Dutch had become the language I was growing up with, the language in which I was learning to express myself precisely and with subtlety. My Dutch kept pace with my development, grew along with my need to put feelings and ideas into words and to comprehend them. I spoke the kind of Dutch that was appropriate to my age, to my education, to my needs and talents, and also to the social and intellectual ambitions I had acquired.
My Hungarian got stuck at a child’s level, but even so, I’ve preserved a mysterious intimacy with Hungarian. Words I’ve never consciously come across I can usually place without difficulty. Turns of phrase that I would never be able to use myself I can understand the first time I hear them. Reading or listening to Hungarian, I detect the jokes, the irony, the double entendre. I can even guess the cultural background of the speaker.
But when I speak or write Hungarian I find myself out of my depth. I utter Hungarian words, my sentences are even grammatically correct, but it’s as though it’s not me speaking. It’s like losing. control of the steering wheel, or trying to stand on a foot that’s gone to sleep. I don’t have such problems in Dutch. I feel I’m on firm ground when I’m writing or speaking. But no matter how skilfully I’ve learned to use Dutch, it’s still not my mother tongue.
With some regularity I experience a flash of insight, a momentary vision of what it must be like to live with a language that is completely infused into all your senses, into every cell of your brain. An example: Walking through the Vondelpark, I see a thrush. Sárgarigó. Its name in Hungarian springs to mind, immediately followed by a nursery rhyme about the thrush, a rhyme full of r-sounds that I was taught as a child to practice pronouncing the hard Hungarian r.
Such flashes of recognition of almost sensual intensity — when I experience total perception of the connotations of one single word — come to me frequently when I see certain animals, trees or flowers.
Strange that it’s the words that have to do with nature that are so deeply rooted in my subconscious. I can’t remember my parents or grandparents ever trying to instil in us an appreciation of nature. They didn’t know much about it themselves, and as a child I seldom spent time in the countryside. The city parks of Pest and the hills of Buda were where we took our walks. That’s where I learned the names of the oak, the chestnut tree, the blackbird and the sparrow, the pigeon and the swallow.
My grandmother grew petunias and geraniums on her windowsills, and she was the one who taught me that you shouldn’t water the plants until the sun goes down. That’s when these unpretentious beautifiers of city balconies begin to give off their scent. One whiff of it, and I see the large, sombre inner courtyard of the block of flats where my grandparents lived.
My knowledge of nature is limited to those few trees, plants and birds. Knowing their names in such a profound, self-evident way must have something to do with those songs and fairy tales, those proverbs and pieces of conventional wisdom I learned when I was very young, all of which contain a lot more nature than I ever saw in real life. My notion of the ‘old oak tree’, the ‘stork with its red feet’ or the ‘birch sapling bent by the wind’ is based not on any observed reality but on images conjured up by the words the moment their meaning first became clear to me.
I cherish this intimacy with the language of my childhood. It gets to me whenever a Hungarian word pops into my head, accompanied by something that seems like recollection but is actually much deeper, often calling to mind fragments of a song, a rhyme, an expression we used to use at home.
From Child of Another Time (Kind van een andere tijd, 1992)
By Vera Illés
Translated by Diane L. Webb