"It's in Esperanto," he said, "but you should be able to figure it out."
Here's what it said: "Post 32 jaroj en Sanfrancisko, NASK ekmigras! En 2002, la kursaron gastigos mondfama interkultura altlernejo, The School for International Training, en nordorienta Usono. Kune kun la profesiuloj de la lernejo, niaj instruistoj evoluigas novan kaj entuziasmigan studprogramon kiu emfazas la uzadon de Esperanto por interkultura komunikado kaj kunlaboro."
Quick translation: San Francisco will no longer be the official home for the world's leading course in Esperanto, a title the city has claimed for over 30 years. Now it'll be in Vermont.
Is this important? Does this matter? Is there now an East Coast-West Coast Esperanto rivalry? Is there a national Esperanto crisis?
Alas, nothing is a crisis when it comes to Esperanto, our last, best hope for international understanding. You laugh? Pick up a newspaper -- how's your concept of global diplomacy working out?
Joel Brozovsky, the Maytag repairman of international philology, goes about his business informally; he walks around the offices of the Esperanto League for North America in his socks, and he has oceans of time to discuss what he does. His job is to manage the ELNA office in Emeryville -- sorting through the mail, ordering books, answering the phone, and generally making sure the Esperanto machine keeps on running. A bumper sticker behind his desk reads, "No, Virginia, English Isn't the World's Only Language." Tall shelves are filled with hundreds of books and pamphlets; in a corner, under a healthy veneer of dust, is a cardboard box of cassettes of Esperanto music, including Esperanto Subgrunde, a thrash-rock compilation ("If you like this style of noise, you'll enjoy it in Esperanto," says ELNA's latest catalog). Brozovsky is free to interrupt the interview should the phone ring and some pressing matter arise. Over the course of two hours, this never becomes an issue.
"I feel like we should be doing a lot more," says Brozovsky. "We don't have a lot of active volunteers." This is ELNA's 50th anniversary, but there's not much cause for celebration. Esperanto has gotten a bit of a bad rap in recent years, either being described as an almost cultlike affiliation of peaceniks and grammarians, or just mocked for its occasional appearances in pop culture, such as Incubus, a 1965 Z-grade horror flick with Esperanto dialogue, starring an up-and-coming Canadian thespian named William Shatner. Brozovsky politely gripes about a recent NPR segment on the movement. "They were poking fun at us, saying there are more people who speak Klingon than Esperanto. Not so."
It's been 115 years since a Polish eye doctor named L.L. Zamenhof devised a language with phonetic pronunciations, a logical Latin-based vocabulary, and no irregular verbs. Though the best estimates suggest that about 2 million people globally speak Esperanto, it never fulfilled Zamenhof's dream of becoming the world's official second language and a linchpin of international understanding. In the U.S. it has hardly picked up traction at all; about 10,000 Americans speak the language, Brozovsky figures, and though he claims the Bay Area is one of the strongest Esperanto centers in the country, the San Francisco chapter boasts all of 75 dues-paying members. "There are more than 10,000 people who've taken a course [online], but they haven't necessarily finished it," he says with a laugh.
It's not for lack of trying. Hell, the Esperantists make it easy for you. Just call the free -- free -- phone number (1-800-ESPERANTO) and they'll send a free -- free -- catalog. You can also sign up for a free -- free -- 10-lesson online course (esperanto-usa.org) with a private tutor.
The relative lack of interest has spawned some heated debate about what, exactly, Esperanto is supposed to be doing. "The idea was to make it the second language," says Brozovsky, who speaks Esperanto about half the time. "That goal hasn't disappeared." But the main discussion in the post-Sept. 11 world is about how to stress the point that Esperanto isn't just a nifty little utopian concept but a diplomatic necessity.
"After Sept. 11, a lot was written about Esperanto and terrorism," says Brozovsky. "When somebody blows himself up, he's trying to say something, and he's blowing himself up because he doesn't feel like he's being heard and understood. The U.S. needs to be more willing to listen, and people in the U.S. need to be more understanding. Esperanto can be useful for that."
It's not that Brozovsky's being naive; it's just that traveling around the world talking to people you wouldn't otherwise be able to speak to will change your perspective. Learning Esperanto as a teenager in Spokane, Wash., he was sold on the language's rosy-glassed idealism. "If I was going to travel, for me to want them to learn my language -- that's not fair. With Esperanto, we can connect in the middle."
Alas, there weren't too many people connecting at a rare event of Esperanto outreach. Two weeks ago, San Francisco's Esperanto group held a "public information meeting" at the Stonestown Borders bookstore, setting up chairs and showing Esperanto training videos near the children's section. About 20 people showed up -- nearly all experienced Esperantists -- as toddlers sped around and paged through Harry Potter books. Which, by the way, are not available in Esperanto. "It's hard to get rights for books like that," Brozovsky laments. "Nobody sees any commercial value in it."
Holding court in a local Borders -- or trying to -- is a far cry from the celebrated three-week immersion courses that used to be held in San Francisco every summer. Launched in 1970 at San Francisco State, the classes were organized and initially taught by William Auld, a Scotsman best known for translating J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books (La Kunularo De L'Ringo; Tolkien was a fan of the language). Even if the classes attracted few locals, they gained an international reputation among Esperantists as the place to learn the language, drawing about 60 students a year from Asia, Africa, and Europe. The move from San Francisco to Brattleboro, Vt., at the School for International Training, was mainly a practical matter. S.F. State's switch to a year-round curriculum meant the school had no break in its schedule that could be filled with more informal courses like Esperanto. "They could not guarantee housing in the future," says Ellen Eddy, who coordinates the courses for ELNA. "Housing students together is a big part of our program."
"It's a disappointment," says Brozovsky. "It was kind of a highlight of the year. We had picnics, a trip to Mount Tam. But I don't think it'll have a big impact."
Except, he notes, that ELNA won't be able to show off its comprehensive collection of Esperanto books, which now sit in the office waiting for somebody to call and order them. Much of the Esperanto library is public-domain works -- religious and philosophy tomes, poetry, the works of Shakespeare. Don Harlow, a volunteer at the ELNA office, is working on a translation of Tarzan of the Apes, which he'll have done, oh, whenever. "In Esperantoland, you work on what you like," Harlow says. "It's very ad hoc."
But there are plenty of other finished translations for sale, should anybody care to ask for them. Brozovsky reaches up to get a yellowing translation of the Koran -- La Nobla Korano -- and sets the 665-page tome on a table. A bit of dust kicks into the air. When the book is opened, the cover and spine snap off from the binding.
"It's hard for us to get good quality," says Harlow.