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Language and culture

One rainy day back in 2010, I found myself walking down the Via della Colonna in Florence. I had an internship teaching English at a local high school along this street (the Liceo 'Classico' Michelangiolo), and I just finished lecturing my morning class. It was cold. I had an umbrella, but the spokes were bent and twisted. There were holes in it. It didn't afford much in the way of keeping dry, but it did provide a modest amount of protection for the book I was carrying (so long as I was careful to keep it tilted a certain way). This day really was no different than the others I had spent doing exactly the same thing for a period of roughly four or five months, except that that spefici book I was reading on that specific day contained a certain passage that has since branded itself into my mind:

"As with language, culture offers to the individual a horizon of latent possibilities; a flexible and invisible cage in which he can exercise his own conditional liberty." (Carlo Ginzburg)

What makes this sentence so compelling is the simple fact that I read it while living in another country. I had only a rudimentary understanding of the language and of the people, and until that point, I had never set foot on another continent. That is to say that I had never experienced the full force of being an outsider; of being the "other." And it was there on that particular day, under a dead November sky, sopping wet and absolutely miserable, that the sum of my entire experience living abroad came full circle.

For the first time in my life, that invisible cage revealed itself to me. The diurnal rhythm of life that coursed through those narrow streets seemed to amplify my place within it. Never had I felt so exposed---so utterly conscious of where I was, and of the environment around me; of the smell of wet garbage and dog shit; of the piercing sound of an ambulence screaming down some narrow alleyway nearby; of a Florentine man reprimanding his child for running out into the street ("È pericoloso!!!"); dead leaves in the gutter; some elderly woman brushing past me...


... that unabated sense of crossing some weird sort of threshold and witnessing a kind of bizarre <em>exteriority</em> to your entire (private) world. 


All at once, it's alien, sinister, marvelous, beautiful. 


And for the remainder of my life, I don't think I will ever experience anything as profound as my experience that day. 


These past few years, language has become a kind of obsession of mine. I am a graduate student, and I specialize in comparative literature because it affords me the unique excuse to decipher foreign texts and unveil the "culture" lying beneath the words. The pay is modest, but the reward more than makes up for it. It's almost as if I'm trying to catch a glimpse of that <em>exteriority</em> that I witnessed in Florence... as if I'm trying to steal glances at God while he/she/it is busy doing whatever it is that he/she/it does whenever he/she/it thinks no one is looking.


That's the closest I can come to describing it. 


I dunno.... I can muse on this sort of thing forever (and indeed, I've spent sleepless nights thinking about it). 


The reason I wrote this long and drawn out bit here is because I'm curious to know if anyone has experienced something similar before. Have you ever suddenly just become aware of how incredibly small and restrictive your private little world is? When did you become aware of it? When you spent a significant amount of time living somewhere else? Speaking another language? What do you make of that Ginzburg quote I cited above (it's from his book The Cheese and the Worms)? What's the relationship between language and culture? Do you think they're mutually exclusive? 


Questions, questions, questions....



Jun 10, 2014 11:28 PM
Comments · 4

I had passed this spot, been in this area more times than I can count since I was an infant, yet I never paused to listen, listen and observe. Only that day..
Language, country, people, culture, for me now it's the same. I know it can differ-of course it can- but generally I feel that every place has it's ''spirit'', something that makes it different, a mix of history, climate, mentality, religion, art, tradition, and by observing the life in it one can perhaps grasp it..
I dont know if that's what you meant, perhaps I'm wrong xP I hope I 'm not, because that was a huge post, I feel bad that you have to read it!

June 11, 2014

I was extremely bored, so I said to my mother let's go to the center of the city. We were walking in the old famous district when we reached the gate to the Agora, the archaeolical site of a part of the ancient city of Athens. We had not planned to get in-after all I have been there so many times- but something made me want to look, and so I said let's get in.
so I was in Agora, it was a beautiful day, the sun was up and the sky was a clear blue and I was walking around in what is basically a little more than rocks now- and some temples, while smelling the dry air and the flowers and trees around... I went to each thing, read what it was and shouted enthusiastically like a maniac to my mother who was with me '' here the Athenians ate after the meetings! One of them had the keys and was responsible for them for a day!- here they gathered to disguss political matters! Here it was that Dimosthenis came and tallked!!!'' . and then I read the ancient texts inscripted- mostly names and graves, but being able to read them and think that this person whose name I read lived there 2500 years before and here I am now, reading his name in our mutual native language...
Afterwards I went in Monastiraki and Plaka(the place near the ancient sites- those are all close and visible) and show the modern greek society, the old churches from ottoman period, the bazaars working til today, were men sold drachmas(the currency before euro) and firniture of the 19 and 20 century and old books and jewlery, chatting with each other, a lovely buzz around, an the sun was burning, and I heard beatiful bouzouki in the distance and a sweet voice singing...

June 11, 2014

I had this experience not when I travel to a country, but when I spoke with a lot of russian people. I made some russian friends and we talked for hours and hours for a great period of time and I asked them about their country, the political thinking of the people, about their history,  and we talked and shared videos with me and I felt like I had touched , you know, the russian mentality, their way of thinking and living, what made them fear and rejoice.
Suddenly the russian language was alive to me, it meant these people, it meant famous tsars, Ekaterina belikaya, amazing literature,ballet and the sound of violins playing nutcrucker, white snow and long winters, plain but nutricious food(borsh, gretska,manaya kasha)-specifically made so that it keeps you warm, communism and great patriotic war, strong,harsh but deeply kind and good people -not nesecarilly all  good things, but part of the russian language that shaped it and the russian people. 
The russian language now is a huge entity in my head, it's a great civilization of it's own and I feel awed that I came in contact with it. I do feel foreign like you- because after all I am, and this makes me admire more as an observer, and somebody able to judge differently since I dont have the russian mentality. I know that I have barely touched the surface, and I'm looking forward to seeing more and more about this language and culture.
  Appriciating russian helped me appreciate my own language as well, and while I definitely love this language, there's nothing in the world that could replace greek for me...
I felt like I touched the greek mentality after a walk at the ancient sites of Athens. I live in Athens, and I have done this walk many times, however now I had had to learn what is everything because of school and exams, so I knew what I was actually seeing.

June 11, 2014

Hey, nice text! :)
And yes, I had an experience of suddenly become aware of how small and restrictive your private little world is, but in my own country and with my native language! 
I have recently joined into a ONG called TETO that builds home emergency in slums in Rio de Janeiro for extremely poor families, that was a unique experience! I had absolutly no notion the situation of poorvety in my country Brazil. I believe that people have this experience when they get out of their comfort zone.


June 11, 2014