01 July 2016

Моя страна сошла с ума (My country has gone insane)

Andrey Makarevich had a particular aspect of his country's foreign (or should that be domestic? President Putin would probably say it was, but then again so might Solzhenitsyn) policy in mind in this song, but the title is apposite. As, for the purpose of this story, is the language.

On Wednesday, in Manchester to give a course on intellectual property law, I presented myself at the hotel restaurant for breakfast. A young lady took my room number and showed me to a table. Her name badge, and indeed her accent, revealed that her origins lay somewhere else in Europe - further east. I couldn't read her surname, because of a combination of the lighting and my glasses, which are not intended to help with anything less than about 20 feet away, but judging by her first name I thought she was Slavic, but what I could see of the surname didn't seem Polish: so, thinking I was being friendly, I asked her where she was from.

Immediately the professional smile disappeared from her face and was replaced by an expression of anxiety. I felt terrible, even more so when her first reply was "I'm not Polish!". Perhaps reassured by the fact that I hadn't immediately told her to go back to whence she had come, her anxious moment passed and she asked me where I thought she might be from. "One of the Baltic states, I think", I said, and she said she was very impressed. "The middle one," she told me in answer to my next question, and I then proceeded to confuse myself about the very simple alphabetical order from north to south and place her in Lithuania - I hope that wasn't a mortal insult to a Latvian. But she went on to say that she was of Russian descent, and Russian was her first language.

I learnt from that experience that we all need a new way to talk to people who might find questions about their origin threatening. I have always felt awkward asking such questions (though I suppose the urge to be friendly has caused me to try to overcome it). It's perfectly likely that someone with a Polish name, for example, is descended from a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and was born in this country. If I'm confident that I'm talking to a Pole I can at least greet them and thank them in their own language, which saves having to ask any awkward questions. When I thanked a bank worker in her native Romanian, she showed me how her hand was actually shaking as a result. My Latvian hairdresser recently complained that she is forced to speak Polish most of the time, because her circle of friends in Didcot comprises mostly Poles (and, because there are so few Latvians to start with, that's hardly surprising): and of course she speaks Russian too, although I imagine a lot of people from eastern Europe might be less than happy to be greeted in Russian, especially as many or most of them are here to improve their English. (My hairdresser did give me a couple of words in Latvian, but they didn't take root in my increasingly unretentive memory.)

While I ate my breakfast, I mulled over how to deal with this novel situation. The sentiment that has to be communicated is "I don't care where you are from, but I am interested to know". The form of words also has to avoid the Polish fighter pilot (or other occupation) syndrome too - it has to allow for the possibility that the answer is, for example, Balham. It also has to recognise that treating someone as a visitor to "my" country could cause offence if they have chosen to make their home here. For the purposes of Wednesday morning, it was sufficient (when I sought out my Latvian acquaintance to apologise for causing any anxiety) to say "I hope you will be very happy here, as long as you choose to stay."

Fortunately, there's now a very simple solution to the dilemma: simply wear a safety pin, in a lapel or just on a shirt or pullover. It's a powerful symbol, so long as people understand it, and it immediately put me in mind of the paper clip in occupied Norway.

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