Israel is a Movie, or other OR songs aren't good

In the past three years, since I caught the international travel bug with the Duke wrestling team on a romp through Poland and the Baltic countries (a trip full of stories as of yet untold, which may offer fertile soil when I'm in a dull patch like now), I've visited most of the countries in Europe, Montreal twice, Morocco once (for my only African trip), and the exotic climes of Nashville, TN. I've also lived (i.e. stayed longer than a week) in Madrid, Moscow, and now Israel.

As such, I'm a proponent of a post-national world, a place where our identities are culturally based but looser, and where our freedoms involve traveling. That's a fairly privileged, middle-class, young American male perspective, I agree. I'm not going to get into the details of any world view here, because I haven't thought one out and because it's not that interesting. Listen to parts of "Imagine" and you might get an idea of where I'm going.

But I did all that listing not to say what I was a proponent of, and not to brag (as fun as that is), but to share my experience with living abroad. Since I'm in Israel, I can say a few specific things about being a stranger in a land that is in many ways strange, and in many ways familiar.

For example, I've been approached for directions quite a few times. I get approached in other countries, yes; I tend to be an approachable sort. But, there's also the fact that I'm Jewish and look like it, which means I'm not such a strange figure in Israel. An obvious point, but still interesting; I've received a lot of practice in saying "Ani lo medeber ivrit."

I've said that Russian is something of the #4 language here, but in some instances it comes into play where English won't help. When trying to sort out all the issues with my cell phone (which I've still not sorted, because although Israel was apparently where the cell phone was invented, it was also where they invented all the possible obstacles to using one normally), I found that the operators on the helpline for Pelephone spoke Hebrew, Arabic, or Russian. I had a lot of practice speaking with a lot of Svetas or Yanas about why I had no money on my phone and how I didn't understand how much a text cost. My thinking is that most people who know English know Hebrew (and perhaps vice versa), whereas there's a significant percentage of Russians who know neither and need the specific help.

Here may also be the place to point out that I haven't yet found a freestyle wrestling club. Or more exactly, I went to a club and found judo, and that coach, a short fat Russian guy in his 50s who smokes, told me that there was a freestyle wrestling club in the same area, Bat Yam, a southern part of Tel Aviv. The problem is that the freestyle wrestling club coach is involved with the mafia, or so the story goes. Best to stay away from that...

While I'm on judo, I'd like to say that half the judoists at that practice (about 10 guys) were Russian or spoke Russian, and that if I do return to a practice as I plan on Thursday, I may end up with a fast friend in Timorbek. Timorbek is an Uzbek, a burly dark-skinned fellow who, after helping me out to get ready for practice and what not, had the following conversation with my a couple of times.
"You know, Da..what's your name again?"
"Danil, you know? I took 2nd in the world in sambo."
"Oh yeah?"
"Thank you for you congratulations."
"Yeah, congrats."
"Not bad, huh?"

The second time we had the conversation, I remembered to congratulate him before he thanked me. I then dropped him off in Tel Aviv on my way home, a car ride which involved him saying that as wrestlers we should be friends, and that life isn't good without a girl. But he could not remember his cell phone number. Nor the name of the kid I practiced with. Timorbek isn't the sharpest fellow, it seems. But a nice guy.

Right, back on topic now. About being a foreigner. There are certain cultural things that we run into as Americans that are difficult to deal with, as a matter of our upbringing. Customer service is not a priority here; take the cellphone business, where some of the Russian ladies on the phone were kind and helpful, and others did all but call me an idiot when sending me to a kiosk to refill my phone. Or that our internet randomly cuts out with no way of asking for help. People are friendly here, but only if you're in a social setting that does not involve transactions. Actually, it just seems that way to us; a smile and patience will usually be rewarded.

Another thing is the bargaining thing here. When you go to a store and make a big purchase, supposedly you should ask, "What can you do for me?" The price is never a fixed item. The markets especially depend on bargaining, as they do most everywhere. We as Americans (myself included) hate that.

The counter to that, I've decided, is the American system of tipping, an odd concept that Steve Buscemi's character dissected in Resevoir Dogs (the only scene of a Tarantino movie I've ever seen). We're accustomed to giving 15-20% for tips, which is all nice and grand....except waiters/waitresses in the states get paid much less, with salaries built around tips. Let's just cut the crap and pay what should be owed, no? That would be the Israeli attitude, I think, and while I don't wholly agree (after all, I loved tips as a delivery driver), it's something to think about when we bitch about the bargaining.

I should add that whenever you make a large purchase (say over $75 worth), you will be offered to pay that in separate payments. They're very big on credit here, it seems, something I hope I won't adapt to.

For all the strangeness that one might face in Israel or anywhere else, at the end of the day, we return to our rooms, where our internet is usually working, and we're wired and well-connected, as the Hold Steady saying goes. Globalization and technology don't necessarily make the world smaller, but they make it all easier to handle and adjust to. Culture shock isn't quite the same when I can still keep my fantasy baseball team updated every day, and when I have millions of emails and comments to deal with about my previous blog posting and so forth. I don't shock easy as is, but these cushions take away much of the potential. Something is lost in that comfort.

But then we return to the beach, where the teachers gather after Fridays (or the occasional rough Thursday) for drinks and company. The air is calm and warm, the water warmer, the sun fading over the Mediterranean, the waves thrashing, and the sound of foreign tongues surrounds us. Every time I'm on the beach, especially at nighttime, it feels like I'm in a movie. I'll walk back from that bar to our local beach, a 15-minute walk or so, and see families cooking and camping out, or groups of 12-15 girls with lanterns in a circle, or a football team kicking a ball around and training (ok, that's usually before dusk, but indulge me), and it all falls on me as unreality.

It's a step away from this computerized, modern reality though, and a step back towards something more primal and emotional, and in the end something realer. Even with all the cushions and the strangeness, what living away from home does best is take us to a new place where we are forced to accept the reality, to appreciate it and adapt to it. And it's in those movie scenes that I feel most at home, as far away as I might be.


No, I don't do those things!

I've held this posting for a couple of days, both to give time for people to read the previous post and to give time to myself to come to terms with the events described below. Don't worry, I didn't do anything really bad, or anything that the president of the united states must have to do sometimes (which doesn't really mean anything good, but whatever).
In the past, my propensity for going along with the flow and listening to people has led to interesting stories, both good and bad. I'm never afraid to test my boundaries, you could say, and I do it all for your entertainment. So, I'd tell you to try to withhold judgment on this one, but I didn't really do anything wrong. As a warning, graphic elements are suggested, though not depicted. And I wouldn't recommend trying this at home. Or anywhere else. Unless you're into that sort of thing.
As an added point, I'd like to say that one of my fellow new teachers here says that the first time she saw me, she thought, "Que fofo!", which means "What a cutie!" in Portuguese. So my charms are broad and still directed at the right targets.

Things started innocently enough; it was a nice Sunday, so I went to the beach. I didn't feel like dealing with the lifeguards and their restrictions, so I headed north. I had done a little bit of exploring up there, where the shores get rockier and the populations sparser, but nothing in depth. I figured a nice quiet beach where I could swim as much as I wanted would be perfect.

As I drifted below the ruins of Apollonia, the shores took on hiking terrain. I had to weave my way through huge rocks and chunks of stone that once belonged to the wall of a fortress. I very rarely call something unbelievable, but this walk along the sea was unbelievable. Walking amongst these ancient ruins, the sea, and the occasional sunbather or fisherman was a transportative experience.

Which may have been why I didn't blink too much when I saw the old, nude dude. He had a hat on, but otherwise was bare-assed and face down on a rock. I had been warned that there was a nudist beach up these parts, and that it was, like most nudist beaches, populated by those who would best serve society by remaining nude on their own terms.

Now, I've in recent times more and more become a private nudist. Hippie-dippy thoughts about how we're more natural that way pervade in my thinking, and so I act on it, occasionally, when nobody's around. On the other hand, I was getting really tired of looking in the mirror and seeing a tan torso and paper white thighs. And just about nobody was around (there was some other dude in the water). And it was Sunday, so surely nobody else would show up. Right? So why not?

Anyway, things started out fine. I started off on my belly, resting up a little bit; it was a long hike, after all. Then, for fear of burning my back and other rear areas, I turned around. I pulled out my...book and started reading. I was in the middle of a very long chapter, and after reading and sweating for a little bit, I decided I'd try to finish the chapter, then go for a swim, then dry off, dress, and go home.

Things were fine, and with applications and reapplications of sun tan lotion, I felt fine. I was still working on Norwegian Wood, which has its spicier moments, but I managed to control myself well while reading.

As I was there, a guy walked by me. He had sunglasses and a backpack, and was dressed in a black t-shirt and black shorts. He walked by me from north to south, and then again from south to north. I paid him little mind, but what little mind I paid him told me that he had paid me more mind. But whatever, I wasn't going to worry about it, I was just doing my thing, nose in a book and nothing in anything else.

Then with about five pages left in my chapter, I looked up to find him asking me something in Hebrew. He was a tall guy with spiky black hair and sunglasses. He asked me whatever he asked me, and my first response, mumbled slightly, was to say "Я не гомик", or roughly translated, I'm not gay. Then, when I realized he didn't understand me, I said "anglit o russit." And in English, he asked me what time it was.

Satisfied with my response (it was 3:55), he sat down next to me. He was from Tel Aviv, worked in marketing, and really liked the water at this beach. And the fact that it was a nude beach. And he was really surprised so few people were there. "It's Sunday," I said.
"Yes, but it's August, everyone is on vacation," he responded.

Despite all this, I didn't completely freak out or figure him out. After all, there's that homoerotic but still heterosexual European and Middle Eastern quality of manhood that affords frank discussion and camaraderie without any sexual tones. For example, a judoist might offer to wrestle me in his boxer briefs, or two friends in Morocco might walk down the street hand in hand, or two Georgian men might kiss on the cheek when they greet each other. No problems there. Also, I didn't want to jump to conclusions. And I didn't want to be overly rude, and to tell the truth, he didn't bother me that much. In fact, mostly, he annoyed me because this was time alone for me to read and relax, and now I had to talk to someone.

But whatever. We talked a little bit, I finished my chapter, and then went in the water. And he joined me, leading the way, actually. Or rather, I kept him in front of me, for peace of mind.

The water where we were had plenty of rocks in it, so it was tricky walking to get to sand deep enough to submerge even the lower half of one's body. There was the added complication that I wanted to keep my distance from this guy, just in case he tried anything. He swam a little bit more vigorously and said a few times how nice the water was, but other than that, no particulars.

Still, I was uncomfortable with the whole thing, and after five unsatisfying minutes, I walked out. He followed me out, and we went to our respective backpacks. The difference was that he then came back over to mine, where he found me putting on my spandex.

"Oh, I thought you were staying," he said. "You don't do those things?"

"No," I answered. "It was nice meeting you, though." And I threw my beach towel and book into my backpack and walked away with a final wave. He exited stage right, I stage left, and that was it.

The old dude with the hat was still there, tanning. I meanwhile laughed to myself, trying to deal with how shook up I felt over the whole thing. A lesson lived, a lesson learned, I hope. Maybe tanning salons aren't so bad...


Stories from a city Saturday

Rather than go straight narration for my first day alone in Tel Aviv, here are three brief stories and many photos I garnered from my walking around.
A brief explanation beforehand: I live in Nof Yam, a small section of Herziliya Pituach, itself the seaside portion of the city Herziliya. On the whole, the city is a convenient adjunct to the Tel Aviv area, with beach access and a reasonable restaurant/night scene. It's no Tel Aviv, of course, but the city is 15-20 minutes away when there's no traffic, as was the case yesterday.
Ok, now the stories.

The Many Faceless

On Berkowitz St., right behind the art complex in Tel Aviv center (where the Museum, Performing Arts Center, and Opera House sit side by side), stand the faceless statues. A group of two, a group of three, and then one on his own, at the vertex of the sidewalk. The statues stand on plain brown metal pillars. Their faces are blank, their hands are in their pockets or behind their backs, and their clothes are drab. They don't suggest silence and conformity; they insist on it.
There are many ways to interpret what a set of art like this might mean. We are forever doomed to search for meaning, and the easiest one, considering the statues' location and their silence, is to say that these people stand for the faceless, nameless people who stayed silent during the Holocaust, allowing the Jews and the gays and the gypsies and everyone else to go straight to the camps, straight to their doom.
A person with a broader understanding of history might expand on this. This could just as easily be a symbol for all the privileged Western European Jews who shunned their provincial Eastern coreligionists in the early 20th century, during the pogroms. It could be a broader statement on our tendency to allow genocide to occur everywhere, from Darfur to Armenia. Those from a different political orientation might say it marks the Jews' mistreatment of the Palestinians since Israel has been established. The further complication that the statues stand near a Japanese and Swiss flag, among others, leads to more potentialities.

These are all fine suggestions, and perhaps one or more is correct. But I prefer to rise above the allegorical leanings of those possible explanations, and beyond the strict political interpretations.

As I see it, these faceless statues stand for all of us. They stand for all the times we have not taken a chance, have not followed through on an opportunity. The times we let love slip through our grasps because the situation wasn't quite right, the times we let a friendship go away because of a silly slip or a persistent pride, the times we misspoke or misunderstood and lost something that could have been preserved. The times we try to fit in because it's easier or because we're afraid, the times we allow someone else to suffer because that's easier then stepping in and supporting him.
Each time something like this happens, we lose our face. We lose who we are, we lose our essence. We become one of the masses, someone just like everybody else. Our hands are in our pockets because we don't know what to do with them. We wash our faces of the problem and watch as it passes us by, and then we say, "But what could I do?" and move on.

We're all faceless. Nobody can avoid losing their face in their lifetime. To be human is to be faceless.

And yet, as humans striving to be more, doomed to search for meaning, we seek to recover. We endlessly search for our faces, for our essence, for the I that I and only I can be. Not always are we aware of this search, and awareness doesn't really aid in the finding. And we'll never recover our face; not completely, not in this life. Still, we seek.
So these statues serve to remind us that we are all the same, all stripped of our essence by our own actions and failures. Still we stand there, hands in our pockets, wondering how to get it all back. And the world moves on.

My Sarona

Just south of Kaplan St., a major road in the center of Tel Aviv, sounds a peaceful song of dissonance. West of three skyscrapers that form the Azirelli Center, a commercial and business landmark along the Ayalon freeway, are three blocks of two story beige mud-brick houses. They are surrounded by green grass and trees in full summer glory, with open squares for couples to sit together in, or for young children to run about in. There are benches and tables to sit at, with maps of the city serving as the table designs.

A few signposts in English explain that this was once home of a winery or wine refinery, but otherwise whatever indications there are for the name of this region are in Hebrew. Fortunately, a look at the map explains that this is Hakirya, and a search on the internet eventually leads to a wikipedia article on Sarona. Once a settlement for Templers (who, per wikipedia, appear to be Christians who don't believe Christ was the son of God but just a really good guy), the area was preserved even after the Templers were kicked out around WWII and Israeli independence; apparently the Templers, founded in Germany, had ties to the Third Reich. Positive ties.

In the eternal irony of history, that settlement now offers an oasis within the largest and most modern city in the only Jewish nation (Brooklyn has yet to declare its independence, as far as I know). Everywhere in Tel Aviv there are exciting juxtapositions between cold, intimidating modernity and comforting, outdated history. Hakirya can envelop the visitor so that he forgets that there is a big road meters away, or that the skyline surrounding is full of towers. When walking in it, it's unclear whether the area is an Arab village, a college student enclave, or just a general area of escape. Its serenity and beauty shines, however, by remaining simple and calling back to all the things that are lost or soon will be lost. It's the sort of place all the best cities need, and Tel Aviv has it in abundance.

A City of Mélanges

One of the new teachers in our school, who is married to an Israeli and has been here before, made the point that in Israel, you see more variety in car brands. Along with Honda, the occasional Ford, and Toyota, you get Peugeot, Fiat, Citron, Smart Cars, and a bunch of others I can't recall. (He also made the point that all his friends who visit him here, male or female, ask about how Israeli women's breast sizes are so large. Also an interesting observation.)

Similarly, walking in Tel Aviv will lead you to a bunch of different languages. Hebrew and Arabic, Russian and English, sure, of course. I also stumbled across a French language shul off of Trumpeldor St. Mishkin's Place, a Russian restaurant on Ben Yehuda, had the menu written in English and Russian, but then said they spoke Spanish and French there. Italian signs popped up. The grocery store sold things in Ukranian. Cafes boasting Yemenite, Ethiopian, or Libyan cuisine are not uncommon. Even within languages there were a variety; I heard all sorts of different English accents, for example. And not to return to it too much, but the one book I've read that brings up Tel Aviv in the action is The Savage Detectives, a book written by a Chilean, where the action in Tel Aviv revolves around Mexicans and Mexican Jews.

Take my dining experience last night as an example. I wanted to make it all the way to Neve Tzedek, hearing that they would have some artsy cafes open even on Shabbat. I thought I might be able to avoid eating a major dinner. My stomach asserted otherwise, and still a little north of the district, I decided I would eat soon.
After some dithering on Ben Yehuda, as I pondered walking to my car to make sure blue and white curbs did indeed mean free, tow-safe parking, I decided to turn back south towards Neve Tzedek. And then after doubling back through a dilapidated housing complex, I stopped at a restaurant that boasted of a "True Eastern Cuisine", in Russian, while displaying the menu in English.
A man of dark skin sat at an outside table, alone. I walked inside and said, "Shalom" to the man behind the counter, also of olive color with a neat gray haircut. "Yes, please," he said. "Filafel," I said.
He went to work and prepared the pita for me, asking me whether I wanted this or that ingredient to be included. His family - a mother with two girls - sat at a table on the raised dining area to my right, and the younger girl kept coming to him, saying "Abba, abba". He made my pita, fielded her questions, and kept an eye on the TV, where the Jamaican 100-meter Olympic Champ wrapped himself up in a Jamaican flag.
I returned outside and saw a girl about my age sitting with the man at their table. She was American, judging by her accent in English, and chatting up the man while smoking a cigarette. They were strangers to each other, I think, and she the initiator for their conversation. I took notes on my day in my notebook as I ate, also glancing over at them occasionally. Meanwhile I watched Mishkin's Place across the street from us, wondering if the old couple and the waitress who served them were actually Russian, like they looked, or if I just thought that based on the circumstances.
Once finished with my fine falafel, I went inside to put my dishes away. I had already asked the restaurant owner where Neve Tzedek was - to our south, as I thought - and I thanked him on my way out.
The girl, noticing my English, perhaps decided I would be a better conversational partner. "I like your shirt," she said of my notorious designer, skeleton design white T. "Thank you," I said without missing a beat, perhaps coldly in turning away her conversational parry, as I headed south.

On the way to Neve Tzedek I found the Russian Embassy, or so I believe, which explains the slightly higher frequency of Russian signs on Ben Yehuda. From there I walked about 15 minutes to get into the Neve Tzedek region, at which point I settled on the closest, most advertised cafe I could find.
Unclear on whether it was a cafe or a restaurant, and how to order, I went inside to the bar. There, a girl my age in light brown dreadlocks gave me an English menu. She spoke good, British-accented English, though she spoke Hebrew as well, leading me to believe she was Israeli. She gave me the menu, I ordered tea and a Fanta, and once she confirmed I wanted it for here and not takeaway, she sent me to a table.

I sat at a table outside and took a few more notes. A waitress brought me a glass of hot water, a glass with ice in it, a 350 ml glass bottle of orange Fanta, and a tray with various tea options. I took a Japanese green and let it soak, and I finished my notes.
Next to me were two guys in their early 30s comparing arm tattoos. They spoke in English, but both were clearly not native speakers, and at times they would elide into another language, which I didn't hear too well but I would guess was Hebrew. It reminded me of Friday night on the beach in Herziliya with teachers, where one of them spoke with a girl who offered us free massages (working for tips) in a mix of Hebrew and English, easily flitting back and forth between the two.
I pulled out my book, Murakami's Norwegian Wood, and immersed myself in his Tokyo and careless sex. At the same time, the guys continued on the debate of forearm versus biceps,
and a couple sat at another table (later that night, in Herziliya with other teachers, I found out from our waitress that yesterday was a "love holiday", akin to Valentine's Day). I couldn't hear what they spoke in, but very little would have surprised me.

A Few Stray Cats
Tel Aviv, or maybe broader Israel, is known for having a lot of stray cats around. Here were a few I saw.

The first one, outside the tranquil and most righteously named Dan Family Park, near the art complex.

This one thought he could hide from me. Not from my lens, at least. Also, note the wheel of the car at the right of the picture.

You noted the wheel, right? Good. That's the car this cat is under.

This cat was actually afraid of my lens, and quick enough to hide from it. So, another faceless creature with which to end the post.


What do you mean, we're not moving and it has to do with Russia?

Last night I joined a few other teachers to celebrate someone's birthday. They got me at 7 or so, and in a two car caravan we drove to Neve Tzedek, a hip artsy neighborhood in Tel Aviv. We had left late and anticipated Thursday night traffic, and so were nervous about the 12-person reservation at the restaurant. Still, we figured the 20 minutes of typical driving would maybe double.
Well it took us 20 minutes...to get through a set of lights on the border of the city. And another 20 minutes or so before that. And a few more sets of 20. In sum, it took us an hour and a half. (Don't check my math, since it's only implied and math tutoring starts Monday).
That's all well and good, but there was an unusual disturbance: as we drove down the beach road in Tel Aviv, deciding that would be the most direct route to Neve Tzedek (and scenic, taking us by the Old port area that is newly revitalized, and near Jaffa, the original settlement in the area), we continued to drag ass. Not our fault, of course, as there were hordes of cars dragging ass in front of us. Well, maybe partly our fault, because our driver, the kindly Kevin, would allow cars from side streets to go in front of us, a grand gesture completely foreign to Israeli driving mores, where you as soon let a guy go in front of you as you slow down entering a roundabout, or never. But the few cars we let go in front of us slowed us down minimally, so really, it wasn't our fault.
As we neared the U.S. Embassy, situated across from the beach and next to Mike's Place, an American sports bar, we saw a bunch of people on the side of the road. They were making noise and carrying signs and flags, the flags white with a red cross, and then four smaller crosses in the corners. As the people passed by us and we by the people, we started reading the signs.
In English, Russian, and Georgian, they were signs protesting the war. Specifically, they were Georgians (or Georgian Jews, I suppose, or even Georgian Israelis) demanding that the Russians leave, that the Americans intervene, that Medvedev become president (alluding to the likelihood that Putin is still behind everything), and that we acknowledge that Putin=Hitler (or Gitler; Russian and probably Georgian turn H sounds to G). Of course, listening to the radio station Reka ("The River", a Russian station in Israel), I heard that the same comparisons were being made in Moscow, about Saakshivilii. Seems to me that, using the ol' transitivity rule, that Saakshivilii=Putin, and that we might be dealing with a huge case of schizophrenia, and somebody get Borges on the phone.

On a serious tangent, this war is atrocious if not surprising. I am no better informed than anybody about this (Friday night, when my internet was still balky about certain websites, I got a gchat request from a friend for perspective on the war between Russia and Georgia. "Oh, there's a war now?" I said). I harbor distrust for both governments involved, as well as for the U.S. administration as they heavyhandedly try to make their impact. Also, the behavior here from Russia and the U.S. over the general principle is somewhat contrary to their stances over Kosovo (in that case the U.S. supported the autonomy of a breakaway ethnicity, Russia opposed; here it's the reverse, roughly speaking), suggesting that realpolitik > principles.
I have talked to someone in Moscow who, when not disgusted with politics and people in general, reports great anger at Saakshivilii, and the U.S. for supporting him, which suggests that Russia is getting one side of the story. Seeing that Condoleeza Rice isn't meeting with Russia and that McCain is making bold remarks about Georgia on his mind suggests that another side is playing there. Israel holds an interesting place in this as many immigrants here are from Russia and Georgia. For example, when talking about the Israeli wrestling team, people often point out that they're all Georgians or Russians.
Which brings me to the other personal touch I have with this. When I wrestled at CSKA, I became friendly with a few Ossetians, both South and North I believe, and some Georgians. I remember an owl-eyed kid named Bekah, who left because he had to serve in the Georgian army, and Ossetski Lev, a wide-grinning fellow whose full name was Ludwig. There was a Muslim kid from Georgia who insisted he wasn't Georgian. That area, the Caucauses, is a mix of a ton of nationalities (and a pair of religions: Islam and Russian Orthodox), and at times their differences erupt - Dagestan isn't the safest place, Chechnya had its war day, etc.
As was pointed out to me in a lecture by an American professor at Tel Aviv University when talking about the Middle East, the decline of empires and rise of self-rule makes it difficult to assess who deserves rule, and everybody wants a piece. That is to say, during the Soviet Union, Georgia and Ossetia and all these other nations and nationalities were subsumed in part of the larger country. They were equal in their misery, so to speak. Now, with unclear national boundaries and the supposed freedom to choose where they stand, these countries and peoples are obviously struggling. So while I don't have enough knowledge or facts on this situation, and I think that both sides are in the wrong here and assessments are hard to make, the war is inevitable. And inevitably crappy.

Just like Tel Aviv traffic, which finally receded after we passed the protest. We finally made it to the restaurant, where our table was still reserved, and had a jolly evening. Though the puff pastry stuffed with liver, onions, and pear sauce was a bad choice. Seriously, I blame the pear sauce.

The traffic's abatement was temporary, however: the ride home took about 40 minutes. That, at least, was the double time period.

So the nature of traffic is pretty bad here, though of course it's pretty bad in New York, or Sao Paolo, or Moscow. What about inevitable things particular to Israel?

Everybody wonders about whether it's safe here. "Don't get blown up" I heard not a few times, or "Don't blow us up!" which was a bit of a confused sentiment. The news says bad things happen all the time, that ceasefires are temporary, illusory agreements, and that the whole country is in danger.
Which it is, probably, to some degree. But day to day life is pretty safe, beyond the threat of Israeli drivers. Arab minorities and Jewish majorities live together in peace, from what I've noticed to date, and the existential threat felt on the geopolitical level doesn't really enter into your thoughts. Especially when lounging on the beach is involved.

There are a couple notable exceptions, though. Security becomes a natural part of life, to a higher degree than it would be in the U.S. or Europe.

When we drive to school, we have to pass through a gate to enter and to leave. A security sticker affixed to our car allows us in. Nothing too fancy, but an added check.

There's a different check when you go to park at the mall. As you descend into the underground parking lot, a queue forms at the entrance. One car at a time enters the parking lot, after a security guard gives the ok. The guard gives the ok only after checking your trunk to "make sure" nothing fishy is going on. I'm told there's very little that they do to check, just a quick eyeball. Also, sometimes they'll ask you if you're carrying a gun on you. Your word is bond there, unless you're visibly packing.

Related to these security concerns is the national predilection to overreact. For example, in between Herziliya Pituach (the beach part of the city Herziliya that I more or less live in) and Herziliya proper is a set of train tracks. Since I have consciously tried to go into Herziliya, starting last weekend on foot, I have not once crossed these train tracks without having to stop and wait for a train to go by.

A high frequency of trains going through Herziliya? Maybe. But more significant is that the gates come down at least a full 90 seconds before the train is in sight. Apparently, once in recent times a car waiting for the train to pass got rear ended straight onto the tracks, and those in the car were subsequently killed by the oncoming train. So now, the 90 seconds of wait time is a mandatory facet, with an attendant who sits in a booth with a cell phone, ready to call the train if there's any sort of problem. And once the train at last passes, they raise the gates and the traffic flushes through the tracks.

This same sort of reactionary philosophy (and really, with a country full of Jewish parents, what would you expect?) is apparently why they're so restrictive about swimming space these days at the beach; a few weeks ago, a couple people drowned due to storms deep in the Mediterranean or something. So now we get to know our neighbors and their tighty-whitey "swim suits" a little too well. (As an addendum, I was told yesterday that there are people who water the grass in their tighty-whiteys around here, or even ride a bike around. Mmm.)

Today is Friday, which is of course the start of the Shabbat, at sundown. In Israel, it's the weekend. A little inconvenient when we work on an American work week, except that Sunday, a work day in this country, is a free day for us. Empty beach, public transportation, and I assume less crowded streets in Tel Aviv.
So, this is my weekend to explore Tel Aviv. Pictures, stories, and amusement will be here soon, I hope. Oh, and school starts Monday. Hmm...

But before you go, some pictures from the beach I live five minutes from! Yeah.

The old mosque next to our beach, known as Sidnya Ali. Once a place where the Phoenician raiders would store their loot. History is everywhere here, eh?

Walking down to the sunset and the water. It was very nice to swim at this time. What else would it be?

No questions, no words.


Initial Impressions In Irreverent Israeli Indents

So if you'll recall the post "This Place Kinda Souks...", you'll see that I already established the freedom on my blog to talk about places and experiences outside of Europe. You will further find on the heading above these words a change in Blog title. It was necessary, and it was time.

Having spent about 5 and a half days in Israel, I've already come up on a batch of things to do and tales to tell. Mainly, they're related to these foreign concepts of "having a job" and "working with others." Foreign for me, that is, and probably familiar to you. So while I may marvel at waking up to an alarm clock set before 9 in the morning, or talking with more than five different people over the span of a day, you won't find it so interesting.

Instead, I'll talk about Hebrew, by way of French. You see, the first time I went to Montreal was in the fall of '05. I was fresh off the first excitement of traveling from that summer in Eastern Europe, and the prospects of exploring thrilled me. I got in my recently purchased Honda Civic and drove the 4+ hours across the border and into Quebec.

All was well and good, except that I failed to appreciate the fact that the official language in Montreal and Quebec isn't English. Of course, I knew French was the official language. I just didn't think about what that meant: that all the signs would be in French, and that most of the people would speak French. Most spoke English too, but somehow that didn't matter. I went into shell shock, called home with fear in my voice, and only calmed down when I met somebody in a sports bar who had at some point wrestled at Duke. And I still left the city Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon.

While everyone, or almost everyone, speaks English in Israel, they do it as a second language. In fact, in English and Russian I have the #2 and #4 languages covered in the country (with Arabic a co #2), and so I shouldn't have any trouble with language barriers. In theory.

In practice, many signs and reading materials are only in Hebrew, a language I can sort of guess at from 8 years of Hebrew school; by guess at, I mean I know the letters but am hamstrung by the lack of vowel signs that we used in my youth, so if I know how a word sounds already, I can "read" it. Not much help.

Also, people speak Hebrew first, which leads to the always mildly humiliating even if completely understandable moment when you have to ask if they speak English. I have learned how to say I don't speak Hebrew, though I can only write it in transliterated English: Ani lo medeber ivrit. This helps, but only a little.

Then there's my cell phone, a nice piece of work that completely befuddled me for a day and a half with its eternal Hebrew-language options, until I finally compared with another new teacher's phone, already switched into English, to take care of the change. Which still left a Hebrew-language display of whatever network I'm on. And if I try to make certain phone calls, I get Hebrew on the other end telling me that this won't do. I think. And I'm not sure what company my cell phone is with, or what everything costs, and so on.

But enough of that. In the week I've been here, I've also encountered Tel Aviv (well, not really, but it's close by); Jerusalem (great for the 4+ hours we were there, except for the commodified Western Wall, but I'll save those thoughts for a future Jerusalem visit/post); work; and the weather - very nice though not any hotter than a hot Boston summer day. The difference is that there's no variation or thunderstorms; it's 90 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny every day, at least so far. I was hoping it'd be miserably hot, if just because that portends for a nicer October. But we'll see.

The coolest, most worthwhile thing I've encountered so far? The beach. And so, without further ado...

Down on the Beach
To get to the beach, I exit my 3rd floor apartment, walk down the stairs, and turn left. Immediately, I hit the main beach road, Golda Meir St. I walk about 20 meters and turn right on Yigal Yadin, the street that runs to the beach. It's a small asphalt road, leading to a parking lot and the Mediterranean. There's a slight uphill and right hand turn at the end of the street, and while the steady stash of crashing waves is audible as you walk, there is almost no sea to see. The most impressive visual feature on the approach is an old, unused mosque that overlooks the landscape.
Then you get over the crest and go down to the sea, and well...

Mind you I haven't taken my camera to the beach yet. Once I do, this picture will be much better. Yeah.

On the left is a tall, sandy brown bluff, the sort of overlook that would serve as a great setting for a movie finale, where the two antagonists throw down, until one crashes to the beach below. On the right the mosque's tower is still visible as I descend. The sea is now visible, the mighty Mediterranean.
The beach itself is small, with no more than twenty meters space from the edge of the sand to the water. There are five gazebos in a line at our beach, providing shade for those who foolishly decide a year or two increase in life span is worth more than a nice tan. A lifeguard's tower aspires to the bluffs on the right, though it comes nowhere close to their height or majesty.
So looking out at the sea is rightfully beautiful, but so is looking away from it. Those cliffs reveal layers of sand and stone, like something out of a Magic School Bus book, teaching about sedimentary rocks. There is the mosque, there are large buildings further to the south, and a little bit to the north there's some sort of housing structure built into the cliff. Add in sunny skies with littered clouds and a few assorted hang gliders, and it's all something to see.

There are a few intriguing differences about the beach here, compared to other beaches I've been to. First of all, a few judgments based on two hours or so: this is the closest I've ever lived to a beach, and this is the best beach I've ever been to. I'm not a typical beachgoer, but this was really pleasant. The water, for example, is clear and warm, so that there's no need to plunge in and adjust to the temperature. I waded out to the strong waves (there were many surfers out there today) and soaked in the splashes with nary a shudder. Actually, there were some whistle-induced flinches, but I'll get to that.

Also, while everybody says this, it bears repeating that this is indeed the land of milk and honey. That is; the people here are beautiful. Yes, I include the males; though I'm not checking them out particularly, they strike me as handsome dudes. Or almost as handsome as me, anyway.

Israelis, we were warned, tend to be more permissive about standards for acceptable clothing. Actually, there wasn't anything crazy from most of the guys there, dressed in long bathing shorts, and the women were in bathing suits, same as anywhere. But whether from European or Russian influences, there were a few men, mostly middle-aged or up, in thongs and the like. One old guy was in just tightie-whiteys, which became quite transparent as he bathed. Mmm.

Needless to say, when in Rome, so I hiked my spandex up just a little bit. Mmm.

The way the beach and swimming works is also a little strange. For one, the already limited beach space is restricted by barbed wire fences a few meters away from the cliffs. "Danger, Landslide" read one of the two types of signs posted along the beach. The other one says "No Swimming Allowed". Whether due to fear of undertows, crazy tides, or jellyfish, the authorities rule out much of the coastline around our beach from swimming. Black flags are posted periodically along the shore, marking not the band or anarchy but no swim zones. Each beach I stopped at today (that is, two of them) had an area marked out by red flags where one could swim. And black flags stretching farther out were the absolute boundaries.

To enforce these rules, the lifeguards blew whistles. Once their subjects' attention was earned, the lifeguards would gesture. If necessary, they'd get on the speaker system and announce their concerns. Since I don't really get the rules yet, and can't understand Hebrew, I was frightened every time I heard the whistle blow, until finally I realized they weren't going to arrest me for walking along the surf. I think.

So those were the limits to the beach trip. Considering the cleanliness, warmth, and company that the beach provided, those limits are trivial. And maybe if I sneak over there at night, the limits and company will be gone, and I'll be free to frolic in the sand and surf as I please. Which is to say, if I ever become a full-fledged nudist, Israel will have played its part. And on that note, I'm signing off.

I plan to post frequently if not regularly. And I am now experimenting with posting these "notes" on facebook. Ugh, I know, but I like readers, or the potential of having readers. So welcome!