Living in La La Land

hollywoodFor the past couple of weeks I have been stuck in La La Land – the movie not the state of mind. I’ve already seen it twice, have the soundtrack blasting out from speakers at home, and keep replaying the scenes and tunes on a never ending loop in my head.

For those who have been living under a rock, the Golden Globe winning film, is an old-fashioned musical telling of love and broken hearts alongside the search for stardom.

It is set in present day Los Angeles, with its overabundance of sunshine, and hope.

Emma Stone plays a talented wannabe movie star, alongside Ryan Gosling as the moody Jazz pianist awaiting his big break. They sing, act and dance their way through brightly lit scenes filmed against a cloudless Californian backdrop. The whole movie harks back to another era from Hollywood’s past.

In La La Land the streets are clean, there is no racial disharmony or poverty, and even LA’s notorious traffic jams provide an opportunity for good song and dance.

It self-consciously plays up the motif of life as a stage, where people break out a tune while walking down the street or getting ready to go out to a party.

The movie’s escapism perfectly captures one aspect of the current moment in America. On the screen in La La Land there is optimism, innocence and gentleness. Sitting in a darkened cinema for two hours transports you to a happy place where ambitions can be fulfilled and dreams can become reality.

Apart from the wonderful cinematography, acting and choreography, the reason that La La is such a success is because it is the perfect counterpoint to what exists in the America beyond the silver screen.

In the land of real America no-one is dancing in the streets, or filled with melodies.

How can you be uplifted when the news is filled with X-rated allegations of prostitutes, ‘golden showers’ amid the presence of Donald Trump?

How can you believe the soon to be President will act in the interest of the country when he is more concerned about personally profiting from his business interests above all else?

How safe can you feel when he trashes the country’s own intelligence services, comparing them to Nazi Germany?

How can you also have faith that it will all be OK in the end when Congress (with its Republican majority) helps swing a wrecking ball into the checks and balances meant to prevent Presidential abuses?

Truth is certainly stranger than fiction when the Trump declares his respect for the autocratic election-hacker Vladimir Putin, while simultaneously portraying the free American press as public enemy number one.

The current reality feels like a plot line from an overly dramatic film noir movie – with cut out villains in sharp suits, and breathless plot twists following one after the other in rapid succession.

Maybe the best way of dealing with the hallucinatory goings-on is to treat them like La La Land; as a temporary break from reality. But the looming shadow of Donald Trump is all too real – resembling a horror story scarier than anything to be found at the cinema.

Heading home?

heading-home-foreigndaze-2017A new year and a new phase of life has opened up for the Miron household. Nine and a half years after we left London one overcast August day we’re now planning to return in summer 2017.

The reasons are ostensibly uncomplicated, involving a desire to be close to family and old friends. But coming to this conclusion has been accompanied by a rollercoaster of indecision, doubts, second-thoughts, and further prevarication.

Further postings will – among other things – chart the preparations, reality and long journey (in more ways than one) of going back to the UK – no doubt registering the daze of returning ‘home’ having been overseas. They will also reflect upon the time spent in the US and Israel, as well as relate the many experiences yet to be had.

When I established this blog I titled it ‘Foreigndaze’, reflecting the curiosity and periodic confusion of being outside my native country. In the course of the past decade away a lot has happened. My children have grown from infants to young girls – ingesting the languages, accents, customs and ways of the places we’ve lived. For them the UK is not home, it’s the place they go reconnect with grandparents, cousins, and Cadbury’s chocolate.

For me, the UK has also begun to feel foreign. When I go back it feels exotic. I have to remember to look the right way when stepping into the road to ensure I’m not run over, and have to force myself to alter my vocabulary as appropriate (trousers instead of pants).

This most recent extended jaunt away follows a further 7 years I spent outside the UK when I was younger. But returning on this occasion is different and somehow more significant. It feels as if the once familiar world we inhabited has become foreign.

There have been huge changes in the US and the UK in the course of the past ten years. When we left George Bush was on the way out of office having dug the US into a morass in Iraq and Afghanistan. His Presidency gave way to the stunning reality and hope of Barak Obama – the first man of colour in the White House, and a person who – unlike his predecessor – possessed ample intellect and caution.

Back in 2007, the UK was still governed by the Labour Party and wedded to the idea of the European Union. It ruled over a country that seemingly had no problem embracing notions such as gay marriage and understood that immigration was a symptom of a healthy economy and not a malignancy.

Now both the UK and US are unmoored. Two pronouns sum up all that feels unsettling and ominous: ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’. On top of that Israel, a country where I have spent eleven years of my life, also appears to be heading down a similar path where chauvinistic populism is laying siege to tolerance, consensus and basic democratic values.

But rather than just complain and bemoan the fact that the world appears to be going the wrong way down a one way street, I hope this blog will also chart the excitement and challenges of finishing one long adventure outside the UK, and the beginning another within it.

Venturing overseas has brought an array of experiences that my family would never have had if we’d stayed within the comfortable confines of North London. Some of the times have been good, a few truly terrible – but all invaluable.

Preparing to move, to find new jobs, sort out schools, manage finances and attend to all the matters big and small of our transition, are headaches. But along with all of that I plan to ensure that this final portion of time in the US isn’t wasted.

It is a privilege to be here even during these truly disturbing times. Alongside travelling to far corners of this amazing country, I will also take the opportunity to observe the goings-on close-by: at home, with friends and particularly from a certain Oval Office situated just a couple of hundred meters from where I’m writing this blog.

More than anything I hope my postings will serve as a record of a special time, and that they will provoke interest and reaction among those who come along for the literary ride.

Whither Europe – whither European values?

french flagThis blog is normally reserved for personal reflections on the nuances of life in the US as compared to the UK, with occasional commentaries upon other matters as they seize my interest. But the murder of 12 people by Islamist fanatics in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has cast any other thoughts into irrelevance. Along with millions of others, I feel profoundly angry and upset at the massacre of bunch of journalists who were armed only with pens and a biting sense of satire.

Like others I ask myself how could this happen? How could such medieval tyranny be visited upon a country synonymous with Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité? Where will it end, and what effect will this have upon freedom in France and elsewhere in Europe?

But while this outrage is shocking, it is also not unexpected. It is just the latest in a long line of attacks by jihadists in Europe against freedom and against those that have offended their bloodthirsty nihilism. Remember Theo van Gogh – the Dutch film director murdered on the streets of Amsterdam ten years ago following his film, ‘Submission’ which criticized the treatment of women in Islam? Recall the riots along with attacks against European diplomatic missions, churches and Westerners throughout the Middle East that followed the 2006 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Mohammed?

At the time, the reaction of some in Europe was to back these deliberately provocative images and speak up for freedom of expression. But many others retreated in fear, urging self-censorship to appease those whose sensibilities had been offended. Since then, most of Europe – governments and civil society – have only been going in one direction – in retreat – in the face of those who want to limit freedom and the values which underpin it. This has predictably strengthened rather than sapped the will of those who want to put their particular beliefs above those of society as a whole.

One of the basic problems that has confronted Europe in dealing with the threat posed by Islamist extremists, has been its failure to articulate what exactly are ‘European values’ or at least the values embodied by individual European countries.

A few weeks ago, I tuned in to listen to BBC Radio’s ‘Any Questions’ programme. For those unfamiliar, it consists of a changing panel of politicians and commentators of differing ideological stripes responding to topical issues raised by members of the audience. (If you want to hear the relevant section follow this link and begin listening at approximately 33:40).

‘Can the panel define British values?’ asked one questioner. This followed a report by education inspectors on a number of independent Muslim schools in East London which stated that the teaching on offer was ‘failing to promote British values’. The report cited one secondary school, where the pupils were unable to tell inspectors which was more important: sharia or English law.

I was expecting that the responses of the ‘Any Questions’ panel would reflect diverse make up of its participants; a patrician Conservative MP, a radical left-wing former Mayor of London, a Guardian columnist, and a centrist parliamentarian from the Liberal Democrat Party. What followed though was a stream of inanities from all the panellists and agreement that such values were either inexpressible or didn’t exist. The Guardian commentator, Polly Tonybee, revealingly said that – to her – the whole concept of British values suggested, ‘we have this thing called tolerance that nobody else has, or that we have this respect for freedom and democracy that nobody else has.’ Any expression of such values she believed, implied superiority and was therefore somehow unworthy.

This muddled, misguided and apologetic failure of a definition highlights where and how Europe has got it wrong.

Sadly this thinking isn’t confined to the opinion pages of the Guardian newspaper.  Governments in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere worry that in defining their values, they will be labelled chauvinist and racist. They have abstained on the notion of national pride thus handing it to right-wing bigots. Consequently we have seen the Le Pens and their ilk gaining more and more traction throughout Europe. For the same reason there is also self-denial from these governments that there is a real problem of extremism and radicalism within sections of the Muslim community in the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and elsewhere.

It is the responsibility of society as a whole – including Muslim communities – to address this phenomenon. This extremism cannot also be dismissed as an errant weed – it is more than that, and has an appeal wider than politicians in Europe and community leaders throughout the Continent are willing to admit.

Viewing Europe from afar it looks like it is under siege, and that its ancient battlements are unprepared for the challenges of the present. I only hope that this latest outrage demonstrates that Europe must assert proudly and unapologetically, the supremacy of freedom, tolerance and democracy as the cornerstones of its existence.

The election cycle and life cycle in the US

applepieIt’s been two years and two days since we arrived in US.

In my head, before we made the move, the thought of coming to live in America summoned up romanticized images of the huddled masses aboard ships sailing past a foggy Statue of Liberty en-route to Ellis Island, to new lives filled with hope and freedom (all set to a soundtrack of Neil Diamond songs).

The reality was far more mundane – British Airways to Washington International Airport, an hour in line to get our passports checked, and then off to our pre-arranged service apartment.

As it happens we landed in the States on the day of the last US Presidential election and I’m writing this in the wake of another national contest – this time for Congress.

This is not to suggest that politics has been a central facet of our time in the US, far from it. But given that Washington DC’s main business is that of government, politics finds a way of intruding into everyday life – such as being caught in a traffic jam as the Presidential convoy makes its way to Congress for the State of the Union Speech.

Nonetheless there is a connection between the US election cycle and the course of our stay – so far – here. The two year mark provides an opportunity to take an accounting – on a national level – of the state of the country, and from our domestic stand-point, on state of our family in the country.

On the national stage much has changed in that time – with President Obama going from the man with the political Midas touch to an untouchable.

We have also changed from wide-eyed newcomers, to (relatively) settled members of a community. In that time, we have found a home, a school, a synagogue and a social circle that seems to fit for our family.

Certain aspects of our absorption into American life have proved easier than others. Unlike in Israel we haven’t had to contend with a foreign language, or a national culture that is predicated upon argument as the basic form of communication. There is also a lack of British reserve and cynicism, which helps in getting things done and getting to know people.

Americans are open, helpful and generally very polite. Initially I found this disconcerting, wondering what was wrong with these people, and if they were medicated to behave so well. And while there was much cultural familiarity, I sometimes found that we really were ‘two peoples divided by a common language’, in everything from swearing to humour.

We have had to make adjustments to the peculiarities of life here as compared to the Middle East. In Israel there is a gritty realism where your senses are heightened (or is that assaulted?) by the sights, smells and human interactions to be found in the markets, streets, and places where people mix. In the US, life is more organized, predictable, and clinical, to the point where you can’t wander more than a few paces without being confronted by a hand sanitizer to ensure that you are suitably sterile.

There are of course good and bad – in the ways and peoples of both places, but it all takes time to get used to the change.

It also takes time to find friends with whom you can be yourself, and this can be an exhausting process. Upon arrival we began meeting people, through work, the school, the neighbourhood and elsewhere. Getting to know them was a reminiscent of dating from my single days without the potential for humiliation or sex. We would meet up with people for a drink, dinner or brunch – and in most cases that would be that. But after endless get-togethers with an assortment of individuals and families we have found a close few, with whom have we can spend effortless time, just being ourselves.

The past two years has been a journey of discovery. We have found the US to be a more foreign and more fascinating country than first imagined. Compared to Israel the notion of American history seems like an oxymoron. And yet despite the relatively short record of modern America, it also possesses a compelling narrative, accompanied by endless places to discover and things to do.

So in reflecting upon the past two years in DC, and our move from Israel it seems appropriate to draw upon an important political source – Winston Churchill – who summed it up best of all when he said that, ‘now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

My grandfather’s war – Images from 100 years ago.

This slide show contains a selection of items related related to my grandfather Gabriel Miron (1896 – 1979) who served in the King’s Royal Rifles in the First World War from early 1915, until he was injured in October 1918 a month before the end of the conflict.

For a fuller account of his experience in the War see my blog, ‘My Grandpa – My Hero’

To initiate the slide-show CLICK on one of the images below

My Grandpa – My Hero

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Lance Corporal Gabriel Miron, 4th Batallion King’s Royal Rifles

A hundred years ago the First World War began, and a few months after that my Grandpa Gabriel joined up to play his part in the conflict.

I remember him as a reserved man, who liked a Dunhill cigarette and small glass of brandy while doing the crossword in his flat situated above his dental surgery. We used to joke that he wasn’t quiet by choice, it was just that he was drowned out by the presence of my Grandma Dora with her purple rinse hair and her booming Welsh accented voice.

Gabriel was born in Swansea, South Wales, the youngest of five children to Israel,  a Lithuanian-born chazzan (cantor), and Leah who originally came from Poland. He joined the army seemingly as soon as he was able, according to rumor, to get away from his father who beat him.

He became a Private – then later Lance Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifles. His ID number was R-13130, which made many of his army comrades superstitiously consider him doomed. But ironically Gabriel was the lucky one, surviving when so many did not.

His military record includes fighting in some of the most historic and bloody encounters of the War from the early trench encounters to the closing battles including: Ypres, the Somme, and the Battle of Cambrai which finally led to breaking through the previously impregnable Hindenburg line. He also took part in a mostly forgotten sideshow in Salonika where the British Army was sent to support the Greeks. His was a war fought amid close quarters in the muddy chaos of the trenches with the possibility of death never far away.

Despite being wounded by shrapnel, almost dying of dysentery and contracting malaria, he made it back home alive (initially in a wheelchair and emaciated), with a Military Medal for gallantry.

But Grandpa didn’t talk about the war, and we kids were told not to ask him about it. I remember when I was about five years old being with my brother in my grandparent’s flat asking him excitedly to tell me about the war. The next thing I recall is him taking down his trousers to show me the back of his legs with chunks missing and pockmarked skin where he’d been injured. ‘You want to know about war, that’s war’, he said – or words to that effect.

Over the years he did let slip snippets to my father, uncle and aunt about his experiences giving clues about what it was like. He mentioned winter in the trenches; so cold and so muddy that the coats they wore were frozen into the ground. He spoke of walking up to the front on the Somme, passing the bodies of Canadian soldiers laid out for over half a mile – or as he put it the length of Kew Road (where he lived in London). He once told my aunt that after he was injured by a shell in his leg at Ypres, the surgeon in the medical tent dipped a pad of cotton wool in iodine and pushed it into the wound – there were no anesthetics.

G MIRON postcard read side 1

Postcard sent October 5th 1918 (just three days before he was injured) en-route to battle.

It wasn’t until after he died in 1979 that we found his keepsakes of the war which he’d kept from view. There is a picture postcard of him looking smart in his uniform with a poignant message sent to his brothers just before he heading off to the Western Front, ‘au revoir  (not goodbye)’.

From his time in Greece, there are delicately preserved dried flowers picked ‘on the banks of the Struma (River) at 12 midnight on Wednesday October 11th 1916 near the Nehori Bridge on patrol’.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol - Greece 1916.

A moment of peace: flowers picked while out on patrol – Greece 1916.

 

Letter to Gabriel’s mother informing her of his Military Medal. ‘I know how well this decoration has been earned’.

There is also the letter from the War Office sent to his mother informing her of his Military Medal.

There are a number of other mementos including a picture with comrades grouped around a machine gun, a message to his ‘dear Mother’, his prayer book issued to ‘Jewish soldiers and sailors’, and his ID tag with surname incorrectly spelt MYRON (a perennial hazard in our family) .

His silence about the war generated its own hum of curiosity and wonder among his children and grandchildren. Looking back I see two versions of his life. There is my grandfather, the boy turned soldier and war hero (although he would never have allowed such immodesty), who is known through the crumbs  of information he divulged, along with his memorabilia and war records. They give hints of his character: his courage, sensitivity and humanity in the midst of unimaginable horror.

The second version of his life is the family man, who once out of the army went to dental school, and married a Jewish girl from back home in South Wales. He settled down to a life in an upper middle class suburb of London, working hard (until his dying day aged 83) to provide for his family, sending his children to English private schools, and pursuing his passion as a Freemason. He enjoyed playing practical jokes and tussling with his grandchildren showing us some of his old boxing moves (another hobby from his army days). If he had demons from the war we didn’t see them – all we saw was our Grandpa.

He was loved and revered for what he knew of him, and also for what we half-knew about him of his time at war. In thinking now about him now, I am filled with wonder at what he did as a soldier, how he survived and how he retained a sense of himself throughout it all. I am sure I could not have done the same. I am also in awe of what he did afterwards in providing love and security for all his children, in building a family and leading by example through his decency and modesty.

So in remembering the First World War and the millions who suffered as a result, I shall keep in mind one man – my Grandpa Gabriel, R-13130.

Do you have a family history involving World War One? Please share.

A special note of thanks to my cousin Helen Style for all her help in gathering much of the material and information in this blog.

A full display of my grandfather’s materials from World War One will be put up on-line in due course

The Game is (still) on……….

us_soccer_ball[1]

I had intended on writing a post about the issue of race in America, but in recognition of the World Cup fever that has overtaken this country I feel compelled to pen some observations about the gathering love affair between the American public and football (aka soccer).

As mentioned in my previous post, I approach this subject armed with ample quantities of ignorance and reluctance, as one of a shrinking minority that has little interest in the game. But given that everything from buying gum at my local 7/11 to travelling in a lift now involves some discussion of the latest match, I feel obliged to add my ten cents worth (or whatever is the equivalent amount in the UK).

Putting the action on the pitch to one side for a moment, there is actually something interesting to be observed about the attendant side effects of the World Cup here in the US. Firstly, while packing bars, restaurants and spare conference rooms (at least at my workplace), Americans seem to have surprised themselves with the level of interest and excitement generated here by the World Cup, and their national side’s participation in it.

Commentators have gushingly noted how this World Cup is netting (warning: this piece will be sprinkled with football metaphors) the highest US TV audiences ever, for soccer. Almost 25 million people watched the fixture against Portugal (that’s about 1 in 12 people across the whole of the country). And judging by the ghostly quiet on the streets of the Nation’s Capital during the USA-Germany match even more of the population was glued to a TV screen yesterday (excepting yours truly who was at an fitness class attended only by a distracted instructor and one other person). Figures also show that the US is fielding the largest contingent of foreign fans in Brazil – way in excess of any Latin American or European country.

Furrowed-brow discussions have ensued about what this all means, given the long-standing sporting isolationism of the US. Traditionally America has seen itself akin to the UK’s position regarding Europe, as summed up in the apocryphal newspaper headline, ‘Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’. For example, the ill-named World Series Baseball Championship involves only teams from North America.

The issue of the World Cup’s following has even become a political football (!) with some saying that it denotes a coming of age for the USA in joining in this global pastime, while others asserting that it demonstrates a temporary (and unwelcome) foreign fad. Leading the charge on the latter viewpoint is conservative ‘commentator’ Ann Coulter, who sees in football’s popularity a sign of the USA’s moral decay. In a display that seamlessly marries ignorance and nativism she asserts that, ‘no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer. One can only hope that, in addition to learning English, these new Americans will drop their soccer fetish with time.’

Coulter sees something fundamentally ‘un-American’ about soccer, seemingly implying that it has been smuggled across the Rio Grande by people set upon undermining very fabric of the USA. This charge must mark a first alongside the (more credible) assertions that the game is responsible for work absenteeism, hooliganism and increasing the profits of breweries. And yet within Coulter’s poisonous brew there is something worth examining.

Many beyond the flaky ideological fringe see in the soccer phenomenon, a sign of an important (and positive) change within American society. In recent decades US has undergone a huge demographic change, most markedly with the increase in the number of Hispanic Americans. It is now estimated that at least 50 million out of over 300 million people in the country are of Hispanic origin. Spanish is now commonly heard in DC and other places on the East Coast, far from the traditional Hispanic heartlands in the West and South. With this demographic shift have come changes to the some of the old ways, including – many say – in sporting terms – the rise of soccer, which is now attracting not just big crowds but big money too.

But to the inexpert eye, I think this is only part of the explanation. Passing the bars in down-town DC, and where we live in the suburbs, most of those glued to the games don’t look like the newcomers of Ann Coulter’s nightmares, but instead resemble the very people whose ‘great-grandfathers were born in the US’. There is undoubtedly a degree of faddism to the current soccer-mania, but it also seems to reflect a desire to be part of something alongside the rest of the world. The US lacks national teams in most games popular elsewhere, and soccer may provide that sense of belonging. In more concrete terms, there is the fact that the game is probably reaping the rewards of the soccer Moms and Dads who invested their Saturday mornings (as I do now) in taking their kids to weekend matches. I suspect that many of those 20 or 30 something’s now sipping beer over World Cup games grew up kicking a football rather than handling one.

For me this means, that my trial by football will continue. The US is through to the last sixteen. But thanks to my daughters I am learning to distinguish Beckham from Beckerman, and Dempsey from Rooney, which will probably stand me in good stead in finding my place in the USA.