Small Pleasures

Can’t bear January. It feels twice as long as any other month, while the days don’t seem to get longer, the dark clouds sit on the rooftops, in the enormously boring  sales prices keep plummeting until in the end the shops may pay us to take away some unwanted stuff – it’s a universal UGH of heroic proportions.

But then some small pleasures hop in and the mood lightens.

Today, for instance, I bought a bag of kiwi fruit in my local shop, and when I looked at the label, I saw, “Grown by Zeus, Greece.” I almost dropped the bag. Can it be that my six kiwis had been grown by the chief God of ancient Greece, the King of Olympus, the invincible Thunderer and victor of every battle? Dare I eat them? Does their possession promote me in some small way? Will they taste…divine?

Well, it certainly gave me several minutes of glee, wondering whether Zeus’s need to grow fruit and veg for an English supermarket, instead of chasing goddesses and nymphs, was somehow connected with the current parlous state of the Greek economy. And that brought on images of the Greek sea, the scintillating light, the essence of my best-ever summers in that country …a more than small joy.

Then, still resenting January, its very name made me think again. January, of course: it’s the month of Janus, the mysterious two-faced Roman god who looks both ways, towards past and future, with equal dignity. Most of all he is the god of beginnings. The first hour of the day, the first day of the month and the first month of the year belong to him; so do doors and gateways (and, presumably, janitors, who guard the entrances of apartment blocks in America.) Beginnings. Nice idea. Qualifies as a small pleasure. Perhaps things will begin to get better. Perhaps there IS life after birth, courtesy of Janus.

If by now you wonder whether I am an addict of ancient myths, the answer is yes. My mother used to read them to me when I was a child and I’ve never recovered from those riveting stories. (Naturally they were bowdlerised tales; I didn’t find out about Zeus’s sex life and other interesting extras until much later.) And, on a deeper level, myths are also about us, without the magical bits; the tussles, jealousies, intrigues and passions of the inhabitants of Olympus are played out every day among us on a smaller scale here and now. Personally I find that quite amusing.

But back to small pleasures. My third one occurred today when I dropped in on some friends for a brief chat. There were five of us sitting together, when the house cat, a magnificent Siamese, sauntered into the room, surveyed us and then landed on my lap and made itself comfortable, showing signs of contentment. Anyone familiar with feline psychology will recognize this as a sign of approval, especially from a member of that majestic breed, and I felt accordingly accepted and promoted. Perhaps January isn’t all that dreadful.

Well, that’s all for today, and these were my small pleasures.

What would yours be?










English as she is not spoken

As you probably know, English is World Language No.2., close behind Chinese as far as the  number of speakers of either language is concerned. But behind the statistics there lies a wonderland of unofficial English – not the spoken variety, in fact belonging to those who do not speak it at all, only borrow certain words and use them in highly imaginative and often bizarre ways. And they seem to do this  because it appears to them that using an English word adds class, style and a touch of worldliness to whatever they are saying in their own tongue.

I first discovered this when I lived in Paris and found that one of the most dazzling and expensive jeweller’s shop in the super-elegant Rue de la Paix traded under the name of …Fred, hardly the name to suggest wealth and quality, unless you are a French shopper of unlimited means. As time passed, I came across more and more borrowings from English and indeed some examples of Franglais, one of which evoked  the stormy reaction of the Académie Francaise, that venerable guardian of the French language. Its equally venerable members objected  to the increasing use of “le teen-ager“. The correct term, the savants insisted, was “le décagenaire“, a word which to my mind suggested a minor official in Ancient Rome, not a lively young thing in torn jeans and a baseball cap (another hostile Anglo-Saxon infiltration). I’m afraid it never made it into spoken French.

Poor old “teenager” suffered a worse fate in Hungary: during a recent visit I found that it had first been shortened into teeny, eventually ending up as tini  (pronounced tinny). Fortunately most speakers of Hunglish, as the local version is called by its critics, don’t know that “tinny” in proper English denotes, among other things, “an unpleasantly metallic taste”. But similar  borrowings aren’t exactly new: a small notebook in Hungarian is called a “notesz”, pronounced no-tess, while biscuits are called “kex”. Both words go back to the mid-19th century, when an enlightened aristocrat imported some newfangled objects from England, including notebooks (with “NOTES” on the cover) and cake tins (with “CAKES” on the lid). Nearly 200 years later both words in their local  pronunciation are still in daily use.

However, one Hunglish habit was too much even for me. I noticed that when people meet, they greet each other with what sounds like seeya and say hellohello when they go their separate ways. This is all wrong, I said to a local friend, it should be the other way round: your seeya comes from “see ya”, the US equivalent of “au revoir”, so that’s no way to greet someone you’ve just met, you should say “hallo” then,  not when you part, which is when you should say “see ya” if you must. He found this very interesting and we spent some time discussing the eternal lure of English words woven into some alien tongue. Finally I had to move on. He politely saw me to the door of the café where we had met, smiled and, by way of goodbye, said “hellohello!”