Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Living in a Bilingual World (Menuetto Allegretto)

'No te pares frente a mi,
con esa mirada tan hiriente,
puedo entender estrechez de mente,
soportar la falta de experiencia,
pero no puedo aguantar
estrechez de corazon

Thus sang, not the 80s Southamerican pop rockers Los Prisioneros, but my two children in the car recently with perfectly rolled 'Rs'. They've taken to Latin pop and rock like fish to the water. It all started with Daughter humming and then actually saying the words to Charly García's Raros Peinados Nuevos, one of the anthems that defined my teenage years. Currently Daughter has the lyrics pinned to the walls of her bedroom and once in a while we give it a good go; Charly would be proud. Son followed suit and now we have Los Prisioneros on in the car most of the time.

Today and, according to the Times Education Supplement, it's European Day of Languages, yet, I've not heard anything about it, have you, my dear fellow bloggers/readers/posters? Wouldn't it be a wonder if we could tune in to the good ol' BBC Morning News and see a presenter telling us about recent events in French? Or how about a John Humphreys-like figure (I'm still with the Beeb) roasting a politician in German?

Because I've seen up close and personal how learning Spanish has made my two children brighter, smarter and more culturally aware, it's harder to understand why this is not a priority in the government agenda, especially in the modern and globalised world we live in today. Lest we forget, let's recall that just scarcely a few years ago, David Blunkett, whilst still Home Secretary, called upon foreign parents (yep, that's me, then!), to give up talking to their children in their own language at home and switch to English instead. Yeah, right, Dave, well, if I was to follow your advice, matey, my children wouldn't understand a word of what's being said when we travel to both Spain and Cuba. How do you think one learns a foreign language, Dave? By osmosis? But it's not just the linguistic element that one absorbs when devoted to this activity. It's the cultural one attached to it. Language and culture journey together through the annals of a nation. The mere existence of a particular phrase or word can take you back on a historical voyage to a time and context that you were unaware of to begin with. My son, who translates texts from Spanish to English at present, although reluctantly, has discovered a world of talking rats and honest elephants. Daughter, on the other hand, immerses herself in a realm populated by capricious queens and magical whales. All in all, both, with support from my wife, who speaks Spanish fluently, have found an alternative world that they can flee to and where they feel welcome. In the meantime, they have both taken to singing Chico Buarque's 'Cálice and learning the words. Portuguese, now, so soon?
Copyright 2007
Illustration courtesy of Garrincha

Friday, 21 September 2007

Shadwell or Song for my Son (Vivace)

The coach finally got underway a quarter of an hour later than planned. The sun, streaming through the windshield, bifurcated the vehicle in two. I remained in the section kissed by it. I read my book whilst my son talked to his friend J. My son. It was the first time that father and son would be on a holiday together, although only for a weekend. To me it felt like a rite of passage, like a secret fraternity that we both suddenly found ourselves in. Father and son. The phrase, cliche-tainted, had never occurred to me before. After all, we've always been a compact family together and I try to not make distinctions between son and daughter, age gap and gender notwithstanding. As the coach smoothed down the A406 eastbound, I suddenly thought of Steve Biddulp's book 'Raising Boys'. 'Sport offers a boy a chance to get closer to his father, and to other boys and men, through a common interest they might otherwise lack'. Well, this was our chance. Woodcraft Folk had arranged a whole weekend full of activities at Shadwell. These included kayaking and canoeing. I was looking forward to seeing my son interacting in a different medium almost on his own.

We arrived at the centre just after eight and immediately we were shown our sleeping quarters. These consisted of nothing more than a long room where we had to lay our sleepings bags and mats. Boys and men would sleep in this room, whilst women and girls would take over another room opposite to ours. The excitement coursing through our bodies was palpable to all present there. Games were produced, pizzas were cooked and the joie de vivre did not leave us until the small hours when I finally realised that I had to pump both my son and mine sleeping mattress and steer him to bed. The latter was difficult to achieve as he was high on energy but once he fell in the bed brought to life by me, but deficiently, Orpheus cuddled him and fed him the beautiful dreams we all want our offspring to have. I watched him in silence as his tiny curls moved hither and thither and suddenly it dawned on me that I was the happiest father in the world. I was witnessing innocence asleep. I kissed him on his forehead and sneaked into my own sleeping bag on my very deficient and below par mattress.

The morning found me in high spirits. In the absence of curtains in the room where we were sleeping, we were all woken up by a sun curious to know how our night had been. My son was playing cards with his friend J on his bed and upon seeing me awake he jumped onto my mattress and gave me a huge hug. After my morning exercises we both helped make breakfast for everyone in the centre. Later it was time to get in the water and I could not wait to see him donning his wetsuit and manoeuvring his kayak. After an introductory session from his tutor, who turned out to be a very no-nonsense kind of fellow, all the children went into the water. Bar a few mishaps at the beginning, he got the hang of it pretty soon. At some point they formed a circle and watching him laughing and so full of mirth I was compelled to ask myself: 'How am I turning out as a father?' And more pressing, how am I turning out as a father to a boy? Questions that could look lofty and pretentious for some take on a special meaning when you are born in a different country and the colour of your skin seems to be an excuse for abuse rather than mere pigmentation. Black, Afro-Caribbean fathers have long had a stigma attached to them that makes it hard to argue for individual analysis rather than the lump-them-all-under-the-same-umbrella dissection. As my son spun around on his kayak and joked endlessly (without falling in the water once) I wondered what my expectations were when I was his age. True, we look at our childhood through the eyes of nostalgia and melancholy most of the time. Sometimes with rage, sometimes with candour. But we always look back. What we don't do, what we can never do, is look at the present as we're living it. On the one hand we lack the capacity to apply many of the concepts we'll develop in later years to our infantile understanding of the world. On the other hand, even if we were to question the functionality of our surroundings, we would need a catharsis to effect change. My father never played with me, there was never a throw-around with a baseball, or a kick-about with a football. It was piano from the age of five, school homework to be completed by the end of the day and a strict system at home in order to attain academic achievement. In a way my son's own short life so far has mirrored mine, piano from an early age, good reading skills and an avid reader, good sportsman, talkative, confident, shy at times. During that weekend at the Shadwell Centre, two of the three girls there took to playing with his curls and sought him out more often than his mate J. This demonstrated his social skills and his popularity with people. Everyone was amazed at his bilingual abilities. I could see myself in that nine-year-old. Even down to his overbearing Dad. Am I? Yes, it pains me to admit, but yes. I am. But the main reason is that I love him, I love him to bits and when the time came to jump into the water and get soaked, he wouldn't do it at first (who knows, stage-fright maybe?), until I re-assured him that it would be OK, that he could, that he would love it. And he did. He just did. And I was laughing. And so was he.

On the way back we occupied the same seats, with the sun playing shadow play. Its illuminated backdrop was the perfect setting for us opaque moving images. My son was reading a book in Spanish before turning to his mate J to pick up the thread of the conversation they'd left unfinished back at the centre. I listened in whilst pretending to read (I swear I can do both) and the innocent tone of it brought back memories of chats under mango trees in my uncles' and aunties' when I was a teeny weenie prepubescent boy. It brought back the smell of September mornings in Cuba as summer still lingered behind for a little sleep-in but autumn was already announcing its grand entrance. There were not coming-of-age ceremonies over that weekend at Shadwell, no titanic feats to accomplish, but on that late summer afternoon and on the two days that preceded it, my son and I grew to the same height together, hand in hand, together.

Copyright 2007

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Until the Violence Stops (special screening)

There are still tickets for the screening below.
The Bohemian Night at The ArtsZone and Birds Eye View Festival

Until The Violence Stops (special screening)
Dir. Abby Epstein, USA 2005
Eve Ensler's award winning book The Vagina Monologues has grown from an award winning play to an international grassroots movement to stop violence against women and girls. Until The Violence Stops documents women from Harlem to Ukiah, California; from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Philippines and Kenya - just some of the 800 cities around the world who participated in V-Day benefit stagings of The Vagina Monologues.
Director Abby Epstein takes a poignant journey into the hearts of women and includes revealing testimonies from men, who expose social and cultural attitudes that perpetuate the pervasive violence against women. In emotionally charged interviews and performances, everyday women and celebrities (including Rosie Perez, Salma Hayek and Jane Fonda) embrace their bodies, reconcile their past, and bond together to break the silence that surrounds abuse.
More than just testimonies and performances, Until the Violence Stops is a film about empowerment and the importance of dialogue in the healing process. A celebration of women reclaiming their bodies and lives, this moving documentary leaves us with hope that change can happen.
Wednesday 12 September
6.30pm (doors will open at 6pm)
The ArtsZone
54-56 Market Square
N9 0TZ
Admission fee: £3
For bookings and information call 020 8 887 9500
Or e-mail
There will be a Q&A session after the screening with speakers from Family Justice Centre, Enfield Women's Centre, Enfield Council, Latin American Women's Rights, Birds Eye View Festival, Solace Women's Aid and Helen Nelder, playwright and theatre director.


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