Growing Up Multi-Lingual–And Staying That Way

The uproar about that New York lawyer going postal because people were speaking Spanish at a Fresh Kitchen eatery has reminded me how lucky I was to grow up in a multi-lingual home.

Before World War II hit his tiny village in Czechoslovakia, my father knew Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, and Ruthenian. He learned German during the war, and also Rumanian. Far to the north in Vilnius, my mother’s household languages were Yiddish, Polish and Russian, and she studied German and French in school. Latin, too, which benefited me as a kid because she was able to explain grammar simply and clearly.  When they lived in bi-lingual Brussels after WW II, my father picked up Flemish.

I myself was bilingual before kindergarten: I spoke Yiddish and English at home, and even though over time I stopped using Yiddish with my parents, I still understood it. In fourth grade, my class started learning French, which I loved and took to so well that down the road I become my high school’s star French student.

When a German publisher bought three books of mine back in the 2000s, I started taking German classes and reached a point where I could introduce a reading in German on a book tour and even do the reading itself in German.

Not too long ago, a senior colleague at Michigan State University asked if I’d like to join him in launching a summer program in Sweden. I didn’t hesitate.  Part of the attraction was getting to study Swedish, a language I quickly fell in love with for its musicality and relative simplicity compared to German. That program didn’t pan out because of issues with the Swedish university, but the time I spent immersed in Swedish language study was tremendous fun.  When you study a language, you also learn about the country’s culture and history and until then, I’d known very little about Sweden.  I was fascinated by many things, including their notion of lagom: having just enough in life.

I moved on to Dutch more recently when I created a summer abroad program of my own based in Ghent, Belgium.  I made fairly good progress until it was kiboshed by a department chair despite the enthusiastic approval of administrators above her level who were eager for something new and exciting. I don’t regret the time devoted to it. Dutch isn’t easy, but it’s been fun and I know on my next trip to Amsterdam or anywhere in Flanders that I’ll be able to interact with people without feeling stuck in my own skin.

French has helped me in my travels across Europe and even, surprisingly, in Israel; ditto German outside of Germany.  I’ve read books in both languages that have inspired me as a writer.  A shop owner in Paris once said to me–after complimenting my French–that you can’t really understand another culture until you enter its language.

I’m grateful to the many fine language teachers I’ve had over the years for opening those doors.  They’ve made my travels infinitely more enjoyable, they’ve given my deeper access to the countries where I spoke that language, and they’ve connected me to my past.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

Language Bigots Don’t Understand America

A New York lawyer’s rant about Spanish-speaking workers at a Fresh Kitchen went viral this past week, and rightfully so.

The lawyer was infuriated to hear Spanish, which the counter workers were speaking to each other, and to some customers.  He’s not only intolerant, he’s ignorant.  Since the time when it was still called New Amsterdam,  New York City has welcomed people seeking freedom and opportunity, whether they spoke Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Vietnamese or any other language.  Hundreds of languages are currently spoken in New York.

Many immigrants might not know English when they get here and perhaps may struggle with it all their lives.  But if they don’t learn it or learn it well, their children do.  It’s a pattern that’s been repeating itself one generation after another and has helped us become ever more diverse.

When my parents came here in 1950 from Eastern Europe via Belgium, my mother spoke English, but my father didn’t and he had to learn it at his place of work.  Between them, they spoke close to a dozen European languages.  While Yiddish was their everyday choice, they often switched to Russian because they wanted privacy from me and my brother.  But they could speak it in public, too, and they did.

I heard several languages in my apartment building and grew up in a neighborhood where you could hear German on the streets, and then later Spanish.  I never felt threatened.  I felt the opposite.  These other languages were siren calls for me to make myself fluent in a second language at the very least.  And something more: they fueled my desire to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures as authentically as I could.

I teach on a campus with several thousand Chinese students.  They don’t frighten or enrage me.  I find the experience fascinating since Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages spoken in China aren’t like any language I know or have studied.  Hearing spoken Chinese, I feel connected to the world outside my small Michigan college town, even if I don’t know what’s being said.  And I’m reminded how connected we all are, which it makes me want to re-double my efforts in learning Dutch, my latest challenge after having spent two amazing weeks in Flanders.

As for hearing employees speaking to customers in something other than English, my mother spoke Polish with the butcher she frequented, and Russian whenever she realized a store employee was from somewhere in Russia.  I envied her knowledge, flexibility, and fluency.  And if a guy like the lawyer at Fresh Kitchen had gone postal about her not speaking English, I’m sure she would have had a wide range of terms to put him in his place.  But politely, because she was always dignified, and her English had a British tinge to it.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

 

Chicago Museum Vacation

Walking into any museum is always partly a trip to an enchanted part of my childhood. My very first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was to see it’s new acquisition of Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” The painting was newsworthy not just because of the artist, but because its 2.3 million dollar sale price was the highest ever paid for a painting sold privately or publicly.

I didn’t know what the painting was about or anything about Rembrandt but I was awed by the crowds and determined to share in the spectacle.  I actually crawled under people’s legs to get to the front. The painting stunned me: it was so solemn and mysterious.  That day, the door to great beauty was opened to me and it’s never closed.

Because we visited museums so often when I was a kid, I grew to have “friends” in New York museums, like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at MOMA.  Whenever I’m in Chicago, I go to the Art Institute and at some point pay homage to Caillebotte’s enormous, haunting “Paris Street: Rainy Day” which was recently cleaned and looks beautiful (much better than my photo shows).

I was captivated by the artist’s most famous painting the first time I saw it, perhaps because of my long years studying French, my trips to Paris, and my love of the period it evoked.  It came to move me even more after the Art Institute’s 1995 Caillebotte exhibition which revealed his depth as an urban Impressionist capturing the loneliness we can all feel in a big city.

But after re-acquainting myself, I wander off, whether there’s an exhibition I had specifically come to or not, because I know I’ll end up being surprised by joy.  Especially when there isn’t a crowd of people standing in front of a canvas, statue, or glass case (I’m too old to crawl).  There’s always a treasure around a corner or across a gallery–something I’ve missed before or never really explored.  Like Manet’s moody portrait of his fellow artist Alfred Sisley, which seems almost painted in the subject’s style.

Or this moving, “Entombment” by baroque painter Guercino who I don’t remember encountering before visiting the Art Institute.  It’s an enormous canvas, and the rich blues and reds serve to heighten the sorrow of the scene.

Paintings like these make me sit down on a bench, study them, let myself stop worrying about time or anything else, and just disappear into whatever world the painter has created.  In those moments, I feel as a writer that something is being written on and in me.   I feel filled, transported, healed–and sent off in new directions that I couldn’t even have imagined just an hour before.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in many genres.  He’s been teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and offers writing workshops on line at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

My Mother’s Life Lesson

I think about my literate, multi-lingual mother all the time, even though she died nearly twenty years ago.

Well-read and well-educated, she inspired me with a love of learning for its own sake.  She was always ready to help me with homework in any subject, made me pay attention to politics and the news, and encouraged me to follow my dreams of travel to Europe. Even though I started learning French in fourth grade, my command of that language wouldn’t be as good as it is if she hadn’t been so thorough and patient.

More than that, she also taught me a valuable life lesson.  I was pretty young when my parents, my brother and I were walking into some downtown Manhattan restaurant for lunch and we were approached by a homeless man.

I didn’t understand anything about how people in our wealthy society could end up at the bottom like that, I’d never been in a situation like that, and I was embarrassed and confused.

Dressed in several layers of clothing including a tweed topcoat that seemed too heavy for the season, the man asked my mother for a cigarette, sounding as formal as a college professor.  She opened her purse and offered him a whole pack of Larks.  And money.

He shook his head in thanks, said, “One cigarette was all I asked for.”  And that’s all he took.

Inside, I asked why she had offered him all of her cigarettes.  My mother was a Holocaust survivor and had seen worlds of horror that I was only just beginning to learn about.  What she next said has always stuck with me: “I could never beg for anything in the war.  If someone does what he did, I have to say yes.”

It was an eye-opening, heart-expanding moment.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  An assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, he also teaches creative writing on line at http://writewithoutborders.com/

 

Food Fun in Chicago

Because of my Russian heritage, when I’m in Chicago I like to eat at Russian Tea Time near the Art Institute. I’ve never been served a bad meal there, and having lunch or dinner, scraps of my parents’ conversations in Russian come back. The enjoyable present makes for a warm connection to my past, and I feel my late mother’s presence very strongly because she was a wonderful cook and used to make her own borscht.

But this past weekend I felt like changing things up. I’ve had several book tours across Germany and in Vienna where I became very fond of the food, the wine, and the beer. So Berghoff seemed a natural choice. It’s been in business for a century.

The wood paneling and stencils on the wall felt familiar even though the clientele was multi-national. I’d eaten many a schnitzel on my book tours so I wanted to see how their Wiener Schnitzel compared. Served with spaetzel and creamed spinach, it was delicious, and so was the German Riesling. The apple strudel, though, was a bit too sweet and looked deconstructed.

There was a band playing blues in the bar, but I didn’t mind the commotion because I was reflecting on how my life had changed so dramatically after I found a distant cousin by marriage in Magdeburg, where my mother had been a slave laborer in a munitions factory. Germany had always felt taboo to me until that discovery, and I’ve been there five times now, visits recorded in my memoir/travelogue My Germany.

For breakfast I picked Le Pain Quotidien on Michigan Avenue and that also sparked great reminiscences. My tasty avocado toast with smoked salmon seemed very American, but the coffee came in a little pitcher and I got a bowl as opposed to a mug. It brought back more pleasant memories, this time of research trips I’d done in both the French and Flemish speaking parts of Belgium. The coffee was smooth and strong, the staff friendly.

I had planned lunch at a trattoria but got the days confused and it was closed, so I found myself drawn ineluctably to the nearby Russian Tea Time where I had two specialties I’d never tried before.  The excellent mushroom barley soup was tomato-based and filled with vegetables, while the duck strudel (yes!) was terrific and unusual.  I had two glasses of a sweet red from the Republic of Georgia and wished my mother could have been alive to dine with me there.

Food and writing often go together for me, and this trip gave me ideas for fiction and much more. I was alone for most of my time in Chicago, and that can sometimes make me miss being home, but memories and new enjoyments were great company.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He’ll be teaching an online memoir writing workshop this summer at http://writewithoutborders.com/workshops/