Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Memorially Different

One of the effects of being an expatriate is perspective on how certain occasions are marked and celebrated.  A good example is Memorial Day, however it is called.  Universally, it is intended to remember the soldiers, sailors and pilots that died for the country.  In practice, it is marked by distinctly different customs.

In Israel, the date of remembrance of fallen soldiers is symbolically the day before Independence Day. It is clearly a day of mourning with all the incumbent symbols.  People visit cemeteries where ceremonies are conducted. Starting from eve before, the name of each fallen warrior is recited as well as his/her date of death.  The TV broadcasts programs about various brave young men and women that gave their lives for their country.  The radio plays “quiet” (and beautiful) music. There is a siren and moment of standing silence on the eve and in the morning of the Israeli Remembrance Day.  Then, rather peculiarly or maybe poetically, as the end of the day approaches, the TV broadcasts the exchanging of the flags at the Knesset (annual changing of the guards from military unit to military unit). At the end of this ceremony, there are suddenly fireworks: Independence Day has begun.  Everybody can be happy now.  Of course, for some, that is not such an easy task, but Israel, in following its Jewish roots, imposes joy as an antidote for endless mourning.  Israeli Remembrance Day is truly a day of remembering.

By contrast, in most of the United States, it mainly marks the beginning of the summer. In military towns in the United States, such as San Diego and Norfolk to name just two, Memorial Days is marked by official military ceremonies.  However, for most people, it is a long weekend.  (By law, it must fall on either a Friday or Monday, which says something about the United States).  People go on trips, to baseball games or shopping. People smile and laugh, but not necessarily from disrespect. The number of WWII vets is very small today.  The Korean conflict was more than 65 years ago.  Even the Vietnam War is already a distant time some 40 years ago.  Several thousand American soldiers have died in the latest batch of Middle Eastern operations but, alas, it only directly affects a small number of families.  My feeling that most of the United States has little sense of loss, leaving most Americans with the feeling that Memorial Day is a fun holiday.  Have a good time.

Lest you think that I find that entirely wrong, Israeli would be a happier, albeit different, place if there were no names to recite on Remembrance Day.  Yet, like a resident of any small town in Europe looking at the long list of fallen soldiers from World War I located in the corner of every church, it reinforces for me how terrible but sometimes necessary war can be.

I would be interested in hearing on how Memorial Days is marked in other countries.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

More Salad

My daughter’s first sentence was “I want more salad.” This begs the question of the actual contents of the salad since every country has a different default definition for a salad. In other words, certain ingredients are used unless specified otherwise.  That choice is dictated by the land and history of the region to a certain degree.

In Israel, salad generally implies some mixture of tomatoes and cucumbers.  Not native to the region, the warm weather and advanced agricultural techniques guarantees a yearlong supply of them.  The actual proportion depends on the relative price of those two components; a heavy proportion of cucumbers hints that tomato prices are high at the moment. Personal choice affects the choice of any additional ingredients, such as peppers and onions, and dressing. With the internationalization of food, some restaurants call this “chopped salad.”  So generally you won’t get lettuce unless it is specified in the description.

By contrast, an American salad is generally lettuce, most often iceberg, with a few token tomatoes. To be fair, lettuce in the United States is generally inexpensive and of good quality.  For the eater, the typical dinner salad does present good volume, giving the impression of value for the money.  Impressions can be much important than reality.  I have to admit that I strongly prefer my “adopted” salad over that of my birthplace mainly because of taste.

The French, strangely enough, have no particular salad but instead local specialties.  In small cafés, les crudités (a plate of raw vegetables, not foul language) is often served. Nicer restaurants may offer slices of tomatoes with mozzarella cheese.  In the south of France, a salade Niçoise, containing lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, green beans and tuna, is available everywhere.  As is the French tendency, why make it simple if you can make more it fancy (and complicated)? 

In northern Europe, due to the cold weather, cabbage is much more economical than lettuce.  There are countless cabbage dishes, coleslaw for example, served with meals.  Besides being hardier than lettuce, cabbage has much more taste, albeit a bit bitter.  The use of various dressings, such as mayonnaise and vinegar-based pickling, adds a variety to the cabbage experience.

In Asia, the norm is pickled salads.  China, Japan and Korea all suffer from a lack of agricultural land relative to their population.  Also, China traditionally used “night soil” (human waste) as a fertilizer.  Thus, vegetables are generally good but expensive relative to income.  I have heard the Japanese market prices are quite “wild” from a Western perspective.  So, the salads come in small pickled dishes with choice vegetables.  Examples include Korean kimshee, Japanese pickled daikon and Chinese pickled vegetables.  These are smaller but much tastier than their Western equivalents.

So, a salad is what the land gives to the people in plenty.  I would like to hear about your local salad.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Language Interference

Immigrants all over the world suffer from it: they can no longer speak a pure sentence in their native tongue.  Over time, bits and pieces of the local language invade their speech until it becomes a hybrid language only understandable to their children and fellow immigrants, a personal “Creole.”
The first foreign element to sneak it is vocabulary, generally local (and important) institutions.  Please note the following phrases heard in various places in Israel:
Il n’avait pas au beit merkahat.  
Пошел в купат холим.  [Poshel v kupat holim]
I spent six months at the Mercaz Klita.
For the ignorant, the beit merkahat is a pharmacy; kupat holim is the medical clinic; and the Mercaz Klita is Absorption Center.

To be fair, this invasion goes both ways. Our native language forces itself into our version of the local language.  One of the classic mistakes by English-speakers in French, one that eludes a rather surprising response especially for females, is the literal translation of the term I am full into Je suis pleine.  The French reaction may be to look at the belly and say politely “congratulations” since that phrase in French means I am pregnant.

Surprisingly, not all of the pratfalls autocorrect over time.  I still, after 25 years, cannot always recall that the English expression I ate it (meaning I paid the price) is not אכלתי את זה  [achalit et ze] but instead אכלתי אותו  achalti oto].  So, immigrants continue to mangle their new language.

Moreover, applying roots from one language and grammar from the other language, immigrants create their perfectly logical (to them anyway) vocabulary.  My father loves his creation obviousment, made up of the English root obvious and the French adverb suffix (equivalent to the English “ly”) ment.  No such French word exists in Le Petit Robert, affectionately known as “Little Bob” but actually a French dictionary, but who cares? We understand him.

All this give and take means that over time immigrants create their own personal language, fully understandable to a select few.  The process is called language interference but I would prefer to label it cross pollination since the result is a magical and unique.  On exhibit, I present one of my mother’s classic sentences to her mother, containing no less than three languages in no more than five words: pick up a bissel pain – or for those who don’t understand this Creole (English, Yiddish and French, respectively), pick up some bread. Now that is a thing of beauty!