Thursday, April 2, 2009

Oui Madame!

Last week was spectacularly unproductive; write-wise. For some strange reason, her mind had gone on strike.

A wordsmith almost all her life, the unprecedented boycott was extremely disturbing. There was nothing left to do but struggled through it, listless and dull, the mind near-catatonic.

Over the weekend, clad in a faded and frayed caftan long past its shelf-life and awaiting the inevitable one-way trip to the rag heap, she tried once again to put pen to paper, but the mind remained stubbornly obtuse.

Waddling like an overfed duck back and forth between the kitchen and the study, she mulled over the events of the week. Nothing remotely exciting happened (the opening of that new supermarket down the road doesn't count).

A couple of jobs awaited completion - the clients would soon be baying for her blood - but inside her head was one voluminous blank canvas. The artistry in her had waned into nothingness.

Not a word bubbled to the surface. The stillness of her mind defied convention. In desperation, she reached out for one of her favourite reading materials, a dictionary of foreign words and phrases.

I have a thing for languages and pick up foreign tongues quite easily. As a student in (then) ITM, I took up German for three full years, enjoying every minute of the lessons taught by that irrepressible Cik Rokiah.

I had studied tourism management and had harboured thoughts of joining Lufthansa upon graduation, thus the Deutsch choice. But that Lufthansa dream didn't materialise, so I went back to my first love - journalism.

Over time, my German became terribly rusty. I had to give it a much needed brush-up when I was in the service of Opel AG as its regional PR consultant, and had to lead a group of local motoring journalists to attend the Frankfurt Motor Show.

Today, my Deutsch hasn't died on me yet; I can still muster a few stock phrases but the bulk of the vocabulary, achtung notwithstanding, has disappeared into nothingness.

Then again, as always, all I need is a severe jolt (like being hired by a German firm with no English-speaking superiors) to re-tune my mind to recall this skill.

In the 1990s when my PR consultancy was appointed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to handle its media activities for Malaysia, I took up Thai.

That was a necessity because unlike the Germans, many of whom spoke English fluently, the Thais I had come in contact with then, were ill at ease with English. Whilst they understood what was said, they had difficulties reciprocating coherently.

Like German, I found Thai easy to learn as the words were pronounced as they were spelt. This exposure to Thailand had, over time, heightened my interest in all things Thai - the food, the music, the arts and culture.

Learning a foreign language is always exciting and I think I would like to give Arabic a go next. I came to this conclusion because of what happened the week before at the Royal Lake Club.

There I was, sitting quietly all by myself in the Buttery (one of the restaurant outlets at the club) waiting for my order, when I happened to catch the eye of one elderly Malay lady sitting across not far from my table.

Immaculately dressed and very articulate, she was hailed by all and sundry who entered the Buttery. She was definitely a 'somebody'. Who she was exactly, I knew not, although she looked very familiar.

She gave me a broad smile and invited me to join her table. I reciprocated warmly, but regretfully declined the invitation because I was waiting for Pak Abu to join me.

Halfway through my food, the dear lady stood up and came over to my table. She asked me what was I doing (as in vocation), so I told her I was doing nothing much in terms of work, perhaps a little bit of writing here and there to fill my time.

She said reproachfully: "My dear, you should pick up a foreign language. It is very satisfying, you know. I am 81 and have just completed a two-year course in French."

Then she launched into a whole babble of singsong French which sounded so sweet and melodious. Of course, I didn't understand a single word beyond oui! Not that it mattered, for I enjoyed watching her having a good time.

She then added: "I have just registered for Spanish. The next session starts in June. Come join me. Don't waste your time!"

I half expected her to launch into Spanish with as much aplomb as her French. Then I remembered she hadn't learned it yet! But she was such a gregarious one, you couldn't help but take to her.

She then moved on to join some friends at another table while I finished up my food. Minutes later, JA, a dear friend who's an LC member and also a frequent commenter on this blog dropped by.

Excitedly pointing in the grand dame's direction, JA said: "Puteri! That's the person I have been telling you about, the one who could very well be related to you. Come let me introduce you to her! "

Thus Mak Engku and I got properly acquainted. She asked for my family history and I willingly obliged, waiting to see where this would lead (I just knew there would be a surprise or two in store).

Upon hearing the name of my grandfather, Dr Megat Khas, she boomed: "Do you know that if I were a man, I could not marry you?" Woweee, this was getting interesting!

It turned out that we were related in more ways than one. Apart from the fact that my late grandpa and her father were saudara sesusu (breastfed by the same nursemaid), we are also related by both blood and marriage.

Now, please tell me how to wriggle myself out of this foreign language 'thingy", because with Mak Engku at the helm I dare not..!


drbubbles said...

Puan Puteri,

"Don't waste your time!". her words struck me deep as I have skipped my spanish class for months!

Who is this lady Mak Engku?

Anonymous said...

Also, wann treffe ich Sie?


Anonymous said...


Wait till you get to know her better...

There was one occasion last year when I bumped into Mak Engku quite happily enjoying a late supper in the Buttery (of the Royal Lake Club). I thought there was something amissed as I could tell that she had her kaftan over what looked like a hospital outfit and there was plaster on her arm like what they do to you when you are on the drip.

Before I could say anything she hushed me up to say that she just smuggled herself out of the ward in D*#^?@ and drove all the way to freedom to enjoy the Club's Mee Hokkien.

Now, didn't she say she just turned 81.

F1 Driver

Tommy Yew said...

Hi Puteri,

The easiest way to learn a new language is to master all their cussed words & phases first as if they are the A, B & C, thereafter the rest will flow naturally.

Hey, how do u shut an Italian up? You tie their hands behind their back. What about the Indians?
Well u put a neck brace on them…..hehe…sori dey, no offends intended.Guess I better stop here b4 I get into hot tomyum soup!


Kama said...

DrBubs - Ha! How could you! hehehe.. Spanish sounds interesting, especially the amore amore part.. the Mak Engku is from Perak hell of a woman!

Mod - Hello there, my ex-ITM/German class buddy! What the heck is treffe, mod? ich verstehen nicht! Psstt.. we're supposed to meet for tea soon..

F1 Driver - I would love to get to know her better. I think she is a treasure trove of information.

Tommy - Just the thing told to me by many people, about learning a foreign language. learn the cuss words first and you'll be fine.
Btw, I can swear in Hokkien and Cantonese..LOL.. time to learn how to cuss in Hakka and Taochew as well..

Anonymous said...

Exactly! I asked, when shall we meet? He!He!


nuraina said...

go for it, Puteri..

i have an affinity for studying languages...