Monday, 26 March 2012

A small diversion into accents and 9/11

This is my third term at Ulpan. I've been attempting to learn more Hebrew. It somehow escapes me. I learn the words and then they disappear. It's interesting that the word ulpan is actually Welsh. It means 'studio.' The room that we learn in is in a building that used to be a bank. It has now been divided into separate offices and we share a floor with a firm of lawyers, a party company and a jewlery workshop. Quite eclectic. Downstairs, at the entrance, is a watchmaker who looks as though he has been in situ since 1948. He looks as if he has stepped out of one of those 1940s French movies. Shutters within shutters.

We are a diverse lot in the classroom but there are very few of us. One of my classmates is an elderly (in age) gentleman from Michigan. He has been here in the country for about five years. He's the youngest looking eighty-five-year-old that I have ever met! He takes the bus every day and wears jeans and a canvas bag strung across his chest. I once asked him about his family. What about his wife, I asked. Is she here too? He didn't answer that question but he told me that some of the courses that he takes at the university are paid for independently. He often apologises for welling up when speaking. It could be something as uncontroversial as the weather. You see, his son was killed in New York on 9/11. I only knew someone else tangentially who was killed during that churban. A friend of a friend of Zach. This time I really felt those goosebumps and had no idea how to respond. All I could say was that I was 'So sorry. So very sorry...'

It's part of the landscape that you don't know who you can come across here. One of the guys at the building site next door is an African. He doesn't look Ethiopian or Eritraen. He's possibly from the Sudan but I often hear one of the other workers, who generally sings along in Arabic, speaking to him in English and explaining what it is they want done. He doesn't look displeased to be sweeping up after the huge and noisy lorries once they have deposited their cement every Sunday from 7.30am. In fact he looks jolly happy at the end of each day when I see him swinging his arms towards the car that will take him back home. He's deposited his hard hat with everyone else's. No doubt he considers himself one of the lucky ones. If he did come from the Sudan, as so many other refugees have done, then he would have had the most awful journey. We really don't know the hardships that these guys have gone through to get here. It can't be so terrible here if they, knowingly, deposit thousands of dollars with the Beduin in the hope that they will somehow smuggle these hundreds and thousands of desperate from darkest pits of Africa. We often hear of how they are tortured and raped for even more funds and how often the Egyptians simply shoot at them. Yet they continue to make their way.

Walking back home in the sunshine after this morning's attempt at grammar and pronounciation, I stepped behind a couple of women merrily chatting at full speed. One was an Israeli in her forties and the other a Philippina. How I envied her. Her Hebrew was effortless, flawless and colourful. She spoke it with a distinct accent, in the same way that any non-resident would do. I'll bet the guy on the building lot will also be speaking flawlessly within the next year or two too while I continue to take courses.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Weddings, hair and baby carriers

Interesting talk of weddings. Amazing how they differ from each and every country. Here they are an intrinsic part of life. With weddings come children and children bring such joy and heartache. Around the corner are an endless supply of wedding outfitters. They call this place 'Start Up Nation.' I guess that you can call anything a 'start up' simply because you are starting up from nothing - if it's yours to start up. It's the same with hairdressers. Go to school and learn for a number of months. Work for a bit in a salon and then pingo you open your own place with, hopefully, a following. I mention this because yet another hairdresser is now plying his trade locally, joining the other three that have opened up within the last few months. North West London and we have estate agents. Here we have hairdressers and wedding dresses. What does this mean by comparison?

It is, finally though, fully spring. This means that we have sun and heat and then mist and chill and to top it all, we are expecting rain again this week. I had put the brolly away in the hope that I wouldn't have to take it out again. When descending the steps outside the building a heady perfume of orange blossom hits the nostrils. It's the most evocative of all scents. The blossom escapes at the same time as the oranges fulfill their promise and then plop off their branches onto the street. The bouganvilia has also spread its way along the walls of flats and houses and the hues of the pinks, reds and purples are a sight to see. Tiny birds dart in and out of the branches outside my sitting-room windows. They resemble hummingbirds but without the long beak. They sport a brilliant blue back and one of them made its way into the kitchen recently. He was so tiny and disoriented that  he got stuck behind a pillar twixt window and blind and was unable in his panic to find his way out. It must have been interesting to see me clamber onto the sink, having first put on rubber gloves, and coerce him into my hands. Poor little might was shaking pitifully. It was a bit difficult clambering back down again while hoping that I would not suffocate or let him lose again. The window was open and I pushed him out into the air and he flew off once more. Maybe he's one of those outside who sips from the blossom, only  this time looking in.

Because it was a beautiful day yesterday, I sat on the decking that leads up to the new port. An unbelievable array of humanity passed before me. It was extraordinary. Groups of families with young children and grown up children. Fathers carrying babies in carriers of a complexity of designs and pregnant mothers pushed tiny babies in buggies before them. It's a fashion here to have four children. You don't have to be religious. They are very conventional (believe it, or not) and if fashion dictates four, then four it is. I've no idea how they manage. It's expensive and there's not the sort of benefits that everyone in the UK feels is deserved. However, I do hear that the maternity facilities are excellent. So I watched the Saturday parade. Every kind of colour. Every religion. Every sexual orientation. Every country represented. So many more tourists carrying maps and trying to keep out of the way of the bikes and roller blades, skateboards and scooters. It was a moment to be joyful and to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

It's my birthday again next week. I can't believe that another year has gone by. When I spoke to Zach last night he reminded me that it was a year ago that he started on his venture. One could most definitely call it a 'start up.' It's continuing. He laughed when he also reminded me that I wanted to send him to a rehab facility in the north for the chronically depressed and addicted. He can't remember the last time that he stuck to something in the way he is now. 'You said,' he told me 'that this would be the best kind of birthday present...' It is. And I'm making notes of what these weddings here entail. Because you never know...

Monday, 19 March 2012

From Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv to a tragedy in Toulouse

Yesterday we sat at 'La La Land' on Gordon Beach. It was an absolutely brilliant day. After all the rain and the cold and the winds and the storms it was a delight to laze in a deck chair, drinking Lemonana and eating pita with humus. The whole area was packed and it was difficult for latecomers to find somewhere to sit. The predominant language that surrounded us was French. I read today that there are 700,000 Jews in France. I find that hard to believe but when one considers the huge immigration of North African Jews - those from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia post War and during the '50s  - then, I guess, it's not surprising. It really helps to speak a number of languages here. French and Russian are certainly in order. As are, of course, Arabic and English. I'm still breaking my teeth trying to pronounce Hebrew and straining my throat to get the right inflections. They tell me that the more I work at it, the easier it will be. I think that Spanish would be easier, although whenever I produce my five words of Spanish, they come out in Italian!

Sitting in the easy chair, under the sun, and watching and listening to the French, I wondered how it was that so many of them still make their way here month after month, year after year. In a taxi the other night the driver spoke of what a difference the new French immigration has made to this city. It's tangible. The shops are smarter; the estate agents more prolific; the houses more expensive. After L'affaire Dreyfus in the late Nineteenth century, there was an out flowing of Jews from France to other European countries. Many of those Jews were tragically caught up by the Holocaust. Over the last few years, while anti-Semitism has worked its way around that country, many thousands more French Jews have made their way to Israel and settled here. Today, another atrocity aimed at the Jewish community, will convince more French Jews that their time in France is limited. Almost every day we hear of some kind of attack against Jews somewhere in France. This news is not always disseminated by the press. Maybe the media outlets are inured to it, disinterested because it is now so common, or simply disbelieving.

This morning in Toulouse, a young Israeli Rabbi and his two young children were murdered outside of a Jewish school, as was the child of the school's Principal and another teenager is most seriously wounded. Whoever carried out this most heinous deed knew exactly who his targets were and he had no compunction regarding their age or sex. For this monster, so long as they were Jews, then they were legitimate targets. At 7.30am this morning, a young family was getting ready for another school day. At just after 8.00am, a young widow was created. But it wasn't enough that she lost her husband. She also lost her two sons.  How does she deal with this? How is it possible to transcend this pain? The irony, if one can talk about ironies at this awful time, is that the family were Israeli and from Jerusalem - the scene of Intifadot and suicide bombings. Did this family believe that they would ultimately be safer in France?

If, possibly, there is any good that can come out of this event it is that maybe instead of visiting, then more French Jews will find their way here and say goodbye to Europe, the home of the Shoah. It's enough already. C'est suffit.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Blog stats and those pretty charts that reach around the world

The thing about writing a blog is that you have no idea who could be reading it and where. You're writing into a vacuum and in the hope that someone will read what you have written and that the time that you've spent thinking about what to write and then actually doing the physical thing is not wasted. If you're a journalist, then you are paid per word and you can be guaranteed that there will be some kind of an audience but with a blog...?

Now 'Sam' has joined us for another big birthday weekend. It's 'Beth's'... I won't say which number. I don't know just how emotionally tied she is to what she was and what she is now. Suffice to say that it's worthwhile repeating what my late father said: 'You should only have birthdays...' Quite. We're celebrating tonight. A trendy restaurant in an area that was once the 'schmutter' district of the city and is now gaining a name for its great restaurants and bars. Of course there are still a number of quite unique stores with buttons and bows and a myriad number of fabric emporiums...

Anyway, to get back to Sam and blogs. He showed me a stat counter. He's started his own blog and is now much more au fait with new technology than me. I'm not a Luddite but haven't bothered to keep up to date in terms of layout and links and advertising. I simply look at the numbers at the bottom of the page when I've published the blog and hope that maybe they will increase. It never occurred to me to actually look at the stats. As it is, I'm full of amazement. I have discovered readers from countries as diverse as Georgia, Germany, the USA, the Netherlands and Iran. Iran? Well, why not. There are certainly enough Iranians who speak English and I'm absolutely certain that there's plenty of mental health issues in Iran that are comparable to anywhere else in the world. I can't see who precisely is reading my thoughts or exactly how many people, or even if it's just the same person, but I'm pleased that it's being read there. Then, again, it could be some Revolutionary Guard element who thinks I'm a subversive. So enjoy!

Looking at the pretty charts, I've delved back at the comments that have been left over the years since I began writing. One particularly insightful epistle was penned by 'Lenny' in August 2010. A piece quite reflective of what 'episodes' or 'mental breakdowns' do to entirely otherwise sane people. If any of my readers is interested, then do take a look and consider. It's not very pretty but the picture it paints is of someone who really is not residing - (notwithstanding his assertion that he is 'on a ward') on planet earth, although to some extent I do sometimes wonder myself whether I am on a sane planet or somewhere down the rabbit hole with Alice and her friends.

As an aside, the Mac is now mended. That in itself caused inordinate stress. I really should impress upon Zach that he should treat it as he would a baby. Would you put a baby on the table and spill a fizzy drink in his face? Would you put her on the bed and watch while she fell to the floor? These things do happen. I really, truly hope that they don't happen again chez Zach. Does he read my blogs? I doubt it but if he did, then that would show up another interesting aspect of its  reach.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

So much for 'ineffective' rockets and ceasefires

I suppose that there must be some kind of Blitz mentality carrying on in the South. How else do you get through the days? Almost continual rockets, notwithstanding the 'ceasefire.' There's also the gallows humour: make sure that you're not sleeping in the all-together or taking a shower when there's a 'red alert.' I think that I would also be carrying around my make-up and a toothbrush and toothpaste. What else? Clean knickers. I mean, these are essentials.

We have what is called a 'Mamad' in the flat. It's a reinforced room that 'Beth' sleeps in. It's the room that you're supposed to go into when there's a war. You're supposed to keep your gas mask there as well as provisions. We keep talking about when we'll buy the provisions. There's not a lot of room. A double futon, bed-side table, desk, chest of drawers, rail full of clothing. There's also countless shoes and, then, where do we put the dog? He generally sleeps on the bed. I hate to have think of what he would wear in case of a gas attack. I guess that we all take a breath each. Let's not go there...

One of these so-called 'ineffective' rockets killed a horse in its stable. Grads and mortars have also landed on chicken coops and flattened cats and dogs and that's apart from the terrible emotional trauma these poor animals have had to go through. It's not Bonfire Night. No one reports on these aspects of 'resistance.' But, then, these so-called 'resistors' don't have much value on human life, let alone the feelings of innocent animals. And then there are the birds on their way to their spring mating grounds. They're not put off by 'apartheid Israel' and they come in their thousands and thousands every spring and autumn. Just walking in our local park is a veritable aviary for every kind of winged specie. Only recently I saw a group of people who, having spied something very unusual in bird-life, stopping and taking out their cameras and i-Phones in order to record this most unusual sighting.

Over a million people - Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Thai, Sudanese - all no more than a handful of miles away from a coastal enclave whose leaders care so little for their own that they use them for human shields. The newspapers shout their moral equivalency: too few are killed here. Maybe it's because everyone is hunkered down in a shelter, grasping onto the dog, the cat or the bird cage. Hopefully they are all dressed for a chilly night and no one is wet from a last minute bath. I must remember to buy water and tuna fish in cans. Must also look for the can opener.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Spring Saturday and a Mitzvah

So today was my great-nephew's Bar-Mitzvah. Unbelievable to think that my nephew is old enough to have a son who is old enough to be Bar Mitzvah. Thankfully the rain held off while we traipsed from the Sephardi Synagogue (no, not that one) to the Ashkenazi Synagogue. They were one opposite the other but otherwise difficult to tell apart. Looking at the names on the outside of the first building, I realised that no, this was the wrong place. The sky was threatening but we stayed dry as we walked across the concourse and entered the building.

The most amazing thing about going to synagogue, shul, temple, if you are of an Ashkenazi background, is that you could be in almost any other city throughout the world. I think that the original synagogue architect drew up plans that are to be followed ad infinitum. All synagogues appear to be designed in order to look practically identical. The colours of the interior, the wood, the smell of books and velvet and wine. They somehow bring back such memories of childhood. Some kind of nostalgia of being small and having someone care for you.

When I was a child, our synagogue, in the East End of London, was often the scene of some kind of bitter desecration. Many was the time that my father, along with other members of the congregation, would be on watch against some kind of fascist. The last and final desecration of our beautiful, tiny (in retrospect) shul was arson and it was burned to a crisp some time after it had been closed down. The membership had dwindled away and mass immigration into the area had entirely changed its landscape. The land is now used for a block of flats. One of the benefits about being here is that burning places of worship rarely, rarely happens. The less so, the better.

It was a lovely affair, however, and the Bar Mitzvah boy did extremely well, his voice as yet unbroken, singing his portion clearly and tunefully, as have done many millions before him. Coincidentally, it must have been the exact same portion as Zach's, as the birthdays are one day apart and Zach's too was held during a leap year.

This year, many years after his Bar Mitzvah, Zach is waiting for other things. One is for the Mac that is, thankfully, under warranty and, therefore, won't cost the earth to fix. The other is for a day a few months hence that we never thought would happen. In fact there are two days that we are aiming for. How time and people can heal. How people on continents apart can somehow come across one another and heal each other.