The end? A new beginning?

23. Mai 2017 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Cover_80Languages

The cover of my new iBook (192 pages, with multimedia features)

Even while I was completing the last legs of my epic journey, I started putting together materials from this blog to create a more permanent record of „Around Europe in 80 Languages“. I worked with Apple’s iBook Author and exploited its many layout and multimedia features, getting carried away occasionally with photo galleries, video soundtracks and fiddly interactive gimmicks.

But composing the book and enriching it with pages of extra information about things linguistic and with the alphabet of my itinerary (from Allee through Ferries and Roadkill to Zzzz as in sleeping) was tremendous fun. And YESSSS! The iBook is out now, available for just 10 Swiss francs or €10.99 from the iBook/iTunes store (click on the link). You will need an iPad or a Mac X OS 10.9 or newer as well as the iBooks 2.0 app to enjoy the book on screen. But not to worry, I will gladly send you a pdf version of the book (which doesn’t have audios, galleries and internal hyperlinks, of course) via a Dropbox link. Just send me an email (daniel.stotz[at]me.com). I hope to be able to publish a colour print version one day and am in contact with an agency.

In the meantime, I’m licking wounds after a major accident within the institution I work for. My application for a post I would have cherished (maybe) got thwarted and I find myself without the possibility to engage in research, development and services in my field of applied linguistics. The avenue in front of me looks bland and obscure at the same time. I decided to fight back, but I have little hope in a satisfying solution.

In these dire circumstances, I have started dreaming about a continuation of my journey.  Didn’t I write in my very first blog entry that „I’ll try to make it to Gagausia“? One of last year’s trips led me and Reto as far as Timisoara. It’s less than 1000 km from this Romanian city to Comrat. If you’re starting to wonder what on earth Gagausia and the Gagauz language are, come back here later, say in August, to check if I have taken up the challenge. I’m not sure if I will, though, it’s a rough land out east.

Sample_Page_82

A sample page from the iBook (without any gimmicks)

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Val d’Aran, era esséncia des Pirenèus

19. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

It was ultimately a good idea to take an ALSA bus to get across the Pyrenees watershed. The narrow road winds its way into the mountains and often perches on a ledge nauseatingly high above some emerald reservoir lake. There is no shoulder for the lone cyclist to escape to, and the comfort of the coach was thus ideal, and all of this at the rock-bottom price of €17, no charge for the bike.The evening before, at the Lleida tourist office, I had got engaged in a conversation with the woman in charge of informing the tourists about her city’s attractions. It turned out that pretty much everything was closed on a Monday, but she herself, when lured out, was quite open about her convictions. A Catalonian with a burning heart, she insisted on the uniqueness of the culture and the tragedy of history (the defeat at the hands of Castile and the suppression of Catalan under Franco).

I asked her to consider how odd it would be to introduce a new national border in such places as the lonely valley I had cycled through, where the stench of the pig farms (yes, they still abound) wafts across the inconspicuous dividing line between Aragon and Catalunya. „Just think of Andorra“, she said, „if they can be a country, why can’t we?“ But that’s ridiculous, I dared to say, and then she treated me to the killer argument that Catalunya was a net payer to the Spanish central state, and just did not get enough autonomy to be compensated for that. Well, I thought, would Barcelona rather pay net to Brussels direct?

Anyway, we agreed that it will be thrilling to see what pathway the Scots will be choosing in their Brexit quandary. It might influence the next Catalan vote on separation.

Later, at dinner in a small restaurant/bar with plastic chairs, I overheard three women talking in a lingo I was sure was neither Catalan nor Castilian. I suspected it might be Fabla, the variety spoken by some people in Aragon, particularly in the Barbastro area just a few dozen km out of Lleida. When I asked them (in English, to avoid any pitfalls), they said it surely was Catalan, but the kind they spoke in this area, which, admittedly, was a bit closer to Castilian. „And also Aragonese“, I ventured. „Well, no, Aragonese is no language, it’s just …, it’s not even a dialect“, the youngest said. And they agreed it was just a kind of accent. But Catalan, of course … adéu! And they left, while I wondered if the language patterns I had cycled through were not in fact a continuum just as the slowly changing agricultural texture, with more vineyards or less maize in some pockets of the landscape than the next, while people needed clear borderlines to keep the others out of their sociolinguistic virtual terrain.

Not of course in their families: I had talked to a baker in Barbastro this very morning, where I bought some Madeleines to keep me sugared, and she turned out to be interested in languages. She is Castilian, but married to a Catalan and had lived in Barcelona for a while. They each spoke their mother tongue, also when the children arrived, and even today, in Aragon, the father uses Catalan with them. So they are bilingual, and it doesn’t hurt. She knows of schools which reintroduce Aragonese, but she wouldn’t want her children to go for yet another one.


But now I’m north of the great divide, in the beautiful Aran valley, and the case is clear: Aranes is the language of the place, a variety of Occitan, so clearly leaning more toward French. The explanations in the amazing romanesque churches here are given, first, in Aranese, then in Catalan, third in Spanish, sometimes also in French, reflecting the close proximity, rarely in English. The children are schooled through this local language. And the Generalitat de Catalunya was obliged to recognise it as a regional minority language. I wonder if it would give the same value or status to Castilian Spanish in an independent state.

Would you like a taste of Aranese? „Era conselhèra de Torisme e Desvolopament Economic d’Aran, Anna Diaz, a hèt un balanç dera sason d’ostiu ena Val d’Aran a on a registrat un increment de 5 punts mès qu’er an 2015 e 13 punts mès qu’er an 2014 en çò que tanh a aucupacion otelèra.“

I note my subjective reaction: Aranese is cute and deserves all my sympathy, whereas I feel a bit queasy about Catalan and the way it’s being promoted at the expense of others. My friend Manuel, who I met together with his wife in Madrid as I was transferring by train, told me an anecdote of a conference in Barcelona, which was attended by delegates from all of Spain and speakers of Spanish as a foreign language from abroad. The locals addressed the plenum in Catalan without batting an eyelid, and it took Manuel’s intervention to get them to consider that this was perhaps not in the interest of comprehensibility (let alone ‚amistad’, my word).

Still, my attraction towards Aranese is not easy to explain, but perhaps it’s my own Swissness – don’t trample on the small as long as they don’t become too self-assertive. Also, the Val d’Aran is in all likelihood the 78th language region I’ve been cycling through, and thus I’m very close to fulfilling my mission.

If pigs could fly …

17. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

(and this is meant literally:) they would surely decide against being crammed into trucks and trailers with so little space that they have to hold their heads high – only to be driven to their slaughter. But if they could take to the air, they might choose a different route and fly out over the ocean or to the peaks of the nearby Pyrenees (Pigrenees) there to die a soothing death on a snowfield.

The pig sty of Our Lady of Bliss

Yes, this is pork country, and finally I get an idea where the nicely cured Jamon serrano originally comes from that covers the plate of every good Spaniard’s primero (before he goes on to devour more meat, preferably beef). Even on Sunday I witnessed dozens of trucks full of live flesh criss-crossing the Aragon and Lleida country lanes.
In my mind, the swaths of vines (yielding the reputed Somontano denomination) take second place when I wonder about the agrobusiness and the pressure to produce ever more cheaply. There are things that are hard to understand: why would a glass of Crianza (the better quality local wine) cost less than €2 while a plate of Jamon can be between €8 and 18 in the same restaurant?

If I consider all the agricultural regions that I have cycled through in Europe, the ones that specialise in one crop tend to be the least attractive visually, but then that’s a very subjective view. I once wrote about the mountain farmers working away at the hay harvest in the heat on steep Alpine slopes. Surely, that’s less attractive work than ferrying about a truckload of future pork? Plus it’s probably heavily subsidised by the tax payer. And it’s more like the past – with all due regret – than the future.

To cap my thoughts I take a symbolic picture of modern-day Europe: a high-speed train whizzing past a pigsty – or should I say, ham factory?

Miranda and other miracles

14. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

Cycling – like many other of life’s pursuits – is so very mental that one often disbelieves conventional physics. Gravity seems to work more effectively on a day with dark rain clouds lurching over not-so-distant mountains, and its evil work on uphill stretches is actually worsened by loud cars and trucks roaring by. If you start to ponder the drivers’ motifs for their haste (in my case, I suspect they are rushing across the border to Portugal for cheap buys and petrol), it could drag you down even more.But then I charted a backroad shortcut for myself, and the signpost confirmed my mental image of a better path: GANAME MORALINA. Two names of remote villages which, loosely translated, tell me to GAIN MORALE. And so I did, only stopping at a bar for half an hour to sit out the worst of the rain.


Then I had to rejoin the main road, for there’s only one border crossing for obvious reasons. The Duero/Douro river has cut a deep ravine into the Iberian meseta, and here the engineers have dammed it, so the crown of the concrete wall serves as the bridge between the two nations, which more often than not stand back to back in their struggle towards an interpretation of late modernity.


In the Portuguese town of Miranda de Douro I visited the museum (which opens a rainy hour later than I had hoped – well, the clocks go differently here) which firmly keeps its look turned back to the times when the shepherds stood stoically in the rain with 13-kilo handmade felt capes. I was the only visitor (the Spanish tourists had other thrills in mind, see above) and was followed around by a kind but obnoxious lady. Still, this visit was a highlight of my trip this year because it actually delivered living proof that the area is bilingual: all the signs and descriptions were given not only in Portuguese, but also in Mirandés, which is not just a dialect (hm!) but a language of its own, more closely related to the Asturleonese of its Spanish neighbours than to the Lusitanians’ standard. I heard the difference in vowel quality clearly through the loudspeakers, in a recording of three women preparing to slaughter a pig. The experience reminded me strongly of the museum of Ladin in the Val Formazza 5 years ago. The language is nicely displayed together with the old customs and products, but out there in the streets it’s globalised barter and sloppy hamburgesas.


Talking about globalisation: Later in the evening, I took a room in Bragança, a mid-sized town in the back of the mountains (Tras-os-Montes), where I had once dared to go on a bus in 1978; after walking through the market then, I wrote down in my travel diary that this was what I supposed Africa looked and smelled like. Today, there are still some musty decrepit corners, and the women at the stalls are selling the same kind of figs, chestnuts and boletus mushrooms, but there are conspicuous white museum buildings (with e.g. Sebastiao Selgado exhibits) and a large new cathedral. In the evening, I go to the Teatro Municipal across from the hotel and listen to a great jazz concert, a quartet of Portuguese and French musicians who all live in Paris. What??? A whole jazz festival in Bragança? I don’t mind internationalisation at all as long as the music is as exciting as last night. And the fact that I cycled all the way from the Guggenheim in Bilbao to the Fauksa 4tet in Bragança makes it even more rewarding to me. I told you, it’s mental, all of this.

Dreaming wide awake

11. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar




I’d heard about the meseta, the decently high interior plain of Spain, but I needed to be here and cycle it to get a real sense of the lay of the land. Coming down from the coastal mountain range back of Bilbao, I had a wonderful overview over a corner of the La Rioja wine region.

Then I negotiated some low hills – the cliché of the backs of whales is not appropriate, because it’s actually a loaf of cheese with grooves cut by the taster who’s more eager than he should be. The villages are tucked away into the folds carved out over eons by rivers normally running dry in autumn. They shelter from the wind, which can be harsh in winter, I imagine, but now I benefit from its push in my back. Nine tenths of all the blinds in these villages are down as if they still needed to protect the inhabitants from sweltering heat. Or maybe they have all left for teeming urban spaces?

Cities like Burgos, Valladolid and Zamora, where I stayed overnight, are the epitome of Spanish social life: everybody and their children in prams are out for the „vaso de tinto“ and some pintxos or tapas after 7:30, and I’m notoriously early for dinner at nine pm. But twice now nobody turned up in my restaurant to eat after me: it may be the lingering crisis or then people are just happy to cook up a home-made meal after their evening promenade around the Plaza Mayor.

My daily work is to cover long distances. I find that little else fits into these short days. The day begins to dawn after 8 am out west in the time zone, then the temperature rises very, very gradually from 5 to a happy 23 degrees by 3 pm. I benefit from the oblique but warm sunshine, take few breaks (because the villages have little to offer except for huge churches and one or two bars with old men whiling away their time).

I try to get into a constant stream of pedalling and peddling thoughts to myself, sometimes great and creative ideas, then some trivia to keep me occupied for seconds (elderly racing cyclists that overtake me with ease, a totally exaggerated series of traffic signs on lonesome roads, announcing every bend and bump), and sometimes questions pop up which I will try to answer with the help of the hotel internet in the evening (1. Why do the new high-speed railway lines under construction only have one set of powerlines? 2. What did the old man in the bar mean when he said that one of the important agricultural products was alfalfa? 3. Was it in this region that Don Quixote fought against windmills, and if yes (or no), is the old phrase still appropriate in the light of all the wind propellers? 4. Does my favourite ecological purveyor of wine, Delinat, happen to trade with a wine grower in the Ribera de Duero region? 5. Does the seller of Navidad lots on the village square do this all year round, and what do people do when he’s on holiday?).

For some minutes at a time, I succeed and get carried away, dreaming wide awake, with the rustle of the entirely dried-up maize blades in my ear, or some bulbous green umbrella-shaped pine trees in the distance, a sky so wide and clear it seems to have sucked all the cars and trucks out of existence. This is the quality of loneliness in a vast landscape, the irresponsibility of just moving your own body with the help of the ingenious contraption that a bicycle is, whizzing past the red flashes of pepper plants and the yellow castles of heaped-up cubes of pressed straw.

Today the weather turned, and with it the wind, which now confronts me aggressively. Another day, another challenge, another opportunity to observe what happens to myself under the circumstances.

A Non-Pilgrim’s Progress

8. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar


Since I left Bilbao on my two trusty wheels two days ago, I’ve made good progress and can today lay my ear down on the hard mattress of a 25€ hostal room in Burgos. The time spent in the Vizkaya capital was well worth it, not only for the savoury pintxos and the three hours invested in the Guggenheim Museum, but also for the visit at the BAM teacher’s college. Marijé and Ane gave me such a warm welcome and were so keen to exchange views and experiences, it turned out to be a real ERASMUS feast. More than that, it also added a valuable puzzle piece to one of my sabbatical pursuits, namely visiting schools with a strong language profile. The brief but revealing tours at the two schools in the Bilbao area showed me – as in Finland – that it takes a bottom-up commitment and tons of teachers’ dedication to make a CLIL programme (or whatever you call it) a success. In one upper secondary class they were using Keith Kelly’s MacMillan book – again closing a circle of my very own, had I not visited Keith, making a 350 km detour to Plovdiv three years ago?  

I have been asked more than twice on this trip if I am heading for Santiago de Compostela, if I am doing the Camino de Santiago thing on a bicycle insted of Pilgrim’s sandals. Even though today I borrowed the famed hikers’ path for three kilometres to avoid a massively busy road, I can’t say I am. No, contrary to the impression I myself had had when I first set out in 2011, I am decidedly not a pilgrim. This is not only because I’m an avowed atheist, but also because I can’t say I have a single destination, there to lay my hand in the groove carved out of the stone by the sweat of the many. I define my destination myself, and it may be Gagausia, or then again not. I really go into every kilometre I cycle as if it were the epitome of the journey. Today, for instance, I’d read about the deadly N1 highway between Miranda del Ebro and Burgos, which is taken by thousands of truck drivers who avoid the safer but toll-paying motorway (severe accidents guaranteed). I saw this as a sign of common sense and plotted a course on small roads across hills and up river valleys which turned out to be more strenuous but also more varied and absorbing. Every mile of landscape comprises potential memories of other stretches over the past years – only to show itself as unique and special, take the barrancos with their combination of nature’s sandstone carvings and willow as well as poplar trees trailing their twigs in a stiff breeze, all under a melancholic yet bright autumnal light.  

Also, I don’t feel I’m being watched by a benign god, who is ready to forgive my sins if I only turn into my own inner self – they say thirty days of pilgrimage are enough for humans to open up and become someone else or to find their true self. Well, I’ve been at it for thirty plus years (or 157 cycling days in this series) and I can’t say I want to change or dig much more deeply into my entrails. I thought that wasn’t it remarkable that nobody ever travels from Santiago back to Roncesvalles or further. The Goretex and Icebreaker-clad pilgrims all head for the purported tomb in Europe’s extreme west, looking one way. The real revolutionary then would have been the helmeted, presumably young, quad racer who whipped his vehicle down the Camino eastward, whirling up a big cloud of dust in the face of the pilgrims and myself. Despite the grit between my teeth, I found this rather amusing.

The Basque country

5. Oktober 2016 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

I’m writing from what will probably be my second-to-last 80 languages trip. My count is at 67 language regions traversed or at least touched peripherally. Unexpectedly, I already got in touch with the Basque language and culture in the Southwest of France. In St. Jean-de-Luz, I first noticed the tell-tale Basque architectural style, with beams, window frames and shutters painted dark red, and a peculiar large-chalet type of house becoming more conspicuous as the TGV from Bordeaux approached the Spanish border. 

Then came the signs, with their X’s and TZ’s (coeur de ville = hiri bohotza; herriko merkatua = municipal market), and the ethnic shop windows (la fabrication du béret), and on Saturday morning at the market, there was an improvised-looking singalong going on – I quickly identified the songs as Basque, they were such a long way off French (Euskal Herriko Mendiak, went one title). It turned out that it was an amateur choir that was performing, as every first Saturday in the month. They like to cheerfully maintain a tradition that they (if they are of a certain generation) barely lived in their adult lives. But one lady assured me that her (now adult) children spoke some Basque, and the grandchildren would be sent to the Basque-French bilingual school. The market itself celebrates „les saveurs du pays Basque“; anything really to counteract French centralism and the relentless focus on Paris – I’m the last to mind. And it’s good for cross-border tourism.

Arriving at San Sebastian the next day feels like coming home a bit. Ever since I  discovered the city around La Concha, the semi-circular beach, in 1978, it has been sheltering a story that’s biographically important to me, and an atmosphere that has not been squashed since the onslaught of ETA and the Spanish central forces. I had hitchhiked across France and got stuck across the border. I went to the Fiesta del San Fermin in Pamplona, leaving my backpack behind in S.S., but I failed to meet up with some ephemerous travel companions and got promptly robbed (at night, at knife point). I took a bus back to S.S.on a shoestring, with a police report in my pocket, but was without any cash and cheques. In the whole of the Basque country, mayhem broke out on that weekened when the police started shooting at some ETA-friendly protesters in the full Pamplona bull-fight arena. The general strike lasted three days, an endless span of time I spent in S.Sebastian waiting for the banks to re-open. I lived on bread and water bought with postage stamps and the kindness of strangers.

I vividly remember poking my head out on the fourth-floor balcony of a shabby pension, when a passing patrol down in the street took a pot shot at me with rubber bullets. They hit the shutter just beside my face. Today, the city is peaceful and appears prosperous. The atmosphere pre-dinner with hundreds of flaneurs in the old quarter and the tapas/pintxos aficionados is still the same. It truly is one of the „cidades maravilhosas“ of the world.  I’m so glad I came back to show this marvel to my beloved.  And obviously, there is lots of food for thought in the displays of the museums and the symbolisms in the streets and on the walls (even if there are now very few graffiti).