Long before I got married, fresh out of my 20th year I became fascinated with learning languages. The peak of socialising and the pinnacle of communication is being able to speak a list of different tongues. So English can probably be likened to be the most popular in politics and business, Spanish is one of the most favoured given that it is spoken in most of Latin America and of course the ever popular destination for many holiday makers, Spain. Cantonese/Mandarin, due simply to population, the most widely spoken, then there is French, spoken in many parts of mainland Europe and in Africa.
My fascination wasn’t necessarily with anything European, or the more commonly used and slightly racist term Modern Languages- as long described in the English National Curriculum. Neither was I very inclined towards the two main dialects in China, it was much too isolated for me. Some years later, the fascination with Cantonese would change for two reasons, at the time my obsession with Jet Li and other older on-screen kung fu legends didn’t whet my appetite enough. The first spark of fascination was instigated by a colleague who had lived in Hong Kong. Originally from South India and a dab hand at making a hot curry, I was amazed the first time he broke out into conversation in fluent Cantonese. Initially, I thought it was an inappropriate joke, but as he carried on I realised he was dishing it out like a deck of cards. With his conversation over, he turned towards me to see my jaw on the floor; as I slowly lifted it he smiled.
“He insulted me something,” he said, turning back to continue with work as though nothing miraculous had happened. Yes, miraculous! Call me naive and stereotypical but an Indian guy does not speak Cantonese, us guys from the subcontinent are more than content with three hundred and something languages that have proliferated from Mother India.
“Yeah,” I thought, “’insulted me something’ doesn’t even make sense!”
Not much later, the main reason for my fascination came like a bolt out of the Red, White and Blue, my wife. Half Chinese, half Punjabi, a mix you’d equate with a pregnant womans meal, nothing short of bizarre. She’s from the USA but I never inclined myself towards becoming Yank. Stranger than that is the fact that she speaks more Spanish or French than either of her inherited tongues, the Spanish is fine because she’s from the sunnier side of the USA. I don’t understand about the French but the British never have done.
Cantonese is reputed to be a very difficult language to learn, and I’m sure you’d understand my lack of motivation take that particular route if I were to add that I’m not much of an academic. So obviously I wanted to try learning a totally different script, I already knew a little Arabic, I could read it, albeit badly. I enrolled into university for a second time to try it out but I knew ultimately that the best option is to travel to learn it. The only gremlin bugging me, was the one asking whether or not I could cope being abroad for so long. I was married by this time, the ink hadn’t even dried on the marriage certificate but I knew that if the two of us really harboured a passion to travel, then we would have to travel this time around rather than later. How many other opportunities would we get? Neither of us quite wanted to start a family immediately so the timing was perfect, at least for us.
Most foreign experiences are golden, some come to the fore more than others but on the whole you treasure them all. The fact that you only remain in that place for a short period of time, usually not lasting more than a fortnight, clouds your judgement. So a couple of weeks in the sun-soaked beaches of the Algarve, even with all the reddened beer-guts, suprisingly makes for a great holiday. Above that time period though, you tend to notice a few cracks in the woodwork, it’s not intended- you’ll just happen to notice it. At first you’d give it the cursory glance, then as they begin to explode in front of you, the tongues incline toward a few choicer words. I mean, you’re far from being stuck in four walls and fenced windows, but nevertheless you feel imprisoned. Homesick.
Beer guts on the Algarve aside, there are a plethora of things that help in the decision making process for a holiday. Take me for example, I decided with the Missus of course, that we should learn Arabic. Now, that doesn’t sound like much of a holiday but since I had already signed up for a five year sabbatical from work, it sounded relatively pleasurable- so I imagined. Ah yes, I forgot to mention that this is a five year (working/studying) holiday.
So the motivation is Arabic, the duration 5 years, the place? Well, there’s only actually a handful of places to go. I had heard about an institute in Southern France, highly academic with super results, filled with boisterous young folk, fresh from college or university, packed in dorms. Ten years and a wife too late, I decided on immersion so I scanned through a map of the Arabic speaking world. It actually spoke more like a map of notoriety; military coups, human rights abuses, poverty, Janjaweed etc., etc. I decided on the better of the evils, Pharonic Egypt- well, actually it was the cheapest and most accessible but we’ll stick to the former.
I impulsively purchased a ticket and prepared myself to leave the following week. The advice I received was short and shrift, a stern warning to clip my beard, not to join Al-Qaeda and not to adorn anything Islamic, like a Thawb, a Gulf-Arab garb, now synonymous with Muslims. The wife was due to leave 6 weeks later while I kick my heels in Cairo and learn some Arabic. Suitcase packed, ticket in-hand and thoughtful about the advice given to me, I commenced my journey to sunny Egypt with a little fear.
No tears shed here, I’m a man after all. It’s good to get away.