Friday, June 27, 2014

Europe on Ten Words a Day

Europe on Ten Words a Day

During my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, now many years ago, I discovered an organization that placed students in math and science in other countries for practical work - for what would now be called co-oping. The organization's primary objective was to exchange students among the various European countries, but somehow we managed to start a branch at U of M. I eagerly joined, and successfully lobbied a couple of professors who agreed to sponsor a foreign co-op student for the summer.

When I applied myself, hoping for a placement the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I thus had a preferred status; as someone who had worked for the organization, I went to the front of the queue, so to speak. Since I speak fluent French, I asked for France, Belgium, Luxembourg, or Switzerland, countries where French is spoken.

But placements for students from the United States were limited, and I was offered a spot in the Netherlands, at the Agricultural University of Wageningen, assisting a professor of mathematics.

Dutch has several levels of gutterals, with pronounced somewhat like the German "ch" and a couple more that are deeper in the throat. Gouda, the cheese, for example, is pronounced something like "How-da." It took me a week to learn to pronounce the name of the town, and until I could, I didn't dare go anywhere. Most people my age and younger spoke English,  but many of the older folks in the towns surrounding Wageningen did not.

I still remember my excitement that first weekend when I boarded the bus for a nearby, larger, town, Ede (pronounced Ay-da).

In relatively short order, I found a ballet class in town - I was passionately fond of ballet at the time - and signed up for lessons. It was there that I had my first lesson in cultural insularity.

"I'm an American," I responded when asked where I was from.

"Oh, so am I," a diminutive student replied. "I'm from Nicaragua. How about you?"

"I'm from the United States." And that is how, to this day, I respond when asked what country I'm from.

But soon, being then as now, a voracious reader, I faced the knotty problem of finding reading material in a town without any large bookstores. Hurrying down to the local library, I asked what I needed to do to join: pay a small fee and fill out a form.

The library's supply of books in English was quite small, but fortunately they had a couple of bookcases full of books in French, including a lot of Georges Simenon. So I spent my summer reading through the library's entire supply of Simenon's Maigret novels, some of his others, various memoirs about the war, a memoir by a French doctor, and several French science fiction novel, as well as a French translation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.As my father was an attorney, I was familiar with the difference between the French legal system and ours: under French law, the accused is guilty until proven innocent, making Maigret's investigations, the ones leading up to his arresting the guilty party, all the more important.

I very much enjoyed my summer reading. You simply never know when being fluent in  a foreign language well will come in handy.

No comments:

Post a Comment