Sunday, 29 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 11

Another column from my 'Living in a Bilingual World' series. Still on holidays and soaking up what is left of our brilliant summer.

- Papi, what's this word?

Son’s voice snapped me out of my reverie. His index finger was pointing at a word in italics bang in the middle of a long sentence. All the other words were in English, but this one in particular stood out amongst the others. The reason? It was in Spanish.

The dreaded 'c' word had arrived in Son’s world.

Living in a Bilingual World has very limited patience for pretentious newspapers columnists with lofty linguistic ambitions, but my eye has been caught recently by certain articles I have read both in print and on the internet where the ‘c’ word has been included gratuitously.

Of course, there is a chance you are already familiar with the ‘c’ word. If you speak Spanish, that is. And if you hail from Latin America as I do, you will find it as offensive as I do. I can’t even bring myself to write it so I will have to do the same they do sometimes in written publications; to place asterisks strategically; do not fret, though, you will recognise it immediately.

C stands for c******. Got it? Seven letters. Seven gratuitously offensive letters (Spaniards do not count as I know that they love cursing left, right and centre).

So, why? Why has it become a habit to band this four-letter word about (admittedly, it is actually seven letters, but let’s not get too picky about it, shall we?) as if it was Angelina Jolie’s latest adopted Third World orphan?

I think the reason stems from the desire to sound cool in another language. Given the shortcomings in the learning and teaching of foreign languages in the UK and to which I have referred before here in this space, there’s a zeal to prove that at least when it comes to swear words, British journalists are up to scratch. Timothy Garton Ash, one of my favourite columnists in The Guardian, has used it (sin asteriscos, mind). Catherine Bennett, from The Observer and another features writer I worship, can’t let go of it (or them, and no, no pun intended). Over at the holier-than-thou Daily Telegraph, Andrew Grimson reminds readers that even Liberal Democratic leaders must remember where they have theirs. In case they lose them, maybe. Even The Times is at it with them. And it is not only the Brits; their German counterparts are guilty of the same crime, too.

It is a sad situation when you have to explain to a ten-year-old (Son), that no, this is not a nice word, that a man’s private parts are usually asterisked in the British media (except in The Guardian and The Observer where they delight in using all kinds of expletives without covering them up) and that some words sound very strong to certain cultures.

And what about Son? Well, what about Son?

- How do you pronounce this word, then, papi?

- Well, as you know, the ‘j’ sounds like the English ‘h’. But I bet they don’t know that.

N.B.: For non-Spanish speakers, just in case it has not been obvious to you, either by the tone of the column or by the photo included in it, the 'c' word I alluded to in the above post is a swear word for 'testicles' in Spanish.

© 2008

Next Post: 'Greatest Hits - Track 12', to be published on Sunday 5th September at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 10

When news of Raúl Castro Ruz, Fidel Castro's younger brother, replacing his sibling in power filtered through back in early 2008, I suddenly remembered this story. I reproduce it here for your enjoyment. Still on holidays and still away.

In 1988, amongst the many events that left a mark on my life as a seventeen-year-old college student, one stood out the most. That was the year that I enrolled in the MTT (Territorial Troops Militias). I say enrol, but it is only fair to say that I was almost coerced to join in, as I was one of the few pupils who was not already part of the Youth Communist League in my class. However, it is also fair to say that being a male adolescent full of hormones wreaking havoc inside my body I was looking forward to the military challenge that this opportunity presented. Little did I know what was in store for me.

The MTT, as a body, was a branch of the Cuban Armed Forces, and it was supposed to be a voluntary, selective and territorial movement whose main function was to assist in the defence of the country. As a new member of this organisation I had to go out training some Sundays with a whole brigade made up of elderly people, other students, workers and women. Women represented half the force of the MTT. I must admit that I never felt daunted by any of the tasks demanded of me, which included, shooting, digging trenches, and crawling under barbed wire.

1989 found me fretting over my university admission exams. The rules had just been changed the school year before which meant that it was no longer on academic average that one could opt to go to further education. We had to sit three tests in order to progress and since one of them was Maths, I was not sure anymore whether I would get the course I wanted.

All that was put aside when I was told that I would be part of the barrier guarding one of the roads during the May Day March. I would be part of the MTT division that would rope 37th Street off. And as a bonus I would get to see Fidel’s motorcade filing by. I could not wait to get into my green olive trousers and blue shirt, the MTT official uniform.

In 1989, despite some doubts already seeping in, I was still a true believer of the Revolution. Inside me I yearned to belong to the Youth Communist League and got very upset when I was rejected on the grounds that I was not ‘combative’ enough. Which meant, in short, that I did not grass people up. So, when the opportunity arose to serve my country and to see up close and personal the leader of the Revolution my little young heart started jumping up and down.

The day arrived and we all gathered on Paseo Avenue and Zapata Street, two of Havana’s main arteries. We were split into little groups with a leader. Mine was a man who had served in Angola and had plenty of military experience under his belt. His voice was firm but reassuring. At around 12pm we were assigned our posts.

Because the May Day March usually began very early, people would come from afar in the designated means of transportation. Sometimes they would choose their own. Buses would be diverted and traffic would become chaotic. All this far from creating a negative atmosphere made the people come together even more.

By the time the leader pointed at the spot I would be guarding, it was past midday and I had missed the chance to use the toilet. This was a problem. A couple of years before I had been diagnosed with kidney infection and the doctor recommended that I take as much liquid as I could. The year after, the infection attacked again and our GP was even sterner, warning me that failure to follow his orders would have dire consequences. As his words replayed in my mind now, my bladder decided to play up and all the liquid I had drunk before (roughly a bottle of water) demanded that it be let out.

Soon after, hysterical waves of ‘Fidel! Fidel!’ roared from the north of Revolution Square. My mind had been too occupied with the thought of liquid evacuation to realise that our president was about to pass in an open car. All of a sudden ear-piercing shouting burst out all around me ‘Long live Fidel! Long live Fidel!’ Passers-by in front of me stood up and jumped in delirious excitement, their raised hands waving frenetically little Cuban flags. I, too, joined in, but more from the desperation to keep my body in motion and thus not wet my trousers than just from mere elation at seeing the leader of my country.

What followed after could only be described as agony. Fidel was already famous for his long speeches, which could last several hours, and as my condition worsened, his enthusiasm to talk grew. Thus, more than three hours passed. I was almost bent over and my eyes were watered. Our leader came over to check our position a few times and to make sure that we were not letting any strangers through. When he saw me in my miserable state he asked me what the matter was. After giving him a short explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and told me that since the speech was about to wrap up any time soon, I had better wait it out. He mentioned the words patience, revolutionary duty and courage. A mental image came to my head of a broken urinal on someone’s head.

Finally at around 4pm Fidel said five magic words that have forever stayed with me: This is my last reflection. That was it! I thought and so I decided to hold my urine a tad bit more because soon I would be free and could you believe it, I had already my eye on a little bush nearby. Forget toilets, let’s go tribal.

It turned out that Fidel’s last reflection was a red herring. True to his word, though, it was indeed his last reflection, but it lasted two more hours. And at around 6pm, as the din of the attending masses drowned the noise coming from the coaches and trucks in the vicinity revving up their engines in order to set off, I looked behind, looked again to the front, looked back once more and made off to the bush I had paid so much attention to before. I would like to think that the plants I watered so contentedly then went on to become beautiful flowers.

That was the only time I saw El Comandante so close but it was rather my bladder’s stoic resilience that I have always remembered this occasion for.

© 2008

Next Post: 'Greatest Hits - Track 11', to be published on Sunday 29th August at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 9

This week I've decided to resurrect a post that first came out in March 2008. And as Cerys counsels in the last clip below (top to bottom), to me holidays, amongst other activities, are about getting some peace of mind. Enjoy. Yup, still away.

Thursday 6th March. 8.30am. A street in London. I am driving the children to school. My wife's gone to Italy with Creative Partnerships and it's up to me to do the school run whilst she is away. I roll down the car window to let in some air, just a couple of inches, mind, and then it hits me. Spring's here. Well, almost.

It's a bright morning and the British birds' Commonwealth anthem is at full blast. Their singing accompanies the fluttering of wings. They look so busy, building or re-building their nests up in eaves.

The morning wind caresses my face. It is not a warm breeze yet, oh, no, but it is not a freezing one either. It is a chilly air, pleasant enough for me to withstand its strokes with a smile on my face. Outside, kids rush to school, cars zoom past, buses cut in in front of me. But inside, I am radiating the type of energy which, if discovered, could see me persecuted by countless thugs trying to patent it and sell it.

Streets curve seductively out of sight, houses stand tall and proud with binding ivy weaving its way around the building and people go to work carrying their sandwiches and newspapers, some of them with ciggies in hand.

On days like these, I remain silent and let the music in the car do the talking.

What if Dylan was booed during this performance at the Newport Festival? Try listening to this song with the wind sneaking into the car early in the morning and giving you that pleasant, mirthful feeling that everything is going to turn out all right, because you know what? I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. Everytime this track comes on, my fingers work out a drumbeat on the steering wheel and the whole car merrily swings side to side. Poetic.

I have referred previously on this blog to my need sometimes to have a song telling a story playing in the car. And this track, composed by the Argentinian pop singer Juan Carlos Baglietto about God and the Devil working together in a workshop, fits me like a glove. A real jewel. Magnífico.

Many times I catch myself humming a song with political or social undertones in the car. Not surprisingly, more often than not it is a track by Maestro Stevie. This belongs to an era when musicians were allowed to roam free unencumbered by commercial pressures or record sales. Nostalgic.

In this song, as soon as the guitar kicks in, the car window goes down and my hands relax their grip on the steering wheel. No need for introduction here. Majestic.

Do not be fooled by the title of this track. There's no ire in this song, it's just about how we should all take it easy in life and days like these inspire me to follow Cerys' edict. Husky.

© 2008

Next Post: Greatest Hits - Track 10 , to be posted on Sunday 22nd August at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 8

'Autumn Songs' was a short-lived section I introduced in 2007. It ran from September until November, halted by the arrival of winter. I had fun writing about one of my two favourite seasons (the other one is spring) and as the temperature feels already slightly nippy in the mornings, I thought it appropriate to include this post in my 'Greatest Hits' volume 1. Yes, I'm still on holidays.

With autumn now on the verge of becoming winter and my synaesthesia producing only dark reds and yellows whenever I hear the soft rustle of a well-played guitar, I open this session with one of the most under-rated singers this country has ever produced. When I purchased her debut album my DiscMan would not let it go away for a single minute. Martina Topley-Bird's voice can be soulful, rocky and playful, sometimes the three at once. My favourite song from her record 'Quixotic' is not available on you tube yet (Soul Food), but I found this little gem that attests to her wonderful voice.

And so, we plough on. And so we arrive at the majestic erstwhile The Police frontman, Sting (reunions count, but only as money-makers) and a dilemma as to which song to choose from his prolific music career. You see, I'm a Sting fan. I've seen 'Bring on the Night' approximately twenty times and I can quote some of the dialogues by heart. But nothing prepared me for the second track on his album 'Brand New Day'. The inclusion of the Algerian raï isinger Cheb Mami was a wise move for the northeastern bassist and the result, 'Desert Rose' helped internationalise raï sounds, plus catapulted the song to the top of the charts. And I just love it. Really. I do.

Lastly, this man's voice drips with pastel shades, yellow chromes and nostalgie. Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve), our very own show-man, was born in the legendary town of Guanabacoa, Havana, a hotbed of Afro-Cuban culture and one of the first few places where the Carabalí culture from southeastern Nigeria settled down and created its first cabildos, thus becoming the Abakuás, the only surviving secret African society in the Americas. Bola's voice was seductive, mirthful and full of joie de vivre, even when singing sad songs like the one below. The video is a collection of photos of him rather than a performance, but still that voice is incomparable.

As autumn is drawing to a close, I've been thinking about doing a similar series of winter songs. Just do not expect Christmas tunes. Thanks for your feedback, it's always appreciated.

© 2007

Next Post: Greatest Hits - Track 9 to be posted on Sunday 15th August at 10am (GMT)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Greatest Hits - Track 7

Whilst I am away on holidays I will be posting (or re-posting, as some people might prefer to call it) articles that first saw the light many moons ago. In blog years, that makes this column ancient since it first came out in December 2007. Part of my 'Living in a Bilingual World' series.

To swear or not to swear? Esa es la pregunta (That's the question)

And what a question! Especially for someone like me brought up in a family where cursing was frowned upon and my limited childhood vocabulary included the two notions 'palabras feas' (ugly words) and 'malas palabras' (swear words). At age five or six I experienced my late Nana's wrath when I dared say the word 'jodi'ó' as in 'la bicicleta se jodi'ó' (the bike broke down). I cannot remember whether it was a clip round the ear or a 'tapaboca' (a slap in my mouth) but I got smacked pretty hard.

So, with these thoughts in my mind I ventured into unknown waters recently when I explained to Son the meaning behind a particular track he'd been humming to lately. It was 'Ciudad de Pobres Corazones' by the Rosarino musician Fito Páez. Son was already familiar with the Argentinian's music as I play his hits regularly at home, but this particular track has an intoxicating melody and beat that make it stand out from the rest of the songs that appear in the album.

- Do you know what he says in the song? I asked him whilst I was driving.
- No, what is it?
- I think he's talking about Buenos Aires, and the times when the military was in power. He's feeling despondent and angry.
- Uhhh...
- And he's using a word that is actually a four-letter word in that context.
- What do you mean?
- Well, the word 'puta' is used to convey the level of disatisfaction he feels towards the incumbent government.
- What's the equivalent in English?
- The f-word.
- (Gasps).

Did I do right or wrong? My intention was not to become 'Papi Cool', but merely illustrate to him how some of the songs in Spanish he listens to contain 'bad words' (a caveat, though, the Latin pop, rock and salsa I play at home is heavily sanitised). However, Wife and I have yet to have that important 'talk' about the use of certain words, especially as Son is fast moving forward to adolescence. He was nonchalant about the whole 'p' word but I was left restless. Have I opened a can of worms? Have I brought upon myself Claudius curse 'When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions' by opening this Pandora's box? As a Cuban I admit that swearing still stuns me, especially when it is done gratuitously. Some Spanish-speaking cultures are more expletives-prone, not least, the Spanish culture. Many years ago, Juan Echanove, a popular Spanish actor, went on the now defunct live television show 'Contacto' with the then presenter Hilda Rabilero. This was a programme which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people tuned into at 6pm every Saturday evening. Imagine people's reaction when Echanove innocently uttered the 'c' word (that's 'cojones' by the way and I apologise profusely to anyone who feels offended by the epithet, just writing it makes me squirm) and Hilda went silent. Ten seconds elapsed. And then Juan, realising his error, asked the now famous question: 'Oh, is it because I said 'c...'? Cue embarrassment, shame and Hilda's nervous smile. Other cultures in Latin America are more cautious about their cursing. In Cuba, words even like 'carajo' are scorned and the person uttering them admonished.

Yet, there is another side of me that would like to see Son, and Daughter, too, use these words constructively. I guess it is to do with pride and amor propio. Or just with the desire to see them using words that, although high in the cringe factor, are part of their own linguistic DNA.

And I hope they learn when, where and with whom to use them, too.

© 2007

Next Post: 'Greatest Hits - Track 8', to be published on Sunday 8th August at 10am (GMT)


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