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Radtke: All Mixed Up

I just love hearing the music of unfamiliar languages. On the Megabus to Manhattan recently, my seatmate was singing in Russian to her baby, and behind me two students were chattering away in Japanese. It made me smile, to realize that Vermont is beginning to reap the richness of all the cultures which make up this amazing quilt that is American life.

I wish I could take a pill and be able to speak with everyone, to enjoy the sound of many languages and to appreciate how varied are the ways of expressing ourselves. As many of us do, I muster a few polite expressions and make do with a smile. Travel has helped some, but, no longer having the teenaged brain for learning languages, I envy those polyglots among us.

In Burlington schools, you can see signs in Bosnian, Somalian, Laotian, and English. I’m jealous. I wonder if native English-speakers know how fortunate they are to grow up with a world of different cultures right in their home town. When I moved to Vermont, even Chinese and Mexican restaurants were scarce. Thai and Indian cuisine were unknown. Music, holidays, food, and the chance to share cultures have enriched all our lives immeasurably.

At a Pete Seeger tribute concert last month, I heard Robert De Cormier’s new arrangement of “All Mixed Up,” Seeger’s calypso number from a half a century ago. The lyrics go something like this, “You know this language that we speak is part German, part Greek, with some Latin and Arabic all in a heap, well amended by the people in the street - I think that this whole world, soon, mama, my whole wide world, soon gonna be all mixed up. Take a tip from La Belle France: vive la difference!"

It pleases me to think that Ol’ Pete’s prophecy is coming to pass even in rural Vermont, in our schools, neighborhoods and businesses. And I think it’s a good thing – even if not everyone appreciates this thrill of diversity. I was out with an acquaintance the other day, when we heard a family conversing in some unfamiliar Asian language. I began to smile and open up my ears without seeming to eavesdrop. The cadences provided the audio equivalent, to me, of a tasty foreign dish. And then my companion grumbled audibly, “They’re in America. They should speak English.” It made me sad to realize my friend and I actually live in different worlds.

During my trips to New York, I appreciate hearing five languages in one subway car and I welcome the arrival of that same richness right here in Vermont. While I might covet a more exotic name like Mandalit del Barco or Sylvia Poggioli, I can at least savor the spice added to my white-bread station in life by those who now make their home here. And maybe our newest Vermonters get a thrill, as well, from snow in April, maple syrup and the sound of an old time Vermont accent.

Linda Radtke, the host of the Vermont Public Choral Hour, has spent many happy hours through the years in the Vermont Public studio, singing with Counterpoint and other choral ensembles, volunteering for pledge drives, and recording for the commentary series.
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