Friday, August 29, 2008

A New Relationship?

Do you know people who have relashionships with their food? Until about a week ago I thought of them as a pittiful bunch. Now I'm wondering whether I joined this non secret cult. My culinary childhood includes lots of goose liver sandwiches, a mom who loved all sweets and did not eat anything raw, and a dad killed by greasy food.

My mom's craving for sweets started early in her life, the chestnut episode being one of the frequently told tales in our family. Chestnut puree is a well known Hungarian dessert, served with lots of whipped cream. She prepared it during a cooking class in school, but there was no time to eat what she'd prepared, as usual, so in her fear to miss the feast, she filled both pockets of her white apron with the brownish pleasure, the large stubborn staines becoming the silent memorial of the episode.

In communist Romania, food was scarce and one just eat whatever could be found in the stores and markets. Meat was missing, but not on our table, thanks to the weekly kosher meat supply to the members of the Jewish community. In my own cooking, I preserved my grandmothers' traditional dishes, with the carb- and fat-rich ones slowly being exiled into disgrace.

About a week ago I got an offer from Weight Watchers, their group conveniantly located at my workplace. What could be more tempting than something that does not require moving my car out of the underground parking, driving into sweatty Tel Aviv and haunting for a parking place or paying a small fortune for one? To my surprise, Peter, my husband thought it's a good idea and so I decided to try, the worst scenario being that the 4 extra kilograms stubbornly clinging to my stomach will refuse to leave.

Armed with my credit card and lots of motivation, I pass the first weighting, listen to the boring opening lecture and leave with a new type of ammunition: the points system. I have to write down everything I eat and drink and fit it all into 20 daily points. The first crisis hits me soon enough, just after dinner. How am I supposed to point a few bites of this or that? What about all the food types missing from the list I got? I seek long time weight watcher's advice, but no relief comes. "You have to estimate" they tell me. Their local website, just like the booklet I got, is not helpful at all. Most of it is marketing material filled with lots of 'before' and 'after' stories and pictures of people wearing smiles and new outfits. Power to them.

I wonder wether the frustrating point counting system is supposed to take my appetite away. Second and third day I'm over budget. I find myself constantly thinking about food, hunger, points, still not capable of refusing a slice of cake left in the office kitchenette and feeling guilty during and after cosuming it. Psychosomatically (or is this my pre-diabetes?), my stomach feels bloated when eating forbidden food, punishing me for hours and days.
Still, I can't bear the the thought of eating anything with the words 'diet' or 'light' label on the package. I'd rather eat less of the real stuff. Huge powers prevent me from resting my fork at the first sign of satiation.

The first few days I just register and summarize what I've eaten, but now I'm also trying to choose food types with less points. I find this easier to implement when eating just after the first sign of hunger. Will I succeed to move the next step?
For now, the keywords for success seem to be awareness and perseverence.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Relationships 101: Mind the Gap

What makes some relationships work while others fail miserably? I'm far from being a psychologist, but in light of my 28th anniversary I developed the gap theory for relationships. Its essence is :

  • Identifying initial gaps for selecting the right partner
  • Preventing new gaps from being born
  • Filling newly formed narrow gaps to stop their development into large gaps [that are more difficult to handle].

Like any theory, the gap theory is not perfect. In real life, there probably are many exceptions that work, too.

Choosing a Suitable Partner

I like to watch romantic Hollywood comedies, even though I disagree with the underlying message that there is only one person in the entire world who is meant to be your partner for life. The truth is that we can partner with many people, especially when we are young and flexible. But there should be some common ground. In a movie I recently saw, a young Swiss woman marries a muscular Masai tribeman. Did they have a real chance for a lasting relationship? Yes, a tiny one. Here comes the first gap to avoid: large differences [of any kind]. Love cannot possibly bridge all differences, even though it may seem so in the beginning.

How do you know your new relationship is on the right track for the long term? Although 'it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future', as Yogi Berra pointed out, a good sign is the positive tendency of your relationship: the more you konw your partner, the more you like and love him/her. Your initial blindness turns into heart-and-mind love. The heart part is what you see in movies, the mind one is more difficult. It makes you respect and appreciate your partner, potentially longer lasting features.

With the initial blindness dissipating, you will be able to see your partner in a more realistic light, with [all] his/her flaws. If you can't accept your partner's flaws, move on. Don't expect to change him/her. Issues that annoy you now tend to accentuate over time. It's amazing how many people ignore these early warnings. I know women who got slapped by their boyfriend, followed by apologies, married the guy and became beated women.

Minding New Gaps

Preventive maintenance of relationships lies in communication and sharing. Don't outsource your communication. I got a beautiful greeting card from my husband for our 28th anniversary. He spent hours looking for the right one, with the perfectly worded text. So what's my problem? I prefer a less perfect text that comes from his own heart rather than from a [talented] copywriter. Unlike house cleaning, communication is way too important to outsource to a paid service provider. Keeping it genuine takes the same amount of time and effort, but yields a completely different result.

Spend quality time together and take short breaks to add color spots to your gray routine. Discuss your experience at work, activities and friends over a cup of coffee, keep your partner up to date with your life and thoughts. Sparing negative or worrisome details will result in a widening gap. This happened to a friend of mine and surprisingly [or not] for the 'right' reason. His wife became ill and he wanted to spare her the daily worries to prevent deteriorating her health. With time she stopped being his partner and their long marriage ended up with a divorce.

Once a new gap popped up its ugly little head, don't ignore or drag it. Resolve differences the same day, adviced my aunt Rozsi before my marriage. Gaps became too large to cope with? If you seek improvement, take professional advice.

Have I conducted my own life according to these guidelines? How could I? They just recently crystalized in my head.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Secrets of the Drawer

My grandmother's life (burried next to my father) was very different. Born in 1895 in Arad (1 out of 5 children) in a secular Jewish family owning a declining China porcelain business, with almost no dowry, she was forced to mary the much older Austro-Hungarian officer who occupied one of their rooms during WWI. Her impecable education of an Austro-Hungarian lady destined her to a better life she could only wish for. As after that war Transylvania (including Arad) became part of Romania, the former officer could no longer serve in the army, the only profession he knew and apparently liked. He entered the timber wholesale business and tried others, mostly unsuccessfuly. Their roller-coaster like household pendulated between extremes of living-in servants and furniture forclosures. She never worked outside her household, a child-like economic dependence in Eva's view. She made an impact on both Eva's and my education, me sharing a room with her since I was born till she died in 1981 at the age of 86.

In that very room, there were 2 mahogany-marble-glass cupboards from her small dowry, manufactured in 1860, in Vienna. The larger one features a wide drawer under the marble plate, that contained documents and used to be locked, which made it extra interesting for me to discover.

One thing I discovered was a beautifully caligraphed application of my grandfather to the Austro-Hungarian authorities to change his name from the Jewish Stern to the Hungarian Sebestyen. My cousin Eva changed Sebestyen to the Romanian Sebastian. Then she married to Bucur, divorced and became Sebastian again. Before you get to the judgemental "the more we want to be like them, the more they hate us", you should know she wasn't the only one in our family to change her name. My grandmother's youngest sister, Rozi, the Budapest pianist who helped them financially after the frequent furniture forclosures, got fictively married to the gentile Ferenczy, which turned her into Ferenczy Albertne, a name that saved her from the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
I also discovered in the drawer different documents with the name Scheer Ana on them and this is how I found out my mother was previously married to the hunchback Scheer and got divorced. I can envision how this arty-lazy womanizer who could not earn a decent living exasperated my practical mother. They had no children. What makes a relationship work, I ask myself 2 days before our 28th anniversary and promise to dedicate a special blogpost to my insights on the subject.
There was also a bunch of letters sent by my father to my mother when he courted her. I felt uncomfortable reading them, so I made do with the first row. Beautiful romantic music to my ears.

After the drawer disclosed its secrets and before we immigrated to Israel, we sold both closets to my friend's parents. I am really happy they didn't go to strangers, but to the nice Vlaicu couple, the parents of Rely (my friend who lives in the UK) and her sister Dora (who made these pictures and some other beautiful ones to come).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Oradea: My Father's Memory

The first thing we did in Oradea was visiting the cemetery. I always say that you can remember a lost loved one anywhere, not necessarily in the cemetery, where you actually see and touch the physical evidence of the person's death. Well, when it comes to my father, this theory doesn't really work. He was and remained very special to me and to all around him. Most of his life is still a mystery to me, as I don't remember many of the stories he told me about his life before I was born.

He was born in 1917 in a traditional Jewish family (1 out of 8 children) in the little village of Szentjob (Bihor county). His family, as many other Jewish families in other little villages in the area, owned the village shop and later a soda water filling station. He absorbed trade as a small child, while helping around the shop. One story I remember was how he was sent, as a child, alone on a horse carriage to the big city of Oradea to one of the rich suppliers in town to bring goods for the shop. He loved to tell me the part where the supplier ordered his servants around to treat him as a VIP, bring him breakfast and anything else he needed. This must have made a big impression on him.

His entire family was deported to Auschwitz (just one sister came back), while he was in a forced labor or prisoner camp in Ukraine. There he learned to be a tailor.

What made him with his 7-grade education and above history the exceptional person loved and respected by everybody around him? Must be the unique combination of his personal integrity and beliefs, his sharp mind, his kindness, willingness to help and endless generosity. I hoped to meet someone who knew him and could attest his qualities for Dan.

Being a prominent leader of Oradea's Jewish Community, he planted zionism in me and the memories of Jewish tradition. His first heart attack, at the age of 60, just 2 weeks after he retired full of plans to turn our garden into a "garden of Eden", left us suddenly with a huge hole in our lives and souls, changing them irreversibly.

Although my mother hired someone to pray Kadish for the transcendence of his soul for an entire year, I remember the masked sadness in his voice when mentioning, in his lifetime, not having a son to do that for him. So here I stand, in front of his grave with my son Dan, prayer book in his hand, hoping Apu is pleased and can rest in peace. My mind wonders around the hypotethical question of how he and Dan would have got along and about the huge forces that make us try to please our parents even after their death. "He would have been very proud of your achievements" says Eva and I wordlesly thank her for saying the right thing.
In a previous conversation she told me how happy my mother's entire family was to have him with them. My second cousin, Pop Ioan, told me a story I didn't know. He very much wanted to buy one of the first cars in Oradea when he was young and couldn't afford it. He turned to my father for advice (although he is related to my mother) and got the entire sum as a loan. No repay date, just a promise that he would occasionaly take him to visit the Jewish cemetery in Szentjob, where he arranged for a yearly payment to an ex-neighbor to take care of it.

Next day we are visiting the Zion neolog synagogue, where I got married in 1980. After being closed for many years following acts of vandalism, it is now somewhat renovated, although ripped off its past glory. An old man in charge shows us around, points at the places of the beautiful stolen chandeliers and asks for a donation. As we are about to leave, he asks me for my name. "Berger Erika" I say, "the daughter of Berger Jeno." "The tailor?" he enquires? "Yes". "I knew him. He helped me and gave me clothes 'cause I was poor."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Eva in Arad

We met Eva at Budapest airport, so we had the entire time in the car to tell and listen to family stories. The once slow border passthroguh beuraucracy, took us just a few minutes at Nadlac and after a few hours of driving we got to Arad, where Ioana, Eva's youngest daughter was waiting for us. Ioana is a bright young woman and if you happen to know Romanian, you can read her blog here.

The city of Arad has nothing interesting to offer to tourists, but if you are already there, walk alongside the Mures and enter into one of the many restaurants located in the 'strand'. The park, close to the market, features a hystoric monument and a piazza.

Now that we got the 'sites' out of the way, I can go into some personal details. My cousin Eva, a recently retired French teacher, lives opposite the synangogue in her parents' house with what she calls the zoo. It consists of the old and rather smelly dog called Max, a cat and her kittens. The house needs serious maintenance, but it has a nice little garden where she grows all sorts of spices. She told me stories about our family, stories that I was not aware of as they happened when I was a child or before I was born.

So, let's continue to our next station, Oradea, and see how some of these stories unfold.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Next Generation

Despite the negative picture some journalists are trying to draw in our minds and despite the lack of statistical evidence, my feeling is that the next generation (the teenagers of today) are much better than we are in many aspects.

They were raised in a much more challenging environment, with so many more possibilities to develop interests, hobbies, express themselves, research alone and make friends. The most amazing thing is how they grasp the reality, how they quickly understand underlying social mechanisms, even though they sit for hours in front of their computers. I guess it depends what they do with it.

Insights that took me years of life experience and studies to attain, they grasp in their twenties, they manage amazing projects and volunteer to better our world. They don't rush to start their work life early (as we were educated to do), they understand that work life is long and tiring, so they take their time and have fun as they go along.

They travel much more than we did, see places, have different experiences and constantly compare and analyze. They appreciate art and good humor and even fancy restaurants and gourme food.

I know there are shirkers, lazy and dumb teenagers, but luckily my world is filled with the other kind.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Romania: General Remarks

My remarks are based on my 2-week trip in Transylvania, during which I drove ~6500 km. One of the most frequent sites I saw was stray dogs. They come in every size, shape and color and usually beg for food.

Roads: Although I've been worned that the roads are bad, I was surprised to find out how bad they really are. Apart from a few major roads, most roads have one lane for each direction. Overtaking is dangerous and many times you find yourself behind a truck (of which there are many), driving at very low speeds, especially if the road goes uphill. Many roads are full of holes and you need to slalom between them to protect your car. Many roads are also under construction and you need to wait behind temporary traffic lights to pass through the only lane available. In urban localities, asphalt is scarce, many streets are not paved at all. When it rains, the dirt gets slippery and you need to take extra care where you park, to avoid digging in.

On the side of some roads, you can buy vegetables, fruits and dairy products, or local workmanship produces among a myriad of tastelss souvenirs. If you are interested in doilies and tablecloths, it's your heaven. They come in every shape, size and decoration. Unfortunately I have lots of these at home (I barely use 10% of what I have), so there was no point in indulging myself in browsing the endless selection.

Buildings: A new house painting fashion has developed lately, houses are painted in extremely bright, vivid colors. You can find electric pink houses next to orange houses, blue, green and yellow ones. At first this color overdose seems tastless, but my theory is that it's a communist era backlash, when buildings tended to be just gray. Perhaps the over-reaction will mild with time. Anyway, it's preferable to gray.

Villages: Roads pass through village (and city!) centers. Typically, the houses on the main street have 2 windows facing the road and tend to continue inwards, with the other windows facing the back or side. The impression is like they all croud up to get a precious place on the main road. There are no restaurants in villages, just basic food stores, sometimes with a few benches and tables in front of the store.

Cities: At the entrance of every city there is quarter of ugly, communist era blocks of flats and huge branches of chain stores and shopping malls. These stores are clean, western-level with a nice selection of products. The only problem I saw is that if you don't own a car, it's very complicated to reach them and take your goods home.

Service: Don't expect the somewhat phoney "have a nice day", but a lack of "thank you" and even a smile are evident.

Food: The most popular food you can find everywhere is ... pizza. I've been told that the reason for this is that the first wave of investors who came into Romania after the revolution were the Italians. There was one thing I didn't get about these pizzas though: what are you supposed to do with the extra sauce they offer on the menu?

Most restaurants have impressive menus, but they serve the same food all over. Same soupes, same main and side dishes, same deserts and same beverages. When we got tired of the selection, we were happy to find a chinese restaurant in Pitesti. The food wasn't really chinese, but when I pointed that out to the waitress (she asked me how it was), she was very upset. She claimed that both the chef and the owner were in China (not clear doing what). For some reason, Romanians believe that if you use local ingredients and methods, but drown the dish in an "ethnic" sauce, you have a genuine ethnic dish. Sorry do disappoint you guys, but Chinese food comes in bite sizes (not like the fried eggplant meetballs I got), since the Chinese use chopsticks to eat and no knives. In many restaurants, they charge you for items you don't order, such as bread. However, if you insist, they take it off the bill.

A great restuarant we found (it was in the guide) was Bella Musica in Brasov. It is very stylish, located in a nicely decorated basement. Unfortunately, when we got there, it was too early for dinner, so we just ordered coffee and desert. Needless to say, they were superb, and so was the service.

Museums and the like: There is an extra fee for taking stills and videos. However, once inside, they don't verify whether you have paid this fee, when you use your camera. And no, I haven't done that. Don't tell me it didn't cross you mind I did.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Interim thought: freedom is complicated

Being born and raised in a communist country I surely appreciate freedom. It's about the only thing that would make me demonstrate in the streets. Taking responsibility over your own choices, life and mistakes is, in principle, a good thing.
In real life though, sometimes it's a nuisance. Take for example the case of one's study fund. An avergae company works with about 5 different ones you can choose from, each with its own return history (which, BTW does not predict the future) and management fee. If you are not a capital market expert (even though I hold an MBA, I don't work in the financial field), you'd probably prefer an expert's opinion. Besides, you should follow it up every 1-2 years and hop from one fund to the more promising other. For remembering to follow it up once in, say, 2 years, you may need a PDA with your favorite calendar application. By the time you should receive the reminder, your PDA or application (or both) have been updated and the data transferred - or not. To consult an expert, you need recommendations, perhaps a meeting, phone calls and payment. Matters would be much simpler in a single study fund (or no fund) situation.
Religion makes many choices for the observant, prescribing DOs and DONTs, thus simplifying life. It also offers other benefits, such as belonging to a community. Seculars have an endless choice of communities they can belong to, but do they really? Some do, most don't. Is taking a prescribed path better than no path?
Gadgets come with options you don't use but pay for. Then you watch the flashing time display (don't tell me you don't posses at least one such electronic device). 15 years ago, when we bought the shelves for our walk-in closet, we decided to just place them on rails without screwing them in, until we decide their final position. They are still loose in their initial location, but we have the option of moving them.
Costly freedom of choice or no brainers? Your choice.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Side Story 1 - Language Choice

While you are eager to read on about my Romanian holiday, the question of the language of my blog probably crossed your mind. I speak 4 languages and English was the 3rd I encountered. How? When a was a 5th grader (Junior High) in the then 275-years old school called Liceul de Filologie si Istorie in Oradea, a new English teacher, Bucsa Corina (later Cotreantu after her husband), fresh out of univeristy, came to teach us. She was our classmaster too. I immediatley fell in love with English and decided to become an English teacher (which never happened). I still remember the cover of my first English textbook with the Big Ben on it (in communist gray).

Some of my friends and relatives speak Hungarian (my mother tongue), some only Romanian, and some, Hebrew. Most of them (especially the young) speak some level of English, which seems to be a common denominator.

Which language is spoken by the largest number of people on Earth? Not Chinese, as you would immagine, but Bad English. So this blog is also in [hopefully not so] Bad English. The problem is not the complex grammatical issues (such as present perfect or the many irregularities in English grammar), but a somewhat limited vocabulary.

Romanian vacation - trigger and preparations

Romania made a big impression on me this time. Haven't been there for a very long time (10-15 years?). The trigger was interesting, I think. It all started during lunch conversation at work. I've been asked about my relatives (of which I have very few). Why I have so few relatives is an issue for another blog post, so I won't get into that here, let's just say that WWII had a big part in it.

All my relatives are my immediate family (husband and 2 sons), 2 cousins (and their families) who live in Northern Israel (I live in the center) and another cousin, who lives in Romania. This cousin, Eva (her last name is another story for a short post in the future) and I are (or more precisely, used to be) very different. Beyond the 13 years of age difference (she is older), she has an interesting personality. So I was telling at lunch that we haven't been in touch for about 25 years. Then forgot all about this little conversation, but apparently, the topic had a mind of its own and kept lingering in the background of my brain.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself trying to look up her details on the net. Why this sudden urge to reconnect? I could have waited for her to make the first move (with the same result as in the past 25 years), but I wanted a different result. Found her phone number and simply called. She picked up the phone, was very happy to hear my voice (so was I) and we exchanged email addresses. From there on, we are back in each other's lives.
The explanation is that I figured a person with so few relatives like myself should really be in touch with them "all", otherwise it will soon be too late to do so, I'll get old and regret the years we could have been in touch but haven't. I am mature enough to cope with the personality differences between us, I can just accept her as is (and hope she can too). The time that passed made the once meaningful family issues fade away. To be truthful, I don't even remember most of them. A tall gray concrete wall grew between us and our lives parted. Different countries, different fortunes, hopes and daily struggles.
After a short debate around who is going to visit who, I've decided to travel to Romania, meet her and one of her daughters (the other one lives in the UK), pay a short visit to my father's (and our common grandmother's) tomb in the town I was born and raised in (so many words to avoid using 'my hometown'), and show my son Dan around. A 2-week vacation that included Arad (Eva's town), Oradea (mine) and its sorroundings, and the tourist places in Transylvania.
People worned me not to drive there because of the poor physical conditions and troubles that can happen, but I've decided to rent a car at Budapest airport and drive into Romania. The rental itself cost me a small fortune (the insurance is exorbitant, but most rental companies don't even allow you to take a car into Romania). Renting there is cheaper, but they don't have automatic cars, and I figured I don't need more hardships besides the unknown places and roads, not to mention that I haven't driven a shift stick car in the last 10 years.
Dan is a great navigator (in his words, GPS is an insult to his intelligence) and we are a good team together. I love spending quality time with him, he is knowledgebale, charming and hungry for new experiences. He loves planning vacation tours, spends days on researching the places on the net, reads travel guides, memorizes maps and finally comes out with a plan detailed up to the tiniest walks, interesting (and usually expensive) restaurants and nature spots.
His plan (modified by me - mostly cutting on the daily mileage) was then translated into a feasible budget. This is Peter's - my husband- speciality. Besides the tickets, maps and travel guides, I bought some presents (mostly around Israeli food and Dead Sea cosmetics), packed the cases and was ready for the adventure.