Expat communities are fascinating. Until recently expats formed their own cultures that bridged their “home” culture and the culture of their adopted country without realizing their own culture or outlook on life had been altered. Before the era of the internet and dirt-cheap travel expats were often stuck in a cultural vacuum, cut off from cultural changes in their homeland so that their “home” culture remained preserved like a fossilized specimen and combined with their new country’s culture. Now with instant communication and constant travel people remain abreast of changes in their homeland much more easily and as a result can maintain their home-culture alongside (and separate from) their adopted country’s culture in a way that was not possible for earlier generations of ex-pats.
All of this was on my mind as I waited at the Ryanair counter fretting over whether my backpack would be light enough so as not to incur an extra fee. Two of my Lithuanian friends are into studying expat-communities in general and the Lithuanian expat communities in particular. From them I learned that the vast majority of Lithuanian expats live in Britain but that there is a sizable community in Spain. I had already encountered several Lithuanians who spoke Spanish but no English in 2008 so I knew that it was always worthwhile to ask someone in Lithuania who didn’t speak English if they understood Spanish if I needed to communicate something to someone. But being in the airport and seeing 150 or so Lithuanians in one spot chatting away in their melodious language complete with their inscrutable and thoroughly un-Spanish mannerisms was stunning (and besides you can go months without running into someone who looks like they could be from the Baltics in Spain or at least that was the case where I lived in Valencia). The conversations and arguments over the overweight bag-charges in Spanish (and once even in Catalan, albeit with an adorable Lithuanian accent) were the only thing to remind me that I wasn’t in a shopping mall in Vilnius but was actually still in Spain.
Right as I got to the front of the line I heard a young boy with a working class Madrilenian accent arguing with an exasperated woman at bag-checking over an extra two kilos. He and his mother refused to let the airline officials put the extra-charge sticker on the bag and actually went so far as to roll/throw the bag back and forth between them so that the workers couldn’t get the sticker on. As I was on the scale next to them and the scale’s weight display was easily visible, the boy quickly realized that my bag was exactly two kilos underweight, ran behind me, opened my bag, put in some children’s books and an alarm clock and instructed me to put my bag back on my scale. I, his mother and the two women at the scales were all seemingly hypnotized by this strange act he was putting on and waited for his further instructions.
“Now, here’s how it’s gonna’ work” he said. “This Russian gentlemen here” (pointing to me) “has agreed to take my extra kilos in exchange for a story to be told on the plane. Now since both our bags are at the correct weight you can’t charge me.”
The two scale-operators looked at each other and burst out laughing. The boy thought he had won until one of them made a gesture to him that is usually reserved for a naughty dog and said “you can’t do that, that’s ridiculous.”
The boy’s mother looked at the woman and said: “Come on Ma’am, what’s the difference?”
The woman turned to me and said, “won’t you please hand this miscreant child back his books and his clock?”
I didn’t like her tone so I looked at her with as much seriousness and gravity as I could muster and said “the only alarm-clock I have on me is my own and I packed those children’s books yesterday.” The woman looked like she was about to either explode or turn into a shrew and turned to her colleague who was desperately trying to swallow her laughter.
“Get these ignoramuses to put their items in the correct bags or I’ll fine them both.”
“I don’t see nothin’ wrong.” Her coworker responded.
“Ah hell, didn’t you just see this boy open this man’s bag and stick in his clock and those books?”
“No,” the second baggage handler answered coolly, “I didn’t see nothin’ like that.”
The first baggage handler looked at us with this weird face that was trying to smile but was being ordered not to so that it appeared that she was choking on a fur ball and said “oh, hell, just go before I change my mind.” And so before I knew it we were both on our plane without having paid the extra fee for our bags. And that’s how I met the Little Spaniard.
Sure enough as promised, as soon as the three of us sat down on the plane the boy began his “payment” in the form of a story. He began talking in a hilarious monologue about his whole life story starting with his immigration to Spain at four and ending with his tenth birthday and a pantomime imitation of drunken goats. His monologue went on for a good twenty minutes during which time his mother occasionally peered over his head and shot me a quintessentially Lithuanian gesture that seemed to say “do you still want to listen to this? You don’t have to you know?”
The boy’s life story wasn’t particularly interesting or surprising but his enthusiasm for telling it was absolutely enthralling. After moving to Madrid he recalled refusing to speak or even try to understand Spanish which got him put in a special class for what he termed “mutes.” He didn’t like the class so he just ignored everyone and everything. This went on for several months. Then one day he got into a fight with someone during recess and when the teachers demanded an explanation and threatened to discipline him, before he even realized what he was doing he broke his silence to explain how the boys on the playground kept calling him “blondie” (rubito) and “mute buffoon” (payaso mudo) until they finally surrounded him from all sides and demanded that he speak. Then a large Arab boy decked him and the little Spaniard kicked him back. As he told the story the large Arab boy was watching him snitch on him and he expected retribution from him the next day on the playground. Instead when the boy saw him again he said “so you can finally speak?” and the two became best friends.
“And now,” he told me, “Ahmed is like my brother. Here” he said, handing me a photograph of himself a year or two younger together alongside his mother and with his arm around the shoulders of a boy standing in front of a woman wearing a burqa and a tall man smoking a cigar. “But he’s an immigrant like me so we both get to travel to our parents’ countries during the summer.”
“Lithuania isn’t your country too?” I asked.
“No,” he said “Spain, is my country, I was just born in Lithuania.”
His mother chimed in: “My mother calls him ‘the Little Spaniard’ ‘cause he’s always telling her about Spain and trying to teach her Spanish.”
“So you can speak Lithuanian?” I said addressing the boy.
“Of course, my Mom only talks to me in Lithuanian unless other people are visiting our house. So I speak it well but I say things wrong sometimes.”
“Do you know anything about linguistics?” His mother asked me, staring over her son.
“Well, actually I’m kind of a linguist” I said.
“Vale, he sometimes calques (literally translates) Spanish phrases when he speaks Lithuanian and I don’t correct him enough because I can figure out what he’s getting at so when he speaks to my parents he doesn’t even realize he’s saying a purely Spanish phrase with Lithuanian words. But he understands everything and has no problem being understood if he rephrases things.”
“Did you study linguistics?” I asked.
“Just a survey course in college.”
“What do you do now for work if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She’s a nurse.” The Little Spaniard answered for her.
“At first I worked as a maid in a hotel but I had studied nursing in Lithuania so once my Spanish improved I finished my education. I worked in a nursing home, now I work with dialysis patients.”
At this point the Little Spaniard put his hand over his nose mockingly and his mother grabbed his hand telling him something in Lithuanian. He began speaking in Spanish, all the while looking at me “so what if they can’t help it, they still smell.”
“Sometimes,” his mother said “when I have to work late and there’s no one to watch him he entertains the dialysis patients, he can be very charming so he keeps the old ladies entertained. We had a blind lady, a Lithuanian who didn’t speak Spanish. Her kids worked nights and she would have had nobody to talk to for hours if he didn’t keep her company.”
“Well,” began the Little Spaniard. “Other than the smell it’s alright, especially when Ahmed comes along to talk to the old ladies in Arabic.”
“How come he comes too?” I asked.
“Because of his religion he has to help people and do charity.” The Little Spaniard said. “His parents make him volunteer with people. They would too but they work too much.”
“He says he wants to be a doctor too so it’s a good fit” his mother added. “And because it’s a clinic there isn’t always a translator around so it’s good to have him around, especially for the blind people because with them we can’t just write something into a computer and translate it so they’ll understand.”
“Diabetes?” I asked.
“Severe diabetes cases, exactly” she said.
“But the kids are so young for this?”
“Yeah, it’s unusual but the patients like it and my boss prefers him to a dog which is what some of the clinics and hospitals are doing now to keep people happy.”
Somehow shortly after this point the conversation turned to my life and my reasons for traveling to Lithuania. To be honest I had been hoping to avoid the whole thing, in part to avoid having to explain the Holocaust to the boy on the chance that he wasn’t familiar with it and in part because it was a long story and in any case I wasn’t even exactly sure why I was on a plane to Lithuania at that particular moment myself. Still, I ended up explaining that I was Jewish, that my great-grandfather was from Vilnius, that I had been there two years earlier to improve my Yiddish and interview Jews who had grown up before WW2 and I was returning to double-check information with one of my interview subjects and visit a friend. Of the perhaps five minutes or so that it took me to explain all of this the only part that the Little Spaniard seemed particularly impressed by was my mentioning of Yiddish.
“I knew there were Jews in Lithuania,” he began excitedly “especially in the cities and that they were killed in the war but I didn’t know they had their own language.”
“Yeah,” I said “and newspapers, movies and even their own schools. Just like there’s a Polish paper and Polish schools in Lithuania today you had Yiddish too.”
“And this is different than what they speak today in the Middle East?”
“Yes, Yiddish is like German while Hebrew….”
“Is like Arabic..I’ve heard it before on TV. So what you’re saying is that there’s a whole lost world written in those newspapers in a language nobody speaks anymore?”
“Basically, yes. But some people speak Yiddish still, just not that many, not like it was.”
“Have the newspapers been archived?” His mother asked.
“Yes, thankfully.” I said. “You can read them in America and Israel and some in Lithuania too but they’re hidden away in archives on microfilm.”
“What does the writing look like?” she asked. Do they use the same alphabet as Hebrew?”
“Yes, give me a second.” I said. I looked through my bag, pulled out the Little Spaniard’s books and alarm clock and found the book I was looking for underneath; my Yiddish translation of The Little Prince I had brought with me to donate to the Jewish school in Vilnius. The copy I had was printed in both the Hebrew and Latin alphabets so it worked perfectly as an example to show them what the language and the script were like.
As I showed them The Little Prince the boy called out, almost screaming “hey, that’s my favorite book, look” as he showed me one of the books which had caused the great tumult at the weighing station, one of the same books I had just handed back to him without looking at. And in his hand was a torn ragged copy of the Little Prince in Spanish which had been read and reread to smithereens. And as he began flipping through the illustrations in the Yiddish Little Prince he began reciting entire passages of the book in Spanish for my benefit.
“You’ve memorized the whole book?”
“Yes,” said his mother “strangely enough he has.”
“The order gets jumbled though so I need to use the pictures but I have each page of my copy memorized. I often skip exactly a page.”
I was stunned. Now The Little Prince is not that long of a book, perhaps 25,000 words if that and if a ten year old in Pakistan can memorize the Quran in a language he doesn’t even speak than certainly a ten year old Spaniard could memorize a text a fraction the length of the Muslim holy book in a tongue he understands. Still, who runs into someone who has done such a thing? And how does someone go about doing such a thing?
“Why did you memorize it?” I asked.
“Because it changed my life. It’s the reason that I want to be a historian.”
“A historian?” I said, not seeing any reason why The Little Prince would lead anyone into that particular field and wondering if I had ever meet someone so young who had wanted to be a historian.
“You wouldn’t rather be an accountant?” I asked. The Little Spaniard didn’t get my reference or else simply ignored my joke.
“Of course a historian, that’s what The Little Prince is. He’s the only one there to tell his history and he does it so beautifully. I’d love to be able to explain to someone why something is so important to me as his rose was important to him. And since there is no one else to tell his story, he has to be the historian. And that’s why I’ll be a historian, to tell things nobody has bothered to remember. That’s why I was so enthused with the Jewish newspapers. Who knows what may be written there that’s been forgotten and needs retelling.”
“Here,” I said handing him a third copy I had, “have you ever read this version?”
“No, I can’t read Lithuanian. I’ve never seen this before, when and why was it translated?”
I almost got sidetracked into an explanation of how The Little Prince became the third most translated book in human history (more than 200 translations, some in languages far more obscure than Yiddish) but I caught myself in the middle of the digression and returned to the more pressing matter.
“Sure you can read it. Look, you know the alphabet already and you speak the language. And I know it’s a pretty easy language to pronounce because it’s written as it’s spoken see.” And to try to prove it to him I pulled out my Lithuanian phrasebook and read a few phrases for him aloud. By his expression, however, I saw that my butchering of Lithuanian wasn’t changing his opinion.
“Look, this is what I do” I said. “I give every one of my good friends from school who grew up speaking an immigrant language in America a copy of this book in their mother tongue so that they’ll learn to read. And when I visit friends in other countries I give them copies of the book in their own language or in a language they’re studying. I’ve brought the Yiddish for the Jewish school so that maybe they’ll see it and want to learn their own language which they no longer speak. And I brought the Lithuanian one for a good friend who I gave a copy to in Hebrew when she was learning that language. But she can already read Lithuanian well, in fact she’s writes for a Lithuanian newspaper so how about I give you the book instead but you have to promise me that you’ll read it.”
And so I gave away my Lithuanian copy of The Little Prince to the Little Spaniard, in the hope that in his quest to become a historian and tell forgotten stories he would eventually see the value of becoming literate in his mother tongue in order to tell his own. Shortly thereafter the boy, whom I noticed for the first time oddly resembled the young prince of the story in Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, began reciting a page in Spanish to himself and piecing together the Lithuanian words until his murmuring in both languages seemed to combine. Shortly thereafter he fell into a deep sleep. We soon landed in Kaunas.