[Deep] Reflections of a [Returning] New Yorker.

“You are from New York. Therefore you are just naturally interesting”-Hannah, on Girls.

“New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down”-LCD Soundsystem

Once upon a time there was a girl who was born and raised in New York City and didn’t think about it too much. This girl (she loved to draw) rode subways to middle school and trick or treated down apartment hallways and was impressed by the lush yards of the New Jersey houses she would occasionally visit.  Surrounded by artists in an art high school, she went to groovy parties and didn’t  know they were groovy because she had nothing to compare them too.

Then the girl went off to an international college in Israel, where she was embarrassed by the excitement other people showed when she told them  her origins. It seemed her new classmates either thought her life in New York resembled  Sex and the City  (her protestations as to the ludicrousness of Carrie’s lifestyle in comparison to her meager one column a week employment status fell upon deaf ears), or a densely populated commune of liberalism and fashionable snobbery (This she denied vigorously, until she would slip up and mention a protest her friends were organizing or make an offhand remark about the return to culinary basics as evidenced by the recent popularity of organ meats on trendy restaurant menus) .

Tired of trying to defend her normalcy, the girl gave in and shut up when new acquaintances waxed on over how lucky she was, preferring the company of friends who didn’t give a damn. Upon her graduation and eventual return to New  York, the girl realized she had changed in two significant ways. One, having spent so much time away from the city with people of wildly different cultural attitudes, she  now fully realized how lucky she really was to have grown up there. And two, having spent so much time away from the city with people of wildly different cultural attitudes, she found herself looking upon the teeming masses wondering, for the first time, if all these people weren’t batshit crazy.

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The Oxford Follies.

The Transportation Options in Oxford.

The other week, I flew to Oxford, England to pay a 3- day visit to my good friend Noam and his girlfriend Sophie, both of whom are students at Oxford University. In my last 2 months in Israel, I am determined to take advantage of every available opportunity to crash on a friend’s couch in another country. Carpe Diem, right? My time in Oxford can be condensed into 8 mini-anecdotes, or minicdotes.

Minicdote#1: Oxford, England’s clouds look different.

I really lucked out on my trip: I was fortunate enough to enjoy the first 3 days of sunshine Oxfordians had had the entire year. Although my Mediterranean sun-accustomed skin was freezing; feebly trying to soak in warmth from layers of flimsy cardigans, my hosts and their friends flounced out of the house wearing shorts and gauzy tops.This time of year in Israel the sky is devoid of any disturbance except perhaps a wisp of condensation in the air. Although the sun was shining in Oxford, I was struck by how the clouds hung in the sky; heavy, solid masses, they looked the very picture of grudging acquiescence to the blue firmament.

Minicdote #2: Oxford Takes It’s Grass Seriously 

Oxford University has been around since at least 1096. That means that there are 916 years of accumulated bureaucracy and rules in place. This causes some interesting situations in 21st century life. Like the grass. Oxford University is divided into 38 separate colleges, each with it’s own internal structure and building. Wandering around where you do not belong is generally frowned upon, and it is quite possible for respected professors who have been in the university for decades to have never stepped foot in most of Oxford’s Colleges. Each college building has a patch of beautifully manicured, soft, green grass. Used to the hard brown patches in Israel, I wondered aloud how pleasant it would be to relax and have a picnic there.

Noam quickly vetoed that idea. Apparently, the grass is strictly off limits…unless (wait for it) ….YOU ARE PLAYING CROQUET.

Thats right. Croquet. So on nice days the grass is literally covered with Oxford students trying to play, or pretend to play, what has to be (to my crass American eyes) the most pointless game in the history of the world.

Minicdote #3: They Knew How to Build’em in the Old Days: Imposing Architecture.

Oxford’s colleges are these massive, impressive stone structures with every architectural influence known to Europe since about 1200. One of the most impressive examples was Christ Church College, the only cathedral that is also a college. Christ Church seemed surprisingly familiar; the interior of the student’s cafeteria was the model for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Adding to Christ Church’s literary cred is this fact: Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, a student and teacher at Christ Church. He was a brilliant mathematician who invented the Alice in Wonderland stories for the amusement of the Dean’s little daughter, conveniently named Alice. Bam.

Minicdote#4: The Radcliffe Camera Library Should be Location-Scouted for the Next Bourne Film.

This building on the upper left? that is the most badass library ever. The building is called The Radcliffe Camera, “Camera” meaning “room” in French. Tourists are not allowed to enter, and students can only enter with a swipe of a valid school ID card. In a move worthy of the greatest secret agents, I passed off Sophie’s card for my own, walked in behind Noam and watched carefully while he exaggeratedly swiped in (for my benefit) under the watchful gaze of the Librarian. Even with Noam’s guidance, I still bungled it up and swiped it in the wrong way, setting off an annoying alarm. Shit. I quickly flipped the ID over and swiped it in correctly, muttering nonchalantly about “these stupid cards”. Phew.

The inside of the Rad Cam was, of course, architecturally beautiful. What struck me though was the sheer force of the concentration shared by the students who spent a significant portion of their Oxford careers hunched over a desk, studying. The silence was complete, without even the hushed whispers found in most libraries. No, the students here were studying for dear life, and the atmosphere reflected the gravity of that purpose. I spent only a few minutes in the upper floors with Noam, so out of place I felt without a book or a purpose to read it. Than Noam took me to the two levels beneath  the library. These underground basements were as depressing as the upper floors were uplifting. No windows, industrial steel columns painted a thick  grey color, shelves upon metal shelves of books were placed close together, operated apart by use of a manual crank. Noam pointed out a small round table in the corner with a fluorescent halo above it. “I spent 10 hours a day here last semester”, he said as we left. Although I much preferred the upper floors in terms of decor, the basement part of the Rad Cam had one outstanding characteristic; an underground tunnel connecting the library with another library. Sweet.

Minicdote#5: The Discovery of Brown Sauce and Fish & Chips with J.R.R Tolkien

Allright, I thought I knew what I was getting into when I ordered a traditional English breakfast. It is basically the same as an American diner breakfast, but with the addition of beans and fried tomatoes. This was why I was caught off-guard when I was asked if I wanted “brown sauce” with that. Did I? Sophie said yes. Brown sauce is actually a version of HP sauce (which I’ve never had), and Brits smear it on their ham pieces before consumption. It has a soury, umami flavor that becomes strangely addictive with every bite.

My next food quest was to the Eagle and Child; an old, old pub famous not for being old but for being where J.R.R Tolkien and friends (including C.S. Lewis) would hang out and (presumably) get drunk. As a self-confessed LOTR nerd this was hands down one of the greatest moments of my trip. We ordered fish and chips, and were chatting happily when I accidentally pushed too hard on the edge of my plate, sending the half-eaten fish and chips sliding gracefully to my lap. There was a moment when everyone who saw stopped and stared to see how I would “react”. Trying to ignore the burning in my cheeks I did what any girl would do; swiftly pick up the fish and chip pieces from my lap, return them to my plate and continue eating, as if nothing had happened.  Only later in the privacy of the loo did I scrub my jeans with a soapy paper towel, fearful lest I smell like stale fish for the rest of the day.

Minicdote #6: The Morning After, and Jubilee Pride

 Friday night, Oxford. Word on the street was there was a house party across the road. Nice. House parties are chill. So why are all of Noam’s house-mates wearing bright purple and green and debating the use of glitter? Ah. Right. The house party is “mardi gras” theme. Wait- house parties have themes that people actually follow? this concept was completely alien to me. I friggin’ love theme parties, and have tried desperately to throw them in Israel and in the States. Fancy outfit theme party, 90’s theme party, 20’s theme party, Alter -ego theme party….the end result is always me and one other person going all out with the “theme”, then feeling awkward the rest of the night when everyone else shows up in jeans. Not so in Oxford. Theme parties here are taken seriously, as are house parties. There was talk of a chocolate fountain, gold eyeshadow and tights. Ultimately, we went to the house party, where I felt awkward in jeans, then to a pub which kicked us out at 11:30 pm. Wandering the Oxford streets searching for food, I thought how funny it was that in Israel, a night out that begins before 11pm and ends before 4am is considered a bust. We finally found a halal kebab place that sold fried chicken and chips, which we devoured greasily from it’s styrofoam container in the dark kitchen at the ungodly hour of 1am. The next morning the evidence of some other hungry students’ ketchup-smeared,  late night styrofoam meals was found speared on the  wrought iron fence of some quaint Oxford street.

Now about the upcoming Jubilee. The Brits have a deep affection for the Queen, which is understandable, as she has been Queen for  60 years. In America and especially in Israel, our political figures come and go so quickly we simply dont have time to develop lasting bonds with them. We don’t have time to celebrate their 60th year of reign, or put their faces on collectable tea cups that cost a fortune, or make “jubilee cupcakes” proudly displaying the union jack. I flirted with the idea of buying a jubilee tea cup, but in the end the 15 pound price tag and my innate fear of disrespecting the Queen (spilling instant coffee down Her Majesty’s face)  kept me from doing so. Long Live the Queen!

Minicdote#7: The Importance of  Tea, and Impulsive Shopping .

I am no stranger to tea. In my house we always drank tea with fresh mint, Moroccan style. Later on I would start every morning with sweet black tea and milk. To me, tea in the morning is like giving your stomach a hug, whereas drinking coffee in the morning is like kicking your stomach in the face. Many times I am the only tea drinker in the room, so it was with a feeling of homecoming that I touched down in a country where tea is for real. Strong, black tea in a ceramic teapot that has a tea cozy to keep it hot kind of real. I became obsessed with the idea of owning my very own English China Teapot. I never had tea sets or tea parties as a child, so  maybe I was regressing. Whatever. This idea took root in my brain and wouldn’t let go, especially as I was surrounded all over by tea parties in progress.

Sophie was kind enough to take me teapot shopping. My requirements were twofold: One, the teapot had to be made in England, and Two, it had to be as twee* as possible (ATAP). What followed was an epic journey in and out of 8 wildly different stores, from malls to boutiques. None of their teapots fit the bill. Finally, faced with the prospect of returning home teapot-less, and coming to terms with the fact that very little English China was made in England anymore, we walked into an amazing vintage shop called The Ballroom Emporium. There  on a shelf stood  not only a beautiful, twee teapot MADE IN ENGLAND, but an entire complete set of tea cups and saucers, creamer and sugar cube holder. The cups were made in France but this only increased their appeal; I am all for peace and co-existence between the Brits and Frenchies on my Tea-table. That was how, in an impulsive decision, I ended up flying back to Israel with an heirloom-worthy 9-piece English/French Tea set. I bought sugar cubes and biscuits too. Tea party anyone?

The Ballroom Emporium: 5&6 The Plain, Oxford, OX4 1AS

*Twee |twē| adjective Brit. chiefly derogatory, excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental

Culture Wars: Cars.

In the hustle and bustle of a return to my “normal” life as a student in Israel, I had to put on hold for a bit my reflections on the differences between the car culture in Israel and New York.

These reflections were formulated as I wandered the vast halls of  Javits convention center in New York for the annual car show. The car show is something of a family tradition, though in past years it has been the exclusive domain of my father and brother.

Imagine a playground covering over 675,000 square feet of space. Now imagine that that playground is made up entirely of shiny new cars and motorcycles, and you have an inkling of how cool the Auto show is.

I made the rounds with my brother, slipping in and out of leather interiors and making informed comments over the size of the glove compartment of the new Jaguar (spacious) and the legroom of a Mini Cooper (Anti-Spacious). When we slipped into a new car, our identities and personas were subtly changed, from a family on mile 400 of a grueling road trip (minivan) to chic business people on our way to the company retreat in the Hamptons (Audi luxury sedan).

The car show made me think of the unique bond Americans have with their cars. For us, cars are more than a motor conveyance; they are an accessory, indicative of the kind of lifestyle we have, or wish we had. My father leases his car instead of purchasing because he (and by extension, the rest of the family) derives a child-like pleasure in switching vehicles every 3 1/2 years. I can look back on my life easily by recalling the sequence of automobiles:

Ages 0-21.5:

  1. Red car (make unknown),
  2. Green Ford station wagon with the awesome back seats,
  3. Undistinguished grey Saturn sedan, black Ford Crossover (11-14),
  4.  Black Ford Explorer (14-18),
  5. Black Toyota Rav4,
  6. Black Toyota Rav4 Sports edition with sunroof.

 As you can tell by the list, sometime after the age of ten (after the Saturn) my mother made her preference for black cars known.

In Israel you would be hard put to find a black car, or any dark colored car for that matter. In a country so damn hot, attracting more sun to a black metal rooftop is simply not worth it. The majority of the cars on the road are white or light colored, and the most of them are sedans or tiny cars imported from Europe. Israel lacks the wide open spaces America has to experiment with bigger  and bigger cars, all the more so because Israeli cities are for the most part based on ancient foundations that are not conducive to extensive road-widening. In an effort to reduce the traffic on already congested roads, the government places high import taxes on any cars being sold in the country, making a car an expensive commitment.

I don’t drive very much; by the time I got my license I was out of the house on my way to college in Herzliya, a suburb off of Tel- Aviv where having a car is unnecessary, especially for a student on a budget. The beauty of the car show is that you don’t need to drive to appreciate the cars, it’s the appreciation of the people who love them that makes it so much fun.

I needed to take a picture of this to prove such a thing could exist. At the Porsche stall, a little gift section was placed with cutesy, asshole-y things like gold cufflinks with the Porsche logo or a sign that read “Porsche Parking Only”.  But this, the set of Porsche ice cubes for $20.00 took the cake. Who wouldn’t want one of these baby’s?

The Ladies of the Car Show: 

Some cars were so special they had their own private lady person standing around next to them, presumably to look pretty while guarding the car from theft. They all looked really bored.

Epic Seder.

When I was younger, I would mark the passing of the year by the arrival of Passover (or Pesach).  I knew that when Pesach came, the year was almost over (from the ages of 5 to 15  I was under the impression that the year began in September [School] and ended in June [Summer Vacation!])

In Israel, I celebrate Pesach Morroccan-style with my grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunts.  We go through the entire Haggadah (no shortcuts) and sing traditional sephardic Pesach songs, some in Arabic. Whenever I would whine to my mother “Are we there, yet?” whispering under the chanting undulations of the Seder, she would point out to me that I had it easy: when she was a child, my grandfather would recite the Haggadah twice: once in Hebrew, and once in Arabic.

Pesach in Israel is a totally different vibe: no wheat is allowed (chametz) and the days before bakeries close, and supermarkets practically give away their pasta. Those uninterested in abstaining from gluten stuff their freezers with baked goods in preparation for a week in which any trace of chametz is obliterated or covered with a black cloth: If you can’t see it, is doesnt exist.

This year, I flew home to NYC for Pesach break to celebrate the holiday with my nuclear family and friends. My mom went all out, as usual; making lamb, matza balls (light and fluffy) chicken,gefilte fish (from scratch), chopped liver, veggie chopped liver, kebabs with cinnamon sticks and maybe 8 different salads. The kebabs especially were a big hit : cinnamon sticks are meat’s new best friend.

My favorite part of the Seder, besides for the obvious act of eating, is the moment right before the guests come: when the table, gleaming in white and crystal, shines with the light of the setting sun and the promise of a good year to come.

I Love You, Halloween-But Purim Wins.

“Are you here for the interview? ” the bearded man wearing a red leather skirt asked me.

“Uh, yeah” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the club music.

“Follow me”

he turned, his pink feather boa trailing behind him.

We passed a group of people milling around a table full of food and drinks. The women wore angel wings and the men wore lipstick.

He looked at me sideways-

“I don’t always dress like this, you know”.

This exchange didn’t happen in a cross-dressing dive bar. It was Wednesday morning, and I was being interviewed for an internship position at a successful start-up company. What made this day different was that it happened to be the office’s Purim Party, and in Israel, people take purim (and parties) seriously.

I used to think purim was the Jewish version of halloween. Both holidays involve costumes, after all. What I know now is anyone who has only experienced purim in some hebrew school event when they were 12 is missing out on what has to be one of the greatest holidays ever.

The story goes like this: In ancient Persia there was a king named Achashverosh who drank too much one night and asked his wife Vashti to show her face to his court. She refused, and in a fit of drunken, misplaced rage  Achashverosh either had her killed (murder status) or divorced her (dickwad status).

Whatever he did,  the morning after Achashverosh wakes up and realizes he needs another wife. He chooses beautiful Esther, who doesn’t tell him she is Jewish. Achashverosh has an evil minister named Haman, who plans to kill  all the Jews, saving a special gallows for one in particular named Mordechai (who happens to be Esther’s father but no one knows this) Esther finds out, and yadda yadda yadda she saves the Jews and Haman is hanged on the same gallows he built to kill Mordechai.

Purim is celebrated by everyone dressing up in costume and getting really, really drunk. Drunk enough not to know the difference  between the evil Haman and the blessed Mordechai- to experience the topsy-turvyness of the way the evil plot of Haman was turned around at the last minute upon himself.

Purim in Israel is like a 3 day carnival where everyone  drinks, dresses up and dances like there is  no tomorrow. Without the “spooky” iconography of halloween, you see no witches or ghosts or vampires or mummies. Purim costumes are some of the most original and creative I’ve ever seen; both the ones worn during the night’s carousing and the ones worn during the day’s festivals.

Here is a sampling of the best costumes out there-and don’t worry: Come October, you can steal these ideas for halloween; I won’t tell.

Happy Purim.

NIGHT

What do a hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Waldos and the Mad Hatter have in common? They all love Purim!

                                                                                                                       DAY

All of Tel Aviv came out for the Purim street party

Two men, One rack.

There was also Cinnamon Freshener and Lemon Freshener.

Love is just a roll of the dice

The boy who cried wolf!

Pirate Booty (candy time)

Little prince on the go.

                                                                                                                       DOGS

I have never seen so many awesome dog costumes/ dog theme costumes. Tel Avivniks love their dogs. I present to you:

Shrimp dog with Mermaid (not shown). Cupcakes not included.

Punk Dog rockin' the faux-hawk.

Fred Flintstone and Leopard Dog

SuperDog is chill, surveying the scene....

Superbowl on the Mend.

It’s hard to get excited about the superbowl in a country that doesn’t care (or even know the proper definition of) football. It remains up to the Americans out there to crowd the few bars showing the game, guzzle Israeli beer and feel at home for a few hours. Alas, the time difference alters the scene a little bit. Instead of settling down for an evening ’round the television around six pm, those wishing to see those superbowl commercials in real time must wait until 1AM for the game to start. In past years I have gone out with my friends to Mike’s Place or Bourbon Street, both great American bars where we cheered the teams until well past 4AM. None of us are real football fans in our daily lives, but it feels good to be a part of something that we know is uniting Americans everywhere.

This year I am taking it easy- Having just recovered from a nasty stomach bug, I am in no shape to drink and yell into the early morning hours at a bar. Instead, I am staying in with my mom (visiting from New York) where we will watch the game sipping Virgin Bloody Mary’s and munching on homemade buffalo wings, cheering our home team on.

Caga Tio Is My Homeboy.

As the holiday season ends (unless you are an Orthodox Christian, in which case it ends on Jan. 6th) It becomes time to eat the last latke and wave goodbye to Santa.  I love the fact that I can celebrate these holidays wherever I am in the world, though not in exactly the same way.

Not too long before I flew to Barcelona in November, a friend told me about the Catalan tradition of “Caga Tio”, or Tio de Nadal.  Caga Tio literally translated means “Uncle Shit” (or Uncle Poop, for the PG version.) Apparently, instead of a jolly bearded fat man bringing presents down the chimney,  the Catalans have a painted log in the fireplace that “shits” out presents.

For Real.

Caga Tio has a little painted face, little stick legs, and a little red blanket to keep him warm. Come Christmas, the children of Catalonia  hit him with sticks to make him shit out presents. When Caga Tio is done shitting presents, he shits a herring. The children sing a song while doing this. Translated, it goes something like this:

Uncle Shit!

Shit log,

Shit turrón [a Catalan candy], hazelnuts and cottage cheese,

if you don’t shit well,

I’ll hit you with a stick,

Uncle Shit!

Caga Tio has it rough. Can you imagine the pressure?  you have to shit out presents, potentially with hard corners or weird shapes, and while you are trying to concentrate on that, a bunch of screaming kids are hitting you with sticks. I’d shit a herring early on purpose just to teach them a lesson. But then they still might hit me with sticks….

During Christmas, Catalans also traditionally sell these figurines called “Caganers” which are little statues of people defecating. I mean, really defecating-squatting, pants down, with a neat coil of feces below the buttocks. The most popular Caganers are those of famous people. When I was in Barcelona it was a bit early for Caganers but I did see a Muammar Quaddafi Caganer, a Vladimir Putin Caganer, a Barak Obama Caganer, a Kate Middleton Caganer and a Madonna Caganer. I also snapped this photo of a Caga Tio.

Royal couple caganers.

 I still love Santa, but I have a lot of respect and affection for Caga Tio. What I don’t have a lot of  affection for is what goes on in Austria and The Netherlands. Hailing from The Netherlands (and parts of Belgium), let me introduce you to Zwarte Piet, otherwise known as Black Peter.

Zwarte Piet

A traditional figure in Netherlands/Belgian folklore, Black Peter is Santa (or “Sinterklass”)’s servant. Other myths state that Sinterklaas used to be accompanied on Christmas by the Devil. When Sinterklaas triumphed over the Devil, the Devil became his slave….known as Black Peter.  As part of Christmas in the Netherlands and in Belgium there are all these parades with people dressed up as Zweite Piet, wearing blackface and a renaissance page outfit, following behind Santa. Recently, there has been media concern that Zwarte Piet is a racist figure (no duh) and efforts have been made to change the tradition, like having Piet’s face be painted all different colors (except for black), or scratching the Zwarte Piet character from the celebration. These measures were met with general public outcry.

Hajji Firuz

Historically, it is interesting to note that a very similar tradition exists during the Persian New Year celebration of Nowruz, where a character called Hajji Firuz, a Moor, travels alongside Amoo Norooz; A white bearded “Uncle” of the New Year. Revelers celebrating Hajji Firuz also put on blackface. I’m not going to judge  Zwarte Piet, or Hajji Firuz for that matter, though because of my historic/cultural background I do believe that the source of the mythology and the modern blackface-wearing is crossing a certain line.

Then again, what do I know? I just made a post about the cultural differences in humor, why should Zwarte Piet be any different?

Coming in at 3rd place is Austria’s Krampus. Krampus is a mythical demon-creature that accompanies St.Nicholas during Christmas, shaking rusty chains and bells to frighten children and carting off evil children in a sack to eat for dinner. This is scary. What is scarier is that this tradition isn’t some quaint Victorian thing. People today get dressed up and roam the streets in what must be the scariest f**** demon costumes I’ve ever seen, rattling rusty chains. Granted, I’m sure the fact that the demons are drunk and laughing probably makes it less scary….for me. But If I was a kid seeing that shit, I know the damage would be irreparable.

This demon means business, little children......

Krampus greeting cards, called Krampuskarten, have been given to children for hundreds of years. I saw this one, and it just makes me really, really uncomfortable.

So yes. Caga Tio wins.