Saturday 22 September 2007

I heard a man talking on the phone in an Irish accent

along 5th avenue.

"Irish!" I called after him, the way I do here, sometimes.
He didn't turn around.

It's irresistible to me, when I hear it. It sounds so beautiful. I have had a number of conversations with people in the street purely on the basis of hearing my home accent. And it's interesting, because there is a relationship between the amount of time a person has been living away from their home country, and the strength of their desire to talk to another Irish person purely because of the resonant music of Irishness.

A thought struck me last night, walking home (from Freddy's: look, any time you see me writing about the thoughts I have on the way home, just know it happened after Freddy's, I think I'll have to make a new label: walking home from Freddy's) and it was very simple: love for one's country grows in exile. That has been my experience, and while exile is a grandiose kind of a word, I like it for what it signifies to me underneath and before the grandiosity.

And it's true in my case. I have found myself having a sense and feeling of Ireland that is entirely new, a love for the place that has actually only really come into existence since I moved away from it. It grows inside you. I think that's probably just the natural way of things. When you're in a place, the tendency is to take it for granted, and crib about the small stuff, and then when you're away from it, the broad strokes come into relief. I think age has a lot to do with it, aswell, though maturity and age do not often, actually, dovetail.

One of the things I love about new york city (and there are many, and I want to write about all of them, ultimately) is the ubiquity of the English language. It's just so easy to understand and be understood by people here. And you get to hear all kinds of interesting stuff, stuff you can understand. I only have this particular appreciation for the fact that I hear English everywhere because I lived in Denmark for three and a half years, and one of the things I missed very much about living there was that I felt so shut off from streetlife in that way, so shut off from the overheard joke, and the generalness of things.

Also, the more you speak English to people for whom it is not their native tongue - no matter how fluent they are - your own language skills start going down the toilet fast. You lose your slang, you lose your jive, you pick up bad habits in your own language that are prevalent in non-native speakers. And when you speak their language, you're only ever able to express yourself mediocrely, at best. However, despite all this, I had some profound and beautiful moments of connection with people through Danish. In particular, the old people I visited and cared for, during my last months there. That was where it all happened, with Danish, for me.

You can hear every language being spoken here in new york city. I have an appreciation for people who come to a strange place without knowing the language. I was stopped for directions on Prospect Park West by a middle aged man with almost no English, who I could just about make out was looking for Montgomery st., and he was rolling a delivery trolley. I didn't know where it was, but I shouted to the people behind, and they didn't know either. Anyway, I bade him good luck on his way. Jesus, though, I thought, and turned around to the people behind again, and said,

"Jesus. Imagine not being able to speak English and coming to new york city, and trying to survive?" That is just unfuckingfathomable. And it happens, thousands of times every day. Anyway, it turns out that the people behind were from Namibia and Germany, had been living in the city for a long time, and they had their own stories to share.

Learning a new language in situ is challenging, under any circumstances, especially if you have no choice but to speak it through the day, to be in that mode of trying to understand, all the time. It's like a switch that is permanently on, in your brain. You're reaching out, in some inexplicable way, constantly, to catch subtle inflections, throwaway vowel sounds, a look in the eye. You get used to spending entire years of your life catching 10, 15, 20% of conversations, of never getting the joke even when you understand it, of constantly being, to a greater or lesser extent, out of things, outside of the culture. Because you are. I think you need a very strong anchor to keep you in a monoculture that is not your own, and one that is so strongly based on its own traditions, like Denmark is.

And I've met people who have that anchor, they found it through love, through marriage and family. I didn't find anyone who was not Danish, who found that anchor through love of the place itself, there. But I'm sure there are people who have settled there, particularly along the west coast, who found that kind of love, that kind of devotion, to the place, the landscape. People find that feeling every day in Ireland. The place is jumping with every nationality in the world. It's like a mini-new york.

I find it here.

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