My mother was one of the “foreign born” in our home town, as we labelled those people then. She had immigrated young enough to have lost her German accent, but many in our large German community had not. People said things like “peas mit carrots” and “I maked a cake” and we laughed at my grandmother’s use of “looking glass” because she couldn’t manage the English r’s in “mirror.”
Most of my friends came from Italian immigrant homes, Neapolitan or Sicilian, mostly, and we called them guineas, wops or dagos because the concept of political correctness had not been invented. My father was a “mick” to them except when he chose to explain he was Scottish and not Irish. Or Krauts. We were unmistakeably Krauts.
As a kid I saw only affection among the groups, despite major differences in religion and food and ways of accommodating the grandparents. “Hey, paysan!” was the standard shout-out when you met an Italian. Usually followed by “Pasta fazoo!” which I thought meant, “How ya doin’?” It was years before I realized fazool was the Neapolitan dialect word for fagioli (beans) and pasta fagioli was that delicious pancetta and cannellini bean noodle soup that has been part of my adult diet ever since.
My best friend Tommy could speak Italian with his grandparents and that no doubt motivated me to pick up German faster than I might have – just not to be outdone. I had other friends who spoke Polish and Canadian French at home, and it became a challenge to see how fast I could pick things up.
I told my uncle that I was studying Russian at some point, and his response was, “Nov shmoz ka pop!” Everybody had some idea of what the various languages sounded like. “Nov shmoz ka pop” he thought was Russian for “Going my way?” Nobody looked things up. This was half a century before google, remember. These days you can trace the expression to cartoonist Gene Ahern’s character The Little Hitchhiker. It’s not Russian at all.
Nonetheless, I remember thinking of “Nov Shmoz ka pop” the first time I heard “Happy New Year” in Russian. “Snovim Godom” (accent on both first syllables). Not a real language. Something out of the cartoons.
Russian has lots of funny words – zoop for tooth, bumaga for paper, bok for God. But over time I grew to love the sound of Russian, and this morning I woke from a dream where I was rushing around wishing everybody snovim godom. What I was doing in Russian in my dreams I’ll never know. There was a time when I was fluent, back in the Cold War Days when I kept the rooskies from invading the homeland. But that was a lifetime ago.
I have other childhood memories associated with New Year’s Eve. I was on a beach in Mazatlan, Mexico one New Year’s Eve and there was a drunken American running around obnoxiously shouting “Feliciano! Feliciano!” as in José Feliciano. “Feliz Año” is Spanish for Happy New year. Close enough.
I loved learning French early on. Loved the details. Like the fact that in French you have two words for year, “an” for the year viewed as a single point in time, “année” when you feel the duration of the time across twelve months. So you wish somebody “Bonne année,” while the English expression “year in year out” comes out in French as “bon an mal an (good year bad year).
I remember asking my grandmother in all earnestness why it is we say, “gutes neues Jahr” (good new year) with an s on both adjectives, but we tell people we hope they have a good “slide into the new year” (“einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr” and the s goes with the preposition (actually the article das, which is elided) in this case. She said that’s just the way things were. Years later I would go to college and major in German and answer my own question, but that would take time. For now I would just have to try and remember these curiosities and marvel at how inconsistent the world could be.
Some people develop early on a love of sports. For others it’s music. Or machines. Or today the wonders of computer technology. For me it was the curiosities of the words people used to say the same thing in different languages, a love that led me eventually to linguistics and culture theory and a career in language teaching.
It’s my grandmother’s fault. She used to plan a good cry every year on New Year’s Eve. It was her time to let out all her frustrations, admit that fifty years after the death of her mother she still felt the loss vividly on the year-end holidays. I’ve picked that up. I get sentimental about the past on New Year’s Eve.
Just sat at the dinner table with my two favorite human beings – my husband Taku and my niece Amy who leaves for the other side of the world the day after tomorrow, back to her current life of trying to ease the burden of Burmese refugees. We fed a couple of the pieces of sushi we were not able to finish to the girls. OK, so feeding raw salmon and yellowtail to dogs is what many would call a ridiculous waste. But my little girl had an operation on her leg last week and has suffered a terrible reaction to the pain medication, and it’s been a rough week. And there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for her at this point. Taku came home with a gorgeous sushi plate and in one fell swoop I put a nod to my twenty-four years in Japan together with the proof that my life today is happy and rich and filled with love. And at the same time I remember with fierce nostalgia watching my grandmother let loose on the one day of the year she allowed herself to cry. And learning languages and learning what a big world was out there for me to explore. So many rich memories to choose from.
|Bounce, aka Boobie|
Come sit on my lap, little girl with the balloon around your neck to keep you from fussing at the stitches, which will not come out till next week. Help me remember back to when all these many adventures got started. To how it was in the beginning. This is a time for such reminiscences.
Then we’ll watch the new year come in together and look forward to the stitches coming out and to Amy’s next home leave, and to springtime and warm days once more.
But for now, Boobie, my dear, let’s you and me, and your sister Miki, and your other papa-daddy Taku wish everybody we know a bonne année and einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr and an akemashite omedeto (in your papa-daddy’s native language).
And, snovim godom. Let’s not forget snovim godom.
Gene Ahern photo credit