Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bilingual Love

It is said that travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind, that there is no challenge truly parallel to that of finding one's place in unfamiliar surroundings and forging the bonds necessary to call a new place home. After years of drifting from one place to the next here, far from all that was once so warmly familiar and safe, the one experience which continues to inspire and frustrate me simultaneously is the formation and maintaining of relationships, whether amicable or amorous, based on communication in a language which is not my own.

It's interesting how the simple act of self expression can sometimes be so devastatingly impeded by a either a lack of appropriate words or an absence of emotional connection to them. I've always attached an immeasurable amount of importance to my ability to communicate well, to capture the sentiment of a moment by weaving my words together, playing and twisting with sentence structures carefully to say exactly what is it I'm thinking or feeling. More often than not, however, this becomes infinitely more difficult when speaking in your second, or even third, language.

The first relationship I ever built based entirely on a foreign language was with Jose, my best friend from Granada. I met him through a mutual friend from the Czech Republic one afternoon, after a lecture, when we all went for drinks at a little cafe near school. Within moments of being introduced, we found ourselves deep in a discussion about nationalist movements in Spain and the concept of European identity in general. He fascinated me with his strong opinions and open nature, but as I'd only been in Granada for a few weeks at the time, I struggled to keep up with him, tripping clumsily over my sentence constructions and becoming ever-more frustrated by the fact that I couldn't get my point across properly.

After that conversation, Jose and I saw each other more and more often, until we were spending practically every waking moment with one another. My Spanish improved radically in those months, helped greatly by the fact that my new friend was so patient with me and my linguistic re-acclimation. We would spend hours, sometimes, swapping silly stories, locked head-to-head in fierce debates, or even just sitting in silence, enjoying one another's company. In addition to my ability to communicate with him in Spanish, something which came more easily with each passing day was the appreciation of expression which did not necessitate the use of words at all. By the time my semester in Granada ended, I could speak to Jose about anything and everything. While occasionally confronted with a temporary loss of words or improperly conjugated verb, I felt that I was really able to express myself in such a way that he, at least to a certain extent, could really understand me, that he could see beyond the words I spoke and into the source of where they came from.

With my experience in the shadow of the Alhambra behind me, I returned to Holland to find, much to my horror, that my Dutch was in shambles. Long after my first weeks of readjustment here, the fluency with which I spoke the language before leaving continued to elude me. Another thing which caught my attention was the way in which I just didn't seem to feel Dutch in the same way I did either English or Spanish. With a bit of effort, I could communicate sufficiently, but never felt that anything I said truly caught the sentiment in which it was intended, nor allowed the person I was speaking with to get an accurate image of what kind of person I was.

It was in the peak of my frustration with Dutch, a few months after returning to The Hague, that I started speaking regularly with G. We'd swapped a few sporadic emails throughout the previous year, usually composed of a strange mix of Dutch, German and English, but had never had any type of regular or continuous contact. Somehow during those first exchanges, we settled into speaking to one another almost exclusively in Dutch and writing emails to each other in English. Speaking to him felt a bit unnatural at first because of my lingering uncertainty about the use of the language, but G was really great at making me forget all that. He'd tell me wild stories about his trips through Africa and South America, make me laugh with his corny jokes and silly wordplay, and bring an enormous grin to my face with his deep and intoxicating laugh. At some point, however, my lack of emotional connection with the language we used as our primary means of communication really began to bother me. There were so many things I wanted to tell him, ask him, teach him, that I simply wasn't able to. At times, sensing my frustration, he'd suggest that we just speak in English, but the problem therein was my stubbornness and the knowledge that it's hard to switch methods of communication once one has already firmly been established.

As time passed, my contact with G became a daily thing and I found myself wishing more and more that I could find a way to crack through that barrier that was left between us. Then, out of nowhere, we decided spontaneously to spend a long weekend together in Dublin. The moment I arrived there, all the uncertainty and doubt of the previous weeks just faded away. My language skills were, by no means, any better during the four days we spent together, but somehow I was, once again, confronted by the significance of the unsaid and the ecstacy of moments passed in voluntary silence that I had learned to appreciate with Jose. Our days in Dublin flew by in the blink of an eye, as did my time in Munich with him a few weeks later, and his trip home to Holland shortly thereafter. And while the occasional moment would still arise in which I felt that there were things I simply could not say properly, my anxiety about speaking in Dutch began to ease more and more. I'll be back in Munich in two weeks now, and instead of dreading the confrontation, am starting to see it more as a challenge, an exciting way to push myself to regain all that I lost during my time in Spain and come up with new ways to express things which used to strike me as commonplace, yet now seem absolutely paramount.

I've wondered, sometimes, if it's possible to love someone when it can seem like such an insurmountable obstacle stands between you, if it's possible to reach past that which has always come so naturally and find other ways to show another person all the beautiful, ugly, and silent things which make you who you are. Something tells me now that it is, and that perhaps the key is just a bit more effort, patience, or even a slightly different way of perceiving things. A smile, a look, a touch or caress- there are an infinite number of ways to communicate just as high a number of emotions. And at the end of the day, there are some things that speak much louder than words ever could, things that you simply know and which need no further explanation. Love, in essence, is a language itself, one that we are all truly fluent in. For some, it just takes practice to get it right.

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