First in an occasional series
In October, I broke my foot in a fluke stair accident. My right foot. My gas-pedal foot. It was a devastating injury emotionally, taking me away from two of the things I need most in stressful times: walking and driving. Forced to take taxis to and from work, I discovered the silver lining: A wealth of stories my drivers were eager to tell me.
One of the first days, I hobbled to a taxi stand near my office and startled a man who had been staring intently at his iPad. Once he realized I was a fare, he greeted me with a smile and reached around to help me get my crutches into the back seat. It took about a block for him to start talking, launching the conversation by talking about public transportation.
* * *
“It’s maybe 22 years I’m here with my family and I never used … rare, rare that I used the buses,” he told me in a voice far less accented than he would have me believe, later. His thoughts were more broken than his English, I was to learn.
“In the beginning, I worked as a cashier in a supermarket. Then I discovered I’m not capable … me, I’m accountant, but you have to study. Even they told me I have to work free till I have experience in Canadian accountancy. But you know, I’m married, I have to survive with my family. So I took the taxi and since that time, I don’t use transportation. I do my own transportation. Sometimes, you know, it’s difficult for you to park your car or something, okay, you grab a bus. But me, I drive this taxi, I spend my life in this taxi.
“So you see when you got in my taxi, I’m reading newspaper, but I’m reading in foreign language. I never am not reading … I know now how to speak in six different languages because of that. Now this is number seven, but at least I can read it, because you know, it’s a different alphabet. This is Russian. You know, they have the Cyrillic alphabet.”
“Wow,” I said, “you can go anywhere.”
His smile filled the small gray car. “Yeah, I’m going even in my soul, in my spirit. You know, when you read the same people two three years, you connect with their personality, with their spirit, because reading is a culture. … I did the Italian. I speak it fluently. I did the German – you know some German? (“No,” I laughed.) – and I did the Hebrew. Everybody was surprised – why the Hebrew? But, me, I’m Christian Lebanese also, but I like the language.”
“And your first language?” I prompted.
“The Arabic of Lebanon, Arabic French from our childhood in Lebanon and English, I knew it from – broken English, not very good English, but … in Lebanon as Christians, we go to Catholic school, they teach us Arabic and French, but English not so much.
“The way it’s spoken, your ears aren’t used to those sounds.”
“Once I am finished with Russian, next one I want to try is Chinese.” He looked in the rear-view mirror, eager to catch my expression, and he was not disappointed when I said, “Uh, that’s hard.”
“Yes,” he nodded. “But there’s a Chinese girl, she says to me it’s not going to be difficult. Because I cannot pay money – the money goes to my family, you know, so for my hobby I cannot spend money – so she said to me, ‘Why don’t you do Chinese?’
“I said to her, I said, every language, even Hebrew, there is an alphabet – Russian and even German, you can start with an alphabet and you can start reading by yourself, but I said, you Chinese, you don’t have an alphabet. She said, ‘No, but you have the Internet, and your tablet,’ and she said there are five signs that you need to read the Chinese. She said to me, you will bring yourself a paper, a white paper, make three columns, and when they show you sign, you draw it, like they draw Chinese, you know? And she said to me, ‘In the written column, you have to write the pronunciation with like, ‘ching chaown,’ and in the third column, she said, you do the meaning. Maybe it’s going to take a while, this thing. ‘No,’ she said, ‘two, three hundred, you can have a basic conversation in Chinese.’
“Because it’s so easy, they don’t have, like verbs that you speak in past time and future. All the time, how they can understand, it’s a secret.
“That’s the way to kill the dead time, you know. When you’re a taxi, you go inside a stand, you don’t know if it’s going to be 15, 30 minutes, a hour. Waiting, when you add it together, it can be four hours in a day. And so I learn the languages.
“Language is how you connect, like I said. It reflects the personality of these people. Like in traffic, you are travelling by your ideas.”