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.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

My Central European tour continues! (And by that I mean that I now resume the year-late summation of my Central European tour last January.)

From Salzburg, I took a train southeast to Lake Bled. The second I crossed the border, I could tell I was in a new country because the architecture changed abruptly. The food did, too, but I wouldn’t know that until I sat down at a homestyle restaurant by the train station, where I heard my first of many Phil Collins hits.

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French as paramour

A few weeks ago, I re-watched a bunch of “Call My Agent,” a brilliant French television show about the hijinks of actors and their agents at a Paris talent agency. I was about to start season 4 (which unfortunately was nowhere near as wonderful as the previous seasons), and I wanted to remember where the show had left off. 

The first time I binged the show, COVID-19 did not yet exist, and my focus was on the hilarity of every situation. This time around, it was on the outfits, the outings, and the city. Everyone looked so sleek in their high heels and spiffy blazers, hobnobbing at cafes and bars. Paris seemed so kinetic and lively. It filled me with longing. I reside in what is normally among the most energetic cities in the world and yet I haven’t felt any of that in a year. 

The glamorous rooftop party scene from the season three finale hit me like a punch to the gut. Oh, to be in a crowd of interesting people! To be dressed up! To be among acquaintances and strangers! To be tipsy and flirty! To have no idea where the next conversation could take you, what kind of fascinating world someone could open the door to. That certain sense of possibility has been notably absent for almost twelve months, and it’s really, really starting to get to me. (And everyone else, I know.)

As I was watching the party scene I found myself fantasizing about being there. I noticed that I particularly enjoyed the thought of schmoozing in French, as though that would double the pleasure of the party. It took me a minute to recognize why. 

Perhaps this analogy is the result of too many months of lockdown, but… is it not true that speaking a foreign language is sort of like cheating, except without the betrayal of another human being? When I momentarily abandon my tried and true English to spend time with its sexier, lesser known cousin, I get such a thrill from the unfamiliarity, the appealing awkwardness, the conquest that comes with mutual understanding, and the secrecy of speaking a language most of my compatriots don’t understand. It breathes fresh life into my bored bones.

At this point I’d get a thrill out of going to the laundromat, though, so I could be blowing this analogy way out of proportion. My perspective is pretty screwed up these days…

Salzburg

I realized today that it’s been more than a year since I visited Salzburg last January, so I better get my act together and post pictures now if I’m ever going to. I think I put off Innsbruck and Salzburg for so long because they were just so fraught. How do I properly explain what I experienced while there? I was constantly in almost painful awe of the city’s beauty, and I was overjoyed just to roam the wintry streets, sit in the cozy cafes, and gawk at the baroque opulence. But I also kept getting caught up in angry rumination about how Austria could stand to face a little more of its ugly past. And then I’d get whiplashed by doubts and start obsessively googling for evidence both to justify and to counter my resentment. The whole thing was mentally exhausting.

But that’s just me. As I said in my Innsbruck post, if you don’t have relatives who died in the Holocaust, you should definitely visit Austria. It’s gorgeous! Let me show you…

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the language of childhood

I recently returned from two months in Oregon, where I was helping my sister and brother-in-law with childcare for their two young daughters, my beloved nieces. My role was to fill pandemic-era gaps: to watch ten month-old Alice (who under normal circumstances would have been in daycare) when both her parents were in virtual meetings, to help keep five year-old Mabel focused during remote kindergarten (this proved to be impossible), to make some snacks and meals, and to help around the house. Beyond this, there was another role that I hadn’t anticipated, but which turned out to be one of the most important: to be a playmate to Mabel, whose in-person time with kids her own age had been reduced to almost nothing.

To clarify: I had expected to do a lot of playing with Mabel, who is one of the most imaginative, creative people I’ve ever met. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to do all of that playing on her level. During normal visits with my nieces and nephew, I play with them in age-appropriate ways — I let them lead and I follow, to the best of my ability. During this visit, though, it became clear that Mabel needed me to shed my adulthood and play with her as though I were actually a five year-old. The more time I spent with her, attempting to shape-shift, the more I realized that it was a question of language — or rather, of the uses to which we put language.

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my epic wintry Austro-Hungarian adventure

Last December, right around the time I started itching for my next getaway, I found out that I would be heading back to Nairobi for a conference in January. I had already appended a week-long vacation to my previous Kenya trip, and it was glorious. There is so much more that I would like to explore in the country and surrounding region, but at that particular moment, I was more in the mood for the cozy creature comforts of winter.

So, I found a flight to Nairobi through Zurich that was nearly the same price as the direct one, and I asked the travel agent to book me a one-week stopover. I then poured over Eurail maps and timetables, feasting my eyes upon all the tantalizing itineraries that were possible. I considered heading southwest towards Monaco and Nice by way of Turin, east towards Budapest by way of Vienna, or south towards Rome by way of Milan. But none of those seemed juicy enough to satisfy my ambitions. In the end, only a whistle-stop tour in every direction would do.

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some fresh (and hopefully not false) starts

havana hotel pool

A couple of months ago, I tried and failed to read a sign in Hebrew that I passed in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. I realized that I was forgetting the alphabet, or rather, the Alef Bet. This filled me with horror, since I’ve known how to read Hebrew almost as long as I’ve known how to read English, and I thought the ability to do so was an unshakeable feature of who I am.

Then I realized that I had already forgotten how to read one other language that I used to know fluently. Three decades ago, I could play sheet music on my clarinet, effortlessly. (I mean, I could read the notes effortlessly. I could not play the instrument to save my life.) Continue reading