The Danger of Shining
By Lawrence Bohme
The first words you learn of a foreign language stay in your
memory forever. It marks (as I said elsewhere) the loss of
your verbal virginity; and in the words of the French balladeer
Georges Brassens, you never forget the first woman you held in
your arms, whether she was a virgin or a "putain". For my own
part, I made my first conscious effort to speak when my mother
was readying our journey to Mexico, in 1956. I was 12 years
old and my mother - in one of her rare moments of realism
- thought that it would be better if, before leaving, one of
us learned a few sentences in Spanish.
For several months I took private lessons from a Bulgarian
war refugee who lived in a seedy building near Vancouver
harbour. The only thing I remember of those classes were
two sentences: placing first one, and then two ballpoint
pens on the table, my teacher said, and I repeated, "Hay
una pluma sobre la mesa" (There is a pen on the table),
and then the plural, "Hay unas plumas sobre la mesa".
The Bulgarian probably did not speak Spanish very well,
and his accent may have been even worse than it was in
English, but he wasn't a bad teacher. Language teachers
are like art teachers: just because they're good linguists
or good painters doesn't mean they're the ones who teach best.
Obviously, I had a long way to go before I attained the
necessary fluency to be a simultaneous interpreter, but
none of the challenges I have ever faced in the conference
room during my professional career gave me the thrill which
I experienced, that summer, when we went through the Mexican
customs in Ciudad Juarez, on the south side of the Rio Grande.
With a tremulous voice I said to the policeman - to draw his
attention to one of our suitcases which was out of my reach
- "La caja verde, por favor", which literally means "The
green box, please". Since I still didn't know the word for
suitcase, I used the closest one I could think of. I then
watched with amazement as the Mexican - smiling because the
young gringo had pronounced the j like a c, which made caja
sound like the Spanish word for shit - actually removed the
suitcase from the heap. That was when I understood that the
primary requisite for learning a foreign language is, simply,
not to be afraid of seeming ridiculous.
My father is, in this respect, like me: he believes that the
mere fact of existing in the world is in itself so ridiculous
that, in terms of being ridiculous, there is not much to be
afraid of. He comes to Spain to visit me several times a year,
not only to see how his grand-daughter is growing (as he is
doing in the photo) and because he still, at age 83, has the
strength to make the long trip (18 hours between Vancouver and
Malaga, with a change in Amsterdam), but because he, like myself,
is a bit of an old Spanish hand.
He was in Algeciras when the Republic was declared in 1931, and
in the general excitement was taken aboard a famous Spanish
destroyer; and he still has - in the travel diary which he took
with him on the road - the ship's stamp. The captain, ecstatic
with the deposition of King Alfonso XIII - which was also the
name of the vessel - opened his pen-knife and gouged it out of
the rubber; then he wrote the new name, democratically chosen on
the spot by the sailors themselves, in the gap by hand: "LIBERTAD".
Whenever I visit my dad in his house among the treetops of Eagle
Harbour - the last time was over 10 years ago - I never fail to
ask him to show it to me again.
After such a long time, he has forgotten almost all of his Spanish,
although in recent years some of it has been coming back - in spite
of one wasted season trying to learn French because he had fallen
in love with a friend of mine in Paris. But one "chunk" of his
Spanish has curiously survived the many years which have sailed
past between the time when - like many other young Germans made
destitute by the brutal conditions of the Versailles Treaty - he
walked from one country to the other in search of work, and his
current persona as a retired Canadian businessman. With a heavy
German accent but almost perfect Castilian pronunciation, and to
the great delight of all of my Spanish friends, he recites an
anonymous fable. It is called The Firefly and it roughly translates
In a dark forest, in the midst of a gloomy night
the modest Firefly shone, unaware of his own splendour.
Dazzled by his light, an envious Toad
spat his venom on the firefly, who began to die.
"Why", cried the Firefly, "kill such a harmless thing as me?"
And, spitting once more, the Toad croaked, "So you'll shine no more!"
You can imagine the effect created by this old German, with his
dishevelled white wisps and resemblance to Albert Einstein (which
is, in fact, the nickname the locals know him by in his town in
western Canada), as he recites this poem which, in spite of its
unassuming air, contains such a gripping message. Whenever my
friends invite us to have a glass of wine and ask if he speaks
Spanish, I make him recite it; and after decorously waiting for
everyone to beg him to go ahead, he complies with my wishes,
mustering all the feeling he can.
When he was here last month on a visit with his new wife (who is
not the Frenchwoman I spoke of above), I happened to ask him how
he had ever managed to learn a poem in Spanish in the first place,
given that he had come here as a vagabond rather than a student
(and not even, like his son, as a vagabond student). This is what
he answered, leaving me afterwards in silence for a long, thoughtful
"Before I set out on my first trip from Berlin, I decided to learn
some Spanish, and took lessons from a young Jewish woman. She had
lost her civil servant's job because of the Nazis, and kept herself
and her parents by teaching English, Spanish and accounting; she
must have been very intelligent, because the students all called
her "Fraulein Doctor", although her real name was Anna Rosenberg.
The three of them were very afraid; she didn't let her parents go
out of the apartment, and they didn't like her to go out unless it
was strictly necessary, because she had a very Jewish face; I remember
that they argued about this, saying "Don't go out now, they're down
there!". And one day when I arrived for my lesson, I found the door
of the flat wide open, and when I stepped in I saw that they had taken
everything, the family, the books, the furniture, nothing was left.
Well, one of the exercises which she gave us was to memorize and recite
this poem, which I still have, written down in my diary."