Ellen (from Gdynia, Poland): No, thanks,” I said to my hostess on Thursday.
“No, you absolutely must. It’s a tradition,” she insisted, thrusting the plate of paczki at me.
So I gingerly took one. Well, there are worse fates than having to eat a paczek. No hint of the ubiquitous cabbage in them. In fact, if you have a sweet tooth (which I don’t: maybe the sole vice I lack), they’re delicious – small, yeasty, lightly fried doughnuts, sprinkled with sugar and hazelnut shavings, filled with berry jam.
Everyone’s familiar with Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. But for some reason, in Poland, we have Fat Thursday as well.
“It’s the last day before Lent,” a lapsed Catholic explained to me.
“But Lent starts next Wednesday!”
“So don’t you have a Fat Tuesday, too?”
“Yes – but Tuesday, we have to eat herrings and potatoes.”
I’ll definitely pass on those when Tuesday comes around. Though herring is available fresh from the Gulf of Gdansk, it winds up on the table as unappetizingly vinegary as everywhere else. I do enjoy learning local customs, though it’s sometimes impossible to discover their origins.
Just as no one could tell me exactly why the Thursday before Lent is doughnut day, or the following Tuesday herring day (the last particularly odd, since fasting Catholics are allowed fish during Lent, anyway), no one ever could explain to me a wacky Israeli Independence Day tradition.
After decades in the country, I never learned why it’s customary to whack each other over the head with squeaky plastic hammers. That didn’t stop me from adopting the custom with gusto. While living in the absorption center my first year, I bought one of those silly hammers. Staked out several victims. Some were unenlightened. They thought the pressures of attempted assimilation had broken me at last. But I remember very well my first two hammer blow victims, and to this day, wonder if what I did pushed them over the edge.
One was John, the only Englishman on the premises. He told everyone he’d come to Israel to find a wife. John’s beginning was inauspicious: on the evening of his first day in Israel, he was arrested for shoplifting at a nearby supermarket.
Life did not get appreciably better for him. Single women at the center and local girls didn’t just disdain him. They laughed at him. Not long after my hammer blow, John took to sunbathing nude on his small balcony. That drew women, all right, particularly those weary and nervous from intensive Hebrew classes who badly needed a laugh.
Ultimately, John was not merely ejected from the absorption center; he was the only immigrant I ever heard of who was deported, accompanied by security guards.
I also smacked Gilad in the center of his bulging forehead. Gilad was an Israeli who knew what I was doing and accepted it blandly. He lived in the center due to the immigrant rights of his tiny African wife. Certainly he didn’t seem any crazier than anyone else. A lot more promising, in fact, being a native Hebrew speaker and familiar with the bureaucracy which gobsmacked the rest of us.
But later that spring, his neighbors started to complain. Hooting sounds repeatedly woke them in the middle of the night. When the hooting accelerated into locomotive noises, there was an investigation. Gilad was taking fully clothed showers in the wee hours. Instead of singing, he preferred recreating choo-choo sounds. The last time I saw him, two grim-faced social workers were escorting him to a psychiatric ward.
Sorry, John. Sorry, Gilad. I hope I didn’t force you to cross those boundaries with my plastic hammer. But I expect you’d both have made it there regardless.
I think Poland is outside Punxsutawney Phil’s jurisdiction, but surely we have at least six weeks more of winter ahead, too? Sometimes I wonder whether it even really started. This month is called Luty, which translates as “freezing cold”.
Last night around 11, I took my dog for her final walk of the evening. It was above freezing, windless and partly cloudy. An hour later, I went to the balcony for a final smoke. To my amazement, it was snowing heavily. Moreover, it had been long enough to cover the ground, rooftops and autos. I watched with delight…then dismay, as it quickly petered out. Today it’s clear, around 40 and nearly every trace of snow has vanished.
Even if this month does live up to its name, it won’t be as unnerving or difficult as if it were, say, November. After all, even though it’s Leap Year, it’s a short month…and spring is not so distant.
Copyright 2008 by Ellen Dlott