Juliette Aristides, Back to Back

Foreign Accents

Simon got his license at the end of our senior year in high school. To celebrate, he and I decided to drive up to Boston to see the Allman Brothers in concert, get stoned, and eat clam chowder and Indian pudding.

My mother wasn’t happy with the plan, even in the sanitized version I told her, which left out the part with the dope and substituted camping on Cape Cod for sleeping in the park.

“He just got his license. What does he know about driving on highways?” she asked.

“The State of New Jersey seems to think he knows enough.” I said.

“Don’t talk back to me,” she snapped.  “I’m still your mother.”

It was something she said more often these days, as if there were an expiration date to maternity that she would reach when I left for college at the end of the summer.

“I’m surprised his father will let him use the car, even if it is just their second car.” She said it as if letting his son drive a few hundred miles were some grave failure in fatherhood, the act of a frivolous man who didn’t deserve to have children. “But maybe that’s how they do things over there,” she said, and flicked her wrist to point to some unknown point on the horizon, leaving a spiral trail of smoke from the cigarette she was holding between her fingers. “In Germany.”

“Austria, Mom. Simon’s father is from Austria.”

“Same difference,” she said.

It was pointless to tell her that Simon’s father had been in the States for half his life, or that her own father had also come from somewhere else, and that both men had the immigrant’s eagerness to conform to the letter of the law so as not to give grounds for anyone to doubt their fitness as citizens. My mother would still see Max Groeschl as a foreigner because of the way he spoke English.

Simon’s father was burdened by an accent so thick that if your attention wandered for a moment, you’d think he was speaking German, and my mother was not the kind of person to make an effort to concentrate to understand anyone.

Max was a man who loved to talk and refused to be thwarted by his imperfect grasp of the language. At an early point during his long struggle to acquire the language Max was delighted to discover there were a good number of cognates in the two languages, not only the workhorse verbs of the language, like sink and swim, and eat and drink, but compounds and phrases, too.

“Standstill!” he said to me, “You know that’s how we say it in German, but backwards!”  In fact, there weren’t all that many cognates, but he noticed them more than he would other words, and Simon told me his father had once collected them in a notebook. A nail in the coffin, full moon, dead sure.

Max took his discovery as license to make up his own. Like earworm, a song you can’t get out of your head. Simon explained to me that his father went by the rule that it was better to say what he wanted to say even if he mangled it, than not to say anything at all. Considering there was always a chance that the words he made up actually existed in English freed him even more.

“Yes, that’s brought on,” he’d say, when he meant, that’s called for. Or “you certainly can’t talk that away,” which wasn’t really English but should have been. A few were arresting in their unexpected beauty. Like smoke flag. Rauchfahne, Simon said. Trail of smoke.

Immigrants often take great pains to master the grammar of the language of their new home, and many wind up speaking a very proper, if stiff English. It’s as if in inuring themselves to the unaccustomed syntax of their new language they suffer a chronic inflammation of speech that forever limits their range of expression. They have a comfort zone of words and grammar that they tend to stay in. There are many ways to express doubt in a language; a foreign speaker will have heard them all but will use only a few and perfectly well, like the limited repertoire of chops, omelets and spaghetti that single men will cook for themselves.

Simon’s father, on the other hand, spoke an exuberant and loose English. My mother interpreted his error-ridden, accent-heavy speech as evidence of laziness or, worse, divided loyalties.

Her conversations with Max were limited to the exchanges she had at his bakery, where she, like most of the people in town and a good number from neighboring towns, would buy his poppy seed rolls, rye bread and crumb cake. And his petit-fours, with their pastel icing and cross of glaze, lying on the tray like little boxes draped in confectionary flags. Like the rest of my family I called them petty 4’s, of course, even after I had taken French and knew better. As I discovered much later, they were really called Punschkrapferl, a classical icing-covered Austrian cake slit down the middle and filled with cake crumbs, jam and nougat chocolate. But Max had been long enough in the States to realize that any dessert that had krap in its name would never sell. He was free with his speech but not when it came to business.

“Don’t worry. We’ll be careful,” I reassured her.

“We?” She looked at me slightly puzzled but more put out that I was drawing up a team with me and Simon and maybe even Simon’s father on one side, and her on the other. “I hope you’re not thinking of driving.” She paused and added, “Because I doubt if you’d be insured.”

My mother didn’t think of worst-case scenarios, like me dying or smashing my legs to splinters in a car accident. She thought of second-worst case scenarios. I’d have an accident, walk out of the car unscathed and I—or she—would have to pay thousands of dollars to repair the car I just wrecked..

“No, I’m not going to drive,” I said. I wasn’t intending to drive anyway, unless Simon got tired and asked me to. The “we” just came out, I guess because that’s how I thought of Simon and me. We were a “we”.

If we had been born a decade or two later, perhaps we could have been more of a we. We could have been lovers. But I wasn’t out at the time and Simon wasn’t either, at least not to me and I don’t know if he was even to himself. Except for the fact that neither of us had a girlfriend and spent the money we earned in part-time jobs eating out together in restaurants in the city, we were pretty much indistinguishable from the straight guys at our high school. We were like rule-conscious immigrants who spoke a grammatically perfect but stilted English, and with only the trace of an accent.

Learning a language means sliding your voice into a mold with very different notches than what you’re used. It just doesn’t fit. You bang up against the sides, mistaking one vowel for another, slamming into odd consonants that twist your voice in unaccustomed ways. If you listen carefully to your voice as you speak this foreign language you begin to notice where the bumps and grooves of your native language are so that you can smooth them away. You don’t really lose an accent. You scrape it away, as I had done mine.

Unless you were Simon’s father. Then you didn’t care so much about sounding right because the important thing was the talking, the connecting, even if it betrayed your origins.  If people thought less of you because of your accent, Max said, maybe they weren’t the kind of people you wanted to be talking to in the first place.

It would have been different for Simon and me if our sexuality had shone through more clearly, like the German that radiated through Max’s accent and borrowed cognates. We could have been warm brothers, as he might have said. If we had just been a little braver and trusted our feelings, trusted that they would deliver us safely to the place we each longed to go.

It wouldn’t have taken much. After all, we didn’t know anything about highways, either.


Image: Juliette Aristides, Back to Back


2 responses to ‘Foreign Accents

  1. I really enjoyed the different strands of identity in this – being a stranger/outsider through language/accent/sexuality – how you can conceal or betray yourself through language and voice. The way the mother wouldn’t ‘make an effort to concentrate to understand anyone’ – so the ways of unknowing as well as being unknown. Beautifully done. But I missed you including a note on your chosen image – I enjoy those in your posts so much, almost like an extra bonus article 🙂


    • Thank you very much for your generous comments and attentive reading. I like the way you put it: the concealment and betrayal of self through language and yes, voice, too: language as a physical embodiment of self.

      And yes, I should have acknowledged Juliette Aristides in a postscript, not only for her painting but also for her advocacy of the Atelier Movement (and the importance of training young artists in the skills of classical drawing and painting — it would have fit nicely with Simon’s father’s own craftsmanship). The truth is, I had chosen the image mostly because of the back-to-back figures, which captured for me how Simon and I could be such close friends and (emotionally) intimate with each other and fail to communicate our love for each other. Thank you again, S./


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