Looking At Me, Scruffy, Old, Bearded And Worn After A Long Life
The wonderful thing about letter writing is that no one knows you have an accent. This highly unoriginal saying is taken from an equally unoriginal one: in the internet no one knows you’re a dog, and merely tells us that with the internet, as with letter writing, we can be whoever we wish to be, be whatever we wish to portray, and no one is going to be any the wiser. Of course, we all know now that this is no longer true, that there are systems in place which allow a person to be traced, to check out a story and see whether it is true or made up, to allow those who need to find someone to find them quickly and efficiently. Some of these systems are even legal, but that is another matter entirely. The fact remains, with letter writing, no one knows that you have an accent.
What they do see, of course, is your name and your use of English, but that also does not have much to say these days. Had you not mentioned that you originate from Europe, without saying which country here, because American society is so mixed and diverse, I wouldn’t have known any different. I would have just seen a young woman holding up her cell phone and taking a selfie and made a few assumptions which might have been true, or might not, and that would have been it. But it is the letter writing which will make the difference, because here a true accent comes out, and it is the one set by the person’s inner interests, by their personality, by their openness towards life, communication, society and everything else. It is hard to believe how many people out themselves through the written word, some even surprising themselves as the words form on paper, as they see the way that their mind is working and follow their own thoughts through to some form of conclusion.
I, too, have an accent. I have been living here, in the heart of Europe, for two decades, have learned the language – teaching myself rather than sitting in a classroom – but I have never made any attempt to rid myself of my London, or British, accent. People talk to me and instantly know that I am not from here, sometimes treating this as a good sign, sometimes not. It is, however, often a very interesting conversation starter, as they try to figure out exactly where I come from – my accent has changed over the years, you cannot live in a different country and speak a foreign language all the time without some changes occurring – and sometimes they get it right, mostly not. I am told that I have a beautiful accent, which amazes me as it is, for me, just a normal way of talking and everyone else has an accent. I don’t notice it at all. And the idea of someone – male or female – looking at me, scruffy, old, bearded and worn after a long life of travelling around the world, and saying that something about me is beautiful tends to throw me at first. It is not what I expect. For you, I think, it would be different, but then attitudes towards male and female, towards young and old, differ greatly.
It is, however, fascinating to be able to come into a new world, changing countries is sometimes like leaving planet Earth and everything that we know and entering into a time warp or a new dimension, and then just stand for a moment, looking to left and to right, and breath in the air and atmosphere of this new society. There are social situations, you know exactly what I mean, that we do not necessarily wish to experience but, hopefully, we manage to either avoid them or work our way through with as little damage as possible, learning along the way, and preparing ourselves both for the change when we leave this enclosed circle of limitations, and for the difficulties which are going to be thrown at us on the outside. In both situations we need to adapt, but we can also find the best part of the day, the best part of where we are and enjoy that part to the best of our abilities knowing, in our hearts and minds, that things will improve if we let them, and that the world is ours for the taking, given the chance.
Can you remember your first impressions of the United States when you arrived there? Everything completely different and new and just waiting to be explored, the air breathed in, the atmosphere, the people, the colours, everything. I had a similar awakening, you could call it that, when I first travelled abroad on my own. Admittedly it was only to Paris, but I was fourteen at the time, had never been anywhere outside of England on my own, and was worried about what I would see, what I would experience, what the people would be like. My mind was filled with the stories told me by school teachers, by what I had seen on the – still relatively young – television channels available to us, and it was all wrong. I daresay your experiences were not as singular as mine, that you were better prepared and had seen more images, heard more stories of the country you were coming in to from people who had actually been there, but, for me, it was an eye-opening experience. I discovered, as one example, that the French, after all I had been told for years in school and elsewhere, were humans just like me and you. Yes, a different language, different accent, different customs and daily life, but human. You have no idea how much I wanted to smack down those people who had told me otherwise.
It was not my first visit to France, and certainly not my last, but it was the most inspirational in many ways. Entering adulthood at fourteen, in a manner of speaking, by exploring a grown-up world outside of the safety of my own known one. I can imagine it being similar to that of a small child who suddenly discovers that there are other people in the world apart from their parents, and that there is a world outside the front door too. It is like a school child discovering that there is more to learning than just books, than just being fed information without explanation every day of the week. But I hardly need to explain such things, as you have been through them yourself, and you know a side of life that many Americans have never experienced. I see many of them proud to have travelled to more than just their home State, which is an achievement in a manner of speaking, but never abroad. Admittedly, there can be massive differences from one State to another, especially if you’re going to compare south to north or the east coast to the west, but everyone should try to travel. I know people here – I live in the middle of a small farming community with a glorious history – who have never been further than the next major city or town, and have no desire to either. A very sad existence, as I am sure you’d agree, but they are happy with their lives.
Your own apartment and a French bulldog, that seems to me to be a fairly well-balanced and carefully thought-through idea for the future but, as you say, there are things which need to change. It is sometimes better to have and to hold onto these dreams and not give them up straight away, as soon as the first obstacle arises, as soon as your path is blocked by one or another minor problem. I always dreamed of living in a large house and having plenty of books and now, many years later, I have exactly that. I share my house with a cat and, until recently, a butterfly or two – which is a surprise, you’ll agree, since butterflies are not common at the height of winter, but my house must be warm enough for them. But having you own house and a mass of books is like having an accent, not everyone appreciates it: admittedly I certainly do, but it’s not the sort of thing you can offer to anyone who cares to join you. I have had one person turn round and walk out, it was our first date so I was surprised, and tell me she wasn’t going to be living there with all the dusting that needed doing. I find it reasonably sensible of me not to have made the offer. We all come into new places, into new relationships with expectations, and they are often either not quite what we had hoped for in reality, or not anything like what any potential partner was seeking.
What I do like, though, is the positive outlook, and especially the idea of completing your degree. A break away from the realities of life for a while – although I do not know which subject you are studying – is always a good thing, but studying, getting knowledge, exercising the gray cells and getting the brain working at full power should never be turned down. I have just worked through an excellent course on Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and am now signed up for one on Greek heroes, both run by Harvard. It’s never too late to strain your thoughts and try new things, but I sincerely hope that you do get back on with your course and that you make a success of it; too many people are going to tell you you’ll not make it now, and it would be so wonderful to know that you’ve proven them wrong and come up on the sunny side, smiling if not singing. My own interests are literature, philosophy and history, and I tend to pepper my letters, when I find someone to write to, with quotations and insights into what I think of a specific work. That’s probably why I don’t have many people to write to: who wants to write with someone who quotes Virgil and Shakespeare, reads Cicero and is a fan of Sartre and de Beauvoir? Come to think of it, aside from Shakespeare, who has heard of any of these people?
Having said that, I received a letter a few days ago from a man from Puerto Rico who had been introduced to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche for the first time, and specifically Also sprach Zarathustra – but in English – and was so overwhelmed by one or two paragraphs, that he had to write and see if I knew them – I do – and would discuss them with him. I sat down late on that evening, settled myself down to the task, and had great pleasure in writing a six page letter to him about Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant, their times and influences and Zarathustra too. Sometimes I get a little carried away with my letters and just write the first things which come into my head, following this idea on to the next, and hardly ever knowing where to stop. But that is what good letter writing is all about, I have been told, communication as if you are sitting together with someone, talking freely, discussing and debating.
But it is sadly not what most people expect, and the challenge of writing a letter to me, of keeping up a correspondence is far greater than most people are prepared to handle. I can well imagine that you had many replies from your letter to the radio show – which came out on Twitter too – and some of them were keepers, worth holding on to. And here am I, lost in a small town in the middle of northern Germany, writing because you mentioned you accent, and I haven’t quoted a single line of a book yet. The difference is, I suspect, that I love writing letters, I love sitting down with a name and an address, with an idea, and just letting the words pour out onto paper for a while in the hope that perhaps one, or two even, will inspire those who read to further thoughts and, even if they do not reply, that I will have made someone happy through my letter, as happy as I am to have been able to write it. If there is a reply, though, then I’ll start quoting philosophers and literature.