getting back to business

I haven’t had much to say here for awhile, because until a couple of weeks ago, I had all but abandoned my various language pursuits. My French has been withering on the vine for two years, since I left the full-time job that had me both speaking French frequently with West African colleagues and taking weeks-long trips to francophone countries every few months. My Hebrew reached its peak in Israel last year, only to fall off a steep cliff when I abandoned my practice of it promptly upon my return to the States. As for Spanish, I’ve pretty much spoken twenty minutes of it in the past half-decade. I spent a few days in Lima for work last year and attempted to communicate in Spanish at one point and one point only. It became quickly apparent that the language had curled up and hidden away somewhere in my brain. (At least that’s my belief about what happens to language skills upon disuse; I never think languages are lost, just burrowed far from consciousness.)

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it will be mine, oh yes, it will be mine. (one day)

It continually blows my mind that you can buy literal chateaux in France for under a million dollars, extremely stunning four hundred year-old apartments for under $200,000, and sun-drenched townhouses that haven’t been renovated in generations for under $50,000. [The baroque apartment above, in Nimes, is 350,000 Euros for God’s sake.] Sometimes I scroll through French property sites and take a little flight of fancy, pretending I might put in an offer on some gem of a place, or more likely some diamond-in-the-rough, in the South of France. It’s very enjoyable, except when I find a place that looks absolutely perfect for me — as in, “this is my home” — and realize it won’t actually be mine, and then it’s kind of painful.

Even restricting my search to properties under 350,000 Euros (which makes it feel more realistic, even though it is not at all realistic), I found the most wondrous places tonight. I’ll start with one of my favorites but leave the best for last:

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My trip to Israel was timed to coincide with two of my four cousins’ return to the country for Passover. The eldest cousin, Nir, has lived in L.A. for seventeen or eighteen years (we overlapped during his first / my last year in the city, the only time I ever lived remotely close to any of the four). The youngest, Rachel, moved to Norway with her partner and two young children about a year ago.

Irit, the cousin who is closest in age to me, picked me up at the airport when I arrived in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks before Passover. We took the train to Zichron Ya’akov, the beautiful town near Haifa where she lives with her husband and two kids. I had never met her kids — my first cousins once removed — in person, even though they are already a teenager and a tween, respectively. It was really nice to finally spend time with them. I got ice cream in the old town with Ella and I watched Almog play video games and learn to drive.

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a prologue to Israel

So… At the end of my last post, about my trip to Jordan, I wrote that I had to wrap things up quickly in order to “head off on my next adventure.” As I typed those words — while running fifteen minutes late to get out the door for the airport — my superstitious self thought twice. If I let those words hang in the digital air, would they jinx my first trip to Israel in fourteen years and somehow turn my coming adventure into a misadventure? Would they magically conspire to make me miss my plane, or get stuck in the country because of my passport issues (which reached new heights of ridiculousness this year), or prevent me from entering the country in the first place?

Turns out my paranoia was entirely misdirected. None of those things happened — though the hijinks of getting in and out of the country with an expired Israeli passport (during an interior ministry strike right before a major national holiday) were next level. What did happen was that I had to go to the E.R. in Haifa, I spent four days in the hospital there, and I had a semi-emergency operation, smack in the middle of my trip. It was not fun. But it was both mind and heart-expanding. Uncannily enough, my last night in Israel was the first night of Passover, and attending my family’s seder felt like a celebration not only of the ancient Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt but also of my own liberation from a health crisis that had been holding me hostage.

: a prologue to Israel Continue reading


I’ve been sitting on pictures of my trip to Jordan in October for months, because between the Omicron surge and the invasion of Ukraine, it felt obnoxious and tone deaf to post about a fun escape abroad. It still feels that way, to be honest, but a little less so in light of the fact that there’s no end in sight to either the pandemic or Putin’s inhumanity.

The reason I went on the trip in the first place was because of its good timing: I was in-between jobs, the pandemic seemed to be in-between surges, and my New York-based friend was in the middle of a short-term consultancy in Amman. I had hoped to go to Jordan and Israel in the same trip, ever since I found out that there is a daily 30-minute flight from Amman to Tel Aviv as well as a couple of easy land crossings. But COVID restrictions and passport difficulties made it impossible, unfortunately.

So, here are some highlights of Jordan, a truly breathtaking country.

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The Midwest and Appalachia

It feels a little anticlimactic to follow Italy with Indiana, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do. In July, I spent a week in central Pennsylvania sharing a cabin with high school friends and assorted kids. At the end of the week, they headed home, and I got in my dad’s car and drove in the opposite direction. I made my way back to NYC the (very) long way around, by way of Cleveland, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Louisville, Lexington, Charleston, Morgantown, Hagerstown, Gettysburg, and Philadelphia. In doing so, I satisfied an itch to move that had not been scratched in a year and a half, I resolved a few “gray” states into black and white, and I also got back on track with my relatively newfound pursuit to visit both as many states and as many countries / territories as my numerical age. The pandemic had screwed up my state count (I turned 41 having visited only 40 states), but after driving through three new ones in as many days — Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky — I am now safely back in the black: 43 states on the cusp of age 42.

Here are a few pictures:

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Italy: Santa Maddalena in the Dolomites

It’s ridiculous that it has taken me a year and a half to post these pictures, but then again, consider the year and a half it’s been. Or better yet, time travel back with me to simpler days, and consider the pre-pandemic bliss of a snowy stay in the Dolomites…

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make yourself at home!

This week I bought myself a lifetime, unlimited languages subscription to Rosetta Stone for the bargain basement price of $179. The only hard part of the decision was picking which language to dive into first. Since I am hoping to visit Israel soon, I ended up starting with Hebrew. I chose a learning plan at the intermediate level, optimized for those who feel compelled to learn for familial reasons.

So far, Rosetta Stone’s technique seems to be close to Duolingo‘s, i.e. immersion without explanation. Not sure I love that approach, although I’m also not sure it’s the only one they employ — I’m still early on in the process.

As of tonight, I’m officially three lessons in, and I’m starting to be served words that I recognize but don’t understand, as well as some words that I’ve never encountered before at all.

I learned the word for “to swim,” for example — לִשְׂחוֹת (lischot). Useful! And in that verb’s case, it did seem effective to keep seeing and hearing the word next to pictures of people swimming. But in the case of the verb לְבַקֵר (levaker), a word that I have heard a ton before — but whose meaning evades me — the pictures of people waving did not help. My best guess was that it must mean “to greet” or “to say hello,” but there was no way to check within the lesson itself.

I was just about to Google it when my parents Skyped me, so I asked them instead. My mom’s immediate response to the question, “What does levaker mean?” was, “To criticize.” I told her that either she must be wrong or I must have said the word incorrectly, because the contextual images I was shown were all happy-go-lucky people waving to each other outside houses. Then she said, “Oh, well it also means ‘to visit.'”

I’m not sure whether the people without Jewish mothers will appreciate the brilliance here. This ancient language of my people has managed — with irony, with dry wit, with perfect precision — to nail the contemporary (and, it begs the question, perhaps also the eternal?) Jewish psyche in just one word.

Though it would never have occurred to me to think of it this way before, “my mother is visiting me” and “my mother is criticizing me” are virtually interchangeable. A visit without criticism would be like a ship without an anchor, an empty vessel.

While I need no explanation for how my mother makes the leap from visiting to criticizing, I was curious about how Hebrew made the logical link between the two. My father pointed out that a third definition for levaker is “to examine.” If you think of them on a continuum, it starts to make sense. The three actions flow in stages from one to the next: you visit, you examine, you criticize.

I just find it hilarious that Hebrew puts the entire continuum into one word, especially when another perfectly good continuum would be: to visit, to examine, to praise. Perhaps a different language — one belonging to a more lighthearted people — possesses a word like that.

P.S. It just occurred to me that this post was an exercise in levaker: I visited my blog, examined a word, and criticized both it and my mother.


Something astonishing has happened.

The astonishing news was delivered in a fittingly astonishing way. A couple of months ago, I checked in with Mamie on WhatsApp, as I had been doing every few weeks. Someone in the Lo family was recovering from a serious case of COVID, so our conversations always started with that and then turned to, “quoi de neuf?” i.e. “what’s new?”. Over the past year and a half, life has slowed down on both sides of the Atlantic, so apart from pandemic-related news, neither Mamie nor I usually had much to report. Here and there, we would note a job development or give an update on a niece or nephew’s antics. But on April 3rd, Mamie said:

I am ok thanks! Lots of things to do lately with the organization of the club’s open house.

Oh I forgot to tell you that Tanti is popular now.

She then posted the following photos:

And she concluded, “She is playing the role of lawyer.”

If you’re confused by this, that’s okay. So was I. I responded, “Wait, what????? Is that a BILLBOARD??? Is she on TELEVISION?????? Whaaaaaaaaaat?!?!?!?!”

Here’s what I knew about Tantie to date: She was in her last year of college when we met, and she was studying something sensible like economics or management. She did dabble in the entertainment industry, but on a very small scale. Very early on in my time in Senegal, I filmed her audition tape for a VJ contest a local station was sponsoring. She did a one-minute intro for an imaginary program, and I remember thinking that she was quite good — a natural in front of the camera. She didn’t win the contest, but about a year later, she auditioned for a short fiction video that an environmental non-profit was producing, and she got the part. The whole family and I went to the premiere, and I was impressed by Tantie’s very intuitive ability to ignore the camera and just act (something I am incapable of).

But that was the end of it. I left Senegal shortly thereafter, and Mamie later updated me that Tantie had become an entrepreneur and started an agro-business. When I returned to Senegal two years later, I discovered that Tantie had somehow — without much agricultural training — launched an organic juice brand as well as an organic farm-to-market enterprise. I realized that Tantie really knows how to hustle. She put everything she had into the business, and for the last couple of years, it’s been her focus, with growing success.

So it came as quite a shock to see her face on a billboard, and to infer — because Mamie never actually said so — that Tantie was on a television show. (It was also both maddening and hilarious that Mamie “forgot” to tell me this earth-shaking news.) In response to my astonished questions, Mamie confirmed that yes, Tantie is on TV. She added, “And guess what, we are in downtown at this moment in a shawarma place and even the waiter recognized her. Cause the series is popular like Wiri Wiri.”

Wiri Wiri is the hugely successful Senegalese soap opera whose theme song transports me right back to the Lo family’s house in SICAP Baobab. The fact that Tantie is in a show that could be mentioned in the same breath as Wiri Wiri is downright époustouflant.

So I told Mamie that I needed to watch it immediately, and she told me it’s on YouTube. Below is the trailer. (You can turn French subtitles on to follow the Wolof, but there are no English subtitles, unfortunately.) Tantie is the one who plays novice lawyer, Aminata. She is also the woman in the trailer’s poster image below. WHHAAAAAATT!!!

I wanted to wait to post about this craziness until after I finished watching the series, but they are still releasing new episodes and I have no idea how many there are. I’m up to episode 22 now, in which they introduced a few new plot twists, so there’s no sign that they are anywhere near the conclusion. I can honestly say that Tantie is one of the best actors in the show, and that it’s quite entertaining television (if also full of the most convoluted plot points and hilarious product placements / advertorials — although those are also pretty entertaining).

Here’s what truly blows me away. Episode 22 was released yesterday and it already has more than 600,000 views. The first episode has 2 million. I’ve always seen Tantie through Mamie’s eyes, as the little sister with big schemes and dreams. But now I need to open my eyes and see her as the Senegalese TV star she is.

I can’t wait to go back to Dakar and be part of her entourage. 😎