Home Languages

Excerpt from Chapter 8

A Linguistic Handshake


Kim Henriksen is way cooler than you'd expect an accordion-playing Esperantist to be. Tall, lean, and muscular, with creative facial hair and a European cowboy style, he looks younger than he is. In Esperantoland, he is something of a rock star. Through the 1980s, his band Amplifiki played international youth congresses all over Europe, releasing hits like Tute ne gravas (No big deal) and Sola (Alone). The band's name came from an old Esperanto dictionary word for "amplify," but a prurient mind might read it as am-pli-fiki (love-more-fucking). He later formed the Danish/Bosnian/Polish group Esperanto Desperado, which came out with party starters like Ska-virino (Ska-woman) and La anaso kaj la simio (The duck and the monkey). I wasn't prepared to encounter anyone like him when I set out on my first trip to Esperantoland.

"Esperantoland" sounds a lot sillier in English than it does in Esperanto. There is no land of Esperanto, of course, though not for lack of trying on the part of the Esperantists. In 1908 the tiny neutral state of Moresnet, the orphan of a border dispute between the Netherlands and Prussia, rose up to declare itself the first free Esperanto state of Amikejo (Friendship Place). More than 3 percent of the 4,000 inhabitants had learned the language (a higher percentage of Esperanto speakers has never been achieved in any other country), and their flag, stamps, coins, and an anthem were ready to go. But in the increasingly tense and nationalistic atmosphere of pre-war Europe, there was no place for a friendship place, and Esperanto never got its piece of terra firma. Instead, the proponents of Esperanto have made do with a virtual homeland. Esperantoland is located wherever people are speaking Esperanto. And contrary to what I had assumed, they really are speaking Esperanto.

The earthly setting of my first Esperanto experience was the MIT campus, the 2003 venue for the annual congress of the Esperanto League of North America. As I drove from New Jersey through hellish Fourth of July traffic toward Cambridge, the clearest mental picture of an Esperanto congress I could muster was five gray-haired radicals on folding chairs bantering about the Spanish Civil War and their stamp collections. I imagined they would be speaking Esperanto, but not for everything. Surely, as soon as something worth saying came up, they would lapse back into English. Just in case, though, I studied up. I brought my dictionary and grammar book and practiced having the maturity not to giggle when I spoke the textbook phrase for "How are you?" or more specifically "How are you faring?" which is rendered as Kiel vi fartas?

More than 80 people turned up at the conference, and I can say that almost all of them spoke only Esperanto the entire weekend. Some were the retired teachers and spry socialist grandpas I was prepared for. Their emotional proselytizing about the noble ideals of "our dear language" clicked right into the Esperanto landscape I'd imagined. But there was no place in that landscape for Kim (known as Kimo in Esperantoland) and his 3:00 PM presentation on the importance of rock music in the history of Esperanto culture.
Designed by Alex: a mad dreamer and big fan