The bridge across the Atlantic

In this article, Federico explores the relationship between two cultures that seem opposed to each other—those of Brazil and Portugal, which at the same time clearly have so much in common (and not only their passion for soccer!). Brimming with admiration for the Portuguese language, Federico tells about oceans, bridges, ports and rendezvous.

“This is where the sea ends and land begins”—that’s how José Saramago described Lisbon, the city where he wrote and where I live, painting a picture of the Portuguese capital and the mouth of its river, the Tejo. In old times, just like today, ships sailed from the mouth of the Tejo towards the unknown immensity of the horizon; after a long time, the same ships returned home to Lisbon from that infinity-like distance, bringing their precious cargo back to the place where land ends and the sea begins.

Oftentimes, these ships were heading towards, or were returning from the northeastern coast of Brazil, perhaps from Pernambuco, bringing products such as coffee, cocoa, or tropical plants and their seeds, arriving to take root in a new land. Walking through Lisbon today, I can still see the tall palm trees adorning the streets, some of them grown from seeds brought by these very same ships—which were themselves the seeds for Saramago’s inspiration, leading him to write his novels.

Saramago is known for his strict narrative style. His novels, which I got to know only after having dedicated myself to learning the Portuguese language, are written in a continuous flux, almost without any interruption, inserting dialogue, speeches and reflections within long sentences, with no space for periods or dry punctuation, but with much space for innumerable commas, inserted where many other authors would have chosen to finish the sentence. For each one of Saramago’s great paragraphs, which often spread over a number of pages, other authors would have written whole chapters. And he doesn’t use inverted commas or dialogue lines, leaving the reader with the possibility that the lines of dialogue might have been only thought or imagined, not spoken out loud.

At the same time as Saramago, Jorge Amado, another famous writer of the Portuguese language, hailing from the Brazilian city of São Salvador de Bahia, was also writing his famous works, but—and I beg pardon to the literary critics—the fact that they used the same language is where the similarities between the two of them end. And it’s also with the language that—and I beg pardon to whomever might want to disagree—the similarities between the two people, the Brazilian and Portuguese, start and end.

The Portuguese tongue is one of the richest and most beautiful in the world—not only for its cornucopia of tonalities and words, some of which, they say, are not found in any other language, but also for the vast heritage of writers of prose and poetry, coming mainly from two cultures which, as much as one might expect them to be similar, stand notoriously in opposition in almost every sense. Portugal, with its classical, noble and nostalgic culture, offers the perspective of a world hemmed in between Spain, through which anyone who wants to go from Portugal to the rest of Europe must pass, and, on the other side, a vast and perilous ocean. The Portuguese surmounted both of these obstacles time after time, with enormous courage and perseverance. The character of the Portuguese people has certainly been marked by this fact of their history. They conquered the ocean, and this victory is celebrated even today in their sad and nostalgic fado music. Every evening, it fills up the small streets—the becos—of the Alfama neighborhood with songs brimming with the melancholy longing—saudade—for those sailors and fishermen that ventured, sometimes never to be seen again, into the ocean’s domain, that immense liquid desert which starts nearby.

Across the ocean, the Portuguese colonized a land that they called ‘Brazil’, and they gave it a bit of their own identity, although it was also shaped by strong East Indian and African influences. But it seems to have happened somehow that, across the depths of this vast ocean, on their travels of conquest, somewhere on the way to Brazil, the Portuguese lost their melancholic mood. Perhaps it was because in the new land, there was no more time for apathy—there, one needed to survive, and live to the fullest, without losing themselves in faraway memories, without surrendering to the sossego, that melancholy calm. In Brazil today, life still has the same intensity, never letting go of the opportunity to live all there is to live, never stopping to think about what has been achieved or what is still needed. In this young and fertile land, you live every single moment, because every moment runs away, and once it escapes, you can never find it again, like the ever-changing waves of the ocean.

The Portuguese language spread, just like a wave, from Portugal to South America, Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East, and it remains today the only true tie between two amazing countries, Portugal and Brazil—as in terms of culture and way of life, the difference between them is truly ocean-wide. There are more disputes, contrasts, differences and disagreements between the two countries than can be counted. Each has their jokes about the other. Even the language gives a perfect example of their simultaneous similarity and difference: both peoples complain of not understanding the accent of the other, each claiming that the other speaks Portuguese in a strange, wrong, ridiculous or overly rigid manner. And yet, it is this language, after all, that still connects them today, like a long bridge across the ocean.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Federico A.R., our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

The multilingual mind

Alessia is a researcher in the field of learning multiple languages, from Italy, multilingual herself, married to a Flemish Belgian and living in France with her two multilingual kids. She invites us into her home to hear the sounds of the many different languages that ring through it every day. She smiles at the joys and challenges of having a house filled with the harmony of different voices, and offers us deeper insight into the passage from a monolingual to a multilingual way of thinking.

Being a multilingual family—is it a handful?

I’d say so.

Picture a regular evening. We’re having our neighbors (100% French, homegrown and purebred) over for dinner. Their little boy, Cèdric, is playing with our kids in the living room.

At the table, we adults talk in French. And so do our kids in the living room, with their loud voices, jumping up and down on the sofas. So I say to my oldest, who is three and a half: ‘Non gridate troppo, per favore!’ (‘Don’t scream so much, please!’). He answers: ‘No, mamma!’ and laughs. Then, my husband takes a turn at it: ‘Luist aan mama alsjeblieft! Moet ge een beetje rustig zijn’ (‘Listen to your mom, please! You should be a little quieter’). My son just laughs, and now he’s running around with his little brother and their little friend. I look at my husband and tell him, in English: ‘Let them play; who cares? We don’t live in a building, huh?’. And we go back to our French conversation with our French neighbors.

The phone rings—it’s a Spanish friend. I answer her: ‘¡Hola tía! ¿Qué tal?’ (‘Hey girl! What’s up?’). She tells me that tomorrow she’s going to the park with her kids, and asks me if I want to come. ‘Si, bueno, podría ser. Si los niños no duermen demasiado por la tarde, vamos a ir, ¿vale? Te llamaré. ¡Hasta mañana!’ (‘Yeah, good, maybe. If the kids don’t sleep too much in the afternoon, we’ll go, ok? I’ll call you. See you tomorrow!’). A little while later, a friend of my husband’s rings at the door, a German from Switzerland who is dropping off some skis he’d borrowed from us. ‘Bonsoir!’ he says to everybody. Then he turns to my husband: ‘Hoi! Merci viel mal, es war mega gail!’ (‘Hey, thanks a million; it was awesome!’).

See? Nothing special, just an evening like any other for us, the multilingual family. But then, the neighbors start with their questions and comments (in French, obviously): ‘Oh, it’s so good that your sons speak so many languages!’, ‘They’re so fortunate!’, ‘And you? How many do you speak?’, ‘Oh, so many!’, ‘And how did you learn them?’, ‘Travelling must come so easy for you!’.

We don’t mind all the remarks, compliments, commonplaces, all sometimes betraying a touch of envy. But often, I wonder: when they go back home to their monolingual world, what do they really think about us? What would they really like to ask, but politeness or shyness won’t let them?

And that’s not all—we’re actually also talking about me, the ex-monolingual of only a little more than 15 years ago. After all, it’s comfortable to stay within the four walls of your own language and your own homeland, in the safety of a world where you’re cushioned by the fact that you understand everything all the time, where it’s a rare thing to be judged for how you talk or express yourself, and where dialects give an echo of the beauty of a different way of speaking, but within the confines of a comprehensibility that is always within reach.

I think one becomes multilingual at the point when one starts to uproot oneself from this way of seeing the world through a single lens, when one starts seeing it from different angles, when one becomes open to more and more people and more and more different ways to live.

Learning a language is both a comic and tragic affair, particularly when you’re an adult. We ex-monolinguals are well familiar with that overwhelming empty feeling of not understanding anything in social situations, that embarrassment of not being able to laugh when others laugh, and that feeling of anxiety you get on the seemingly unending road to learning a new language. But then we finally make it, and we get the ease of being able to understand (almost) everything, and the satisfaction of being able to express ourselves in (almost) all situations, while holding on to the humble attitude that helped us get to this point. Because, as everyone knows, when you’re multilingual, it always happens that there’s a word that just doesn’t come to you, that’s just outside your grasp. The road to learning isn’t one you ever leave.

And I also asked myself a thousand questions before I got to where I am today. When I was dating my future husband at university, and we spoke in English (or mostly Italglish, in my case) as neither of us understood the mother tongue of the other, I used to think to myself: ‘But what am I doing with my terrible English? How can he truly understand me? How can he get to understand the nuances of my thoughts, which I can only express in my mother tongue?’

Thinking of the monolingual mind I had back then and the multilingual one I have today, I can say I’ve grown in many ways. It’s not only my ability to jump from one language to another at the drop of a hat. It’s the beauty of having a conversation in Spanish over lunch and then going to study in English, while I still think in French because I had dinner with some local friends the previous night. It’s the spontaneous gesture of writing an SMS in German while talking to your kid in Italian and watching a movie in the Queen’s purest English.

What changed the most for me, as I became multilingual, was the awareness that communication isn’t about using exactly the right word at the right time, and it’s also definitely not about saying something just like I would have said it 20 years ago. Speaking several languages has taught me more than just new words and new grammar. Much more importantly, it has taught me that the nuances of thoughts also change with the language you happen to be speaking, that learning is a process that never ends, and that you only truly get to know someone when you speak their mother tongue.

To speak a foreign language is to try to use everything you know to express what you want to say. We’re no longer focused on how to say one particular thing, but on what we want to say, on how to get the message across.

And my home is, indeed, a little world in itself—and a handful. Mistakes, mix-ups and ‘borrowings’ are du jour. But it’s a sort of chaos in which we find ourselves at ease, in which languages intertwine, and new worlds are constructed and deconstructed, made and unmade every single day.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Alessia, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

What does the cow say in Lebanon? – the Arabic language

It is said that “Arabic language is like a beautiful woman who needs no makeup to look as elegant as a swan in the Lebanese Bnachii lake”. In Al-Dhad language, where harmony and beauty are both present in Calligraphy, Semantics and Phonetic Distinction, what on earth do animals say? Salah explains it all.

There are so many languages that depend on Onomatopoeia to name the sounds of animals. This could be very clear in Germanic languages such us English, German and Dutch, as well as other tongues that are spoken in the northern part of Europe, where the term that refers to the sound of a cow for instance is actually the same sound made by this animal. Other similar examples include sounds made by cats, dogs, bees, ducks and many other familiar animals that could be seen wherever we go. But, have you ever wondered whether this may also apply to the Arab world?

Lebanon, a natural elegance with an oriental twist

Lebanon is one of the Arabic countries where you can see people really proud of their mother tongue. Who among us doesn’t hear of the musical masterpieces made by Fairuz, Sabah and a wide range of artistic figures who become an everlasting landmark in the Lebanese culture, civilization and history? Everybody in this country speaks Arabic just like all habitants of Al-Sham region. As this latter is considered as one of the richest regions of livestock wealth due to its generous soil and perfect climate, then it’s not really a bolt from the blue to see Lebanon leading the Middle-East countries in paving the way for businesses to invest in this sector. Livestock wealth in Lebanon is actually extended across the whole country, and cow farms that are spread here and there abroad the Lebanese territory must be the convincing answer for any doubter.

Lebanon visitors may enjoy cows’ mooing when they watch them grazing in the green fields of its virgin nature, while adding more charm to this country’s beauty that could only be imagined by those who have already passed through the green fields, high mountains and pure water streams that make this country a perfect destination for millions of tourists every year, where they can spend their vacations and have a bit of relaxation away from noisy cities. So, how do Lebanese refer to the sounds of their cows, and cattle in general, in their daily life, or even in their dictionary?

Onomatopoeia in the Arabic language

The Arabic language is quite different in this regard from Germanic languages, and other tongues that are spoken all over the world. People in the MENA region are still referring to the sounds of animals with a wide range of terms that have nothing to do with the actual sounds made by these animals. This means that Onomatopoeia is almost lost in the Arabic language; except for few cases like when describing the sound of wind gently touching the tree leaves, as well as the sound of water flowing in streams, in addition to horses’ neighing, frogs’ croaking, cats’ meowing, wolves’ howling, and door creaking. These terms may somehow sound a bit similar to the actual sounds made by these things. Some Arabic linguists say that neglecting Onomatopoeia when it comes to naming these sounds is actually the natural result of maintaining the endurance of the Arabic language over centuries of time – despite some minor changes that are being caused by modern technologies on our daily language. Whereas some other linguists tend to relate this fact to the concretely-archaic mentality of Arabs who always refuse to let go of their traditions, values, principles and even their mother tongue.

The actual sound of the cow needs nothing but a slight movement with our lips; as the sound ‘m’ is one of the first bilabial sounds that babies can articulate at complete ease. However, the term that refers to cows’ mooing in the Arabic language has nothing to do with bilabial sounds. The term ‘KHOWAR’ in Arabic consists of 4 letters, and just the first sound (kh) is a consonant that is articulated on the level of the Uvula, and it is actually one of the hardest sounds that kids may face some frustrating difficulties pronouncing it during their first 4 years; and in several cases, the same problem accompanies them to their schools. So, as you can see, just analyzing a single letter of this term makes it really clear that the term ‘KHOWAR’ has nothing to do with the actual sound made by a cow.

This could also been noticed in hundreds of terminologies including dogs’ barking, lions’ roaring, cocks’ crowing, sheep bleating, rabbits’ squeaking, tigers’ growling, pigs’ snorting and birds’ twitting, in addition of course to a huge number of terms that prove the almost full absence of Onomatopoeia in the Arabic language.

Opinions may vary with regard to the utilization of Onomatopoeia in creating new terms to name the sounds based on their actual vocal structure in the Arabic language. But, what is really unspeakable is the surprising harmony that gathers most linguists from the Arab world, who always say that the Arabic language is like a beautiful woman who needs no makeup to look as elegant as a swan in the Lebanese Bnachii lake. This harmony doesn’t exclude Western linguists as well. Ernest Renan, the French expert of Semitic languages wrote “The Arabic language is the most astonishing event of human history. Unknown during the classical period, it suddenly emerged as a complete language. After this, it did not undergo any noticeable changes, so one cannot define for it an early or a late stage. It is just the same today as it was when it first appeared”.

This story has initially been written in Arabic by the impressive plume of Salah E. Bourebounam, our native Arabian writer. It was then beautiful trans-created and polished by Salah himself. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager Katerina. Learn more about our Copywriting and Translation services here.

Miraculous discovery of Sri Lankan traditional medicine

All adventurous travelers seek to escape their everyday reality and get swept off their feet by the unusual and the exotic—but sometimes it happens in ways they don’t expect. For example, when you’re having a perfect day at the beach and some unknown creature decides to sting your foot, which starts swelling up like a balloon, with the nearest hospital 50 kilometers away. Eddie recounts how his concept of ‘first aid’ changed for good during his trip to Sri Lanka.

I’m pretty sure I’m not a hypochondriac. Really, I’m not. Of course, when I travel, I take some basic medicine with me, just to make sure I don’t run into problems that could slow me down. It’s usually just a bit of Ibuprofen, Aulin, antihistamines, paracetamol, something against mosquitoes (to prevent a problem), tablets against malaria (to treat said problem), arnica for inflammations, sunscreen (to prevent a problem), Aloe Vera cream (to treat said problem)—and that’s most of it, really.

I’m just a control freak who lives up to the name—as well-organized as can be. Everything necessary has to be packed for the trip; you can never be prepared enough. But, as my grandmother told me, you’re never prepared enough anyway—and it’s true. Something always happens that I hadn’t foreseen, thwarting all my careful preparations, so I have to stock up on some new medicine or remedy. And this, of course, becomes a necessary item on the packing list for all future trips.

But sometimes, mainstream medicine simply can’t cut it. Especially when your survival kit doesn’t cover exotic animal bites, and there isn’t any pharmacy or hospital within 50 km. Times like these are perfect for unconventional medicine to come in and do the job the other couldn’t. Sounds great—but where can you even get alternative medicine if you’re stuck on a faraway remote beach? Fortunately, in Sri Lanka, Ayurveda, which for us would be a form of ‘alternative medicine’, is simply the mainstream one: pharmacies are nothing but small-town shops full of herbs of local and ancestral lore. And the hospitals in smaller towns are nothing but the homes of the doctors themselves, whose job is to care not only for the body, but also for the balance of body and spirit, according to the holistic principles of this ancient practice.

In a country with a social fabric untouched by time, where traditions have deep roots, and where the beaches are small paradises blessed by bountiful Nature, it’s not hard to get a bit distracted. How distracted, you ask? Enough for some mysterious creature—I still have no idea what it was—to stick some sharp body part (I still have no idea what that was) in the sole of my right foot. Two minutes later, I realized I had to kiss my idyllic sunset at the beach goodbye, as my foot started to change its shape and size. A dozen children abandoned their cricket match to come help, and to offer me ideas and remedies. But these ideas and remedies sadly remained a mystery to me, due to a slight communication problem: I don’t actually speak any Sinhala. Frustrated at not being able to express myself, and in the grip of a growing pain, I found some solace in the company of two Spanish lifeguards on their holiday, who had happened to be on the same beach. But still, I had no luck—their first aid seminar hadn’t actually covered treating bites from mysterious exotic animals. It dawned on me that the only solution was to get myself to a hospital. Sure, but where?

First thing to do: figure out where was the nearest hospital. Second thing to do: start praying that it would be in decent condition, clean and with English-speaking staff. As I frantically tried to piece together bits of information from the various bystanders, all looking on with curiosity, sympathy and concern at the spectacle of my deformed foot, the realization struck me that my only hope of salvation was located 50 km from the beach. It seemed just a little too far away, given the unpaved roads, the tuk-tuk as the only means of transport and the foot infection that was already spreading up to my ankle.

Just as the bystanders were helping me climb the rickety three-wheeled frame of the tuk-tuk to start me on my long and bumpy journey, an elderly gentleman, looking eerily similar to my grandpa (or how he’d look if there were a Sri Lankan version of him, of course), gave my foot a quick look and insisted on taking me to see a friend of his who’d be able to help me. What to do? With my leg already reminding me of the Elephant Man, the runaway infection and the possibility that I wouldn’t arrive at the hospital in time to save my suffering limb, I decided to trust in the kindness of my Sri-Lankan grandpa, who was offering me the quicker solution. After a mercifully short two-street tuk-tuk journey (as walking was all but impossible), we arrived to see the man I can only call ’the village sorcerer who saved my life’.

I call him ’sorcerer‘ not because he was covered in the plumage of exotic birds or had a goat ready to slaughter—he wasn’t, and he didn’t—but simply because what he did to my foot was so far removed from our familiar notions of Western medicine, that I couldn’t help thinking it was closer to magic than to science. But facts are facts: with his Ayurvedic medicine, he dealt with my swelling and stopped the spread of the infection in what felt like the blink of an eye. Calm and professional, as if treating limb-threatening bites from mysterious insects was something he did every day, he soothed my pain with fragrant incense, washed my foot thoroughly, applied a very pungent ointment, made of God knows what, that he prepared before my very eyes, mixing in fresh herbs from his garden, then bandaged me up with white gauze (a fashion faux pas if there ever was one), and told me I should wear only sandals for a week, to let the wound breathe. He did it all with kindness and a smile, like someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, and with a calm that made my growing panic melt away and restored my mental balance—which, according to the holistic teachings of his medical tradition, was essential for speeding up my recovery.

I still have no idea what stung me. Nor what the ’sorcerer‘ put on my foot. But I do remember the pain, the helpless feeling of being unable to walk, the cold fear of not knowing where I’d end up and what would happen to me. And I remember that the pain was gone in short order, that my swelling disappeared in just a day, that I had no side-effects and that my ‘sorcerer’ made me keep the bandage on (which, between the strange ointment and being worn with sandals, was soon a slightly less white shade of pale) until my return to Barcelona.

And I also know that, had I not decided to entrust myself to the care and kindness of strangers, with their strange language, their barely-there English and their ancient medicine from another world than that of the proud industrial products of the West that I’d crammed into my travel kit, I might have arrived too late at that hospital. And I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of my wonderful holiday in that amazing land—or, maybe, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy having two legs, or even being alive. Instead of my leg, that land took a little piece of my heart—not only for its pristine beauty, but also for its ancient and marvelous traditions, which were there for me and restored my foot as I’d always had it. I can’t say that I ever came across Ayurveda again—but I am infinitely grateful to the Universe for having made sure it was there right when I needed it, right where both of us needed to be—8590 km from home.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Edmondo Pezzopane, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

That time I made peace with myself at last—in front of a plate of pasta

For some of us, accepting who we are and where we came from is the struggle of a lifetime. Eddie tells us how learning to make homemade pasta can unexpectedly become a rite of passage—and acceptance.

Abruzzo is a strong land. Rugged. Towering. It’s the kind of place you see in those car commercials that talk about force, endurance, strength—with its desolate valleys between jagged peaks, no trees, only meadows for sheep and horses to graze. These places inspired many a medieval tale and mystical legend—but for me, for so many years, they only inspired the great desire to escape. I wanted nothing to do with Abruzzo. I had an agreement with it; let’s call it a common understanding: I would stay until I was 18, setting up my plans for a better future—one far away, out in the big city. Abruzzo was only my launch pad—or rather the Earth itself, pulling me back, keeping me from launching off to a better life that I could almost see up there, calling me with its shining lights. I focused so much on my escape plans, and I didn’t really understand what I was trying to escape from.

Then, when I finally made it past 18, with my blooming university career ahead of me in a far-off land, not even the homemade gravy of my mamma or my nonna were enough to make me even think of going back. The times when I returned home for the obligatory festive occasions were rightly dubbed ‘doctor’s visits’ by everyone I knew: quick, just passing through, as there was always something better to do somewhere else. It would take a long time—indeed, it took more than 20 years, voyages around the world, times of love, times of loss, and a masterclass on homemade pasta taught by a housewife, none other than my own mother, to make me understand that I could finally bury the hatchet—bury it deep, and make peace with my roots.

In my wanderings far from home, I learned to make sushi and paella, I learned to prepare a delicious ratatouille, I became versed in the Ecuadorean cuisine of the Andes, and I even tried my hand at cooking Vietnamese tidbits—but I always just took for granted my grandmother’s pizze fritte, my aunt’s ravioli, and the homemade pasta of my mamma—to name only three of the infinite delights that had nourished me during my teenage years and helped me grow into a man. At no time did the thought cross my mind that I should learn to make the dough myself, knead it, and put it through the machine, to be able to enjoy a plate of my very own homemade fettucine. Learning to make sushi—of course, a must for any true ‘metropolitan soul’; but homemade pasta—what the hell are you talking about? The distance I tried to put between myself and my origins dulled any impulse I’d had to learn. That, and some kind of faith, blind, not even conscious, that mamma would always be there to make it—the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life.

But the years passed, and the youthful certainty of my own immortality didn’t seem so certain anymore. And so it happened that, a few months ago, during one of my blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trips home, I stopped for a moment to watch my mamma make the homemade fettucine. And I broke the silence—a silence that for me had something solemn, even spiritual, and for her probably just came with the automatic movements repeated so many times they no longer needed any further thought or expression—and asked my mother to show me how to make the pasta. I vaguely offered that maybe—don’t know when, but at some point—I’d like to try to make it myself, at my own house. And my mamma, not seeming to give much importance to my unexpected outburst (as mothers know what inner struggle it takes sometimes to follow our impulse to ask something—and they know not to stifle the spark within us by making us uncomfortable), started to show me—from the beginning.

I made a careful record of the process, making pictures, taking notes—but the whole time while I was playing reporter, I couldn’t help noticing the strength of my mother’s fingers as they dug into the lump of pasta, to mold it, break it apart, and mold it again, giving it perfect firmness in the end. That simple and repetitive movement, the fingers like the roots of a tree digging forcefully into the earth, seemed to almost put me in a trance—and I was again close to my land, Abruzzo, the stubborn and the proud, strong as the roots of a tree, gentle and soft as the lump of pasta that lets itself be molded and broken apart.

What about the fettuccine, you ask? We ate them on that very same day, with a sauce of tomatoes and mushrooms, picked with great care from the fields around my childhood home.

That was six months ago. No, I haven’t tried to make homemade pasta—not yet. I don’t have all the utensils I need. More importantly, I don’t have all the courage I need. The courage to try and maybe fail—and betray the trust of my mother, who gave me her very own recipe for the pasta, a secret to keep and pass on to my own children. To fail, and be unable to prove (to my dinner guests, to myself!) that I am a true man from Abruzzo—one who knows how to make his own homemade pasta, and who is comfortable, and proud, to sink his roots deep into the soil that nurtured him and raised him up.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Edmondo Pezzopane, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

Why porous borders give birth to multiple identities

‘Border’ is, without a doubt, one of the defining words of our times. In this article, Giustina shares another vision of what borders could be, seeing them as fascinating windows towards the unknown, and mirrors in which one can see the contradictions on both sides.

Most people think of a border as something that closes off and sets limits—but for me, the word has always had the opposite meaning: an opening, a key to the discovery of other possible worlds. I grew up in a region of Italy bordering Slovenia, marked by a long and indelible history of commingling of people, languages, cultures—but also by times of hardening, expulsions, closure.

I was born in a land at the very edge of Italy, a little limb jutting out to the east, along which the Iron Curtain once fell. At least in part, the region defines itself by looking back with nostalgia to its Imperial past, under the Habsburgs. At the same time, it is sometimes reimagined in order to fit within a purely Italian retelling of its story, leaving out the many minorities, in every sense, that thrive there.

That border between Gorizia and Nova Gorica—two provinces kept apart, from 1947, by the fact of belonging to two different ideological worlds—was to my young eyes a wellspring of irresistible attraction, something so close to real-life magic. Me and my family, we crossed it almost every Saturday or Sunday, with our special permit—the propusnica, awarded only to locals. There, we would enjoy delicious homemade meals and relaxing walks through pure green nature, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, the westernmost part of Yugoslavia.

I remember the excitement each time, the awareness of ‘being on the outside’, and that hint of embarrassment that came simply from not understanding Slovenian, the language of our neighbors. Much later, these memories led me to focus on those same places, and I chose to study the languages and cultures of the Balkans—one of the most neglected topics in Italian universities.

The truth is that, ever since I was a child, such a border became nothing less than a part of me, an integral part of my identity, which was from the start defined by a form of belonging that was plural, not exclusive. It was easy for me to add even more tiles to the mosaic of my identity that I built up in my head. After all, I had a Mexican mother, and a father who was himself the child of a mixed couple—an Italian mother from the borderlands, and a father who was also Italian but from the Levant, from Istanbul, himself the son of a Levantine Italian-Armenian woman—and the list can always go on.

My parents had also lived for some years in Brazil, where they conceived me, and I could still feel the call of Latin America in me—deep, ancestral, irresistible—which made me always question my ties with the Italian world I grew up in. And even more—halfway around the world, another border would mark my childhood in an unforgettable way, in an intriguing parallel to the Italian-Slovenian one: the United States-Mexican border, next to which I spent a good part of my summers, visiting my chicano (Mexican-Californian) relatives, who lived between San Diego and Los Angeles.

Stepping across that border, from San Diego to Tijuana, was an overwhelming experience for me, a true rite of initiation into what ‘exoticism’ could mean. The contrast between the two countries was truly powerful—to my eyes, the eyes of a child, this was a passage towards a universe of intoxicating color and human closeness, which had a much more direct, more accessible truth to it than anything one could find on the other side, that of the United States—as idealized as it may be.

For me, crossing that walkway was nothing less than immersing myself in another possible way of experiencing reality. The act of crossing borders was the start of a never-ending journey, a custom and a necessity—something essential to being the person I had even then decided I wanted to become.

Many years later, as a young student of anthropology, I spent some summers in an academic course organized by the Border Crossings Network in the little village of Konitsa, in the Greek region of Epirus, just a few kilometers from the Albanian border. It was there that I realized how important borders were, and the act of crossing them in particular, not only on the human level but on the academic level as well—for disciplines such as the anthropology of borders and, more generally, Border Studies.

Together with participants from all the countries of Southeastern Europe, and a few other ‘Westerners’ like me, I learned, often in exhausting detail but still with great enthusiasm, how to carry out ethnographic fieldwork in the Greek-Albanian areas, searching for whatever was really and truly a product of human interactions within—and with—such a multiethnic space.

This is how I understood, not only on an instinctual but also on a theoretical level, that a border, being only an artificial human construct, is able to set in motion, because of this very fact, a unique and valuable dynamic of resistance to the monolithic presence and self-affirmation of an individual state. The border is supposed to uphold and represent the state—yet by its dynamic it invalidates the state’s authority at the same time. All of the most remarkable contradictions within the respective countries accumulate, become concentrated, and settle like sediment on their borders. That is what makes these borders such fascinating places, giving life to forms of syncretism, if not even to some forms of cultural schizophrenia.

This is why all human activities that flourish in the borderlands are not only enriching the intercultural wealth available to their inhabitants, but also contribute to questioning the very theoretical foundations of the nation-state, and the notion of simple, exclusive belonging on which it is built. This is a fascinating paradox, infinitely complex, that I am still researching—and living—each day.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

When you’re face to face with a whale shark, does anything still matter?

There are many ways to leap into the unknown: quitting your job, facing an empty piece of paper with a pen, starting a long journey without a precise plan. In this vibrant tale, Eddie tell us about his own leap, trying to put into words a life-changing experience with a whale shark in the Philippines—an experience that left him speechless.

I should try to stay away from those viral videos going around on Facebook—those that keep reminding me that life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Because of them, I gave up the comfort of a steady job for the uncertainty of a nomad’s life. Because of them, I changed careers three times to follow my true desires—including all that came with a full-fledged mid-life crisis. Because of them, I spend more money than I have, because ‘a chance not taken is an opportunity missed.’ But I don’t regret it for a second.

The balance of my bank account never ventures far from zero, like a deep-sea diver clinging to his lifeline, but I still have no regrets. Because sometimes these experiences are truly worth living. Yes, there were times when I was disappointed—fortunately, just a few. But most were experiences of the kind that truly matters, so strong that they stay in your mind, stubborn, unfading, like you just lived them a moment ago. And it’s not like I’m one of the bravest souls around. But, as I’ve heard those viral videos say, you need to be strong to get the strength (a paradox worth reflecting on) to try something new, to jump out into the void. Sometimes literally.

I’m willing to admit I left ‘jump out into the void’ for last on my bucket list. Someone like me who suffers from vertigo would need a really strong push for that one. So, instead of climbing to the top of the world to find a little bit of the meaning this life can have, I decided to plumb the fathomless depths of the Philippines (I might be exaggerating, just a little), in search of that great beast: the whale shark. Just in case the words ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ together aren’t enough to make an impression, I should remind you this is the largest creature that inhabits the waters of this planet. So I drew up my courage from everywhere I could, even from my travelling companion—as ‘unity is strength’ after all, which I’m pretty sure is a real piece of wisdom, even though I haven’t seen any viral videos about it).

Unfortunately, my companion had somehow managed to come down with an intestinal virus, which kept him in bed for nearly a week. No whales for him, and no sharks either. But I’ve got a mantra that always helps: I repeat in my head, over and over, that if everyone can do it and it’s perfectly legal, it’s probably not going to kill me today. And it didn’t. But the experience had something else about it. Something truly ‘beyond’.

It all started with our group—myself and four sturdy Norwegians, who made me feel safer, as they looked much more up to the task ahead than my own skin and bones—sitting in an office, watching an informational video that explained how you should behave to avoid problems and minimize your impact on the natural environment. Then we were led out to the ship, and we set off in search of the whale shark. Here would be a good place to mention that I’m never quite at ease with the sea. I like it fine, and I enjoy swimming, on one condition: that I can see clearly all around me. The darker the water gets, the more nervous I get. And, if you were wondering, whale sharks can’t be found near the shore—you need to go out far from the coast. So the water was now a deep, dark blue, and I could hear the strong wind howling from the stern, the chitchat of the Norwegians, the shouts of the Filipino sailors watching the waters for the ‘black shadow’, as they called it, that signaled the presence of the Leviathan.

There was chaos on that boat, and so much noise, and the long wait only added to the tension, the anxiety mixed with disappointment mixed with a little hope that we would end up returning to shore without having encountered the watery giant. Until suddenly, the captain told us to put on our fins, masks and snorkels, go to the side of the boat and wait for his command. That moment when your heart starts beating like a hammer—the confusion all around, that final thought of ’what am I doing?’, and the shouted order to throw yourself in the sea—just to be surrounded one second later by that most absolute silence, that human beings search for in vain but can only find in the deep. Then, after the water takes me in, I open my eyes—and I am face to face with an enormous being, all white (that’s how my eyes saw it), peaceful, slow, watching me lazily—maybe bored, maybe annoyed that again some clumsy little being had fallen from the sky right in front of him.

It lasted all of ten seconds, in which I felt small, insignificant; fortunate, yet weak. Ten seconds in which nothing mattered but what separated me from the whale shark, and the faint lingering thoughts—would I survive? Would I be touched by the harmless colossus? (And they are, in fact, harmless—they eat plankton, and their enormous mouths have no teeth). Ten seconds when nothing else exists in the world, when you can’t help being thrust head-on into mindfulness—that awareness of being, of existing in that very moment, not knowing for how long, enjoying the tiniest instant as a generous gift.

Ten seconds that ended, as we tried in vain to keep up with our white whale, and had to get back on the boat—but then we went and did it all over again, and again, a few times more. Finally, as we returned to shore, we were joyous, having done an extraordinary feat, something above the mere human condition. Or maybe below—hadn’t we felt so insignificant? No one spoke much on the return trip. We didn’t even look at the photos we had taken with all our state-of-the-art underwater gadgets. We sat in silence, relishing every lingering moment of the encounter that had, just for an instant, shifted our sense of place in the world and given us a glimpse of our true measure—tiny, but somehow also great, courageous and curious, all in one.

Maybe it was all the fault of those viral videos. Or maybe it was that never-ending striving, that will to overcome born into us as human beings. Whatever it was, I know this experience made me feel in touch with the world, with the Universe itself, like never before. And thanks to this contact, this realization, this change, I grew a little as a human being.

What do you do after something like that? You get back on the boat, and throw yourself in again. Replay.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Edmondo Pezzopane, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

¡Que viva México! – May Mexico live on forever!

Is it true that each culture can be a treasure trove for all humanity? Giuliana confirms this hypothesis for us by recounting stories from her childhood summer vacations in Mexico, which marked her for life, giving her a taste for lively colors, a passion for traditional markets and a particular way of thinking about death.

My recollections of Mexico are burned into the innermost sanctum of my memory. They are intertwined with the extraordinary experiences from my childhood, the discovery of the most vivid and colorful of life’s hues, those times that would forever alter the way I imagined the exotic and the way I appreciated beauty and color, and that would create in me the ever-present need to come into direct contact with the most authentic humanity and the most luxuriant nature.

Nearly every summer from 1989 to 1999, my brother and I had the good fortune to be able to travel from Italy to the birthplace of our mother, accompanied by her and several other family members from our ‘Californian diaspora’. After crossing the US border from San Diego, on the Pacific coast, to Tijuana, we would fly to Mexico’s capital on an Aeromexico plane, the country’s flagship airline.

The moment of landing in Mexico City brought with it a liberating, almost spiritual enthusiasm. I could see my mother’s overflowing emotions each time she returned to her homeland, and I was also somehow conscious of being reunited with something that was an essential part of my own life as well, a parallel dimension that had little in common with the Italian one of my regular life.

The capital of Mexico appeared to my eyes as a place of magic and madness, marked by harrowing contradictions and a primordial energy of constant renewal. It was a universe of daily and spontaneous discoveries, engaging my imagination to the fullest, and giving me the most intense impressions through its novel and unending delights for the senses.

It was in Mexico that I discovered the flavor of tropical fruit for the first time—I still remember the day when I gorged myself on so many mangoes that I got a terrible indigestion. It was there that I discovered the fearsome powers of true Mexican chili. It was there that I first held in my hands a magnificent hummingbird, and it was there that I got struck again and again by the merciless ‘Montezuma’s revenge’, elsewhere commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea. But more than anything, it was there that I came face to face with the biggest fear there is—the fear of death, which came to me in the form of one of its ubiquitous popular representations, which would disturb my innocent dreams for some time.

It was in one of the flea markets, called tianguis (an old Nahuatl word, from long before the Spaniards came), that I first ran into the so-called Cajitas de muertos (‘Little boxes of the dead’), small handcrafted dioramas with the theme of death. The sight of these little ‘shrines’ made me uncomfortable right from the start, raising existential questions that, at my age, could no longer be ignored. I didn’t understand what was the point of such macabre representations, or how my mother and her sisters could like these things so much—these skeletons, these skulls, made of plaster, sugar or paper—and even find them funny! They didn’t make me want to laugh at all. Instead, they stirred up in me a fear and an aversion that I just couldn’t control.

Yet, as I spent more time immersed in this strange world, and came into contact with its values in the most intimate way, I finally developed the awareness I needed in order to overcome my childish reaction. I learned to appreciate to the fullest this part of Mexican culture, which connects death with laughter in a way we wouldn’t even think possible, and manages to collectively exorcise one of the biggest taboos of humanity, particularly in the Western world.

I also learned to love the vibrant street markets, not just in the capital, but also those in the small light-filled pueblitos that we visited during our stays in the lush Valle de Bravo, near Lake Avándaro, where my grandfather owned a summer house, a few hours away from the big city.

I would wander among the stalls, searching for precious objects that could encapsulate my Mexican experience as a whole, channel my affection into solid material form: colorful beaded necklaces with figures of animals and children, small wicker creations, silver rings with Aztec symbols, such as the famous Piedra del Sol, that I had seen in the museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec, and so many others. I needed the reality of those little objects, both to give expression to my love for this land and to remind myself of its existence after returning home to Italy. I needed them as irrefutable proof that this world was real, and not just a figment of the wild imagination of a child.

But as the new millennium dawned, my mother became more and more reluctant to take the usual summer trip to her Mexican homeland, as the growing perception of the danger of being in that country was brought up again and again. It finally turned into a taboo, a forced expulsion of a kind, which my brother and I tried to resist. Unlike him, I finally yielded.

With time and distance, my second country became a kind of ‘Mexico of the mind’, an ‘imaginary homeland’, like India for Salman Rushdie, and its memory fed my bittersweet nostalgia for something elusive, a past that had been lived, but was also idealized—a world which, inevitably, could never be the same.

The severing of my physical connection with Mexico went on to feed the flame of my search for belonging—to an imaginary place that I projected countless times onto different real ones, to make up for the loss of the relationship with that source of life, that visceral and irresistible attraction for the senses. I became convinced, again and again, that I could find my Mexico in the colorful bazaars of the Balkans and Turkey, in the coruscating traditional costumes of Bulgaria, in the near-psychedelic brightness of the patterns of the artisan fabrics of the Caucasus, in the Latino neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in others too many to recount.

I kept alive my own forms of nostalgic remembrance, with a series of daily rituals encompassing my memories of that lost paradise. Today, I still wear my bead necklaces, my silver bracelets and rings from Valle di Bravo, the earrings I got in a tianguis, and the scarf my brother bought in Chiapas.

And, 18 years after I bought the last of them in Mexico City, I still keep my cajitas de muertos with me—the laughing skeletons whose mocking grins no longer make me afraid.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Giustina Selvelli, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.

Multilingualism as homeland

Mariano, our Italian translator, is an expat living in France. He contemplates love and death while crossing the Pont de l’Alma in Paris, in all the languages that live inside him.

My grandmother passed away only a few days after Christmas. Some days before her passing, I had flown from Paris, where I live, to Milan, where my girlfriend lives, and from there I had taken a train to Piacenza, where my family lives. From Piacenza, at dawn on Christmas Day, we—myself and my family—drove together to Naples, where I was born and where my grandmother still lived.

Once upon a time, I had lived at my grandmother’s house for a short while. The school I went to was a stone’s throw away from her place, and every morning she would tell me to eat my mottino. (A few years later, I found out that the word mottino doesn’t actually exist in Italian, and my classmates in the North had no idea what it meant). When I got back home from school, we would have the colezione—and there were two things I simply couldn’t understand: for one, why my grandmother called it colazione (with that strange a pronounced more like an e), which means breakfast, instead of pranzo—lunch. And for another: why she would fool me every time by telling me she had made maccheroni, only to serve me regular spaghetti. At the end of every evening, she would tell me to go coricare—another word that sounded strange to me, used in the place of dormire, ‘to sleep’, as my parents would have said. And now, after I kissed her forehead and said goodbye to her for the last time at the hospital’s morgue (the same word in so many languages), I am again leaving Naples behind, and the bilingualism of my childhood (but I really should say tri-lingualism: Neapolitan, Italian, and that peculiar Italian spoken only in my family, sprinkled with words that existed neither in proper Italian nor in Neapolitan), to return to the multilingualism which has been my home for years now.

Back in France after those sad days in Italy, I again find myself caught in the linguistic maelstrom of my everyday life: the Neapolitan that still rings in my head after the time in Naples, the Italian in which I think, the French which I speak, the English which I read and write almost every day, the Spanish of my Parisian friends (and Catalan for some). Multilingualism as homeland, translation as natural a gesture as breathing. My mind drifts again—I don’t know why—to that ‘coricare’ that my grandmother would say, burned forever in my memory—and I suddenly realize it’s nothing but a literal translation of the Neapolitan word cuccà (‘to go to bed’), like Renato Carosone sang: ‘Mo’ vene Natale, nun tengo denare, me leggio ‘o giurnale e me vado a cuccà’ (‘Christmas is coming, I’ve got no money, I read the paper and I go straight to bed’—to stay with the Christmas theme). ‘To go to bed’ in French is coucher, which is very similar, as it comes from exactly the same root.

But coucher also means ‘to go to bed’ with someone else. ’Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’—that’s an expression even someone who doesn’t speak a lick of French would know, and it certainly isn’t an invitation to get some shut-eye. French is full of these euphemisms, these ‘false friends’ that the Italian émigré, fresh off the boat (as the expression goes), needs to learn—or at least to deliberately pretend not to know, if they can hope to gain some advantage from it. The French seem to have so much trouble locating the body parts properly: the soutien-gorge has nothing to do with the throat (la gorge), but, of course, with the breasts. If they tell you ferme ta gueule, they don’t mean ‘close your throat’ so you’d suffocate, but rather ‘shut your mouth’ so you’d stop talking. And when you feel like throwing up, they let you know that you actually have mal au coeur (‘sickness in the heart’), or that you’re having a crise de foie (‘attack of the liver’).

But you have to pay even more attention with the language of affection and love. The meaning of every word is transformed: embrasser means ‘to embrace’, but also ‘to kiss’; baiser, in turn, means ‘to kiss’, but also to do something much more intimate, known to the rest of the world as ‘making love’: fare l’amore, hacer el amor, faire l’amour. When I was a little boy in Naples, I often heard people talking about fà ammore. For instance, I remember that they were saying that a young uncle of mine had been doing this (faciva ammore) for many years—too many! But this was not actually intended to mean that he was engaging in way too much of a certain amorous activity, but that he and his fiancée had been postponing their wedding for too long. I would also get asked questions about whether I had started to fà ammore yet. This was all because in Naples, fà ammore just means to court, to be together, to spend time with each other. When I was 12 or 13, that question used to make me embarrassed, but today I would certainly have no problem answering it.

I think about these linguistic crossroads, these twists and turns, as I am walking alone on the Pont de l’Alma on my way to work. The Seine flows by my side, engorged by the recent rains. The Eiffel Tower rises before me, further to the right. My path, and the train of my thoughts, have brought me from childhood memories to the questions of a human life, and from death to love: love as it’s tried, love as it’s made, love as it’s talked about. Just like Simon and Garfunkel in Kathy’s Song, I too, when the rain falls, think of the faraway place ‘where my heart lies’. But in which language is that thought? I’m not all so sure anymore.

This story was originally written in Italian by the impressive plume of Mariano D’Ambrosio, our native Italian writer. It was then beautifully transcreated by Eugen R, and carefully proofread and polished by Eugenia P, our native English Linguist Team, until it shone like a diamond. Finally, it was all magically spelt out to you by our lovely Project Manager, Katerina. Learn more about our French to English services writing and translation services here.