Der Ernst des Lebens, Und Sturm und Drang

12:40 pm

One of the things that fascinate me about London is the omnipresent sound of different languages.

My primary language is English. In my Japanese class, my classmates and I seem to undergo a personality transformation when we try to make broken conversation about our weekends or hobbies in Japanese - a second, third, or fourth language for some of us. 

When we started this particular activity a few months ago, vocabulary was limited, confidence was fragile and it was apparent that our lives were a lot more interesting in English. But now we have learnt some new grammatical forms and ways of expression, our conversations are more fluid.

Personalities also seem to transform when people switch to their native language; fuelled, I imagine, by this unbridled expanse of expression that is open to them. Seeing my Japanese friends change their personalities in English provides a great sense of reassurance. I imagine that in a few years, these friends and I will reach a sort of middle-ground-Japanese-English personality when we have learnt enough not to be beginners anymore but still some years away from first-language-fluency.

Learning a language gives you a heightened sense of awareness of other languages too. You are more curious about the colloquial words in French, the non translatable words in Tamil, the formal form of Kannada, the news in Hindi, the French-Spanish sound of Catalan, the common words in Italian, Spanish and French, the similarity of Japanese and Chinese characters, the philosophical phrases in German.

Some days ago, with the aid of my German flatmate and his visiting friends, I discovered that Germans have specific philosophical phrases that they use in daily conversation. Like Der Ernst des Lebens which translates as ‘The Serious Side of Life’. In our conversation, one of the guys in the group used the phrase to describe his sister’s entry into life after university. This reminded me of another German philosophical-phrase I had heard before - Sturm und Drang or 'Storm and Urge' - which I understand to be a German literary movement characterised by works that mostly deal with an individual's conflict with society.

On learning about these phrases, I finally knew how to categorize the Weekly Skype Call (WSC) with my parents.

These Skype Calls have gained ceremonious levels of significance in our lives. With the occasional guest appearance of my brother, these calls just-about-manage to replace the gap left in our lives by the absence of our old, weekly Long Drives.

Everything used to happen in the car – important conversations, important decisions, big-arguments, big-peace-making-sessions and ice-cream. Now, everything happens online.

At times, someone’s face is stuck in a strange expression in a video frame or someone’s lips are moving long after they have stopped speaking. Despite these effects, our online conversations are sacred.

So only by permitting myself the crime of oversimplification can I admit that after almost seven years of living apart, our conversation normally ends up as one of these scenarios.

Scenario 1: La Dolce Vita
The Rents: How are you insert-endearment-term-of-week?
Me: Great, list-all-the-great-things-about-the-week. You?
The Rents: Great, list-all-the-great-things-about-the-week.
All together: Exchange silly jokes or general news-about-nothing-in-particular, laugh-a-lot.

Scenario 2: Der Ernst des Lebens, Und Sturm und Drang
The Rents: How are you insert-endearment-term-of-week?
Me: All good… I guess.
The Rents: So what news?
Me: Whine
The Rents: Words of comfort and unfailing support
Me: Whine
The Rents: Exchange philosophical dialogue on life ambitions, happiness and peace. Provide Sound Advice
Me: Epiphany and gratitude

The last week, for reasons that still escape me, was one of tiny, forgettable, annoyances. In our WSC I was ready with my broken record and sad violin. After some patient listening and encouragement, my parents pointed out that in their generation, the problem was that of too little and in my case, it was that of too much.

When they were in their mid twenties, my parents thought twice before buying cinema tickets and gained great pleasure from the activity because of this, while I, on the other hand, was worrying about whether I should watch a Japanese anime, an English Comedy or an Italian Crime Drama.

In order to silence some of my ill-feeling-for-no-real-reason, their Sound Advice was for me to do something completely new, phone-less.

I had made plans before our conversation but now I decided to treat my plans with reverence. At the end of the day, I would think about the elements of the day that had lifted off my Sturm Und Drang.

It was Open-House-Saturday which meant a lot of closed buildings were open to the public. So I went off to visit a waste recovery unit some miles from home. In addition to learning about something I had always wanted to know about, I also inaugurated my new-old-second-hand-bike. After an hour of playing around in the waste management education center, drinking free coffee, eating free cake, and a forty minute tour inside the facility, I came home satisfied. I cooked a small meal and ate it with relish. Then I made some tea, put it in my new flask and took it with me to the park.

Sitting cross-legged on a bench on a mini hill, I realized that the main event of visiting the waste center was great. I was also amazed by my own expression of my non-problem using a different language and that my parents had given me such a simple solution. 

But none of this mattered as much as the cycle ride in new territory, the free unexpected refreshment of the afternoon, and the fact that the tea I was drinking was still piping hot.

With so many ways of expression and communication available to us today, and our ease of access to these ways, I wonder if one day we will have a sort of middle-ground-super-language-personality similar to the one I imagine with my Japanese friends but taking personalities and words from different languages. These complex, modern elements of our lives are undoubtedly thrilling. 

But perhaps the shanti (the Sanskrit term for Inner Peace) providing elements of the lives of people in my parents’ generation and mine aren't that different after all. 

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