When I was growing up there was little exotic about my life.
We didn’t go on foreign holidays and neither did my school friends. I remember we did stay in a caravan for a week once – I think it was in Wales. I slept on the floor with three other children I didn’t know very well and the strongest memory I have of the trip is losing a tooth whilst eating a bowl of cornflakes.
Anyway, my family ate English food – fish and chips on a Friday, roast dinner on Sunday. We were meat-and-two-veg kind of people.
This was in the days before the UK embraced the cuisines of other nations. There were Indian restaurants and Chinese takeaways in cities like London and Birmingham, but I don’t remember seeing any in our little town, let alone eating their food. These days you’d be hard-pressed to find a four-year-old who won’t refuse to eat pasta unless its tossed in pesto and pine nuts or who prefers daal with their chips instead of ketchup. A gross exaggeration on my part, but you know what I mean.
When we moved to Buxton in the late seventies, it was a small town, with a largely white population, many of whose families had lived in Derbyshire for generations. The place is very different now, of course, but at my Catholic senior school there were a fair number of Irish and Italian kids, but only one Asian and one mixed race lad (his dad was Jamaican, his mum half Italian, half German). Our melting pot was pretty low on variety.
It was my dad who brought snippets of the exotic into my life.
Born in Middlesex to Irish Catholics, he wasn’t an obvious channel for the unusual. He’d been an altar boy, learned to box, his dad was a postman, his mum had been a chambermaid and then worked in a brewery – you couldn’t get more white working-class.
But dad had also worked in places like Southall, a part of London with a large South Asian population. He had a sweet tooth and brought back Indian confectionary like barfi, halwa and ladoos, filled with cardamom, rosewater and pistachio nuts. All this in the days when my mum had nothing but a jar of greying mixed herbs in her kitchen cupboard in case she wanted to ‘spice things up a bit.’
As you can imagine tasting these treats blew the metaphorical socks off my taste buds.
Then there was language, though it wasn’t Hindi or Gujarati he brought home with him. As a young man, he’d also worked in the East End of London where he met more immigrants, this time Jewish ones.
I remember him peppering his speech not only with Cockney rhyming slang (‘apples and pears’, ‘plates of meat’), but also with oddments of Yiddish.
‘Oy vey’*, ‘schmutter,’** ‘schnozzle,’*** were colourful, but not without embarrassment for me, as dad would do a stereotypical Jewish accent as he said them – imagine a mix of the Alec Guinness and Ron Moody versions of Fagin and you’d be pretty close.
My favourite and therefore today’s word was
‘Move your tuchus/ your lazy tuchus/ if you don’t move that tuchus of yours…’
You get the picture.
So, from Irish Catholicism, to the traditions of European Judaism, via the foothills of South Asia, I guess you could say my dad dropped little snatches of the wider world into my brain.
And in case you didn’t know –
* Oy vey- an exclamation.
** Schmutter – clothing or fabric. ‘He wore a nice bit of schmutter.’
*** Schnozzle or schnozz – nose.
**** Tuchus – backside, bum, bottom, butt. Always a fun word when you’re only nine of ten years old.
Stop by Kittykat-bits and bobs to find the inspiration for the Wednesday Words Tangle