Babel upon Amstel, International Conference on Migration, Language and Literature, Amsterdam 25 april 2008


(Gepubliceerd op 25 april 2008 in De Standaard)

I remember very well the moment I said those words for the first time. It was around six years ago in one of the poetry lessons of Ruben van Gogh at the Writing School. After reading one of my poems he asked me what the Dutch language was to me. “Lego”, is what came out of my mouth. And immediately afterwards I recalled the moments I used to spend with my neighbour back home in the Basque Country when I was a child. Even though we had put all of our Lego ammunition in a box, we often missed many of the bricks. Nevertheless we always managed to construct our castles with the blocks we did have. Our castle never looked like the one on the cover, but it was a castle, no doubt about it. A castle made our own way.
Lego pieces have a special beauty. They are compact, square at the corners, and above all colourful. And so are Dutch words to me. Compact, square at the corners and colourful. A very different beauty from that of the Spanish language, in which I learnt to express myself my entire life until I arrived in the Netherlands in 1995. In Spanish, my thoughts always came out as a waterfall that would eventually become a river sliding softly along round curves. And because I am Basque, I was also fortunate to learn a second language. This living between two languages made me more open to a third. Because I learnt from the very beginning that language is a bridge and not a wall.
Basque is the language in which I read poetry before I go to sleep. Basque verses inspire me to dream. Then I get up in the morning, spill a waterfall in Spanish into my diary and feel ready to start typing into my computer Dutch words that press in a compact and square way all the contents of a dream and waterfall.
Back in 1995, I felt very stupid trying to explain that the language alone was the reason that brought me to the Netherlands. In our Dutch lessons we had to introduce ourselves to the group. After listening to my colleagues and their stories about fleeing from the lack of human rights in their countries, trying to express with my hands this abstract idea about compactness and square corners sounded extremely banal. I did not even come to the Netherlands to join a Dutch lover, like the other half of the students. At that time I learnt that Dutch is apparently not a language people often choose to learn freely.
After twelve years or so, I realized that all of us who stayed in the Netherlands ended up in the same boat: the boat of migration. And once you’re in that boat, the reason that made you board it in the first place does not matter very much. The result is the same. You are far from firm and solid land. And whatever roots you may plant in the water always look twisted on the surface because of the refraction of light.
This is as far as I can go in ascertaining the effects of living in such a boat. But I have heard from people who have lived in it more than half of their life, that you eventually learn to live with your seasickness, although you never give up dreaming you could maybe... in a year or two... or three...after the kids have grown up... after you retire… set foot in firm land.
This omen did not sound all that attractive to me. So I resolved to make up my own imaginary firm land while floating on the water. And in this imaginary firm land I can plant whatever I make up. No matter whether it belongs to the sea, the air or the earth. And I can keep it with me in the boat. It is my pocket firm land.
Working on my pocket firm land while being on this boat, I sensed the value of DISTANCE. Distance is like a coin. It has ‘tails’, but it also has a ‘head’. And provided you have enough distance, you can idealize, criticize, romanticize, virtualize... and specially objectify. I am sure this is something you do better on a boat at a certain distance from your firm land, than if you were on that very firm land.
Once you are prone to objectify, you also find yourself doing it unconsciously in relation to the boat you are in, the water you float on, and even the other inhabitants of your boat, although you can not exactly speak of ‘distance’ when you live so close to each other in such a boat.
DISTANCE is one of the reasons I don’t regret having jumped into this boat. Another is the set of LEGO pieces that I got at the entrance. Sometimes I wonder whether I will gain more and more Lego pieces over time.
What would happen if I did have all the Lego pieces,
if I did not have to be creative about using the small range of pieces I have,
if I was so familiar with them that I used them as ‘one should use them’.
If the moment came when I got a LEGO usb stick, or a LEGO mp3 like the ones the firm has just put on the market.
We will see. For the moment, I am just using my traditional Lego bricks, which is not so bad because I just read in the official LEGO webpage that every brick has an endless number of construction possibilities, and that six standard bricks (size 2 x 4) can be combined in at least 102.981.500 ways (one-hundred-and-two-million, nine-hundred-and-eighty-one-thousand, and five hundred ways).
So, I still have enough bricks for quite a few castles.