Then we raised a glass to JFK
and a thousand more besides
When I got back to my empty room
I suppose I must have cried
This – if you are not familiar with it – is a song by the drunken, rambunctious and beautifully lyrical The Pogues. This tune, Thousands Are Sailing, gives a bittersweet tenor to the voice of the emigrant, a character who, more often than not, is forced to leave his or her own homeland. Choice, on both ends of embarking and arriving, is a hard-to-come-by luxury.
I am an immigrant.
While I may not be frying rashers on the back of shovels in some put-together building site, with dust on my knees, sleep in my eyes and international accents in my ear, I am still someone forced out by the 2008 economic crisis. Insane house prices mean it is difficult to go back.
Nevertheless, I do love Spain. I sit at a juncture, with a heart unwilling to completely give myself over to my new home, and in a place that accepts me, but one that finds it hard to see me as anything other than a guiri.
A Language Apart…
My mouth is an instrument, like anyone else’s, and it swings from a finely tuned organ to a ramshackle, hustling one-man band depending on the context.
There’s the accent, for one. I can’t lose it, either through obstinacy or through lack of talent. A musical ear is one I do not have, and mad renditions in the shower should have been enough forewarning that, in the event of emigration and exile, a new accent, a local twang, would be extraordinarily difficult to acquire.
It could have been lexical communism; often I have told students to not speak like the Queen of England – wouldn’t the world be poorer without its richness of accents and sounds? – and I genuinely like hearing the village and the market in newly discovered modal verbs and idioms.
Then the Indians and the Irish find unity when they utter, independently and of an independent mind: the English invented it but we mastered it. It’s a lie and a truth, all mixed up but beautiful for it.
R is for ‘wrong’
Another one is the pronunciation of certain words and letters, and the double ll and r can bedevil any guiri trying to live a normal life – chatting, joking, fitting in.
But a misplaced letter in Ireland probably wouldn’t bring up a wall of differentiation, but then again we lack the confidence to do so. After all, we are not a nation schooled in second languages, and 800 years of colonization has bred an unhealthy deference in us.
Spain is different.
But don’t misunderstand me. I have been welcomed, treated well and hosted by an innumerable amount Spaniards. It’s a country blessed with generous people.
But it’s the subtle textures of any given day that define you, and your relationship with your geographic context. And every slip of a letter or a sound will demarcate and reinforce the feeling of being an other, an outsider.
A Quotation Like a Rifle
The above title is a paraphrasing of Brendan Behan’s quote, which in turn mirrors Gloria Fuerte’s idea about words being the best weapon in the world, a kind of powerful tool through which you can have agency and self-realization.
If we consider that travel is a soft power, an abstract whole that brings greater understanding between people, then these micro barriers of language become Josef Koudelka walls, and these limits bring with them practical issues as well.
All in all, we need to talk. And how we say it can empower or inhibit us.
On Track – A Short Story
Now that you have the context to the following story, please enjoy the video. It was filmed in Atocha and Chamartín railway stations.
And by way of an aul’ adios, here’s one more blast of The Pogues:
Then we said goodnight to Broadway
Giving it our best regards
Tipped our hats to Mister Cohan
Dear old Time Square’s favourite bard