Seduced by Words

I have always been a bit of a word maniac, an admirer of humans’ ability to string together words, generating sentences, the most ingenious tales and lines of verse so beautiful that you have to read it over and over again to etch it on your memory. There are quite a few of us out there, that I know, who are seduced by words and called closer by them, lured into their delightful trap, intrigued by their endless horizon of possibilities.

And even if people are not all that fascinated by words, we are all well aware of how languages connect people. It’s the common ground on which we all tread: the roots from which our worlds grew.

It started early: my love affair with words. As a child I dreamed of being locked up all night inside the local library that I still go to visit when I return to the town I grew up in. Back then it was a treasure trove of tales and adventures, now it looks small and sparse (how one’s journeys around the world change one’s perspective) but still filled with enough good books (many of these Afrikaans novels having been banned in the 1960’s and 70’s) to while away the time in a sleepy South African Eastern Cape town. Like the legendary Arabic queen, Scheherazade, I would have loved to spend my nights in the company of stories. But then it was different: in an innocent mind a night stretches into an eternity of witching hours and seemingly endless, unfilled silences before sunrise.

As life moves on though one quickly learns that a night is not quite long enough, that sleep is much needed and that the world does not allow for idle, non-commercial musings. Words are primarily used to get on with the dealings of day-to-day life, the practicality of it never under-estimated. But indulging in it: now that is something you need to make time for in your spare time, if any are left to spare, or secretly squeeze your real interests in between working hours. So this preoccupation with words throughout the journey of day-to-day life, had to be adapted to wanderings through book shops and learning to appreciate the small moments of delighting in words: laughing at the rare clever chat-up line; savouring the remnants of clever dialogue in the few dark moments between the end of a great movie and the frantic scurry of exiting movie-goers; indulging in witty text messages from other wordy friends; scribbling down a few lines between tube stops; reading a short story before drifting off to sleep; frantically trying to make time for a weekly language class; mourning the hours spent making a living while the amount of books arriving on bookshelves multiply (drifting further and further out of reach) as the hours in one’s day become shorter.

And then there are bookshops, old-fashioned ones, occupied by dark shelves holding up volumes of stories and words that seem to secretly guard the books that tantalise onlookers with their titles proudly printed on their upright spines. It is on one of these stolen journeys through a second-hand bookshop that I found ‘The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words’, first published as ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ in 1986: a compendium of weird and wonderful words and other phobias. One of my most precious finds yet. Up there with wonderful people who have their own close attachments and amorous entanglements with words and captivating experiences, like a friend who used to sleep with the dictionary under her pillow like a good-luck charm; a university lecturer who claimed (and rightly so) that sometimes there is nothing sexier than jumping in bed with a good book and the memory of the library in the San Francisco Monastery in Lima, Peru – its spiral staircases suspended between the 25,000 volumes contained therein, secretly breathing life into the 25 000 bodies laid to rest, their bones scattered in the catacombs underneath.

And so the book has started travelling with me: my wordy companion never at a loss for something to say, a word at the ready for almost any occasion, symptom or area of life.

It just so happened that not too long ago I found myself another companion. This time it happened to be a man, a bit of an insomniac funnily enough, who uses the most wonderful words and expressions, some of them colloquial, some a bit outdated, many of them quite bookish, but always interesting and surprising. He manages to casually throw words and phrases like ‘mucker’, ‘discombobulated’, ‘cessation’, ‘incongruent’, ‘erudite’ and ‘cock a snook’ into a conversation. He tempted me with his words, enticed me with the other-worldliness that pervaded his text messages and reeled me in. And so having a way with words, he has a way with me.

If the ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ got hold of him, he would most probably be described as, amongst other things, someone who loves ‘knissomancy’ (incense burning) and ‘rusticating’ (going to the country), has an aversion to ‘tomecide’ (to destroy books) but unfortunately suffers from ‘hyposomnia’ (lack of sleep) and ‘pernoctation’ (insomnia).

Lucky for me, even this insomniac streak work in my favour at times. Some mornings I wake up to find a few romantic lines he’d penned down for me during the long waking hours of a sleepless night. He’ll think of unusual places to visit while awake during quiet early morning darkness, like poetry libraries and secluded beaches in Cornwall.

I even have a strong suspicion that he has an understanding of how I am being held hostage between two languages, both which I hold almost equally dear. When we travelled through South Africa a year ago, my companion commented on how easy it was for bilingual people to switch between languages, how effortless I seemed to get along with other strangers as we traversed the country. It is after all my home country but I was wondering if it could have something to do with the mother tongue that connects us so easily with others who speak it too. An unsaid understanding that goes without saying, without needing to be mentioned, between people raised within the framework of the same sound patterns. Language can sometimes be that common heritage which makes strangers feel as if they’ve known each other for a long time.

A friend sent me a link the other day, listing interesting bookshops around the world:

This made me contemplate that maybe one day I’ll properly preoccupy myself with my first love and go on a long journey, dipping into every one of these wordy places, allowing myself to be seduced over and over again.

But in the meantime I thank my lucky stars that, surrounded by modern day chaos where speed is of the essence, I can still withdraw to that magical place where words save us from losing our heads, just like Scheherazade.


WORDS and DEFINITIONS taken from:

Hellweg, P. 1993. The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Along the Way



I have yet to meet someone who enjoys the early morning rush hour, be it in London or any other city.

In the midst of the early morning race to get to work, commuters (especially of the public transport variety) are temporarily robbed of personal space and momentarily stripped of identity as we all become part of one big multi-limbed, industrial machine hurtling forth, swarming through and into the city and, in this way, setting the wheels of the day in motion. Such is the mechanics of survival and the routine of everyday life, I guess. Nevertheless, when I find myself marching with the rest of the commuters like disciplined soldiers down the road in the mornings, I know for certain that some of us will never get used to such a rude awakening.

For some Morning Larks out there this might be bearable but for Night Owls, like myself, a kind starting point to our journeys is indispensable to help us into the day. A bearer of good news is needed somewhere along the way to temporarily dispense the early morning gloom and lighten the load of overwhelming expectations, typical of a 9-to-5 world, so suddenly bearing down on one and disrupting Night Owls’ circadian rhythms.

And this is where Sid has stationed himself for the past eleven years: just outside the East Finchley Northern Line tube station, where most needed. Enveloped in a coffee aroma his coffee cart is ever-present and has found its permanent spot. Sid, who had become part and parcel of East Finchley’s High Road, has mastered the art of preparing a coffee in no time and his customers are always happy to see him.

“The best part of my job is the people. I feel part of a community,” he tells me as he makes me a medium cappuccino with one sugar without a pause in the conversation (I don’t have to remind him what I drink because Sid remembers all his regulars’ likes and dislikes.)

He tells me that his customers are as varied as their choice of drinks. “Some people want a straightforward espresso, others want a soya vanilla latte with an extra shot,” he laughs.

But I see how he treats his customers: with a joke, a friendly word, a smile, filling up someone’s flask with hot water, supplying not only hot drinks but also extending warmth and human kindness. The depth of its human touch and its memory enough to last throughout the whole day.

No matter how early, come rain or shine, Sid is always there. A familiar face next to his coffee machine; the steam wand hissing away comfortingly inside his coffee cart as he works his early morning magic throughout the whole day.

He gets up at the crack of down. And even me, who is a self-declared non-morning person can see its appeal. Really early in the morning the streets are clean like a slate. It’s most probably the best time to start work. When you feel like you can actually breathe. In a big city this is quite something. And people, no matter how old or tough, young or weak, are usually most vulnerable and honest in the soft, undisturbed hush of dawn.

But Sid didn’t grow up in England. He’s from Algeria and arrived in London twenty two years ago.

“For a better life,” he answers as I ask him why he came. I should know. I’m an immigrant myself. But what he says next, leaves me with much food for thought: “You know how it is. You come here: you forget to go back.”

If I think carefully, I do indeed. No matter how wonderful a city, it still has the potential to swallow people whole and lull them into an over-productive, thoughtless sleepwalking state. And therefore one has to tread lightly through the big city, at times so devoid of human touch and connection.

When I ask him what he misses most about Algeria, his hands become still for a few moments, the cloth folded between his palms with which he keeps his work surfaces and espresso machine shiny all day.

“I guess I missed what used to be home. What it used to be all those years ago when I left but now home has changed. Everything changes.” A fleeting, far-off look in his eyes, as if he sees something beyond his loyal customers, something which lies far beyond even the borders of the UK. “There are so many people like us here.”

This is true: people who live between two worlds. And like most of us, Sid makes it a priority to return to Algeria whenever he can. “I fish when I go there. That’s what I do.”

Spearfishing. An ancient method of fishing that requires stealth, stamina and absolute focus.

“I love the excitement of spearfishing. You never know what’s around the corner, the next rock. Most importantly, one should never lose concentration because when you least expect it, you are guaranteed to find what you are looking for. It’s a bit like my job,” Sid laughs. “Just when I think I know most of my customers, I meet new people.”

When he talks about his underwater experiences, he is yet again momentarily transported to another place. “When I am below the surface of the water I feel completely apart from history and all my troubles so far away.”

I tell him that he is like an island of calm, rescuing us for a while from the inevitable storm and tumultuous chaos of the morning stampede, a moment of peace in which to gather strength to enter the battlefield of the day. He chuckles and asks, “And who is going to rescue me?”

Maybe we are all looking for a constant, something in life that will stay unchanged forever and maybe, just maybe, if we hold our breath for long enough every now and then and look carefully beyond the surface of things, we might just catch a glimpse of what we’re looking for. Sid might be right: it’s all about timing and staying focused on the important things in life.

And perhaps we rescue each other day by day, kind word for kind word, coffee by coffee.

A famous Turkish saying springs to mind, “One desires to talk with others, coffee is merely but an excuse,” as I take my first sip of coffee for the day, the rich taste confirming that Sid’s skill and timing in preparing his drinks are impeccable. My troubles seem somehow far away as I enter the tube station and, clear as the daylight which is starting to fill the sky behind me, I know for sure that Sid’s skills lie not only in being an adept barista, but, above all, in being a friend to many.