Ciara Kenny

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The Mind of Winter

Hard as it may be for the home-bird to imagine, life in the Spanish sun often finds it difficult to compete with thoughts of drizzly Irish November evenings and a homely soundtrack of the Angelus, writes Alfred Markey from León.

Mon, Dec 12, 2011, 06:00


Hard as it may be for the home-bird to imagine, life in the Spanish sun often finds it difficult to compete with thoughts of drizzly Irish November evenings and a homely soundtrack of the Angelus, writes Alfred Markey from León.

Alfred Markey, late October in León

“Janus-Johnny” was, according to Julia O’Faolain, how many a sneering wag referred to her father Sean. Never happy to be fixed on the local groove, he seemed to perpetually face in two directions, home and away.

It is the dilemma of the emigrant. Hard as it may be for the home-bird to imagine, life in the Spanish sun often finds it difficult to compete with thoughts of drizzly Irish November evenings and a homely soundtrack of the Angelus or the complex discursive meanderings of, say, Jackie Healy-Rae.

Like the far-flung places of youthful desire, home becomes a place of the imagination, peopled with many in the Healy-Rae mould, natural poets or scholars of ancestral resonance, guaranteed to bring a wistful smile and as powerfully evocative as any Proustian madeleine.

Stop the lights, as a Spanish friend of mine says incessantly. In English, and with a Galway accent. She doesn’t miss the rain, though, has never heard of Bunny Carr and is mostly indifferent on whether Jackie and Marcel would have made good dinner companions, or even reached a consensus on when to dine.

León Cathedral in Winter

She returned home, the “tragedy” of her emigrant experience being the absence of her mother’s Spanish omelette. With an Irish husband in tow, she settled back where she was brought up, now has two bilingual kids and loves to recall their early mix-ups, “mira, look Mami, está raining” a particular, unsurprising and perhaps genetically determined favourite.

Yet Janus-Marta misses Ireland. She speaks in strikingly positive terms of our country. The warmth, humour and humanity of the people, the vibrant, imaginative use of language and, yes, the culture of lively political debate. But no, not the rain, the public transport, the Angelus or Jackie who? You win some, you lose some, she says.

Home is different too. It changed when she was away and because she was away. As we converse, slipping back and forth from Spanish to English, a consensus is reached that living away from home gives us a different perspective, a critical distance that radically changes our sense of identity, both national and personal. But more than anything, we conclude, it is the language question that definitively shifts us into that territory where we are never completely either home or away.

George Steiner, the Jewish polyglot and polymath, writing on literature by and about exiles in the twentieth-century, suggested it was “the age of the refugee,” and that in a time which had left so many homeless it seemed proper that those who create art “should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language.”

Now, for much that we have spent time in Galway, neither Marta nor I could claim to be poets, but we can see where Steiner is coming from. In a sense we speak our particular dialect, wandering back and forth through English and Spanish words. As she explains, when in Galway Marta didn’t miss her mother’s Spanish omelette, “oh, no,” she emphasises, “stop the lights, I missed my mum’s tortilla.”

The truth is that it’s hard not to sniffily condescend to emigrants in places like Australia. That, quite simply, is not far away. They speak, more or less, the same language. As for the UK, unless you were brought up where hushed talk of “multi-channel land” was common currency, it is largely the same old same old.

To live and work in a foreign language has its difficulties. No matter how competent you become in the language, you will always struggle to compete with native speakers. And what linguistic emigrant hasn’t felt that sinking/rising feeling when, having barely opened your mouth, a pretty, smiling checkout girl asks you where you are from?

Green Spain: the mountains of León

Solace, however, is always to be found in the travails of amateur emigrants. The very public utterances of football players and managers guarantee hilarity. Former Real Madrid manager, John Toshack, struggled valiantly over many years to embrace the creative spirit identified by Steiner, wandering exclusively in his own linguistic contour, and never seeming to grasp the fact that he was speaking a different language.

To the toe-curling glee of the smug linguistic cognoscenti among us, and the blank incomprehension of the press, Toshack variously, and confidently, spoke of six of one and half a dozen of the other, water off a duck’s back and running like headless chickens. When referring to the portly president of the club, Lorenzo Sanz, he somehow contrived to suggest pigs might fly and with a particularly poetic flourish he once praised Nicolas Anelka for dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a sheep.

More lasting and enriching delights are also to be had. Commenting on one occasion to a fellow Irish colleague that I would be incapable of identifying the voice of hurler DJ Carey, he immediately replied “lucky you,” and pointed out that I was familiar instead with the delightfully rich discourse of the Argentinian Jorge Valdano. Not to mention the great writers in Spanish such as Javier Marías and Mario Vargas Llosa, or the Prado and the terrible TV. Six of one and a half dozen of the other!

To be an emigrant is to return home to smiles and warmth by the fire and old friends. It is to find surprising hostility to any use of the language or gestures that are yours all the rest of the year. It is to grate your teeth when someone says “wake up and smell the coffee.” It is to take your dad’s car, stroll on the beach and find on return that the steering wheel has gone.

La Plaza del Grano, León. Autumn

To be an emigrant is to sit in a cobbled plaza of an old Spanish town on a bright, warm Autumn evening surrounded by your Spanish people, drinking the local Bierzo wine, hosting your visitors from Ireland and translating for them just as you please. It is also to feel very far away when your mother is in hospital, as she is, and always to feel a deep, dark loneliness as you board that plane after Christmas.

The great Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, wrote that “exile is never the state of being satisfied, placid, or secure. Exile, in the words of Wallace Stevens, is “a mind of winter” in which the pathos of summer and autumn as much as the potential for spring are nearby but unobtainable.”

But then he didn’t mean Spain, did he?

Alfred Markey has lived in the city of León, Spain, for over ten years. He teaches at the local university.