The Ugliest Mug in the World.

This, my friends, is The Ugliest Mug in the World. I chanced upon it today while tagging along on a shopping mission at a small home-goods store. I like these small, family-run businesses because you can never really be sure what you are going to find in them. Lord knows I was not expecting this to be hidden among the innocuous flowered mugs sitting on the shelf.

Like an enigma, this mug is puzzling and inexplicable; rife with hidden meaning. Why is the pony singing? Why is it wearing lipstick? Why does it have two sets of back feet?  Is the handle the same pony? Or a mutant cat-pony hybrid? Is the handle pony creeping on the mug pony, or vice versa?  The questions were endless.

I brought the cup over to the saleslady/owner for some answers.

“Do you know where you got this mug?” I asked.

She peered under the mug, searching for  a mark, a symbol, anything to identify this cursed ceramic. Spotless.

Looking slightly perplexed, she shrugged.


And with the transfer of 12 Shekels (about $3) the mug was mine.

Unwrapping my purchase at home, I realized what had been naggingly familiar about the mug pony’s face. It looked like David Bowie.

This mug has the appeal of a train wreck. It is horrifying and grotesque, yet I cannot look away. I am actually becoming kind of inspired by it; If there is room in the world for a mug with a singing, prancing, David Bowie-esque horse thing and a cat-pony handle,  then surely there is room enough for me.

And so, with the smugness of one who knows she is unbeatable, I challenge YOU, dear reader, to find a mug uglier than this one.

It is a task I do not envy.




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.

I’m Not Funny In Your Language: The Bilingual Transfer of Wit.

Being funny requires wit, speed and timing; qualities I have…in English. Being funny in Hebrew is a different story. The wit may be there, but my brain cannot formulate the Hebrew words fast enough to match the pace of the conversation. Many times I find myself conducting a mental repartee with my Hebrew- speaking friends while remaining outwardly silent. This causes many of  the Israeli’s I meet to consider me a shy and quiet presence, an impression at odds with my alternate English- speaking identity.

I was thinking about the universality of humor last night when I went to popular Tel-Aviv comedy club The Camel Club with a friend to check out some stand up.

Watching the seated crowd laughing over their rickety comedy-club tables I realized that the world is divided into three distinct camps: those who provide humor, those who receive humor and those who do neither. Receivers are the ones who laugh, who acknowledge and appreciate the Provider’s efforts. Providers dole out their  humor to the specific community of Receivers for whom they serve. The very best Providers appeal to a wide range of Receivers, though most Receivers respond to only a specific kind of Provider . Everyone knows what a Neither is; the ones always slow on the uptake, the girl who never gets it, the guy who laughs at everything in order to cover up th fact that he can’t tell the difference between funny and not.

Listening to Hebrew stand-up was a lesson in  my own ability to become a Receiver in another language. Had someone provided an American with a translated transcript of the night’s material, I doubt he would have found even 30% of it remotely funny. This was because what made me laugh in Hebrew was not the same as what made me laugh in English, and though the sound of my laughter held no discernible difference, the quality of it was as different as night and day.

There are cultural differences. Israelis, for example, revel in the kind of Holocaust jokes that would get anyone in the States (or much of the world, for that matter) suspended or permanently shunned. A popular joke involves the high school trip many Israelis take to Poland to go on the “Holocaust Tour”. This trip is pretty much dreaded by Israeli teenagers weary of a year’s worth of intensive Holocaust exposure and unused to the harsh Polish climate. Referencing this, a comedian last night riffed:

” If I could go back in time, I would take baby Hitler and drop him off in the Caribbean. Let him do a Holocaust there so that 70 years later instead of freezing my ass in Poland I could’ve gone on a trip to the Caribbean.”

In English, this joke is unfunny and extremely offensive. In Hebrew, it is HILARIOUS. The comedian, Ayal, later told me of his trip to the U.S, where he participated in some New York City open mic nights (I gave him major props-open mic night’s are terrifying enough without having to perform in a language you have only moderate proficiency in.) He told the Holocaust joke above, and to his puzzlement, got booed off stage. Further confusing him, was what the American audiences did find uproarious. His name, Ayal Naor, translates into “Enlightened Moose.”

Now that’s funny.

Let It Snow….Or, Let The Dandruff Fall.

I’ve become, shall we say, disconnected from snow. After three years of balmy, 60°F winters and oven-hot summers it just doesn’t really have any place in my life anymore. So when WordPress came out with this nifty “holiday snow” effect, my first thought was “Oh, That looks like dandruff falling.”

I asked a few other people, and all they saw was delightful snow, shaking their heads sadly as I exclaimed “Really? come on, it TOTALLY looks like dandruff” to which they replied “Ew.”

I felt very alone.

And so I decided that to honor those memories of white winters past, whether it was snow or dandruff, it deserved to fall.

Explaining Thanksgiving.

” It’s not Thanksgiving unless you eat the leftovers for breakfast.”

I really dig Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s the lack of religious iconography, or the day off you get from school (in the U.S., that is) But I think it has to do with the whole premise. Lets get together, eat a lot of really filling food, and then collapse in a companionable food coma amongst friends and family.

This is assuming that you don’t have to explain the historical background behind the holiday. A hopeless endeavor. It just makes you and America look bad. An example:“…So the settlers had no food and were starving because they couldn’t get their shit together and the Indians basically saved their asses by showing them how to eat corn. They celebrated this gesture of goodwill with a meal offering thanks. What? Oh yeah, then the settlers kind of killed a lot of Indians and now Indians live on reservations. But we still celebrate Thanksgiving…..”)

This holiday is easy to share with non-Americans (or NonAms). Many of them have been to a number of Thanksgiving feasts before, hosted by various expats around the world. I enjoy cooking the meal, and accepting with humility the compliments afterward (scratch that. Those complements make me feel like The Greatest Chef In The World. Self-esteem goes up through the roof.)Sitting around an international Thanksgiving table, there are always inevitable questions.

Q: What is the difference between Turkey and Chicken?  

Chicken and turkey have nothing in common except mutual birdhood. Maybe they look like large/small versions of eachother when decapitated and de-feathered, but that is no way to compare them.  Next.

Q:Why must Americans have a holiday which celebrates gluttony over a dinner of carbs, then finishes it off with three kinds of pie? Do you really need three kinds of pie?

Yes, we do need to finish with three kinds of pie because America is the land of plenty and that is how we roll. Next.

Q: [With wonder] What is this dish of bread chunks and fruit that tastes like meat?

That, my Viennese friend, is stuffing. In my experience, stuffing is a surprisingly unknown dish outside the U.S.A. Many NonAms have never tried anything like this strange mixture of stale bread, cranberries, apples and turkey juice. They don’t understand it, but they love it anyway.

And that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.

Sawdust on the Floor, Water in My Wine.

“Barcelona is so Medieval.”

  Being a tourist in the rain offers a unique opportunity to see how a city works in times of stress. Things are messier, wetter, brusque-er. Chances are everyone who is not a tourist is staying home, as you would if it was raining cats and dogs in your hometown.

On the Metro in Barcelona  I overheard a tourist say to her companion (in a contrived, world-weary tone) “Honestly, all European towns look the same.” This is like saying all neighborhoods in NYC look the same because hey, they all got streetlights, right? Silly tourist.

Barcelona, like all cities, has those little quirks that separate it from the rest. One of the first things I noticed was that almost every apartment window has an outdoor awning/curtain thing. To guard against the rain? The Catalan sun? the effect to me was that of a million mini shop windows in a riot of color.

The Awnings of Barcelona:

But awnings are not Medieval.

Sawdust is.

Finding shelter from the rain in a pastry shop,  I notice a powdery brown material on the floor rapidly turning to mud-slush under my feet.

“What am I stepping in?” I ask Maya.

“Sawdust. To soak up the rain.” she answers.

Really, Barcelona? Your number one rain-soaker is the material that for centuries was used to soak up blood in operating rooms? The sawdust isn’t only indoors, but sprinkled liberally on the streets, where it doesn’t so much soak up the rain as turn into a pulpy paste and make the bottom of your shoes look like a stableboy’s.  This sawdust puzzles me. Isn’t it grosser and harder to clean up a brown wet mess then to swipe off clean water with a squeegee? Barcelona was really tidy otherwise so I guess they have some sort of system in place.

Another habit that struck me as medieval, but quaint is the Barcelona habit of ordering a bottle of wine and a bottle of sparkling water and then watering the wine with the sparkling water to create sparkling wine. Nothing wrong with that, but in every book I’ve read set in a Medieval-ish time there is some line like “….and they supped on bread and cheese and watered wine…”  As far as I know, In the Middle Ages when water wasn’t safe to drink, the beverage of choice for children and adults was watered wine or beer; watered to prevent everyone from being falling-down drunk all day.

So anyway, because it’s not the Middle Ages, it was cool to see people doing that.

Rainy Day Impressions:

Sitting in the rain.

There’s a bird on your helmet.

Rainy Pow-wow.

Spare a Euro?

In a few hours I will take off from Ben-Gurion airport in Israel to El Prat de Llobregat Aeropuerto in Barcelona, Spain. Waiting for me in a restaurant close to the Metro (so I won’t get lost) will be my dear friend Maya. Maya and I will sit down and proceed to eat my first meal in Barcelona, which will hopefully include anchovies.

I’ve realized that November is not the ideal time to go almost anywhere. Last November, in Paris, it was rainy and cold every day-though this was a plus of sorts because there were fewer tourists. Maya told me the weather in Barcelona is relatively pleasant; between 60° to 70° degrees fahrenheit (15°-21° C for the rest of the world).

This is the forecast in Barcelona for the next 5 days:

Not bad. Along with packing, I also exchanged my dollars for euros today. A depressing task. Here are the “have fun in Barcelona dollars” I toiled for all summer to earn:


 And here are the “maybe not as much fun as I had thought euros”:

It’s Monopoly Money!

Whats up with the different size bills? Euros don’t even look like real money. They look like toy money. Especially the 5€.