I’ve been experimenting with DIY thank you cards as a creative outlet. For years, my sister and I have added personal touches to blank Hallmark envelopes. Last year, when she became old enough to drink alcohol legally, I drew a wine bottle with flowers springing from the top. When I finished, it occurred to me that I’d drawn a closed bottle, but that’s neither here nor there.
Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between the living and the dead. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.
Polyglots are linguistic superheroes. Some kids want to be Superman when they grow up, but I was more interested in expanding my lexicon than battling Lex Luthor. Throughout the years, I’ve attempted to learn Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Dutch. Most of these efforts have been ill fated; I gave up on Japanese after memorizing ten Kanji characters in elementary school, and I gave up on Dutch when I realized I would never use it. Despite the six years I spent studying Spanish, I am not fluent in the language. I was able to ask for directions in Barcelona, and help hispanohablante customers at work, but I think too slowly in Spanish to feel confident in conversation.
A few weeks ago, I found a box of old childhood books. One of my favorites was a Where’s Waldo-esque fully illustrated book called The First Thousand Words. It struck me then that I was going about learning languages the wrong way. As a child, I learned English by associating words with pictures. In school, we’re taught to translate foreign languages into our native tongue. The problem is that this creates too many degrees of separation from thought to speech. Before responding to someone, we translate their words into our own, think of an English response, and then speak a translation. It’s too much! My goal is work on thinking in foreign languages, rather than simply attempting to speak them.
Inspired by The First Thousand Words, I’ve started learning German the way a German child would. I’m not yet concerned with conjugation charts; I’m focusing on listening to which words sound right. Ich habe einen Apfel. Sie isst ein Ei. In honor of my childhood book, I drew representations of a few things one might find in die Küche (the kitchen). In case anyone else wants to use my drawing as a learning tool, I included translations. However, I recommend focusing on pairing the German words with the pictures rather than the English translations. It was a fun exercise, so I might sketch more household items soon.
Birthdays always blindside me, like an annual cairn of squandered youth. The preceding weeks are filled with vague dread, until suddenly it’s my birthday, and I’m like, “It’s my birthday? Already? HOW?” Lamentably, the only thing more predictable than the day itself is the crying that ensues. Birthday tears are a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as Lesley Gore said, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to!” In honor of my birthday, this week’s Cultural Parallels is dedicated to four global birthday traditions that might inspire you to shed a tear.
The Vietnamese New Year celebration Tết Nguyên Đán, literally the Festival of the First Day, functions as a birthday party for everyone in the country. In Vietnam, people do no acknowledge the day they were born. Instead, the Vietnamese align themselves with the lunar calendar symbol from the year they were born.
Some people in England still practice an ancient birthday tradition involving coins and thimbles. In Medieval England, these small, symbolic items concealed in cake batter prophesied the future. A coin in one’s slice of cake was a welcome ingredient because it was said to have foretold future wealth. Unfortunately, not all cake surprises are equal. Those who received the thimble, a tool of the spinster, were unlikely to wed.
Kim Il-sung was the premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from its 1948 inception until he died, July 8, 1994. Picking up the mantle upon his father’s death, Kim Jong-il ruled until his own death on December 17, 2011. As a result, North Koreans born on July 8th and December 17th refrain from celebrating on their birthdays. Instead, they celebrate on the following day.
In Germany, it pays not to have many friends. In America, people are accustomed to being taken out for birthday drinks by their friends. Germans, however, traditionally pay the tab for all the guests they invite out on their birthday.
European toilets astounded me. When I landed in London, the first thing I did was beeline to the bathroom. I crammed my suitcase into the stall, rigged up my duffel bag so that it was teetering on the suitcase by the grace of the tiny door hook, and turned around to see the cutest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. This must be for children, I thought. In my sleepless, post-flight, full-bladder stupor, this was the only rational explanation for such a petite toilet. What if a child has to pee, and I’m in here? Children can’t wait; they wet themselves! Or worse.
So, logically, I had to go check the sizes of the other toilets. Of course. I squeezed past the baggage blockade, and awkwardly popped through the narrow opening, as though the stall had given birth to me. A woman washing her hands at a nearby sink squinted at me suspiciously, her eyes trailing down to the abandoned luggage. In a flash, my mind went to all those “If you see something, say something” posters plastered around New York. Sheepishly, I slid back through the crack in the wall.
What struck me was how clean the bathroom was. It could be down to timing – it was before 8:00 a.m., and presumably, not many people had passed through yet. I have no explanation for the rest of the bathrooms I encountered, though. I have never seen so many consecutive clean toilets. On my return flight from Heathrow, I actually went to the bathroom with the sole intention of photographing one of the miniscule toilets. Unfortunately, I found a stall with litter on the floor, but I tiptoed around the Band-Aid minefield and took the picture anyway. The last time I ducked out of a Heathrow bathroom stall to check another, I was nearly reported for suspicious activity.
Many of the toilets I used in Italy had no seat, and at first, I thought they were broken. Then I realized, people can’t pee on a seat that doesn’t exist. Genius. This is the sort of innovation that propelled the Roman Empire, folks. Others had lifted seats, but I welcomed those situations all the same. My favorite Italian toilets were the ones on pedestals. What better way to feel like you’re ascending to the throne than to literally climb a stairway to toilet heaven? Some bathrooms also had efficient foot-operated sinks, so I didn’t have to play that game where I try to scrub my hands before the water stops flowing, inevitably fail, and have to start all over after touching the faucet again. One toilet in Rome had a pull chain above my head. Like the foot-operated sink pedal, I missed it at first, and stood dumbstruck for a few moments before I figured it out.
Greek toilets were a different ballgame. We were warned, as we boarded the ferry to Corfu, that we would not be able to flush toilet paper in certain areas in Greece. I didn’t realize that included the ferry, so by the time I tried to use the bathroom, the toilets were overflowing with backed up toilet paper. Despite signs everywhere stating that tissue paper must be discarded in the provided trash bins, several cavalier toilet rebels disregarded the rules and flushed away. Opening the trash to see someone’s sodden butt paper after what must have been an upsetting meal is a distinctly unpleasant experience. Greek hotel maids deserve massive tips, especially considering the current state of their economy. Before going abroad, a particularly green-minded friend told me about her experiences with European bathrooms, and espoused the virtue of their dual flush, water-saving toilets. Figuring out which button to press was supposed to be the extent of my bathroom culture shock, but I got so much more than I bargained for.
Shakespeare’s infamous second act of Romeo and Juliet posits the arbitrary consequence of names by asking, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet muses to herself that were Romeo no longer a Montague, or she no longer a Capulet, the two star-crossed lovers would be free to pursue their relationship outside the confines of their feuding families. Shared familial surnames enforce the notion that identity is linked to the family unit. Iceland and Spain reject conventional Western naming practices in favor of those that promote individuality and gender equality. Though different, both structures endorse matrilineal genealogy in ways most Western societies do not. Notably, women of Iceland and Spain do not take their spouse’s name after marriage.
In Iceland, kenninafn, or surnames, are patronymic, meaning that the father’s given name forms the root of the child’s surname. This structure links the child to their parent but does not reflect any family lineage. Icelandic surnames are gendered, ending in the suffix ‐son (son) for males and ‐dóttir (daughter) for females. Therefore, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the son of Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who was in turn the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson. Modern endeavors toward gender equality and a sudden rise in single motherhood have led to matronymic surnames. Icelandic footballer Heiðar Helguson’s name, for example, indicates that he is the son of his mother, Helga. In some cases, people can have a last name comprised of both matronymic and patronymic elements. Reykjavík City mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson is the son of Bergþóra and Eggert.
Thwarting concepts of legacy and lineage, it is unclear how nepotism would work in Iceland. In America, legacy names can secure places at prestigious universities, or otherwise pave the way for a life of privilege. In Iceland, the response to “Don’t you know who I am?” would most likely be a resounding “No.” With popular Icelandic musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men gaining worldwide recognition, it would be insincere to claim that fame is nonexistent in Iceland. However, with an average population of 329,000 people, there is a narrower gap between stars and their audience than there would be in most other developed countries. Partially due to this sense of national intimacy, but mostly because of the structure of Icelandic last names, Icelanders are generally referred to by their first names. Singer Björk uses her first name only, though her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir. The current Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, is simply referred to as Sigmundur Davíð. This familiarity is uniquely Icelandic, though the patronymic system was once common throughout Scandinavia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden abolished patronymic names through separate national laws and adopted the Western concept of family names.
Spanish apellidos, or last names, are a unification of a person’s parents’ surnames. The dual apellido system dates back to the sixteenth-century upper classes of Castille but only became common in the nineteenth century. Generally, a child is given the first surname of both the father and the mother. For example, if a man named Mateo Álvarez García and a woman named Marisol Ramón Benítez conceived a son named José Enrique, his full name would most likely be José Enrique Álvarez Ramón. Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage, as doing so would eliminate the cultural practice of having two last names. In the way that Icelandic women would not suddenly become someone else’s daughter upon marriage, it would not make sense for Spanish women to cast aside their parents’ names. However, some Spanish women may choose to informally append their husband’s paternal surname with the particle de (of). Marisol Ramón Benítez, from the earlier example, would then be Marisol Ramón Benítez de Álvarez. Used solely for social purposes, the name would have no legal value.
Due to this format, members of a nuclear family cannot have the same last name unless they are siblings. Gender equality laws passed in 1999 enable matrilineal surname transmission to precede patrilineal transmission, such that our imaginary José Enrique Álvarez Ramón might instead be called José Enrique Ramón Álvarez. As the first surname is typically paternal, and children only take the first part of each parent’s surname, the maternal elements are generally lost after one generation. Regardless of which configuration parents choose for their firstborn, each subsequent child must legally bear the same arrangement of last names. Much like the Icelandic convention, Spanish surnames are generational, linking siblings, yet estranging children from a singularly named nuclear family unit.
Before 1925, Icelanders were legally permitted to invent a family name, but that is no longer the case, unless granted by special exception. The Iceland Naming Committee, formed in 1991, upholds rules regarding the names of its citizens. Unlike Spanish citizens, Icelanders cannot have more than three personal names. Moreover, Icelandic names must adhere to the nation’s grammar, and they must contain only letters that exist in the language. The Icelandic alphabet contains thirty-two letters, not including C, Q, W, or Z. Despite the prevalence of Charlottes, Quinns, Walters, and Zacharys in the Western world, the Icelandic Naming Committee would reject said names and would require any immigrants with those names to choose a suitable Icelandic alternative. Iceland itself is referred to as Ísland by its inhabitants, due to the lack of the letter C in the native language, Íslenska.
Language aside, the Icelandic naming format can present unique problems. Families traveling abroad with small children are often scrutinized by customs officers who might not be familiar with families wherein mother, father, sister, and brother could potentially all have different surnames. To avoid this type of confusion within the country, Icelandic phonebooks have to be alphabetized by first name. Naming structures are strict, and occasionally challenging, but the Icelandic language is an important element of national identity amongst Icelanders. Today, with some effort, most Icelanders would be able to read the thirteenth-century Prose Edda drafted in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson. In contrast, the epic poem Beowulf, composed in Old English sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries, is incomprehensible to most modern English speakers.
The links between Spanish language and names are also strong. In some cases, Spanish surnames offer insight into the geographic history of one’s ancestors. The name Mendoza suggests that centuries ago, the family came from an area by a cold mountain, while those named Morales may have lived by blackberry groves. Occupational names such as Herrera, Molinero, and Romero, suggest that one’s ancestors were ironworkers, millers, and pilgrims, respectively. Descriptive names like Cortés (courteous), Delgado (thin), Moreno (brown hair and skin), and Rubio (blond) are common, as well.
Some of the most common Spanish family names are products of a historic patronymic system similar to the Icelandic model, though perhaps more akin to the Irish O’‐ (descendant of) and Mc‐ or Mac‐ (son of) prefix conventions established between the tenth and twelfth centuries—some of the earliest in Europe. Historically, the Spanish suffix ‐ez meant “son of,” denoting that a man with the surname Rodríguez was the son of a man named Rodrigo, or that a Sánchez was the son of Sancho, a González was the son of Gonzalo, and so on. Like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—and Ireland—Spain eventually converted patronymic names into heritable family names.
Did you know that the first step toward immigrating to Monaco is to open a bank account with a minimum initial deposit of €300,000 – €1million? With the intention of rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous at the Monte Carlo Casino, we drove to Monaco one of the nights we were based in Antibes, France. Unfortunately, the traffic was so bad that by the time we arrived there was only enough time to walk around and take a few pictures.
Ranked the second smallest country in the world, at 0.78 square miles, it’s actually impressive that I did not see every inch of Monaco. As I stared out over the harbor, counting all the locals’ yachts, it occurred to me that the price of residence was a necessary consequence of keeping the small nation afloat. However, as I began tallying superyachts, I understood that the price of inclusion covered more than taxes; it purchased exclusivity. With its gorgeous pink Prince’s Palace, Grand Prix roads, and luxury boutiques, Monaco is a five-star hotel posing as a microstate. To live in Monaco is to exist in a perpetual state of vacation.
Outside the casinos, people milled around, peering into Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Bentleys. We even spotted a Bugatti Veyron. I recalled an alleged car show I once saw in a Burger King parking lot, attended by Honda Civic owners with brightly colored spinning rims and illegally tinted windows on their cars. They were so proud of their aftermarket headlights, and I remember thinking the spectacle was ridiculous. Standing outside the Monte Carlo Casino, with my inexpensive dress and accessories, I suddenly felt like the human equivalent of a Honda Civic. I had to laugh; it was absurd to be surrounded by such an embarrassment of riches.