Another Day, Another Shouarma

OK, in all seriousness, I’m not yet sick of shouarma and falafel sandwiches. But I just got back from dinner, and decided I wanted something smaller than the feasts I’ve been getting wherever I go out for meals here in Israel. I found one of the million or so little shouwarma and falafel shacks around here and settled in for a sandwich, a bottle of flavored water, and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

The woman behind the counter asked, “How spice? Strong, medium, or mild?” I had to reply, “Strong!” And so she selected the hottest hot sauce. I was afraid it was going to be wimpy, but it was actually “strong.” Strong enough that some folks I know (like my boss) would’ve have been able to stand it. I also had hummus (spelled “hoummus” around here), tahini (which they call “techina”), “salad” which is tomatoes and cucumbers, and sauerkraut. Yum!

After all was said and done, I decided I needed something icy to cool the palate, so I stopped at a gelato place. The girl was very helpful and explained to me all the flavors in broken English. I chose vanilla with Oreo, and told her I wanted just a very small portion. She asked if I wanted it in a cup or a “waffer”. Yes, she pronounced it exactly like the French waiter in that scene from the Monty Python movie – remember “a waffer thin mint?” So, I told her that yes I would prefer my ice cream in a “waffer”. Yum. I had gelato once last week, too, in Tel Aviv, or more precisely a nearby town called something like Herzliyya.

I’m never quite sure of my spelling for anything here in Israel. And it’s not just because I’m ignorant. I’m a great speller in English, but they transliterate things from Hebrew into English using a variety of (often bent) rules. For example, Petah Tiqwa is one spelling of the same town that I call Petach Tikva. That’s where I worked last week. This week I’m working in a town called, alternatively, Yokneam and Yoqne’am. The town of Acre is also Akko, and Ceasarea is also something like Qisariyya. It gets really weird when you’re driving and trying to find someplace you’ve never been, when not only do the streets change names every half mile, but the spellings of those names change. The map may say one thing, the street signs on that street in one town may say another, and the street signs may switch to a third when you enter another municipality.

But I tell you, it’s tiring to my eyes and brain trying to make sense of signs here in Israel. Most foreign countries I’ve traveled – even ones where I don’t know any of the language – at least use the same alphabet as English and so I can sound out words and make some sense of them. Knowing English pretty well, plus a little German and a little Spanish and a little French, I’ll bet I could get by in Italy or Portugal without huge problems. In fact, last night at dinner I overheard a conversation from two Italian gentlemen at the table next to mine, and I could tell they were talking about the bread on my table. Since pan, pane, and pain are all basically the same word, it’s not hard at all. But when it’s written in letters that look like something you’d see on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it just looks like gobblegook. And I can’t seem to stop my mind from looking at Hebrew words, scanning them from left to right (which is backwards), and trying to make some sense of them. It’s like those little images of letters that you see on some websites when you go to log in. The letters are malformed just enough that an optical character recognition program can’t figure them out, but the brain of an English speaker can. My brain keeps trying to make English words out of Hebrew words in the same way. I wonder how long it would take me to re-train my mind to read from right to left.

Speaking of which, here’s a funny little story from last week. I was talking to one of my fellow QA people about a requirements document she wrote. She wanted me to review it, which I did. But then rather than reading my comments, she wanted to explain them all to her. Fine, I thought, given the language difference, I’ll do whatever she wants. So we’re talking about various stuff and she’s writing notes on this printed document. And then she stops and says, “I hope you don’t mind I’m taking notes in Hebrew.” I just thought that was the weirdest thing. They were her notes, on her document, for her benefit. I don’t give a damn if they’re written in Klingon as long as she can read them and get some benefit from them! But what was actually the weirdest thing was when I realized how she would write sentences that contained both Hebrew and English. She’d be writing along from right to left in Hebrew, and then she’d stop, skip over to the left an inch or two, and then fill in an English word from left to right that didn’t translate well. Then she’d go back to writing from right to left in Hebrew again. We who only write in one direction don’t have to really think about the physical length of a written word as we’re jotting it down, but her mind – trained since a young age to work in Hebrew and English mixed – automatically calculates the length of the English word and then leaves a blank just that long in the Hebrew sentence. I wish I had a video to show how she did it, because most of you have probably never seen anything like it.

Finally, on the topic of Hebrew and English, my coworkers in Petach Tikva last week were really surprised to the point of being almost impressed that I knew so many Hebrew words. “Shalom” everyone should know, but then when I started mentioning food words like “falafel”, “pita”, and “hummus” they seemed to think, “Wow, how does this American know about our secret Hebrew home cooking?” Then I told them my wife sometimes practices Krav Maga and they were floored. “How do you know this word – krav maga? Do you speak Hebrew?” they asked me. I laughed.

1 comment

  1. That is cool about the writing. I know the feeling about an unfamiliar alphabet. That’s how I felt in Greece.

    And now I must go practice Krav Maga with Bas!

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