American fatness


There are lots of foreign tourists in Disney World and at Universal – an amazing number, actually.  I noticed this trip that they’re starting to put both Spanish and Portuguese on the signs; I assume this is for Brazilian tourists.   There are Brits and Dutch everywhere, and Chinese and Japanese and Koreans.  (There was a Dutch group at our hotel, and I know it’s horrible and bigoted of me, but when I see a skinny Dutchman light a cigarette and hold it between two fingers while surveying the room, I can only think of every villain in every World War II movie I’ve ever seen.) 



But here’s the thing: most of the foreign tourists are not overweight.  Some of the Brits and Brazilians are rugby-player stocky, but they are almost never fat.



For real honest-to-God fat, you really need to go American.



My dear lord!  When you’re walking in a group of Americans, it’s like a herd of mastodons.  The bellies!  The butts!  What do they eat?  How much do they eat?  Are they aware that they look like circus freaks?



Then you notice the people on scooters.  For grandmas and grandpas, and for the handicapped, scooters are great.  But then you see these mammoth sacks of flesh driving their little scooters down the main drag, presumably just because walking is just such a hassle, and you want to knock them over.



Naturally there are a lot of Southern tourists in Florida.  A lot of the men look like football coaches or ex-players: you know, tall, sunglasses, sort of brawny.  But there always seems to be that gigantic belly in front, which sort of ruins the jock image.



And then there are the wives. 



Also (and most sadly of all) there are the children.  There was a Minnesota family near us at the airport gate in Orlando, with two small very active boys.  And both of them had adorable little pot-bellies sticking out in front.  And, judging from the looks of Grandpa and Dad sitting nearby, those adorable little pot-bellies aren’t going away any time soon.



Honestly, folks: why are we doing this?  I tell you that this is not normal.  We need to reassess our national diet and our national approach toward nutrition, but immediately.



And, while you’re reassessing, pass me them there Cheez Doodles.



Beefy is as beefy does


I approached my work friend Apollonia’s desk the other day, cautiously, as I always do. (I never know how she might react. Sometimes she throws things at me.) She was looking at her computer screen with rapt attention. “What is it?” I asked.



She looked up at me with dewy eyes. “Seals tossing the caber.”



“Harbor seals?” I asked. “Or Navy Seals?”



She giggled. “Navy Seals, naturally,” she said in a little-girl voice. (Apollonia and I share an appreciation for the same kind of men, which explains her caber-tossing fantasies.) “Arms are good on a man,” she said dreamily. “Shoulders. And you know what else? Backs.”



“Display,” I said. “It means: ‘I’m big and strong. I can take care of you. I can protect you.’”



“Yeah,” Apollonia said. She looked thoughtful. “Whether or not it’s true. Looks can be deceiving.”



In his book “Sociobiology,” E. O. Wilson says that just about all animal behavior, from coral organisms through social insects to crustaceans and monotremes and mammals and yours truly, has a biological basis. I vaguely remember a Time or Newsweek simplification of the theory from the 1970s: they took the old Charles Atlas cartoon of the scrawny guy and the bully on the beach and changed the dialogue. When the bully kicks sand on the scrawny guy and grabs the pretty girl, the word-balloon over his head reads: “My genes are good! Mate with me!”



But there are other urges. Apollonia, you will remember, has a Robert Pattinson fetish. Yes, Robert Pattinson, who looks as if he were made out of pipe cleaners and construction paper. This, I’d say, is more of a protective-mother thing. This probably also explains why I do not share Apollonia’s depth of feeling for Robert Pattinson. I actually had the nerve to bring this up to her. “Robert Pattinson,” I said, “has neither arms, nor shoulders, nor back. And yet you love him. Why?”



She regarded me for a long time. “Oh, babe,” she said. “Those cheekbones. That chin.”






Here, to clear your palate after thinking of the scrawny Pattinson, is a New York Magazine slideshow of the biggest biceps in this summer’s movies. Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor, is the clear winner of the contest.



He’s big and strong, boys and girls. He can protect you.



But remember what Mother Apollonia says: looks can be deceiving.




The Eastside Marketplace at the end of the universe


Some scientists say that there are parallel universes and alternate worlds all around us. They occupy the same space we do, but we don’t see them.


I have found evidence of this at the local supermarket.


When I put my groceries on the checkout counter, the cashiers pick them up, scan them, put them back on the belt, take my money – but without ever speaking to me, or even looking at me.


Apparently they and I are in different universes.



The groceries are somewhere in between, I guess.


Once in a while, however, there is a glimpse of the other side.


The other night, I was buying one item: a bottle of Fiji water. The cashier was a fourteen-year-old girl, and the bagger was another fourteen-year-old girl. “I, like, love this water,” the cashier said, pushing it down to the bagger. (This dialogue should be read aloud with a Valley Girl intonation for full effect.)



Whyyyy?” the bagger said. “It’s, just, wa-ter.”



“It tastes better,” the cashier said.


Whyyy?” the bagger said again. “It’s, just, wa-ter.”


Nooooo,” the cashier said. “It’s delicious. It’s, like, from a mountain or something.”


“It’s from the South Pacific,” I said.


For a moment her eyes flickered up to my face. I think she actually heard me, across the universes. “Yeahh,” she said to the bagger.


I think this is a tremendous breakthrough.


Someone please notify Stephen Hawking.




Sunday blog: Daylight savings time


Here, as a public service, is a little video from the FDNY about changing your clocks and replacing the batteries in your smoke detectors.



I think the funny little fireman is cute.



Thumbs up!







Cultural blunders: international edition


While I was living overseas, I tried very hard not to offend my Tunisian and Moroccan friends and acquaintances. I think I mostly succeeded.



My cultural blunders, however, provided my friends with lots of innocent merriment.



For example:



  • While in Tunisia, I bought a cunning little satchel to carry my books, papers, cigarettes, etc., back and forth from home to the office. Finally one day, my friend and coworker Halim rolled his eyes at me. “I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said in his unnervingly perfect David Niven-style English. “That’s a school bag. It’s like something a ten-year-old would carry.”

  • I was always anxious to improve my Arabic. Sometimes I did this by copying the pronunciations I heard in the office. I noticed that a lot of the women in the office said “good morning” in Arabic in a very particular way, with a sort of sigh, eliding the final consonants. I figured it was the local accent, and started copying this, thinking that it made me sound sophisticated. Halim again, after a few days of this: “Please stop saying it that way. You sound like a woman.”

  • When I left Tunisia, an American friend gave me a lovely white-linen scarf from Djerba as a going-away gift. I still have it. It has blue stripes and long fringe at either ends. I wore it a lot after I got back to the United States, until one of my bosses at Brown asked me in a strained voice if I was aware I was wearing a Jewish prayer shawl.



But sometimes there was sweet revenge.



One day in 1985, my American housemate Kathy came back from a trip to the United States with a big jar of pickled jalapenos. We were eating them right out of the jar. A Tunisian friend (whom I won’t name, in case he reads this, but he knows who he is) scoffed at these American “hot peppers.” He’d seen me choking and wheezing on lethally hot Tunisian red peppers often enough, and reasoned that he was a lot tougher than I was. So he scooped a jalapeno out of the jar, just as he’d seen us do, and put it in his mouth, and –



Oh, my dears, it was spectacular. I expected cartoon flames to come out of his ears. He was literally crying, running around the house, flapping his hands.



It turns out that there are “hot peppers” and “other kinds of hot peppers.”



Isn’t multiculturalism fun?





I spent a week in Malta back in 1987. Malta is a big rock sticking out of the water just south of Sicily.  It supports a few farmers, a few fishermen, and lots and lots of tourism.



I flew there from Tunis, on a small plane. We were flying low enough that I could see the ripples on the surface of the Mediterranean. Then, suddenly, there was Malta, a huge black cliff looming out of the blue water. There were cows grazing on the edge of the cliff. I could see the cows. I could see the spots on the cows. Oh my god! Too low! Too low!



Malta is a strange crossroads between Europe and North Africa. The Maltese language is mostly Arabic, with a lot of Italian vocabulary and tons of English borrowings (it was an British colony for a long time). I speak both Italian and Arabic (and some English), so Maltese was surprisingly transparent to me. One evening in a restaurant, a loud tourist woman complained to the waiter that her steak wasn’t properly cooked, and she wanted a freshly cooked one. The waiter smiled, told her (in English) that everything would be taken care of, and said to another waiter (in Maltese): “This cow in the red dress would like a new steak.”



I nearly choked on my mixed greens.



Malta is littered with prehistoric remains. There is an underground cave full of strange carvings, accessible through a back door in a bakery in Paola, near the capital. The entire island is paved with Neolithic standing stones and circles and monuments. Thousands of years ago Malta was home to a breed of tiny elephants, whose bones are still found in caves and riverbeds. I remember looking at their delicate little skulls in a museum and thinking: Poor things.



I stayed in a pleasant cheerful place called the Hotel Plevna.  After dinner I’d go down to the lounge and read the Times of Malta. There was always a frail old lady there, no matter when I got there. She napped a lot. Once she farted in her sleep, which I found both amusing and endearing.  And one evening I heard her talking to a British guest about dinner, in a very high-pitched tone: “When I eat cauliflower it must be piping hot! With a nice cheese sauce!”   Someone later told me that the old lady was the widow of the former Greek ambassador, and a part-owner of the hotel.



It was twenty-four years ago, and she’d be well over a hundred now, if she were still alive.



I choose to believe that she’s still there.





Tunisia has been going through interesting times lately. I lived and worked there for a couple of years back in the 1980s, and I still keep in touch with some of the Tunisians I knew and worked with. They’re all okay so far; they’re posting on a daily basis on Facebook, and I wish my Arabic were better, because the videos and news stories are pretty interesting. I wish them, and all Tunisians, a prosperous and happy future.


I was there during the last few years of the presidency of Habib Bourguiba, the original President of the Tunisian Republic, le Combattant supreme. He was then in his eighties and very frail, but the country was stable and open (lots of coming and going to Europe; decent relations with most of the rest of the Arab world, with the exception of Libya – but in those days, no one got along with Libya; a broad and very effective educational system, which emphasized secondary education). It was, as we said in our office communications, “the crossroads of the Arab world.”



I lived in the old city, about two blocks from the Casbah. We were within hollering distance of two of the most famous and most beautiful of Tunis’s mosques, the Zeitouna and the Youssef Dey. Both had real muezzins who intoned the call to prayer five times a day (most mosques use recordings), but the muezzins in those two mosques managed it so they never faced one another as they circled their parapets. Sometimes we’d go up to our rooftop at sunset to listen to the muezzins and watch the lights come on all over the city.



I shared the medina apartment with a number of different people, all women. The elderly landlord was baffled by this, but refused to admit it. Naturally he deferred to me as the head of the household. All of my female housemates were referred to, politely, as “Madame.”


There was a good restaurant not far from the Zeitouna mosque, on one of the roofed streets in the Medina. During Ramadan (when you can’t eat while the sun is in the sky), we’d get a table around fifteen minutes before sundown and order harira, the thick wholesome traditional Ramadan soup. They’d serve it about five minutes before sundown. We (and all of the other diners in the restaurant) would toy with our spoons. Finally, faintly, we could hear the muezzin begin the sunset call from the Zeitouna mosque. After a minute or so, a little boy stationed down at the end of the street would frantically wave his arms, signalling to us that the call was completed, and we’d pick up our spoons and begin to eat.



My apartment had a very small balcony facing north. From there, we could see the summer thunderstorms lining up over the Mediterranean. They never came inland, but we saw the lightning flickering from the clouds at night.



One day in winter, there was a little sleet mixed in with the rain, and one of my Tunisian officemates turned to me as we watched the weather from the office window and asked: “Is this what snow is like?”



Toward the end of my time there, two of my friends drove me to an undisclosed destination. It turned out to be the very tip of Cap Blanc, the northernmost point of Africa, overlooking the Mediterranean. We watched the sun go down from there.



It was very beautiful.



Here’s hoping for a peaceful and happy outcome to the Jasmine Revolution.




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