January 23, 2013

Of Beaches And Ballot Boxes

Election day here feels like a national holiday. Schools are out, offices are closed and many stores are shut. People are out on the town, tanning on the beaches, and playing in the parks. For me, it felt like one of those Sundays I so relished when I lived in Canada.

So what do Israelis do when they have a completely free day, especially when it is warm and sunny? Firstly, they vote. Yesterday, some 67% of the population came out to the polls and for Israel, this is a very high number.

Israelis turn voting into a festivity of sorts.  They stroll to the polls with the whole family, chat with their friends, and when they wait in line to cast their ballot, they are not uptight or pushy. Everyone we saw was friendly and hopeful. Is it because they did not have to rush off somewhere? Were they excited about the prospect of a new, improved Israel? In fact, there was such a sense of ease and happiness, it felt like a holiday and we wanted to wish each other “chag sameach.” 

We voted and headed out to the fields on our bikes. There, crowding our normally empty dirt path, were cars. And ahead, our usually tranquil, quiet fields were teeming with people, babies and toddlers. What were they doing? Where were they going?

Everyone was out on election day...even the poppies.
We cycled on and realized they were looking at flowers! Wild red poppies, the calaniot, were in bloom, tingeing the green fields with pockets of red. These cars had actually gone off road across bumpy paths and muddied potholes just to get a glimpse of wild flowers.

We came home and were so excited by the warmth of the spring day, we hopped into the car with kids and dog and headed to the beach in Tel Aviv. We envisioned a leisurely walk along the boardwalk beside the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, the soft  salty breeze on our faces.

Arriving in the port area of Tel Aviv, we tried to park. There were no free spots, nor would there be a spot. Ever. In fact, cars had parked where there were no spots, so we found nothing but aggravation. We searched every lot from north Tel Aviv southbound, crawling along the coast until we finally ended up in south Tel Aviv.

When we finally walked onto the beach, it was just an hour before sunset. I immediately realized that all the parking lots were filled with cars because all the people were at the beach. It looked like the entire country was here as there was barely a free speck of sand. All we could hear was the click-clack of those maktot balls against paddles as people jumped and flew across the sand. Other beach goers were swimming, surfing, paddling, sunbathing, picnicking. Teens sat in circles playing guitars and singing. We saw a tightrope walker who was balancing on a rope and juggling balls. Babies crawled on blankets and dogs ran in circles.

The sun set, slowly dipping into the sea. We returned to our cars, as did every Israeli in
the country who was also at the beach. We sat in traffic and then our car crawled home.

Despite the crowds, it was a fun, free day and a time for Israelis to put their “worries on
their doorstep” and simply be.

January 17, 2013

Crossing The Matrix

My son the soldier is crossing realities today. It’s not as drastic as The Bourne Identity, but maybe something like the Matrix.  And he does this with some 170,000 young men and women who are also serving in the Israeli army. He’s coming home for two days.

His new world is the desert; sleeping bags on rusty cots atop the rocky ground and meals quickly eaten squatting on the sand. It is a world of timed drills, of moving fast and being alert.  There is an allotted time for everything: to chew, to smoke, to make phone calls and to sleep. And it is a place where bellies growl from constant hunger, muscles ache and exhausted bodies smell.

He does not take his boots off all week long, preferring to sleep in those heavy leather boots than be woken up in the middle of the night and have to hurriedly dress, lace them up and run outside into formation. As for keeping clean, why bother when you start the day crawling through a bed of freshly made mud; tailor fit army camouflage.

One evening, as they assembled in the middle of the desert, their commander told them to take out their shovels and dig. They had ten minutes to find a spot to dig and when their time was up, he yelled, “Now sleep.” My son’s sand bed was hardly long enough for his tall frame so he slept partly upright that night, cocooned in the sand, his face turned towards a frozen, black, starry night. When he told me, my mind filled with visions of stinging scorpions and creeping spiders. He laughed and said he loved that night with its infinite space, splash of stars and deafening silence.

And when the army gives him a leave, he ‘teleports’ back to another reality.

When he gets back home, his boots practically march through the front door themselves. He walks in with a sack full of very dirty laundry, tired limbs, a big appetite and a huge smile. He has entered an alternate reality and has a new-found appreciation of home: a room of one’s own; long, hot, solitary showers; and home-cooked meals.

What must he think when he peels off that uniform, unties those big boots and changes back into jeans and running shoes? And how does he feel when he finds a table in the sun at his favorite café, cradles a steamy cappuccino and bites into a chocolate croissant?

And when we celebrate Shabbat, he surely has a new, deeper meaning of a day that was established to celebrate timelessness. For now he can sink into a day stripped of pressure, time constraints and plans, yet filled with family, friends, comfort food, song and sleep.

He has crossed the matrix.

And then he will return.

Come Sunday morning, he will wake early after sleeping tranquilly in his own room. Tucked under a warm, feather duvet, he will wake up, jump into a hot shower, throw on a clean uniform and morph back into a soldier.

And then, when we drop him off at the train station, he will dissolve into a thick mass of khaki, grey and blue, soldiers returning to different bases across the country. As he crosses the Matrix, we will, once again, lose touch with our son’s new reality. 

January 8, 2013

Loch Ness Monster Sighting

Here in Israel, it’s not so easy to fall into a boring day-to-day routine. There is no time to twiddle one’s thumbs, or file away bills, or color code the closet. Life is never drab and something is always happening; a visit from overseas friends, another Jewish holiday or something falling from the sky.

Thankfully, this time, the sky is producing rain and not rockets. In the last few days, it has been raining cats and dogs.  (?חתולים וכלבים) Living in a desert, where a few drops of rain produces excitement, rumbling thunder and torrents of pounding rain induce a sort of ecstasy.

I sat in my attic office today, shielded from it all, save for the hammering of rain on my roof. Someone called and said Tel Aviv was shut down. Another emailed that the Ayalon, the main highway through the city, was a river. So I turned on the TV only to see that this ‘rain’ had turned into a super, sensational story of  antediluvian proportions.

A newscaster reported from the Ayalon in Tel Aviv, where the Yarkon River surged across the express lanes. Another reporter stood somewhere in the Galilee where viewers watched cars practically paddling across a highway. We then went to the Golan where one reporter grinned as he pointed out a waterfall plunging into a valley. They reported that Haifa had received 54 cm. of rain since Friday, twice its annual rainfall. They spoke of possible snow in Jerusalem and in Tsfat and about two feet of snow that had already fallen on the slopes of Mount Hermon.  This was all exciting news.

Whenever there is rain in Israel, we walk about feeling honored, as if we have been graced by a foreign dignitary. No one complains. Instead we talk of lower red lines and upper red lines and the dreaded black line as we remind ourselves how much the Kinneret needs each drop of this water.

Now, for a Canadian, who can face hail, sleet, black ice and a snowstorm all in one day, this may seem a little over the top. But the Canadian tends to growl and grumble, then take out his snow shovel and book a ticket to Florida.

The Israelis practically made the rainstorm into a public holiday. People jumped in puddles, adventurers rafted down the Ayalon expressway and school kids squealed when they were sprayed by buses. Others found humor in this and posted their reactions on Facebook. My favorite is:

Breaking News: Rain pounds Israel for third straight day. UN blames Jewish state for starting it.

Then there was the Loch Ness monster sighting on the Ayalon Freeway earlier today.

                                         As I said, there is never a dull moment here....

January 2, 2013

Fat Phone Bills

When we first moved here, the episode described below would cause us untold grief. Now that ‘we’ve been there, done that,’ these occurrences produce a strange type of  comfort for, other than the weather, they are the few things one can predict in this most unpredictable country. 

Who ever said Israelis were bad at sales? Ever tried to return something at a store? Well, I will have to leave that for another entry.

Yesterday, we went to our cell phone provider with a phone bill so thick, it looked more like an airport novel than a bill.  Just as fine Israeli dust cakes up over time, we too seem to have collected some extra phone numbers and expenses over the years.

We explained our problem to the woman behind the counter. It was a small issue, really. We had added a phone number of a foreign student to our bill and we simply wanted to remove it. He went back to Canada for good so we had to cancel his number. Easy, yes?


We told the woman our story.

“I cannot do this for you,” she answered. “You have to call a special number.”

“Fine,” my husband said, brandishing his sparkling iphone. “But I am doing this in front of you in case I have trouble with the language.”

She nodded and sat there staring at her varnished nails.

After listening to a complex menu of multi-leveled choices in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian and after pressing five sequences of menu options, he was on hold. We waited. She studied her nails.

Finally someone live came on. The representative asked for his phone number and identity number, which he had already programmed into the phone via the complex menu.

As soon as the woman heard my husband’s accent, she decided she could not understand what he way saying. Was it his accent or the problem that she refused to comprehend?

This is when the nail admirer came into the picture. She verified that yes, we wanted to cancel the number by basically repeating the same words my husband had used.

After he got back on the phone, she still refused to listen to us. She talked about letting us keep the number in case the student came back…at which point my frantically infuriated husband stomped his feet and screamed, “Let’s just say the guy is, ummm,  like, dead.  Do you understand? Dead? Dead people can’t call.”

She thought about this and then said she could not cancel the account.

“Someone will have to call you back.”

“Call me back? When?” my husband asked in disbelief. 

“In ten minutes.“

“’Rea-lly,” he said cynically.

“Bevadai, of course,” she assured him.

We left the counter and the nail-buffing lady and walked out into the sunshine.

We both made a harrumph sound. ‘Someone will call us back?” We had heard this one before. We knew this line.

We looked at our watches. Ten minutes passed. No call. Half an hour passed. No call. One day went by. No call.

After two days, my husband picked up the phone and waded through the entire automated menu again, clicking one, then two, inputting his id number, his phone number and the ill-fated phone number. Again.

And when someone live and breathing finally came to the phone, she asked the same questions all over again.

He explained the problem. Again, of course, as there was no record of this conversation on her computer.

You want to cancel this number le gamre? (A Hebrew phrase that means ‘for good.’)

Yes, le gamre.

And then she asked, Mea ahuz? (100 percent?)

‘Le gamre. Mea ahuz, ‘ my husband screamed into the phone, adding, “I do not have time for this.”

“But if you pay just eight shekels a month, we can keep the number for you, in case…"

“In case? In case, what?” he shouted and stomped. “Let’s just say the guy who had this number is dead…and is not coming back until the Moshiach comes!”

She finally understood. Israel is probably the only country where you can casually converse about the messiah without being suspected of schizophrenia.

She did not use the line about having someone else call back. She said the number would be disconnected. Will it be done? Guess we have to wait and see how fat the next phone bill is.