Monday, February 19, 2007

The Confines of Your Clique

One of the things I had noticed about the traveller’s life in India (and I don’t at all suggest that this is specific to India) is that people are both a lot less self-conscious, and lot less cliquish than in Australia. For example, if you are out in Australia, most young people are preoccupied with how they look and appearing fashionable. Furthermore, people rarely socialise outside of their own group. This true at the pubs and clubs, and it is even true at many of the beaches. However in India, few travellers are too concerned about how they appear to others, and socialising outside of the group is totally natural. To illustrate, if you go hang out Palolem Beach in Goa, there is almost zero hesitation to go up to a group of people playing Frisbee, volleyball, or whatever, and just ask to join in. I doubt any Perth locals would say the same of Cottesloe Beach. Likewise, those same Perthites could tell you that down at the Brisbane St Hotel, you’re not likely to join nor are you likely to be invited to join a group of people unknown to you. However, such an experience is far from uncommon while travelling.

The importance is perhaps not so much the location, but rather the situation. European travellers I’ve met in Perth have told me they find it a great place to make new friends, and how back home strangers are much less sociable. I think it is just that when you are travelling abroad, you have a type of social license that you don’t have in your hometown or home country. A foreign accent is great ice breaker.

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean cliques don’t operate in travelling circles; it is just that they are less rigid and serve different purposes. Travellers still hang around in certain crowds, but those attachments don’t serve to exclude others. At times while travelling, group structures can feel like they serve to compulsorily include people rather than exclude people. As I experienced numerous times in my travels, once a group structure forms, even if that group simply formed from being on the same bus or train and starting up a conversation, it can sometimes feel rather awkward to put yourself outside that group. This can be just as true for trivial issues as it is for less trivial. Where you stay, what method transport you take, and where you eat dinner all implicitly become somewhat subject to the group consensus. Departing from the consensus creates UNKNOWN risks to the integrity of the group structure. I emphasise unknown risks because back home you know your friends well, and thus not only are your groups structures more robust to individual deviations, but given you’ve known your friends for a longer time period, in most cases you will be instinctively aware of what deviations the a relationship can and cannot be tolerate. For example, sometimes through unfortunate coincidence, you are forced to decline consecutive invitations to a social arrangement from a friend. You will instinctively know how many times you can decline a social arrangement with an old friend or group of friends (even if you always have a genuine situational reason to decline) before they get pissed off and decide to cut you off for a while. I am aware all this sounds a bit reductionist or clinical, but nevertheless I think most of us operate like that at times.

In Palolem, I was now in an entrenched group. Every breakfast, every dinner, every evening was a given. Shauli, Shoham, Daniel, and I would always eat together, play cards (Yaniv) together, explore remote beaches together, and go out to bars together. Partly this was great, but there was a downside to this. Since Shauli and Shoham were a couple, and while I greatly enjoyed their company, I felt that hanging out with them so much hindered both mine and Daniel’s chances with meeting more single girls. I had been meaning to say something to Daniel about this, but I never did get around to it.

On Friday night we went to have Shabbat at the Beyt Yehudi. Every single person there except for me was Israeli – I was the lone diasporite. After Maariv, it was time to find a seat for dinner. There were a bunch of low oblong-shaped tables, with people sitting on cushions. I was looking around for suitable table (i.e. one with plenty of girls), when I heard Daniel call out “Hey Aantoni, we’re over here!”
Daniel, Shauli, and Shoham were seated, along with a few others. I had also just noticed a spare seat at a section of a long table that was composed entirely of girls.
“Umm, that’s ok, but I think I’m going to sit over there…” I mouthed from a distance.

And with that bold move, so began the most disappointing and in some ways distressing evening of my trip so far. These girls simply would not talk to me. Later on I would discover that at least two of these girls I was sitting with were man-hating lesbians (how I discovered this if for another time). By the way, I have nothing against lesbians, but lesbians who hate men are no better than men who are misogynistic or homophobic. Apart from not talking to me, they did not talk to each other all that much. They were not only rude, but they were also boring.

The only interesting thing to happen was that on one on occasion I seemed to draw their utter contempt for the most curious reason. Let me explain. The Yiddish that I know comes not from learning the language formally in school, but simply from exposure. As a result, I sometimes am not sure whether a Yiddish word I know has a Hebrew root or a Germanic root. Under normal circumstances, there is often no need to know this. However, I have discovered that most young Israeli travellers (and I’m only talking about the Ashkenazim here, I’m not even counting the Mizrahim/Sephardim) do not recognise a single word of Yiddish unless it comes from the Hebrew root – and even then, if you do use a Yiddish word with a Hebrew root, they will more often than not simply assume that you mispronounced the corresponding Hebrew word. Anyway, there was a dish of cooked carrot slices on the table, and I politely asked for them to pass them to me. I used the Yiddish word for this dish (tsimmes), failing to realise that it was not a word in the Hebrew vernacular. Upon uttering this request, they looked at me in a way that clearly indicated that they did not understand what I asked for.
“You want what?” someone asked.
So I just pointed with an open hand at the dish of tsimmes saying “Bevakesha.” Someone passed the dish of carrot slices, but the girls asked, in a strangely uncalled for hostile manner
“What did you say? What word was that?”
It might seem to you that they were just being curious, even friendly, engaging in conversation and showing interest. Well, I promise you, their tone was anything but friendly. I know it made no sense for them to be hostile, but that’s what makes this worth writing about.
“Sorry, I used a Yiddish word – Tsimmes – I didn’t realise it wasn’t the same word in Hebrew. What do you call this in Hebrew again? I’ve forgotten.”
They didn’t answer my question, but rather mumbled some disdainful comments to each other like “Yiddish!” And while they may not have said, they also exuded the following derisive sentiment about me: Galuti! Above all, they acted as if I was the weirdest geek they hadever met; as if I were someone who had just told them that my favourite hobby is translating Danish trigonometry textbooks into Finnish. Looking back, it’s little more than like a punch line of a not very funny joke, but at the time it was the most disconcerting experience I had endured since those giggling drunks I passed in the alley while walking to the hotel on my first night in India. In a way, it was worse than that, as then I was just a bit spooked out with the intial culture shock of India. But here there were no mitigating factors. Here at the Shabbos table, this was the last place or situation where I had expected to feel so uncomfortable. If truth be told, it was beyond uncomfortable. Their rudeness was, to use a word I hardly ever use, hurtful!

About the time dessert was being served, I abandoned my table and went over to sit next to Daniel at his table.
“Well, that was a failed experiment” I remarked. “They were the rudest and most boring people I have ever sat with. They didn’t talk to me at all.”
“May be they’re just shy.”
“No, trust me, it’s not about shyness; they’re just rude!”

Walking back from the Beyt Yehudi to the room, I told Daniel in more detail about what had happened, and asked him how common he thought these attitudes were among Israelis. However, he downplayed the whole thing, and I’m not sure he really understood what I had told him, saying that I had probably just misconstrued the whole incident. Either way, he was fairly indifferent and uninterested by the issue, giving it little more than a 15 second reply before moving on to an unrelated topic, like asking me my opinion of some girl who had been at his table.

Despite Daniel’s nonchalance, the lessons from this were clear. If you are in a social group and it concerns you that may be it is all getting a little too cliquish, don’t let it bother you. Also, do not try to extend yourself from the comfort zone that your clique provides you. Stay within the safe confines of your clique, and you’ll never suffer the contempt of a group of rude, boring, man-hating, galuti-hating lesbians! Stay within the confines of your clique and you to be assured that you’ll be protected from such a fate. Finally, the next time you hear any amateur social commentator such as myself making any disparaging comments concerning the existence of clique culture, you best remind ‘Joe Sociology Minor’ where we’d all be without our cliques!

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Profoundness of Silence: Memoirs of a Temporary Mute.

An interesting thing happened to me in Palolem. A combination of a throat infection, too much passive smoking (Shoham mostly – she’s practically a chain smoker), and possibly too much shouting in some boisterous games of beach volleyball and football resulted in the loss of my voice. Now, I’ll grant you that a lost voice in itself is not that interesting. I’ve lost my voice many times in my life, but this was quite different. Firstly, those other incidences were before adulthood, generally occurring mostly at the latter stage of a youth camp. Secondly, at those other times I had lost my voice, it was really just that my voice became quite weak and it was difficult to talk. However, in Palolem, I lost my voice in a totality that I cannot recall previously. Finally, and most importantly, I do not recollect learning anything interesting from those previous occasions.

Losing my voice was initially a very frustrating thing for me, for I’m not shy when it comes to giving my oral input, and it pains me to not contribute a remark or witticism when the situation calls for it. However, if I consider it from the perspectives of my friends, it probably sounds like pleasant relief from my interruption. Someone else could finally finish a sentence.

I first noticed my voice getting weaker while Daniel, Shauli, Shoham, and I (we had become something of a regular social foursome) were dining one evening. It became harder and harder to talk, but luckily we had moved from conversation to playing Yaniv, an activity that doesn’t require too much from one’s voice. I won’t go into the details of what Yaniv is, except to say that it is probably the most fun type of card game I have ever played, and there are few things cooler than giving someone an Asaf (ok, I understand that very few readers will know what the hell as Asaf is, but for the very few that do, I had to write that!). And by the way, all this is coming from someone who is not normally into card games.

As was typical, we started the game while waiting for dinner to be served (the service can be very slow, so it works as a nice distraction), After dinner was the perfect time to finish a Yaniv game, as it gives time for the food to digest a little bit before moving on. When the Yaniv was over, it was naturally time to find a pub. I indicated that I wasn’t that keen to go along, as there was no way I would be able to speak to people (i.e. girls) in a loud pub given the state my voice was in. Shoham countered that it was a good challenge to see if I could pick up a girl under those conditions. My voice was almost totally gone at this stage, and I was often resorting to writing things down on the disposable napkins that they had on the table. I took the pen we had been using to keep score during the Yaniv game, and I wrote on a bar napkin:

Hello, I’m not able to speak. However, I’m the strong silent type.

I showed it to Shoham who then recited it to the others, who were all keen to know what I had written. Shoham and Shauli were more amused than I expected. Shoham especially liked it, and she said she thought it had a good chance of working on a girl, as it was something very different, and apparently it was also wittier (to Israeli perceptions) than I had thought it was when I wrote it.

So off we went to a pub, and I was determined to use my napkin on an unsuspecting girl. However, and I promise it was not a case of chickening-out, but I simply did not see one suitable girl (i.e. single and attractive and in a remotely approachable situation) at the pub that night, which was rather unusual to say the least. I guess it was just had bad luck in pub selection that night. It was especially disappointing, as I had already decided in my mind that the napkin move was a no-lose situation. Embraced or rejected, it would have made for a very funny story. Not seeing any suitable candidates to try my mute act on, I decided that all that passive smoking in the pub wasn’t helping my throat condition, and I headed back to the room to get some sleep.

When I awoke the next morning, I had expected my voice to have at least partially returned, but it hadn’t. I really could not talk at all. My voice was so bad that I made Whisper, the sidekick of the chief antagonist in the Bond film Live and Let Die sound like Frank Costanza by comparison.

Daniel and I met Shauli and Shoham for breakfast, and after I ordered through pointing at the menu and giving a nod to the waiter, I was only able to contribute to the morning conversation through writing comments on napkins. As this is a somewhat slow and cumbersome task compared to normal talking, I had to be select about my contributions. What I discovered from this was that it made everything that I did contribute seem more profound than I think it would have otherwise. For example, they were discussing relationships, and Daniel (who at around 25 was the youngest of our group, and who on an earlier occasion had revealed to us that he did not believe he had ever been truly in love with any of his previous girlfriends or any one else for that matter) was adamant that he could never stay in a relationship with a girl if he didn’t completely trust her. Up to this point, I had not made one contribution on the topic in the five minutes or so that they had been discussing it. I wrote on a napkin “Yes, but you have never really loved anyone before, so you can’t be sure. If you will be in love with someone but don’t trust them, only then can you know.”

Peculiar grammar not withstanding, I passed the napkin to Daniel. He read it to himself, and in his typical way, was not impacted greatly by it, offering up a shrug. However, Shauli and Shoham naturally wished to know what I had written, so Daniel then showed it to them, and their responses were along the lines of “Yes, that’s very true.” In retrospect, it was not simply that I was making so few contributions, although that probably was a factor, but it was what went along with each of these offerings. It was the anticipation, the waiting, them knowing a comment had been made, but not yet knowing what the content of that comment was. That was the key to the apparent profoundness to be found in a disposable napkin.

Also at that breakfast, Shauli told us about a strange and disturbing dream he had experienced overnight. It was impressive how he was able to recall such vivid detail, and he wasn’t even on Mefloquine! As he recounted the events of the dream, I took notes on a napkin. To my mind, almost all the incidents in his dream, disjointed as they so often are in dreams, seemed to involve having to protect someone of something. When he finally finished his dream story, and it was an impressively long recounting, I presented to him this napkin, feeling that I had quite possibly interpreted his dream, although I wrote at the top of the napkin the word efshar (possibly). I made a point of double underlining the word in an attempt to lessen the weight of my interpretation. Below that I had written in the second person narrative, that he had been travelling a long time now, and had been away from his home in Israel for many months. His dream reflected a feeling of either guilt or at least worry that he isn’t in Israel to protect some entity. I then drew an idea-tree suggesting three possible alternatives for what that entity might be.



-Medinat Yisrael?*

i.e. Either his family, a friend(s), or the State of Israel? (after all, he was a fighter-pilot back home I reminded him, via my a footnote on my napkin notation). He read it, and then showed it to the others, who were eager to see what I had written. It felt like it was as if Freud himself had written it.

After we had finished eating breakfast, Shauli and Daniel had some business to attend to, having to negotiate with a motorcycle hire guy. Shoham and I stayed behind at the breakfast cafĂ©, and waited for them to return. Shoham started telling me a little about her personal history. I didn’t mind at all, and it was not in anyway uncomfortable, but given that I was unable to speak, I have neither recollection nor idea of how such a ‘conversation’ developed. Shoham would talk, and in my mute phase, I would just nod. She told me about her first serious boyfriend that lasted four years. She also spoke of some uncertainties she had about her current relationship with Shauli (she was 34, and he was 27 – she was going back home soon, but he was staying for several more months). She spoke about how she felt she was living the life typical of someone more than ten years her junior, and the uncertainties she had about what was going to happen in her life once she returned to Israel. All I could do was nod along, look empathetic (which I sincerely was) and on rare occasions write a brief comment or question for her on a napkin. I guess I came across as a very good listener! It was so unusual for me, as I am normally a compulsive interrupter, but on this occasion, I was forced to be the best listener I had ever been.

One story Shoham told me was unreservedly intriguing. A female cousin of hers in Israel once went away to a summer camp, where the kids on the camp came from all around Israel. While on summer camp, her cousin became friends with another girl of the same age. The two new friends discovered their fathers had many things in common. Both of their fathers had the same first name; both of their fathers were from the same place in Latin America; neither of their fathers were Jewish; both of their fathers were the same age and had the same birthday; both of their fathers had the same physical description. As the similarities mounted, they realized that both their fathers were the same person. That’s right, a whole second-family, with each family unknown to the other. As a result, both their mother's eventually terminated their marriage to him. However, it turned out they weren’t the only families he had. There were others still. Eventually, it all came out, and all of them (at least it was assumed “all of them”) terminated their marriage with him. From their experience, the ex-wives and their families later became friends with each other, and have frequently attended each other’s simchot – such as when one of the ex-wives has gotten remarried.


If the perception of profoundness amongst my friends was not enough to make me fantasize about life as a mute, the added bonus of the reaction I would receive from local Indians trying to sell me things certainly was. I would walk down the street, and when the street-side merchants would try to sell me something, I would use an improvised sign language to indicate that I was not able to speak. They might at that stage think I was pretending. However, once they saw me use my improvised sign language to communicate with Daniel, they would then just assume that I was a permanent mute. From that point, their fascination with encountering a mute would make them forget about their focus on trying to sell me something. In turn, I enjoyed their reaction immensely. In fact, I was enjoying being a mute so much now, that I was not at all missing having a voice, and was even a little bit disappointed when it returned, as it marked the end of this most novel and interesting experience. Perhaps in the future I could on occasions go around the place pretending to be a mute. Or is that like when Cosmo Kramer started wearing an eye patch because he thought it looked cool. I can hear George Costanza now “What? That’s like me getting a wheel chair to just cruise around in!” Thus I think I better give that idea a miss.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Not Everyone Loves Chanukah.

It was Wednesday night in Palolem, the sixth night of Chanukah. My new roommate Daniel and I went to the Beyt Yehudi for the candle lighting. After staying for a little while to enjoy the singing and jam session, Daniel prompted us to leave.
“Leave? Why? I think they’re about to serve a meal.”
“But we want to go to this restaurant where you can order steak.”
There are not that many places in India where you can get beef, given the Hindu reverence for the cow. However, the state of Goa, being an ex-Portuguese colony, is largely Christian, and thus beef is often available at restaurants.
“I don’t eat steak– I’m a pescetarian, remember?”
“Come on, we will have steak, and you can order fish.”
I didn’t know who “we” was at this stage. To my surprise, and in what seemed like another recurring coincidence, Daniel had somehow become friends with the couple who Marios and I had seen on the train on the way to Goa, and then had also sat at a table with in the pub the night before.

Just before leaving for the restaurant, Daniel said quietly to me that he had forgotten their names, and wanted me to ask them. I in turn told him that I had also met them before, and having also forgotten their names, I didn’t feel comfortable asking them. When we got to the restaurant, I suggested, without providing much of a reason, that we all exchange email addresses. That allowed us to rediscover their names. Shauli and Shoham. They had been in India at least six months already, mostly in the North. Shoham spoke English with a slight London accent, rather than a regular Israeli accent. I asked her about this, and she explained that she had spent a few years there as a child. Shauli was moderately tall, and was quite thin, a typical characteristic of a guy who has been travelling in India for a while. He also had a thick (but not long) beard, another characteristic fitting that profile. Later on, Shauli would show us a picture of himself not long before he left Israel. He was unrecognisable. His pre-India appearance was clean-shaven, reasonably solid build, and a buzz cut on top. In Israel he had been a combat pilot in the air force, flying F-16s. Now, far removed from that, he looked like a total hippy, carrying around his flute, which he played intermittently.

Daniel, Shauli, and Shoham all had good spoken English, and when in my company, they more often than not conversed in English for my benefit, although I never requested them too. In fact, I didn’t mind when they spoke in Hebrew, as it was good practice for me, and when possible, I would make an effort to use Hebrew too. Otherwise, I was quite good at speaking English with people who speak it as a second language.

At one stage, Shauli and Shoham were discussing in Hebrew something about the beauty of the Chanukah Menorah lighting ceremony as done by the Breslover shaliach at the Beyt Yehudi. I made some unmemorable comment, and then Shauli said something surprising to me, in English..

“But you know, in a way, I don’t like Chanukah that much” he opined.
“You don’t like Chanukah? What’s not too like? There’s no fasting, the food is delicious, mmmm latkes, sufganiot, and there’s no prohibitions against anything…”
“Yes, but it is about the Maccabees…I don’t like the Maccabees.”
“Oh, I think I know where you are going with this. I’ve thought about this before, although I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone. I can see how, from a certain point of view, not mine by the way, but some people who are some kind of post-modern revisionists might twist it this way…they might frame the Maccabees as the Al Qaeda of their time. You see the Greeks, they were occupiers, but they weren’t occupiers like the Romans were. The Romans occupied through brute force - they weren’t interested in the cultures of the lands they occupied. However, the Greeks were very interested in Judaism, from an academic point of view, not a religious one. But at the same time, they were trying to get the Jewish people to fuse their own culture with Greek culture. Thus the Greek occupation was as much intellectual and cultural as it was physical. And this was not always forced, but many Jews at the time embraced the Greek culture, which they saw as more modern and liberated – Greek culture and thinking was the most ‘modern’ of its time. The Maccabees took a stand against this cultural fusion or assimilation, “Ah, they were sort of anti-globalisation?”
Shauli commented
“Yes, in a way, they could have been seen as an early version of it” I continued, “And they didn’t just fight the Greeks, but also other Jews they saw as cultural collaborators….And while I don’t believe they were terrorists, I can imagine some revisionist moral relativists framing it that way.”
“That’s very interesting, but this isn’t why I don’t like the Maccabees” Shauli stated.
“Then what is it you don’t like?”
“In Israel, I support Hapoel. I hate Maccabi. They are our rivals” he laughed. In Israel, the most dominant sporting association is Maccabi, which is named after the Maccabees. Hapoel (which translates as ‘the worker’) is the next most dominanat. Both organization have professional teams in various sports in a number of cities throughout Israel.
“Do you support Hapoel in football or basketball?”
“Both…. You name it, if they are playing it, I support it. In any sport, I support Hapoel, and hate Maccabi”
“Ok, that’s the strangest reason I’ve ever heard for not liking something.”
“Yes, I know,” conceded Shauli, who was smiling broadly.