Refugees from that Other War

What does it mean to be the last on one’s generation? As the last remnants of the young Europeans who experienced World War II die, what becomes of those memories? We have the good luck to know one of these persons. Her name is Susanne Bock and she is 97 years old. Though physically frail, she has a sound mind and is still an active intellectual. In fact, she just published her third book.
We had a chance to talk about one of the major features of the war years for her today, her residence in England as a refugee from Austria. She showed us the exhibition catalogue prepared by the director of Verein Kunstplatzl named Sonja Frank, who had interviewed Susi. The exhibition was entitled Austrian Refugees in Britain: The Fight Against Fascism in World War II. It was mounted at The London School of Economics’ Atrium Gallery between November 16 and December 11, 2015.
The refugees who were fighting against fascism were all members of a progressive umbrella organization called the Free Austrian Movement (FAM). This organization provided help to refugees from Austria, coordinated the antifascist actions among its component groups, the support of Austrian fighting in the British army, and assisting the BBC in its propaganda programs aimed at Austrian audiences. The component groups included the entire spectrum of Austrian progressive political organizations, with the conscious exception of the Democratic Socialists, who officially embraced the unification of Austria with Germany.
The exhibition was an effort to capture the experiences of as many individual refugees as possible by interviewing them or their children, by collecting photographs and refugee documents, and by extracting contextual stories from period English and German-language publications. Each refugee that Frank could find information on was given their own entry, with biographical information, activities while in Britain, and photos. As one read through the entries, the commitment and antifascist fervor was evident in every entry. These were the active resistors whose country had been stolen from them, and who were determined to get it back. It is a very different refugee story, one that emphasizes agency rather than victimization.
Sonja was particularly interested in leafing through the catalogue since both her parents were part of this group. She found a short citation about her mother, who was active in the London group before meeting her father.
Susi pointed out that the people featured in the catalogue were primarily the ones located in and around London. There were two other concentrations of young Austrian refugees,, one in Oxford and one in Brighton. By the time Frank was conducting her research, none of the people active in those locations was alive to interview. Sonja’s father, who died in 1993, was living in Oxford and associated with the Czech refugee equivalent of the FAM, even though he was a native German speaker.
Our attention was drawn to Susi when she repeated her statement that Oxford and Brighton were ‘lost.’ This was important enough to her that she wanted to make sure we focused on that. The picture of FAM that we were discovering through the catalogue was an incomplete picture. It would always be incomplete. The research had come too late. Oxford and Brighton were forever lost.

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The Taste of Wine

Do you find it pretentious when people use metaphorical language to describe the taste of wine and beer? I know that I’ve mocked that language myself: “Plumy with a hint of arrogance!” I’ve been thinking about the poverty of our language for tastes lately. Occasionally my wife and I will explore a new area of food and drink together. This summer, we’ve been exploring Rieslings, the white wine that has so many different guises it deserves serious study (or so I keep telling myself).  As we taste different vineyards and different styles, we try to describe the differences to each other. This is where I became aware of the poverty of our taste vocabulary. The thing is, it isn’t me, or her, or you. It’s our language.

Think about all the words that refer to colors and that do not depend on metaphors: white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, orange, brown, and pink, but also magenta, beige, vermilion, scarlet, indigo, umber, carmine, mauve, tan, cyan, russet, and rowan. Now try to a make of list of the words that describe tastes without reverting to words that really refer to something else, like fruits, meats, vegetables, or non-edibles. Once you get past sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory (umani), you’re done. It’s not only English that has this problem. There are no more words in any of the Indo-European, Finno-Altaic, Semitic-Nilotic or Sino-Tibetan derived languages that provide us with a richer set of choices than that. In contrast, color vocabulary varies considerably , depending on the technological complexity of the society the language supports, regardless of historical connections.

This is not a problem of taste being infinitely varied and therefore immune from easy categorization. Have you tried to count the number of colors in the color wheel of your computer lately? Many colors still depend on metaphor: kelly green, canary yellow, sky blue, etc.. The adoption of single-world descriptors for colors is an ongoing process.  While systematic efforts to provide a set of single-word taste terms date back at least to the third century B.C., when Aristotle listed sweet (indexed as the taste of honey), sour (lemons), bitter (fresh olives), salty (sea water), astringent (red wine), pungent (wood smoke), and harsh (distilled alcohol ) as basic qualities, the vast majority of such descriptors today remain metaphors of the “It tastes like. . . ” variety.

Currently you can find this list of single-word taste descriptor: acidic, acrid, appealing, appetizing, balsamic, biting, brackish, briny caustic, delectable, delicious, divine, dry, dulcet, flavorful, flavorsome, fruity, full-bodied, gamy, hot, juicy, luscious, lush, mellow, mouthwatering, palatable, peppery, pickled, piquant, pungent, rancid, rank, scrumptious, sharp, spicy, strong, succulent, sweet and sour, tangy, tart, tasteless, tasty, treacly, unsweetened, vinegary, yummy, and zesty (source: World Food and Wine). This is a fine list. There are not too many metaphors (brackish, briny, divine, fruity, lush, peppery,  spicy, treacly, etc), but one would like more specificity.

For example, a chili con carne can be spicy, but so can a Gewürztraminer wine. Clearly spicy means something different in each case. We need a taste vocabulary that helps us get closer to what we mean by spicy in both cases, not one that lumps different tastes together in a single category. A seriously stinky cheese, (technically, an aged, washed rind, semi-soft cheese like Münster, Raclette, or Limburger) presents another kind of problem. It is full-bodied, tasty, and lush, but also rank, gamy, and pungent. We need taste words that let us zero in on the unique qualities of foods that present such contrasting sense messages. Splitting tastes into too many categories weakens our description. People hear the word ‘rank’ or ‘stinky,’ and immediately turn off to the cheese, missing a delicious experience.

Right now, my wife and I are tasting what is clearly a delicious wine. It is different from the one we drank last night. How can we describe the differences? Why does it sound so pretentious to use metaphors? Is it because we are not supposed to pay that level of attention to the way things taste? Does doing so reveal a hedonism that is at odds with the Puritanical austerity of our national morality?

I’m tempted to make up a set of single-word tastes out of the metaphors commonly used for the tastes in white wine:  ‘crass’ = like berries,  ‘stonn’ = like stone fruits (apricots, peaches), ‘treed’ = like tree fruits (apple, pears), ‘vegge’ = like sautéed bitter greens (kale, spinach), ‘funnk’ = like compost or barnyard, or stinky cheese.   I am fond of the double consonants. I think they give these new taste words a certain ‘spritz.’