Archive for October 2009

Halloween on Rothschild Street

October 31, 2009 - 1:06 pm No Comments

This Is It

Eli, Elior’s boyfriend, picked me up at my hotel. Apparently, I am the first one to ever think that Eli might be a short version of Elior. After getting in the car, I teased Eli about his parking job (his car was parked at a 45-degree angle with half of it on the sidewalk) and driving. He told me that I should see him drive when he is angry.

At Elior’s place, I had the pleasure of meeting their VERY affectionate cat and their 7-week-old baby, Adam. Just before dinner, I got to watch them give Adam his fist bottle.

Elior served a wonderful selection of traditional Israeli dishes, including a tasty beetroot soup with rice and some kind of meat in it. Elior and Eli were very warm and hospitable, and a big thanks goes out to them for welcoming me to Tel Aviv.

After dinner, Eli took me out to show me some Tel Aviv nightlife, first to Florentin and then to Rothschild Street. I don’t know how many bars we went to or how many Bacardi colas I had, but it was a lot.

A Bar in Tel Aviv

Halloween doesn’t exist in Israel. At its roots, Halloween is a religiously motivated holiday, and a non-Jewish one at that, so while the locals know of our generally non-religious and playful traditions, they don’t partake. Nonetheless, there was at least one bar on Rothschild Street with black and orange balloons and a plastic Jack O’Lantern by the front door.

Furthermore, the traditional Christian work week as it exists back home (Monday through Friday) does not exist here, either. The Jewish Shabbat occurs on Friday and Saturday, so the Israeli work week is Sunday through Thursday. It never occurred to me how much daily life back home has Christian roots.

After Eli dropped me off at my hotel, I went into about ten more bars along Allenby Street. Almost every bar has no smoking signs, and in almost every bar people are smoking.

In a lot of ways, the bars here really aren’t that much different from the bars at home. Techno and classic rock is mixed in with the occasional Hebrew classic. Some bars have neon signs outside, some have lasers inside. And a good number of the bartenders, waitresses, and bouncers seem to be American.

At 4am, the guy:girl ratio in the bars and clubs was approaching infinity and I decided to go to bed. The street was still raging. Tel Aviv is a city that never sleeps.

Just woke up now, feeling surprisingly good but predictably unmotivated. I’m about to head out to the Tel Aviv Seaport with a couple of local friends I’ve made.

The Rainy Drive to Tel Aviv

October 30, 2009 - 6:19 pm No Comments

Yad Vashem was, as expected, a pretty emotional place. Like the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, the architecture and layout is very effective. They close early on Fridays, so we were kicked out before we got to see the whole thing, but what we saw was worth the visit.

Yad Vashem

Marion & Dad at Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

By the time we hit the road for Tel Aviv, it was pouring down rain. I slept most of the way.

Funky Condo

Fluffy Rain Clouds

Woke up just in time to take an abbreviated tour of Jaffa, a historic port just south of the city. From Jaffa, I caught my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, with huge rain clouds hovering over it.

Furniture Lift on a Truck

Ami, the Lift Operator

Elior, Garry and Sarah’s daughter who lives in Tel Aviv, was kind enough to reserve for me a hotel room in the city center, just a couple of blocks from the beach. I just got dropped off, and now I’m on my own for the weekend. My room at the Sun City Hotel is tiny and motel-like, but it’s just fine for a quick weekend visit.

Sun City Hotel

Elior has kindly offered to pick me up, get me dinner, and take me out with some of her friends tonight. Tel Aviv has a reputation of being a party town, so I’m pretty excited. 🙂

With this rainy weather, I’m not sure how much beach time I’ll actually get. It will be a shame if I don’t get to rock my sweet new gray shorts. If I manage to get out of bed tomorrow, I’ll do a little exploring in and around Tel Aviv on my own.

Ben Dover and a Stroll Through Meah Shearim

October 30, 2009 - 9:48 am No Comments

There is a fucking mosquito in my hotel room. It got me the first night and then patiently waited all day and mounted another attack the next night. Is there anything more annoying than being uncomfortably warm because you are under the covers trying to avoid a mosquito? Or even worse, capturing the mosquito under the covers with you? That’s probably paradise for them. Warm and humid, with a human body they can feast on all night long. It’s like spending the night locked inside a Ruth’s Chris Steak House with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Our first stop was the Ben Dover street sign. I had noticed it the day before and actually spent a few minutes searching on Google to see what kind of historical figure Ben Dover was in Israel. Not finding anything, I wanted to return for a closer look. Turns out someone got a little creative (and funny) with a marker.

Ben Dover

Then back into the Old City. Whereas we saw the Jewish and Armenian Quarters the day before, we walked through the Christian and Muslim Quarters yesterday. Our first stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holiest places. It’s an enormous building filled with enough incense to gag a non-Christian, built up over Golgotha, the rocky mount where Jesus was (supposedly) crucified and his body prepared for burial.

The Rock of Calvary

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Stairs to the Chapel of St. Helena

Absolutely no security checks going into that place, which I couldn’t believe. What’s to stop someone from going in there with weapons or bombs? Come to think of it, it’s only the Jewish buildings and religious sites with security at the entrances. Is it only the Jewish locations that are targets?

From there, we took a short walk through the Muslim Quarter, passing five guys smoking a hookah and two guys with guns, all of whom didn’t want me to take their pictures. Marion and I really wanted to get up onto the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock, a beautiful-looking building and one of Islam’s holiest places. Unfortunately, access to the Temple Mount was very limited, and we couldn’t get up there. Shame.

Kids in the Old City

Men Playing Backgammon

Later in the afternoon, we headed to the Israel Museum for a look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls themselves were not particularly fascinating to me, but the enormous scale model of old Jerusalem in the courtyard was pretty cool.

As the sun was going down, we took a short drive over to Meah Shearim, a run-down neighborhood filled with Orthodox Jews. The streets swarmed with men in black suits and top hats, conservatively dressed women, and kids on bicycles. Sarah, Garry’s wife, encouraged me to take photos of them, but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. I got the impression that most of them didn’t want their pictures taken.

Alley in Meah Shearim

Man Selling Books in Meah Shearim

Bakery in Meah Shearim

For dinner, we stopped a little restaurant called the Restobar Café. As expected, a guard out front inspected our bags and cameras. After taking our seats and ordering our food, Sarah mentioned to me that a few years ago, a suicide bomber attacked the restaurant, killing eight people. Felt kinda weird to be there after that comment.

Restobar Cafe

I got back to the hotel last night completely exhausted and crashed early.

Little House in Bakah

Woke up early this morning feeling like $800,000. Would have been an even million if not for the fucking mosquito bites all over my legs. Just had another traditional Israeli breakfast of scrambled eggs and Cookie Crisp.

Today, we’re going to visit Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum. Later this afternoon, I’ll be dropped off in Tel Aviv for a weekend of fun by myself. 🙂

Modest Tombs, Stray Cats, and Green Lights

October 29, 2009 - 2:46 am No Comments

A pretty full day today with perfect weather. Warm and sunny and dry.

Garry picked us up in the morning and took us to a mall to run some errands. Before driving into the parking garage, security guards gave the car a quick once-over and asked us to open the trunk to take a look, but it was hardly a secure check. After parking, we had to walk through another guard at a metal detector before going into the mall. Most of these guards seem untrained and look bored, and I am beginning to think that they provide the ILLUSION of security more than anything else.

From there, we went into the Old City to see ancient Jerusalem. Driving in was a nightmare, with impatient drivers making undersized and overcrowded roads even more stressful than they already are. And parking was even worse. Took a little while, but we finally found a spot. I was surprised at how little security there was as we walked inside.

Leading us along enormous rock walls and down the stone walkways, Garry pointed out some of the structures of historical significance. Kind of weird to be walking around a place so ancient. The Old City, and Jerusalem as a whole, really is a mix of Jew and Arab holy sites, people, and architecture. Most of the impressive architecture, it seems, can be attributed to the Arabs.

Inside the Old City

Many of the walls and gates have been damaged by centuries of warfare. Strange to see some of the outward-facing walls of the Old City pocked with bullet holes.

Our first stop was King David’s Tomb. Surprisingly modest for such an important historical figure in Judaism, but then again, most things in Judaism are surprisingly modest. According to Garry, it’s not where he’s really buried anyway.

King David's Tomb

Before getting to the Western Wall, we passed through a metal detector and handed our bags to guards who did pretty much nothing but wave us through. A pretty plain sight but a place with lots of historical and religious significance.

At the Western Wall

Some gross kosher shawarma for lunch.

Tourism in the Old City was about what I expected. Up and down a few of the alleyways, locals panned their pomegranates and spices and t-shirts and trinkets, but nothing too obnoxious.

There are some international tourists walking around, but not too many. They seem to be mostly older and quiet and respectful. Not many kids. Also walking around were young guys and girls in uniforms of various colors and big guns hanging from their shoulders. I guess that would be a deterrent for troublemakers. Stray cats everywhere.

Guys with Guns

Walking back to our car, I spotted a sign pointing to Oskar Schindler’s grave inside a Catholic cemetery. Excited, I hurried down the steps and got in just as the guy was getting up to lock the gate. He told me I had only five minutes, so I ran up and down rows of gravestones and sarcophagi before finally finding it. A modest rock slab covered with flowers and little rocks left by visitors as a sign of respect. I placed a little pebble of my own onto it. Pretty cool.

Oskar Schindler's Grave

Driving out of the Old City, we stopped at several traffic lights. After a few lights, we noticed a pattern. Israeli drivers behind us would honk the INSTANT the light turned green. Instead of hesitating for a moment to see if we would in fact be slow off the line, they’d hit their horns immediately. It is really quite amazing, almost as if the lights and their horns are synchronized.

Another quick shopping trip. Again, the car was inspected before the parking garage, and again, we walked through a metal detector. Found a sweet gray pair of shorts for 79 shekels (US$20). The XXL size was the only one that came close to fitting me. Are Israeli people small, or do I have a big ass?

Meandered around the mall for a bit. There are some familiar brand names in English (like Burger King and Office Depot and Ralph Lauren), but most of the stores have Hebrew signage. And most are staffed with young kids who speak mostly Hebrew. At one point, a girl who was serving coffee started talking to me in Hebrew. I didn’t understand, but I could tell by her stance and arm motions that I was not supposed to be sitting where I was sitting. Another was icing donuts and tried starting a conversation with me in Hebrew, but the conversation obviously didn’t last very long. I just took a picture of her donuts and smiled. Do I really look like a local? With the lost look on my face and the big-ass camera (and the big ass)?

Had dinner at a place called Karma. A guard out front inspected our bags and purses (not really) before we could go inside. Had some yummy salmon fettuccine. There’s actually a service fee on the bill for the guards (2 shekels, or about 50 US cents, per person), but apparently it’s optional. More stray cats.

So far, Jerusalem’s pretty close to what I expected. Every building is made of stone, whether it’s an apartment block or a restaurant or a shopping mall. Some of the stone is beige, some is brown, some is pink. Some is cut rough, some is cut smooth. The roads around Jerusalem, even the big, busy ones, meander up and down and around hills. It’s so easy to get turned around. All kinds of people: tall, short, fat, skinny. And lots of skin colors: white, black, and everything in-between. I’m actually surprised at the number of Africans here, both as residents and as tourists. I didn’t think Jerusalem was much of an attraction to them. Most of the people I’ve talked to seem friendly. And lots of stray cats.

And as far as the girls go… Yes, there are some attractive ones. The most appealing thing about them is that they don’t KNOW they are attractive. At home, if they are even mediocre, there is a whole attitude that comes along with it. Girls outside of the US are way cool in this regard.

More Jerusalem sights tomorrow.

Our Hotel in Jerusalem

October 27, 2009 - 7:00 pm No Comments

First Glimpse of Israel

We descended through a haze and touched down in Tel Aviv. The perfect landing was met with a round of applause from the Israeli passengers.

We got our passports stamped, gathered our bags, and met up with cousin Garry in the terminal. After picking up our rental car, we were off to Jerusalem, a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv. We pulled up to Little House in Bakah, the hotel where we had a reservation. Our room is like a little two bedroom apartment with wifi. Pretty nice place.

We set out with Garry and his wife to dinner and a quick nighttime tour of Jerusalem. Didn’t see all that much since we are all pretty tired.

Moses Montefiore Windmill

Tomorrow, the serious sightseeing begins.

Final Approach to Tel Aviv

October 27, 2009 - 8:40 am 3 Comments

Woke up and cracked the window shade to see the coastline of Greece through a break in the clouds. I’ll get there someday. Cracking the window shade filled the dark cabin with blazing sunshine, and it occurred to me that they ask us to close them so that people can sleep better after the sun comes up.

Our Flight Path into Tel Aviv

There are special procedures flying into Tel Aviv. We have been instructed to stay in our seats with our seat belts fastened 45 minutes before landing, and a video just explained exactly what do in Ben Gurion (the first Prime Minister of Israel) Airport after we land. If security is such a big deal, why are dinner and brunch served with metal knives? I don’t get it.

To Israel!

October 26, 2009 - 6:15 pm 2 Comments

The busiest travel year of my life continues… I’m on my way to Israel! And this time, my travel partners are my Dad and Marion, my stepmother.

Israel is on my shrinking list of places I need to see in my lifetime. Italy, Greece, Spain, Czech Republic, and Iceland remain on the list. Sure, there are other places in the world I’d like to go, but those are just gravy.

I’ve been wanting to go to Israel for a while, but it’s not the kind of place that my friends are interested in. They generally prefer resort-ish, party-ish kinds of places to spiritual hotbeds prone to missile attacks. After telling them I was going to Israel, I got lots of awkward pauses and lots of “be careful” comments. So I kept putting it off, jumping at the chance to go when my Dad said he was considering a trip to Israel a few months ago.

I’ve never really traveled with my Dad and Marion before, so it should be interesting. I don’t think this trip is going to be the kind of breakneck, squeeze-as-much-as-I-can-into-every-day kind of trip that I’m used to. They’re a bit older and chilled out, so I’m thinking our pace might be a bit more leisurely. Which is fine with me. I just got back from a week-long trip to Chicago, and I’m pretty worn out myself.

As is always the case with big trips of mine, I spent the last couple of days cramming in as much as I could. Tying up loose ends, running to the bank and post office, catching up on my freelance work and e-mail, cleaning my room, doing laundry. Packing is always done at the very last minute. Not very smart, but that’s just how it works out. I did pretty well this time, only forgetting to pack only shorts and a swimsuit. I’ll have to pick up a sweet pair of shorts in Israel.

So what do I expect Israel to be like? I like doing this little exercise before I go to a foreign country so that I can look back on it later and see how much of an uncultured idiot I was. It also makes me aware of cultural biases or stereotypes I have come to accept by living in the US for most of my life. Yes, I blame the US for some of my international ignorance.

I expect Israel to be filled with lots of older religious people and a rebellious younger generation who fully supports their national identity but are slowly breaking away from tradition. Based on my own experiences with Israelis, I expect people to be mostly friendly but loud and a little pushy. Their “no bullshit” attitude borders on the aggressive. By all accounts, the women over there are beautiful. I will verify this.

I expect the cities to be moderately sized, with lots of old school 70’s-style architecture surrounding old city ruins, and I expect the religious attractions to be exploited by tourism, perhaps a bit more tastefully than non-religious attractions might be exploited. I imagine that, like most other countries open to tourism, English will be everywhere. I think security will be tight enough everywhere that safety shouldn’t be much of a concern.

Dad has helped with some of the research, booking our first few nights at a hotel in Jerusalem and some of the local tours. We have a provisional itinerary that includes Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada, Petra, Wadi Rum, and even a few days in Tel Aviv by myself. We’ll fill out all the details once we get settled.

I will be keeping a blog, which will be an interesting process this time because my Dad is one of my most loyal readers.

I met up with my Dad and Marion at the gate in Newark airport. Waiting at the gate were, predictably, lots of Jews, including lots of Hasidim and a group davening at nearby gate C127.

There was extra security at the Continental gate, with makeshift walls and barriers put up on either side. Before letting people into the boarding area, they double-checked boarding passes, gave you a quick frisk, and rifled through your bag. According to my Dad, the security procedures at the gate were “a complete joke.”

At the Gate in Newark

After some announcements in English and Hebrew, they began to board the plane. A medium-scale clusterfuck. The lady on the PA asks First Class passengers to board, requesting that everyone else remain seated until their row numbers are called. Most comply. But then she asks for those seated in rows 40-45 to board, and half of the people seated at the gate stand up and crowd around the boarding queue. Of course, this means that the people who really are seated in rows 40-45 have to push through to get in line. And it’s not really a line, either. It’s a bottleneck, with people weaseling their way in just so that they can get on board before you do.

Which is another thing I don’t understand. Why is everyone always in such a hurry to board? I mean, the plane will take off at the same time whether they get on first or last. And if it’s an overseas flight and they’re gonna be sitting on their asses for hours on end, why rush to get into that cramped seat? Personally, I’d rather hop around the gate for as long as possible before I have to board just so that I can MINIMIZE the amount of time I’ll be constrained in my airplane seat.

My Dad and Marion are sitting up in First Class, while I am sitting towards the back in Last Class. Boarding the plane and walking through coach, I found myself walking by all the others who boarded early and against the rules, each with smug-ass expressions on their faces. “Look at me, I’m already in my seat and comfortable. Shoes off, magazine halfway done, neck pillow inflated. You are a loser.” Flight attendants stand around and do nothing in particular. I hear one whisper to another, “This plane scares me.” Disconcerting.

More idiocy after sitting in my seat. Over the PA, the attendant asks “Will Raquel Cohen, sitting in 20A, please hit your flight attendant button?” Why would she need to hit her button if they know exactly where she is sitting?

9:56 flying time, but we left 30 minutes late due to boarding idiocy. After taking off, the orangy lights of industrial New Jersey, Manhattan, and Brooklyn floated by. Then the pearly, white glow of an illuminated Yankee Stadium. Then the blackness of the Atlantic. Then the flight attendant ran up and down the aisle, making everyone pull their window shades down. Why?

The flight’s pretty packed, but I’m lucky enough to have the middle seat next to me open. It’s midnight now, and they’re serving dinner pretty soon. After that’s done, I think I’ll try to get some sleep.