Saturday, 24 February 2007

On languages and feeling welcome in a new country

I sometimes I can not help laughing at myself. While I was sitting at home working on what was planned to be the big opening text for this blog, the world outside changed and the point I wanted to make was not valid any longer.

So, I have decided that literary masterpieces will have to come later. It is time for me to start to publish and learn and improve while working rather than striving for perfection before I dare to write anything in public.

As originally intended, the first reflection I will make on this blog will be on languages and the feeling of belonging to local society. Personally, I have always felt that mastering the local language is the key to whether you will feel that you belong to a certain place or not. This certainly is the case in my native Sweden, but was also my experience when living in Poland and the Czech Republic. I am quite sure that I am not the only one to see this connection. The Czechs even have a saying that “kolik umíš jazyků, tolikrát jsi člověkem”, meaning that you are so many times as a man as the number of languages you speak.

Living in Spain, a country where the main language is shared with countries in totally different parts of the world, I have realized that language is important but often not at all the most important factor for your feeling of belonging to a place.

The old way (and may it never be re-introduced) of applying for permanent residency and for your Numero de Intentidad de Extranjero (N.I.E.) here in Vilanova i la Geltrú used to reveal this quite mercilessly. In order to be received by the police in Carrer del Col·legi on any given day, in the same morning you first had to queue up to receive a queue number at the police station in the square Plaça dels Cotxes. The amount of queue numbers per day was limited to around 40 and they used to be handed out at 7 a.m. The only nice thing you can say about this procedure was that Spanish citizens had to do the same thing, while applying for their Documento Nacional de Identidad (D.N.I.). However, they always had a separate queue and a generous amount of queue numbers. While for them the issue was about getting a good number, for us foreigners – EU-citizens and non-EU citizens being treated alike - it was about getting a number at all or you had to come back another day and do the queuing all over again.

Sitting on a park bench at 5 a.m. in the morning I felt far from splendid, but soon realized that compared to other foreign applicants, I had two big advantages. One was that we live in the center of Vilanova, so when I had tried my luck for the first time and found out that there were too many people waiting already waiting in the square, I had at least been able to easily go home and back to sleep again.

The second and biggest advantage is that I come from a Western EU country. Since everybody in Spain knows that we will not have any problem to obtain our N.I.E. in the end, at least in my case it seemed that employers, landlords and institutions tended to be quite flexible. If I could not present the full documentation right away, I was allowed to come back and do so once I had it.

This is not the case for most other immigrants who live here. Before they have their paperwork finalized they are confined to the black market for work. In case they have come with their children, these will not have any access to public healthcare, nor to education.

While observing the other people waiting outside the police station in the early morning hour, I must admit to have felt just a little sorry for the many people of Northern and Sub-Saharan African origin. Firstly, they were all men and, secondly, they all seemed to know each other. While they did not make any attempts to approach any of the few policemen who went in and out of the police station before it opened, there certainly was a lot of loud greeting going on whenever a new person joined their group.

What really touched me, on the other hand, was the plight of the many Latin Americans waiting in the square. One of the reasons was probably that they tend to be quite small and therefore look more vulnerable and also that, among them, there were many women coming alone to arrange their documentation. There was one woman who had spent the whole night in the hard, cold square, trying to keep warm in a sleeping bag, just to make sure to be the first in line. Luckily enough I did not have to see the worst. In our local newspaper, Diari de Vilanova, there have been horror stories about some mothers having had to bring small children to wait with them throughout the night, since as poor immigrants they could not arrange for anyone to look after them.

The main reason for my compassion, however, was that these were all people who, in my eyes, had reason to believe that they belonged here in Spain, since they share the same mother tongue. I envied them for their capacity to fire away questions to any policeman they managed to catch and guess that they were hoping to be recognized as individuals in order to receive some favourable treatment or at least be reassured that this morning, they would finally receive the queue number which many of them had failed to get on earlier attempts.

Seeing their desperation it become clear to me how little they must feel that they belong here in spite of their fluency in Spanish, and for me, vice versa, that I had all reasons to feel welcome, although I was still struggling to put together comprehensive sentences. It was the first time I made that discovery and I sent more than one thought of thanks to the bureaucrats in Brussels. Maybe that is one of the most beautiful ideas of the co-operation in the European Union – that we belong together although we do not share the same language.

No comments: