ON SPEAKING PAPIAMENTU - on finding back my native tongue while crossing borders

an essay I wrote in 2007 that is very much in the spirit of liminal space

It starts at Schiphol, the Amsterdam airport. Before that, I am still immersed in my life in Jerusalem, concerned with my family and the escalating violence in this region, while working until the very last minute to finish grant proposals that are due when I am away. I do not have time to connect to my trip, which still feels more like a yearly obligation to visit my elderly mother in my native Curaçao, rather than spending my precious vacation time trekking in Turkey or Nepal.  

I usually have a few hours to kill, not enough to take the train into the city and visit friends, which is what I do on my return trip when I have almost twelve hours between planes. And so I silently wander around the airport, feeling a little like a spy, as I do in Jerusalem when I hear Dutch tourists speaking on the street, not suspecting that I, who looks like a native of this city, would understand. Not yet identifying myself as a speaker of Dutch, I take in the talk, smiling to myself, my little secret.

Here in transit at the airport, a kind of limbo between countries, I sometimes pretend to be a total foreigner and address the salesperson in English – perhaps that has more to do with the fact that I still feel uncomfortable speaking Dutch, or do not want to give away my unfamiliarity with the currency and other taken-for granted knowledge of life in the Netherlands. Or perhaps I am resisting to be taken for an “allochtoon” – that polite way to refer to the “not really Dutch,” who nevertheless hold Dutch citizenship – a category that groups together the mostly Moslem migrants and those of us, from the former Dutch colonies, blacks and whites alike. It is a title that had not yet been coined when my school teachers taught us to see Holland as our “mother country,” to sing Wilhelmus Van Nassauwe to our Queen and to accept the Batavians, a Germanic tribe, as our ancestors. They say that when you count, you invariably give away your mother tongue – to this day I count not in Papiamentu, but in Dutch, so total was my embracing of the colonial language.

I was four when I learned Dutch in kindergarten. I remember the feeling of utter embarrassment when everyone expected me to speak Dutch with my cousins whose father was Dutch, and I ran away crying, hiding in a corner. It was the loss of the secure ground that Papiamentu provided, having to jump into the deep waters of a foreign language without a life-vest, before I knew how to swim.

Very soon, however, I was speaking Dutch fluently, determined to excel in the language, to know it even better than the children whose parents came from Holland. I was speaking it with my schoolmates, even though most of us spoke Papiamentu at home – “us” being the Afro-Antilleans; the “White Protestants” - descendents of the early Dutch colonists; as well as members of the community to which I belonged, the Sephardic Jews who settled on the island since the seventeenth century.

In my elementary school days, the teachers forbade us to speak Papiamentu even in the schoolyard, claiming it was the only way to learn proper Dutch. And so I read, wrote and thought in Dutch – it became my first literary language, as Papiamentu was basically only a spoken language at that time. Now, after forty-two years away from the Dutch speaking world, my Dutch gets rusty, until I find myself again surrounded by its sounds and it returns to me, and becomes almost, though not quite, natural.

I roam around the long halls of the airport’s immense shopping center, not quite knowing what I am looking for. It is rather busy at the camera counter – I realize it is not a place to come with all my hesitations – even though I researched which camera to buy, having decided to move to a digital SLR after two years of working with a simple digital point-and-shoot – and gradually getting turned on to photography. Still, I am far from certain which of the various possibilities I want. No, I decide to look at cameras in Curacao, at a more relaxed pace, where the prices are certainly cheaper.

Once, in these huge avenues of shops designed to entice travelers on the move, there used to be a stand with fresh, raw herring, but I do not see it anymore, even though this is still the season of the first herring catch – the end of June. It fills me with longing, even though fresh herring was not something we ate at my home, it is what the Dutch ate. Raw herring is a taste I developed later, and yet, it is so very much a taste from that past, perhaps from my acquired Dutch identity, and I felt that eating herring now would prepare me for my return.

Then I search for a shop that sold every possible variety of drop - salted licorice - by weight, yet not daring to ask for it, perhaps so as not to expose my weakness, my secret addiction, or not fully admitting it to myself. I have a good spatial memory – I remember you had to walk through a drug store to get to it, and it is a long way from the main shopping center with the largest stores. I find the drugstore, but now there is a cosmetics counter in the back of it. The millions of foreigners who pass through this airport obviously do not have the taste for the salty and pungent licorice, a taste that you only develop if you grow up in a salted-licorice-eating-culture, and so it was not economically profitable to maintain a shop that specializes in salted licorice.

Without quite making a conscious decision, I meander into the store where Dutch delicacies are sold – cheeses, fish, chocolates, biscuits. And there, among its shelves, I see a large box of salted licorice, which I buy immediately. I taste one, and as soon as it has melted in my mouth, I take another, and yet another. It is not that salted licorice reminds me, like the Proustian petite madeleine, of a lost childhood, rather, it reawakens my desire for more and more salted licorice. I am able to forget about licorice completely, go about my daily life in Israel without knowledge or reminiscence of it, without even longing for it, in fact, I do not care much for sweets, and then, suddenly, as soon as I taste it again, I turn into a licorice addict. It is a lot easier not to eat it at all, than to eat it in moderation. There is no such thing as moderation.

I start to move towards the gate, still sneaking my fingers into the box of licorice that is now in my backpack, hidden from my own conscience, as I suppress the certain knowledge that soon I will develop a belly-ache. There is a long line outside the closed hall where a second hand-luggage check is held before you can enter it - much like the flights to Israel – but it is not weapons that are being sought here, but drugs.

Most of the people in the line are Afro-Antilleans, seemingly living in Holland and going back to the islands for a family visit, sometimes accompanied by a Dutch spouse and children in all shades of skin color, wearing their best clothes. There is also an assortment of casually dressed Dutch tourists, mostly young couples, who, with the strong Euro, spend their vacation in the tropics, invariably scuba diving at the magnificent coral reefs – something that I, as a native, never learned to do.

I begin to hear Papiamentu, a word here and there, snippets of a conversation, a mother calling to a child, yet that feeling of transformation has not yet started. I still feel a little of a foreigner, and outsider, an eavesdropper. But the reality of the past week, the tense work on the proposals is all gone, as if it never existed. Even the turmoil of the Israeli occupation of Palestine (that forcible erasure of borders) has left me, as if a heavy burden has been lifted from my back – I am relieved not to have to think about it about it anymore – being essentially an introspective person, who has found herself in a situation where she must take a moral stand and become an activist despite herself.

And then, slowly, my mouth full of licorice, I become infused with that feeling that has now become so familiar, that I recognize from my previous passing through the Amsterdam airport - and yet I cannot give it a name. It is a sense of strangeness, of looking at myself from the outside, this licorice-eating woman who is standing in line with other speakers of her mother-tongue, when she lives in an everyday reality where nobody really knows her Papiamentu-speaking-self, where she has absolutely no occasion to let it out. I realize the stranger that I am to those closest to me, how this part of me, the woman-who-speaks-Papiamentu, is unknown to them, can not be known to them. 

There is a song by a popular Israeli singer who immigrated from South America, that speaks of drinking coffee in Hebrew, living his life in Hebrew and that he will have no other language – yet in the depths, in the depths of the night, he dreams in Spanish. I do not even dream in Papiamentu. This part of me is totally absent in my life in Israel, where I have nobody with whom to speak my language – as far as I know, I am the only Papiamentu speaking person in Jerusalem. And so, as soon as I return here, I stop living in Papiamentu. Nobody here knows that part of me.

When I asked a friend in Israel what it felt like to live where French, her mother tongue, is not spoken, she answered that language is a home you can take with you to any place. She has her relatives, movies, books, in French. For me, Papiamentu cannot possibly be a home away from home – without an expatriate community with whom to connect, when my mother tongue has less than 300,000 speakers and none of them can be found in my immediate vicinity, and when phone connections to my distant native country that nobody else calls, have been outrageously expensive until very recently. I cannot even find solace in writing my mother tongue, living in a Papiamentu world of my own – since Papiamentu, at least for me, is not a written language – its orthography was only established after I left the island, and I still find it difficult to read, with its strict phonetic spelling, so that words originating from Spanish or Dutch are written in almost unrecognizable ways.  

I always felt that coming from Curaçao meant nothing to those who never lived there, who do not know my language. And so I do not dwell on it – I do not talk about where I come from. I am not willing to play the role of a strange, exotic bird from a little Caribbean island, and on the other hand, refuse to be thrown into known categories, such as “Argentinean”, or other Latin Americans, with whom I share little - other than the music and dance - having learned Spanish only in sixth grade, and unlike English, it is still a foreign language to me.

And so, rather than allowing myself to feel the loneliness, I let that part of me go – I have erased it. It is part of me that I do not speak about, if I cannot speak from it. I do not even miss my Papiamentu-speaking-self when away from the island. I do not live with a sense of loss, longing for a vanished childhood, for a hidden identity, for my language as a home - just like, in my daily life, I can completely forget about the pleasures of eating salted licorice. Until recently, I did not realize that I have been paying such a heavy price for the erasure of such a central part of who I am. Rather than being a stranger to those around me, I was a stranger to myself.

It is, perhaps, because I am not an exile that I do not feel that sense of loss – I have had the privilege to return almost every year since I have been living here, or rather, I do not believe I deserve to indulge in a feeling of loneliness, after all, I left my native country voluntarily, to study abroad, knowing, in advance, I would never return to live. I am not like the homeless, the displaced, the dispossessed - those who have been forced to abandon their language.

Perhaps I can speak of a sense of self-exile, as I did not find my place in the complex colonial society of the island, with its racial, class and gender segmentation and hierarchy – its very strict internal borders, where everyone had their place. I did not want to accept the place I was assigned, as a member of the privileged class, and especially as a woman, whose movements across these internal borders was heavily restricted. At a very young age, I became very well aware that each social group had its own taken-for-granted view of the world, its own truth, which often was in contradiction to the others, and kept them within their borders. And so, even when living on the island, I had already learned to be an outsider – one who refused to stay within the internal boundaries, if not physically and socially, then certainly in my mind.

It is this adaptability as an outsider that prepared me to cross different cultural and language borders without experiencing culture shock - to adopt English with utmost ease, even before I went to study in the USA and later, to become fluent in spoken Hebrew, when I moved to Jerusalem, crossing another border with the American man I met at the university in the Boston area and then married, raising two Hebrew-speaking children.

My life in Jerusalem revolves around Hebrew as well as English, which has gradually replaced Dutch as my literary language. I never became proficient in written Hebrew – I learned it well enough to swim, but not to dive, and do not feel pressured to perfect it, to “pass” for a native Hebrew-speaker. I guess I take pleasure in being a perennial outsider.

As I stand in line at the Amsterdam airport, catching a plane to Curaçao, I hear my language and smile at the people waiting to get on the plane, in acknowledgment that I understand. There is no sense of spying anymore, it is replaced by an eagerness to identify myself as a Papiamentu-speaker. I blend into those waiting to be checked, voicing my agreement, of course, in Papiamentu, that the waiting is taking much too long.

Finally, on the plane, at my window seat, for which I always ask so I can see, and photograph the island when we are landing, I realize I am shedding the layer of my everyday life in Jerusalem, like an overall, or rather a heavy spacesuit that cloaks my entire body and dictates my movement. It takes me a while to recognize that Papiamentu-speaking self that is crammed inside, the way I think, twinkle my eyes, dance in Papiamentu. I regain a visceral quality, not just a language – all those things that get lost in translation.

An American friend, on hearing and watching me switch to Papiamentu while on the phone with one of my cousins living in Boston, exclaimed in delight: “you become a totally different person when you speak Papiamentu!” It was a moment of deep recognition, of acknowledgement. She was the first person not from the island, who saw me, and her remark, like a paradigm leap, enabled me to see myself, and feel the person that I am, fully, with all my layers of language.

The flight is long, sometimes close to ten hours, or even more if there is a stopover on St. Maarten or Bonaire, two other islands that also form part of the Netherlands Antilles. I try to sleep and seldom watch the movie, while I try to wean myself, temporarily, from my licorice habit. I speak Dutch and Papiamentu on the plane, with the flight attendants or the people are sitting next to me. If I flew a different airline or route, say via Madrid and Caracas, the transition to my Papiamentu speaking self would be delayed. Perhaps it will be more abrupt. Would I have time to reflect then, on this sense of strangeness?

Then, from the moment I land, I would immediately adopt my Papiamentu-speaking bearing, as if I had never been away. I would not have the chance to see myself from the side, as a woman I do not know in my ordinary life. I would not feel the pain and loneliness of not being able to share such a vivid part of myself.  I would not have come to writing this essay, and realizing that this part of me is a stranger in my other life.

Who is this woman who becomes again a speaker of Papiamentu, when standing in line at the Amsterdam airport? It is a reconnecting with an inner core that I have denied myself all those years. There is a music of the language – juicy words like barbulete, kokolishi, warawara, maribomba – just their sounds make me dance, take me back to a childhood rich in fantasy, food and folktale, color and song.

Yes, there is a sense of coming home when I speak Papiamentu – a mother-tongue is after all a home, but not one you can take with you to where there are no other speakers. There it shrivels, like a prune. It only thrives in its natural environment – the wind, the sea, the sun, the rocks and the people.

From the airplane, I finally catch a glimpse of the island below. My heart skips a beat, as more and more of it becomes visible and I begin to photograph. I have always loved to look down from airplanes, to see the landscape as an abstraction, a gigantic oil painting - but most of all I love to look at Curaçao, because I know it so well, with the huge waves, driven by the northeast trade winds, splashing against the rocks of the rugged north coast, and the plain of dry, red sands along the sea near the airport. I already feel myself there, as I identify all the coves and bays where I have been, or get ideas for places I want to explore while hiking with my brother, and, of course, to photograph.

Photography certainly has an element of looking from the outside – through the lens, at a distance. Yet, at the same time, the camera can take you very, very close, deeper and deeper into your subject, beyond the surface, beyond the visual – to all the levels of memory and history, to the colors and rhythms – the overtones. The photographer is therefore both near and far, at the same time, similar to the sociological concept developed by Georg Simmel of the stranger – a person who is socially both near and far, at the same time. (1)

Something has started to happen to me since I began to photograph the island in the summer of 2005, and continued to do so, on my subsequent yearly visits. It is through my photography that I began to look closer at the island, becoming more and more connected. And the deeper I looked, the harder it was to leave my language and let the woman I am on the island cease to exist. Back in Jerusalem, I continued to work with the photos – enhancing the digital images and putting them on my website, while also creating printed photo books through an internet site. I was, in other words, extending my stay on the island.

Sharing the images, I saw that people would really look. I began to realize that through the photographs, they see a part of myself that they did not know. I realized that I was saying kokolishi, maribomba, warawara and that this non-verbal language of the senses was being understood. That I was speaking Papiamentu - through my photographs.

Jerusalem, October 2007

1. Georg Simmel, “The Stranger”, Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.

the photographs in this post are from the exhibit I had at Gallery Landhuis Bloemhof, Curaçao in 2010