We all get talked about – it’s a key part of how society ticks. Whether musings are amongst friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, once in a while one’s name crops up. It is rare to discover what exactly is said but, over the years, comments about me, for example, have ranged from tittle-tattle, to matters-of-fact, to observations that have mystified, amused, undermined and sometimes hurt.  

This blog is about something said that I found both amusing and touching and which also revealed a wonderfully endearing combination of the speaker’s warmth and innocence. The comment was made by Luka (see illustration) a ten-year-old boy who was overheard describing me as a friend – the actual word he used making all the difference.

Before I go further I need to consider how we use words to describe friends. It is, after all, on this terminology that the blog hinges. In English there are dozens of words that are used in this context, from pal, mate, crony, buddy, dude, chum, sidekick, to comrade, acquaintance, colleague and companion. The problem is that using a dictionary to find differences between them rarely helps – all are synonyms for just ‘friend’. And even with the word ‘friend’ there are limitations so we are obliged to add adjectives that clarify;  ‘close’, ‘best’, ‘intimate’, ‘childhood’, ‘old’, ‘girl’, ‘boy’ etc. The new words for ‘best friend’ – ‘bestie’ or ‘bessie ’ – at least pin point the relationship.

In French the situation is similar and again to find out what is being said one has to rely more on context and usage than on any dictionary. Interestingly, classical Arabic has the luxury of specific words for each of twelve levels of friendship from ‘zameel’, a nodding acquaintance, to ‘qareen’, an inseparable friend. But I digress.

Turning again to Luka who is the grandson of Annie, a friend who lives near our home in Brittany. For years Luka has gone to Annie’s house after school to be collected by his parents an hour or two later. Because of the timing, Luka has always been at the table or nearby whenever Annie, Rohan and I have had afternoon tea together.

Luka is more taciturn than talkative, once even described as a contemplative dreamer. He collects fossils, goes fishing with his father, and one day wants to be a scientist. With me he asks thoughtful questions, makes observations and listens carefully. At the moment his favourite hobby is chess and recently with his primary school team, he become the area chess champion for his age.

After months of negotiation we found a date to play chess together. I suggested we might play the Fischer Random (Chess960) version, a newly developed approach that avoids players having to use the classical chess openings. It is a great ‘leveller’ making players of different standards more equal. Luka agreed and I happened to win, but it was immediately clear to me that he is a very gifted player. He seems to have an innate understanding of the principles of the game and its subtle intricacies. It was a pleasure to take him on.

When he left we arranged to play again and in the meantime he has played chess with his friends. Following our game he introduced them to the Fischer Random model and on several occasions Annie overheard him explaining to his opponents how he had learned the new game from “Mon pote Joe” (My mate Joe)

By usage, the word ‘pote’, when used amongst boys, would normally mean a close friend of one’s own age. The fact that he should chose to use it to refer to me, a man eight times his age and from abroad, was very warming. I am very well aware of the barriers between the young and the old,  and have wondered how they might be bridged. For Luka, ageism either had no meaning or was brushed aside as he made his warming statement. When the story has been told to our adult French friends most of them laugh – seeing Luka’s position as amusing, endearing and possibly naive. For my part, I feel honoured and lucky. That I might have dismantled the age barrier has given me a real fillip.

The Illustration shows Luka playing chess. The pieces on the top row are laid out according to one of the starting positions suggested when using the ‘Fischer-Random’ rules. I play chess most weeks and now rarely play the traditional – classical – chess game.

For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Luka, Annie, Anis, Rohan and Vivien.

10 thoughts on “A Word that Made a Difference

  1. More wonderful memories being created Joe; Luca will never forget how his ‘mate’ Joe gave his time, thoughts and an early lesson in equality.


  2. Dear Joe,

    What a lovely column- I immediately felt the warmth between you and Luka- and I have learned a new word for my French conversation group. After you have long gone I’m sure Luka will remember you and the opening chess gambit you taught him!



    1. Dear Yeah, Thank you for your kind comment. I started asking the question of how to avoid being the victim of ageism over twenty years ago. The answer I came up with was – never stop challenging yourself and everyone else. With best wishes, Joe

      Liked by 1 person

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