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 as follows:

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 moment:

"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."