Lately I’ve been writing in the staff canteen. It’s the only place I can go at lunchtime that’s warm. Spring has been slow to arrive in London.
But our building has become so crowded that it’s hard to find somewhere to sit every day. It’s playing havoc with my routine.
Today I wasn’t writing my novel, I was writing some Chinese. I had a bit of an epiphany last week and decided to intensify my efforts. Most of the time when you’re learning Chinese you’re just practising characters. You write the same ones over and over again and if you try and learn new ones you forget the ones you thought you knew, so you constantly have huge holes in your knowledge. If you want to write anything fast you resort to pinyin, which is the romanised form of the language that’s used for word processing.
Last week I started to write something in pinyin that I intended to type up later when I got home. The way a Chinese word processor works is you type the word in pinyin then select the character from a pop-up screen. For instance if you type “ta” you can choose from 54 characters that have that sound, with the most common ones being offered to you first.
But sometimes I wanted to write “she” and sometimes “he.” In Chinese the pinyin is the same (“ta”) but the characters are different. To avoid ambiguity it’s actually quicker to write the characters than to mess around with pinyin. So I found myself writing in characters instead. I had a few gaps in my knowledge and got tripped up a few times, so that’s why I’m practising again, trying to plug those gaps. The Chinese call them stones in your path. There are always stones in your path, whether you are reading or writing — characters you don’t know and can’t guess.
But the stones in my path today were the two people who sat opposite me and started having a business meeting. Their voices were so loud you’d think they were two politicians on a podium. I couldn’t help but listen. Their voices penetrated the deepest recesses of my brain. But as to what they were saying, I have no idea. One was American and one was English but they were speaking a language I could barely understand. Okay, maybe I understood the odd word here and there. “Leverage,” for example. I’ve heard that one quite a lot recently. If I hear it again this week I’m going to scream.
I’ve found the people who talk the most impenetrable language use the most penetrating voices.
But I suppose I shouldn’t let it get to me. Leverage needn’t be a bad thing. I could use a bit of leverage to clear the stones in my path.