Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Odi et amo

A chance discussion about learning Latin brought back some memories recently.

In my time, schoolbooks didn't seem to go out of their way to be particularly interesting (though it seems there may have been aspects we and our teachers were unaware of). All I remember of the early days of school Latin was a bit of the Aeneid and Caesar and his weird fetish for throwing his armies across rivers. And "All Gaul was quartered into three halves" (pause for schoolmasterly snicker). Later, I felt distinctly cheated to discover that all along there'd been texts (which we studied for an exam that turned out not to require them) containing racy bits from bishops' visitation reports (a sort of Dark Ages Father Ted), St Columba meeting the Loch Ness monster, all that sort of thing.

I also remember my first exchange visit to a family in Paris as a shy, homesick teenager, my school French coping with official signs and instructions but hopelessly lost in the torrential volubility of family life (I now see Madame was perhaps as nervous as me or my own mother: probably wondering if I was expecting to eat roast beef with mint sauce and milky tea all the time). In all that, the one familiar point was my exchange partner's first choice of record to play. I didn't understand a word of the French, of course (I had to Google for the lyrics before I could try the translation below), but the opening chorus was clear as anything:

Rosa rosa rosam
Rosae rosae rosa
Rosae rosae rosas
Rosarum rosis rosis

It's the oldest tango in the world, that blond heads learning Latin heehaw like a nursery rhyme

It's the tango of school, that traps dreams - it would be sacrilege not to let it make you naughty

It's the tango of the good fathers who keep a warning eye on the Jules and Prospers who'll be tomorrow's France

It's the tango of the spotty swots, all wrapped up in cottonwool around hearts already cold

It's the tango of the must-try-harder, who conjugate disappointment and who'll end up behind a counter because Daddy didn't.

It's the past tense, where I came bottom, because this rosa rosae tango wasn't as much fun as my cousin Rosa

It's the tango of strolls alone together under corbelled, statued arcades protecting us from questions

It's the tango of rain on the yard, the mirror of an unloving pool that made me see, one fine day, I'd be no Vasco de Gama

But it's the tango of the blessed time where such a little kiss, one empty Thursday, made Cousin Rosa rosy.

It's the tango of the time of zeros - I had so many, written small and big, I could make tunnels for Charlie Chaplin, halos for St Francis

It's the tango of prizes for those who had the luck to learn in childhood everything that would be no use

But it's the tango you regret, once you've bought the time to see, dumbly, that Roses have thorns.

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