Tuesday, May 25, 2004

It’s not every weekend that you find yourself in the middle of an ancient Roman forum, dancing to Irish folk music sung in Croatian.

Wearing kilts and tops with one orange arm, one green arm and white in the middle – the tricolours of the Irish flag – the band gave us three full hous of fun, and I especially enjoyed hearing Walzing Matilda sung in Croatian. There were occasional Pogues tracks, although one minor glitch on an otherwise excellent performance was making me realise that you can just get away with doing Fairytale of New York without Kirsty McCall’s voice, but not Shane McGowan’s. Without those drunken Irish slurs the wonderful “Ah, fuck it all, lets just drink” sentiments don’t work: they sounded as lost as the average listener does trying to understand exactly what words McGowan is actually singing.

The Giro d’Italia came to Pula on Sunday and the town, situated on the southern tip of Istria, was celebrating. I was woken by a passing marching band, and from then until our pseudo-Irish friends finished their set more than 12 hours later, it was a day of live music, interupted only briefly for the arrival of the actual cyclists.

The City of Pula Big Band played a nice collection of classic tunes to help my breakfast go down, a local duet did a combination of Croatian and international hits, including changing one of the lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s most famous track to “I should have changed that fucking lock” – you can get away with these things in a foreign language – and then a zany 13-piece jazzy-funky-folky ensemble whiled the evening away, all to the backdrop of a very well preserved Roman temple.

There’s also a huge Roman arena in Pula, and in good enough condition – like the one here in Verona – to still hold events in the summer. And the sunsets are stunning.

I took a trip to the pleasant fishing village of Rovinj on Saturday, and yesterday I was in Rijeka. Having not spent too much over the weekend, I splashed out on lunch and had one of the finest fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. “Buono, no?”, asked the chef as he walked by, “Ah, si, si”, I replied, genuinely. “Questa mattina...”, he explained “..in mare”. Not perfect Italian, but I understood. Indeed, I had a number of conversations over the weekend in which neither of us were using our first language. It was, I think, the first time I’ve done that – I’ve only ever used my Spanish with native speakers – and I experienced a thrill that helped me understand why some – the more motivated – students say they love English. I’ve always been rather confused by that sentiment; French is certainly more beautiful and Spanish more fun. But now I realise that they don’t love the language, but they love what it means to them.

I don't mean simply the passport to finding somebody you can converse with anywhere in the world. When I find myself in strange foreign climes I feel embarassed that conversation depends on somebody else speaking my language. When looking for an English speaker, I try, in whatever way I can, to distance myself as much as possible from the small-minded “Does anybody in this God-forsaken town speak my Goddam language?!” attitude. But on the other hand I didn’t feel any embarrassment asking “Parli Italiano?”. Somehow, because it’s a foreign language for us both, a bond is created where previously there wasn't, and, crucially, wouldn’t be if Italian was the first language for either of us. And so it is for the most motivated of EFL students: English is not just a passport to educational, business or cultural opportunities, but an opportunity to build bridges across cultures, a thrill denied to us native speakers.

Back to the fish. Fresh that morning, perfectly cooked and served with a lemony potato and spinach mix, it was a wonderful dish in a weekend of otherwise poor food. One of the advantages of living abroad is that it makes you appreciate home more, and I was surprised and pleased to miss some aspects of Italy; most obviously the food and the guarantee of quality that even the cheapest, smallest trattoria offers, but also wine culture, and even style: Croatians, like the rest of us, just don't look as good as the Italians. One of the reasons I chose to spend my long weekend in Croatia rather than, say, Tuscany, was that I wanted a break from Italy. Not only did I get that, but I’ve returned with a new appreciation of the place. The mind really is broadened by travel.

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