Wednesday, July 15, 2009
When I was in Home Center the other day – Home Center is a ‘Home Depot’ knockoff, same colors, same logo, but quite different in terms of what they sell. Most notably, Home Center lacks Home Depot’s intoxicating aroma -- raw wood, machine oil and paint. There’s nothing like that in Home Center.
Anyway, I found myself standing in line behind a woman who was trying to explain a problem she was having with something she’d purchased. I blush to admit I was enjoying the whole thing enormously. The woman’s Hebrew wasn’t any better than mine and -- our mutual suffering aside – it was reassuring to know I’m not alone in struggling with this beastly difficult language. Misery loves company.
The clerk let her carry on for quite awhile. The woman kept trying one Hebrew word after another, looking for the magic phrase that would somehow make her problem understood. Finally the clerk got tired of it. “I haven’t the vaguest idea what you’re talking about,” she said, in perfect unaccented English. “Why don’t you just tell me in English?” Everybody burst into laughter.
So that clerk spoke perfect English – but not all Israelis do. And sometimes they say funny things in English, just as I obviously do when messing around with Hebrew. Several times I’ve found myself biting my tongue to keep from laughing out loud – which would not be nice at all, considering that -- goodness knows -- they have no obligation to speak my language.
The first incident I’ll never forget. I bought my aged Cocker Spaniel Guinness with me when I made Aliyah. Like many Cockers, Guinness had suffered from ear infections and assorted ear problems his whole life. As the vet explained, Cocker Spaniels have long ear flaps which prevent air from circulating. In that dark, warm, moist atmosphere in the inner ear, bacteria flourish.
I started preparing Guinness’ ears about six months before I knew I’d leave – we went through any number of antibiotics pills, liquids and ear treatments. At one point, the vet even removed a few of poor Guinness’ back teeth, because he thought they might be contributing to the ear problem.
Guinness was a perfect little trooper through the whole thing – quite a dog. He put up with the discomfort and I spent a small fortune, but finally Guinness was ready to fly -- without problems, the vet said.
At our last visit, he gave me a stack of papers to take to a vet in Israel. “Get him to a vet right away,” he said. “If they can monitor him closely there, he shouldn’t have any more problems.”
So I did. My first week here, I found a vet who had an office very close to where I was living. Nice doctor – good office. Dr. Barnea, for those of you who live here. I can’t recommend him highly enough.
But on one of our first visits, I saw one of Dr. Barnea’s assistants, a woman who was just out of veterinary school. She hadn’t seen Guinness before, so I was explaining some of the ear problems he’d had. I was lucky to be able to do that in English, because I hadn’t even started ulpan, Hebrew school, yet.
Her English was pretty good, but as I was telling her about the ear infections, she stopped me cold. “Those kinds of ear problems we treat differently in Israel,” she said. “We just cut off the ears.”
WHAT? I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. You’re going to cut off my dog’s ears?? I know I went pale, and I remember sinking into that chair they keep there for clients, when they explain that the cost of the procedure your pet needs is roughly about equal to two months’ salary.
“You want to cut off my dog’s ears??” I finally stammered.
“Sure. It’s not a big deal,” she said, with that brash Israeli confidence. “We just cut the ears off, and then the air can get in there.”
It was getting worse and worse. I was trying to picture my poor sweet Cocker Spaniel without ears. It didn’t take me more than another second to say, “Oh, no. We’re not cutting off his ears!”
“Look, it’s nothing,” she insisted. “He’s under anesthetic, and we just go in and scrape them out.”
“Wait a minute – what are you saying? You scrape out the ears?”
As it turned out – to my enormous relief – she was recommending some procedure whereby they surgically cleaned out the ears and straightened some of the ear canals. Simplistically speaking, she was confusing the words “out” and “off” – she meant, we “clean out” the ears, not that they “cut them off”.
Whew. She had me going there for a minute. “What did I say?” she finally asked. I was still shaking, but I tried to explain the difference. Not until I got home was I able to laugh about it.
Another funny one happened just the other day. I was interviewing a woman who’d started her own manufacturing company and was now selling her product – designer tote bags for babies – all around the world. She was explaining how she got her first New York contract.
“I went overboard to see the president of the company,” she said, while my mind raced to wonder what, exactly, she might have done that would constitute “going overboard” to get an appointment with someone.
She didn’t specify what it was, but later on, a pattern emerged. “Now every time I go overboard, I make it a point to see one new executive, someone else I think might be interested,” she said. Then again, “Overboard, they don’t have anything like this at all.”
By then I was starting to get it: she was confusing “overboard” with “overseas”.
That’s better. I was biting my tongue to keep from laughing out loud – of course I was picturing a well-dressed female executive taking a dive off the side of a passenger ship.
One good thing about living in a country where just about everyone is either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant is that we all fracture everybody else’s language. The only thing you can do is laugh.