[ final edit. ]
Single — def.
- not having, or including, another ; only one.
Defining words in any language is an exercise in understanding culture. This is unavoidable. So said the Swiss woman, at the head of the dinner table around which were seated: a younger, blonde French-Swiss woman; a middle aged, married couple from Kent, England, she with her brown hair rolled up away from her neck; a tall, good-looking, traveling salesman from Stuttgart; a young, bespectacled Scottish girl enrolled at university; and, one American woman of about twenty seven years; in 1984.
(There were no indigenous French represented at table, during that meal. Had there been, perhaps the conversation would have taken a decided turn.)
These had all convened around a common theme: one annual Bible Conference for the purpose of intensive study of the Word of God, held in a Zurich high school, complete with headsets and translators for those who had come from countries not fluent in Swiss-German.
I was the American woman.
That year, having embarked on my maiden voyage to Europe by way of Scotland, I was alone; meaning: nobody I knew personally had accompanied me on my trip.
Yes; according to a definition established by Merriam and Webster in the initial year of their copyright, I was a single woman. I knew it, most acutely, seated beside the two boys from Princeton on the flight to Frankfurt; the sassiest, plugged in to Purple Rain on his earphones, turned off to me as soon as I declined the gin. Failing the Test of Immediate Compatibility, here was a sure sign that I would be proceeding solo.
Not that I had any inclination to attach myself to either of the Princeton boys. I simply never figured in the equation established long ago by the Ivy League; their blood was blue, mine was too but, to them, a critical – if colorless – social component was missing .
The Swiss woman was dogmatic; the only way to truly know a people was through their language. One had to experience them in dialogue, to derive any understanding of their way of life. Inflection, the Swiss woman insisted, was the bearer of meaning.
(A decade hence, I would return to this table, after hearing a Japanese maestro articulate the meaning of his own name in his native language; he’d pointed out, none too subtley from the concert podium, that pronouncing his first name with the emphasis on the wrong syllable would render him nothing short of a hemorrhoid.)
I recall sitting and looking around that table at each guest, wondering, in my American English silence. Try as I might, I could not name a single descriptive adjective, noun, or verb in the language of my birth which, when pronounced differently, rendered a completely distinct meaning. I was able to call up several words, however, which had dual connotations but no alteration in their pronunciation. There were also words which were pronounced the same, but spelled differently according to their meanings.
With this realization came the sensation that singled me out: how could an American understand anybody from another country? Even the Brits, with their occasional syllabic de-emphasis, were a challenge to a fledgling on foreign soil. Here I was, singularly alone, and obviously about to make absolutely no connection whatsoever with any of the people in the room.
But, I had left a boy at home.
Long having moved on to pursue another skirt he had, however, managed to create a scandal in his wake. Here, in Switzerland, the home of his mother’s birth, I was supping with associates of the American employer she’d embezzled. Yes. I may have arrived alone, but there were those my presence represented who, after my departure, would remain; I had carried both of them with me, all the way to Europe, into a household diningroom of Christians in Zurich.
And, it didn’t matter to anybody that I wasn’t married to his mother. He would follow me for years thereafter, like a lurking shadow in the mirror, beginning the moment I left the premises. No one among any of those in attendance at the Zurich Conference, whether known to me or not, would be able to think of me in any terms thereafter without his name entering the conversation. Criminal behavior knew no cultural boundaries. No matter the country of origin; no matter the language spoken.
Recently, I became reacquainted with somebody I had only known in passing decades ago. A well and world-traveled American, he calls himself “single”. But, I beg to differ; his attributes draw the curious, the needy, the broken, the unfinished, the yearning. He works in the healing arts. His life has incredible, unmeasurable meaning in those of countless others. By the definition of any culture, he does not exist outside of their realm. He is, rather, spectacularly singular – part of the great Singularity.
None of us travels alone. We are never single, lest we attempt breath in a vacuum. If we do, we’ll be crying for help. And, we had better get the inflection j.u.s.t.right.
© 3/25/16 Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story it is, and whose name appears above this line. Thank you for your respect.