Thursday, November 09, 2006

I keep getting thrown off my blogging of late by my midweek excursions up to London for Tamil class. Often this expands to encompass other things and before I know it, I'm meeting friends for meals and coffees, visiting art galleries, having shiatsu massage and all manner of lovely distractions. Bear with me if I seem more erratic than usual - the semester finishes in early December and then I get a month off before the next module begins (by which point I'll have forgotten everything I've learnt so far...)

Studying a new language makes me think far more about language and customs than I normally would. Take greetings: in my highly unscientific and subjective poll of the people of Canterbury I notice that the very young, and the more mature members of society, greet on passing you in the street; it is rare to share even a smile with those belonging to the sixty or so years in between. I grew up in a culture where not greeting is a cardinal sin (including greeting of strangers), so I always look at the people I pass just in case they crack and are prepared to greet me - it is rare.

Yesterday, on my way out of the dentist, a very small child with the low-slung gravity look of the nappy wearing age group, came racing up bearing a mound of freshly mown lawn. "Grass!" was his greeting, even though I had never met him before. Sharing his unalloyed joy over greenery with a complete stranger had not yet accurred to this little person as odd. My path continued riverside and I had several pleasant encounters with retired folks walking their dogs, pulling shopping trolleys and the like, including a distinguished gentleman who informed me that I must be very rich indeed if I hadn't bought a lottery ticket for this week's sweeps (I confess I don't do lotto). Perhaps it is that everyone else is hurrying too much and the pace required to greet is a slower one, I don't know. Of course, I don't mean to imply that British people are unfriendly (that is definitely not my experience) but I am intrigued by this aspect of the British urban lifestyle.

What brought this on was my Tamil class. Learning greetings reminded me that "hello" in Zulu ("sawubona"), for example, doesn't mean hello at all but "I see you." Goodbye in Tamil also means rather more than a straightforward 'bye (seen as tempting fate). Instead, the one leaving says "I will go and come back" and the one staying behind responds "go, and please come back." I quite like these notions of an acknowledgement through the spoken language of a place in the community.

As to my reading challenge, since I can't decide which book to start with, I'm reading the first chapter of each to see if one leaps out as something I'm in the mood for. Otherwise it's eenie, meenie...


Anonymous danielle said...

What fun to live so close to London! I walk a lot, and I hate to admit I rarely greet people if I am just walking on the street. On campus at work I will greet people (though it is mostly the staff or professors--rarely students). If I am just walking home, if it is a woman who says hi, I will do the same, but I don't make eye contact with men. In my not so great neighborhood I have discovered that can be a mistake!

6:57 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

Isn't it sad that you do have a point there about dodgy men?! Really unfortunate because the good guys get the brush-off too. But c'est la vie...I remember a rather scary episode once when a man in London followed me home and I eventually went into a cab company office on my street and explained to them what was going on and they kindly (being neighbours) let me in until he went away.
I also know men who deliberately don't greet women because they're conscious of appearing potentially threatening. It is a funny old world we live in isn't it?! Doesn't stop me walking though - a favourite pasttime (bar reading of course!)

7:13 pm  
Anonymous Maxine said...

You are welcome to add to your distractions by seeing me, too! Let me know if you'd like to meet up for lunch or a coffee when you visit - I work at Kings Cross and definitely don't make any eye contact with men whatsoever. Drop me an email with some dates if you would like to meet up.

Funny what you say about Tamil. My younger daughter is studying "A Chinese Cindarella" for her English at school. As part of the course they have to pair up with another girl and talk about another country. Jenny came home and said "oh no, I have to do Tamil". I said that I thought it sounded very interesting. She said "yes it is interesting, but there are so many other pairs doing Tamil, I wanted to do an unusual language...."

Actually she and her partner did their presentation today and it went really well. Jenny's partner provided some Tamil food and Jenny had found some lovely pictures of saris, so their talk went down very well, even among the Tamil veterans in the audience (seems as if there are a lot in Jenny's class!)

10:14 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

I'll definitely take you up on the meeting up offer Maxine - will email shortly.

How delightful that Tamil is considered not unusual in your daughter's class! Glad she enjoyed the experience.

8:02 am  
Blogger Debi said...

I hope we've never passed each other without a smile of recognition at a kindred spirit!

1:12 pm  
Blogger The Traveller said...

Learning Tamil sounds like amazing fun. I can't wait to move up to London; I am planning on taking advantage of some of Soas' courses, particularly Korean which I can read but not speak. Keep enjoying it!

6:49 pm  
Blogger Blogaulaire said...

Here in Quebec a novel that starts in a Tamil community in India is still very popular (after winning a Giller several years ago): The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. You might be interested in the first third of the book where religious conflict is contrasted with the central characters compulsion to fuse his convictions from the majors religious schools coexisting there.

Speaking of Gillers, your co-patriate SA writer J. M. Coetzee won two of them. So I would be interested in any and every review you would consider posting about one of his novels.

Keep at it and I hope you always enjoy practicing Tamil . . .

11:16 pm  
Blogger Blogaulaire said...

That was a bit unkosher, mentioning Coetzee's Giller Prizes (2) and not his Nobel Prize for Literature. But it's not the prizes that impress me. I found that his novel of some 14 years ago, Disgrace, stayed on my mind all last week after I read it. Images and conflicts as well as observations kept popping up, sort of like savouring a writer's prose like a meal.

11:56 pm  
Blogger equiano said...

Debi, I hope not too. I would prefer to think it would be one of those moments when you pass someone and think what a wonderful face they have - something about them makes them look like a fine person!

Wow, Traveller, I'm impressed! How did you come to learn Korean? I do recommend SOAS. My experience with their language courses has been very positive - plus you get a library card to their fantastic African and Asian collections, fifteen books at a time! Very dangerous...

Blogaulaire - welcome, and thanks for recommending Martel's LIFE OF PI. I most be one of the last people on the planet not to have read it. I keep meaning to! I didn't know about the Tamil references in it, so that may move it up my To Be Read pile a few spaces!

Coetzee is one of my favourite writers - a joy to read. If we're looking at a rollcall of his awards then, among others, he is also the only author to ever win the Booker twice!

10:02 am  
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12:58 pm  

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