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, 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.

How many words, in comparison, is Portnoy’s Complaint?

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, a vessel without a substance to fill it.

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.

époustouflant!

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. 😎

Venice, Italy

It’s been so long since I was in Venice — almost a year and a half — that I had to jog my memory by reading the notes I jotted down on my phone at the time. They start with, “Venice = mission-driven with not enough time for the mission.” On second thought, that could describe my whole life. Here are some pictures.

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falling in love again (only to have my heart broken)

At the end of October, I flew to Oregon to spend a couple of months with my sister’s family. About halfway through my time there, I streamed Cinemania, a cult documentary I had wanted to see for years. It profiles a bunch of obsessive moviegoers during an era — the turn of the Millennium — before you could order a DVD of any film you wanted to see, let alone find it on-demand or stream it. These cinephiles would study the movie theatres’ programs like tacticians, and then they would hop from arthouse cinema to repertory cinema to museum cinema, taking in four or five or six different movies a day, every day.

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late-in-life realization

I’m 41 years old. And yet it only just occurred to me today, while playing The New York Times Spelling Bee, that the word “kneel” comes from the word “knee,” as in, to go down on one’s knees. I never in my life thought of them as etymologically related before. I guess that’s because knee has a long e sound and kneel has a different vowel sound — a diphthong? Still, you’d think that I would have connected it during one of the thousands of times I have knelt on my knees in my life.

Every once in a while, I have another one of these startling discoveries. How have I gone through four decades of life, and they are still happening? I guess it’s sort of fun, but it also makes me feel a little ditsy.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

From Lake Bled I took a short train trip to the capital city of Ljubljana, where I had less than 24 hours to spend before my departure for Venice. The historic part of the city is small and the only thing I wanted to do apart from wander around was to visit the castle. So, although I would have liked a little more time, I was able to fit in everything that I really wanted to see. Here are some pix.

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ivrit, sof sof

Last year right around this time, I was supposed to fly to Costa Rica to visit my Israeli cousin and her family, who were concluding a sabbatical year there. My other Israeli cousin was due to arrive at the same time, and we were all going to have a weeklong adventure together. In preparation for the trip, I wasn’t sure if it would make more sense to review my Hebrew or my Spanish. I wanted to do both, but in the end I did neither. And as it turns out, it didn’t matter, because COVID cancelled the trip.

Costa Rica was never on my bucket list, but hanging out with my cousins for the first time in a decade, and meeting their kids, are both very high up there. My four Israeli cousins have had nine children between them, and I’ve only met four of them. One is already a teenager, and I’ve never even had a real conversation with him. So, I’m now committed to go to Israel as soon as I can after the world gets reasonably back to normal. If I make it there in 2021, it will have been 13 years since my last visit.

I had not really used my Hebrew in about as long — until six months ago. Then, on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I watched the Israeli TV series, Shtisel. I binged it twice in a row, gorging episodes back to back ’til 4 in the morning on work nights, like an addict. It was a strange time, pandemic-wise, and love-lorn black sheep Akiva, his recently deceased mother, his widowed grandmother, his tortured fiancee, and even his obnoxious dad, spoke to me. I wept for them all at the drop of a hat. I also wept at every instance of the theme music and at every dream sequence, i.e. quite a lot. It was the weep-fest I needed, after more than half a year of watching the world fall apart with strangely dry eyes.

It was also a Hebrew-fest. The nice thing about Shtisel is that they speak slow and sparse Hebrew (or as it is called in Hebrew itself, ivrit). Someone like me, who vaguely recognizes maybe 25% of all basic Hebrew words, can actually put the story together from context clues. I also used the English subtitles, but I tried to do so less on the second watch. By the end of those 40 or so hours, I had inadvertently jogged my brain with all the Hebrew words I had heard over and over again growing up but that had faded over time. I also learned new words, like sof sof (“finally”), which made me really happy, because I already knew the word sof (“end”), and now here it was being repeated to create a slightly different meaning.

I realized that this was a prime opportunity to jump back into learning Hebrew, which I had been dancing around doing for a few years in any case. I had already logged many hours of listening practice through Shtisel, and only a few months before, I had intensively reviewed the Hebrew alphabet in a panicked effort not to forget how to read and write. All that was left was to start speaking.

So, I signed up for an hour a week of Hebrew conversation with a tutor. (Though they speak perfect Hebrew, I didn’t even consider asking my mom, dad, or Israeli family because it would be annoying, frustrating and/or embarrassing depending on the partner.) More recently, I asked my colleague at work, who I only recently realized is bilingual, to chat with me for 15 minutes every Friday. And, I started using Anki to review / learn the 100 most common Hebrew verbs and 500 basic words.

After spending months of the pandemic thinking, “I should do something productive with all this extra time on my hands,” and doing nothing, it seems I’ve finally gotten to the part in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray starts learning how to play piano and sculpt ice. Still, I’m not putting in that much work, so I don’t expect to become a Hebrew speaker any time soon. But what amazes me is that I can have conversations — about what is actually happening in my life and others’ — at the level I’m at. With French and Spanish, I focused first on learning the language from a book, and then on speaking. With Hebrew, my goal is to be able to communicate with my family, so I’m putting much more emphasis on speaking and listening than on learning the grammatical rules.

At the rate I’m going, it will be a super long time before I can hold my own with them in Hebrew, but that’s alright. Better late, and slow, than never. L’at l’at (slowly, slowly), as they — and now I — say.