I was laughing yesterday as a friend of ours railed against the inefficiency of certain nationalities, declaring that if you wanted to get things done you needed the organisational skills of northern Europeans, especially the British or the Germans. Wow! The stereotypes were pouring out there. And then it got me thinking about the meeting of the French book club at the library earlier this week.
We should have been discussing a book called Persepolis, a novel in cartoon form, a “graphic” novel they call them nowadays. Marjane Satrapi uses the story of her life as an idealistic child and rebellious teenager to write about the Islamic revolution and the overthrow of the shah of Iran. When it was made into an animated film in 2007 with Catherine Deneuve as the voice of one of the characters, the Iranian government complained about the image it portrayed of their country, probably in part because it won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and therefore received a lot of publicity.
Even though last week we had spent a good deal of time talking about veils and burkas and the situation of women in some Islamic countries, this week the book and its theme were barely mentioned. Instead there was a lot of excited talk about a planned visit to Paris later this year.
This led on to the attitude of the French and of Parisians in particular to foreigners attempting to speak their language and before we knew it we were onto racial stereotypes. Parisians are cold and haughty. Southern French people are generally nicer than those from the North. The Spanish are too direct and the English are too restrained. And the Galicians?
Well, that opened a whole can of worms. What it came down to in the end is that gallegos are downtrodden, undervalued, the butt of Spanish jokes and generally the underdog. That was not, I hasten to say, the view of everyone but there was a significant vociferous minority telling us, in French of course, the following things:
• around here there are no road signs in gallego. So how is it that I learnt the gallego word for except – agas – from a road sign? What about all the traffic information notices at the roundabout near our block of flats?
• printed information is always given out in castellano. I beg your pardon but my first reading matter in gallego was information leaflets I picked up here, there and everywhere.
• you never hear gallego spoken in streets and shops. Well, I do, all the time. No, it’s not the main language you hear in Vigo but it’s still there. One of our number pointed out how much you DO hear if you are in Santiago de Compostela.
• films are not dubbed into gallego but always into castellano. Well, maybe not for the cinema but I’ve been highly amused to see well known actors from old American cowboy films speaking gallego. Anyway, they should, as I have said before, be watching films in their versión original.
However, on the plus side, it would appear that:
• gallego is an older language than castellano. Hmmmm, a hard one to prove or disprove but if you’re talking age, both of them came from Latin, a much older language, and look where that ended up!
• there was literature in gallego before there was any in castellano. I have some doubts there but I’m willing to be persuaded.
• poetry is more expressive in gallego than in castellano. This, apparently, is because there are things you can say in gallego that you can’t say in castellano. Well, yes, BUT there are things you can say in English or German or Japanese or (insert language of choice) that you can’t say in any other.
And so the conversation went round and round. One lady was praised for teaching her children to speak gallego. Another was criticised having been a gallego speaker and having lost her birth language. Anyone who was not a native of Galicia but had learnt to speak it was, of course, a hero and it was generally agreed that everyone should make an effort to learn the language.
It all got rather heated at times. Someone referred to Galicia as a region and was reprimanded. Galicia, we were informed, is a country!! I did ask, not so innocently, if Andalucía was also a country and Extremadura and Murcia and so on. (No, I didn’t go quite so far as to ask about Ceuta and Melilla. Heavens, I didn’t want to end up giving them back Gibraltar!) I didn’t really get a satisfactory answer. Everyone seems prepared to say that Cataluña and the País Vasco are countries but then the definition gets a bit blurred.
There was a fair amount of discussion about how representative of Spain is the Spanish flag. Should they perhaps have come up with a completely new flag along with the new constitution in 1978? What they did in fact was change the coat of arms from Franco’s time to a new version.
If you hail from Galicia can you wave the Spanish flag in support of a Galician cyclist in the Tour de France? Or does that undermine you gallegoness? Maybe I missed the waving of Galician flags when I saw the Tour on TV. I did see plenty of Basque flags and Spanish ones.
Fortunately somebody mentioned the relative merits of Santiago de Compostela and La Coruña and suddenly everyone was united in the belief that Vigo is not only the biggest but the best city of Galicia.
Someone trotted out a saying: Santiago reza, Coruña pasea pero Vigo trabaja.
Santiago de Compostela prays (big impressive cathedral, pilgrimage), La Coruña goes for a walk (much more picturesque for a long stroll along the sea front) but Vigo works (this is the place with the industry and the working spirit).
And with that everyone went home happy. Phew!!!!