I am whipping through the French countryside at 316 km/h on the second level of a TGV train bound for München with a slight headache from the boxed Bordeaux that brought me to the end of last night in Paris. Salzburg awaits me at the end of this jointed track and I remind my tongue the pronunciation of bitte, danke, ein bier, ja. The woman in the seat across the aisle one row ahead scrolls through blurry photos of Notre Dame on her giant Samsung. It is Sunday afternoon and the weekend is winding down. Germans return home from France with Perrier and macarons. A toddler bounces down the aisle with the Eiffel tower embroidered on his round, shirted belly and I watch for the border, overgrown now, I’m sure, and hatched with footpaths.
From this angle, there’s little difference between the two places. They share currency, a workforce, transportation networks, brand names and franchises. They both have a surprising number of green trees and valleys of puckered lush bush hidden between hills and small mountains. They both have vineyards and cute farm houses with new lambs frolicking in the fields outside. They have a likeness that changes ever so gradually, even at this speed. Yet the announcements repeat in three languages. English is the token given to ensure that everyone “else” can understand what is going on, everyone who lacks the entitlement to the land that goes along with knowing its tongue.
Like a good scotch, language needs time to work out the nuance of its fire, and this happens best is a barrel of isolation. Over the ages prior to our own, the earth was littered with such barrels. France and Germany–though neighbours–each developed their own unique flavour. When we learned how to fly, we also had to learn how to communicate with the distinct parts of ourselves. Esperanto was a nice idea–a blended language like a smooth Johnnie Walker–but with only a handful of native speakers and few others choosing to pick it up in their free time, it hasn’t risen to the fore as its inspired creator hoped. I’m not sure how English got the winning bid, though I imagine it had a lot to do with money and power, and little to do with equal representation.
Over the past month, I’ve had many conversations about language–all of them in English–with folks from Spain, Argentina, France, Ireland, Russia and Norway. Today, I wait through the German, then the French, before I am welcomed to have a drink at the bar in car fourteen. I am grateful, because I am thirsty and seven hours is a long time to spend on a train without a bit of a buzz. I spy again over the shoulder of the woman with the Samsung as the child with the Eiffel tower embroido-tattoo comes around for another pass. They are each taking something home with them, something to prove that they were elsewhere, even if elsewhere is looking more and more like here.