancing smile. You'll have to take my word for that, though. When I asked for a photo, he opted for the stoic look.



  • What a lovely moment in time ... thanks for letting me read of it here.

    By Blogger womanwandering, at 10:35 AM  

  • Oh - this is too funny!
    It reminds me of times traveling through Europe with my husband.
    I used to speak Spanish ( need to keep it up!) How we could communicate in French, German and Italian was an amazing thing to see- We put all of our facial expressions, gestures, past Latin classes and my Spanish to work at it. But what really made the communication happen was the desire on each communicators part to connect with one another. The spirit of connection gave wings to all of our language attempts and we connected - in funny ways sometimes, but it stil counted!

    Thanks for this wonderful post.
    PS Lovely post on A mis 95 anos as well.

    By Blogger Kim, at 11:41 PM  

  • Thanks, Di, it was one of those magical little meetings.
    And thanks for the comment, Kim, you give me hope my Eurospeak will work outside this little Southern European corner where I've tried it so far. You're right, it has an energy to it, and works because everybody in the conversation is dying to talk to everybody else -- almost in spite of languages and which of them we may have studied or not..

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 12:15 PM  

  • La lengua de Cervantes, lengua universal

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:49 AM  

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