Hiding in a Funk Hole

We English are not renowned for our ability to dazzle the rest of the world by speaking its language.

Our lager loutish football ambassadors can all too often labour under the misapprehension that all one has to do, to be understood, is to bawl louder and gesticulate beerily.

It is the worst of attitudes, and not one of which the country’s intelligentsia is proud. Clever people here book holidays abroad which are calculated to be far away from their fellow countrymen.

But is bawling English at the top of one’s voice simply safer? Translation can be a tricky thing.

In my early twenties, I was persuaded to take a trip to a monastery in Burgundy in the lazy warm days of my young Summer. The place is called Taize: it has an absorbing past.

Taize is a small village very close to Cluny: one of the great centres of monasticism, the home of Cluny Abbey, founded in 910, sacked and looted by the Huguenots in 1562. But by the time Taize’s history begins, in 1940, the glory of the old monastic traditions was gone and France was a desolate war-torn place.

It caught the eye of a Swiss brother: Brother Roger Schulz.

He bought a house just a few miles from the border between Vichy France and occupied France: it became a place where refugees  could hide. But the Gestapo occupied it while Roger was away raising funds, and it was not until the end of the war that it became free once more.

Gradually it began to attract brothers and a community formed, of protestant and catholic brothers alike; and then the young people began coming. The facilities were basic, the community in the middle of nowhere; but something about leaving one’s possessions and paying attention to the inner life drew the young, with their ideals and their questions and their broad horizons.

These days more than 100,000 youngsters arrive every year to spend time away from the rat race and concentrate on their inner life. They sleep in army-camp huts and the food is extremely strange; onerous chores are done as a matter of course; but the company is excellent.

And then there’s the silence.

Built in to Taize’s life are periods of silence, when, whatever one does, one does it without speaking. Rarely in this busy modern life of ours are we afforded the chance to be quiet for a day: and the effects tend to be quite dramatic.

This did not stop me sneaking out under cover of darkness to go and find the nearest French pub.

The community of youngsters was like the aftermath of Babel. The morning air, after a bracing night in an army bunk, would be filled with languages and dialects, some harsh and fast-moving, some soft and lilting, every one plotting how to grab their sponge bag and get to the shower block, the better to cadge a shower before everyone else.

And while I do not speak Czech or Spanish,  somehow I knew what they were saying. We all under the sun have the same preoccupations, when all is said and done.

The clever monks had made provision for their youngsters: there was a tuck shop of sorts, and one evening my friends and I made friends with a large affable group of Poles over some Mars Bars.

And we sat there in the dark balmy open air with the glow worms lighting the hedgerows, talking different languages together.

There was a point where they were trying to explain something and we all floundered. I forget the context but I think I remember the word: although when I look at Polish dictionaries today I can’t track it down.

The word they were trying to explain was something along the lines of decowac.

We went through the gamut of mimes and gesticulations; we stumbled through stilted English explanation and offered helpful queries: but our new friends could not for the life of them translate what decowac  meant.

Finally someone produced a battered old Polish/ English dictionary. There was a studied silence while the word was found, a riffling of tiny well-worn pages. We munched our Mars Bars and waited.

The young man’s face lit up. “Ah! Here it is!” he said, or gesticulations to that effect.

The definition of decowac , he told us, was this: “To hide in a funk hole.”

None of us knew what a funk hole was. That evening, we had to be content with being none the wiser.

Later, when the internet arrived, I looked up funk hole. It means a military dugout. I suppose decowac might mean something a little like decamp.

But it’s supposition. It seems that while we can’t dazzle the world by speaking its language, there are times when we don’t know our own language well enough to translate.


59 thoughts on “Hiding in a Funk Hole

    1. Ah, Roger, I am a convent school girl, drilled in catechisms and cognisant of the ways of the religious: this was more of a Babel exercise than a spiritual journey.

      That is a very long time to spend with Jesuit priests, though….

  1. Now if Taize had a king size bed I’d be booking my ticket – the thought of silence is hugely appealing but in comfort would be better 😉 Many moons ago – DH and I sat at a huge bonfire, on a remote beach, with a group of friends and a german dictionary! You had to guess the english meaning of the german word – liberally fuelled by a vat of gluwein it was the best fun 😀

  2. Years can also divide us from the meanings. I have had a few lessons in that arena this week. My context no longer completely fits with those with whom I work.

    Misunderstandings arise because the contexts in our heads are different.

    1. Meanings do that to you, don’t they, Sidey: my last few months have been about that, too. We assume those we are talking to share the context and vision we have in our head…and it’s not always so…

      Hope everything sorts itself out soon 🙂

  3. I think every region has its own vocabulary which some understand and some don’t… I agree with SidevieW, misunderstandings do arise due to different contexts in which you use them…

  4. Sometimes (quite often, actually!), Kate, when I’m reading, I’ll come across an English word I have never heard or seen before. I tend to use the other words around it to gather its meaning, and then move on with my interpretation of it. It may or may not completely change the context of what I am reading, but I’d be none the wiser.
    I think the gestures people use to try to get what they are saying across quite amusing. I was in a hotel in Egypt once, at a large dinner table having afternoon tea. One of the others at the table wanted some more hot water, only she didn’t speak Egyptian, and the Egyptian didn’t speak English. She repeated ‘hot’ over and over and tapped her lips as she was doing so. The waiter brought her milk.
    Interpretation’s a funny thing. True silence, on the other hand, isn’t.

    1. 😀 Sometimes saying it loud and gesticulating wildly doesn’t get the desired result as you have ably demonstrated, Tom….true silence: now that has got me thinking. I once went to learn how to do transcendental meditation; they insisted you do not need outer silence to attain inner silence. You just turned your consciousness inside. Hmmmm.

  5. Depends what one is funking from whether Taize is a funk hole or not. A place to remember. It would seem that you and the young Pole came from different worlds, but found a place to meet anyway.

  6. During the 2006 World Cup my friend, beered up and in fine voice engaged in a spot of “hands across the water” football with some locals in Hamburg. “On me head Fritz” was his cry. “Achtung!” was given an airing too. He was clattered by one of the German lads and ended up in a puddle (A variant on your funk hole perhaps). You are right Kate, ambasaddorial football fans are an oxymoron.

    The Carmelites did for me I’m afraid! Oh to be a lapsed Catholic….

    1. 😀 I’ve heard many Jesuit casualties but not many Carmelites….makes me wonder if there are any Benedictine pupils out there with a perspective!

      Your football story gave me the biggest grin I’ve had in a week.

  7. Sometimes, I’m embarrassed by my fellow Brits. A person I know who has a foreign home refuses to learn the host language because ‘Why should I?’

    1. Amazing, isn’t it, Tilly? A new language is an adventure to some and a threat to others. Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a go, but I’m rubbish at it. Always rises a smile, though.

  8. Oh, Kate, we have a Taize service at our church a few times a month. I’ve only gone once and it didn’t quite do “it” for me, but I would like to try another church’s rendition. I know now, however, that I will be thinking of hiding in a funk should I ever return. That, and having a Mars bar. I’m so mature, aren’t I?

    1. I shall picture you, Penny, under a pew somewhere near the back with your Mars Bar, the next time I am singing a Taize chant. How I shall ever keep a straight face I have no idea.

  9. Getting to know folks while speaking different languages is a fun challenge most of the time. I spent 10 days in a small town outside of Frankfurt many years ago and stayed in a local hotel. Each morning I would greet folks from Germany, Poland, etc around the breakfast buffet tables. We would sit together and not understand one another other than to gesture and smile and maybe show a photo of what our plans were for the day. In the evening, there was a combination bar and TV room in the lower level where folks would congregate, imbibe and try to understand one another. After a few days and after a few beers, of course, the understanding became a bit easier. I think back about that trip with very fond memories, not the least of which was getting to “know” folks without ever really understanding a great deal of what was being said to one another.

  10. Ah Taizé – silence punctuated by wonderful musical chants embracing all the world’s languages – Babel reversed! Never been there, but some of the brothers have made it to this far flung corner of the map. Looking forward to attending a Taizé service tomorrow night.

  11. Oh Kate, I dread to think that someone stumped you with a word! I always learn so many things from reading your posts. Oddly, last night we went to a new restaurant, the Tuck Shop so when I came across the same term in your post today, I had to hurry out to ensure that I knew the meaning. Today I shall say it a bit more loudly!

    1. Indeed: if you read Enid Blyton you will hear a lot about tuck shops: they are places to buy snacks in an otherwise formal institution, for example a school. We love tuck shops here in the UK 😀

  12. Forgive me, Kate. I don’t mean to be embarrassingly over-dramatic here, but I started getting oddly emotional about halfway through this. Now I’m sitting here in tears. You already know I’m a bit crazy…but wow…I hear you…

    Again, sorry. I know that’s a bit out of context…

    1. Not at all, Brett 🙂 These things hit us when we least expect them to. Grab a tissue and have a good noisy noseblow. Hope they were good positive cleansing tears…

    2. On second thought, that was just awkward. I should have written something clever and surface level. Who am I kidding? I should leave you to your more refined guests…again, sorry…

  13. Taize………..when life gets too quiet for me, I talk to myself to hear a person speaking………..I don’t suppose that would be allowed there, would it? We have an order of monks near here (http://mepkinabbey.org/wordpress/), and Cooper’s mom actually did a retreat like you describe at Mepkin. She spent a lot of the no-talking time wandering the gardens by herself, and she still speaks of the experience almost a decade later. Maybe an experience like that is an antidote to the funk holes of life.

    1. There you go again, you Charlestonians, finding the conclusion which eluded me this morning. There must be something in the air over there, Andra 🙂 On my way over to yours: apologies for the long gap, school absorbed everything there for a little while.

  14. When I read your title, I assumed you were in a “funk” and retreating from the world as a result of having had “too much” for the time being.

    Instead, your “funk hole” sounds like our “fox hole.”

  15. I miss hearing the silence. I’ve never heard about Taizé until now, at least not specifically as a place or group that existed, but more as a rumor… It’s clearly to my loss. Just as not knowing how people use language often comes to loss on both our sides. As SidevieW noted, misunderstandings happen this way. And more dramatically, but no less true, wars happen this way.

    I loved this piece. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  16. At least the word was actually translatable. There are some English words which are almost impossible to define in Afrikaans, and vice versa. One can only achieve an approximation. One has to live with the thing or situation described in order to understand it.

  17. Brilliant. When I lived on the Turkish coast there were frequent British visitors of the varieties you mention – the locals wised up quickly after the initial invasion and I remember about a minibus driver who understand perfectly what two girls were saying about where they wanted to go and let them shout louder and louder for a couple of minutes before releasing them!

  18. Dear Kate, . . . Taize appeals to me, but then I live alone and spend much of my time in silence. Yet I know that my 2002 home is not the same as a place where monks and/or nuns and/or sincere beings have prayed for centuries or decades. There is a holiness that is tangible in such a place. It is the peace centered within that is shared.

    Today on Penny’s “Life on the cutoff’s” blog, she responded to your comment by saying that the day is not complete without her reading your blog posting. In the past month, I’ve missed many of your thought-provoking postings. So I’m resolving that beginning May 1, I’m going to read you before going to bed each night. I’ll have a wonderful topic to dream on.

    The reason I say May 1 is that I must take off the month of April from blogging. I’m going to preschedule eight posts from when I first began blogging, but I won’t be at a computer to read and comment on your blog or any others. I regret that, but needs must.

    Have a lovely April, Kate. Peace.

    1. You too, Dee: and remember that your visits are always valued but never compulsory! When I see you it’s a breath of fresh air: when you’re not here I know life is claiming you, and that is as it should be. Peace to you too, and thank you for that blog of yours, which teaches me so much.Happy April.

  19. I have never been to Taize, but know people who have visited, and I wish I had had the chance to go. I’m blessed to be able to say that I often have the chance to work in silence. I love it!

  20. I love the image thrown up by “And we sat there in the dark balmy open air with the glow worms lighting the hedgerows, talking different languages together.” 🙂
    Language can be so wonderful and so frustrating at the same time. I find that often speakers of other languages sometimes express something about a situation more accurately in broken English than we can with our “superior” command of it, often with hilarious results – and laughter is the very best common language

  21. I’ve been to many a Taize service at our church. I knew of a French origin, but nothing more. I have also participated in a few “quiet retreats”–but never when I was very young. I’m sure that the silence would have been too much for me then, and I would also have found a way to escape. You have shared a lovely memory, Kate. I think that it is possible to find a common language, with or without words–you’ve proven that 🙂 Debra

    1. Ah, you would have been scooting down to the French pub with me, Debra, admiring the glow worms in the hedgerows…they did the most excellent frites there..

  22. I enjoy silence, too – both in retreat form and by simply staying in my wee house with nary a radio or tv playing. I’m delighted to know so many young people partake of the discipline offed by this retreat.

    I have cds of Taize chants which I thoroughly enjoy – was it these Monks who originated the chants?

    One of our islanders, a retired Bishop, one ordained in the Church of England, used to insist upon traditional music for the parish. He loathed Taize so while he was around our Taize services stopped. He died a couple of years ago, but the parish now has a rector from the Lutheran faith so I listen to my cds in the acoustical chamber called home.

    1. Yes, Amy: the chants were designed to underpin meditation. Very beautiful, they never helped me meditate because I’m a musician, and I was forever analysing or getting caught up in the aesthetic beauty of the music. I sound Lutheran 😀 Churchmen have so often surrounded themselves with aesthetic beauty, mistaking it for the distilled reality at our core. Same with cathedrals; or Bach and his chorales. But the chants are beautiful and addictive- I ‘m off to play one this morning, coincidentally 🙂

  23. Like Eden, I’d not heard of Taize’ and, as I generally do after reading your posts, I commenced Googling and landed here: http://www.last.fm/listen/artist/Taiz%25C3%25A9/similarartists One could not possibly be in any kind of funk after spending a bit of time listening to these (if something doesn’t appeal, just click to the next track).

    I’ve never minded being alone, probably because I seldom have experienced much of it–growing up in smallish houses with five younger siblings, raising two boys, working in offices with multiple co-workers at arm’s length and now, in retirement, living with a sibling yet again; so, time alone is often spent in silence, but now I may choose an occasional background chant. Thank you.

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