At the age of 6, I decided to become a foreigner.
Before that, the contenders were becoming:
- Roberto, my dad's friend I was crazy about (age 3),
- peanuts and pumpkin seeds seller so that I could watch shows for free (age 4) and
- a sailor, like my neighbour, a ship captain, who had taught me all the capitals of the world and to count to 20 in 20 languages (age 5).
We had just moved to Sarajevo in Bosnia. I could have easily become a foreigner speaking Italian, since we had lived in Italy before that, or Croatian, which spoken in Dubrovnik where I was born, sounded very much like a foreign language infused with many Italian-sounding words. But, in my mind, foreigners spoke English. Whether Humpty Dumpty and other nursery rhymes or T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land my aunt, who studied English and German, had taught me to recite had anything to do with it, I don't know. But I was determined, so I begged my parents to enroll me in English classes at a community centre, which was called The Pioneers' Centre.
To accomplish my goal of becoming a foreigner, I took my English classes very seriously. The teacher was a recent graduate, who dreamed of becoming a singer. He taught us quite a few English songs stating that the music of a language was its important element, and it could only be taught by singing. We mumbled unfamiliar words and it took many years until I realized what the lyrics really meant, although I continued to sing them in the way I first learned them, as a series of English-sounding but meaningless words.
One of the most important lessons our teacher imparted on us was that to have a proper English pronunciation, we should chew on something while uttering the words. Many years later, when I studied English in University, I discovered a very funny book How to Be an Alien by George Mikes. He was a Hungarian immigrant, who wanting to fit in, discovered that he could fake a proper English pronunciation by holding a pipe in his mouth at all times.
The word my teacher always used to demonstrate the application of this theory that English was easy to speak with your mouth full, was "skyscraper". It is a beautiful word, very evocative, which I still happily use (you mean ‘high-rise?’ people ask me amused). He would pop a soft candy into his mouth, chew on it and utter slowly "sky", followed by meaningful silence and some more chewing and then finish off the word with "scraper."
Whether it was a sound of his teeth grinding or a grunt he would add to the pronunciation, his theory was persuasive. I was extremely impressed by the fact that it was so easy to speak English. As someone who loved to eat, the fact that food and loud chewing would turn me into a foreigner made my goal so much easier to attain.
At the time and place I am describing -late sixties, 6-year old children could walk home alone. And so I did, even though my apartment building was a good half hour away from the Pioneers’ Centre. That meant enough time to practice being a foreigner.
On my way home, I would first stop by the cabbage vendor. Cabbages were the only vegetable sold once the abundance of the early Fall would fade. They were piled in the shape of a pyramid and you could buy them any time of night or day. So, I would buy a cabbage. I would then tear off a piece, chew on it and voilà! - I would transform into a foreigner. The only thing left to do was to prove it to the world.
Dead serious, my cheeks swollen with cabbage leaves, I would approach passers-by (another habit from that period, now extinguished: children approaching and talking to strangers) and, while chewing steadily, I would say a word or a phrase I learned in class, or, more often, something meaningless. My victims were so shocked that they would either be unable to respond or would say something in Bosnian, like "Are you all right my child? Where is your mother?" Whatever they would do or say was a proof that I managed to fool them.
Sometimes, my walk home would last a whole hour. I stopped people to ask them for time (”How much watch?”) or pretended I was going to interview them, inquiring about their age (“How many years have you?”) or just spoke gibberish.
Alas, one day, I got so carried away by impressing strangers with my perfect English that I completely lost track of time. A neighbor spotted me with half a cabbage under my arm and, despite my protests (“I am strange English.”), took me home to my distraught mother.
That was the end of my career as a foreigner. After a very brief period of mourning, I came up with an idea: I should become a grown-up. There were no classes for that in the Pioneers’ Centre so I studied grown-ups around me and concluded that if I didn’t speak much, shouted when I did speak, shook my head a lot and didn’t smile at all, it would work. But I didn’t have much time to practice. Summer holidays came, we went to Dubrovnik for three blissful months and long days on the beach made me forget all about my dream career.
Many years later, I did become a grown-up, and a foreigner, albeit unwittingly. But that’s another story.