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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Brother can you spare a dime?

Americans enjoy their high standard of living by waiting in a bread line (mid 1930s)

There’s an old depression era song that Al Jolson sang called “Brother can you spare a dime?”  When Jolson sang the song in the 1930s a dime was worth a lot more than it’s worth today, about $1.30 in today’s money.  Needless to say, today, during the great recession as the talking heads who make more money in a year than most of the people they’re talking to make in a decade are calling it, giving someone an actual dime won’t do them a bit of good.  Nothing is actually sold for a dime anymore.  When I was a kid the Chinese stores* would sell a single Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for a dime.  Now they’re worth 35 cents or so and get sold for 50.  Even dollar stores rarely sell anything for less than a dollar anymore. 
So when I was waiting for a train in New Brunswick and a young guy with a thick Brooklyn accent stuck his face up to mine and said “boss, can you give me a dime, my financial situation is real (expletive) up right now and supper* is waiting for me” I felt like I was in some kind of retro time-warp.  Since I knew he couldn’t have been referencing the old depression-era song because odds are better than fifty fifty that he had never heard it, I figured he was asking me for ten bucks.* 
On the surface he was making this request like he was asking his baby sister to pass him a box of cereal, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.  But a look into his eyes and past his Brooklyn-street posturing revealed that he was truly desperate.  So I asked him how much a dime meant to him, figuring that he didn’t really have the chutzpah (and I mean it in the real Yiddish sense of shocking gall) to ask me, a fellow university student, for ten dollars just before he planned on boarding a train he had no money to pay for. 
He looked at me like he’d call me a moron or worse if he weren’t asking me for money. 
“A dime’s ten boss” he half snarled half sung at me. 
“Ten dollars?” I said, surprised by the incredulousness in my own voice. 
He then looked at me like he’d deck me if he weren’t asking for money.  So I told him that I’d see how much I had and opened my wallet (understand that I was in no way planning on actually giving him five dollars, let alone ten).  And of course, as per the unbreakable axiom of Murphy’s Law, there was one bill in my wallet and it was a “dime.” 
I felt some unexplainable shift of power occur in the universe and before I fully realized what I was doing the bill was in his hand and he was ten feet away barrelling towards the stairs out of the train station. 
“What the –expletive—is you doin’” a black woman yelled at me, chomping on a cigarette that suddenly went out and fell to the ground. 
“Well,” I said, “maybe now someone will give me ten bucks if I need it for a train.”  
“Shit don’t work that way,” she said.  “It should but it don’t.”
She pulled out and light another cigarette, all the while looking at me and said “he should’a come up to me, I would’a axed him where he was gonn’a get d’udder 9.90.  And if he would’a thought from me, he would’a found hisself smashed up against dat train.” 
We both laughed and she told me about her various woes, beginning with her being thrown out of the VA* hospital where she was visiting her husband.  She had bags of food prepared for him that she learned that he wouldn’t be able to eat when she walked into his room and saw that he had tubes down his throat.  In short she had come sixty miles by train to bring him a home-cooked meal just to find out he was too sick to eat it.  She didn’t look too good herself; morbidly obese, unable to keep cigarettes in her mouth due to an incessant hacking cough that was interrupted by occasional wheezing.  But boy was she full of life!
We talked for about ten minutes and despite describing herself as a “tough Trenton ghetto girl” seemed very sweet.  As it turned out her husband’s health was just the beginning of an endless series of personal crises which she spent the whole time telling me about. I listened politely, half laughing and half crying along with her as the stories got sadder and somehow inevitably funnier due to her manner of relating them.  And soon enough I realized that I had given the wrong person the “dime.”  But the people who most need help are usually the last to ask for it and this tough “girl” would be about the last person to ever ask a stranger for a handout. Our conversation ended when her daughter called and soon enough I spotted our train in the distance.   
And as I boarded that train I heard a young man singing “brother can you spare a dime” and could barely recognize my own voice in the cold night air. 
*What the corner stores in some parts of Philly are called.  The one in my neighborhood was run by Koreans.  There is nothing Chinese (or Korean) about the stores except the people who own them. 
*Only New Yorkers say supper to refer to the evening meal in the US.  New Yorkers and especially working class whites from the Bronx and Brooklyn are also the only people I’ve ever encountered who will greet a stranger with “boss” but this may be used elsewhere.  Supper though is a famous Newyorkism. 
*In drug-slang a “dime” is ten, hence a “dime-bag” is ten dollars worth of a drug sold as a package.
*Veterans Administration.  The VA runs hospitals that only serve army veterans.  She was in her early fifties, about the right age to be married to someone who served in the later years of the Vietnam War. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

World English vs American dialects: or how European intellectuals are making us all sound the same.

Although I spend most of my time as an amateur linguist and as a translator working with Spanish and Yiddish, I’ve never lost my love of my native tongue; English. Since English is the world’s strongest and most prominent language as well as the international lingua-franca of both the business world and academics, many people lose sight of the fact that English is still an ethnic mother-tongue of the English in Britain as well as the first language of hundreds of millions of others around the world. And like almost all languages (but not Israeli Hebrew), English regional variations enable her speakers to pin down where someone is from. English speakers can also often determine a speaker’s social class (in Britain) and (in the USA) their race from their accent. 

Hundreds of millions of people speak English as a second, third or fourth language around the world but most who’ve never lived in an English speaking country speak a fairly artificial academic form of the language that is from nowhere and yet can be understood anywhere. Obviously such people speak English with accents so upon meeting them you can tell quite clearly that they’re foreigners anyway. But even when they write you often realize that the person is not a native speaker because their grammar is too perfect, “with whom am I texting?”!!! or they use a combination of British and American vocabulary “I had spilled some fizzy-drink in my trunk” (which would sound bizarre to both a Brit and an American). There’s nothing wrong with this of course. They’re just missing the experience of speaking an authentic local English that is actually from somewhere.

The phenomenon of “world English” is societal and generational as much as it is linguistic. I’m always amazed to meet people from one European country who have a close friend from a second European country with whom they can only communicate in English despite it being neither of their native languages. Communication in English is the norm even with college educated people of my generation from different Eastern European countries. A generation ago such friendships, business contacts and romances would have occurred in Russian. An even more stunning example of the strength of English is the fact that it is becoming normal in Europe for two people from different countries upon meeting to defer to English, even when one of them speaks the others non-English mother tongue.

With the strength of “world English” and the development of several competing standard Englishes, native regional and dialectal variations of the language are in a precipitous decline. Regional accents are not as strong as they used to be. Grammatical quirks are being leveled out by exposure to mass media and strangely enough, by exposure to non-native English speakers who possess knowledge of a much more normative form of the language. While the average American two generations ago would have known only his own local dialect, today an educated person needs to possess a knowledge of the standard language and knowledge of a local dialect is considered superfluous at best. Although the differences between varieties of English in America are slight compared to variations found within other languages (with the exception of Ebonics/African American Vernacular English which is quite distinct), I still feel that something is being lost with the decline of regional accents. So to highlight some of these accents, especially for speakers of “World English” who use English on a daily basis but mostly communicate with fellow non-native speakers, I’ve found some audio-clips of many varieties of American English. Although Southern American English is mocked both in the US and in Europe (especially because of its association with George Bush), some varieties of these dialects are my favorites and I chose these clips with the additional goal of highlighting the linguistic diversity of the southern states. So without further ado here are some great examples of American accents.

Arkansas accent.

North Carolina accent.

Atlanta Georgia accent

Philadelphia accent. As I mentioned in a previous post, different neighborhoods in Philadelphia have their own accents (just like NYC and Boston). This is especially true among older lifelong residents. This accent could be Kensington, or Fishtown or (a long shot) South Philly. My own accent is closer to a North-East Philly accent with some interference from having lived in New Jersey for four years now. Nonetheless, few if any people from outside the city could distinguish my Philly accent from a South Philly or Kensington accent.

 West Virginia accent. (Speaker is black.)


 The famous Brooklyn accent.


 Canadian accent: Americans and Canadians can generally tell each other apart but some Americans from the northern Midwestern states speak dialects that sound like regular Canadian English, with the only difference being a few hundred telltale Canadianisms. The stereotypical difference is that Canadians pronounce about like “a-boot.” In reality they say “a-boat”, instead of the American “a-bout.” Canadians also pronounce several dozen words like British English. Among them are progress (pro-gress), controversy (con-trev-esy), schedule (shed-ul, not American skedule), and lever (leave-her). Canadian spelling btw is nearly halfway between British and American.

 For a bonus here’s a real Lithuanian Yiddish accent in English. In New York you hear Hasidic Jews who speak English with pronounced Hungarian Yiddish accents but it’s becoming rarer and rarer to hear English with the telltale Litvak lilt. This was an accent I grew up hearing all the time. 

For those of you interested in learning more about English in the United States, the following are some links from a website about a great PBS series on the topic:  
Here is a quiz from PBS with which you can test how well you can locate American accents

Information on Ebonics/African American Vernacular English.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good News in the Yiddish World: Part 1

I’m ashamed to have to admit that I failed at my seemingly simple goal of writing a new blog entry at least once a week.  And seeing as I haven’t written anything here in more than a month, one could say that I’ve failed four times over.  Considering that I’ve failed to write for more than a month twice now, one could even say that I’ve failed eight times over.  All the same.  It’s not like anyone’s actually paying that much attention, right? 
The good news is that I’ve kept up with my most important goal which has been to write well thought out non-schoolwork related pieces consistently on a weekly basis. So where is everything that I’ve written?  Well, it turns out that I’ve been on a bit of a hot streak as of late and everything I’ve written and/or outlined in the past month has been of high enough quality that I’ve felt it deserving of being worked into a full length article.  So now instead of eight blog posts I have four articles on Yiddish culture written and ready to be submitted for publication, along with twelve articles on a variety of other topics outlined.  Since material put on a blog cannot be republished in a “real” magazine or website, none of this stuff will see the light of day until someone decides to publish it.  And that could, scratch that, will be a while. 
In any case, I want to keep up with the blog and I will begin by going over some “good news in the Yiddish world.”  When I began this blog I decided not to write about Yiddish projects I was working on and that such material would be more appropriate elsewhere.  Because I’m on the board of Yugntruf I also won’t talk too much about what that organization is doing either other than occasionally post event notices.  This leaves good news coming from the work of everyone in the Yiddish world not involved with Yugntruf.  And in recent months there has been plenty of it.  Here are (a lot) of highlights:
1.  When I went to Israel in April this year one of the main things I did was go on a tour of the Yiddish institutions.  As usually happens with me in the small Yiddish world, I was warmly welcomed by many of the leading figures and other fellow travelers and learned a lot about the community(ies).  Much is happening with Yiddish in Israel.  While the Yiddish circle around Yugntruf is stoking the flames of a (very) small language revival (in that families that weren’t Yiddish speaking for generations speak the language at home with their kids again), what is happening in Israel could better be termed a cultural renaissance, in that people are returning to the language as a part of their Jewish culture and identity but for the most part not attempting to speak it as a vernacular in the home.  (This is of course excepting some beautifully stubborn Haredi communities in Meah Shearim and Bnei-Barak, with whom I had a couple fascinating encounters and was also received warmly).  The fantastically talented composer Daniel Galay, a longtime Facebook friend and the chairman of the association of Yiddish writers and journalists in Israel Leyvik-hoyz, ended up sitting next to me at the same theater featured in this report (Yidishshpiel).  Strangely enough we didn’t recognize each other and he was surprised to find a young man who didn’t understand Hebrew (there are supertitles like an opera for the majority of the audience which doesn't understand Yiddish) and said in Yiddish “maybe you understand Yiddish?”  Then we both figured out who the other was.   
The next day I was off first thing in the morning to the Tel Nordau elementary public school where his daughter in law Hannah Polin Galay teaches Yiddish to elementary school students.  I served as a foreign Yiddish speaking guest for the students who were both amazed and motivated by encountering a young person who spoke fluent Yiddish but no Hebrew (they realized very early on that my inability to understand them in anything but Yiddish wasn’t an act).  I was particularly interested in learning about Hannah’s pedagogical methods because I had never seen Yiddish (or any language for that matter) taught to young kids.  And her short class was truly fascinating.  One important thing to note is that just like Israel and especially Tel Aviv Hannah’s students represented a melting pot.  Some of the kids were clearly not of Ashkenazi descent. Many were of mixed heritage. Some were from the former USSR and had Russian accents; some stemmed from families who been in Israel for generations.  A few were the children of Americans and four or five were not Jewish at all but Filipino.  One Filipino girl who knew some English made the amazingly astute observation that the words feder (feather, pen) and feather were cognates!  All the kids in the classes I visited learned Yiddish just like they learned English, math, Hebrew literature/reading skills or anything else for that matter.  While Yiddish was mandatory for some of the lower grades, many older kids (those featured in this CNN report) attend optional classes in the afternoon.  Interestingly enough many of these students are also not of Ashkenazi descent. 
2.  I had the honor and pleasure of meeting Aviv Luban at one of Yugntruf’s Yiddish Breaks at Brandeis a while back.  He and I think similarly about a couple of key issues relating to Yiddish culture and Jewish identity more broadly.  In January I wrote an article.  After putting it aside for a few days I decided that it was too emotional and didn’t hold together well and went on to other things.  Then, in April, Aviv published a much better but nearly identically argued article in the Jerusalem Post as an opinion piece.  I’ll let Aviv’s wonderful article stand on its own merits without further comment.
3.  Here is an update in the form of a short video report from Emory University about their Yiddish program. 
4.  Yiddish power ballads?  My reaction when I first heard that one was “that’s going to be ridiculous.”  And it kind of is.  But a few of the songs recorded by the group Yiddish Princess work shockingly well, especially Avrum Sutzkever’s poem “ver vet blaybn” (who will remain), the lead song on their Myspace page.  The group is first rate musically; no surprise considering the musicians who compose its members (Sarah Gordon, the daughter of Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper, Avi Fox Rosen, and Michael Winongrad among others).  You can hear about the evolution of the group in this interview.


5.  When I started my Youtube account two years ago, it was the only Youtube channel with original content in Yiddish with English subtitles.  Thankfully, higher quality channels have joined it, among them the official channel of the venerable Yiddish language Forward newspaper.  The Forward has been releasing a half dozen different eight to twelve minute shows in biweekly series.  Among them are Ross (Shmuel) Perlin’s reports from China, “a New York Jew in China.” I first met Ross in Vilnius in 2008 and we share a passion for endangered languages.  Ross is a bit braver than I am, so while I’m living comfortably in the states he’s over in a rural village in southwestern China (days away from paved roads!) doing a groundbreaking detailed grammatical survey of the Trung language (a distant cousin of Tibetan).  Here’s a report on his work in Yiddish with English subtitles. 
6. Many people, especially Hasidic Jews who grew up speaking Yiddish but have no exposure to its non-religious scholarly culture, have asked me what an academic lecture (referat) in Yiddish is like.  Well here’s a great one.  Even better, a full English translation is given for those of you who don’t understand the language or know Yiddish but can’t make heads or tails of Yiddish literary terms.  The speaker is the incomparable Argentinean born French Yiddish linguist and teacher Yitskhok Niborski.  The lecture was delivered at Stamford’s Hillel as a program of the National Yiddish Book Center.  The subject of the lecture is the poet Avrum Sutzkever (1913-2010).  One thing that caught my attention watching this were the many unexpected similarities in culture, diction, and word choice between this style of high level Yiddish academic lecture and the traditional religious lessons delivered in Yiddish known as Shiurim.

7.  “A pop-culture introduction to the Mama-Loshn.”  When I got that in my inbox I thought “this one is going to be really painful!”  Instead, I stumbled upon what are probably the cleverest (and least conventional) Yiddish lessons ever.  A “Yidisher Pop” is done as an online gossip column that teaches Yiddish.  It even has spray-painted celebrity photos af idish! like a certain gossip columnist I won't degrade myself by mentioning.  Designed by Adina Cimet and Alyssa Quint, these unique lessons in both the Hebrew alphabet and transliteration teach basic vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.  See for yourself.
 8.  The president of the US and much of Congress were treated to a wonderful rendition of the Partisan Song at the US capitol rotunda as part of the Holocaust Museum’s days of remembrance. 
9.  The second Yiddish-Japanese Japanese Yiddish dictionary was recently published in Japan.  The book was actually advertised in newspapers and is being sold for a whopping 700 dollars.  In addition to the two dictionaries there are also Yiddish textbooks in Japanese. 
10.  There are several Yiddish metal bands but the one that’s caught my attention the most recently has been the group Dibbukim out of Sweden.  Although not native speakers, you can hear that the two singers know the language fluently unlike singers in the other metal bands.  The music itself is also very interesting and clever.  Here’s an interview with singer Niklas Olniansky from the Polish Yiddish language radio show “naye khavlyes”, as well as their first music video. 

Need more good news from the Yiddish world?  I'll be writing the second half of this post in the coming weeks and I'll write a similar post in Yiddish highlighting stories and resources about current events in the Yiddish world that are only accessible to Yiddish speakers.   

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Migration within the EU and the Roma in France/Italy: These aren’t the migrants we signed up for.

Roma family in France after being sent to a new temporary camp. 

Immigration: US vs. Europe
The United States is a country which, despite its rhetoric, is not very open to immigrants or even visitors.  Americans themselves are generally good to immigrants (despite recent flair-ups with Latin American immigrants, especially in the southwest) and immigration is a huge part of American identity, especially in terms of its own mythology.  Despite this, it’s basically impossible for most people who’d want a green-card (permission to reside here permanently) to get one and for residents of most countries even visiting here involves a downright insulting process of advance security clearance and visa-applications, even for vacations. Many countries have taken to punishing the US by making Americans jump through exactly the same hurdles their own citizens must go through entering the US when entering into their own territory. 
Requirements for immigrating to the US vary tremendously from country to country and are largely based on a quota system. The quota system works this way: if too many people have already come from one place (sometimes a country, sometimes a region), then no more are accepted the following year from that place.  This process of course ignores the fact that a lot more people will want to come to the US from poorer countries than from say, Scandinavia.  The only ways around this system are winning a “green card lottery” in which the green card is given out randomly to a few lucky people or by marrying an American or another green card holder.  A few exceptions have been made in the past for people facing particular difficulties, for instance Jews from the former USSR and Vietnamese whose families aided the US during the war.  Depending on the country involved, green card processes take 5 to 10 years for the first applicant, with additional years needed to bring across the applicant’s family.  And this “time served” does not get factored into the seven years needed to acquire American citizenship. So in short, if you want to come here, you’re going to have to wait a very long time. 
Compared to the US, EU immigration law can seem like a joke.  While non-EU citizens who want to live in Europe face many of the same obstacles that they would have if they had wanted to immigrate to the US, citizens of EU countries are allowed to live and work in any EU nation they please.  This rule came into effect in 1994 as one of the perks of the then recently established European citizenship and needless to say, many of the people from poorer European countries who would have tried to immigrate to North America are now choosing Western European nations like France and Italy.  Among the 11 million migrants with EU citizenship living in EU countries where they don’t hold citizenship is an unknown number of Eastern European Roma.
Estimating Roma populations is extremely difficult.  The number of Roma in Europe is variously estimated at anywhere between 6 and 14 million and estimates of the number of Roma in a particular nation are equally varied.  When I lived in Spain I heard estimates as high as 1,000,000 and as low as 100,000.  Since most Roma live pretty much “off the grid”, don’t send their children to schools, don’t participate in censuses, and often live in unregistered self-constructed settlements, estimating their number can seem like a fool’s errand to all but the most dedicated.  The fact that no government can claim to know exactly how many Roma live within their territory or even exactly where they live plays into the fear-mongering of right wing politicians throughout Europe. 
In the last couple of years, Italy, followed even more virulently by France have sought to dismantle Roma camps, and deport immigrant Roma populations back to their home countries.  In France, many social ills from crime to unemployment are being blamed on Roma populations.  Around 300 Roma camps (often in effect small towns on the edges of cities) are set to be destroyed with their occupants given the choice between unequal housing (say a bed in a gym for a month), life on the street or life in another illegal camp.  The political will for such evictions, which the majority of the French public supports, is drummed up through scare-tactics highlighting the presence of foreign, mostly Romanian and Bulgarian Roma.  Like right wing American politicians who make a big tumult over illegal immigration, in a sense making the issue seem like a sudden emergency every ten years or so when it has been an ongoing phenomenon for decades, French politicians have long used the “Gypsy problem” to win votes before elections.  What is forgotten by the French and Italian public is that most of the Roma who are being evicted from their camps have lived in France or Italy for generations and in some cases have even lived in the same camps for generations.  As for the “foreign” Roma, as citizens of EU nations they should be entitled to live and work anywhere within the European Union.  The French government claims, essentially, that the Roma are not pulling their own weight and don’t find jobs quickly enough and therefore ought to be deported.  The issue becomes even more complicated because several EU countries, including France, only approved Romania’s entrance into the EU on the condition that Romanian nationals would only gain the right to live in France in stages. In 2014 Romanians are slated to gain full residency rights and Sarkozy’s government is looking for ways to get rid of their “foreign Roma” before then and make sure they never come back.  Roma families are being offered 300 Euros a person (100 a child) and free airfare to return to Romania.  At the same time France and Italy are trying to initiate an EU wide Roma policy which would exempt Roma from enjoying the same right to live/work in any European country that they are entitled to as EU citizens.  This plan has caused a great deal of controversy among EU politicians and several countries invited to a conference dedicated to the “Gypsy problem”, most notably Germany, have refused to attend.  Romania which wanted to attend wasn’t even invited. 
One thing that becomes immediately clear from the whole controversy is that some of the more established countries in the EU feel that they are getting more than they bargained for in terms of foreign immigration.  Since many of their politicians are blaming the Roma for many social ills, their citizens are clamoring for the Roma to be dealt with and they feel that something must be done.  At the same time, Western European nations without young populations need immigrants from the newer EU states and barring only one ethnic group is just not going to fly like it would in America. So in effect the French and Italian politicians are stuck with having to “deal” with their immigrant Roma populations, at the same time they can’t survive without the influx of workers that these same people are a part of.  So they expel a small percentage of the foreign Roma (remember these people are allowed to return anyway) and tear down a whole bunch of Roma settlements for what basically amounts to a political spectacle.  None of this will “solve” the Roma “crisis” and it will make life much more difficult for the Roma themselves.  Instead of attempting to integrate the Roma into their countries in a manner in which they won’t lose their cultural traditions, the French government has basically opted to “pass the buck” and make them all move, often further away from towns and cities.  In effect, the Roma are being shuffled around and temporarily hidden for short term political gain.  A local townsperson may look around and not see “their Gypsies” but the unfortunate families have just been moved elsewhere nearby or if they were foreign shipped on a plane to Romania or Bulgaria. 
What all of this is also doing is increasing the already extreme anti-Roma prejudices, which will just make it tougher for them to find legal work and will push more people into petty crime and keep more children out of schools.  Many Roma advocates fear that this will lead to increased violence against Roma as well. On a continent where the Romani were enslaved well into the 1860s and where as many as 1.5 million (some 90%) were killed during the Holocaust (including literally the entire populations in Lithuania, Latvia, Holland and Croatia), anything heading down this path is particularly abhorrent. 
The Roma Question: The USA vs. Europe  
One thing that interests me with this issue is that the Roma do not face any of these kinds of prejudices against them in the US.  The million or so American Roma, who mostly live in rural areas, are completely outside of the mainstream consciousness.  Very few Americans are aware of how many there are living in their midst and they wouldn’t recognize them even if they interacted with them on a regular basis (say a frequent customer at a store).  Other than fortune telling and in some circles musicians, no professions are associated with the American Roma and when Americans think of “Gypsy thieves” they think of Eastern Europeans, if they know that “Gypsies” are a real ethnic group at all.  The racist phrase “to get gypped” (to be robbed/cheated) is widespread but the vast majority of Americans have no clue as to its origins and are surprised to learn the terms offensive origins.  Nobody has worried about the Roma here since perhaps the 1870s, when they first began immigrating in mass, often brought over by circus promoters along with their trained bears. 
The Roma, it should be noted, are neither a “nomadic” population nor a homogeneous one.  Most Roma, whether in Romania, Afghanistan, Brazil or New York City live in the same place their entire lives.  They sometimes switch between summer and winter residences but the vast majority of Roma are not nomadic by any means.  They live where they find steady work, usually relying upon extended family networks for resources.  The Roma are also a kaleidoscope of interrelated ethnic groups separated by languages and sub-dialects, kinship networks based on extended families, and professions that are common (and in some cases near universal) among specific subgroups (metalworking, music, circus performance, fortunetelling, carpentry, clothing production, landscaping etc).  Much like Hasidic sects, Roma subgroups identify based on the geographic origin of their subgroup and on local traditions acquired there.  The major group in the Philadelphia area is known as the “black Dutch” and not surprisingly originates from Holland.  They are, however, nearly entirely English speaking. In fact, a majority of the world’s Roma no longer speak a variety of Romani.  In Spain and England they speak mixed languages which incorporate Romani words and grammar into the local language.  In New York and Northern New Jersey one hears Romani spoken, especially in Manhattan during the winter.  I’ve been told that the sub-group that lives and works in the garment district has been in America for four or five generations but maintains their language and close contact with family overseas.  Hundreds of thousands of Romani have also immigrated to America in the two decades since the fall of the USSR. 
The real mystery, of course, is why the Roma encounter such prejudices in Europe and become headline news while in America they remain unnoticed.  They don’t live within mainstream society on either continent.  Their children generally don’t go to school, they often forgo normal housing.  They often speak another language and make a living in uncommon trades.  But yet on one continent they are the object of massive fear and derision and on the other most people aren’t even aware of their existence.  Perhaps Americans have enough to fear and worry about already?
As far as the Roma in France, I don’t know too much about them.  Whether the Romanian immigrants and the “indigenous” French Romani are from the same ethnic groups or interact with one another is unclear.  I know that French Roma know French but whether they speak Romani among themselves is unclear.  The Romanian immigrants have been interviewed in Romanian on the news reports I’ve seen but probably speak their own language(s) among themselves. If anyone could shed light on these particulars that would be great. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Class Warfare on New Jersey’s Rails

I meet many more foreign visitors to the US and have more foreign friends than the vast majority of Americans. And one thing that is always mentioned when we discuss the US, or especially when I try to convince someone to visit me here is how “big” the US is. Size wise the US is obviously bigger than the vast majority of countries; it’s the third largest after all. But the States would seem bigger than all of Europe and Japan stuck together because of its “effective distance” (a term coined by a friend), i.e. the amount of time it takes to get around the country is significantly greater than in Western Europe or Japan. This is of course the result of America’s antiquated rail lines and lack of high speed trains, coupled with expensive airfare. While the US invested billions into creating the most sophisticated highways in the world, Europe and Japan spent decades laying the groundwork for rail systems which transport people more quickly, efficiently and cleanly than anything airplanes or cars could ever muster.

I knew all of this before I left for Spain but I never gave the matter much thought while I was there. I noticed that the AVE* trains went significantly faster than their American counterparts and were so quiet and smooth that I felt like I wasn’t really on a train but rather on some sort of hovercraft. I quickly learned that a trip from Valencia to Madrid would take about 3 hours and a trip from Barcelona to Madrid would take about 4.5. Nonetheless I didn’t put much thought into the distances involved nor did I compare them to more familiar US geography because after all I thought, America is big and Spain is small. I really didn’t have a sense of the magnitude of the differences and their impact on daily life until the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an excellent four part special on the topic around the same time that a serious illness in the family turned my life upside down.

After getting back from Spain in late June I began a night-class at Rutgers main campus (New Brunswick, NJ). I don’t drive. New Brunswick is only 53 miles from Philadelphia but to get there I had to take two very slow trains (the Pennsylvania based SEPTA’s R7 to Trenton NJ, then the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor Line to New Brunswick). On a good day this is a 2.5 hour trip one way. On a bad day it’s a four hour trip. On a really bad day (say when someone decides to kill him/herself on the tracks, something that happens some 20 times a year in NJ), the commute can take six hours. So in short I had to leave home at 3:30 for a 6:30 class and hope for the best. When a relative took ill in NYC and the situation required lots of attention from my family including overnight stays, I found myself effectively living in three cities at the same time. Within a span of a month I ended up spending more time on trains than I normally do in a whole year. The obscene amount of time spent bounding back and forth over NJ in slow trains gave me plenty of opportunities to ponder the differences between the Spanish and American train networks.

There are two different train companies that provide service between Philadelphia and New York. Between the two firms there are a meager five routes available, which run on one set of tracks (so they’re not really “routes” in the traditional sense but rather trains that make different combinations of stops). Both companies are owned and operated by government agencies. SEPTA is the public transportation agency for Southeastern Pennsylvania (most importantly covering the Philly metro area) and NJ Transit provides buses and trains within NJ and to some bordering areas of PA and NY (conveniently including routes ending in NYC). To get to NY by train from Philly the cheapest route is to take the same combination of trains I take to Rutgers but to continue on the NJ transit train until Manhattan. The NJ transit train from New Brunswick to NYC usually takes 90 minutes (occasionally there are express trains that take 45), so added on to the original time it takes to get to New Brunswick the full trip from Philly to NYC, a mere 86 miles, ends up being 3.5 to 4 hours. The price all together is $27 to $33 dollars. The other option is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, which depending on the train selected makes only 1 to 3 stops and takes about 1.5 hours. These trains, run by a federal government agency, usually cost between $70 and $140 dollars. If the same routes were served on the Spanish AVE train, the trip would only take 37 minutes and would cost about 20 Euros, roughly 35 dollars. Since I cannot afford to take the AMTRAK, the difference would amount to me being able to get to NYC in 1/5 of the time. This would enable me to live in Philadelphia and work in Manhattan, or even to occasionally attend Yiddish events in the city without a four hour commute both ways (something I occasionally do as is). On the Spanish system my friends who live in Pittsburgh would be able to commute home in some 2.5 hours, rather than the current 9 to 10. The impact that this would have on daily life, as well as on towns lucky enough to get a stop along the high-speed route would be astounding. Considering the fact that many Philadelphians commute daily into Manhattan using Amtrak (1.5 hours, 70-140$ both ways), it’s not unrealistic to imagine that on a truly high speed network it would be possible for someone from DC to commute to NYC (or vice-versa) every day. But high-speed rail in the US remains a dream and a far off one at that. The current rail system is here to stay, along with its barely hidden class conflicts (un)neatly tucked away in the corner.

SEPTA/NJ Transit vs. Amtrak.

Officially, America has no social classes. Everyone from the janitor to the billionaire is addressed as “sir.” Working class people, especially blacks, often dress more elegantly for church on Sunday than their upper class counterparts. There are few institutions that reject members based on their ethnic or religious origins or how much money their family had five generations ago. American English does not have class based accents like British English (with the exception of one acquired upper class accent which is rare these days), and in theory all a person needs to enter what Americans would consider the “upper class” is money. So in the general American conception of class, money itself is class, not a family’s historical prominence nor what pastimes they’d chose to spend their money on (say, investing in racehorses/polo vs. season tickets for NASCAR) . Some of these class barriers that ostensibly don’t exist re-appear, however, when one compares Septa/NJ Transit with Amtrak.

Septa service itself is socially stratified. All routes either originate going downtown or leaving downtown. Every train passes through the same three downtown stations, no matter its final destination, making some of the routes considerably longer than they would be if they were designed to get people from point A to point B as quickly as possible. This feature was built into the lines to transport middle and upper-class Philadelphians with white-collar office jobs from the suburbs or outlying city neighborhoods to Center City (downtown) and West Philly (where the universities are congregated). Neighborhood to neighborhood transportation is mostly provided by Septa bus service, whose passengers are solidly working class. Some of the trains do attract a more working class clientele, especially the R7 to Trenton which is my first train to New Brunswick/NYC. This is because most of the businesspeople traveling to/through Trenton are going to NYC and hence using Amtrak. NJ transit trains have more business people but still have a predominantly working class ridership, especially during off-peak hours.

Septa trains are noisy, usually filthy, and have absolutely no amenities, not even bathrooms. Seats are not individual but rather double or triple. Eating is technically not permitted but people bring their lunches and dinners aboard all the time. Copies of the Daily News or the Metro are left behind on seats. NJ transit trains, by comparison, are much nicer. Passengers are generally quieter; the trains are cleaned more regularly. All of the trains have bathrooms. There are individual seats and even electric outlets to plug in computers or charge cell phones. Eating is strictly prohibited but drinking is permitted. Riders can often read left behind copies of the Metro, NY Post and Daily News as well as the more highbrow Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times. Unlike Septa passengers NJ transit riders are provided with designated waiting areas at the major train stations. But even with these extra comforts neither company comes anywhere near matching Amtrak, which compared to its competition is like a limousine being rated against a donkey cart. The guts of Amtrak trains are basically modeled after passenger planes. There are individual seats that recline, space for every passenger to plug in electronics, lots of clean bathrooms, and even a dining car! Most of the passengers are businesspeople whose trips are being written off as business expenses or are being paid for directly as part of their fee. There are few children and few people not in suits. Instead of CD players (remember those?) or I-Pods most of the riders have touch-screen computers on which they are editing work related documents. If they don’t have computers they are most likely reading a business related document or reading the Wall Street Journal. (Other than the aforementioned activities most people are sleeping which of course has nothing to do with social class). Upon arrival at the station(s) Amtrak passengers are segregated from NJ transit or Septa passengers. They get their own waiting areas which are separated from the rest of the station by walls and curtains. The “rich man’s waiting lounge” can only be entered after the appropriate ticket is checked by what basically amounts to a bouncer.

Class Warfare

As for the routes themselves, the Northeast Corridor lines only have two tracks dedicated to each direction. The faster traveling Amtrak usually takes the inner track seeing as it only stops two to five times. The slower Septa/NJ transit trains take the outer track which meets the platform at every station. Amtrak (and hence the federal government) actually own the track, which NJ Transit (and hence the state government) leases. When Amtrak trains take the outer track they always go ahead of the NJ transit trains so as to avoid the Amtrak train catching up with the NJ Transit train (which would delay the Amtrak train or cause a collision). This in effect delays the NJ transit train should it become necessary for an Amtrak train to travel on the outer tracks.

This parasitic relationship with the working class trains being subservient to their wealthier counterparts usually works well enough assuming nothing goes wrong. However, between the aforementioned frequent suicides and a summer full of terrible weather, much has been going wrong as of late. And the results amount to open class warfare that is blatant, obvious and at times Kafkaesque.

I got caught in the middle of one of these “battles” a few weeks back after a storm knocked down a tree, taking some of the track-signals with it. The signal problems stopped all traffic for a good hour and twenty minutes. I had just taken an exam the night before and as such had schlepped my ten pound dictionary and my laptop along with me. I planned to catch an early express train to NYC that would have gotten me there in roughly 45 minutes to visit my relative in the ICU. After that I would high-tail it back to Philly on a Megabus. I arrived at the New Brunswick train station around 10:30 to find about a hundred people waiting for the train. I was informed that not a single train had come or gone for an hour but no announcement was made and the two workers at the train station knew nothing. Among the people waiting for the various trains which had never come were conductors who were supposed to begin work on these very trains. Even they had not been informed of the signal problems.

At this point it was nearing 90 degrees but despite the heat people were in good spirits and finding humor in the situation. A half hour later an announcement over the crackly loud speaker informed us that no trains were running (duh!) and that train service for NJ transit would resume on the outer tracks in 20 minutes. As the first station is about 30 minutes from New Brunswick I decided to flee to the air-conditioning for the next fifty minutes. The station itself soon became hot, however, after another hundred or so people arrived and I decided to go back onto the platform, where about 150 people were now crowded. Babies cried, adults whined and everyone pushed and shoved in hopes of clearing a little personal space. I found a railing to lean my 20 pound backpack on. Three elegantly dressed white women, all wearing pearls, ended up next to me. One was in her late 20s and the other two were middle aged. The younger woman, clutching a purse which even empty was probably more valuable than my computer, looked at me nervously and said “we’ve never taken NJ Transit before, is it usually this crowded?” I could barely contain my laughter and explained the unfortunate predicament to them. “How long do you think it will be until the trains start running again?” chimed in her mother, pronouncing every syllable of every word in a way that revealed a boarding school upbringing (think Catcher and the Rye). I told them that I didn’t know but that we probably wouldn’t get on a train for another hour at least and it wouldn’t be an express like they had counted on. “But we have theater tickets!” they protested. “We didn’t drive only because we saw an advert(!) that said we could take this train specifically to get to the Broadway matinees.” I politely told them that there wasn’t a snowballs chance in hell that they’d get to NYC on time and that they should take up the issue with their State Senators. I went into my usual spiel about how the federal government paves highways, makes airports but does not support trains. They looked at me dumbfounded and asked if I knew where “management” was. Management. MANAGEMENT! This time I couldn’t control my laughter. I stopped laughing for a moment, choked out an apology and began laughing again. First off, I explained, the people who manage the trains aren’t in a station. And even if they were they certainly wouldn’t be in New Brunswick. Secondly, the sizable New Brunswick train station only has two employees at any given time because 80% of them were replaced with vending machines a few years ago that sell the tickets in their stead. The remaining two employees are there to sell ticket packages and to absorb the various complaints about the trains that should reach “the management” which runs the trains from some hidden place.

Still, despite my explanations and protestations, the women decided to complain at the ticket counter and dragged me along. The oldest of the three, twirling a bead of her pearl necklace and staring at the employee responded to his answers by saying “but couldn’t you do something, this is absolutely dreadful.” The ticket-man, a black kid my age with a rural southern accent said “I reckon t’at ‘bout describes it Mam.” I went back on the platform, right in time for the first of the Amtrak trains to whiz by.

Amtrak trains in New Brunswick can be downright scary. They go by on the inner tracks at about 130 mph and can be heard a mile away. The fast wind, dust, and wall of sound are disorienting no matter how many times you have experienced them. It can be downright terrifying to stand 20 feet away from anything going by at that speed but when you throw in its weight and mass a feeling of utter helplessness often sets in. The experience is made worse for me, however, because a friend of mine threw himself in front of one of these very trains my freshman year and every whizzing tornado of steel is a reminder of his senseless action.

“Trains are runnin’ again” someone said stating the obvious. More people crowded onto the platform and I occupied the time trying to estimate their number. I decided upon 350 persons. Then something downright terrifying happened. Without any warning an Amtrak train raced by us on the tracks closest to us at about 100 MPH, passing less than a foot from the people on the edge of the overcrowded platform. Lots of us screamed. People grabbed their children or their wives or held onto any available surface for dear life. Still, three or four dozen people were knocked over by the wind and a panic started. The train was gone nearly as soon as it had arrived, leaving behind a cloud of profanities and leaving the people closest to the edge to look over the gap to see if anyone had been struck by the train. To the surprise of many in the crowd, myself included, nobody had. If there had been but on person leaning an arm over the platform, or a skirt that extended an inch too far the person would have been torn to shreds without even noticing that something had happened.

The situation repeated itself another eight times over the next two hours that I was stuck there. (Obviously we all stayed far away from the edge of the platform.) While some New Jersey Transit passengers waited five hours to board a train (I waited four), the Amtrak trains were run with minimal interruption. A person arriving in Trenton or Philadelphia at 11 am for an Amtrak train wouldn’t have even noticed the delay because their train ran on schedule. But because of the extra trains sent to pick up the stranded Amtrak passengers, and the fact that Amtrak trains are never halted for NJ transit trains, Amtrak used all four tracks for its own trains for a full two hours. This left the poorer NJT riders stuck outside in 90 degree heat while Amtrak riders waited for their trains in air-conditioned private waiting rooms that only they were permitted to use. And as the (mostly) working class people baking in the sun looked at the trains whizzing by carrying the rich in a luxury we could not afford, I began to wonder what exactly was going through everyone’s minds. They knew, of course, that we were being delayed an additional two hours so that Amtrak passengers wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “Why don’t they split it up,” a kid asked his father in Spanish. “Why don’t they let one stop for us and then one fast train go by?” I looked at the two of them and said in Spanish “cariño (dear/little one), that would be taking turns. The rich don’t do that.”

A few minutes later the three rich ladies thanked me for talking to them (I have no idea why), and told me that they were going home. “Next time we’ll drive to Trenton and take the Amtrak train. Or maybe we’ll just bite the bullet and park in New York” one of them said. Then the one with the Holden Caulfield accent looked at me and said “I’d recommend you try Amtrak next time. Unfortunately most of the people here probably couldn’t afford it.” I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or punch her in the nose. Instead, I told her that I couldn’t afford it either and wished them well. I wondered if they had learned anything from temporarily finding themselves on the losing side in open class warfare.

1. AVE is an acronym for “High Speed Spanish.” It is also a pun because AVE in Spanish means “bird” (think “avian” in English.)
2. The word “advert” is archaic. The woman’s whole diction would have sounded educated forty years ago but now sounds quite unnatural. This was the stereotypical upper class WASP accent of a bygone era.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Cleaning Ladies. Aka the Rudeness of The Spanish Middle Class

Now that I am safely back in America I can write more honestly about my experiences in Spain, especially things about Spain and Spaniards that I was not impressed with. Growing up I often looked askance at many aspects of American life all the while assuming that Europeans were more sophisticated, intellectually curious and oriented towards social justice and social welfare than Americans. This may be true of some places in Europe (Norway/Sweden for instance) but it is certainly not the case in Spain, where from my own experiences I’d say that the average Spaniard is slightly more ignorant than the average American and is far less concerned about social welfare or treating people well than the average American. Spaniards, of course, think Americans are stupider than they are but it’s really hard for them to judge us when they don’t speak our language or understand the culture. Ignorance, however, doesn’t particularly upset me. It was trying at times when people asked me a question and then immediately got bored with the answer. For instance what follows is a typical conversation. I’d usually have one like this a week:

Guy down the hall: Where are you from?
Me: Philadelphia.
Where’s Philadelphia?
Near NYC, about two hours south…..
Oh, so you’re from New Jersey with the others.
Well, I go to college there but I’m from Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania.
Oh. (Feigning interest.) So that’s where the north lost the war?…
Which war?
Your civil war.
No, the north won, the north was the USA. The south split off and attacked us.
Oh, whatever, I mean that’s where the war was.
Not in Philadelphia, no.
But in New Jersey?
You mean Pennsylvania, yeah there were some battles there.
So that’s when Washington was the general?
No, you’re thinking of the War of Independence. That was 85 years earlier.
(Looking annoyed.) So are you going to see Manchester United here?

Of course, most Americans only have a vague sense of Spanish history and I’ve even run into Americans who confuse the US civil war and what we call “the revolutionary war” (it’s “the war of American independence” in Spain and England.) But who’s keeping score? As I said, ignorance doesn’t particularly upset me. What did really upset me about Spaniards, especially the Spanish middle-class was their complete lack of concern with social-welfare. The most glaring issue that immediately comes to mind is Spain’s disgusting treatment of its Roma, who are literally treated worse than dogs. I had never experienced entrenched racism at all levels of a society until my time in Spain. To tell the truth I had never seen or experienced anything close. But much more revealing of the Spanish mentality is their treatment of fellow Spaniards from a lower social class, specifically the complete and utter lack of respect they show them. A very telling example I can give is how the cleaning ladies were treated in the dorm where I lived. I shared a suite with three Spaniards who had their own rooms and an American with whom I shared a larger room. This was in a fifteen story freshman dorm which had some 300 people living there. Unlike dorms in the US which are on campus and run by a single college/university, Spanish dorms are privately owned and house students from different universities. As the dorms are privately owned and essentially compete with each other for students, Spanish dorms are fancier than their American counterparts. This is most noticeable with the extremely high quality food which is served cafeteria style in the dorm itself. But this fanciness also extends to how the dorms are cleaned.

In the US student rooms are cleaned twice a year at most. Nobody makes your bed or cleans your shower or scrubs your floor for you. You clean your own room, dust your own shelves, and mop when necessary. In Spain, student rooms are treated just like hotel rooms and are cleaned/made up twice weekly. Some students also pay a little extra to have the maids do their laundry and sheets for them. While all of this was a bit shocking to me being an American, what really stunned me was finding out that few of the Spaniards even knew the names of the maids. One day the cleaning lady who did our floor came by and asked if she could come a few hours early. I said that I’d ask my suitemates and told them “(woman’s name) wants to know if she can come at 2.” “Who,” they asked. I repeated the name assuming that they had not heard me but they still remained confused. “(name),” I said “the woman who makes your bed every week!” They look at me dumbfounded and so “oh, the cleaning lady, yeah that’s cool.”

I thought we treated our cleaning ladies badly at Rutgers. Occasionally (let’s say every other week) a pizza would be left out on a table. Empty soda cans often wouldn’t quite make it into a trash can and would lie on the floor. On one occasion (and in two years I mean literally one) someone made a complete disgrace of a bathroom, tearing the whole place asunder with what basically amounted to a one man riot that was like a physical manifestation of a joke a five year old would get slapped for telling. People who vomited in the bathroom (and this happens weekly in American colleges) usually cleaned up their mess themselves or bullied someone else into doing it. In any case, it was rarely if ever left for the cleaning ladies. Everyone knew their first names and many of us knew how many kids they had, where they were from and what other jobs they worked and they learned our names and room numbers. That is just the kind of basic niceties that are expected in America. Overall, however, I thought that we were badly behaved. After all food sometimes got left out, occasionally toilet paper found its way into toilet balls and once someone decided it would be clever to, let’s just say, inappropriately use a shower. I wondered if the women would be treated this way if they weren’t immigrants but were, let’s say, poor native born Americans. In any case, I certainly thought the situation would be much better in “civilized” Europe. As we say in Yiddish “whose dream do you think you’ve woken up in?” or as they say in Philly “like hell.”

Not only did the Spaniards not know the names of the people being paid to do everything for them, they didn’t even acknowledge their presence when they walked in their rooms. No hello, no thank you, no goodbye, no “have a good Easter.” Nada. Far worse was the fact that the brats in the dorm where I lived purposefully trashed the place to an extent that would be simply unimaginable in the US. Students (18,19 year olds!) threw rotted food against walls, dropped watermelons down the staircase, lit firecrackers inside of cakes, broke ceilings and glass inside of elevators, spilled soda and vodka and left it spilled overnight, graffitied, tracked pizza and tomato sauce over several floors and left broken glass bottles on stairs and handrails. Most of these bromas, pranks as the students referred to them, were weekly occurrences. When I once dared to ask someone to consider the cleaning ladies as he took a bottle of ketchup and smashed it against a wall and smeared its contents all over, he looked at me and said “hombre, es que les pagamos a las mujeres” (dude, it's that we pay the women). “No”, I said, “your parents pay the owner to pay the women and they’re people just like your parents or Aunts.” He looked at me, shocked, and said “no, they’re ignorantas (ignorant/uneducated women) who are the children of peasants who mismanaged their land.” Well, what is there to say to such a thing?

In the US, on the east coast at least, the vast majority of cleaning ladies are foreign born. I thought that any disrespect they received originated in racial prejudice and/or was due to their being immigrants (I don’t give generalized ignorant/stupid behavior enough credit sometimes). In Spain, where such people are treated far worse than they are in America, they appear to be mistreated due to their social class. I don’t claim of course that what I was told by one prick is representative of middle class Spaniards or even semi-typical. But the complete and utter disrespect with which the dorm residents treated these women was near universal and never questioned. Whether this situation was unique to one university or a microcosm of typical Spanish middle class behavior is unclear but I’d venture to guess more towards the latter than the former. In a nation where children often live with their parents well into their 30s, where laziness is not only socially accepted but a time honored tradition, and where a stunning sense of entitlement prevails despite a 20% unemployment rate, rudeness is practically a patriotic value among the middle class. I have my own complicated theories about how this came to be that I will cover in further blog posts, but for the time being I’d like to hear from any Spaniards (in English or Spanish) who would like to refute, explain, or agree with anything I’ve said.