Vieques might be a tropical Paradise, but it’s no Garden of Eden. Growing conditions here are so favorable that you can stick a branch in the ground and watch it grow into a tree. The Viequense diet favors meats, plantains, rice and beans. So not much in the way of fruit or vegetables is grown here. Instead, most is imported—and refrigerated during transportation. As a result, bananas slip off the stalk, peaches segue directly from unripe to rotten and tomatoes are disappointingly pink, mealy and tasteless.
A resourceful Puerto Rican fellow brings a truckload of produce from the main island of Puerto Rico two or three days a week—if the cargo ferries are running right. He parks on the shoulder of the road outside the General Electric manufacturing plant, sets up tables under a tent and serves as our green grocer. Ex-pat North American residents, restaurant chefs and even tourists make it a routine to shop there.
When I moved to Vieques, I quickly discovered that Puerto Rican Spanish is different from what’s spoken in Spain and Latin and Central America. Viequense Spanish is yet another step toward the incomprehensible. The locals speak very rapidly. They drop all the esses and pronounce as “j” the “y” in yo and the double L’s in, say, calle. In addition, they employ a host of island-specific slang. For example, “wha-wha” for an SUV type of vehicle – which sounds to me like baby-talk. I have, in fact, given up my original ambition to learn Spanish.
With my minimal Spanish, I have to concentrate hard on numbers beyond ten. So it’s a struggle for me to understand how much money to hand over for my weekly basket of fruits and vegetables. When I spent a month in Florence, on the other hand, I found that the mellifluous words of the Italian language practically “stuck” to my brain. Within a week or two, I was starting to get by in basic conversational Italian.
Research by Jean Berko Gleason, the psycholinguist, shows speech discernment not only begins in the womb, but also affects the development of the fetal brain. The brain of a fetus in a bi-lingual environment tends to develop a disposition toward bi-lingual speech.
This leads me to thank my mother for yet another gift—in addition to life itself. While she was pregnant with me, she lived in a household where both English and Ukrainian were spoken. In my formative years I spoke both, but English predominated and I never became fully fluent in Ukrainian.
But I do have what Gleason called a “disposition toward bi-lingual speech.” I have a command of conversational Ukrainian. As a high school student I studied German. At Fordham University, I minored in Latin and Greek. I know a bit of Spanish, as I mentioned, and I’m trying to learn Italian. At my Manhattan apartment, there were mornings when I’d pass through the lobby greeting the security guy in Russian, wish the custodian a good day in Spanish and ask the Brazilian doorman if “todo bem” today.
This makes me believe that Ludwig Wittgenstein was insightful in saying, “If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”
The pity is that the only language I am truly comfortable in is English. I blame myself for not being smart enough or studious enough to be fully bi-lingual. But maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. After all, it was Maria Montessori, the brilliant educator, who found that, “There is in every child a painstaking teacher, so skilful that he obtains identical results in all children in all parts of the world. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!”
In my next blog, “Nothing On”