Monday, February 28, 2011

Lessons Learned: Part 1 of 4

It’s been seven months since we made aliya. As the saying goes, the next time I make aliya I’ll get it right. (Joke: you can only do it once.) Some things we did get right. Some things not. Some things are still works in progress. But for the record, seven months in, for those considering this: here are my thoughts on aliya with 4 little kids and a husband who kind of turned up for the whole process the morning we got on the plane.

There are 16 of them and this is too long for one post, so I’ve broken it up into four posts and postdated them; keep checking back, because a new one magically appear every few days even if I don’t go near Blogger. Fun fun!

1. Start thinking about packing as soon as you are sure you want to go. Not as soon as you know you’re going or as soon as you have a date. As soon as you have decided that aliya is for you, start thinking about how you are going to deal with your stuff. For us, this was 23 full months before we actually got on a plane, with the added uncertainty of not knowing when/if/for how long we were actually moving to Israel, and what we would be doing with our apartment in the States.

In that time, I did not buy new furniture, I sold things (like my loom and second spinning wheel) that I knew I would not take with me, I did not buy anything that I would not either use up or want to take with me. I also went through my storage space about eight months before, and threw out or donated everything I did not plan to ship. Then I went through our entire apartment, room by room, and cleaned and organized, such that I did not, when it came time to actually pack, have to deal with drawers of junk, closets of undifferentiated stuff, drawers of random papers, etc.

2. So far as actually packing, I started putting things in boxes two months before we left. This part is hard, because you need your stuff, but you also need to start packing well ahead. So first I packed up yarn and books, and then clothes that were out of season or not yet grown into; in the meantime, packing stuff into boxes for storage. I also made lists of the stuff I packed to ship, in an ongoing Word file. In retrospect, I wish I had also done this for stuff I’d packed to store—it would have made my recent return trip much easier if I could have looked on a list and seen that the pirate bike helmet was in box #16. But I did the packing alone, with a pretty stressful job, four kids (one of them a newborn), nothing like enough childcare for the hours I was working, and a mostly absentee husband who was working 14-hour days himself. I couldn’t manage that part.

3. Start thinking about the actual flight as soon as you have tickets. I bought new backpacks for the kids who didn’t already have, and confiscated Barak and Iyyar’s backpacks a few days before we left to fill them with all manner of goodies: sticker books, Playmobil, matchbox cars, all kinds of things I knew they would like (that didn't make the bags too heavy for them to carry themselves). I also, the day before we left, made them each snack bags, all full of borderline treaty but basically healthy food: crackers, animal crackers, cheese sticks, carrot muffins, etc. (Nobody ate the pb & j. It doesn’t travel well.) These were separate little bags with handles that they could carry in their hands. That way, I didn’t have a huge bag of food in my carryon, minimizing the weight on my back, and they didn’t have to ask me every time they wanted a pretzel. The juice boxes had to go in my bag, though, because of security.

4. I think my biggest mistake, so far as packing was concerned, was being too practical. I underestimated how much I would want my own psychological comfort items: our pictures on the walls, my own kitchen equipment, my yarn stash; how much my kids would want all their own random toys (even the ones from the thrift store with pieces missing), their own familiar sheets and pillowcases, etc. The biggest smile I saw after we got here was on Iyyar’s face after I’d hung our old fish shower curtain in the bathroom. We didn’t send a lift, to save about $2000; it didn’t make sense financially when we were moving into a furnished apartment and didn't know where we would be long-term. In retrospect, it was a mistake. I wanted our wedding pictures, I wanted our own curtains, I wanted our favorite plastic cereal bowls, not new ones. Change is hard, and familiar items really help.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

In which I sit down to email Grandma E and decide to blog instead, since I'd be typing the same things anyway

(Grandma E, just pretend this post starts, "Hi Grandma E!, okay?")

So, here's the other conversation. Roman type is Hebrew, italic is English.

The scene: I am picking Iyyar up from gan. Right next to the gan is a bais yaakov (girls' school) with a tzaharon (afternoon program), which some of the girls from Iyyar's gan, which ends at 1:30, attend. Usually one of the ganenot walks them over; today she was in a hurry and asked me if I would. I said sure. So off we headed, me (with Marika in the my tai), Iyyar, and two Israeli girls, aged about five. I was speaking English to Iyyar and didn't want them to feel left out, so I said to one of them, in Hebrew:

Me: We are speaking English. We are from America so we speak English at home. What language do you speak at home?
Girl #1: I speak Hebrew at home.
Girl #2. I also speak Hebrew. But I know English also!
Me: Really? What do you know in English?
Girl #2 Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten!
Me: Wow! That's great! Good job. What else do you know?
Girl #2: Go to sleep young lady!


This, coincidentally, is the phrase of the week around here.

We got back on Monday. Oh, you didn't know we'd been away? (Grandma E. knew. Hardly anyone else did because I never got around to emailing or calling to tell anyone. I am bad. I am sorry.) The trip was good. Seeing Yehudis and Yehudis's kids, of whom I am extremely fond, was great. Eating soy-free hamburgers, Ben and Jerry's, and all my Trader Joe's favorites was also great, as was drinking Diet Coke in cans ($2 each here so I never do that). Work was also good. Marika was absolutely amazing, both on the way there and back and during the trip. But since we got back? As they say, oh-em-gee. She has been jetlagged like nobody's business, up crying till 3:20 am, happy and playing if I go in to get her, hysterical when I put her back down. Today is day five and I am being cruel and letting her cry. It's been three hours. I am not good at this.

So as I attempt to distract myself from the pitiful wails of my baby in the next room, how's about a list?

1. Usually, when you invite teenage boys for Shabbos, they sit and do nothing. Girls, on the other hand, don't sit down unless you are sitting down, without a direct command. Such as the completely delightful Birthright girls we had a few weeks ago, one of whom (hi Emily!) may be reading this post right now.

This Shabbos, we had--well, no lashon hara from me. But if you are a seminary girl/yeshiva bochur/other young single person staying for shabbos at the home of a rebbe/teacher/family friend/total stranger, I have three pieces of advice for you:

a. Do not show up completely empty-handed. Spend NIS 8 on a bottle of Prigat if you must, or NIS 8 on an Osem cake. But bring something. If you are part of a group, one thing from everyone is fine, even if you are a bunch of teenagers. It is absolutely and totally the thought that counts here.

b. OFFER TO HELP AND MEAN IT. If you arrive to see your hostess flying around her apartment frantically finishing up Shabbos prep with a baby on one arm, a screaming toddler glued to her leg, and the floor is not swept and there are two sinksful of dirty dishes, ask where the broom is and what else you can do. Do not disappear into your room and come back five minutes later asking what the wireless password is.

c. Say thank you. Also, compliment the food. Even if you didn't like it.

Oh, and one more thing.

d. If your host's 6-year-old son asks you to look at the Lego spaceship he just made, do not say, "No." Because if you do, you will never be invited back. Ever. Ever ever ever.

2. Marika wasn't really walking before the trip. Now she's walking everywhere. Why? Here: stone floors. There: carpet with nice soft underlay. The consequences to falling are a lot milder.

3. Also while in the US, my friend Jenny's Albanian husband gave Marika an Albanian car. When he was a kid there weren't really commercially produced toys, so this is, I think, his dad's design, and a truly fabulous one it is too. This example is one of the coolest things I have ever seen, a little car that is essentially two wire axles, four jam-jar-lid wheels, a piece of wire for the body connecting the two axles, and a third piece of wire connecting the crossbar with a steering wheel. It's just Marika's height and it's actually steerable. She LOVES it and has been driving it around the house since we got home.

4. I forgot how unpleasant it is to be cold. It's been a long time since I was really cold--almost a year. So it was kind of a shock to get out of the shower shivering, or need time to warm up under a blanket, or have "is she cold?" included in the list of possible reasons why the baby isn't sleeping. I don't miss the cold. At all. I do miss the wearing of wool on a daily basis, though.

5. Still no Pesach plans. Ideas? Anyone?

6. One of the things I wanted to pick up while in America was a 220v toaster oven. Why, you ask? Aren't these things available here? Well, yes, they are, but you will pay twice as much for probably not as good quality, or the same price for about a tenth the quality. I wanted a Black and Decker 35 liter, which I'd seen online for $100. So I went into a random 220 appliance store, and saw it on the shelf for $169. It was one of those Pakistani stores, though, so I thought it was worth a shot to bargain. "That one is $100, right? That's what I saw it at online." The owner didn't bat an eyelash. "Yeah, it's $100." I should've said $90.

7. I came back from the US with three full-to-capacity checked bags (mostly stuff from my storage space, some online purchases), a new stroller, a carseat, a carryon, two diaper bags and, oh yes, a baby. I got out of the cab and the cab driver got me a cart ($3! only in America) and loaded it all on there for me, and then I was on my own, pushing the unwieldy cart, pulling the stroller, trying to keep things from falling off, manuevering past line barriers etc. It was 4 am and Marika was not so happy about any of it. Not one person offered to help, even though a couple looked at me sympathetically and one said, affably, "Well you've got your hands full!" As soon as I got to the boarding area, I was spotted by Israelis who a) helped me with my carryon and carseat and b) once the plane took off, passed Marika a bag of Bamba. A series of other random Israelis then helped me haul stuff off plane and onto next plane, helped me while on the plane, helped me get my luggage, and helped me get my luggage into the Nesher. It left me with a marked preference for the people who live here.

I don't think Americans are mean or hate babies or are unsympathetic generally. I think it's a national attitude of self-reliance run amok, a feeling that if you're doing this alone you must be able to do it alone or you wouldn't be doing it, right?

Wrong. If you see someone who looks like s/he needs help, for pity's sake OFFER. Do not worry about offending. Just offer. I once worked as a reader for a blind professor, and we had this conversation. "People don't want to offend, so they don't offer help. But every blind person in the world has had the experience of being really stuck for help and not getting it, and they will ALWAYS appreciate the offer. If I don't need help, I can always say 'no, but thank you for offering.'" If you see a woman with a stroller at the bottom of a flight of stairs, offer to help. Please.

8. Marika is still awake. Ai! Ai yai yai! Ai yai yai! If I go in there she will smile, pat her tummy, and want me to tickle her. Have I mentioned lately her fantastic palatalized consonants, the despair of many a student of the Russian language? At'! Dat'! And her Hungarian gy's are fabulous. One of her favorite phrases is "bugyi bugyi!" I know she's just babbling, because I have rarely spoken a word of Hungarian in her presence, but it's still fun, and funny, to hear her say "undies undies!"

9. I saw Tootsie Rolls in the shuk the other day. This is good, because now that I know they're here I won't ask people to bring them for me, and I will ultimately eat fewer of them.

10. Naomi met me at Newark airport with an absolutely perfect bagel. Everything on top, fresh and chewy inside, lox and cream cheese in the middle. I'm still thinking about it, almost a week later.

11. This past week was hard. But one thing I should mention. On Friday, right before Shabbos when everything was so crazy, Avtalyon distracted me and my really really sharp little yellow parve knife sliced right through my finger. I grabbed a sock off the laundry rack, held it as tight as I could, and davened as hard as I could NOT TO NEED STITCHES PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. It worked. I didn't. And I really need to stop and be grateful for this, because if I had needed stitches, that would have been really really not fun.

12. Marika very rarely cries, this week excepted. But the Shabbos we were in the States, I tried to get her to nap when she wasn't into the idea, and was in there crying for maybe 20 minutes before I relented. When I went in, she was standing holding onto the sides of her crib, eyes red and puffy. When she saw me, she scowled, and then POINTED TO HER EYES and cussed a blue streak. "Ah ja bee da bee da da BABY! Ah na na IMMA! BABY! Ah na na IMMA! Ah nana nee ah da bee boo ba na! " There was no doubt about it. It was, "See! Look IMMA! Look what you made me do! You made the BABY CRY! GET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!" Needless to say, I did.

13. Anyone have a job for my husband? He needs one. Ideas welcome. Also, information about schools teaching limmudei kodesh in English, to girls/boys/problem children, that are hiring, more than welcome.

14. Marika is still awake. It is 11:22 PM. Last night she was up till 1:30, woke up at 8, had a two-hour nap, and was exhausted and rubbing her eyes at 6. I kept her up till a little after 7, and put her down; she woke up an hour later and has now been at it for three hours straight. GO TO SLEEP YOUNG LADY!

One of the conversations

It was raining pretty hard one morning and Avtalyon wasn’t feeling good, which threw a wrench into my taking-Barak-to-school routine. Usually we walk, take the bus, and walk some more, and the round-trip for me is around an hour and a half. While we're gone, Abba takes Avtalyon to school, which clearly wasn't happening this morning, nor was Abba going to be able to daven until I got back (usually after 9 am). Given the circumstances, a cab seemed in order, so for the second time this year, I called one. It was absolutely pouring when the cab pulled up and we climbed in; I buckled Barak into his booster and as we pulled away I realized that the driver was not wearing a seatbelt. This, I felt, needed to be addressed. The following conversation, I am proud to say, happened entirely in Hebrew (his side) and Hebrew [caveman] (mine).

Me: Where’s your seatbelt?
Driver, stating the obvious: I’m not wearing it.
Me: But why? That’s very dangerous.
Driver: I don’t like it. It bothers me.
Me: It would bother you much more to fly into the window.
Driver: True.


Me. It’s raining a lot. Don’t you think you need your seatbelt?
Driver: [mumble mumble]
Me, pulling out the heavy artillery: What would your mother say?
Driver: I’m big already.
Me: She still wants you alive.
Driver: True.
Me: She wants you to wear a seatbelt. I am sure.
Driver (weakening): But she doesn’t know.
Me: Maybe I’ll call her.
Driver, admitting defeat but being a complete good sport: I’m putting it on.

He did, too. And I didn't see him unbuckling it as he was pulling away, either.