A Pipe With a Different Sound

In my first story, I gave a short description of where my grandparents’ villa was situated.
When I went to Brussels in 1973, my cousin was the owner of the farm that my grandfather had bought in the year 1900, and my uncle and aunt now lived in that villa.
Until my parents both died in 1991, I went to Denmark at least once a year, each time spending an afternoon visiting also my uncle and aunt , and when my cousin had finished his working day, we usually had dinner at the farm and all of us spent the evening together.

This ‘tradition’ continued for a few years after 1991. Instead of going to Denmark to visit my parents, I now went there in order to show my country to my wife. – And today, she has been to see practically everything there is to ‘see’ in Denmark. Which is more than can be said of ANY member of my family!

My uncle had died several years before my parents, and for my aunt it became more and more important that my wife and I didn’t ‘forget’ her when we were in Denmark, but continued to see her an afternoon, and usually – because she insisted, I think – we also continued to be invited to spend an evening with my cousin and his family.

When my wife and I had met in 1978, five years after my arrival in Brussels, she wanted to learn Danish – even though I’d told her that Danish was very difficult for foreigners to learn to pronounce correctly. I also told her that as all my colleagues spoke English and most of them at least a little French also, it wasn’t worth her while to spend all the time needed to learn my language. But for once, she was the optimistic one, and I really felt sorry for her later when she was ‘forced’ to admit that I’d been right about this!

As my colleagues in Brussels conversed with her mostly in French, the only place for her to ‘practise’ what she’d so assiduously learned was with my family when we were in Denmark. But, unfortunately for her, I was a peasant boy from West Jutland. Which meant that all members of my family spoke a dialect rather different from what she’d tried to learn – and occasionally heard spoken among my colleagues when being to a Danish party here in Brussels. De mortuis nil nisi bene. Yet, I have to say that my parents didn’t even try to understand her! And of course, she didn’t understand a single word when my parents or my brother were talking to me! Very, very often, when we were alone afterwards, she asked me if what she’d tried to say wasn’t correct – and she told me that she’d often been able to grasp the gist of the conversation I’d had with my family, because she understood much of what I’d said!

My wife was in much better contact with my aunt than had ever been the case with my parents. In spite of the linguistic barrier, my wife understood much of what my aunt explained when proudly showing off the needlework that she’d made since our last visit. Maybe because of this feeling of intimacy when being with my aunt, my wife again tried to ‘practise’ what was still left of what she’d learnt to say in Danish – with the tragicomic result that, one day, my aunt proudly declared that because of her contact with my wife she was now beginning to understand French!!!

In case you’ve been wondering what the title of my third story has got to do with all this, you’ll soon find out. During the last conversation I had with my cousin – more than ten years ago, now – he once again began to talk about the memories we shared from having spent much of our childhood together. My parents sold our small farm when I was ten years old and bought a house in the nearest town, only eight kilometers away. The school where I had spent just a few years was the only school that my cousin had ever been to. And the school mistress who’d been the first one to care about my health had been the only one that my cousin had ever had, and she and the headmaster of the school were the only two teachers that he’d ever known! – Now, after that the episode that ‘saved my health’ had been reminisced once again, he told me something about our ‘old’ school mistress that I didn’t know, and that had happened less than a year after I’d gone to Brussels. When you’ve read that, I hope that you agree with me about the title for this story!

At the European Union, it’s a matter of principle that practically everything is translated into all official languages. When Denmark joined what’s now called the EU, there were only six member countries and only four official languages. Denmark joined in 1973, together with Great Britain and Ireland. This again meant three new member countries, but – you may think – only two new languages! Wrong!!! How come, you may ask: Danish and English are two new languages. In spite of the many oddities in the EU, 4 + 2 still equals six and not seven ? Wrong again! – Before Ireland joined, all treaties, all legally binding documents and much else which doesn’t interest anybody today – not even the Irish – had to be translated not only into Danish and English, but also into Gaelic!!! – As you probably know already, today there are 27 member countries in the European Union – and the effect of this linguistic principle, together with the almost mad CAP – Common Agricultural Policy – constitute by far the largest economic ‘burdens’ inside the EU!

In 1973, the principle still sounded ‘reasonable’ – but Denmark probably would have agreed to making only English, French and German the official ‘working languages’ at meetings, etc. – provided that everybody else agreed to such a praxis. Which was NOT the case – and today the consequences of this become more and more cumbersome with every new member country joining ‘the circus’, as especially the politicians – much more than the populations – insist on their ‘right’ to have everything translated into their own language – just like the politicians from all the ‘older’ member countries!

Anyhow, yours truly went to Brussels in 1973 because of this, and as I’ve said elsewhere, for me it became a chance of a lifetime: I now made enough to go see the rest of the world as I’d always wanted to, and I also had the time to do it! During my 23 years at the EU Commission, I could go to Tibet or visit the Amazon Indians, the Aborigines in Australia or the Head Hunters on Borneo: the ‘genuine’ head hunters, or at least their descendants, and not the ‘business kind’ that you may have in mind when hearing this expression(!) – exactly when I felt like doing so. I think you all agree with me that not many employers are that ‘flexible’ when an employee wants to spend his vacation when and where it suits him, and not when it suits the boss.

Today, there are 70+ Danish translators at the Commission. But when I arrived in November 1973, there were around 25, and we were ‘pioneers’ and just like one big family.
Today, the 70+ translators are in six groups: Agriculture, Jura and Economy, Science and Technique, etc. When I arrived, there were just two groups: Scientific and technical papers were translated in my group – and all non-technical texts in the other group!

As I said, we were like one big family at the time and often went out eating together after work. For a person coming directly from Denmark, it was almost incredible that everything in the center of Brussels was open so late in the evening. – And during week-ends I often was invited by colleagues who took care of newcomers and felt responsible for them also outside working hours. One colleague in the non-technical group took me under his wing right from the start, and during my first years in Brussels I spent a lot of week-ends together with the leader of the technical group, and with his family.

So, when this colleague from the non-technical group told me that his girl friend was a freelance journalist who had been asked to write a story for a Danish weekly about the ‘pioneers’ in Brussels and had charged him to find some ‘victims’ for her to interview when she arrived in Brussels, I couldn’t very well decline – especially after being told that my boss – the leader of the technical group – had already accepted to be the ‘victim’ representative for a ‘pioneer’ with his family in Brussels, and that one of the best looking secretaries had also accepted to be photographed in front of the Berlaymont building (now THE EU BUILDING in any TV emission the world over) together with the two male ‘victims’! The ‘victim’ still missing was to be representative for an unmarried male Danish ‘pioneer’ in Brussels. Today, I no longer remember whether my boss or the secretary was the decisive factor that made me timidly accept to be the third member of this triumvirat! In addition to the photo in front of the Berlaymont building , each of us was photographed separately, also: My boss in his home together with his family, and the secretary and I in our respective offices. I had to take the telephone and try to look as if I was having a very important conversation with somebody ‘higher up’ in the Commission – but instead looked more like a prisoner just out of jail!

And now back to what my cousin told me at our last evening together, more than ten years ago: When the Danish weekly in question was published in September 1974, my ‘old’ school mistress – who at that time had been retired for years – had gone to not only one but to two Danish towns and purchased all the copies of the issue in question that she could lay her hands on – in order to give them to friends and family! I end this story with the remark that I made when telling my colleagues in Brussels about this, just before retiring: That’s how one becomes world famous – at least in West Jutland!

Journal Comments

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