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In English

I was such an idiot at the time. I was twenty-one. Wait let me go back (unnecessarily) as to why I’m even remembering this. It starts with language. The fact that I speak very bad Italian which is the same as I don’t speak the language I butcher it. And my butchering of Italian is a more recent story than my slaughter of French. Now French has a long history. My father was a student of French and my mother spoke some too and so, when I was about nine and my brother eleven they bought us (all this on the Ile-Ife university campus mind you) a series of French lessons. Very generous people my parents. The woman would come to our home on Road 20c, House 11 and we’d sit at the dining room table, my brother and I. It was in the 80s, she had a cassette player which she would play intermittently, and in between these spells of French voices purring out from the speakers of this cassette player she would say stuff and flip through a book and (I distinctly remember) work her index finger along the peak of the cover of her blue biro. This was the thing that struck me the most. So while no conjugations managed to stick I remain imprinted (the way only 9 year olds can be) with the sense that to be sophisticated and French you also have to have a way with the biro cover. In fact I think I adopted not her perfect accent but this twitch of hers, copied not her grammar but her affectation of rubbing, back and forth, with her index finger, the tip of the blue cover of the bic pen. Years passed. Now in South Africa for some reason again my parents kindly shell out money and once more my brother and I are sitting in Alliance Francaise classes. I recall there was a woman there with short hair and glasses who was about to go to La Reunion and that was why she was in the classes. As to why my brother and I were there…we wasted time, we faffed around and made faces at each other in class, laughing at jokes only we could understand. We occasionally humoured our homework but mostly not and often begged off going in on those way too early Saturday mornings. Many many years on, and now we’re back to the beginning. I’m twenty-one and I am in Monte Carasso. A small village of about eight people none of whom are black. For this reason I am many things. An anomaly, a thing of wonder, a shock. I’m there as an architectural student with several other architects and we’re attending a workshop being led by Luigi Snozzi. Snozzi speaks no English, some French and his Italian. The workshop is about a month long. We sleep at the convent school (empty on account of it being Europe’s summer), bunking in classrooms with our sleeping bags, bathing in the gym (palestra in Italian) and wondering whether the place has a crypt. Over the month my best friend is Giselle. Giselle from Paris. Giselle speaks no English and I have managed to survive hours of lessons and still speak no coherent French. Giselle’s Italian is laughable, mine non-existent. We have an assortment of dictionaries and manage to find enough ingredients to make a friendship. With the little we have of each other’s mother tongues Giselle succeeds in explaining, and I manage to grasp, that she is heart-broken. Although whether she ended it or he (I assume she was straight although…hey), this is still not clear to me so many years later. But that she is sad is evident. In fact now I remember we relied very heavily on play-acting. Yes, the word triste was unknown to me at the time and she had to take her fist and twist just underneath her right eye (on the apple of her cheek) and this I immediately understood to be the universal sign of shedding tears. We hit it off. Dear Giselle, fine-featured, short brown hair. She seemed not to take to the four Germans whom I appreciated because they all spoke English. She didn’t get on too well with the Korean who lived in Como and was married to an Italian. She steered clear of the two from South Italy, a rambunctious pair that would soon suggest a never-to-be-forgotten class trip. There was also a couple from  the nearby canton of Mendrisio, although the girl-part of that couple said she was originally from Transylvania (the guy-part of the couple, insignificantly and incidentally, had a nervous twitch, his right eyebrow raising many times in a minute, a look of surprise). We shared a kitchen, pots, pans and groceries. Giselle made onion soup. The Germans put ketchup on their rice and so on. Oh and there were two dudes from Prague. I think one had a crush on me, I have to think this in order to keep afloat my ego.


The class trip was a kind of Babel on wheels. With the Napoli guys up front in the van they’d hired and the rest of us spread out. Being architects the purpose of the trip was uncontested – we wanted to see buildings. We saw Zumthor, we went to his Therme in Vals and the rich Germans went in for a sauna while I walked around the cold town being stared at and feeling hungry. Languages were bandied about the whole day, somehow I became regarded as someone who spoke both French and Italian. Giselle vouched for my excellent French and the two Italian guys from Napoli used me as a translator. Many times throughout the day Giselle would say something and the Italians would lean towards me and say: Che cosa? To which I would (as far as I can remember) have a ready and surely not inaccurate answer.


Other random details include the time we went for a tour of Monte Carasso and I had the runs, I’ll spare you any further detail except to say try and avoid this. Then one of the Germans got a reputation for being a bit of a perve. We were all using the same showers but had an agreement that the women used it at a certain time and guys at another…I think. And who started the rumour? Can’t recall. Or did I make the whole thing up. He was a perve and was caught watching someone. This struck some fear in me. On an appointed day I, the only bearer of kinky hair amidst the whole lot, decided it was time to wash mine. I had a lot of hair, “natural” as they call it and no small feat to clean I’ll tell you. So a Sunday morning I take my implements. I go to the palestra and do the deed. When I’m done and coming out with a towel, who’s standing there but the German dude just kind of looking at me. I avoid his gaze and walk on. He wasn’t jerking off or anything, small mercy. Did that happen? Then, fully clothed, found an opportunity to tell him off, he pleaded innocence.


But the real question is how did I manage to become known as the go-to person for translations? Yes, I had dictionaries with me and I was spending a lot of time reading them; I had phrase books and I was reading those incessantly too but that hardly makes me fluent. Here’s what I think, that I had magically (how else?), for just that month, been granted some ability to really really hear people, so long as they could mime fairly well, speak slowly and repeat themselves as many times as I required them to…and so long as there were other people around who actually spoke the languages in question and so long as we didn’t have to do anything in a hurry so Yewande could play her I’m-going-to-guess-what-you’re-saying game. I no longer have this ability. Pity. Such a handy thing it was.

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