On the road again

Monday, 2 May

The first day of travel

Tired and out of sorts after a booster Covid jab surprisingly obtained on 1 May, the unmasked multitude presses in on me on the train. Three babies are on duty in varying states of disintegration; noisy despite one mother’s heroic efforts to calm her offspring by a Guinness book of records rocking session. I’m annoyed with myself for being disturbed but I have forgotten my earphones (along with my toothbrush) to be duly noted on my quality assessment for this departure.

I manage to start seriously getting to grips with Pagnol’s La Gloire de mon pêre. I learn that Pagnol believes he was of Spanish descent as his ancestors were referred to in the records as “L’espagnol”. It sounds neat and explains the name that I reacted to as odd without delving further. But were they so late to adopt surnames in Spain?

Pagnol was born in Aubagne, a town I’ve flashed past when travelling by coach from Aix-en-provence to Nice. So now to get to know better another area after Giono’s Manosque.

I follow up Pagnol’s references to the Roman general Caius Marius, famous for inflicting a crushing defeat on the Cimbri and Teutones at Aquae Sextius (later Aix) in the first years of the first century BC, after Roman forces had previously suffered humiliating defeats Wiki tells me that the Cimbri and Teutones were Germanic tribes and I wonder what language they spoke. Cimbri sounds distinctly Celtic, while Teutones sounds suitably German but was any language knocking around at that time that could be called early German? I know very little about the early language history of northern and central Europe. I know that Celtic languages were widespread then but how did the development of German fit into that?

Pagnol refers to Mont St Victoire near Aix, made famous by Cezanne and I wonder what victory it refers to? Could it be the massive Roman victory? While, of course, I knew about the invasions from beyond the Rhine that brought down the Western Roman Empire, I wasn’t aware before of how shaken Roman might had previously been by invaders from the north.

I want to know more about Provence and this part of southern France and love to follow threads like this, where one piece of information leads to another and another.

And somehow as a digression in my wandering around in the weak light of the ancient past, I get into the word “gob”, slang for mouth and preserved in gobstopper. My guess would be that it was of Celtic origin and various sources seem to bear this out. I don’t have the exact source but “gob” seems to have been an Irish word for mouth in 1540. And further back there is Gaulish “gobbo” and “gob” for beak in Gaelic. It seems to have some kind of relationship with “gab” and “gift of the gab”. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it’s not in dignified use, but I’m unclear whether this applies to gab or gob or both (I think gob is the more likely candidate as “gift of the gab” could more easily make its entrance into polite society).

I’m fascinating by such ancient “outcast” words that survive centuries unloved, Caliban words.

And at some point in the mist of history, I fall asleep surfacing briefly in Östergötland and the Småland highlands before I wake properly in Eslöv in Skåne. Now in a territory full of memories from my first period in Sweden when I lived in Lund, I look for Felix food factory where I taught English. There I muddled my Gert-Inges and Ingegerds, struggled with Sweden’s compound nouns and integrated my dipthongs into my version of Swedish, which makes few concessions to the prejudices of folk north of Hässleholm but goes down a wonder with the Danes.

And finally to the great brick hall of Copenhagen station with its memories of my first trip to Scandinavia in the early 1970s with my then English girlfriend. We arrived in Copenhagen late and slept on the street in a cul-de-sac (we were still immortal then). And later in the day, to the central station to get more cash from England to cope with coffee at what seemed astronomical prices (and this long before the invasion of the purveyors of fake coffee). The following day we also slept outdoors in some quiet corner alongside the Öresund and looked at the lights of Sweden across the water, before buying clogs in Helsingör and making for the ferry and setting foot in Sweden for the first time in the little square outside Helsingborg Ferry Station, that historic spot probably long gone now.

This time I slept in comfort at a hotel in Copenhagen. I’ve rather gone off sleeping in odd places, although I had quite a tradition of doing so in my rural youth, curled up in telephone kiosks on my way home from some libidinous excursion when the means of transport died out in the wee hours.

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