Beloved brits, distinguished UKIP fandom,
I seldom write on Wednesdays mornings. Ever less frequently, in the past few years, have I written in English. I speak it fairly well, I spoke it fairly often in my years as an expat. This is the story of how I got to know you, your culture, language and history. And care. Not a lot. Some. Some would say a little more than it’s reciprocated. My reason to do so is to right some facts which, in my humble opinion, you got wrong. And since I’ve been part of a fragment in time, it just seems honourable to put it down in word.
My first language, my mother tongue, is Romanian. I am born in the capital, though I’ve been raised and educated, in my first years of life, in Transylvania. Of course, we don’t call it Transylvania except in official scripts. For us it’s Ardeal, and the accent is a bit unique. Unique enough to be readily identified by the rest, so when I came to Bucharest, my place of residence nowadays, I was bullied by kids who thought I talked like a peasant. And – in honesty – they were right. I’ve lost it over the years. It’s hard to recapture, and I try as much as possible to keep connected to it. It’s the music I first heard when I was a child, a soothing voice from my mother, father and grandparents. The music of scolding. Of easing the pain when I hurt myself playing. Of early waking up on Sundays to go to church. Of carrols and harsh winters. Of litanies for the dead.
English was not the first foreign tongue I got in contact with. First it was French. You could say I have family connections, both my parents speak fluent French. My mother is a sort of grammar freak who spent most of her youth perfecting the subjonctif, that dreaded tense which I – to the day – cannot fathom. We had vynils with little French stories, and one, just one, with funny words such as hen, or pen. I didn’t mind much. It was just another rhyme I could put into babble, and babble I did. It was 1990, and spring came to Romania with a lot of changes. Us kids gladly tore apart the portrait of the dictator from our manuals, renounced uniforms and eagerly started buying Turbo gum. Every little packet had surprises in it, collectible pictures of cars. Lamborghini. Mazda. Toyota. Ford. Mercedes. BMW. This, in a land where most people owned just one brand. We chewed, and chewed, and made bubbles which burst on cheeks, stuck on benches and messed up hair. That was some cruel prank you could play on an unsuspecting girl, stick some gum in her locks. Next step was the scissors. Or, if you really wanted to be mean, you would stick the gum in the drawer where kids put their rucksacks. It never came out. Most called it ciunga. It was a habit dispized in my family, to chew gum. But we did chew, unbeknownst to our mum and dad, and never suspected that this was anything other than a gypsy word for gum. You see, we hated gypsies also. They’re the protagonists of our childhood stories. If you were disobedient, in my early years, you might hear something like: “Be nice or I’ll give you to the gypsies”. It took most of my later adult life to get rid of this reflex. To hate is to experience inner shame. Shame because of fear. Fear because of lack of understanding.
So one day, in my fifth grade, this lady comes. She was round, a bit obese even. They were a rarity in those days. Most people were trim and thin, mostly because of the years of soya-enriched diet. Ironically enough, we learned the benefits of low-cholesterol diets way before the rest of the world. But that’s another story, for another time. This lady was going to be our English teacher. This was the first year when English was offered as an alternative to Russian. If memory serves, I even took one or two lessons in Russian alphabet. But I might be mistaken. So this lady comes in with the catalogue, throws it on the desk and looks at us with eagle eyes. “Everybody – she says in Romanian – please take out the chewing gum out of your mouths before we begin”. It was not ciunga, you see. She said chewing gum. Same thing, but with a different twist. I couldn’t say how the other kids felt, but I was hypnotized by the word. It was like, if you allow the analogy, going back to my early accent from Ardeal. It made sense. Another thing which made sense was hens, and pens, and dens, and lenses. We learned by heart one ox, two oxen, one sheep, two sheep, one woman, two women and so on. It had to be done, although seldom in Romanian we have plurals like this. In fact, as I write, I can think of none. But, again, I may be mistaken. You know what bothers me? I forgot her name. And it’s irretrievable. This is the woman who helped me on, on my later path, and I don’t even remember what her name was. When I went for private tutoring with her, in a tiny appartment near the park, she insisted I call her Teach. So she remains Teach.
Teach had a thing for the “th”. I had to struggle, days on end, to perfect the pronounciation of it. Most people, lacking muscle and coordination for the stupid thing, gave up into a forced “s”. The hissing was disturbing. Teach would have none of it. So I practised, and I sufffered through, and in the end I could say it out right. The most cherished quality of my speaking has been, ever since, the ability to say it properly.
I chose the highschool were I would try and get admitted because I loved the breasts on some girl. Because I had learned she intended to go there. In my pubescent fantasies I wanted to see those breasts. So if being into the same highschool would help, I definitely wanted to up my chances. No, it wasn’t because this particular highschool was the second to have a class of intensive English-teaching programme. It was pure serendipity that when my mum and I went to apply this lady, the secretary, told us of it. Now my mum knows, because she’s a language freak as I said, the importance of tongues. So, despite my erotomania, it was decided that I’d go there. You had to give an supplementary oral exam to get in, reading, pronouncing and translating some stuff. My stuff was a piece of White Fang. I aquitted myself reasonably well, after three years of hard work with Teach. Thus, I got in, in 1994, almost 21 years ago, in that class. Class IX I. You see, classes were labeled with alphabet letters. This highschool had legions of kids, up to letter P in that year. The letter I served my Ego right, when I mused about it in the dark corners of my mind.
And then, dear brits and UKIP fandom, you came. You came with the first British English teacher I had. She was from London, had horse-teeth and the most astonishingly beautiful, crystalline, crisp accent. Our classroom teacher was young, so young. Us boys took pride in that, not to mention she was drop dead gorgeous. Be gone youthful fantasies about breasts! I had another master now. Another of our teachers was kind, and she spoke English like a native. Little did I know then she would be my mentor in many things in my life. In fact, as I reminisce on it, most of the things I’ve done in my life so far are owed to her. She taught us the immensity of generosity, community work, the importance of each small individual in the greater good equation. She brought us Philip.
Philip was from Liverpool. His accent was thick, dense and he always seemed to speak as his mouth were shut. His sun was sun, his fuck was fuck. This made him funny as we immitated him during break time. Instead of fucking eachother verbally in good old cockney dialect, we spoke liverpoolian. But Philip brought his game on. It was Shakespeare, and Chaucer, and Byron, and Dickens, and that frightful Bleak House of his. It was Joyce, and Salinger, and my dear, dear WH Auden. It was Sex Pistols and punk, which Philip, as Philip was and spoke, was Punk. It was the Dead Poets Society. We were the Dead Poets Society, though Philip was no captain. But he was a good brother-in-arms. We loved him a lot.
That summer some of 1996, a group of some 30 kids picked by our English teacher, our Goddess, our Mentor, were chosen to participate as monitors in the BETA conference. BETA stands for British English Teachers’ Association. I remember that was the first time (and sadly not the last) when I ate a cheeseburger from McDonalds. The taste was sweet, the bun incredibly soft. My skin sensed this was so much larger than my small world. So I opened my eyes and ears. I watched. I listened. I soaked it in. We had texts to memorize, poems to recite, songs to sing. So many faces of the others come back to mind. So young we were. I can’t remember any of them not smiling. We had workshops. Now that was a new concept. The original meaning of the word had taken me back to the smithie’s place near my childhoold house. Here we would not tend to horses hooves though. Here we would do the Taming of the Shrew, and drama play, and improvisation. Everything was done in this peculiar language we had started to inhabit like a cloth, like an exoskeleton, like a new name you take up after marriage. We had wedded English, and English was the new lady of the house. One of us got a shitty part in that play, he only had to say one line he had trouble with. It was something like “hark! Petrucchio” something. But he spoke with a french R. So “hark” came funnily, like a spitball. And he balled some spits every time we rehearsed, to the utter, delicious, laughter of everybody else. Suffice to say the BETA was a success, and our merry band of troubadours became closer than ever. The new Teach, the coordinator for the group, had some great plans for us, of which we knew nothing about. 1997 was going to be historical. Two decades have passed since, and the images in my mind are fading.
In 1997 you, dear brits and UKIP fandom, brought the English Speaking Union to Romania. Try and picture it in your mind. Hundreads of guests. Personalities. Delegates from the ESU central, the EU comissioner, the creme de la creme. We rented a hall at the national theater for an artistic programme. I was asked to sit up with the script and help the guy working the lights. I a tiny cabin, way above the seats, I sat with this grumpy, smelly, face-full-of-stubs middle-aged individual explaining to him how to work the red lamps, and the blue projectors, and the white beams of light falling on my colleagues. They danced. They spoke. Their voices were heard. It was an immense success.
In reward we were offered a trip to the mountains, at the end of the conference. Everybody was extatic, it was the beginning of summer in our lives. The West had come, had finally come. For us at least, who were rubbing elbows with figures larger than life, comfortably chatting little nonsense in our armor of glory which was the already fluent English we spoke. I remember one of us, a girl with tiny face and thick, long ebony hair, was invited to sing a tune for the guests at the restaurant. She played beautifully, everybody was impressed, but not as impressed as they were shocked when she mumbled, after she got standing ovations, that she is delighted to have “reproduced herself” on stage. This was a moment to remember, as most would soon be forgotten. The tides of time took us most, and I’ve lost contact with all but few, that age ended and I went on, and on, to lands I never dreamed of, tens of thousands kilometers to the west, and then back again.
Never in my dreams did I dream that a day would come when this love of youth, this passion we shared with you, dear brits and UKIP fandom, would turn to poison. I could have never imagined that in the land of Shelley, and Monty Python, of Andrew Lloyd Weber and his musicals, hate would arise. Some here, in my homeland, would feel the wound of discrimination in their intellect. But I, I feel this as a bleeding gush in my biography. Is this what we fought for? Is this what we hoped for? Is this the present we fantasized about, 20 years ago? My English, my dearly loved English, carried me through life, taught me new music of thought, of passion, of the heart, opened my inner eye to a culture so vast, so large, so universal that I find it incredibly hard to reconcile, in recent years, with the petty xenophobia you, dear brits and UKIP fandom, project on us. You should have been better at this. In my own internal conflict with the hate I was taught to have for gypsies, for jews, for hungarians, for russians, for basically all that was not Romanian as I was growing up there never was a place where I thought to myself, there you go, this land you’ve come to inhabit culturally is just as rotten as the one you emerged from. The purullent smell of inter-ethnic indifference, this abject rejection you’ve, lately, spewed from the sewers of your society is torn apart from a past, from a path I once believed in. I’ve travelled your country, I’ve met countrymen of yours. I’ve worked with some, I competed with others. I befriended those worthy of friendship, and I criticized those in need of criticism. Hate, I did not bring to the table, as years ago I felt anything but hate from those of your kin who came into our lives. Their hearts were beautiful, their allegiance to spreading culture as pure as morning light.
Dear brits and UKIP fandom, some are coming. Some have left. You may want to keep Romanians out of your land. I don’t want to keep you out of my memory. But as reality strikes at the door of thought, it is unavoidable to ask, where are you now, who came decades ago to a grief-stricken land with promises of belonging? Why, if not for some twisted sadistical pleasure, would you open the eyes of so many but then deny them freedom to move, to learn, to develop where they wish? What, if not the neurosis of colonialism, pushes you to regard everybody else as permeable to your expansionism, only to paranoically feel threatened when we come over?
All the lessons learned I will teach. For the sake of my own teachers. For Philip. For fuck’s sake. But the lesson of silence, humiliation and shame, that I will not teach. Shame is on you. Humiliation is on you. Silence should you master. And remember old oaths. And recant from the perversion of inter-ethnic hate. We are still here. And we still grow. And whether by drive, choice or pure happenstance, we will hold to freedoms long struggled for. They are not yours to give, not to withhold. My country is open to travel these days. Open to work in. Open to welcome strangers from distand lands. This we learned from you. Do not unlearn that which you taught others.