Polly Greeks’ Blog: Mother tongue

Polly uses her cunning tongue – one of the many languages taught in her household – to get her mum’s travel insurance paid out.

They say you can’t outsmart a fox, but you can at least play it at its game.

It was time to talk shrewdly. Being polite had failed. Getting angry had only raised my blood pressure.

My mother’s travel insurance company was duplicitous. On the phone, the help-desk people were courteous and respectful. But nothing ever happened. Not when I rang the first time, to report mum’s medical emergency in Barcelona; nor when I called the fifteenth time to ask what had happened to the full-cover assistance my mum had signed up for.

My official letter of complaint wasn’t even acknowledged. Finally an email said mum’s hospital fees in Spain would be covered; nothing else. With an escorted medical repatriation involved, it was a difference of around $12,000.

Google made it easy to learn who the CEO of the company was. I shared with him my experience of his employees and their unfathomable stalling. In the wily language of foxes, I communicated my inclination to publicly name his company, with its poor performance and appalling customer care.

He was as quick as a fox to respond. So too, was his Chief Operating Officer. The apologies seemed sincere but in the fox world, they just might have been astute and calculated. Either way, a decision was made at last to honour my mother’s insurance claim in full.

It was a hollow victory; all we’d gained was what my mother was actually entitled to.

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All the same, I’m adding ‘fox’ to the list of languages we’re teaching our children. Learning to think like a cunning and guileful antagonist is a useful skill for engaging with life’s sneakier participants. Deceit’s not an admirable trait but knowing how to recognise it and respond resourcefully is.

They say being multilingual benefits your brain.

Technically speaking, I grew up in a monolingual household and am the poorer for it. Learning the language of another culture gives insight into its way of seeing the world. As my husband James has studied Te Reo, I’ve loved hearing the way Māori concepts are put together to form different words. For example, the Māori word whakarongo means to listen. Rongoā translates as medicine. The implication, then, is to listen and sense what’s needed in order for healing to happen; especially in the context of a tohunga or healer working from the medicine chest of the ngahere or forest.

When I studied Spanish in South America, I swear my hips started to sway with the looser rhythm, and I was fascinated by the etymology of words when I spent two years learning school-girl Latin.

But while my parents didn’t raise me in foreign tongues, they passed on other languages all the same.

Writer Belden Lane says humanity’s part of a vast conversation involving all living beings, but we’re forgetting how to hear it. My father didn’t exactly teach me the wild song of the wind through forest-capped ridges, or the dialect of untamed rivers gliding like giant eels through remote stone gorges but he took me to those wilderness places and left me alone to listen. He demonstrated how to be at home in the natural world. I discovered for myself that the ‘great conversation’ is something you enter by paying attention.

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My mother taught me the language of observation. As a painter she asked from early on, how I’d recapture the landscapes that lay before me. What colour were the far-away ranges? What shape could I see in the crouching hills? Seeing detail is a way of connecting. She showed me colour was a lingo of expression. As a keen meditator, she trained me how to listen to silence.

This is a universal language that surrounds every word. It’s the backdrop behind each thought and action.

At ages five and eight, our children show little desire to enter this unspoken discourse. Words tumble from them incessantly. What they do know, however, is the rough touch of tree-bark against their skin as they perch high up on a bough, the call of kiwi-birds on our night lawn and the songs of the sweet, pure streams that they drink from. Constant exposure to the natural world means they’re at ease within its conversation. But there’s another language my kids also show a proclivity for.

When they’re busy denying knowledge of broken things and feigning astonishment at the emptied raisin jar; and accusing one another of starting the latest disagreement, it occurs to me they’re already naturals in the cunning language of the fox.


Polly Greeks’ Blog: Lost in translation

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