Merde in europe, p.5
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       Merde in Europe, p.5

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘Geordie, in Newcastle?’

  ‘No, the other one. I read about it. What’s it called? Scam? Scum?’

  ‘You mean Scouse?’

  ‘Yes, the thing they talk in Blackpool.’

  ‘Liverpool. Yes, I’d love to see Scouse road signs. Turn left, la. This way to scaggy Manctown.’

  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Paul, as usual, but it doesn’t matter. Ask our German friend about all the minority languages in Europe. Lots of countries must have them, and all of them could be useful for our bigger plan. And meanwhile, just remember that lots of nations don’t care if Britain leaves the EU. They think you’re troublemakers, arguing about every detail of every law and then asking for exceptions. But we in France do care, and we need you to stay at the heart of a strong Europe.’

  Elodie put her hand on her own heart, as if swearing an oath on the exiled soul of Napoleon.

  ‘Anyway, talking of missions, how did it go with your new lady friend last night?’ Elodie grinned, as if she’d already seen CCTV footage of my failed session on Šárka’s couch.

  ‘All she wanted was to lobby me about wind power.’

  ‘Yes, I know that. But did she let you . . .?’

  ‘You knew?’ I was aghast.

  ‘Of course. I was the one who sent her to talk to you.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Yes. I told her you were my new assistant, with a special interest in sustainable energy.’ While the last remaining dregs of my ego collapsed in a small heap on the floor, Elodie went on proudly, ‘Šárka keeps trying to lobby me. But I can’t allow wind farms to fill up the countryside in my circumscription. Everyone hates them. But honestly, Paul! I thought you might be intelligent enough to lie to Šárka and get some easy sex. What’s wrong with you? I need you relaxed, motivated, focused on your work; not on your hands and knees crawling after girls like Manon.’

  This hit me where it hurt.

  ‘And what about your night, Elodie? How was that? Northern lights on the bedroom ceiling? A nice little Viking invasion?’

  She gritted her teeth at me. At any other time in our relationship she would have told me to go away and get serviced by a Norseman. But I saw her make a conscious effort to get a grip on her emotions.

  ‘You know, Paul,’ she said philosophically, ‘it’s very hard for a young married couple to be separated by their work. Valéry calls me at eight every evening when I’m here.’ (Her husband was one of those unfortunate Frenchmen saddled with a female-sounding name, like all the Emmanuels, Gaëls and – yes – the Jean-Maries.) ‘He usually calls from the landline, as if to prove that he’s at home. Then he probably goes out and takes some woman to dinner. Honestly, does he think I’m stupid? What man stays home every night when his wife is away?’

  I felt almost sorry for her.

  ‘So you think he’s cheating on you?’ I asked.

  ‘Who knows. None of his uncles are really sure who their father is. Probably one of their own uncles. It’s that kind of family. They usually marry cousins, so adultery is a vital way of diluting their DNA. But it’s not only his family. It’s the whole problem with being married and French. You feel as if divorce is just a wrongly directed text message away.’

  It was typical Elodie – if she was shagging a Dane in Brussels, it was all someone else’s fault.

  ‘Now where is Manon with that bloody badge?’ she growled, rather breaking the philosophical mood.

  She leapt to her feet and opened her office door. I couldn’t see out, but Manon must have been at her desk, because Elodie started whingeing at her in French.

  ‘I didn’t want to interrupt,’ I heard Manon reply, matter-of-factly, not taking any of Elodie’s bullshit. ‘He can get the badge from reception in ten minutes.’

  ‘OK, Paul, go-go-go!’ Elodie shooed me out of the room like a skydiving instructor who didn’t care whether or not her new recruit was wearing a parachute.

  5

  ‘EU to ban Scottish bagpipes.’

  Report in the British press, 2005

  SOME PEOPLE SEE Brussels as an exclusive health club for bloated bureaucrats. Or as a Stalinist dictatorship that issues tyrannical laws just for the pleasure of watching its oppressed subjects panicking because the laws are impossible to obey.

  Others think it’s simply a means that we Europeans have invented of splurging our own money away, a giant equivalent of bathing in champagne every day or using banknotes to light cigars.

  Personally, though, as I walked through the streets of Brussels towards the European Commission HQ, enjoying the slap of my new badge on my shirt front, I felt like the member of a religious sect.

  It was because of the flag – that halo of stars, a cross between a golden tiara and Jesus’s crown of thorns, on a background of an idealised, cloudless sky. It looks like the emblem of a private paradise run by a wacky cult that dictates everything, from the number of bacteria per millilitre of paradise’s drinking water to the absorbency speed of its disposable nappies.

  You can’t escape that flag in Brussels. It was all around me – on nameplates outside countless buildings; decorating office windows; on cryptic posters that seemed designed to tell people how to say ‘development’ in every European language; and now it was dangling from my neck, both on my badge and on its strap.

  Arriving at the Commission HQ, I saw the most massive flag of them all, a blue banner ten storeys high telling everyone in three languages who owns the building – even Google or Manchester United couldn’t have been more ostentatious in their branding.

  It reminded me of my trip to Los Angeles, when I’d first caught sight of the Scientology building. The idea of all the faithful inside, with their identical suits, badges and bonkers beliefs, sent a shiver down my spine. I hadn’t dared to venture in, for fear of being brainwashed or teleported to another planet, but here in Brussels I was wearing the perfect camouflage. If I went in, they’d all assume I was one of them.

  Disappointingly, though, at the last minute my German contact told me to meet him at a nearby café. I wasn’t allowed to peep inside the believers’ inner sanctum just yet.

  Even so, the café came as a pleasant surprise. I stood outside and gazed through its plate-glass window. It was a self-service canteen type of place, the sort you get at airports. In Paris or London it would have catered to tourists and the occasional lower-paid office worker, but here it was full of badge people. Admittedly it was dress-down Friday, but they were all dressed-up, by my usual standards – the men in suit jackets, the women in serious skirts and smart shoes.

  At the Plux, the Brussels insiders had been in their element, elbow-to-elbow at the bar, chatting loudly amongst themselves, at ease with a drink in their fist; but here they were much more subdued, passively holding their trays of wraps, salads and smoothies, almost embarrassed about being forced to obey city rules and wait in an orderly line to pay.

  My phone buzzed, and as soon as I’d pulled it out of my pocket, a boyish guy was standing in front of me, holding out his hand to shake.

  ‘Paul, right? I thought it was you. I just wanted to make sure,’ he said. His English was practically accentless. Almost better than mine, I thought.

  He was as big a surprise as the café. Like most people, I guess, I have a brain that deals in stereotypes, so I’d been expecting someone Germanic and gymnastic, but he was small, with dark hair and a five-o’clock shadow at lunchtime. Only his pale skin and slightly flushed cheeks hinted that he’d grown up in the north of Europe, while his wide smile suggested that he was genuinely pleased to be in a country where beer was taken as seriously as it was back home.

  He introduced himself as Edgar Fürst.

  ‘But please call me Ed.’

  ‘Ed Fürst. OK, great.’

  We went inside to choose our airport lunches.

  Inevitably we got into the ‘How will the Brits vote?’ thing, which I deflected by looking serious and saying that the polls were still too tight, as if I
d been up all night studying micro-shifts in public opinion.

  With that out of the way, he told me a bit about himself. Two years in Brussels straight after a degree in languages in Berlin, and he was a translator rather than an interpreter. That is, he worked on documents rather than live translations of speeches or negotiations.

  ‘Luckily for me,’ he said, examining the sell-by dates on sandwiches. ‘Interpreters have to be schizophrenic, always thinking in two languages at once. They get flat ears, because of wearing headphones all the time. And of course they have to listen to all the crap that gets said here, and then repeat it.’ He laughed loudly, though I didn’t know whether this was to suggest he was joking, or because he really thought the whole system was a joke.

  I paid for us both – the cashier gave me two receipts, as though everyone in town needed a copy for their expense account – and we found a free table outside. When I sat down, I was disturbed to notice that I instinctively adopted the gesture of tucking my badge over my shoulder so that it wouldn’t dangle in my crayfish, avocado and rocket salad. I was becoming a believer already.

  ‘What languages do you speak?’ I asked him.

  ‘English, Russian, French, Polish. And of course a bit of German.’ He did his loud laugh again, as if multilingualism were inherently humorous.

  ‘And you sit there all day and translate?’

  ‘Yes, like a cissy fuss,’ he answered. I guessed it had to be a German idiom. Not a very well-translated one, though. Maybe he wasn’t as gifted a linguist as he claimed. ‘You know cissy fuss?’ he asked me.

  ‘Like when a drama queen has hysterics?’

  At this he just looked confused.

  ‘You haven’t read Camus? The Myth of Sisyphus?’

  ‘No,’ I confessed. The only French book I ever read got confiscated by one of my teachers before I’d finished looking up all the dirty words in chapter one.

  ‘The myth about a man who must spend eternity pushing a rock up a mountain,’ Ed said and laughed again, though it didn’t sound much fun to me. ‘I translate nine or ten pages a day, every day, depending on how technical it is.’

  ‘On every subject?’

  ‘Yes, laws, debates, press releases, policy papers, websites. Everything written or spoken has to be issued in all the official languages of the EU. Altogether, we translate about two million pages per year.’

  ‘Bloody hell.’ It sounded as though quite a lot of CO2 was being emitted in the city’s debating chambers and meeting rooms. ‘It must cost a fortune,’ I said.

  ‘A very British remark.’ He guffawed again. With me or at me, I couldn’t tell. ‘We have to inform all the member countries what’s going on, don’t we? And you don’t expect everyone to speak English, do you?’ This got his biggest laugh of all.

  ‘So it’s never a waste of money?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh, sometimes, yes, of course it is. You know . . .’ He put down the meaty sandwich he’d been about to bite into. ‘Some MEPs don’t do that much work.’ I nodded agreement – I’d only been here a day and I understood that already. ‘Well, one way they have of pretending that they’re efficient is to ask questions. Any question will do: Can the committee confirm that frogs will be protected when Berlin builds a new airport? How many life jackets must be carried on a Danube river cruise? Who is responsible for refrigeration if a container of Chinese fish is held by customs on entry into Hamburg? The MEP doesn’t give a damn about the answer, of course. He or she sends in a written question to a committee, it gets published, translated and answered, and it looks as though the MEP is busy. Last year we translated two hundred thousand questions, and each one cost fifteen hundred euros. You do the maths.’

  I couldn’t, but I still felt dizzy. My crayfish seemed to be wobbling on the end of my plastic fork. Maybe it was quicker at maths than me.

  ‘When it comes to translating the laws and serious deliberations, though, it’s never a waste of money.’ Ed took an assertive bite of his beef. ‘Except, of course, with the Maltesers,’ he added, and laughed through a mouthful of sandwich. This was one German who was really keen to show he had a sense of humour.

  When he’d regained the use of his windpipe, Ed explained that he worked a few doors down from a team of Maltese translators who, like him, made sure that every EU document was published in their language. But, he told me, Maltese translators have a much tougher job than most. Like everyone else, they have to think up ways of translating innovations like ‘app’, ‘wind farm’ and ‘quantitative easing’. But they also have other problems: there are, for example, no rivers on Malta, so before becoming an official EU language, Maltese had no word for river. The same went for lots of other northern concepts like trains, frost and curly kale.

  So, Ed told me, even today the Maltese translators regularly get together to update their language, mostly using a mixture of English and Italian to create new Maltese terms. They are, in fact, constantly revolutionising their country’s dictionary.

  ‘The only thing is,’ Ed said, ‘that no one ever reads what they write. All the Maltese officials read the documents in English. So these guys are inventing a new language that no one speaks, except them. Translating every single document and knowing that it will never, ever be read. It’s like being an invisible mime artist.’

  He shook with silent mirth, and I understood his tendency to see the humorous side of everything. He was working in a world as surreal as a Monty Python film about Salvador Dalí.

  An horrific thought suddenly struck me.

  ‘You don’t think my boss wants to get everything translated into Breton, do you?’

  ‘I don’t know. But we only translate into official languages, so it couldn’t happen. Unless of course Brittany gained independence.’

  ‘Oh God.’ Perhaps Elodie had a secret master plan: independence for Brittany, so that she could become its President. No, Queen.

  I asked Ed if he thought that Breton autonomy (which they’d be bound to call ‘Bretonomie’) was a realistic prospect. Again, his first reaction was an amused bark. Then he got serious.

  ‘You know, the sense of identity in these linguistic regions has never been stronger,’ he said. ‘To Bavarians, for example, their dialect is the verbal expression of their Lederhosen.’ I thought he was making a joke about farting into leather shorts, but he didn’t laugh. ‘I wrote a paper on the German dialects as living symbols of localised independence. That’s how I met Elodie. We were at a you-you-too meeting.’

  ‘You-you-too?’ It sounded like a polite orgy.

  ‘A meeting of the European Union of European Union Teachers’ Unions – EU, EU, TU, also known as UU2. They’re organising the EML 2020 project. That’s European Minority Languages 2020,’ he said, reacting to another of my dazed expressions. ‘It’s about providing education in all of Europe’s languages, even the non-official ones. I’ll send you my paper and the minutes of the meeting. In Maltese, if you want.’

  He let out a hoot of hilarity that had people at the surrounding tables stopping in mid-chew, and I forced myself to offer up a token giggle, even though I felt as though my feet were being sucked down into a quagmire made up of mulched translations and thrown-away euros.

  ‘However, I doubt if those linguistic regions could ever get independence,’ Ed said. ‘Big countries like Germany and France will never allow their nation to be splintered like the Balkans. So we don’t need to worry too much about Elodie trying to fill Brussels with liberated Bretons. A warning, though.’ He was suddenly serious again. ‘You have to be careful with these French. At the start of the last EML 2020 committee meeting – just five of us present, and Elodie wasn’t there – we had to wait half an hour for a French interpreter. Everyone spoke perfect English, but the French guy – his name was Remou or Remord, something like that – refused to speak or listen until we called in a French interpreter. And then he didn’t even use the earpiece. Scary guy. You know, deep down, the French patriots have never forgiven Europe for getting ri
d of Napoleon. Don’t forget it.’

  I promised not to.

  Meanwhile I did my duty and asked about other minority languages in the EU. Ed’s answer was a shock. They were all over the bloody place. Germany had a whole list of distinct dialects – not just Bavarian, but Swabian, Saxon, Alsatian and a dozen more. France had its own version of Alsatian, as well as Picard (near the Belgian border), Oc in the south, Creole in the Caribbean colonies, various strands of Polynesian and all the tribal languages in French Guiana. Spain had half a dozen linguistic regions that already enjoyed partial autonomy, the Scandinavians had several Inuit-style minorities, and the Balkans had far more languages than nations. Even the UK had some regional dialects I hadn’t thought of, like Manx and Ulster Scots.

  So it looked as though Elodie was right – promise EU-funded language teaching and bilingual road signs to all the affected areas in Britain, even in some vague political future, and in those regions the referendum would be a walkover.

  Ed and I queued yet again to empty our recyclables into a bin, and then to get a coffee, and I was only half-listening to Ed’s hearty chat about all the fun he’d been having in his two years working in Brussels, until he said something that grabbed my full attention.

  ‘And, you know, it’s true what they say about Lithuanian girls when they go abroad.’

  I didn’t know what they said about Lithuanian girls, at home or abroad, but I was keen to find out, so when he suggested meeting up for a drink, I accepted gratefully.

  ‘Never forget: the French will fuck you,’ Ed reminded me as he squeezed my hand in a firm goodbye grip. ‘They’ll do it very diplomatically, but you will definitely get fucked.’

  After my recent failures with women, it sounded almost enticing.

  I needed another coffee to digest everything Ed had told me. My immediate problem was choosing where to drink it. In the modern avenue leading away from my lunch, the only places I could see where I was likely to get an espresso were a juice counter, a cupcake shop, an Italian deli and some kind of beach bar. All much too euro-chic for me. I eventually spotted a Belgian-beer sign and headed for that.

 
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