Nov 21, 2011

Meaning of life

I can't sleep. Sometimes I just don't feel like going to sleep until I can't stay awake any longer. So it's 5.29 am of a Monday. I'm working today... and I'm listening to a beautiful song repeatedly, I just heard it in a movie. I think my life has changed so much in the last few days, I feel a deep sense of humility I've never felt before... but real humility: a deep sense of respect and appreciation for my life. Much of what we say we believe and live for stays in words, in a narrative that we tell to ourselves, but we don't feel it deeply. I wish people would value and strive to be kinder, much kinder, without expecting kindness in return. I wish people were more compassionate. I wish people would strive to understand the other one, just a little bit better. Things could be so simple, life could be so simple for all of us: I try to be simple in everything I do and say, I like people to understand what I mean, I try to think in a simple way, in a straight forward manner. 5.49 am and I'm secretly happy, what's the point to live if we don't do what we really want to do. The problem is of course that most of the time either we don't know what to do or we can not afford the luxury of even thinking about the things we want to do. And I seriously wonder, whether I live the life I want to live... but life is a journey, there will be happiness and there will be sorrow, there will be playfulness and there will be pain, there will be success and there will be failure, we will be afraid and we will feel confident. In one hundred years every single person I know including myself will not exist any more. How many people have you ever inspired? How many people have you fearlessly loved? I want to give myself one hundred percent, do you? I have to answer two important emails today, and I wish I could write some more; but since I haven't slept I'll probably feel my head foggy until I get my good eight hours of sleep. Do you feel that your life is awesome? Do you understand that at the end whether your life is awesome or not, it all depends on the perspective you have of your own life? This is it, it is now, it is right now, at this very moment. It is at this very moment when you know that your life is awesome. I've met people so amazing, I've met people so smart, I've met people so beautiful, and they don't even know it. And it is very important to acknowledge yourself, acknowledge your existence as something positive, or magnificent, or miraculous. Would you offer one day or your life to alleviate the pain of someone who needs it? Would you exchange life for a day with a starving child? We all have to live through tough moments, some of us have endured more hardships than others. But pain, sorrow, and misery come in many shapes... starvation or loneliness, what's more painful? I'm so grateful, I'm truly am. Would I be still happy even if everything I have would be taken away from me? Would you be happy? We are so dishonest to ourselves. I believe the secret to happiness resides in patience, kindness, generosity, empathy. Impatience leads to precipitated and impulsive decisions, in other words bad decisions. Kindness means that you respect life, that you respect others, that you respect yourself. Generosity is giving everything you are. Empathy is the opposite of being judgemental, it is seeing deeper on a person's heart, it is understanding beyond the words said. 6.30 am and I should stop here... I don't really know what I should do now, should I sleep? Should I stay awake?

Nov 9, 2011

Languages and I

My relationship with languages is a weird one, I think: love and hate here and there.

My mother tongue is Spanish as you might or might not know, but the way I use it may be a little bit different than usual. Not different enough to come across as mad or psychedelic, but different enough for people to comment about the particularities of my speech every once in a while and ever since I was a kid. 

At the beginning, when I was a small kid I was pretty cold, serious, and more formal than the norm. My usual conversations would start like this:

Relative or family friend: Tani how are you?
Tanai: fine.
R: What have you been up to?
T: Nothing.
R: Tell me, what have you been doing today?
T: Nothing.
R: And how was school?
T: Fine.
R: And what did you do?
T: Nothing.

People found this funny, for me they were totally honest answers.

When I was about seven years old I got the nickname el Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado, or the Small Larousse Illustrated, which is a huge dictionary. I got it from some family friends and I never understood why they called me like that back then... never made much sense to me but I guess the way I spoke seemed somewhat unusual to the listeners. I would have certain prescripted sentences that I would use in certain specific situations like "control your emotions". So, imagine a ten years old kid saying to a couple of adults having an animated conversation with a patronizing voice and gesture: "please, control your emotions".

Later on, I've had a vew people complimenting the way I spoke, which tells me that indeed I sometimes may have sounded atypical.

Spanish is a language that I love, I considered it an extraordinarily beautiful and vast. Today I still think is beautiful and vast, but so is English, French, Chinese, and many other languages.

I remember when I was in high school, we had to study Spanish grammar and structure: we had to learn things like counting syllables and where to put the accents, and the subject, the verb, the adverbs, the nouns, and the like. It was never obvious to me, I still remember that I couldn't understand, I remember it very clearly for some reason. Little I knew that four or five years later I would attempt to write sonnets and other forms of rhymed poetry. I always took writing seriously since I was a teenager and that led me to study Spanish a bit deeper, so that I could write correctly. The funny thing is that you never get the feeling that you actually write correctly. I would sit at the dining table at home in Bogotá, with some white sheets of paper, a pencil, and the Small Larousse Ilustrated, and every sentence and word I wrote I would look it up to make sure it was the right meaning.

The second language that I was destined to confront was Latin. This was because my aunt used (and still uses to) visit a Catholic church that would celebrate the Mass in the traditional style, so pretty much everything was said in Latin. This was when I was really small, around six or seven; I thought it was cool, so I learned a few prayers and responses in Latin and I still remember a few. Later on when I was a teenager I borrowed the books that my aunt had from a Latin course she had taken and tried to teach myself but I lost motivation pretty quickly.

Then it was English. I had seven years of English lessons at school; during the first four the only thing I remember is that I sucked at it. I remember failing my tests, one after the other, I just didn't understand English for some inexplicable reason. I still wonder how I passed the English class at the end of the year. When I was about thirteen, my parents decided that school was not enough and sent me to take additional English lessons to some private English teaching institute in my hometown. I must confess that at the beginning I didn't go willingly, I was forced to go. In any case, it was probably one of the most transcendental decisions they made and that would have such positive consequences in my life. I remember that before the class I used to go to play video games at the shopping mall where the institute was located, didn't do my homework, and I cared very little about the course. So I failed the first semester, and I'm glad my mom didn't give up on me. When I failed the first semester something changed within me, finally I understood, finally English started to make sense to me, finally I saw the pattern, all of a sudden I could see the resemblance to Spanish... never again I failed an English test in my entire life. I attended the institute for two more years and at the end I was pretty much able to read without much problem. This was crucial because at the University I went most of my class books where in English and most of the material I read was in English... from the most basic general biology book I had when I was a freshman until the last day of university. If I had not taken the extra lessons, I would have not chosen English as the optional subject during the national examinations, which means that my final score could have been lower, it means that I may not have been able to study at the University of los Andes, and thus the events that brought me to Sweden to get a PhD and then to France may have never happened.

At University of los Andes I had to take two more years of English lessons and in order for me to get the Biology degree I had to pass the TOEFL exam with at least 213 points out of 300. I didn't do as well as I thought I would do, I failed the listening part and I scored just 217 points... I barely made it.

By the time I finished university I was able to read and write in English but my conversational skills were close to none, mostly because of lack of practice. The practice would start in Sweden... at this moment I decided that if English was to become my main language I would have to reach a level that could allow me to express myself as well as I did in Spanish. In order to accomplish that everything I did had to be done in English, from googling a subject or reading the news on the internet, to my inner dialogue: I would take notes in English, I would count stuff in English, I would become one with the English language. If I was going to buy a book online that was written originally neither in English nor Spanish, I would get the English translation. I still keep that until this day.

Today I still have a lot of things to learn, my English is far from perfect, I still make mistakes that only someone that didn't learn English from birth would do, both writing and speaking. I would like to live for a while in an English speaking country to further improve my language. I guess it is a lifetime of learning, as it is also for my Spanish: that is, if I want to become a successful writer in either language.

After English I met Swedish. I started studying Swedish before I left Colombia, I managed to photocopy a fifty years old little book to study the basics before getting there. When I was in Sweden and during the first months I went to Swedish classes but I dropped out. I kind of assumed that I was going to learn Swedish eventually... I got comfortable with English and didn't really bother to put some effort into the local language. About four years later I decided to restart Swedish lessons but I again dropped out after just two months. It is sad that after five years I was not able to speak it. I feel a bit guilty, though I didn't make any less friends or had any less fun as if I had been perfectly fluid. It is a strange thing nonetheless.

My experience with French is not better, this time I didn't even registered for some classes. I had some tapes, about ten hours of listening material to learn the very basic and I didn't even finish the fourth hour. It's been now almost two years and people freak out when I say that I don't speak any French despite the time. In Sweden people were more understanding, they never freaked out until around past the third year.

When people ask me (particularly other expats) why I have not learn French or Swedish, I used to invent some excuse. Now I just tell the truth: “frankly I haven't (or didn't) put any effort into it”, I say “I'm not really motivated, it's not really in my top priorities list”. Many fail to understand that for some reason, and I can see sometimes they are a little perplexed, even perhaps a bit offended. I don't blame them, they might feel a little thorn in their hearts, after all they did put the effort into learning the local language... how dare I say such thing! So they look at me with a little scorn dissimulated with a polite smile. They don't know a thing...

Probably it won't be the last time I'll encounter a new language, who knows what new places I'll live in, who knows what turns life takes.

If you could say that Spanish is like a mother, English would be like a beloved girlfriend to me... So I'll keep trying to get to know her better because I'm in love with her.