Elephant & Castle

A person who speaks three languages is trilingual; two languages, bilingual. One language? English.

I can’t remember when I first heard that joke—versions circulate in countries like Italy and Spain, but not on the other side of the Channel.

When the old saw came up last week, we were talking of linguistics—everyone at the table spoke at least two languages, one guy spoke five. Many words used in Latin countries are false friends, betraying you with a completely different meaning when you switch language.

Exquisito in Spanish means the same as in English, exquisite—in Portuguese it means weird.

Espantoso in Portugal means awesome, in Spain it means terrible.

And so it goes on. Butter in Italy is donkey in Spain, Portuguese olive oil is Italian vinegar and Spanish motor oil, and men cannot be embarazado in Castille, for then they would be pregnant.

The challenge of multiple languages is only one of the many that Europeans face in trying to build a union. Perhaps the most important problem is the increasing trend toward fragmentation, the notion that smaller units will do better than large.

Along with that, we’ve seen a strong resurgence of nationalist movements, which argue their countries have sold the future to Brussels and immigration. Today’s European election will reflect this—Southern Europe protesting austerity, Northern Europe complaining about the bill.

The United Kingdom, which holds the Scottish referendum in September as a test of unity, voted on Thursday, along with a few other countries. The main issues in the UK are the perception that the EU controls its legal framework through European directives—the equivalent of acts of Congress—and that immigration is destroying England’s green and pleasant land.

I lived in Britain through the second half of the nineteen-seventies—the IRA, punk rock, nuclear disarmament, and Margaret Thatcher. In those times, there was no European immigration to the UK—it was the Indies and West Indies, the stuff of The India Road.

The immigrants came to improve their lot, most (but not all) through work, and they would do any job for little pay. Fifty years ago the Indians and Pakistanis cleaned toilets, but by the time Thatcher came to power many small businesses had sprung up.

In the street where I lived, Indian food markets thrived. Their recipe was simple: they sold goods at a slightly higher price, but in return were always open—the English shops closed at 5.30 pm, and all day Sunday. And the Indians understood the Anglo-Saxon craving for alcohol, so they sold that also.

The children of those shop owners are now lawyers, doctors, and a large part of the BBC.

But grassroots xenophobia is part of English culture, and politicians from Enoch Powell to Nigel Farage have played to a sector of the population that refuses to believe unemployment results in large part from the fact that people don’t want to work.

In the last four years, Southern Europeans have flocked to Germany, Holland, England, and elsewhere. They all go for work—by definition jobs are available. Within their own countries, jobs are also available—these are in turn filled by Moldavians, Bulgarians, or Senegalese.

Despite the Balkan wars and the dark clouds of the Eastern Ukraine, Europe has undergone an extraordinary period of peace since World War II. There is a forgetfulness about this, as if peace was the European status quo—it is not.

Major battles fought in Europe in the XIVth and XVth centuries. Hundred twenty-six in all, an average of about five a month.

Major battles fought in Europe in the XIVth and XVth centuries.

If we just take two centuries in the European continent’s bloody history, One hundred-twenty-six major battles were fought, across England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. It works out to an average of five a month.

I did a few stats and it turns out battles (and therefore wars) are fought in the summertime, mostly between May and October, and centered on June-July, when about one quarter of the fighting took place.

Put another way, we’re rapidly approaching silly season.

For centuries, diplomacy and royal marriage were the weaponry of peaceblood is thicker than water, and there was a hope that this bond might resist human nature—it seldom worked.

The marriage of Edward I of England to Leonor, daughter of Ferdinand III of Castille, is a good example of misunderstandings, both linguistic and otherwise. By the time the Infanta, or princess, arrived in London by way of France, her name had been adapted to Eleanor.

The new queen was not well liked in her lifetime by the common folk, who thought her greedy and covetous.

When she died, the mourning king, thought to be one the very few English monarchs who never had a mistress, erected a number of crosses in her memory, including St. Albans Cross and Charing Cross.

His subjects were not so kind to the foreign queen—the words Infanta de Castilla were bastardized into the name of the South London borough of Elephant and Castle.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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