Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hailing to the Past

In Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future Shock, he discussed the ever-increasing pace of changes over a person’s lifetime in the last two hundred years and its effect on people and society.  For example, my grandmother, born at the beginning of the 20th century, found modern life quite confusing even if she did somehow cope with it.

Watching people around me with their omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent smartphones, I started to recall the world of communication when I was growing, taking into account that I am 50+ years old.  I by no means imply that my childhood was the good old days of communication, but only how different life was some 40 years ago.
All phones were line phones, literally.  You had to sit next to the phone, no moving around.  In some countries, like Israel, customers had to wait two or more years to even get a line.  If news was urgent, generally deaths, people actually send telegrams.  The classic Yves Montand routine about the romanticism of the latter has aged well:

Outside the house, options were limited.  In the United States, local phone calls were 10 cents (as were candy bars for matter) if you were lucky to find a working phone booth.  In Israel and some European countries, they had special coins, called assimonim in Israel and jetons in France.  People used to walk around with pocketfuls of them in their pocket or purse for emergencies.  They were also considered less susceptible to inflation, making them a good investment.  Otherwise, husbands did their grocery shopping literally alone and made their own decisions, without checking with their spouses, believe it or not.  People talked in the beginning of the day, informing each other of their plans and actually waited until the evening before discussing the day’s events.  Women went to the bathroom to powder their nose (not really), not to discuss the date on the telephone. People talking out lout to themselves in the streets were considered abnormal, not normal.

There is an old Israeli joke: Why do Israelis ejaculate so quickly?  So, they can run and tell and friends.  Today, you don’t even have to run.  It is completely irrelevant whether today’s world is better or worse.  These changes over time, like differences in culture, are neither good nor bad, but merely different and food for thought.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Ecstasy of Used Book Stores or Vintage Dust

The age of the Internet has brought countless benefits, including almost instant access to facts and efficient comparison shopping, to name a few.  Alas, change does have its price.  I fear that due to the Internet, the classic used book store with its sights and smells will disappear, as did manual typewriter.

As a bookworm from a family of bookworms, I have always preferred a used book store to a library.  There is a sense of adventure that the Dewey decimal system used by public libraries seems to destroy.  Also, a treasure found there is by definition a shared one, not a private one as when you find that special book buried under 18 other books in a dusty stack in the back of the store.  Only you had the patience and perseverance to remove those other books to find that pearl of a volume, however you wish to define that.

American used book bookstores, especially in college towns, tend to be colored by the national insistence of order and profit making.  The shelves are arranged nicely in alphabetical order by writer in sections having some internal logic.  This desire to facilitate the buying experience has been taken even farther by modern used book stores, such as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon (where I worked), where coffee and pastry are available to render your decision making process even more pleasant.  That the customers are being manipulated to buy books does not make the purchase of books any less desirable, of course.

By contrast, the used book stores in Paris represent the polar opposite. The vast majority are small shops.  Any shelves that may have been installed are hidden by random piles of dust-covered books.   The organization and price seem to be random, with books on widely varying topics lying on top of each other marked by arbitrary prices for better or worse.  Some stores claim to have a specialty, such as modern art or the Far East, in which case the seller might actually know which books s/he has.  Most are manned by passive looking people who seem to be there more because they don’t want to sit around the house than for any desire to make money.  Your decision to buy or just look does not seem to affect their mood at all.  This complete lack of commercial pushiness renders the search through Paris for first-edition Simenon novels all the more pleasurable.

I regret the future disappearance of this passion, which will go the way of letter writing and flower pressing.  In the meantime, I plan to partake of this pleasure when I have the rare luxury of taking an endless walk for no purpose other than to discover what magic book is buried deep in a pile of dust.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Transatlantic Differences – A Simplified Guide

Out of sight, out of Ear, as the saying might go.  Despite sharing a common language, American and British English sound distinctive from each other.  To be fair, each of the regional variances in these countries also has a unique quality, but that does not change the truth.  In terms of speech, over time, Yankees and Limies learn to understand each other quite well (maybe with the help of a local interpreter).  In terms of writing, writers must take into account the differences between the US and UK in composing texts.

The first aspect to come to mind is spelling.  The actual differences are minor but nevertheless noticeable.  The American ize is written with an ise in England, as in rationalize/rationalise and capitalize/capitalise.  The English add the letter u in the middle of the or combination, creating honour and flavour.  Finally, Americans insist on double letters in certain words while the British are satisfied with only one, as in fulfill/fulfil and enroll/enroll.  There are many others, such as center/centre, but these words remain highly recognizable to people from both sides of the Atlantic.

In terms of vocabulary, there is a long list of items that have been given different words in the two dominant forms of English.  Some are specific to the country. For example, a bonnet, lorry, flat, and sweets in London are a car hood, truck, apartment, and dessert in Washington D.C.  Specific fields, such as accounting, have quite a long list of differences. Trickier, some words used by both sides have different meanings.  The classic example is when a Yorker eats chips and crisps, a New Yorker is consuming fries and chips.  Slang is by definition local, even within a country.

For the writer, a more important difference is the accepted writing styles.  American paragraph writing emphasizes a very strong topic sentence, the first sentence in a paragraph, declaring the topic and subtopics to be discussed, with a general summary sentence at the end.  By contrast, British paragraphs often begin with a vague opening statement but end in a thorough restatement.  Also, American usage allows a comma (,) before the words and and or in a series of items, but British usage does not require it as in blood, sweat and tears.

Writers need to be aware of these differences.  However, in terms of actual difficulty, they are a drop in the bucket as compared to the overall challenge of writing good English even for a native speaker.  So, as the French say, vive la difference!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Soul Food for a Split Soul

Every country has serious debates on what constitutes the national dish that makes it unique.  This debate is often fruitless (pun intended) because foods tend to ignore artificial political borders, as the case of baklava, and represents different groups in that society, such as grits in the United States.  Perhaps, a simpler definition of a national food, a soul food in a certain sense of the word, is the dish you have to eat after spending a year away from your homeland.  It does not have to be fancy, but has to have the unique “national” taste that you can only find at home. Having a schizophrenic identity, American, French, and Israeli, and a love of tasty food, I can offer my perspective of what each of those countries offers in terms of unique taste. 

When I visit the States, I insist on at least one meal of barbeque baby back ribs.  I also thoroughly enjoy a good steak (although I hear that Argentina has better meat).  Two other items I like are good pancakes and a thoroughly American Taco-Bell taco (any connection to Mexico is completely accidental).

France for me has to include some paté de champagne on a good baguette as well as some moules marinieres at the Côte Azur.  My sweettooth (a wonderful word, in common with bookkeeper, having three consecutive sets of double letters), is satisfied by a petit pain au chocolat, the quality of which has unfortunately significantly declined in the last decade, and a crêpe au Grand Marnier, my only childhood special dessert still as tasty now as it was then.

Israel, my home, greets me with a plate of good humus with tehina and olive oil, eaten by dipping with fresh pita , accompanied by a good sehug, a spicy accoutrement made from hot green or red peppers.  For something slightly more elegant, I enjoy a grilled musht, Saint Peter’s Fish, served with salad and some fries, enhanced by the view of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, at least in the spring and fall.  A more recent acquired taste is grilled eggplant with tahina, a simple but perfectly balanced pleasure.  For desert, the ideal light Israel desert in the summer is sweet watermelon accompanied by pieces of salty Zefat cheese, a wonderful combination.

For me, these are my national foods.  It makes no difference what their country of origin is.  The essential is that they represent the taste of home.  I don’t expect total agreement with my opinions, but am interested in hearing other thoughts on the subject.