My opening words before the Polyfonías Poetry Project recital at the 2010 “Lumière du Roman” Music Festival in Conques.
Today I will speak to you in several languages and thus implicitly also about languages. I will speak to you with the words of the different cultures that are part of me, and it is my hope that through these words and the music I will be able to touch that element in you that makes us all alike: the human emotions.
Animals, trees, flowers, stones all seem to rest in themselves. They don’t need to ask themselves what they are, why they are and what they are here for. We human beings, on the contrary, are condemned to translate our experiences and thoughts into words. We are made of words. All depending on how we use the words we can make friends or enemies, war and peace. What is so marvelous is that if we use the language of love, comprehension and compassion we can construct a human community.
For the last five years Mark, Salvador and I have performed the Polyfonías in eight European countries and I believe that my poetry has been understood and appreciated everywhere. Nevertheless, I am convinced that of all these places Conques is where we will obtain the fullest resonance and harmony with our surroundings. The pilgrims’ roads have always defied national and linguistic borders. Obviously I am not referring to the spirit of the Crusades, which is just the contrary as I well know, having lived in Spain for the last thirty years. Spain, the country of the Reconquista, from which the Catholic Royalty in the name of religious dogmas expelled Arabs and Jews more than five hundred years ago. No, when I mention pilgrimage I am speaking about the personal quest which make people cross borders to commune with others and with themselves.
Once again we find ourselves in a Europe of great migrations and intermingling of peoples, as well as with a renewed mixture of languages. During the Middle Ages Latin was the international language among the learned classes of Europe, and – needless to say – with Greek the principal language of the Christian Church. The ordinary people – most of them illiterate – spoke different vernacular languages, in modern France pejoratively called patois. These languages were orally transmitted and did not stay within clearly defined geographical borders as the nations were supposed to, but strayed widely with pilgrims, jugglers, troubadours and other traveling folk. The journey was slow and on their way through foreign regions the medieval poets kept adding new colors to their palette as they adopted bits and pieces from the local patois creating thus their own particular poetic tongue from the different cultures they had come to know.
Words are reflections of a culture. In most cases words from the language of one culture have equivalents in the languages of other cultures, but translating a word from one language to another in many cases only means translating the meaning of the word – what it stands for – but not the culturally relevant experience that created the word in the first place. Words begin as sounds: a baby doesn’t know what “mama” means, but they certainly recognize the warmth and liquid comfort that making this sound produces. Now this is an experience which happily is not culturally specific, although the word “mama” is spelt somewhat differently in every language. When an Indian mother hears an American child scream for comfort, she knows what it means.
Other words, however, are autochtonous to specific climatic and geographical areas and their languages. They will typically refer to plants, animals, natural phenomena and local traditions and rituals (fundamentally to do with cooking and and music-making) that do not exist elsewhere. These words, essential to survival, were heard before they were ever spelled and, like folk music, they defy notation.
Translations into languages of areas where the conditions that produced them do not exist will typically be literal translations, not aural ones. They are not sonic – musical – reproductions of what they stand for; they are not naturally born and will therefore be abstract and appeal more to the intellect than to the senses.
Take a word like “huître” for example, which is how the French say oyster. This primitive seafood translates into German as “Auster,” but Germany has hardly any coastline at all, and I am sure that for a Bavarian who has never seen the ocean this word does not produce the same emotion as it does for a Breton or for somebody from the Saintonge where the famous Marennes oysters come from. For people from these coastal regions facing the Atlantic ocean the word huître is a sensual word with a soft fleshy texture and the tang and fury of the sea.
To produce the same nostalgia for home in a Bavarian, Weißwurst – sausage – would probably have a better effect. Incidentally, he sound of the German word heimatsweh is far more evocative of this mood than the English homesickness, and Castilian Spanish doesn’t even have a word for it.
The French culture has created the wonderful word rayonnement which is the transmission of energy and, by inference, spiritual charisma. The rayonnement of Sainte Foy de Conques in Europe and beyond has not ceased since the Middle Ages, and several of us have established ourselves here due to this rayonnement. A bolt of lightning – a radiance – in the form of a dream or a miraculous coincidence set us on the road to Conques. “I am I and my circumstances,” said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Sainte Foy and her village have been decisive circumstances in my life.
When I was seventeen and attended boarding school in Denmark, I had a dream about a church that was on fire on the other side of the mountains down south and it was my task to go and put out the fire. This was a recurrent dream that visited me regularly for several months, and there were very few variations in the dream. Sometimes the weather was good and the traveling was easy, sometimes there were snowstorms and I was lucky to survive. But the plot was always the same: a church was burning on the other side of the mountains in the south and it was my mission to go and extinguish that fire.
One day ten years later while I was doing my apprenticeship as a journalist at a newspaper in Copenhagen, I was in bed with a terrible flu. A favorite passtime of mine was reading the classified announcements for real estate in the International Herald Tribune. Since I was broke and just as debt-ridden as any Danish student about to finish his or her studies, I was doing “window shopping” in the paper imagining that I was being shown around on some big estate in the Aegean Sea or on the French Riviera. All of a sudden my eyes froze on the name Conques. A medieval furnished house was for sale…historical site…France…old garden…trees…
I wouldn’t normally have paid any attention to a minuscule ad like this, but I had traveled a lot in France with my parents, and I was bothered and intrigued by the fact that there was a French historical town that I didn’t know about. Blame it on my youth, I still had a lot to learn!
In the advertisement there was a telephone number – Conques 27 I think it was. The voice of an elderly lady answered the phone. She said that the house belonged to her son, and gave me his home telephone number in Paris. Before I hung up I asked her to give me a description of Conques and the landscape around the village. It may have surprised her that I didn’t inquire about the house, but I was not in the market, and to begin with it was Conques that I was curious about.
My impatience made me forget about the flu and off I went to the French bookshop to see if I could find a book with a picture of Conques. The old lady had told me that it was in the center of France, so I began browsing the huge coffee table books on the Auvergne and the south-west of France. Before long I found the picture I was looking for: a triptych of an imposing romanesque church rising up from a maze of tiled roofs surrounded by green tree-clad mountains.
It was like a déjà-vu: I knew that place, I had been there before! But no, it couldn’t be. I had never visited the Auvergne with my parents. That much I was sure of.
It was an enigma and the only way to find out was by going there. In fact I had to go! I picked up the phone and dialed the number of my best friend to ask him to go with me.
Where is Conques?, he wanted to know.
– Two thousand kilometers from here. In the south-west of France.
And what are you going to do there? Buy a house?
– Sure, with my finances! No, I simply have to go.
And when are we leaving?
– In two hours. Okay?
We drove all night and arrived in Paris in the afternoon the next day. The owner of the house, an elegant young man received us.
– Since you have been driving all the way from Copenhagen you will surely continue to Conques, so there is really no reason for me to tell you about the house. Conques clings to the mountainside and is very steep, so many of the streets are really stairs. The best way to find the house is to ask for Monsieur Bousquet. Everybody knows him. He has the key and he will show you the house.
It was early Sunday morning when we saw the Church of Sainte Foy appear at the end of the road that leads up the hill to Conques. The feeling of a déjà vu that I had experienced when I saw the picture of Conques in the French bookshop in Copenhagen returned.
– I’ll park the car here, I said to my friend. Let’s go straight up to the house. I can’t wait to see it!
But first we have to find Monsieur Bousquet, don’t we? If not, how are we going to find the house?
– Don’t worry. I know where the house is! We’ll find Monsieur Bousquet afterwards. But first of all I want to see the house from outside.
We climbed several streets which were really stairs, and all of a sudden – right there in front of us – was a house with a faded yellow “for sale” note stuck to the door. My friend looked at me as if he didn’t believe his eyes and needed me to assure him.
– I know you will think that I’m ready for the cuckoo’s nest, I said, but I know this house. I can give you a description of the inside of the house from top to bottom! I did, and afterwards we went to look for Monsieur Bousquet. When he showed us the house, my description proved to be rather exact.
I asked Monsieur Bousquet if he thought we could stay in the house for the night and he didn’t think it would make any difference. After all, we had already spoken with the owner.
I cuddled up on a chaiselongue. An eerie feeling of having come home at long last invaded me, and that night the dream of the burning church from ten years before reappeared.
When I returned to Denmark I knew that I had to live in that house and even without any means I began negotiating with the owner in Paris in the hope that something would happen that would help my dream come true.
Three years later – as though Sainte Foy had wanted make me the center of one of her pranks – a small miracle happened in my life that enabled me to make a down payment.
The poem “Conques – la quête” from DELTA, my plurisensorial poetry collection in four tongues: Artist book with illustrations by the Spanish artist Dinah Salama and the poems interpreted by “Polyfonías Poetry Project (including cd and download code). Ediciones de la Torre, Madrid 2014. ISBN 9788479606817