01 May 2005

German and Chinese Classmates in My "Curs de Perfecţionare"

My year of linguistic research in Romania in 1983–84 was pretty much a bust. Having done fieldwork in a kind of New Guinea Sprachbund, I intended to study the Romanian literature on the Balkan Sprachbund. But my advisor, an Albanian specialist, wasn't interested in much but a Daco-Thraco-Illyrian substrate. And no one wanted to talk about any Slavic substrate or superstrate. I came away much less impressed by the Balkan Sprachbund than by the Western European one, with all those preposed articles, a stronger tendency to render subordinate clauses in the infinitive rather than the subjunctive, and a clearly discernible Latin superstrate.

But one of the many peripheral bright spots was the chance to sit in on a Romanian "curs de perfecţionare" with classmates from China, East Germany, and the U.S. What made the class interesting was not the sometimes stupifyingly dull lectures, but rather the need to use Romanian to communicate with our classmates, not all of whom were stupifyingly dull.

The four young German girls were all Russian majors (at the University of Leipzig, I believe) picking up a second language to enhance their translator/interpreter career prospects. Two of them were very reliable members of the Party; the other two were not. I ran into one of the latter, a chunky little red-head, at an art exhibit and reception in the West German embassy. She panicked and begged me not to tell anyone I had seen her there. I didn't and, as far as I know, she didn't get in any trouble.

When it came time to give oral presentations in one of our classes, they all chose safe and boring presentations on such topics as sports terminology and shipping terminology. The latter talk, by a girl from the Baltic seaport of Rostock, is where I first heard the term "roll-on/roll-off" (also roro) for a type of ship.

During the second term, I got permission to attend their course introducing Bulgarian, but I couldn't keep up since the class assumed prior knowledge of Russian.

The two Chinese women in the class were broadcasters for Radio Beijing's Romanian broadcast service. In fact, they still are! One was very reserved, and I never got to know her very well, but the other was quite outgoing and I found her not only far more interesting, but much less frustrating to talk with than the only other American linguist among my classmates. (That'll have to be another post.)

At one point during the long, lean winter, with markets usually barren of fresh meat and vegetables, she managed to supply us with a chunk of meat from the Chinese embassy. Just before we left, we passed on to her the cassette player/shortwave radio we had brought with us.

Her class presentation was the most interesting one of all. A group from the Chinese embassy had taken a holiday trip through Yugoslavia and Hungary, but she focused mostly on Janos Kadar, less about his economic reforms than about his anti-personality cult. He was so modest, according to her sources, that he would not cut to the head of a line waiting to get into some place--at least not until someone noticed and then everyone deferred to him. As she was talking, I would occasionally glance up at the portrait of Mr. Personality Cult himself that hung in every Romanian classroom. Our professor, the most pleasant and sensitive of our lot, did a good job of taking it all in stride. I thought, if any of us could trash a personality cult, it was someone who had lived through the last years of Mao Zedong. (I learned only recently about the long relationship between Janos Kadar and the Chinese Communist Party.)

Four years later, on a trip to Beijing after a year teaching English in a small town in Guangdong, we had a chance to meet again. I called Radio Beijing and managed in my barely adequate Chinese to get someone to call her to the phone. But then when she answered and I tried to switch to my somewhat faded Romanian, I had trouble keeping Chinese out of it. She brought her six-year-old son and her husband to our small hotel near the Temple of Heaven and spent a few hours chatting in the courtyard garden during a blackout with my wife and me and our two-year-old daughter. Fortunately, her husband spoke a fair bit of English, having worked as an Italian translator/interpreter for a travel agency, so we didn't have to depend entirely on my rusty Romanian befreckled with dots of Chinese.

Next installment: the three weird Americans in my class.

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