By William Markiewicz
I witnessed many things that have disappeared and each time it took me by surprise and with the feeling that something irreparable was lost. History is a matter of change; in most cases we don't notice if it's distant in time or in space. We take the present mostly for granted as an eternal status quo unless things change instantly and dramatically. I cherished many small treasures until I realized that they would forever remain souvenirs .I loved, for example, the legendary -- for me legendary -- cider made in Normandy. The palette was infinite; barrels standing in great cellars, dark, clear, dry, sweet, sparkling, flat... People in the country defined their territory, by "how the cider is here." This lasted for centuries, seemingly forever. Once, visiting France, I went to Normandy just for the rite of Cider. Here I got a surprise. I asked for cider in a bar and the salesgirl shouted: "Gaston, do we have cider?" Gaston searched for a while and brought a small dusty bottle that tasted like lemonade. And so was the end of the dream; no luck in other drinking spots. One young man said: "Sir, I know what you're talking about: it's in the past!" Apparently, to fight alcoholism, the government succeeded in eliminating millions of apple and pear trees, and killed the legendary Normandy cider culture. People switched automatically to brandy and beer.
Another legendary delight for me that belongs to memory is the Catalan garnacha; a murky white wine that looked like a beer. It was drunk from a porron – a thin stream directed straight to the throat, a memorable experience. It has disappeared from the market, I will never know why. Again some facsimili is reproduced in a small bottle, probably tasting mostly of chemicals.
More examples follow: fruits, vegetables, products of laboratories more than from Mother Nature; organic seedless fruits -- what Frankenstein-like products! The seedless "castrated" fruits are for me deprived of subtle but essential tastes provided by the presence of seeds.
Let's forget the infinities lost to our taste buds and switch to aesthetics: Countless treasures of history, architecture, landscapes of natural wealth and beauty, lost irremediably. Rich civilizations that we will never know share the stigma of "sic transit." Two rich and dynamic cultures that we still remember, because relatively recent, are Jewish: the Sephardic culture in Spain and Ashkenazi culture in Eastern Europe, mostly in Poland. Various Jewish communities developed all over Europe but none with the breadth and scope of those mentioned. We understand and take for granted their disappearance; the Inquisition uprooted Jewish culture in Spain and the Holocaust didn't leave hopes of survival and renaissance. Visiting New York I didn't expect to find that Jews are invisible there. The slur "Jew York" became empty of sense.
I'll explain myself: usually wherever you go, you "breathe" the local culture; unmistakably you know where you are. The local culture assails you. You feel, smell, the reality that exhibits itself to the core. Those who emigrate, when sufficiently numerous, export their characteristics with them and we don't anticipate how vulnerable those transplanted "colonies" can be. When the main centers disappear, sooner or later the branches disappear.
Somebody told me: "go to the Bronx, you'll see plenty of Hassidic Jews." Here we are mistaken again; the Hassidic Jews will remain the Hassidic Jews; you cannot create a people from a fraction. The people, to remain vital, must develop themselves and for this they must be multifaceted as they were, for instance, in the "shtetl" An American Italian feels the far away breath of Italy, for all other immigrants and their children it is the same. If the main center disappears, the descendents of the immigrants will take the track of assimilation. Israel? It's too young as a country. Those who emigrated for instance from Israel to the States, don't have a typical model to identify with. Abroad, they may feel like followers of the majority. Coming back to my New York example, on the streets of Manhattan I saw many ethnies, colors, and nobody identified visually as a Jew. He can travel to Israel, participate in Jewish festivities, read about Israel in the press, but for everyday -- how to be a Jew in New York? He has nothing to hold to; it's easier to be, for instance, a Latino.Back to the index of the Vagabond