Foreign Languages

I started school at seven. Being born in December it was either five or seven and my grandmother chose the first for obvious, grandmotherly reasons. I can still remember going for the first time to visit the school. The back of my grandparents slightly bent, walking in their best clothes in front of me. It was not their first trip. Later I found out that they investigated many schools around our home before deciding.

On their check list first came the school courtyard. All schools were state owned anyway, and in a certain neighborhood you couldn’t find really different educational qualities. The yard, as they dreamt it, had to be large, sunny in the morning, and have plenty of grass and trees so that their grandwonder have nature surrounding her in spite of moving from our old Transylvanian home into the big, dirty city of Bucharest.

The second in line was more surprising for the modern eye: I was not to learn Russian. All schools at that time had mandatory foreign language classes starting with the second grade and a second foreign language starting with the fifth grade. Romanians loved to have their kids learn foreign languages and that was not new. Anyone able to speak a little French was darn proud of it and made sure to mention the fact whenever he could.

Before the war a lot of high class families spoke French even in their homes. It insured a sense of privacy, too, since they all had servants, but first and foremost it was a status mark. For Transylvanians a correct spoken and mainly written German was a point of pride. Whoever had the means paid his children a good Catholic German school. English was seen as a dandyish feature. If you really posed as a modern intellectual specimen, speaking English was a nice touch. Italian was less important. All Romanians can understand Italian anyway, right? Of course that isn’t totally true but who cared. However learning Italian was a good way for your kid to complete his or her studies.

My own grandfather defended his PhD law dissertation in Latin. The story of how the head of the committee came to shake his hand after the defense used to be a recurrent theme in our house. There wasn’t also any issue with the Russian culture per se. In a family were everybody was able to use a musical instrument German, Italian and Russian cultures were generally in high esteem. If asked, that is. If not, then nobody would talk about the Russian one.

Russian in the 60s was a different Romanian problem. After the Soviet army occupied the country in 1944, while we were of course friends and allies, Russian became mandatory in all schools curriculums. As an adult, if you knew some Russian you could expect your colleagues to fear you a little, your boss to be much nicer to you. Your maximum hope was to go to the USSR and specialize in your profession. Obviously a lot of genuinely well-prepared people left for those specializations, a lot of well-connected ones, too.

The National Public Radio was daily broadcasting musical lessons for those who wanted to learn Russian. Students coming from Moscow with a diploma, often with a wife as well, expected for good reason to see their road to management positions wide open in front of them. At the same time one or two linguists discovered that Romanian had a Slavic root after all, if it was not altogether a Slavic language. I am not to engage here into a linguistic debate regarding the origins of Romanian language. Suffice to say that these theories came after about a hundred years of Romanian intellectuals striving to prove that Romanian was a Latin language.

Around 1969, when I was to start school, the Russian rush was fading away already. After twenty years of Soviet teachings, our new communist president found a way to mix the communist theories with the nationalist ones, focused on Marx more, on Lenin less, and least of all on Stalin. However for me at seven all this was plain Chinese. Easier to understand was only that in the second grade I was supposed to start English and in the fifth one French. My grandparents were content, I was, too.

Right now we were talking to the Principal, then to my future teacher and, finally, visited the secretary to get me enrolled. I can’t remember their faces. I do remember though half a dozen new smells, from the chalk one to the chlorine used in toilets. Then the way they dressed the walls of the rooms halfway into red-brown wooden panels, the afternoon light over the crowded desk of the principal, and the black ebonite telephones most everywhere.

Then we were soon on our way home. The school was barely ten minutes’ walk from our home. I keep seeing the bright white hair of my grandfather, the way blond people whiten and the gray bun of my grandmother floating in front of me quietly talking to each other in the golden warm autumn light of the city.

After dinner and more chat I was sent to bed. The reading virus hadn’t bitten me yet, we didn’t have a TV, so going to bed early was natural. My mother, back from work, said with me as usual the Guardian Angel prayer and Our Father. When finished she remained silent for a while then added: But when you go to school please be wise, my dear, never tell anyone you believe in God, ok? I went to sleep not thinking to ask her why.