Archive | December, 2011

Guilt-free and mobile!

27 Dec

Hanukkah is quickly overtaking Passover as my favourite holiday. What’s not to like? Mesmerizing flames, and no existential guilt or physical suffering. It’s a light, happy holiday. And the other holiday it to share airtime with doesn’t hurt its prestige.

Better yet, the holiday is mobile. Hanukkiot (the Hanukkah candelabras) are perfect for bringing with you anywhere. Have menorah, will travel. You can make latkes (potato pancakes) almost everywhere, too, as the ingredients (oil, potatoes, flour) are basic.

Hanukkah has been my most celebrated holiday abroad. Unlike “heavier” holidays like Yom Kippur or Passover, when it’s hard to celebrate without proper resources, comforts or community, Hanukkah can be done anywhere.  It is such an affable, benign holiday that it’s hard not to succumb to its charms.

In general it’s nicer to celebrate Jewish holidays in Israel; the atmosphere is rife with tradition, happiness, preparations, energy. But looking back, I’ve celebrated my most memorable Hanukkahs abroad.

When I lived in Bolivia 10 years ago, I threw three Hanukkah parties. There weren’t any other Jews there.  The first was at the shelter for teenage mothers in Tarija, where I volunteered. They rejoiced in yet another way to cook potatoes (there are 400 species of potatoes there) and things are so bleak in Bolivia that any excuse for a party was welcome. I hosted another potato-and-grease-fest at my apartment, and toward the end of the eight days, I lit the candles with friends in the market in Tarija, en route to the capital Sucre.

This year, we celebrate the holiday in beleaguered Athens, crisis capital of 2011. The irony of celebrating a holiday, in which we mark our victory over the Greeks, albeit 2,000 years ago, is latent. Perhaps even more ironically, we have had one of our most enjoyable Hanukkahs in a country to which we have no obvious connection, and where the Jewish community is nearly nonexistent.

We had a lovely Hanukkah party at Aharon’s school here in Athens (the American School of Classical Studies).  Aharon gave a talk on the holiday, and he made amazing donuts – on his first try.  The atmosphere at the school is warm all the time, so Hanukkah made it even more special. Our friends who attended seemed genuinely interested in learning about its origins and traditions.

On Sunday, we went to a party at Chabad. The couple who run the Athens branch of this global Jewish organization are warm, friendly people. They have set up a very child-friendly enterprise in the form of a Greek-Jewish kosher restaurant. What is more fun than making oily donuts with a bunch of cute children wearing chefs hats?

And another thing – growing up in Canada, Hanukkah was always cold. Really cold. I have many photos of the gold, blazing candles set beside the window overlooking mounds of white. And so the cold finally came to Athens. So Hanukkah seems as it should be this year, in the most unlikely of places.


Who Stole my Greek Christmas?

19 Dec

If the media portrayed reality as it was, I would be writing about a somber Christmas, people around me not being able to afford gifts and lavish holiday treats and parties. They would be depressed, thinking of brighter holidays past and wondering whether things would ever return to how they were.

I’m sure this sad Greek Christmas does exist, but not around here.

We live in Kolonaki, a posh neighborhood in downtown Athens, where the Christmas decorations are as gaudy as anywhere else I’ve seen, save New York City. Bright gold stars hang above the main boulevard and there’s no store or restaurant that doesn’t have red ribbons, lights, a tree in its display window.

All of this week – including Sunday! – the stores are open late so that people can get their shopping done. This is quite a sacrifice – opening past 5 pm here is considered late! All day Sunday, people walked by our place with lots of stuffed designer bags. The stores were packed. Recession? Worst financial crisis in decades? I can’t tell.

My neighbour just walked down the stairs wearing about twice the amount of makeup (in inches) than should be legally allowed.I can still smell her perfume. She was decked out in full evening wear. I don’t know anything about her – but this is not how Greek Christmas circa 2011 is supposed to look.

I have to read the news to remember what’s going on here. Or people tell me from abroad.

We’ve been shuttling between one holiday party after another, both Christmas and Chanukah. Amitai can now single “Jingle Bells” (well, the chorus). He loves the trees and the “red man with the beard”. Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the first night of Chanukah.

I’m not writing this to be sarcastic or facetious. It’s just that my reality is so far removed from what it should be – if the media dictated reality. Because I don’t speak Greek, and the only channels we can watch are international networks, my only other perception of Greek reality is the news. And the news is quite extreme – the hysterical declarations by European leaders, the melodramatic headlines (“Worst Crisis in Europe since World War II”). Maybe it’s a testament to the Greeks’ ability to cope and handle their problems with grace.

The company I work for is organizing a congress in Athens in a few months. My colleagues keep on asking me, “How are things over there?” “Is there violence? “Is it dangerous?”

I live about 15 minutes from the hub of protest activity – Syntagma Square. I’ve seen the protests, and inhaled the tear gas. But that’s about it. I feel I should be experiencing this more! What will I write home about? Where is the despair? The heart-wrenching stories?  I could walk over to some less affluent neighborhood, talk to more store owners, and other “regular people”. But why look for misfortune? We have enough of our own back home.

I sincerely hope things get better for the Greek people.  And may they all celebrate Christmas like in Kolonaki for years to come.


Ignorant and happy

4 Dec

Walking though the endless terminals and sub-terminals of Charles de Gaulle airport during a recent layover, I thought of how comforted I was to hear a familiar language. I knew the ways of the people. I recognized the brands, and the signs, the tone and the newspapers.

The irony of my warm feelings that day is that I never felt that familiarity when I lived in France. I understood perfectly what was going on there and couldn’t hide in my ignorance as I can now.

In Athens, I am complacent in my ignorance of the language and the customs. I love listening to the animated, foreign sounds, with the “s” sound so pronounced, somewhere between “SSS” and “ssshhh”. It’s a bit like Spanish but still exotic enough to soothe my ears.

At first, I surprised myself by not trying to learn more, not being more curious to decipher the words and expressions. Nevertheless, some of it happens naturally and with little effort on my part.

I love the respite in not always feeling compelled to get involved. I delight in being able to shrug off potentially uncomfortable situations with “I don’t speak Greek”, such as when Amitai made another kid cry at the park.

It’s a relief after several stints of intense language-learning and much misunderstanding about nuances.

In Israel, I am so hyper-involved in everything and try so hard to show that I have mastered the language.

My self-imposed ignorance in Greece (not making any effort to learn the language) is a sweet pleasure I allow myself to indulge in.

The other day, we squashed ourselves into the elevator in a metro station (with Amitai in his stroller). We were about eight people (not all of us slim!) in a tiny cell, and another young woman had tried to elbow her way in. The people around us started shouting, waving their hands, spit flailing all around. Looking at us, “can you believe her? Who does she think she is?” At one point, they wanted me to get out but then they understood I was with the stroller. “Only pensioners allowed!” was the little Aharon could decipher as the doors shut and we held our breath.

In Israel, I would have felt compelled to take sides, would wonder whether I said the right thing. Did I give off the right amount of tough and fairness? Did I make any grammar mistakes?

What a pleasure to shrug this incident off, to be naive and clueless. This in itself allows me to convince myself that I am truly on vacation. If I don’t learn the language, I won’t settle in, and start to feel like I belong. Because I don’t want to belong. This is temporary.

Maybe the key to happiness is ignorance. Though on the outside it seems I am denying myself the comfort of living more easily here, the opposite is true.

Comfort, then, only comes in extremes: when you’re either blissfully unaware or completely comfortable in a place.