I woke up early today and lay in bed enjoying not having to get up, not having to work, and listening to the rain outside. Through various meandering trains of thought, I started thinking about non-latin alphabets, and remembered a weekend spent deciphering the Greek lyrics to Never on Sunday by Pink Martini. Nowadays of course it would be so easy. I would google the lyrics, google “Greek alphabet”, find a wealth of resources and quickly learn to read the lyrics out loud.
But this was in 2001. I was 18 and living by myself for the first time, after seven years of boarding school (the last two of which I had mostly spent living with my boyfriend Christophe). I had a small but perfect studio, Rue des Trois Baudus, in the beautiful town of Cahors in South-West France. I had no computer or internet of course. I spent a lot of time reading, writing in my journal, or listening to the half-dozen CDs I owned on my portable CD player over and over, making it virtually impossible for me to listen to them ever again voluntarily. These included Selmasongs by Björk, Big Calm by Morcheeba, The Joshua Tree by U2, Faut qu’ils s’activent by Tryo, Gran Turismo by The Cardigans, and Louise Attaque.
One of those albums was Sympathique by Pink Martini. I haven’t really listened to Pink Martini in the last 10 years, but at the time, I thought their eclecticism and melting pot of languages was just wonderful. All of France adored the song Sympathique (which I will still sing to myself these days, after all who can resist a song with the lyrics “je ne veux pas travailler“), but the entire album was full of different languages and styles — French, English, Spanish, Japanese, Greek. I was captivated by the beauty of the Greek song Never on Sunday/The Children of Piraeus (Ta Paidiá tou Peiraiá) in particular, and the liner notes conveniently presented both Greek lyrics and an English translation. But reading the English was nothing like understanding the song, as I wanted to really feel the full effect whenever I listened, and to be able to sing along, with emotion.
So I sat down next to my CD player, and pressing pause every 3 seconds, I listened to the pronunciation of each word over and over, compared it to what I was seeing on the page, looked at the English lyrics to work out what the meaning of each word was. I did this over and over until the Greek letters no longer looked abstract symbols, and I could sing along, first reading from my phonetic notes, then directly from the Greek, and finally understanding each word and not just the gist of the song. This took me through the entire afternoon, evening, and late into the night, but as an 18-year-old who only worked 20 hours a week at the local Carrefour, I had plenty of time.
For the rest of that year, I could sing Never on Sunday tunelessly, even without the CD playing. And today, after suddenly remembering this, I used my magical iPhone to pull up the song and play it for the first time in many years. I started to sing along — badly, most of the words forgotten — and then my voice broke and I started to cry. It was so evocative, a full 14 years later, also living by myself, on a warm but rainy weekend, suddenly remembering my 18-year-old self, staring out of the window at the soft grey sky, on the other side of the world. Memories of living Rue des Trois Baudus, funny things like the fried nems you could only get once a week, at the Wednesday market in front of the cathedral. The twin lens reflex camera my grandfather sent me and the black and white photos I took of the streets around my home.
I am very grateful to my mother for making that year possible. For indulging me, by paying rent that I naively assumed was her duty, as my mother, to pay, even though she had very little money of her own. For taking me to the supermarket every few weeks, which was always such a fun shopping trip together, and which meant parking down in the place and then carrying everything down the tiny dark passageway of the Rue des Trois Baudus, and up the stairs to my flat. For not resenting my keeping my meagre Carrefour salary for “fun things” like clothes and books and travel, rather than contributing to rent or food.
For allowing me to be alone, be independent, free of responsibilities. I didn’t truly understand what a luxury that was, but I did appreciate it, almost as much as I do now — my biggest luxury of all is having a place of my own where I can shut the rest of the world out, sing along to songs — badly, always — and enjoy a Saturday morning with nothing and nobody to shatter my peace. I hope the same things for you, mummy, now that you finally have your own little maisonette, alone with your dog, your study, your coffee and your red toaster.