Leaving the XXI Quinquennial IAHR in Erfurt, I stopped off at the University for one last coffee before boarding the tram’s Liene 6 (Riethe, Erfurt) to the train station (Hauptbahnhof). On the tram, a gentleman I’d not met at the conference shouted over the noise, “English?!”
It took me a few seconds to decipher whether he meant, “do you speak English,” or, “are you English.”
It was the latter.
He had seen that my name tag, which also functioned as a free public transport pass, had the word ‘Edinburgh’ printed under my name.
I responded, “No, American,” to which he asked: “North or South?”
I told him: “North, Southern California.”
His response, in a rather heavy accent which I, embarrassingly, was having trouble understanding, was: “Is it cold in Edinburgh? Snow?”
Our conversation then descended into the banal, yet polite, sort of back and forth conversation that people have when limited by language differences. We talked about the weather in our countries, and the winters in Scotland and Lithuania, before he stood to exit at his stop and bid me a friendly, “Nice to meet you, enjoy English.”
When I arrived in Berlin, I dropped off my bag at a locker, and decided to ‘walk the streets,’ which really meant, walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), through the Brandenburg Gate, and then the length of Unter den Linden to Museum Island and the Berliner Dom (Cathedral).
When I passed through the Brandenburg Gate, after deftly avoiding all the people taking pictures straddling where the wall once separated East and West Berlin, I entered out onto the wide expanse of Pariser Platz. There, in the centre, intoning loudly and with sincere passion, was a bagpiper.
He was playing “Danny Boy.”
I took a picture, lamented the fact that pipers follow me everywhere now, had a pretzel, a few pilsners, and returned to the train station a broken man.
At the airport (Schönefeld, not Tegel), I squeezed into a small section of an Irish Bar, the only place to sit and eat and drink before one’s flight (Schönefeld is a terrible airport to fly out of). I ordered a German beer, because a Guinness or a Kilkenny felt out of place. I also borrowed a stool from two elderly travellers, who seemed rather put out to let me have it. It turns out, they were saving it for their coats, for when their wives returned from the duty free shop. They let me have it, of course, though grumbled in German. After that we politely ignored each other for a few minutes.
When the gate for my flight was announced, I noticed they too began to gather their belongings. I politely gave them back their stool (in case they needed it) and thanked them.
One of the gentleman suddenly asked, “Oh, you speak English?” I answered him that I did, to which he responded: “Only English? No French, or German?” I told him a little French (Je parle un petit peu le français), and he smiled back.
“Oh,” he said, “just plain vanilla English. Ok. See you on the flight.”
A few minutes later, as I stood in line to board the flight, and as my new friends slowly made their way behind me with their bags of liquor and chocolate, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted. I was certain that his association of my language as ‘vanilla English’ was meant as an insult, likely referring to it as being bland or boring. However, it also seemed like an intriguing thing to analyse.
First, I thought, why do we associate vanilla with something bland? Vanilla isn’t boring. It’s actually rather exotic.
It was originally cultivated from the Mexican vanilla orchid, which the Aztecs called, tlilxochitl, which was then introduced to Europe via the conquistador Hernán Cortés (alongside its dichotomous partner, chocolate) in the early sixteenth century.
Since then, it’s literally traveled the world, and comes from a number of equally ‘exotic’ locations: Madagascar, Réunion island, and other tropical islands within the Indian Ocean (Vanilla planifolia), the South Pacific (Vanilla tahitensis), and the West Indies, Central, and South America (Vanilla pompon).
As well, the means to produce it outside Mexico have needed to adopt ‘by-hand’ pollination, as it was originally dependent upon, and could only produce, when pollinated by a particular species of bee (Melipona). In fact, according to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, it’s the second most expensive ‘spice’ after saffron.
Vanilla isn’t bland.
As my ticket was scanned I continued to think that perhaps this was a perfect metaphor: to call my language ‘vanilla English’ seemed, in fact, a rather apt description. Regardless of whether or not he meant it, my new friend at the Irish Bar in Berlin was properly describing the diversity of English, exemplified by the fact that, in an Irish Bar, in Berlin, he was using it to describe my language as ‘vanilla.’
Likewise, maybe this distinction was meant as a way of referring to the English language as something accessible to all. After all, not only is it universally used, there are in fact a number of different types of English: from British to American, Canadian, and Australian, a whole diverse world of Anglophone speakers adjusting and amending the flavour of the language with unique vernaculars and cultural and contextual influences.
Second, this association of my language as ‘vanilla’ is yet another reminder that, as a flavour, differences of perspective should not be seen as adverse to each other, but rather as individual and unique. When combined, then, they create something new, a discourse of flavours coming together in a melange, an immersion of both likewise and disparate ideologies that develop and evolve and become something just as, if not more, meaningful because of their blending together.
On the plane, these thoughts were mixing nicely with the free wine and peanuts. I started to think back to my presentation, which I wrote about last week, and about the differences between those of us who study Atheism (usually more history focused) and those of us who study Non-religion (usually more social-scientific). These are like flavours, and like the idea that vanilla and chocolate are opposite, they are in fact extremely close relatives, introduced to the ‘western’ world at the same time, and from the same ‘exotic’ origin.
Thus, our language, though different, should not be seen as wholly separate or divided, but of equal essence and quality. As I argued last week, our differences of opinion or approach don’t represent a weakness, but rather a wider discourse, leading us to a better understanding about a subject and concept, and how those whom we study go about describing themselves in a myriad of different ways.
As such, and just as how a discursive approach to the study of ‘religion’ works to release us from the precarious and difficult task of theoretically ‘defining’ the term, I find myself once again in praise of polyvocality.
After all, who hasn’t enjoyed an ice cream cone swirled with both vanilla and chocolate?
As we made our descent into Edinburgh, and I strained my eyes to make out the two towers of New College (still tragically draped in festival banners), I noticed a fly buzzing around the edges of the window. When we landed and they opened the rear door, I caught one last glimpse of this little stowaway as it escaped into the night air. Later, as I approached the immigration desk, I thought to myself, do you think the fly’s first thoughts, as it exited the aircraft, were:
Was soll der unsinn? Ich spreche kein Englisch. Wo bekomme ich ein ticket für die straßenbahn?