Monday, September 26, 2016


“Would you like to do a pizzicato?” my father would ask, smiling under his black and bristly mustache. I would toddle over and he, taking care that my grubby fist did not graze the body of his violin, would put my finger on the E string and I would pluck it. Then he would wrap the violin in an old brown silk scarf of my mother’s and lay it carefully in its case, as if he were putting a doll to bed.

A violin being tuned—first the E and A strings together, then A and D, and finally D and G--followed by a warm-up scale was among the first sounds to reach me inside my mother’s womb. A couple of years later, when my father was practicing the solo part of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and I was being toilet trained, my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the opening bars of the third movement.

Not long after that, I started attending concerts. My father’s orchestra performed on Sunday mornings in the Palau de la Musica. My mother would first take me to Mass, and then to the concert. Those Sunday mornings required feats of self control on my part. First there was the sitting quietly at Mass, but at least that was interrupted by periods of kneeling and standing. But the sitting at the concert was unrelieved, and it seemed to go on for days. Fortunately, the concert hall was a near-psychedelic example of Art Nouveau architecture, and I entertained myself by gazing at the sculptures of the nine muses whose gigantic torsos protruded out of the wall behind the orchestra. Still, I conceived an early hatred of the Romantic composers, whose symphonies went on and on, fooling me into thinking that they were about to end only to rebound in cruel codas. Brahms and Schumann were especially bad that way.

In that pre-Suzuki era, music instruction was a serious, solemn business. When I was eight, before I was allowed to approach an instrument I did a year of solfeggio, a method to teach pitch and sight singing, and musical dictation. Nobody expected this to be fun, and it wasn’t.

When I was finally permitted to begin the piano I took lessons from my father’s sister, Maria Dolors, a gentle, skittish person, thin and wide-eyed as a gazelle. She was so tentative in her instruction that the closest to a correction she ever got was a whispered “perhaps you could try it like this...” I felt protective of my vulnerable aunt and worried that my mistakes gave her pain.

At home, when my mother sat next to me on the piano bench, my feelings were quite different. She had had some piano instruction herself, and she thought that she would help things along by correcting my technique while I practiced. But there was nothing tentative in her manner, and I resented her intrusion in what I perceived to be Maria Dolors’s and, by extension, my father’s domain.

The entire landscape of my life was ruled by my mother. She made me put on sweaters when I wasn’t cold, eat when I wasn’t hungry, go to bed when I wasn’t sleepy, and kiss ancient, black-clad relations who smelled funny. She supervised my prayers, scrubbed my face, braided my hair, put bows on my braids, and held my hand tightly while we crossed the street. Music, I had assumed, was outside her domain, but now she was invading that as well. Despite her having been my father’s student before their marriage, she knew very little about the violin, however. It occurred to me that, if I took up the violin, I would be safe. Even better, my father would be my teacher.

At eight or nine years old, I longed for my father’s attention. He was a benevolent but remote figure: “a saint,” according to his mother and sisters; “very busy, and not to be disturbed,” according to my mother. And he was busy, rushing from rehearsal to performance with his violin and sitting down to compose at the piano when he had five minutes to spare. I don’t think he ever once scolded me, partly because I was too much in awe of him to misbehave and partly, I suspect, because he didn’t notice me. For years I had racked my infant brains for ways to get him to focus on me. Now the solution was at hand: I would take up the violin, and he would have to give me lessons.

So after a year of piano, having mastered Schumann’s The Merry Peasant, I began to clamor for a violin.  My parents acquiesced, and on February 12, the Feast of Saint Eulalia, virgin and martyr, they presented me with my very own instrument. I couldn’t wait for my first lesson—which, as it turned out, also became my first lesson in the need to choose one’s wishes carefully. (To be continued)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fun with Foreign Languages

My mother was a born adventurer, a conquistadora , the first female ever to leave her village in quest of higher learning in Barcelona.  But after she married the mindset of the era caught up with her and she gave up her studies and settled down to making my father happy and being a good mother.

She supervised the maid, mended socks on rainy days, went to lectures and art openings, argued with her sisters, and read.  But her wanderlust kept her restless and frustrated. When it came time for me to go to school she looked at the convent schools for girls and found them tame. Besides, they all taught French as a second language, and France was hardly exotic, being practically next door, just across the Pyrenees.

Then she heard about a new school run by German nuns, and her imagination caught fire. Germany! Those deep pine forests, the men in strange leather shorts, that fabulous snow—here was weirdness and the promise of mind-expanding adventures, especially since the nuns, who barely spoke Spanish, promised to have me speaking German before I reached puberty. This, my mother hoped, might qualify me to marry an ambassador some day, and help to make peace in the world.

But neither my mother nor the nuns realized that a state of terror interferes with learning, especially learning a foreign language.  My German nuns, survivors of the Reich, were fiercely devoted to discipline, punctuality, and standing up straight.  In their hilariously inadequate Spanish they would shriek strange insults at us. Eres mas tonta que la noche! (You are dumber than the night!) was a common reprimand that made no sense to us Catalans, who associated night with the scent of jasmine and the trill of the nightingale.

In that atmosphere, I found German grammar even more impenetrable than math. Der,des, dem, den; die, der, der, die... no matter how well I memorized them, declensions made no more sense to me than lowest common denominators.

Fortunately, after almost five years of this, my mother’s wanderlust freed me from my struggles with German. My father was offered the chance to go to Ecuador as part of a string quartet; she urged him to accept; and when I was ten we left Barcelona for the wilds of South America.

In Quito, she enrolled me in a school run by Spanish nuns for the daughters of the Ecuadorian aristocracy. There I was instantly branded as la españolita, the little Spaniard, because of the way I spoke. Although my classmates and I shared the same language, my Castilian Spanish was the equivalent of British English, and I must have sounded foreign and affected to them. It took me about a week, in self defense, to shed my accent and sound like a local, incorporating not only their pronunciation, but also native Quechua expressions:  arrarrai (hot), atatai (disgusting), achachai (cold).This appalled my parents, who thought I was prostituting my national identity. But I had to fit in somehow.

Meanwhile, the river of Catalan in which I had used to swim in Barcelona shrank to a narrow stream. My parents and the other three members of my father’s string quartet all spoke Catalan, but everyone else—the maid and the vegetable seller and the Indian man who sold us milk from his cow--all spoke South American Spanish. To my Ecuadorian classmates, I was the little Spaniard, period, and they didn’t know or care that I wasn’t really and truly Spanish, but Catalan.

In my new school there was a teacher from Germany, a tall, thin man who, thank heavens, taught only English. After the rigors of German grammar, the apparent simplicity of English was balm to my brain. After class I would mumble bits of phrases to myself:  Little Miss Muffett/sat on a tuffet/eating of curds and whey.  Tuffet, curds, and whey were mysteries to me, but they sounded cool.  English was cool, and I thought I had just about mastered it.

When my parents and I landed in the wilds of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1958, the confusions about where I came from and what my “real” language was continued to dog me. In the Catholic high school that I entered as a freshman some of my classmates weren’t too certain of where Spain was on the map, and what distinguished it from, say, Mexico. When people assumed that my native language was Spanish, I tried to explain that it was Catalan.

“Oh, you mean a dialect of Spanish?”

“No!” I would shriek. “Not a dialect! A different language! A completely different language!” And they would shrug and turn away, baffled.

After a while, I stopped explaining, and let my friends assume that Spain was a homogeneous culture where everybody spoke Spanish, played the guitar and danced flamenco. At home, though, with my parents, I spoke Catalan.  The river of language had shrunk to the merest trickle, but it still flowed where it mattered.

At least for a while. Then in 1960 my parents, who had long been disappointed in their hopes for a large family, produced another baby. I was sixteen when she was born, and as delighted as my parents were. Undeterred by the fact that Americans found my name, Eulalia, unpronounceable, my parents proudly gave my sister another weird but thoroughly Catalan name: Nuria, after a valley in the Pyrenees.

Where language was concerned, however, they were more pragmatic. As an American, my sister would need to know English, but learning Catalan as her second language would take up precious space in her brain. Spanish would be far more useful, and therefore they decided that we should switch from speaking Catalan to Spanish at home.

This threw me into fits of adolescent rebellion. Although I had all my life spoken Spanish to  non-Catalans, I could not bear to even think of speaking it to my parents. It felt artificial, affected, false, pretentious, and profoundly embarrassing. But my parents were adamant, so I compromised. If my sister was in the room, I spoke Spanish. But the moment she toddled off and I was left with my parents, I would switch to Catalan, even in mid-sentence. When she toddled back in I would clench my teeth and go back to Spanish.

My parents also decreed that, since my English was better than theirs, I should speak to Nuria in English, so when I was alone with her that is what I did. To this day, even though she speaks it well, I don’t think my sister and I have exchanged a single sentence in Spanish.

That is how the trickle of Catalan slowed to an occasional drop. After my father died, it became a language that for many years I spoke only with my mother. Now that she is gone, I almost never speak it. On the rare occasions when I do, the words feel like stones in my mouth.

Friday, September 9, 2016

River of Words

I was too short to reach the faucet, so to ask my mother for a glass of water, I said “un vas d’aigua, si us plau.” But if I had to ask the maid, I said instead “un vaso de agua, por favor.” Somehow I knew to speak to my parents, my aunts, and my grandparents in Catalan, a Romance language born of the sloppy Latin of the Roman soldiers who occupied the northeast of Spain. But to speak to the maid, who came from the south, I used Castilian, another descendant of bastardized Latin.

When Ferdinand and Isabella unified the various kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century, Castilian, known in the rest of the world as Spanish, became the official language of the new country, and a centuries-long suppression of regional languages such as Catalan and Basque began.Growing up under Franco’s dictatorship, my generation wrote and spoke Spanish, which was enforced as the language of public life, more correctly than Catalan. But for all his efforts to eradicate it, Franco could not erase Catalan from the dining room table with its cruet of olive oil and its bottle of dark red Priorat, or from the bedtime stories, the nightly prayers, and the lullabies.

Although as a toddler I didn’t think much about the difference between Spanish and Catalan, I was acutely aware of the distinctions between barceloní , the variety of Catalan spoken in Barcelona and by my father and his family, and lleidatà, the variety spoken in the province of Lleida, a mere eighty miles away, where my mother came from. Although as a city kid I should have spoken barceloní, my heart belonged to the horses, pigs and chickens, the wheat field and the grape arbor of my maternal grandparents’ farm, and I proudly spoke a countrified lleidatà.

But whether barceloní  or lleidatà , I spent my childhood swimming in a river of language that flowed over and around me and sometimes threatened to engulf me.  If you had asked me in my earliest years what adults did, I would have answered that they talked. At our house the radio was only turned on for selected programs, and there was no television. So people talked, all day and far into the night, as a kind of sport.

My mother and her sisters talked while they mended their stockings, ironed their blouses, or braided my hair. If one of them gave an opinion, the other countered it. If one told a story, the other corrected, expanded, and topped it with an even better one. When my father came home from rehearsal at the Liceu, the Barcelona opera house, he told us about the fabulous all-Black American company that had come to perform Porgy and Bess, or the amazing ballerina Maria Tallchief--also American, and a real Indian. Back from the bakery with the midday loaf of crusty bread, the maid relayed what she had heard the baker’s wife say as she stood in line.

After the meal I would sit on my mother’s lap while the adults lingered at  the table, talking. With my head on her chest I could predict by her intake of breath when she was about to say something. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew if she was feeling excited or angry by the rhythms of her breathing and the resonance of her voice inside her rib cage—the same rhythms and sounds that had lulled me during the nine months I had inhabited her body.

Words, followed by sudden pauses and then more words, swirled around me as I drowsily pressed a moistened fingertip onto the tablecloth to pick up the last crusty crumbs of bread. People gestured and exclaimed, burst into laughter, interrupted and talked over each other. This was not considered impolite, but rather a sign of interest and engagement.  Failure to participate prompted anxious inquiries: “You haven’t said much.  Are you coming down with a cold? You should have worn a sweater this morning. Let me feel your forehead...” (To be continued.)