Monday, April 13, 2015

in tablino scribo...

...I think that's correct. It's been a while.

I made a really nice score on eBay last week. I finally found the last book to round out my collection of the Cambridge Latin Course, 3rd North American edition. Are you yawning? Let me explain.

Back when I was in grade 10, I bailed out of a German course I'd signed up for because two guys who were terrorizing me were also in it. I took refuge in my high school's Latin course instead. I quickly fell in love with it. I still drift back to that class in daydreams sometimes.

The text of the course was the aforementioned Cambridge Latin Course. In our case, it was little folders with slim paperback units that had been around since the mid-70s and by the early 80s were well-worn and lived in. My school was semestered so we only really had five months to work on the stuff. But we did get through the whole first unit.

The first unit concerns itself with a banker named Lucius Caecilius Iucundus in Pompeii. There really was such a man; his home has been excavated. The unit introduces the basics of the Latin present tense by telling stories about the household and friends... names I still remember. Metella, his wife. Quintus, his son. Cerberus the dog. The slaves Clemens and Grumio, the latter being the cook. A freedman named Felix, formerly a slave who saved infant Quintus's life. Perhaps not surprisingly, the unit ends with the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, at which point Caecilius dies, but not before giving Clemens his signet ring and one final command: to find his son Quintus and give him the ring. We managed to start the second unit, In Britannia, in which Clemens does find Quintus in the Roman province of Britain. Naturally, as English-speakers, it was interesting to us to have Roman stories set in the home of our own language. But we didn't get far into it before the year was up. I changed high schools that summer and was stunned and deeply disappointed to discover my new school had no Latin course... that in 1980s Ontario, such courses were scarce as hen's teeth. As Caecilius would have said, "Eheu."

Can I explain that I came to think of these long dead, fictionalized people as my friends? That I looked forward to working hard to discovering more about them? I started collecting the books back in 2008, snagging them used here and there when the price was right. Last week, I finally found the fourth and last book (there are five in Britain but here in North America they merged units 2 and 3, for whatever reason). The books tell the stories in Latin, but give glosses and explanations and histories in English. Even though I've never really sat down to push on... and maybe I should... I've cherished them, the same way I would a long-lost family history. It was a moment in my life, my youth. I remember the day I transferred into the class, about two weeks after everyone else, and I was asked to read out loud. I remember pronouncing Caecilius as "se-SIL-lee-us", only to be gently corrected to "ky-KEE-lee-us". I remember the songs that were big at the time that became the music of the course for me... UB40's Red, Red Wine (which I nicknamed "the Caecilius song") and Peace Train by Cat Stevens, which was enjoying an extended renaissance at the time. Both those songs have kind of a longing quality to them and make me think of standing at the side of sad, long-forgotten Roman roads. Like I arrived too late for the party. Bittersweet. Hard to explain.

The course is still going strong. In fact, you can take the first two parts of unit 1 for free online. I'm tempted to sign up for the course so I'm kind of forced to crack the books. Pick it up where I left off. Yeah, I know; what am I going to do with Latin? Well... talk to Caecilius, I guess. :)

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