Geneva and languages

Just a few thoughts on the last couple of days, sparked by being rather tired and cradling baby on my lap while typing (as so often).

I drove from here to Geneva on Saturday, and back on Monday. 780 km (ie 480 miles), taking the motorway all the way rather than risk getting lost in what looked like a potential shortcut at the end via Poligny. Took me seven hours going, and nine coming back (I was more relaxed about my timing, and stopped several times to take phone calls from colleagues). My itinerary included all the serious European countries that speak French (Luxembourg, but not Monaco, included). The first bit was of course just a repetition of the Thursday/Friday trip with the family.

I find long car drives quite relaxing, though I feel suddenly very tired today. (The baby has now fallen asleep so I am typing unimpeded.) I was able to listen to my complete Hitch-Hiker’s Guide set of CD’s on the way down, only to discover to my annoyance that I haven’t been looking after them properly and several of them have got badly scratched. On the way back I was listening to a great set of 8 Sibelius CD’s I picked up a couple of months back in Vienna airport for only 38 euro.

Speaking of Douglas Adams, hitch-hiking has really gone out of fashion. Or perhaps it was just November. Leaving Brussels on the Saturday, I picked up a student going 20 km down the road to Louvain-la-Neuve. Leaving Geneva on the Monday, I gave one of the other people at our meeting a lift to the airport. Apart from that I was on my own; apart from service station and toll booth staff, my only human conversation was a bloke doing a survey on tourist expenditure for the French government who grilled me for useful data in a Burgundian car park. And, as I said, my colleagues who phoned.

The only real problem with driving like that is you don’t see much of the human landscape. The broader picture is clear – flat out of Brussels, hilly Ardennes, flat again in Lorraine and Burgundy, and then proper almost-alps in the Jura. But no real impression of Namur, Metz, Nancy or even Dijon, where I once had a pleasant day in the library. If I was doing it again, I think I’d set out before breakfast and take twelve hours, with proper breaks.

French is not a language I feel especially comfortable in; my German and Dutch are much better. But oddly enough my confidence has been boosted in the last week or so, part by the trip to Bouillon and Redu, and partly also by a dinner I attended with a couple of US diplomats and an Australian colleague from the office, where I realised that even my vestigial French was better than the other three could manage. Also at the formal dinner in Geneva on the Sunday night, the local dignitaries made their speeches in French, fortunately not too Swiss-accented, and I had no difficulty following it.

Often people assume that living in Belgium, and doing a job in international politics with lots of contact with the EU, I must be using French all the time. In fact it’s pretty rare for me to need it for a real meeting. There is a “Brussels convention” for EU and NATO meetings that you are expected to be able to understand if someone speaks French to you, and in turn they should understand if you reply in English. I usually go a little further by struggling for a few sentences in French and then asking for mercy. (It’s interesting that the Canadian convention is different, and you are expected to include a paragraph of bad French in an otherwise English speech, and vice versa.)

With the post-1995 enlargements, Austria, Finland, Sweden and now the new ten, even this is slipping away, and English has pretty much taken over. Odd really, when you consider that German is in fact the most widely spoken language in the EU, with 80 million in Germany and a few more in Austria. Yet the presumption from German diplomats is that they will speak fluent English or French. I once had the experience at a party of being conscious that the German and Austrian on one side of me were waiting until they were sure I was concentrating on talking to the Australian on the other side of me before they switched to German, though both knew that my German is pretty fluent. The only conference I’ve been to where German was a serious language of communication was, tellingly, in Vienna this time last year.

I never use Dutch for professional purposes at all, unless I am asking a Dutch or Flemish colleague for a favour. And my Serbo-Croat is only good enough to ask the receptionist to put me through to the ambassador, or minister, or professor, or whoever it is I need to talk to. That and the not insignificant task of buying food and drink. And occasional political slogans of course: Смрт фашизму! Слобода народу! Smrt fašizmu! Sloboda narodu!

Anyway, it’s definitely bed time now.

One thought on “Geneva and languages

Comments are closed.