My heart was heavy three years ago when I wrote about this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws), and its injunctions to treat foreigners and resident aliens fairly. Mistreatment of refugees who cross into my country, the United States, was on the rise. So was intolerance of resident aliens already living and working here. A demagogue had got himself elected president of the U.S.A. by encouraging people to blame immigrants for their problems instead of asking for reform.
You can read my post here: Mishpatim & Psalms 39 and 119: Foreigners.
This year, although I still worry about the news from the United States, I am caught up in the experience of being a foreigner myself. I am not exactly a geir (גֵר) = foreigner, stranger, resident alien, sojourner, immigrant, non-citizen. I have my American passport, and eventually my husband and I will return to the country where we were born. In case of a serious emergency, we have travel insurance and the promise of help from a U.S. consul.
Nevertheless we are strangers, and in each new country where we rent an apartment for two weeks to two months, we have to figure out how things work. We find some people who speak enough English to answer some of our questions, but we pick up other rules for behavior by observation.
Our biggest challenge was our first country, Czechia. That’s where we learned how to arrange our lives around laundry. The European norm is to have a small washing machine in your apartment and hang up your clothes to dry. In Prague you drape clothes over a drying rack. Everywhere else we’ve been, you also have the option of pinning your wet clothing to a line strung outside a window (if you can reach the line and you know you won’t drop anything). Either way, laundry takes a long time to dry, and must be managed carefully so your supply of wet clothing does not back up.
Czechia is also where we learned not to smile all the time, the way Americans do. People respond better if you smile at them only when it is customary—and the customs are different in each country.
Food is also a challenge for us everywhere, thanks to the language barrier and the limitations in our diets. At grocery stores, we go by the pictures on the packages as much as we can. Asking our cell phones for translations of specific words can lead to humorous results. Asking other shoppers can lead to blank stares, and asking store employees is a gamble. One clerk might struggle through the language barrier to help us, and teach us how to pronounce a new word in the process. Another might glare and snap something incomprehensible to us.
In all four European countries where we’ve lived so far, you weigh your own produce and the machine spits out a sticker to put on your plastic bag. Sometimes. And when you go through the cashier’s line, you bag your own groceries. If you didn’t bring a bag, you buy one there.
As for restaurants, only those that cater to tourist traffic have menus with English translations. Timing also matters. In Croatia we learned that most folks eat their big meal of the day around 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. We were the first customers at a fine restaurant that opened at 1:30, and not all the dishes on the menu were available yet.
Before and after the big, late lunch, Croatians go to a café and sip coffee over a leisurely conversation, making one cup last an hour or more. Many coffee bars also sell alcoholic drinks, and bar food after dark, but the slow sipping is the same. As in Italy, you pay for your coffee or your meal when you are ready to leave, not when you order it, and you have to ask for the check.
Where do you buy a city bus ticket? Which types of business are open on Sundays? What is the procedure at a post office? Where do you put your trash? The answers to these questions have been different in each city where we’ve lived.
When I reread the post I wrote in 2017 on Mishpatim and two psalms, I smiled when I reached this sentence: “The overall theme of Psalm 119 is the longing to understand what God wants—which is like the longing of geirim to understand how things work in the strange country where they now live.”
Next week we will be in Jerusalem. Unlike most pilgrims from America, we will not be part of a guided tour, but on our own, living in an apartment for a month. We will be puzzling out words in modern Hebrew, which is spelled without vowel markings, so my knowledge of Biblical Hebrew will not be much help. I have heard that Israelis are outgoing and outspoken, but I do not know how things work in their country. Even though we are Jews, we will be geirim in Israel.