Salvatore, or the art of fumbling (in) many languages


It has become custom to have to repeat my name at least five times by means of introduction. I am blessed with a name that cannot be pronounced by anyone south of Belgium. Will this change in any of the countries that I plan to walk through? I think not. Should I choose another name while I'm on the road? Or should I change the way I spell my name, adjust it to local spelling and accept the minor differences in pronunciation? Wainant ? Wynant ? Winant ?

I know how it is though, trying to master words that are nothing like any word you know. It´s hard. The only thing more troublesome is trying to remember words that are very much like a word you know, but with an entirely different meaning. They just won't stick. My English - Spanish phrasebook teaches me that to be embarrassed is not ´estoy embarazada´. This means ´to be pregnant´. I'm afraid that now I've read this the chances of making that mistake have doubled.

I write this in Cafe Bar Twente in Gernika. Neither the Spanish nor the Basque ever really use a 'w', but Twente is a region in the Netherlands. The owner - and my host of this evening - is Dutch and he found a cunning solution to possible homesickness: name your workplace after wherever it is that you come from and become very successful. Always home, guaranteed !

In a corner of the bar is a big television screen that displays sports. A charity tennis match between Federer and Nadal has just finished and the program has changed to basketball. That has never been my favorite sport, but I'm working on mySpanish vocabulary and every now and then when I try to internalise some words, my eyes glance at the screen. On the back of a player from Madrid I read ´LLULL´. Anyone who has any knowledge of Dutch swear words or male anatomy will have to agree that my name may not be so unfortunate after all.

I hope to crack Spanish quickly. In France I realised how frustrating it can be to not be able to communicate with the people around you. Of course this says as much about the French as it does about me, but I feel that it is always up to the guest - be it in a household or a country - to at least do your best to fit in. My only fear is that I am learning the different latin languages too fast after another. Before long I might walk around the countryside talking to myself in six different languages. "Stupido, stupido", like the hunchback Salvatore in The Name of the Rose.

To learn a language is fun though. In San Sebastian I had a lovely time with an Italian girl and we communicated mostly in English. Whenever that didn't work we tried any other language that might shed some light in the lingual darkness. I happily borrowed Italian from the opera´s that I used to listen to at home. "Che gelida manina" is not a bad line to have at your disposal this time of year. Fumbling with languages, now doesn't that sound more inviting than Spanish for beginners or French conversation skills ?

"Het was kerstochtend 1961, ik weet het nog zo goed, mijn konijnenhok was leeg". In Cafe bar Twente I hear familiar sounds coming from the speakers. They have a Dutch radio station on, broadcasting nothing but Christmas songs. This one´s a Dutch classic. I order another Dutch beer and leave my Spanish for a moment. A cheers to my Dutch host and his Spanish wife. It is almost Christmas and although I am still not certain where and with whom I´ll be spending it, today I´m home. In Twente of all places. Christmas is truly a time of miracles. 

Prospero año nuevo a todos!

Wijnand Boon