Posted in New York City, Photography, Travel

Queens Village and the qalam

Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Queens Village is a very spacious, green, suburban neighborhood in eastern Queens. It started life as Little Plains in the 1640s, and then became known as Brushville in the 1820s, after prosperous resident Thomas Brush.

Mr. Brush put down roots in the neighborhood with a blacksmith shop in 1824, and after achieving great financial success, he built a factory and a few other shops.

The first railway came on 1 March 1837.

St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church

In 1856, residents voted to change the neighborhood’s name to Queens, but both the neighborhood and depot were called Inglewood and Queens during the 1860s and 1870s. The former name Brushville also continued to be used.

When the borough of Queens was incorporated into NYC in 1898, and Nassau County was created in 1899, the border between them was designated directly east of the neighborhood. By at least 1901, the name Queens Village had arisen.

The Long Island village of Lloyd Harbor, formerly in Queens County but now in Suffolk County, was called Queens Village from 1685–1883. In 1923, Long Island Railroad added “Village” to the Queens neighborhood’s station’s name to avoid confusion with Queens County as a whole.

193rd St. war memorial

Queens Village contains the sub-neighborhoods of Hollis Hills (a very wealthy area) and Bellaire (the largest section of the neighborhood).

Many people seeking a suburban lifestyle and fleeing the congestion of Manhattan came to Queens Village starting in the 1920s. A great many of the Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes built during this era still stand, and attract a new generation of people wanting a slower, less crowded lifestyle.

Queens Village LIRR Station, Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Like many other NYC neighborhoods, Queens Village too once had a large, thriving Jewish community, but today the population mainly consists of African–Americans, Caribbeans, Guyanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

Recent demographic developments include an increased amount of Asian–Americans and Middle Eastern Jews.

Southbound view of LIRR bridge over Springfield Blvd. and the Hempstead-bound platform at Queens Village station, Copyright DanTD

Landmarks include American Martyrs Catholic Church, Chapel of the Redeemer Lutheran, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and the Windsor Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Nearby are Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Remnant of Long Island Motor Parkway, Copyright Nowa at English Wikipedia

My characters Rodya Duranichev, Valentina Kuchma, Patya Siyanchuk, and Vladlena Zyuganova move from Manhattan to Queens Village with their children in the late summer of 1945. Both Valentina and Vladlena are expecting again, and they want a fresh new life in a more spacious corner of the city, with detached houses and yards.

Their children are delighted to discover each house has a pool in the backyard, though Patya is less than delighted to discover a little girl next door, Ruth Blumstein, thinks he’s a monster on account of his missing arm.

Copyright Aieman Khimji

qalam is a dried reed pen used for Islamic calligraphy, particularly creating those beautiful Persian and Arabic letters. It’s also a symbol of wisdom and education in the Koran. Sura 68 is called “Al-Qalam,” and describes Allah’s justice and the judgment day.

The etymology comes from the Greek kalamos (reed). In modern Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, it means “pencil” or “pen.” In Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, it just means “pen.”

Copyright Baba66

My character Inna Zhirinovskaya receives, among many other things, a qalam set in a leather case for her 31st birthday in October 1937, a present from her admirer Arkasha Orlov (a prince by birth). They met in Aden in June, and Arkasha has been hopelessly smitten since then.

Arkasha gave her a lesson in Persian writing with a normal fountain pen a few weeks earlier, and Inna was mortified when she involuntarily gasped at the sensation of his hand over hers. She knows both Arkasha and her little brother Vitya heard that.

That night on the Siosepel Bridge, Inna agrees to be his sweetheart.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

The importance of a glossary (and other supplemental material) for historical and multicultural books

If you’re writing historical, multicultural, or both, it’s important to include a glossary, and possibly an author’s note or other appendices. Your readers who are unfamiliar with the culture, language, and/or era will thank you.

For Jakob’s story, whose release is planned for Friday, I decided to include three sections after the main text ended. I have a list of the sources I consulted, a glossary, and some notes explaining a few things, like how Dutch women are traditionally Lucy Stoners (i.e., they keep their birth surnames after marriage).

While doing my last edit/polishing of the book, I took note of each Dutch or Hebrew term which appeared, and jumped to the glossary in progress to add the words in alphabetical order. My last major thing left to do is finish writing definitions for all the words or concepts. I also included the names of some of the Amsterdam streets and neighbourhoods.

Some of these things are explained in the text, or otherwise made clear through context, but I thought it was a nice touch to have them all defined in one place anyway. Even though I know a number of the people in my community will be reading the book, and therefore know what these Hebrew words mean, I can’t arrogantly assume everyone who reads my book will be Jewish. I care about my readers of all faiths.

I’ve studied lots of world religions, and probably know quite a bit more about Hinduism, Buddhism, certain Christian denominations (particularly Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Mormonism), Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism than the average non-member. (That was the whole reason I recognised the blatantly Mormon language in Beatrice Sparks’s books as yet another clue of her authorship of these “real teen diaries.” I honestly would have more respect for her if she’d just been honest and made her characters Mormon like she was, instead of pretending they were other denominations!) But I know I’m unusual for being so well-versed in so many other religions.

I’m currently revisiting Sydney Taylor’s More of All-of-a-Kind Family, and there are a number of really awkward, infodumpy passages or dialogues that slow the story down by stopping to explain what certain holidays or concepts are. The dialogues are really “As you know, Bob.” That problem is easily solved by a glossary or appendix.

I have much larger glossaries for my Russian historicals. I have sections for foreign words broken down into categories like vulgarities and insults, food, historical references, family relations, terms of endearment, and miscellaneous. Since I’m dealing with prominent characters and words of a number of different backgrounds in the current third book, I indicate in parentheses if a word is Russian, Estonian, Georgian, Armenian, Persian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, etc.

For Little Ragdoll, I went all out with appendices, covering things like real places and streets in Manhattan which were featured; the vintage toys and games mentioned; a chronological listing of all the books, songs, and albums which were featured or mentioned; and the characters’ names’ popularity in their years of birth. Finishing those appendices is the last major thing I have left to do with that book.

If you’ve played with a historical timeline or event to allow for more drama or work better with your story’s timeline, or if a big part of your story revolves around something that would’ve been an unusual occurrence in real life, it’s important to mention that in a note. Historical purists will probably still get their knickers in a knot, but at least you’ve acknowledged something was slightly altered for the purposes of storytelling.

In the notes for my first Russian historical, for example, I explain that the titles Mr. and Mrs. are very rarely used in Russian, but that I retained them as a way of distinguishing the older characters from the younger characters. It was my one major concession to Western naming sensibilities.

Finally, I like to maintain a list of characters, generally in the order they appear, with the names of main and important secondary characters bolded. I include birthdates when known, nicknames or titles in parentheses, and a brief identification of who they are. If a character later changes his or her name, I list him or her by the name with which s/he first appears. As an animal-lover, I also include the pet characters.

Posted in Languages

Thoughts from an aspiring hyperpolyglot, Part II

A lot of well-meaning American teachers and professors don’t teach foreign languages effectively, so that students feel passionate about the language, learn at a normal pace, and have good retention of everything they’re learning. I knew a lot of students who hated foreign languages and felt like they were boring and stupid. Learning a language shouldn’t be based on rote memorization.

Currently I’m refreshing my Russian and improving my Estonian, Dutch, and German with some of the (free!) courses offered by Memrise. I highly recommend them, though some of their translations and reasons for marking you wrong are a bit suspect. They teach slowly and methodically, with the analogy of planting a garden. First you plant your seeds, then you come back and water them, and finally you harvest them. Even after you’ve harvested them, you continue to water them so you retain the long-term memory of the words and phrases.

My small, pre-existing Estonian vocabulary has increased so much since I’ve started my courses, because of this style of learning. It’s sort of like Rosetta Stone, only they actually tell you what the words and phrases mean. Gradually, I figure out the patterns of things like verb conjugation, plurals, and root words used to form longer words and phrases. And they’re frequently reinforcing your prior knowledge, instead of assuming you’ve got all those words and phrases down cold after that unit. Plus, if you get an answer wrong, they come back to that word or phrase more often than the ones you passed, until you’ve internalized it and it finally clicks.

If you’re really passionate about learning a language, you’re going to be more committed and interested than if you’re being forced to take it for a grade or graduation requirement. The languages I’ve formally studied which I felt most passionate about have been Russian and Italian. I took Spanish and French because I had to. Only later on did I really come back to them with a real desire to improve my skills. So much great literature was written in Spanish and French. They’re also among the world’s most-spoken languages.

The exclusively self-study language I’m most passionate about is German. It’s such a rich, historied language, with so much great literature to its name. And since I’m planning to one day get a Ph.D. in Russian history, it’s a useful additional language to know for research purposes. Many schools require not just your primary Slavic language for the program, but also at least one other European language so you can read journals and other source materials.

I’ve been studying German on and off since late ’94, and have retained enough to be able to read at a basic level, and understand some films without always looking at the subtitles. Early in my study of German, I also acquired the habit of counting and thinking my numbers in German. There have seriously been times I’ve totally blanked on the English word for a number, or unthinkingly said a number in German.

During one of my driving lessons at age 25, I had a habit of going under the speed limit out of fear. (The first time I went on the highway, I was scared out of my mind at having to go so fast and being among so many fast cars!) One time, my dad pointed at a speed limit sign and asked how fast I was supposed to go. Without even thinking, I said, “Fünf und vierzig.” My father and brother had no idea what the hell I’d just said, of course. I just saw the number 45 and said the number the way I thought it! I couldn’t even recall the English word.

I’ve also learnt some Japanese through one of the programs on Channel 45, back in ’94. Though I’ve forgotten some of what I used to know, I do remember some words and phrases to this day. I think that was because the program was very lively, with fun examples and interesting characters, and because I was genuinely interested in the language. Plus Japanese is a cool language, with a lot of history and culture.

Over the years, I’ve also studied Hebrew, Armenian, Estonian, Hungarian, Swedish, Georgian, Polish, and Dutch. My interest in Dutch was spawned because of my interest in German, and at one point I was also interested in Afrikaans, which evolved from Dutch. Armenian was because of my Armenophilia, Hungarian and Swedish because of some of the Shoah memoirs I discovered in 1995, Estonian and Georgian because of the characters in my Russian novels, Hebrew for religious reasons, and Polish just because. I also became interested in the Scandinavian languages because I just think they look cool.

You definitely can learn two or three languages at the same time, though I tend to agree with people who caution against starting two similar languages together. You might get mixed up if you’re starting, say, Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, or Russian and Polish together. I’ve had my share of using words from the wrong language in class, like saying a German word in Spanish or Russian!

If you’re going to learn two or three languages together, I’d advise making sure they’re not close together. It’s one thing to do as I did, taking Italian during my sixth year of Spanish or French during my fifth year of Spanish, but another to start two Romance languages together. You should have a base in one before studying another from the same branch. It’s better to study, say, German, French, and Swedish together. You won’t get so mixed up.

It’s also been recommended that you take one easy language and another hard. For me, currently, I’m refreshing my Russian, my easy language, along with brushing up/improving Dutch and German, also easy languages, and starting a serious study of Estonian, a hard language. Estonian isn’t even Indo-European. It’s Finno-Ugric, and closer to Finnish and Hungarian than other European languages. Persian and Hindi are closer to English than Estonian!

Learning other languages is like solving a puzzle, finding the right key for a lock. You don’t get it perfect right away, but you have to train your brain to respond in a certain way first. Once everything clicks, you start conjugating verbs and declining nouns automatically. It’s exercise for your brain, and awakens your creative and memory zones. For me, it’s no different from learning new words in English, or knowing synonyms.

Being originally from Southwestern Pennsylvania, I tend to use the words cellar and dugout more than basement, but I know all three words mean the same thing, and I try to refrain from saying “dugout” when I’m with a non-Pennsylvanian who’d have no idea what I’m referring to. I also try not to pronounce creek as “crick” if I want to be taken seriously. It’s the same way with turning different languages’ vocabulary on and off.

However, there are other Pittsburghese phrases and words I can’t shake. If you’re ever critiquing or betaing my writing, know in advance that it’s my native vernacular, not shoddy grammar, if I write something like “the place they were at” or “the plants need watered”! That’s just how my brain sees language and makes sentences.

Posted in Languages

Thoughts from an aspiring hyperpolyglot, Part I

Since I was 14, I’ve been an aspiring hyperpolyglot. I’d been somewhat interested in languages for awhile, but I didn’t actively start getting interested in a lot at once, or foreign languages in general, till around 1994. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by world languages and have had a dream of knowing like 15-20 fluently and a few more conversationally or well enough to read on a basic level.

Americans are embarrassingly monolingual. In most of the rest of the world, it’s normal to know three or four languages, and to study like two or three at a time in school. There’s no assumption that the entire rest of the world speaks one’s native language and that everyone will understand you when you visit a foreign country and babble away in your native language. I felt really embarrassed a few times during some of my visits to Israel when I encountered people who only spoke Hebrew. Here I was, coming across like the stereotypical ugly American who couldn’t bother to learn the host country’s language.

I felt so bad when I was in a Shabbos elevator with a little boy who began having a meltdown because the lift wasn’t stopping at his floor. All I could understand of his tantrum was that he wanted floor 18. When I finally got out of the lift at my floor, I had to motion to him to come with me and pointed to the non-Shabbos elevator on the right. I’d even temporarily forgotten the command “Yella,” “Come on.” If he’d spoken Spanish, German, Russian, or French, I might’ve been able to talk to him a little! He wasn’t frum, so speaking German (which is very close to Yiddish) probably wouldn’t have helped.

Anyway, I’ve formally studied five languages, and taught myself bits and pieces of many others. The first foreign language I was exposed to was French, which my parents had studied. We still have the old First 100 Words in French book I looked at over and over again as a kid. In 5th grade, we had a French class, but it wasn’t really grammar-centric, more about learning some vocab words and watching videos.

I assumed I’d take French again when I started junior high, but my parents insisted on Spanish. They said French was outdated, and Spanish was more modern and relevant. I was never really passionate about Spanish, but I did pretty well in it, except for some grammar units. It was a language I kept taking because I had to, and because I was doing well in it. Eventually, I got good enough to be able to read, speak, and write fairly well. It’s been a long time since I actively used the language, but after 7 years of study, I’m still able to read it decently. The memory comes back, and I begin thinking in Spanish as I’m reading. My knowledge of Spanish also enables me to stumble along fairly well in Portuguese, Catalán, and Ladino.

I studied French again my junior year of high school, and I did pretty well, but I hated having to take a language I’d since grown to think, as my parents had, was outdated, boring, and pretentious. I was also leery because of Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis. Had I remained in New York, I would’ve started Latin my junior year. I’ve never gotten over being cheated out of learning Latin. And we moved at a snail’s pace in the Spanish class I took that year. I was one of only two juniors in Spanish IV, my fifth year of Spanish. They were learning things in their final year of Spanish that I’d known since my third year, like the preterite tense!

My senior year, in Massachusetts, I did not take French II but instead chose to take Italian, a language I’d long been passionate about. In ’94, I’d also learnt some Italian from one of the foreign language instructional programs on Channel 45. My passion showed, and I got straight As in that class. My parents even commented on how my Italian accent was a lot better than my Spanish accent!

Of course, in early ’93, I began teaching myself Russian, and immediately learnt the Cyrillic alphabet. I didn’t formally get to study the language till 2000, when I transferred to the big university. It was a little hard to adjust to learning Cyrillic cursive and only being allowed to use that, but I quickly mastered the cursive system. (Side note: I’m rather saddened at how unpopular cursive has become, and how many schools no longer even teach it. Since learning it in second grade, I’ve always used cursive unless it’s an official form requiring printing.)

During the spring semester of my junior year (2001), I took a half-semester course in Czech history and language. The language part was optional, but of course I bought a Czech book and stayed with a few other students for lessons. I wanted to learn to be able to talk to my grandpap in his native Slovakian, which is very close to Czech. It’s also vaguely similar to Russian.

And that’s the story of the five languages I’ve studied formally. In Part II, I’ll discuss the languages I’ve studied on my own, and how I’ve brushed up on the other five.

Posted in Languages

Thoughts on Rosetta Stone

I recently decided to try out a free online demo of Rosetta Stone to refresh my Russian, which I haven’t actively used in a long time other than using my excellent dictionary and reading some other basic things. I’ve heard the family of my ex-“fiancé” babbling away in Russian with no respect for the fact that a native English-speaker was there, but that didn’t Magickally get my skills up to the level they used to be. These people never got the memo that it’s considered extremely rude to speak a foreign language in front of people you know can’t understand you. They can pretend they never left the USSR all they want when they’re in private, but when there’s an American guest in their home, it’s time to make the effort to tailor their behavior.

I was booming out the answers on the demo, but only because I’ve been studying the language on and off for 20 years. If I’d never had that base to make so many inroads in my memory, I would’ve been so lost. A lot of the pictures are so unclear, and I only picked the right one because I knew what the Russian phrase meant, like “She needs a map.” Otherwise I would’ve wondered what that picture really meant. Other times it was unclear what they were even asking you to do.

I later tried a demo in Greek, a language I’ve never studied, other than knowing the Greek alphabet and being well-read enough to know some Greek words and roots that made it into English. I got more things wrong, since I didn’t understand the grammar or context. It was also impossible to do the writing section, since I couldn’t figure out how to do a Greek letter with an accent mark.

I then tried a demo in Swedish, a language I only know a tiny little bit of but would be interested in learning someday. (Though probably Norwegian is my best bet, since it’s considered the middle Scandinavian language and the most mutually intelligible with Swedish and Danish.) I scored about the same as I did on Greek.

Finally I did a Spanish demo, since I had 7 years of Spanish but haven’t actively used it in awhile. I got almost perfect on that, except for one screen where it was completely unclear what they wanted. The phrase was “Yo como (I eat),” and it could’ve been any of the three pictures. I got it wrong; apparently the one I clicked was supposed to be “Él come (He eats).” How the hell am I supposed to guess that?

Since then I’ve been reading a lot of honest reviews of Rosetta Stone, and have found much the same sentiments. Issues like:

Poor customer support
Buggy software
Paranoid anti-pirating policies making it impossible to install on other computers or resell
The same template for every language, not taking into account culture or grammar
Culturally inaccurate pictures, like Nordic-looking kids in the Japanese program, African tribesmen in Dutch, and Asian women in Spanish
No translations or explanations of anything
Bad voice recognition that often doesn’t even pass native speakers
Phrases that aren’t useful, like “The boy is under the aeroplane” and “The plates are dirty”
Boring and repetitive
Teaching a very formal, robotic language, not the informal, casual language of the street

At best, this could be a decent supplementary aide for someone who just wants a refresher, or a resource in addition to a class, tutor, or textbook. But on its own, this isn’t anywhere near close to effective language-learning. It’s not even real immersion. There are some awesome language immersion programs, not to mention traveling to a foreign country and staying outside the Anglo bubbles, but this ain’t it by a long shot. Real immersion also involves learning real language, not phrases you might use to talk with a three-year-old.

Grammar is huge in learning a second language. It has to be explained so you can internalize the rules and naturally conjugate verbs or decline nouns after enough time with the basics. It helps knowing if a verb or declension is irregular, what patterns the grammar follows, how pronouns work, if the language is gendered, etc. Some languages need more attention to verbs, while others are heavier on declensions. That can’t be taught with a cookie-cutter approach.

Also, adults don’t learn language the same way kids do. Our brains are wired differently. Children pick up language naturally through immersion, but they also make a lot of mistakes and don’t know everything right away. For example, many young kids use overextension (e.g., “I throwed a ball” or “We goed to the store”) and call every man Daddy. They have to be corrected until they understand. We also don’t stop learning language after we can talk in complete sentences. A lot of the words I know and love using now weren’t words I learnt till high school English classes.

Russian (or any Slavic language for that matter) can be a real bitch to learn because of all the noun declensions, seven cases’ worth. Verb conjugation also gets trickier as you get further in, because of things like conditional and reflexive verbs. It’s sort of like a much-more-foreign Spanish—the language starts out easy and then gets harder, as compared to French, which starts out hard and then gets easier. Luckily, an adult has the advantage of a highly-developed brain, and can understand the explanation of why the endings on words are changing depending upon their location in a sentence. It starts making sense after enough time.

One of the numerous languages I’ve studied is Japanese. I’ve forgotten a lot of what I used to know (including all the characters I used to know), but one of the things I still remember how to say is, “What is that?” That phrase takes three forms, depending upon whether the object is closest to you or the other person, or if it’s far away from both of you (like if you hear fireworks but can’t see them). Rosetta Stone wouldn’t explain that at all. I’m told counting in Japanese (and Korean) is a real bitch, and that isn’t explained either. Different languages have different rules, and you can’t just expect people to naturally pick them all up by guessing at the meanings of pictures.

These are the languages I’ve formally learnt or taught myself bits and pieces of over the years, in roughly the order I began. I’m not making a claim to be fluent in all of them, or even able to speak on a basic conversational level!

Hebrew (Everyone in my community was so amazed how I took to the alphabet like lightning at age 18, as compared to how long it took some other people to learn it as adults. I suppose already having learnt the Cyrillic, Greek, and Armenian alphabets helped with my language skills!)

I think that’s about it to date. I can also read some Catalán, Portuguese, and Ladino based on my knowledge of Spanish and the other Romance languages.

All of those languages I picked up just fine teaching myself, watching programs on TV, taking classes, reading simple stories and dialogues, and using dictionaries and instructional volumes. Not through clicking on pictures with meaningless phrases like “The women drink” and “The horse swims under the purple aeroplane.”