My love of languages


Recently one of my posts was liked by a blogger called “Operation X”. My interest was piqued; a 007 fan or something more sinister? Did you know that the word sinister is derived from the Latin word for left? To my surprise and delight, Ken Ho’s blog focuses on minority languages. One particular post on Frisian languages caught my eye and it turns out my husband knows a Frisian speaker. After commenting on his post, Ken asked me if I would collaborate on the subject.

Y’all (Southern USA dialect) know my moniker ‘Chatty Kerry’ and I really do chatter in a variety of languages but only proficiently in English. I was born in San Francisco to an Irish mother and Mexican American father. My grandmother Juanita Ortega spoke Spanish although her family had been in California for generations.

As a child we moved from the USA to Formentera, part of the Balearic Islands east of the Spanish mainland. I have no memory of this experience but my mum later taught me some basic Spanish words. Then we moved to Scotland where I lived with my Nana, Mum and extended family. Although Nana had been brought up in Liverpool, England, with a rather plummy accent, she had married my grandfather Daniel McHugh who had a farm in County Sligo, Ireland. My aunt told me that they learned Irish Gaelic at school but after the death of my grandfather they moved to Scotland to learn yet another form of English. As a child, my Nana taught me my numbers in Irish Gaelic.

We lived on a public housing estate that was full of first generation Irish immigrants many of whom were from County Donegal. Gaelic was still spoken as a first language there and immigrants brought it with them to Glasgow. I watched housewives with headscarves and pinafores chat in Irish Gaelic on street corners. My Nana told me that they talked in Gaelic so they could gossip privately but I think that it was just a comfort to speak in the language of your country. All their children spoke English as a first language and few of them retained any Irish Gaelic. When I was 12 I went to a huge Roman Catholic High School with so many languages spoken at home. This was in the early 70’s so Glasgow had an influx of immigrants after WWII. The Catholics came from Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy for the most part. For the most part their parents still spoke the language of their birth country but all the children quickly segued into English like most second generation immigrants.

One of my childhood friends spoke some Scots Gaelic and I was fascinated! Scots and Irish Gaelic are similar in origin but they sound very different. Scots Gaelic was mostly spoken as a first language in the Western Islands. In an odd twist of fate after the Protestant reformation, each of the islands became predominately Protestant or Catholic. My friend’s family comes from South Uist which was Catholic, yet North Uist is Protestant. Her family members still speak Scots Gaelic fluently. Then I met my husband whose family were Protestant and from the North East of Scotland.

Shortly after I married, I met most of his family from Peterhead, the biggest fishing port in Europe. The dialect is so strong in that area that I barely understood what his uncle was saying. The language is interspersed with Scandinavian, Dutch and old Pictish words. Many of the local towns start with PIT, such as Pitmedden, which indicates it was a Pictish nameplace. We lived in two villages in the 80s and 90s. One was Auchnagatt, a derivation of an old Gaelic word Achadh nan Cat that translates to field of the cats. The other was Maud which derives from Allt Madadh translated as stream of the dog/wolf. It very often rained cats and dogs in both villages… Scots Gaelic was spoken in the area generations before but the language had evolved in a complex dialect of English. Each fishing or farming community had distinct differences in language.

Immediately after we married we moved to North Wales were locals still actively speak Welsh, another Celtic language. There was some enmity between English incomers and the local population but they accepted us because we had Scottish accents. I regularly mediated in arguments between the opposing factions. Wales has made a huge effort to increase the language usage. All public documents have to be printed in Welsh and English. Children learn both languages at school. It is astonishing that they put such effort into a language spoken by so few people but admirable. It became obvious that you couldn’t really work for the local government without having a working knowledge of Welsh.

In 2002 we moved to Egypt and I had to learn some Egyptian Arabic, distinctly different from Gulf Arabic, for example. Their second language was English or French both of whom colonized Egypt at some point in the past. I took Arabic classes but I honed my skills by talking to shop-keepers and taxi driver who delighted in correcting my accent. It was then that I realized that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. My Arabic was good enough to argue at the souk or get the correct groceries but it would have taken many more years to learn it fluently. It was fun learning a new language with a good friend from Ukraine. She also learned English from me and her new husband from New Zealand – how strange her accent was.

In 2004 we unexpectedly moved to Houston, Texas, USA – which is officially the most ethnically diverse city in the USA with the most languages spoken. We brought three Egyptian street cats who understood commands in both English and Arabic. When they were naughty, I would say, No! If that didn’t work I had to revert to Arabic, Laa! That always worked and until they died they understood Arabic commands. To my surprise, I found that I had deep roots in Texas from my paternal grandfather’s family. Not only had my great-grandparents been married just north of Dallas but my grandfather was an Oiler in the 20’s and 30’s.

It would be a mistake to think that Texans speak the same form of English that we did in Scotland. Not only is the dialect and phraseology unique but there are nuances lost on a European. Rarely do southern women use curse words but it is increasingly common to F bomb in the UK. The sweetest of Texan phrases, “Why bless your heart!” has a sting in the tail. In Texas it really means you are stupid or ignorant. Since moving here, I have had worked for the airport system, with clients and passengers. I started working there because I still had some rudimentary Arabic but now I speak ‘Aeroporto Espanol’. Houston is a hub for Latin America and who knew so many variations of Spanish existed? Only the Peruvians speak Castilian Spanish which is similar to modern European Spanish. In Lima, I was able to argue effectively for a decent taxi fare to the annoyance of the machismo taxi driver. I can now identify different types of Latin Spanish but Uruguay defeats me. They speak the strangest mix of Spanish and Italian evolving from the early settlers.

One of our first travel trips from Houston was to Louisiana, specifically to Cajun country, where they speak an archaic blend of French and local patois. Don’t ever tell a French Canadian from Quebec that it is an archaic form of French…apparently it is one of the most quickly evolving languages! In the late 1700’s settlers came from France to Quebec in Canada and Louisiana in the USA. They remained isolated partly because of the extreme conditions of both places. Cajuns live in a Waterworld of swamps and bayous. Their ancestors survived on hunting – everything! Heron was one of the favorite dishes (gah!) but raccoon and opossums also make their way into pies. Houston has been badly affected by many recent floods and we are so grateful to volunteers named ‘The Cajun Navy’. At the height of the devastation by Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy came from East Texas and Louisiana in their big trucks with boats attached. They rescued so many people from flooded homes and areas. Their skills with living in a harsh environment have made them naturally skilled in water evacuations. I watched a TV interview with a Cajun hero during the Hurricane and I still don’t know what he said!

Much more recently I discovered from a DNA test that some of my ancestors were Native Mexican – I could not have been more excited or surprised. This started a series of trips into Mexico from Baja to the Yucatan. On a trip to Merida in the Yucatan, I was staying at a boutique hotel. The owners were French but the chef was native Mexican. The menu was in French and the local language, Yucatec Maya. It may as well have been Klingon… I studied French at school for many years so I can read a menu but some words could not be translated, in particular local vegetables. The consonant X was used frequently and soft intonations. My driver kept correcting my pronunciation of Spanish despite my laughing protest that I had to speak regular Mexican Spanish at work. The word, “Yo” meaning I, is spoken as it sounds in most of Mexico but in the Yucatan they say “Cho” or “Sho”. I noticed that some of my colleagues in Houston are shy to use their limited Spanish but that is the only way to learn it properly even if it causes someone to laugh. My bad Spanish has allowed me to trek safely around Latin America. Most countries appreciate you trying to speak their language no matter how bad it is. Usually I start a sentence with an apology, “Mi Espanol es malo…” and the response is almost always, “Mi ingles es malo tambien!” (My English is bad too).

We hope to retire in Texas, our feet firmly planted in the soil, and I look forward to many new languages crossing my path. It is pretty easy in Houston – everyone is from somewhere else. My hairdresser is Thai, our handyman is from Chile, the gardener is from Mexico and our street is like a small UN base. We have neighbors from Ukraine, Argentina, Japan, India, France and even some Yankees. Well, nowhere is perfect!

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Despicable Me

Despicable Me

Dear readers, this is going to be very hard to believe but some people don’t like me.  I know, I know – Kerry is so nice.  Nice is such an overused word but accurately describes me.  Not perfect, not fabulous, not evil; just nice.  In Scotland we have a perfect word that fits me to a T – “couthie”.  It’s the opposite of uncouth and is nice with a little extra kindness and warmth.  Gosh, I sound so wonderful that perhaps I am narcissistic?

I worked a long contract recently when I discovered that my niceness made some people contemptuous.  It is my job to charm clients, exude warmth and be as nice as ninepence.  Mostly, it works to my employers’ advantage and the clients.  In this recent scenario, the company I was contracted to had a nest of vipers working for them.  The first day I was upbeat and excited.  The second day, I was upbeat but trepidatious.  By the fifth day, I was ready to jump out the 4th story window.  In all fairness, I have been battling chronic depression and a respiratory infection but I was not alone in feeling the toxic environment.  The event was guarded and every day I would chat to the various security personnel.  On the fourth day, the guard was so concerned by my worried face that he said, “Miss Kerry, if you look behind you will see a rainbow”.  There really was one and I was almost tearful at his empathy.

I am realistic enough to see that the company toxicity preceded me and was so complex.  Who disliked who?  Why was everyone backstabbing?  Was it their comparative youth?  It was made worse by staff sharing confidences with me about personal and work situations.  I am an empath!  Just like Deanna Troi in Star Trek, I really hurt when negative emotions surround me.  This is also why I am so good with clients.  Most of the conference attendees gravitated towards me, rather than the organizers, because I smiled and made them welcome.  I made an effort to learn their names, ask about their country and business and was generally pleasant.

Every evening I would go home to Teddy and vent viciously about my contracted, temporary, employers.  This is not the first time I have worked for difficult people but when the generalized wrath finally turned on me, it felt like a knife wound.  It made me second-guess myself.  I can’t stand not being busy and constantly found something to do.  This also made me realize how little some of the organizers were doing.  So many personal texts and emails added to workplace venom.  Three of the days were 11 hour shifts with no real breaks, just occasional snacks and trips to the restroom.  Most of the job was sitting so it wasn’t hard work just mentally wearing.

What part did I play inciting the wrath of one particular person?  Well, I am straightforward and noted that the name badges were not alphabetical, making life a little harder than it needed to be.  My constant tidying of the workplace may not have sit well, especially when I asked the cleaning staff for a cloth to clean the coffee tables properly.  Perhaps my age didn’t help?  The majority of the clients were male and closer to my age, so they were putty in my hands.  A pretty accent and smiling face takes you a long way in Texas or anywhere else.  A few came up to me before they left and thanked me for my help or just talking to them.  None of this went unnoticed and my benign conversation with guests was often interrupted with a rather forced sales pitch.  Use honey not vinegar, darlings.

I would love to say this is the first time this has happened but many years ago when I was a small project manager, I had two paid staff and a team of volunteers.  One of the staff respected and liked me, all the volunteers did also but the other staff member really despised me.  She did once imply that my life should have been hers.  I was fat and unattractive yet married to a successful handsome guy (the same Teddy).  She was stunningly attractive with the husband from hell and wanted my job.  I thought I did everything I could to make her life easier and make the job more attractive and interesting but there were limits with funding.  After five years, I burned out and resigned, despite the President’s pleading, then she got the envied job with a good honest reference from me.  Within a couple of years the project disappeared.

I think I know my faults.  My honesty and tactlessness can be searing but rarely with malicious intent.  I am very warm but know when to draw a boundary line.  Delegation is not my strong suit and I prefer my boss to be straightforward with clear instructions.  I will put complaints in writing if I have to but usually prefer to talk it out.  So what’s the point of this post?  The soul searching was worth it – there are always aspects of our behavior we can modify.  Lessons are learned and we move forward.  I wonder if any of them thought about me after the event.  At the very end I received a hug and thanks from one of the nicer organizers.  The one who despised me still thanked me for all my hard work.

Onwards and upwards – I guess I could work at the White House or as an indentured servant at Amazon…

Postscript

There is a rather sad story about the photograph.  The little boy was badly affected by domestic violence aimed at him and his mother.  I was mostly unaware of this and then they moved away.  He was the son of my mum’s school friend.  Many years later we visited and he was a handsome older teenager with a car.  He took me for a drive with an open can of beer in the console.  Despite longing to date, something made me decline the offer.  He died in his 50’s of alcohol abuse.  Every time I look at this photo, I think of what happened to this sweet little boy.

 

Tagged -Wanna Know You Better!

Would you vote for this person?

My thoughts are empty and chaotic all at the same time, unable to think of a post.  Then I got tagged by my lovely young friend, Eliza, on her thought-provoking blog Journey to Life.  Eliza  always signs, ‘Love, Light, Glitter,’ which invariably makes me smile.  It never ceases to amaze me how many diverse friends I have through WordPress, connected through our love of words, emotions and images.  We connect despite a disparity in age, lifestyle and often language.  You can tell how old I am when I say that the title of this tag/post is bothering me – I want to know you better?  Grammar is so important, girls! (In the voice of Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).  In a brief interlude with fame, my friend and I were asked to interview for the BBC Scotland series that followed the original film.  We were loveys in the Drama Group but both declined because college was beckoning.  Most of the younger schoolchildren in that second series attended our drama-loving high school.

I thought the questions in the second part of Eliza’s post were intriguing enough to inspire a post.

  • If I were a politician I would be – honest. I think it is really that simple but I doubt I would ever be a politician.  I can only imagine what the media would make of my mental health, ‘interesting’ family and ex-con father.  On the other hand, could it be worse than what we have?
  • If I were a writer I would be – successful. With a Kindle book, a blog and published articles, I am a writer of sorts.  In the past I imagined I would be science fiction author who would make millions incorporating aliens and romance.  My next medication might help that happen…
  • If I were a book I would be – a self-help guide. I long to nurture anyone that comes close to me and have always sought jobs that are ‘helping’ in nature. But in my head I would prefer to be a Courtesan, so that might be a 50 shades novel?
  • If I were a chat show host I would be – hilariously funny. A female version of Craig Ferguson, perhaps?
  • If I were a criminal I would be – endearing? I doubt that I could be a criminal other than by accident.  See below.
  • If I were a religion I would be – (lapsed) Catholic. In my youth I rebelled against my restrictive religious upbringing but now I have relaxed into an appreciation of my culture/faith.  My moral code is mostly informed by Catholicism with some common sense.  Heavens, I don’t sound like Courtesan material, eh?
  • If I were a mythical beast I would be a Selkie!  Selkies are a Celtic combo of a seal and mermaid that can turn into a human.  They are cute and furry, just like me, with a touch of naughtiness.  Maybe I could be a Courtesan/Selkie?
  • If I were a Disney character I would be – Donald Duck. You should hear my impersonation.  Children either laugh or run off crying when I start mumbling unintelligibly like a Drunk Donald Duck.  Teddy thinks I should enunciate better and that makes me do it more just to annoy him.
  • If I were a drug I would be – Prozac. That drug was truly made in my image!
  • If I were an animal I would be – a lizard. Despite living in the subtropics, I am always cold.  I am writing this with a fleecy dressing gown on – it is 100 degrees outside.  My feet are cold but the air con is at 78 degrees.
  • If I were a piece of food I would be – a yellow mango. Sallow skin but deliciously sweet on the inside.
  • If I were an illness I would be – Anxiety! Tense, edgy, scared.
  • If I were a mood I would be – blue. The color of my feet right now…
  • If I were a vacation resort I would be – anywhere that is not a resort. I like to think of myself as a Salt Lake – intriguing, healing and usually remote.  They are a little stinky but so am I when I use my Sulfur wash.
  • If I were a pattern I would be – Paisley.  A little old-fashioned, with a Scottish accent, but chic, too.
  • If I were a tree I would be – an Oak. Steady, balanced with feet planted firmly in the soil; nurturing so many critters in my branches.

Thank you to Eliza for giving me something to smile about!  Love Light Glitter!

 

The Last Cat

Rest in peace, baby cat

I can still remember the first moment I saw Toffee, 16 years ago. Her mother, Mrs Stripe, came through the hedge at our villa in Egypt closely followed by two 6 week old kittens, soon to named Toffee and Treacle. Toffee was a dark tabby and Treacle, coal black. I sobbed and laughed because I feared that I had scared Mrs Stripe away forever after trying to trap her. It was almost as though she said, “See, this is why I couldn’t be trapped, I had kittens to wean.”

Toffee was precocious and adorable. There were little dusty footprints all over our walls because she propelled herself with a back legs leap to chase everything from lizards to ping pong balls all over our Cairo house. The stairs were open plan and she would talk to us from the half landing, through the wrought iron banisters, with her head on the side. We called her ‘Little Eee‘ and thought she was the cutest little kitten.

When we arrived in Houston from Cairo, with three wild cats, I can remember the look of joy in Toffee’s eyes. “Mummy and Daddy are here with us!” Of all the cats she settled into our tiny one bedroom apartment with delight after leaving a luxurious four bedroom villa with gardens and staff. Eventually she settled into our forever house. That first Christmas in Houston was magical because we had snow and a ham dinner!  Right to the end of her life, Toffee had a fetish for ham. I told her Allah was watching but she paid me no heed. Perhaps she was a pagan or Copt?  For the last three years she has been a spoiled ‘only’ cat after the deaths of Mrs Stripe and Zhenny.  Katniss joined our household for a short time and Toffee enjoyed their shared solitude.

Toffee had a serious illness at the beginning of this year and the writing was on the wall. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a feral Egyptian cat would live to 16 years old with almost perfect health. After a short but serious illness we made the sad decision to have her put to sleep on Tuesday 20 August 2019. That morning, I gave her an overdose of cat Xanax and Tuna. Her eyes started to dilate then she got the munchies. In between, she kept jumping on the couch to purr and cuddle with her mum and dad, each time stumbling a little more. Then we took her to the vet, feeling no pain. Her death was quick and we took her home for a quiet wake.

I laid her on her Tempur Pedic cushion, wrapped in her shroud and favorite blanket, then cuddled her for most of the day. She was so undomesticated that this was the first time in 16 years that I could hold her to my heart and tell her how much I loved her. Teddy dug a deep grave in our terrible forest soil. The heat index was about 108 degrees. With both people and animals, I can’t bury them until rigor mortis has set in, so Toffee sat in our living room until night fell.  On reflection, it would be a tad speedy to bury a human any earlier…(some dark humor there and watch out, Teddy.)

Our hearts are broken, especially knowing that this was the LAST CAT. We cannot endure the worry of who would look after our animals in the event of our deaths, which will be sooner rather than later.  I have always had a pet so  feel bereft but also feel guilty about enjoying a litter free laundry room and a smell free house. We can go on vacation whenever we want but what we would do for one last cuddle or vocalization.  As much as we enjoyed the other 10 pets we have had, Toffee was truly the best cat.  Sweet-natured, loving and unique.  My health has not been great in 2019 with a sad family funeral in Scotland and now Toffee’s passing.  I hope she is enjoying catching neon colored lizards over the rainbow bridge and some kindly angel releases them, as Mummy did so often.

Isn’t there always an anti-climactic reason to laugh?  The next day we noticed that an animal had dug up Toffee’s grave but hadn’t got quite deep enough.  With a sigh, I put all the soil back and put a board over it, sprinkled with vinegar.  That night we set out the camera, baited with an apple.  A raccoon and baby possum visited, as did armadillos.  We couldn’t get the armadillos on camera but turn the sound up to enjoy the summer cacophony that we attempt to sleep through.  The most raucous noise is the frogs and the high chirrups are the armadillos.  The  baby possum has the starring role.

At least we will never be alone…

Crocodiles, Tortoises and Piggies, oh my!

Kerry with a giant tortoises, more below

He was saying, “I’m not going to talk to you unless you have baby carrots”.  This is a reserve close to Alvin, Texas called Crocodile Encounter.  It was literally in the middle of nowhere on a rough road that had just been repaved.  Even so, there was no room in the car park for me.  It was as hot as hell – 109 head index with humidity through the roof.  The shot below gives you a little feel of the conditions.

It wasn’t raining – this is the humidity on my camera.  I truly love alligators and crocodiles; primeval animals.  To be honest, I don’t know which ones were alligators or crocodiles because the heat had fried my brain.  I prefer reserves to zoos for all the obvious reasons and this sign describes why I liked it.

There are so many predators in the wilds of Texas that small crocodiles could be eaten.  It looked like crocodile heaven and even hog heaven.  I wanted to jump into the pool with the little piggy.

I loved that you could get really close to the animals.  We live alongside alligators all the time in south east Texas and these ones are really well fed.  In Louisiana we saw kittens playing close to an alligator who was basking in the sun.  Plenty of catfish to feed everyone.

This is such a beautiful crocodile, perfectly designed for living in the swamp.

Can you see me?

I love carrots!

On a slightly tangential note, I had a friend in Egypt who kept rescued tortoises, most of whom were endangered.  When they have sex, they moan and groan like they are starring in a porn movie.  It was the most hilarious noise I had ever heard; although the tortoises took love-making very seriously.  I suppose you would, if you were endangered.

Fuzzy Pterodactyl

baby green heron, Texas

When I looked in this nest in Alvin, Texas, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at.  It was in a crocodile nature park, so I asked the guide who told me that it is a baby green heron.  The mother nests there every year so she must feel comfortable around crocodiles and alligators.

They are migratory and curiously I shot this adult green heron, below, in Merida, Mexico about 18 months ago.  This was also in a nature reserve and there were rare crocodillo living there too.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was the same family?

The male and female build the nest and they are one of the few tool using bird species.  Smarter than the average heron and smaller too.  I think there were 3 or 4 little nestlings.  They are nocturnal and clever little predators that can hover for short periods above prey.  It is not always the same Papa as they are seasonally monogamous.  That sounds like a fabulous idea!  Who will be my autumnal husband??

adult green heron, Mexico

Bibles?

It is always my birthday, the day after our anniversary…until I get a new husband.  😈 After we got home from my birthday dinner, I received this series of texts from my friend who lives a few doors down the cul-de-sac or, as we call it, the ‘hood’.

You can’t make this stuff up – God Bless that auto-correct!

Kerry with ‘bibles’ in elegant negligee and Walmart slippers.