Eastern Promises

Brighton Beach is not hipster Brooklyn. It is, as everyone knows, Russian Brooklyn. Actually, more like Eastern Europe: nationalities from the former Soviet Union and its neighbors. That presents a unique challenge. I look not unlike many men there, so at a store I'm addressed in a language I assume to be Russian. And when I speak back in English my interlocutor is flummoxed. My first language is this country's second, but not here. I'm a stranger in a strange land.

My interactions in the neighborhood are limited to shopping. I pass by a storefront church of some Christian orthodoxy, but though fascinated, I'm too timid to intrude. Shopping is, for the most part, accesible. In my case, it's food shopping. Actually, food just-looking. I'm not going to be cooking. If I pick something up it'll be something ready to eat. And there's plenty of that, all of it wonderful looking.

But what is it? Language is the barrier. Not only am I unable to read labels, I don't even know the alphabet. So I ask, and I engage in a good-natured struggle to communicate with someone who speaks little English. How mistaken are the xenophobes who claim we native speakers of Spanish are a singular blight on the nation because we refuse to learn English. Our cities, and pockets of suburbia and countryside, are full of people who happily engage in daily life in languages that are neither Spanish nor English. Brighton Beach and its surrounding neighborhoods are one such pocket.

I soldier on, looking for tasty novelties -- to me, to locals they're everyday fare. Some delis have bilingual signs for the cold cuts, even saying what country or region the style comes from. I try some. They're great. I try bread and pastries. And I go to eateries, some from countries I barely knew existed. The flavors are delightful mysteries. Unknown spices or used in ways I'm not familiar with.

Then there's the way people look. Women are often striking, and I'm particularly impressed by the dark-haired ones; there's something of the gypsy in them, or at least that's what I imagine. What I imagine of the men is something else. Since I have no idea what they're saying I only read clothes, intonation and body language. In their dark clothes, often black leather jackets, perennial cigarettes, and voices I see conspirators. Too many Cold War movies in my head. They seem at least to be dissidents, from something. For all I know they're talking about power tools.

Some are Jews, some are Gentiles. I can't tell. There are none of what in Manhattan are called Jewish delis. Not much in the way of bagels. Some smoked salmon. No pastrami. Yet I know Brighton Beach is home to a Jewish community. Like everything else, this remains a mystery to this outsider.

I think many if not most humans dislike disorientation. Thus, negative reactions to Otherness, so prevalent these days. I, on the other hand, enjoy it. It feels very safe to walk around, which is my minimum requirement for enjoyment. And it also feels like I've traveled to a foreign country, or rather several foreign countries all crammed into one or two neighborhoods. My mouth is full of new -- to me -- flavors. My eyes full of unreadable alphabets and people whose interesting lives I invent like a novelist. My ears with the sounds of languages I do not understand.

And here's something people who are disturbed by the disorientation caused by foreignness miss. Commenting on the multilingual experience of being in Morocco, Roland Barthes put it far more elegantly. But the jist is this: when you don't understand a language, or several languages within earshot, the sound loses its everyday signification and becomes music. And music, as another Frenchman, Paul Verlaine, put it, comes before everything else.