In Esperantoland, sort of

8. Juli 2015 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

  
One hint you can’t find in the otherwise inspired app „Language Lover’s Guide to Europe“ by Gaston Dorren is for the village Kelmis/La Calamine next to the three-state corner near Aachen. That’s a pity because the place sits in an area which was once singled out as the only entity in the world with Esperanto as its official language.

Clearly, this was a singular find for me, for how else could I have pretended to cross each and every linguistic territory in Europe? For let’s assume that Esperanto is a truly European language (albeit artificial). Just try to imagining how Dr. Zamenhof would have managed nowadays, with a willingness to include the major languages of significance in its lexical base – a bit of Chinese, bits of Arabic, and a nod to Japanese? No way, and Esperanto didn’t fail because of its Eurocentrism.

In any case, Kelmis is where Esperanto happened, sort of. Cycling here took us 8 days and about 680 km and when I stood in front of the tiny museum on a non-descript street, I found it closed. Well, it was Monday, a case of bad planning, but it was the sweltering heat which had delayed us. We rode the remaining 10 km to Aachen to stay overnight and this morning I took the bus back. I may have been the only visitor on the day, or perhaps week.

To cut a long and complex story short, the triangular slice of land wedged between then France, the Netherlands and Prussia had been left unassigned to any state as a token of conflict because of its „calamine“ mine, which turned out to be important in manufacturing pliable zinc sheets. It was declared neutral territory with a commune-based government and survived from 1816 till the Congress of Versailles in 1919, when it was integrated into Belgium. A European oddity as weird as the wrangling about Greece and its debts at the moment.

The lady at the museum office, who had grown up bilingually (French and Plattdeutsch) and remembers playing around the Kull (mine hole) and the slag heaps as a child, told me with only a hint of irony that the inhabitants of Neutral Moresnet had the reputation of being crooks as anybody who had something nasty to hide in Belgium, Germany or the Netherlands could find shelter and a job in the mine here.

The Esperanto movement touched Neutral Moresnet around the turn of the 20th century, and it was the mine’s doctor or Sanitätsrat, one Dr. Molly, who propagated the idea. It was taken up by the French Esperantist Gustave Roy, who published a pamphlet entitled ‚Projet réalisable en six mois d’un état Espérantiste indépendant’. In the showcase there’s a facsimile of a letter by Zamenhof who welcomed the effort: „La ideo tre plačas al mi.“ The name Amikejo (friendship) was chosen for the future state and several inhabitants made efforts to learn the language. The Kelmis musician Willy Huppermann composed a march with the self-same title. The cover of the musical sheets shows an elegant couple in lovely watercolours doing a one-step.

But alas, the upsurge lasted only a few months. Like many good ideas it failed the test of reality, and the economic base on this small wedge of land just didn’t exist after the total exploitation of the mine late in the 19th century. The slag mounds that remained were taken away, the Kull was filled with the poisonous civilisation garbage of the sixties and seventies, and what is left today is a park where alcohol-drenched feasts are held.

  

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