Saturday, November 29, 2014

Another Language

It’s estimated half the world’s population speaks two or more languages. I do, which makes me a member of the world’s largest more-or-less secret club.
Here’s what you can do when you’re bilingual:
  • Talk with a friend about other people who are right there and won’t understand a word you’re saying. Of course, you do have to make sure the subject of your conversation doesn’t speak the language you and your friend are speaking, or great embarrassment can ensue. This happened to me once while riding the bus with another French speaker.  We were joyfully commenting on the size of another passenger’s nose when the person in question stood up, called us horrible names in French, gave us the finger and stalked off the bus.  
  • Be part of two cultures and,
  • Be able to compare the pluses and minuses of two or more cultures, because obviously, language is a culture’s spokesperson.
  • Seems twice as smart. Notice I use the word ‘seem.’  This is because some people who are bilingual can also be dumb in two languages. As a matter of fact, if you’re a dolt in one language, it’s almost certain you’ll be one in a second language too.
  • On the other hand, you can know twice as much as others on about just about anything. Knowing something in one language is not the same thing as knowing it in another.
  • Have a mind open to new and different thoughts and opinions. People in other nations think differently. This is OK for the most part, unless you’re dealing with a mad person of any nationality, or a terrorist.  Then it’s better to pretend you don’t speak any language at all.
  • Read the works of authors in the language they wrote them. Albert Camus in French is actually interesting.  In English, he’s deadly.  The same can be said of St. Exupery’s Little Prince. The book has been translated from the French a dozen times, but reading it in English just isn’t the same. I’ve heard Spanish friends say the same thing when speaking Cervantes.
  • Travel with fewer fears. It’s amazing how easier it is to get from point A to point Z if you can speak the local language, even if it’s only a little.
  • Meet interesting people.
  • Cultivate a really neat accent. I can still do a killer Parisian accent in English, and my faked American accent when speaking French has motivated real Parisians to be nice to me and even once buy me a cup of coffee in Montpartnasse
  • Wear cool clothing. More and more I am seeing people in the attire of their native countries. Scots in kilts, Indian ladies in saris, Vietnamese girls in ao dais. I have a beret. But to tell the truth, I never wear it because it makes me look like a largish Basque shepherd. I could, though, because I speak French.
  • Swear multilingually. A woman I know asked me to teach her several profane French words she could use when stuck in traffic. I have a few Cantonese expletives, taught to me by a man from Shanghai though I’ve been told my French accent when swearing in Chinese is truly terrible, particularly when I’m behind the wheel.
For all the above reasons, and more, you should learn another language. Pig Latin doesn’t count.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bon Appetit

Lately I’ve been wondering why there’s so much food around.  European friends and I were talking about that recently as we overfilled our trays at an all-you-can-eat buffet. One of us, his plate a veritable Everest of pork products––sausage links and patties, bacon, country ham—noted that, to the best of his well-traveled knowledge, the US was the only place that had all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t know if this is a fact or not. It seems to me there must be stuff-yourself-to-the-gills restaurants elsewhere, but I haven’t found one.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a Home Depot and noticed that right next to the checkout lanes were multiple displays of candy bars and soft drinks. I’m sure they’ve been there all along, but it was the first time I really became aware of this oddity, and I wondered what had prompted the Home Depot powers-that-be to put them there. Well, duh, profit, obviously… I watched a somewhat overweight kid coax his mom into buying a Mars bar. And a pack of gum. And a little bag of cookies and I wondered, are we really hungry all the time in the land of plenty? Do we need to be chewing and swallowing constantly to fulfill our destiny? Is this what the Constitution promises when it says “pursuit of happiness?”
There’s food in gas stations, bookstores, Old Navy emporia, hardware stores, computer outlets. There are stacks of candy at my local nursery next to the rhododendrons, at my pharmacy, at the nearby big box store, and even the local dry cleaner has a small display of mints and Korean hard candies on his counter. The shops selling sporting goods also have racks of stuff, but the sales staff will tell you it’s really healthy, vegetarian, gluten free, and not the product of slave labor in Abyssinia. Course, it’s about five times as expensive as stuff found elsewhere
Meanwhile, we are facing explosive growth in the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (I am one), and almost two-thirds of the US population is overweight. America has the second highest percentage of obesity in the world (Mexico out-ate the US in 2013 and took first place.)
What’s interesting is the shift in points of view. A century ago, the rich folks were stout–they had more than enough to eat and did so with gusto—and the poorer people were thin, fed on a diet that often lacked essential protein and carbohydrates. This began to change following World War II with the advent of cheaper foods. Now, large segments of our present society subsists on fast foods of doubtful value. We no longer walk and burn calories and we’re inundated with offerings of cheap snacks everywhere.
I wonder where this is going to lead.
According to Forbes, “Almost one fifth of all deaths in the U.S. are associated with being overweight, according to a startling new report from Columbia University and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. And the kicker? For each consecutive birth year (in other words, the younger you are) the higher the death rate.
“In a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a team of researchers led by epidemiologist Ryan K. Masters looked at death records and health surveys for all adults for a 20-year period between 1986 and 2006. They found that 18.2 percent of all deaths were associated with carrying excess weight.
“This is three times higher than previous reports, which Ryan says relied on average obesity rates rather than specific data and failed to take into account that those who are obese often decline to take part in public health surveys.
“But the news could actually be even worse because the percentage of the population that’s overweight or obese increases every year, and is already considerably higher today than it was in 2006, the final year of data used in the study.”
Think about all this as you celebrate Thanksgiving, the annual celebration of excess, and tuck into the mounds of food before you.
Bon appétit!  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Explaining Thanksgiving to the French

For decades prior to his death last year, Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post will not run it this year, so I will.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pélerins ) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pélerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing thePélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.
Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :
"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable à être emballé ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Ou est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun à son gout. )
And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Wall

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell, or rather, was torn down chunk by chunk by Germans from both East and West Berlin.
For those of you whose notions of history prior to the year 2000 might be sketchy, the Wall was a barrier created in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as the pro-Communist East Germany, essentially to block massive defections and immigration from the East to the West.  The Wall was not a pretty thing. It stretched 90 miles and was almost 12 feet tall, festooned with guard towers and anti-vehicle trenches. Those trying to flee from East to West were shot at and some 200 were left to die in what was known as the death strip on the East German side.
Forty years ago, my then wife, Barbara, and I went to East Berlin to attend the Communist Youth Festival being held there. We were neither communists nor, strictly speaking, youths. Barbara was a foreign editor for the Washington Post, and I was an in-house free-lance writer. She was sent there to report for the paper, and I tagged along thinking there would certainly be something to write about regarding East Germany and the young folks living there.
We both went through Checkpoint Charlie, the best known Wall crossing point between West and East Germany. On the West Berlin side, Checkpoint Charlie was little more than a wooden shed (later replaced by a metal one now displayed at the Allied museum in West Berlin) manned by American soldiers  who gave your passport a peremptory look, then waved you on.  The East Berlin side was something else. Barbara and I were sequestered in separate small interrogation rooms and asked interminable questions by what I remember as bored middle-aged East German military personnel in soiled and rumpled uniforms. What I most clearly recall about that particular event was that the East Germans had a manila file folder containing each and every story I had ever written for the Post and other publications. I was, in other words, a recognized Western rabble-rouser (I had written about bikers, hippies, drug dealers and such) and this made me feel strangely proud.
Barbara spoke German fluently; I didn’t. We were warned not to interview anyone not vetted by the East Germans and given a list of events we would be allowed to attend. We were not to speak with anyone in the streets, and ordered to turn down any offers to buy our Western goods. The latter order I promptly ignored by trading a pair of my Levy jeans for a kid’s red Communist beret.
A few thousand Communist boys and girls from a host of countries were in attendance, and what was to be a jamboree and celebration of young Communism was actually strangely depressing. There were quite a few choral groups singing songs of Socialist struggle and redemption. I vaguely recollect dancers as well. The most exciting moment, though, came during a symposium on Communist advances in Latin America when a bearded Argentinian contingent reacted strongly to something said by an equally hirsute Cuban contingent. The former assaulted the stage and set upon the latter. A melee ensued; fists flew and expletives filled the air.  Barbara and I immediately realized that no good could come from this encounter, particularly for Western reporters who might have witnessed the fracas. We fled through a side door and later heard both groups had been taken into custody and some members sent home in shame.
We spent four days in East Berlin and overdosed on cabbage prepared every conceivable way, none of which was actually edible. I also remember dumplings the consistency of ten-pin bowling balls and yellowish coffee so thin is was transparent.
When it was time to leave, the East German border guard confiscated my red beret and gave us instead little paper flags commemorating the event.
Barbara stayed a while longer in Germany and I flew back to the States. I wrote a story about the festival but found no interest in East Berlin, Communist youths or 50 ways to prepare cabbage.
The little paper flags vanished years ago, but recently while roaming through eBay I found a red beret for sale purportedly by a former Communist Youth. I was sorely tempted to buy it but didn’t. If the owner was truly a Communist youth, he wouldn’t have been asking $200 for it and might instead have been willing to accept a well-used pair of jeans.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The 7/11 Quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite

Two or three times a year, I avail myself of the best culinary treat America has to offer. I’m talking, of course, about the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite.
I’m normally not a fan of convenience stores. I think they foster bad habits, including alcoholism and addiction, smoking, gambling and lack of planning. The food there, for the most part, is execrable. Except for the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite.
Normally I get two of them, which I slather with a yellow viscous liquid that is lyingly  called cheese, and chili of dubious provenance. Both condiments come from a machine and are free. Since I’m somewhat embarrassed to be buying 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites, I ask the man behind the counter to bag the distinctive little boxes housing the treats, and I sneak out of the store.
I almost always do this at night, because somehow sins of excess committed at night are more excusable than those performed blatantly in daylight. I’ve noticed as well that this aberrant gastronomic behavior has everything to-do with how I feel, and recently I have not been feeling good. I suspect a lot of it has been my inability to exercise, something which I had been doing faithfully four to five times a week for the past 10 month. Now, zilch. The prospect of additional surgery—the eighth one—does not help either.
Crap. Who am I kidding? I’d celebrate with two 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites if I were feeling great. Or feeling nothing at all… That’s the nature of that sort of treat, you don’t really need a reason, and any motive will do.
The last time I fell off the wagon was coming back from an evening spent with writing friends, critiquing each other’s work. A bunch of them ended up going to noisy bar that I don’t particularly care for where a plate of fries is $7. For that amount I could get three 7/11 Spicy Big Bites. So I parked my car illegally where it said, “No 7/11 Parking” and I went in. There was a homeless guy in there being ignored by the customers. He caught my eye, smiled ingratiatingly and told me he was short a couple of bucks and really wanted to buy a bottle of Inglenook red, so I gave him two dollars, and in return he did not look at me as I ordered the 7/11 Spicy Big Bites, which was worth at least two dollars.
When I got home I took several paper napkins and a dishtowel and laid them on the kitchen counter because the downside of the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites is they’re messy to eat, particularly as they’re dripping ersatz cheese and chili on your jeans.
I took a bite. Heaven.  I wolfed down the first one. The second one I savored more slowly. No less heavenly. I washed them down with redistilled 100 percent naturally rock-filtered spring water from West Virginia and that made everything all right
I slept like a log. I did not get heartburn. I wondered what Joe the trainer at my gym might say, and then it struck me that Joe, judging from his girth, probably has had his fair share of 7/11 Spicy Big Bites. That was cheering. I felt just guilty enough to not repeat the experience the next day.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Twenty Past Midnight

It is 20 past midnight and I am sitting in my kitchen with a now empty jar of Maillot gherkins, a half-loaf of pumpernickel bread, a battered hunk of Icelandic butter and some Port Salut that's been in a baggy too long. I can't sleep. My leg hurts. I have been diagnosed with a herniated L4-5 disc and attendant sciatica. It’s not as bad as it was a couple of weeks ago when I went to the emergency room at 3 a.m., but it remains painful enough to wake me in the middle of the night.  I am still wary of taking opiate- or diazepam-based painkillers. They really don’t seem to be doing much good, and, of course, I am terrified of getting hooked on little blue, orange or white tablets. There was a time a couple of decades ago when my main goal in life was the acquisition of such pills, and I had a retinue of doctors prescribing them. Those were not good times.
I have to go for a cystoscopy tomorrow because for the last couple of days there was blood in my urine. I’m worried that the cancer has come back.
I worked most of the day on the rewrite of a book I was commissioned to author. Over the past couple of  weeks I have trimmed more than a hundred pages from the original manuscript, and there's no doubt the work is better, tighter, a more pleasant an interesting read. Right now, though, I'm sick of it. I have re-read the thing from table of contents to bibliography six times now, always finding more little glitches, dropped quotation marks and misplaced semi-colons. There are niggling inconsistencies, dubious spellings of foreign places, and an army of unwieldy acronyms
At 20 past midnight, the choice of available actions is limited. I can keep eating. Somewhere in the depth of the fridge is a chunk of Camembert cheese and some kielbasa, but I'm beginning to feel porcine.
I can read. The last ten or so nights, I've been involved with Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered the New World. It's a massive book and slow reading, but it appeals to my belief that we know amazingly little about amazingly little. In fact, I’m close to certain that our understanding of early human history is at best vague or at worst downright erroneous. We get names and dates and locations wrong and we confuse winners and losers of battles both important and insignificant. Most history is guesswork. The rest is written by the generals who lost fewer troops than the other guys.
I can watch a DVD, but doing that is certain to screw with my circadian rhythm and every movie I’ve wanted to watch, I’ve watched at least three times already. I can, I know, rely on Seinfeld. I often do, and even though I’m fairly sure I can recite every line spoken by every character in every episode, I still laugh.
I can go for a walk, but the last time I wandered my neighborhood in the middle of the night, a police car stopped me and the man inside wanted to know what I was doing. He was very polite and when I explained that I couldn’t sleep because I was in pain, he nodded, said, “I hope you feel better,” and drove off. Still, it made me feel vaguely stalkerish to be the only person in the street at that time of night. I know for a fact that one of my neighbors likes to strut around our yearly community meeting openly packing a large caliber firearm.  I don’t trust people who feel they have to carry lethal weapons around. Since I’m not sure where he lives, I can’t really avoid maybe passing in front of his house and I’d rather not do that.
Or I can write this blog.