Languages: Turning Enemies into Allies*

“S and I got engaged!” I announced to my family, just before my second year at university, showing off my emerald and diamond ring.

My grandmother did not miss a bit.  “Congratulations, my sunbeam! Does he speak any languages?”


“Oh, dear,” she said, her smile waning.  “His family has no means, then?”


Right or wrong, I come from a family where it is taken for granted that any parents with sufficient funds will, as a matter of course as evident as the movement of the planets, make sure their offspring learn, first – languages; second – to play a musical instrument.  To understand this, it is important to know that, for our family, music nourishes the soul, whilst languages enrich the brain.  For us, learning languages is not a luxury or a hobby.  It is a necessary tool of survival.  It has been engrained in us over the past four generations that you could lose all material possessions in a heartbeat, on the whim of a natural disaster or a change of government.  Before you know it, you might have to move to another country and, for that, the more languages you have at your command, the better.  As Dolly Levi says in Hello, Dolly! “If you have to live hand to mouth, you’d better be ambidextrous.”  I imagine that families who have lived in the same country for several generations, or who own property, such as houses, might find it difficult fully to enter into this frame of mind.


My grandfather used to say that, with every new language you learn, you acquire a new personality.  He was right.  Speaking a language is not just about finding your way on holiday.  It is about being able to switch between different ways of thinking and feeling.  I am more or less quadrilingual.  I feel most comfortable debating issues in English, cuddling children and animals in Russian, expressing outrage in French, and joking in Italian.  When asked which is my mother tongue, I stumble.  I do not actually know.  What is a mother tongue? Is it the language in which you formed your first words, as a baby? If so, I would say, Russian.  Or is it the language in which you are most proficient? In that case, I would say, English.  However, as a teenager, I would have said, French; and, a couple of years before that, Italian.


I did not enjoy the process of learning any of these languages.  In fact, I positively hated it.  It was an uphill struggle filled with frustration, humiliation and long periods of hopelessness.  I did not choose to take classes in these languages for fun or interest.  I learned them fast, forced by circumstances.  In a way, my survival depended on it.


I was born in Italy, to a non-Italian family.  My Russian-bred, Armenian grandmother, who shared with my mother the daily job of bringing me up, taught me Russian.  It was the language we spoke at home.  As soon as I ventured out, I learnt to play in Italian with the neighbours‘ children.  Because, in those days, in Rome, speaking a foreign language in the street would attract relentless stares and gaping mouths, I would switch to Italian as soon as I was out of the family flat.  When I was six, my mother sent me to the Overseas American school in Rome.    Children learn languages easily.  Every new word is a building block.  They do not slow down their thought process by translating in their heads, or by complicating matters with grammatical logic.  They simply imitate and associate.  Within a few months, I was fluent in English, complete with U.S. accent.  So, I spoke Russian at home, Italian in the street, and English at school.  All was well.  That is, until we moved to Athens.  I was eight.  Thanks to Russian I could just about distinguish the Greek Cyrillic alphabet but the language, itself, was nothing I could relate to my existing tongues.  I made friends with Greek children and their parents.  We played in the clay garden, and went swimming among the rusty jellyfish in the ice-cold, limpid sea.  After a few months, I could hold my own in Greek – at least enough to play with my Greek neighbours.


My first language trauma hit me – in more ways than one – when I was nine, and we moved to Nice, in Southern France.  The headmistress of the local state school decided that it was paedagogically sound to put a nine year-old who spoke no French, into the Cours Préparatoire of five and six year-olds.  Recess was torture time.  Most days, I would be surrounded by the said five and six year-olds, pushed back against the school yard wall, and kicked in the shins by their miniature feet.  The ritual included shouting things at me which, of course, I could not respond to, since I did not know what they meant.  I repeated some of the words to Madame, hoping for an explanation, but she glared and waved her finger at me, saying, “Non!” When I tried to retaliate physically, I was told off in no uncertain terms by the permanently yawning Madame, for picking on les petits.  My wordless gesticulations and pointing at my black and blue shins did not appear to convey the message clearly enough.  The only thing to do, was to spend every evening, before bed, memorising a few words from Le Petit Larousse Illustré.  Luckily, I soon learnt to produce guttural ‘r’s, elongated vowels, and enough words to string into sentences.  I moved to another school, was put into a class of older children, and learnt to topple little plastic soldiers with glass marbles during recess.  I was on my way to becoming an honorary Niçoise.  When, at the age of nineteen, I scored 14/20 in writing and 18/20 in oral, in French, at the French Lycée in Rome, beating my French boyfriend to the slight annoyance his mother, I felt I had arrived.  


Arrived – just in time to pack my suitcase for England.  All I knew about Albion, was that half my blood came from there, through my father.  Of course, my English, neglected during the years of contending with French, had turned somewhat rusty.  I landed in Cambridge, on a cold, damp, September night, and went to sleep in an attic room with a sloped ceiling and a luke warm radiator.  The following morning, I awoke to the cawing of jet-black crows hopping on a bright green lawn beneath a lead grey sky.  I was brimming with hope for my new life in a country which, I felt, was my home by right.  


The English did not kick.  They stung.


“What did you say? Oh, how quaint, I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that.”

“Where did you acquire that American accent?”

“Gosh, you do have a healthy appetite.”

“Are you cold? Really? I guess we’re brought up to be quite stoical, here.”

“Well... I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly...”


After many a night crying myself to sleep, I vowed to beat them at their own game.  I began memorising words from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, keeping a journal in English, referring to – rather than pronouncing – the ‘r’, and mentally repeating after people, as they spoke.  I forsook French entirely, and missed the rigueur of its grammar.  English was like water.  It slid out between your fingers as you tried to grasp it.  So I learnt to swim in it.


A few years later, when I had to explain the language of a Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, to a group of native English actors, I had a lovely feeling of – well, just how could I put it nicely..?


My languages have graduated from enemies to allies.  They are my Virgils, guiding me through various dimensions of thoughts, hopes and emotions.  They are my spies, which I send out on reconnaissance missions.  They are the Arlecchini who capture laughter for me.  They are the faithful servants who bring food to my table.  They are my steadfast allies, no matter what the government of the moment.  They are the architects who build me a bridge, whenever I want to cross a river.


Scribe Doll

*This piece was first published on Wordpress on 14 October 2012

I am thankful to Orna Raz for reminding me of it with her brilliant piece Please Leave Me a Note: The Language of Personal Notes 







Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Both you and Orna have me thinking a lot about language and literature. I live in a place that is bi-lingual and I'm fascinated to... Read More
Sunday, 27 July 2014 17:58
Katherine Gregor
That's an interesting point – and a deeply sad one – about a culture disappearing if its language and literature does. Thank you... Read More
Sunday, 27 July 2014 20:34
Orna Raz
Dear katia, I love this post. I need to read it few more times in order to fully appreciate all the fine points, but several thoug... Read More
Monday, 28 July 2014 10:04
1963 Hits

A Green Room Full of Hopes

I’d write Green on the whiteboard with a green marker, and wait for the students I’d divided up into groups to brainstorm any English idioms they knew that contained that word.


He’s a bit green.

To get the green light.

Green, as in ecology.

Green with envy.

“Beware, my Lord, of jealousy.  ‘Tis the green-eyed monster...”


Sometimes, I’d simply ask, “If I say ‘green’, what do you think?”







The Green Room in a theatre.  London Fringe Theatre.  Frayed sofas smelling of stale cigarettes and lager.  A Tannoy announcing the Half, Fifteen Minutes and Beginners.  Actors sitting and smoking, doing vocal exercises, complaining about their agents, criticising the director (the one they idolised at the audition but now the critic gave a bad review, well, they really should be at the RSC on on television, instead of Fringe).  Hope for a successful career.


The impeccably ironed lawn of a Cambridge college.  Only Fellows are allowed to walk on it.  I walk across the one at King’s, while talking to the Dean.  We’re talking about Dante, and he says he’s going to give me a ticket for the Advent Carol Service.  Hope for academic achievement.


The soft, luxuriant green of Grantchester Meadows.  With jet-black crows skipping at the foot of elm trees, swaying in the East Anglian winds.  Hope for peace.


My green silk dress I wore on an unforgettable date.  He took me to a Maria Friedman concert at Cadogan Hall.  Sondheim and Bernstein.  Afterwards, we strolled through the winding Chelsea streets.  Hope for true love.


A bushy green fir tree, standing by the sash window, decorated in gold and silver baubles, lit up with a criss-crossing string of tiny white lights.  Hope for home and hearth.


The glossy green leaves of small lemon plants, grown from pips in pots on my desk during a harsh winter.  Hope for survival.


An e-mail from a friend I have yet to meet, telling me about a newly-set up haven for writers recently orphaned of their familiar internet forum.  A red room that provided much warmth and nurture.  She invites me to join a new room, a green room.  I picture a velvet green sofa with soft cushions, a crackling fireplace, the smell of coffee mixed with roasted figs, chocolate fudge cake on the table, a large bay window overlooking a garden with a weeping willow trailing its  mane in a limpid stream.  A group of writers, from different countries, different backgrounds, united in effervescent conversation, discussing every topic under the sun and moon.  Laughter.  Support.  Learning.


Hope for friendship.  Hope for writing and reading splendid words.



Scribe  Doll


© Katherine Gregor 2014

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
I love it and have to include this beautiful poem (and song): Flowers are Red by Harry Chapin The little boy went first day of... Read More
Friday, 11 July 2014 21:13
Katherine Gregor
What a heartbreaking comment. It reminds me of my primary school in France, where we were made to form letters exactly in the sam... Read More
Saturday, 12 July 2014 07:36
Stephen Evans
Sometimes when I am editing a manuscript, I'll do a search on a various words, just to see how many times and in what ways they ar... Read More
Saturday, 12 July 2014 00:47
2695 Hits

The Whales Know A Journey through Mexican California: by Pino Cacucci, translated by Katherine Gregor

For years, few days before my husband's birthday, I used to go to the Travel Section at our local bookstore to look for the perfect book that would capture his imagination. Those were not the kind of books which I would normally choose for myself, but somehow I was always able to find the right book for him.

 Earlier this week, as I was reading through The Whales Know A Journey through Mexican California, by the Italian writer Pino Cacucci (and beautifuly translated by our own Red Room blogger Katherine Gregor), I realized that this was the perfect book for Tzvi my late  husband. Even the name of the publisher was highly appropriate, “Armchair Traveller:”  Tzvi was an avid reader who loved to sit at home and learn about other people’s  journeys and adventures from books.

 The Whales Know is a collection of 20 short charming and erudite essays that combine descriptions of Cacucci's travels through Mexican California with intellectual insights. The essays are rich with allusions and thought-provoking references.

 Sometimes translations tend to be somewhat heavy and cumbersome, as the translator is eager to be as true to the source as possible, and in the process forgets that ultimately the book would be judged by its accessibility and appeal.  However, thanks to the sensitivity and talent of Katherine Gregor, The Whales Know in the English translation has a poetic and natural flow.

  Books about travelling are great reading material all year around, but  this book is especially appropriate to take on vacation. Reading an essay or two a day gives plenty of food for the imagination for the rest of the time. Another unique quality of the collection is that the reader could open the book on almost any page and is sure to find an illuminating passage: for example: from essay number 19 “Frontera:”

 “The border has shaped me from my very childhood and continues to teach me even now I am past fifty. . .The border, no matter how much wire netting and how many trenches are built, always ends up uniting rather than separating those who live in its shadow. “(p. 126) 

  As an Israeli, the issue of borders is relevant and close to my heart. On the Mexican border Cacucci  meets the Mexican author Gabriel Trujillo Munoz  and quotes his writing on this subject (this time Cacucciis himself is in the role of the translator).

 I took The Whales Know with me on my Passover vacation to the Ramon Crater in the Desert Mountain and was very happy with this choice. Since it is a small book, I was able to carry it long while walking on the edge of the crater. Every so often I would sit down read  an essay and then resume the walk. I couldn’t think of a better, or more stimulating, companion. This time I found the right book for me.


Here is the link, and the details of the book:

 The Whales Know

  A Journey Through Mexican California

  By Pino Cacucci

  At 2,000 km, Baja California in modern-day Mexico is one of the longest peninsulas in the world, and certainly one of the most geographically diverse. Following in the footsteps of John Steinbeck, Pino Cacucci travels through endless expanses of desert, salt mountains and rows of cacti with thorns so sharp they can impale thirsty birds. He meets local characters ranging from greedy privateers to Jesuit missionaries - and a cameo from The Doors' Jim Morrison. Yet the cast of characters includes animals as well as people - sixty years ago Mexic became the first country to create a safe haven for whales, and even today these mysteriously intelligent animals play alongside the fishing boats in harmony with humans. Written with humility, humour and heart, The Whales Know is an insight into an ecosystem under threat.

 Pino Cacucci was born in Chiavari, Italy. He is the author of over 20 works of fiction and non-ficto and has won over 16 awards for his writing since 1988.

 Translated by Katherine Gregor


Recent Comments
Virginia M Macasaet
this is lovely Orna. The whales tell me a little something about your beloved husband, very touching!
Wednesday, 09 July 2014 10:50
Orna Raz
Thank you dear Virginia, and also about our Katia:-)
Wednesday, 09 July 2014 11:25
Rosy Cole
Certainly one for the to-read list, Orna. It sounds magical...and transcendent, so engaging that you weren't happy just to be an a... Read More
Wednesday, 09 July 2014 12:56
2999 Hits

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