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Seagulls and reality

July 24, 2012
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Sometimes it’s easy to forget where you are when you’re on a beach. Not that it’s easy to get confused about being on a beach, but rather the details can often run together — which beach, which body of water, which continent? I often lose track.

Yesterday the temperature climbed well into the nineties and there was a strong breeze making the sound of crashing waves audible from my office at home, so I headed to the beach. While staring out over the water with the tremendously bright sun making it hard to think or see straight, my brain relocated back to a beach in Israel and the massive Great Lake in front of me morphed into the even more massive Mediterranean.

I snapped back to reality a few moments later when a flock of seagulls descended, settled on the sand around me, and turned to gaze out over the water as well.

Seagulls and Lake Michigan

Seagulls never interrupted my thoughts on beaches in Israel, and it made me wonder — where are all the Israeli seagulls? They must congregate in more locations than just Yaffo and the port area, which is the only place I can recall seeing a group of them hanging out. Perhaps the shouting popsicle vendors and confusing combination of watermelon and Bulgarian cheese keep them at bay.


Hydrangeas in Japan vs. elsewhere

July 5, 2012

In June and July every year when hydrangeas are blooming, I become nostalgic for Japan. My friend Kaori posted a picture of this particular flower not too long ago, reminding me that the beauty of hydrangeas in Japan somehow outshines hydrangeas elsewhere.

Here are some of the prettiest American hydrangeas I’ve seen this summer. They’re a unique combination of colors within the same bloom, all the way from blue to pink in some cases.

American hydrangea, pink and purple in the same bloom

American hydrangea, blue, purple, and pink in the same bloom

Almost all blossoms this year are unusually small. I’m guessing this might be the result of getting frost unusually late, right up through June in some places.

If I were a competent photographer, I’d have taken thousands of beautiful pictures of hydrangeas in Japan. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or look at these lovely photos at Flickr, including:



Hydrangea Hills

guardian deity with hydrangea

In case it wasn’t obvious by now, hydrangeas, especially the purple and blue ones, are by far my most favorite flower.

Netanyahu and self-consciousness

May 22, 2012

The brief window of time during which a rainbow passes across the kitchen counter while I eat breakfast isn’t long enough to read an entire feature-length magazine article. But between Monday and today, I slowly worked my way through the latest issue of TIME magazine’s cover story on Benjamin Netanyahu.

Here’s Bibi with the rainbow:

TIME magazine cover featuring Benjamin Netanyahu

I don’t read much American media coverage of Israel apart from catching headlines from the New York Times and reading about big stories to get additional perspective. For day to day stuff, I prefer to stick to Israeli papers for Israeli news. While not earth-shattering or particularly enlightening for people who regularly keep up with what’s happening in Israel, this magazine article was informative and relatively neutral. If you’re interested in a concise, general overview of the complexity of Israeli demographics and domestic politics, it’s especially relevant.

Rather than discuss said politics, I’d rather share what crossed my mind as I was reading about Netanyahu’s take on the peace process. The article reminded me of the handful of times I’ve come to an impasse during political discussions with Israelis over what to call President Mahmoud Abbas. Like most Americans, I call him Abbas. Israelis call him Abu Mazen, as does most everyone else in the Middle East. I feel awkward calling him Abu Mazen when he comes up in conversation with Israelis, the same way I feel awkward when a British person asks “Where’s your flat?” and I answer with either “My… flat… is nearby” or “My HOUSE [emphasis and self-consciousness mine and mine alone] is over there.” But for the sake of communication, I try not to feel like a complete idiot when superficially adopting the lingo of whomever I’m speaking to without giving the impression that I don’t recognize how silly it is to say “flat” when I’m an American who’s never lived in the U.K. or how disingenuous it is to say “Abu Mazen” when I’m not even allowed to have an Israeli passport.

And then once again, the rainbow dropped off the edge of the counter and it was time to get back to work.

Rainbow breakfast timer

May 18, 2012

Every morning for the past few weeks, a rainbow moves across the kitchen counter while I eat breakfast. It’s from light reflecting through a glass light fixture that hangs in front of a window in direct sunlight, and I know it’s time to get back to work once the rainbow disappears off the edge of the counter.

Rainbow on kitchen counter

This is a much more enjoyable way of keeping track of time than having one eye glued to the clock in the morning.

Mt. Pisgah in America

May 3, 2012

While on a walk a while back, I came across a park surrounding a large sand dune. Someone, most likely one of the innumerable Christian Reformed residents of this area, decided it would be appropriate to name this little hill Mount Pisgah. The name piqued my curiosity — pisgah, pronounced “PISS-ghee” by the locals, is actually a Hebrew word (פסגה, pronounced “peace-GAH”) meaning “mountain top” or “summit.”

Wondering how Christians reading Bibles in English could come up with this word and apply it, however ironically, to a mountain of sorts, I turned to Google to find out where the word “pisgah” appears in the Christian Bible in English. It turns out it comes from the book of the Bible that is the most fun to say in English: Deuteronomy (based on the Greek interpretation of “second law”), which in Hebrew is mundanely dubbed דברים (Devarim, “Things” in modern Hebrew or “[Spoken] Words” in more traditional biblical language). In the English translation of the Bible, the summit of the mountain Moses was called to by God to view the promised land was interpreted as a proper name — Pisgah — instead of being literally translated as “the summit.” Oops.

Here’s the view from the local “pisgah” of the surrounding promised land. Like the two halves of the rapidly evaporating Dead Sea, the two lakes pictured below aren’t connected anymore either, save for a man-made channel.

View from Mt. Pisgah

View from Mt. Pisgah

Made in Israel

April 22, 2012
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As someone with a whole lot of unruly hair that was made even more unruly by years of inexplicably hard water and deserty (yet somehow simultaneously very humid) weather in Israel, I was in need of a product that tamed and softened thick and uncooperative long hair. This stuff does the trick, but every time I use it, I wonder how something named “Moroccan Oil,” created by a French Canadian company and sold in America, could be made in Israel.

Moroccan Oil made in Israel

It’s the first and only product I’ve ever seen with this label outside the hummus section of the grocery store.

On speaking uncommon languages abroad and at home

April 12, 2012

As an English and French speaker in Japan, I enjoyed being able to have private conversations in public places without worrying that someone would overhear or eavesdrop. As a Japanese speaker in Boston, I liked speaking Japanese with visiting friends and gaining a similar layer of privacy even on the T. Speaking English in Paris attracted tourists like a magnet and therefore lost a lot of its appeal. Being an English speaker in affluent parts of Israel doesn’t allow the same level of privacy due to the comparatively excellent English skills the majority of people seem to possess and the large communities of native English speakers in the American-founded city where I lived. But being a Hebrew speaker (or as I prefer to label myself, a Hewbrew comprehender) in a place where the nearest Jewish community is three hours away is a whole new experience.

Since returning to the U.S., and thanks to living in a relatively harmless bubble of conservative Christian America where few people harbor ill will toward Israel or Israelis, it feels safe to speak Hebrew. This stands in stark contrast to Paris, where my husband’s employer instructed him not to speak or read Hebrew in public due to the comparatively prevalent issues of anti-Semitism. In Israel, we preferred to speak English together most days in order to stave off the steady deterioration of his communication skills, which suffered greatly (but have since bounced back admirably) since he had no reason to speak English except with me. In the U.S., we’re aiming to maintain my fluency in Hebrew, such as it is, and hopefully improve it significantly.

To that end, my husband does his best to speak Hebrew to me at a natural pace, trying hard to phrase things literally so I don’t get lost in idioms, though it’s a struggle for him to avoid word play that sails far over my head. He claims to be impressed with my listening comprehension, and given how reluctant he is to praise my Hebrew skills, I feel pretty good about it too. There are moments when I fail in epic ways — the other day he had just gotten home, exhausted and sweaty, and was talking about how he’d been at the חדר כושר (cheder kosher). For some reason my brain processed this as cheder = room and kosher = kosher. I got the first word right, but in Hebrew, of all languages, kosher doesn’t mean “kosher.” In Hebrew, “kosher” (as in kosher food) is כשר (kasher), and kosher means something like “fitness.” That makes cheder kosher the gym, not a mysterious kosher room. Oops.

Now that my Hebrew has advanced to this modest but serviceable (most of the time) point, I’m reminded of my final weeks living in Boston before moving to Israel. I sold a lot of things before leaving rather than putting stuff in storage, and one couple who came to buy some furniture excused themselves for a moment to discuss details between them. “Please excuse us. We’re going to speak Hebrew now,” the woman said. “That’s fine,” I replied, surprised at how small the world can feel sometimes. “I hope someday I’ll be able to speak it too.”

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