Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

A rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening might not be the first place one thinks of when it comes to finding a common bond with our fellow humans. But that was exactly what happened a few weeks ago as I was cycling home from work. For a fleeting instant and for less than twenty yards, a car and my bike found themselves almost side to side. Just as the vehicle was about to turn left, through the rolled down window I caught the notes of a melody I had not heard for many years...

“... my lips search for your lips/and I’m hungry for your touch/there’s so much left unspoken...

... and I’m falling apart all around you/and all I can do is surrender... I automatically finished the rest of the verse in my head as I cycled on.

Queen’s One Year of Love was the third track on their highly successful album A Kind of Magic from 1986 (it was also part of the soundtrack of the movie Highlander). Perhaps less known than the record’s standout hits One Vision, Friends Will Be Friends and the title track, it is still a beautiful song in its own right. It is also a cheesy melody. Even I, long-time Queen fan (as in real Queen fan, album tracks Queen fan as opposed to Greatest Hits Queen fan), have to admit that One Year of Love has “cheesy” written all over its schmaltzy face. But I never cared before and I still don’t. And on this chilly November evening I cared even less. The serendipitous combination of car and bike pulling up together at the junction, turning to the same side and the open window through which the lines “...and no one ever told me that love would hurt so much/and pain is so close to pleasure...” wafted into the cold early evening air made me believe that here was another human being connecting with me somehow on a deep musical level. It is not that I was surprised that someone was listening to Queen, it is simply that not many people would listen to this particular track at all. Most of the music that blares out of car stereos, flats and shops in my little patch in London, falls under two categories: chart/hip hop music or non-Anglo-Saxon tunes. The latter are usually Turkish, Kurdish, Somali, Hindu, Greek and in recent years Eastern European songs. Occasionally some reggae joins the chart/hip hop duopoly, played mainly by the guy who runs the bike shop just down the road.

An open car window, a handshake of the soul
I couldn’t see if the driver of the car next to me was a man or a woman, what s/he looked like or even what type of motor s/he was driving. The one, single element that stayed with me was this song that united us both for a few precious seconds. When people ask me what makes me a humanist I point at examples like this one. They might be seen as simple, but in their simplicity lies a more complex understanding of the ties that bind us, humans, together. A few days after my musical experience I came across a column by the priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington church, Giles Fraser, on humanism. I like Giles’ writing and I tend to agree with a lot of what he says but on this occasion I thought he was slightly wide of the mark. He cast doubts on humanism’s ability to value irrational beings in the same way as rational ones. I do not think that his comments were fair on humanism or humanists. To me humanism seeks to establish a common identity amongst all those who inhabit this planet, rational or irrational. Of course, we, humans, can make sense of this/these identity marker(s) consciously whilst cats cannot, or willows for that matter. That does not mean we think less of then; it only means we see them in a different light, but we still value their contribution to our world.

It is strange what a rolled down car window open to the elements on a cold autumnal evening can do to one’s intellect. But combine that with an unexpected song and you have yet another reason to believe that we have more traits in common as humans than some might think. Let’s have a toast to that, shall we?

This is my last post before I disappear for a month as I always do at this time of the year. It has been a very good twelve months during which I have listened to some fantastic music, read some great books and watched some very interesting and thought-provoking movies. Of course, I have also visited many good blogs on which I have seen some breath-taking photos, read some amazing poetry and well-crafted, entertaining posts. One of the reasons why I continue to blog after seven and a half years is that I feel part of a big family, an accepting family that keeps growing and getting stronger. Thank you all for your continuous feedback and support. And thank you for existing, too.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 11th January at 10am (GMT)

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Taking the Plunge)

It is that time of the year when I think of the books, music and movies that made a deep impact on me in the previous twelve months. I usually share this information with you, my dear fellow bloggers and readers, in my last post of December but tonight I would rather use the space where I regularly muse on our multilingual world to promote two books I know some of you might enjoy. One of them I read over the summer just before I got on the plane to France. The other one I have just started and I can’t put down. Both volumes are my must-reads of 2014.

The first book is a novel called Heureux les Heureux. The title is taken after a line in a poem by the late, renowned Argentinian poet, essayist and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. What catches the eyes immediately is the way this roman is structured: each chapter is a monologue through which the reader gets acquainted with the characters whilst the plot unravels. Bearing in mind that the author, Yasmina Reza is also a playwright, I found myself at times wondering where the bracketed and italicised stage directions had gone. The second book is called D’Autres Vies que la Mienne and deals with the aftermath of the terrible tsunami that devastated South East Asia ten years ago in 2004. It was an interesting and intriguing interview with the author, Emmanuel Carrère, in The Observer that made me want to investigate his writing further.

It was also the fact that both books were available in French.

I don’t read in French as much as I used to years ago and this has always been a cause for regret in my case. After spending three years learning the language and becoming fluent in it, I lost many of my oral and listening skills when I relocated to the UK. That is the reason why going back to the Gallic lexicon feels usually like travelling to another country, a familiar and friendly land, if only in my mind.

One of my two books of the year

Those of you who speak more than language and are fluent in it/them will probably recognise this phenomenon. It has probably been a while since you dabbled in unusual grammar and syntax constructions, so you get a book in the language in which you want to regain your fluency and you dip your big toe in the water first. No headfirst plunge, mind you, just a shy re-acquaintance. If the water is too cold, you close that first page and go back to your warm comfort zone. I did it a few years ago with a novel in German and I regret it now. My advice is, plough on, and make sure that you understand the reason why the water feels cold. You see, you have not swum in this beach for a long time. So, you must wade in the water first, and then little by little, ensuring you have got a firm footing (i.e., a good dictionary) you carry on, until the water level reaches your waist. It is only then, that you dive headfirst.

That is how reading in a foreign language, especially French and German (and more the former than the latter) feels to me. Like immersing myself in the vastness of a great big ocean. Along the way I am helped by friendly winks and nudges that reassure me I’ll be supported on my journey. In the case of books written in French I feel as if there is always an ellipsis hanging over the pages. Not a clear-cut omission of items in order to avoid repetition, but rather a mark or marks along the lines of  “...” that signify the sentiments and emotions left unexplained. Both Heureux les Heureux and D’Autres Vies que la Mienne are full of examples. In the former there is a character called Paola Suares, who is sleeping with a married man, Luc Condamine. Since his wife is not home, he decides to take Paola to his house. The scene that follows is full of small, descriptive details that render the situation absurd. Whilst he is taking his clothes off, ready to have sex with her, Paola is showing more interest in the house décor: “Luc a défait sa braguette. J’ai attend un peu. Il a libéré son sexe et tout à coup j’ai réalisé que le canapé était turquoise. Un turquoise chatoyant sous la lumière artificielle d’alcôve, et j’ai pensé qu’au milieu de reste était assez surprenant d’avoir choisi cette couleur de canapé. Je me suis demande qui était responsable de la décoration dans ce couple.” There is humour in the scene as well. The man unfastens his trousers but his female companion is more interested in the couch and its colour. The chapter ends on a more serious note, though, with Paola stating the obvious: you will never leave all this, will you? Luc’s elliptical response indicates that there is a suppression of thoughts. Thoughts that will come out in his monologue, pages later, but which, for the time being, will remain under wraps.

Those of us who live in a multilingual world, even if we forsake one of the languages in which we are fluent for a while, always have the opportunity to come back and take the plunge. But do not be afraid to dip your big toe in first. Should the water be cold, plough on, please, do plough on.

© 2014

Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 14th December at 10am (GMT)


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