I don’t think it’s always necessary to understand things to find them beautiful. When I was at high school, my best friend was Miriam and her mother was Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch, not a word of it, but I remember being in the kitchen at Miriam’s house and her mother was on the phone. I couldn’t make out a thing Miriam’s mother was saying but I was so struck by how beautiful it sounded, I had to sit down. She might have been talking about tax accounting or the correct way to stuff an antelope, I wouldn’t have known, I wouldn’t have cared. It was amazing.
And, as much as I haven’t been to the opera in years, I don’t think I know anyone who can get through Madame Butterfly without tears. You can hear the heartbreak without understanding the words.
Once, on the way back from Hertfordshire with my uncles, we stopped off at Fleet services, and my uncle Jeremy, who was visiting from Canada and was, therefore, not worried about upsetting anyone (Canadians don’t upset people), asked a couple of young women where they were from. The women were speaking quietly, just to each other, but it was a stunning sound. Turned out, they were Norwegian. My mother, who was the polyglot of the family, was desperately disappointed in all of us for not recognising one of her languages. The rest of us don’t speak Norwegian, but we can get by in English.
There’s just something magical, almost musical about listening to something without understanding a word.