Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Beginning Again

There is a saying in Hebrew that "kol hatchalot kashot"-- all beginnings are difficult. When I first made Aliyah, a representative of AACI ( the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) came to my ulpan to address the North Americans, and told us something that stuck with me. He said "you will never finish being a new immigrant. When my wife and I made aliyah, we learned Hebrew and bought a house and got settled, and we thought then that we were done being new. But then we had kids and had to learn all about the school system, and we were new again. And then the kids got older and had to take their bagruyot (matriculation exams) which we knew nothing about, and we were new again. And then our oldest went into the army, and we had no idea how to help him get into the unit he wanted to join, or even what the different units were, and we were new again."

When it comes to fencing, I am new again, and it is humbling. Tonight I went for the second time. It was easier than the last time: I knew to come early and got to work out with the kids a bit before the bouting. But . . . I didn't understand any of the coach's instructions, and had to watch everyone else and try to catch on. They don't teach you phrases like "advance-jump-lunge" in ulpan. But I learned the words, so next time I won't be so new when it comes to the vocabulary.

Then there is the issue that my fencing sucks. You need to understand that I was never really very good. But now, in addition to that, I'm out of practice and fencing a different weapon. It's just awful. I lost repeatedly against a kid who was fencing for the first time in his life. Contemplate that for a moment. Think about how embarrassed I was. It felt horrible.

There was another kid at the club, visiting from California. Apparently he comes every summer, I suppose to visit his grandparents. Guess what? Samuil gave him a lesson. Note that he will not give me a lesson because "we don't get paid extra for lessons, so we only give them to the kids who might make it onto the national team." But . . . a kid visiting from California gets a lesson. And no, this is not a kid who is thinking about making Aliyah. He's already got a spot on the Stanford University fencing team for next year.

This time, Pasha (the other coach) was back, and I spoke with him about how passionate I am about the sport, and how I need to fence whether I'm good or not, but it's not so fun when I lose, and I'll do whatever it takes to get private lessons. But he, too, said "we only give lessons to the kids who want to try for the national team." He did tell me, however, that they are trying to put together an evening session just for adults (like me), and that my chances for getting private time with a coach under those circumstances would increase dramatically.

I guess I'll have to wait a little while before I get more explicit with my offer for black-market lessons . . . .

Anyhow, there were some nice things that happened. First of all, the teens were really pretty nice to me, considering that they are all 14 and 15 years old. The girls I met last time smiled warmly and greeted me enthusiastically when they saw me come in, and a Russian boy I'd never even seen before was quite solicitous and went out of his way to make sure I got fencing time with other kids. The language barrier and age difference made it all a little strange, but to the extent that they spoke to me they were nice kids. I sure do miss all the grown-ups at my club in New York, though.

Second, even when I was feeling really, really down about my abysmal performance, even when I had a lump in my throat and wanted to cry because I was fencing so badly and was not having fun, even when I wanted nothing more than to go home right now, I went back for more. I caught the eye of another kid and gave the "you wanna fence?" motion, and we fenced. And I got creamed. And then I fenced some more. And got creamed. And you know what? I went back for more. Come to think of it, it's starting to sound like dating . . . food for thought . . . though, in sports, going back for more instead of quitting is usually a good thing.

And finally, as I was putting my gear back into my fencing bag, two 14-year-old boys -- a native Israeli and a Russian-- came over to admire my epee. I've noticed that everyone wants to examine my epee (insert inappropriate joke here). Finally I asked them why. Turns out that they are riveted by the pommel. They've never seen anything like it. It's an ergonomic handle that I ordered in the smallest size, because my hands are so small. So between being of a design they've never seen and being tiny, my epee handle is the hot new thing. These boys wanted to know which parts of the epee were German, and which were Russian, and which were American, and does everyone in America use a handle like this? And they all think the blade itself is very pretty, until I point out how easily it bends the wrong way . . . and the Russian kid went out to ask the coach if he can fix it (he can't).

I know they were oohing and aahing over my equipment, not over me, but it made me realize that none of them cared that I'm easily creamed. It's a little high-schoolish, but my cool equipment made me cool to them. Well, to the kids at least. They hadn't been paying attention to whether I actually fence well.

As I left, Samuil said "so we'll see you in another couple of weeks?" and I said "no, I'm coming back tomorrow."

He looked surprised . . . and impressed.

Maybe the universal language of fencing isn't about "step," "jump," and "lunge." Maybe it's about showing up, keeping your eyes open, and letting the kids admire your ergonomic pommel. Maybe if I keep going I'll get lessons, and eventually I'll get better. Maybe even a bunch of Russian and Israeli teenagers will let me into their group. Maybe I've learned a few things since high school.

Rabbi Kosman always says "never underestimate the power of your presence." I need to come to terms with the idea that every step of my life -- every new "present"-- will be that much harder than it would have been in the US, because although my soul is at home the rest of me will take a lifetime to adjust. I need to learn to live in the moment and be OK with whatever comes. And I need to keep showing up.


A little later: I called Zivkovic, the company that sold me the bends-the-wrong-way blade, and the owner was nice about it. We worked it out that the next time I come to America (which is relatively soon), I'll bring it over and he'll replace the blade part. He also said I can exchange my (brand new, but too-small) glove for a bigger one, no questions asked. I wish I'd gotten a better blade to begin with, but at least he's being reasonable about fixing the problem. After all, for all he knows I could've been lying when I said that I only started using the blade last week -- I bought it last April.

So now I feel better! (about that, at least . . . )

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