Got back from Israel on Monday. My body still doesn't know where it is, and I'm wide awake at 5:30 in the morning for no good reason.
Thought I'd post some thoughts. Thanks to the blog reader who pointed me to Eucalyptus, a pleasant little restaurant just outside the Old City in Jerusalem that serves "foods from the bible." The gimmick didn't quite work -- there was ceviche in the bible? -- but the food was quite excellent. Was our second-best meal of the trip. The best was at a restaurant in Haifa called Hanamal 24, which was really terrific. It was our one splurge meal of the trip, after I read some posts about it online. A three-course lunch, plus dessert, about $30 each but in New York it would cost at least twice that, and probably wouldn't have been as satisfying. Off topic, but I feel like one of the best things my law firm summer did was make me mostly uninterested in fancy restaurants unless something truly unique and unusual is being done. I had lunch in probably 30 or 35 different restaurants when I was a summer associate, all places that are in the Zagat guides, that get reviewed in the Times, etc -- and while most of the meals were pretty good, they started to get boring. I got over the experience. I hate spending money in a restaurant on something I can make at home, or on something that isn't going to surprise me in some way. I recognize that isn't why most people eat out. Most people don't want to be surprised. They want to eat something they're going to like. I think I like novelty for the sake of novelty in my food more than most people. I'm not that interested if I know what it's going to taste like. And so I end up preferring hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants of any ethnicity at all to more expensive places that are going to serve me well-made food that isn't that interesting.
And I think one of my disappointments about visiting Israel was that the food isn't that interesting. My wife (correctly) thinks I care too much about food on vacation, but food is the best thing about vacation. Trying new things we can't eat here, discovering something unique about a different place, wandering around supermarkets looking for something mysterious and unusual. And Israel didn't seem to have a lot of that. In some respects not Israel's fault but mine -- there are Israeli supermarkets here. I lived close to one in Los Angeles. I shopped there. The produce was cheap and varied and terrific. They sold freshly-pickled vegetables behind the deli counter that I could not manage to recreate and became addicted to for a few weeks. They sold Bamba and Bissli (Israeli snack foods), pita with za'atar, stuff with untranslated labels that I explored over the course of time. So going to a supermarket in Israel wasn't new enough for me. But that's obviously not something I can blame the country for.
And beyond the supermarkets, I think we're just more exposed to the food of Israel than, say, the food from my previous vacation, to Prague. We have falafel, we have shawarma, we have kebabs and pita bread and hummus. And there's a simplicity to hummus that makes it hard for one bowl of hummus to transcend every other hummus experience. I searched online before we left for the best hummus in Israel and there actually seemed to be some consensus about it. Hummus Lina, in the Old City in Jerusalem. So we went there. And the hummus was terrific. And the pita bread was fresh. And the pickles were tasty, even at 11 in the morning. And I enjoyed it. But it didn't blow my mind.
Back to Hanamal 24. Which was trying to be a New York restaurant in the middle of the warehouse district in a city that doesn't have a hundred places just like it. It doesn't have any places like it. And the food was terrific.
Also had a great meal in Tel Aviv at a restaurant called Manta Ray, literally right on the water, but that meal was good not only for the food but for the company -- had dinner with some people from the publishing house that published the Hebrew edition of Anonymous Lawyer, and it was so much fun to meet them and to hear about the publishing world in Israel and, I don't know, I've said this before but I think I got jaded living in L.A. and seeing perhaps more of the entertainment industry than I was ready for. The entire business isn't executives in Hollywood with four assistants and me being perpetually in fear that I'm one sentence away from someone losing interest in me or my writing. The people I met -- and not just the folks who published my book -- the people I met in Israel were great. There's a directness about a lot of Israelis that's interesting. Store clerks and taxi drivers and people who work in ice cream shops express more opinions than people here. I'm sure people here have those opinions too, but they just don't say them. In Haifa, we walked from the port area on the coast up to the part of the city on top of Mount Carmel -- there's stairs all over the city because it's built on a mountain, and we were told no one walks, people take the bus, or there's a little subway that goes up the incline, or we could take a taxi -- but we wanted to explore and so we walked. And about a thousand stairs into our 1500-step journey there was a road and a little market, and we needed some water because it was 106 degrees outside and we were dripping sweat, and we walk in and the clerk says (in Hebrew), "where are you coming from -- you look like hell." And my wife (whose Hebrew is pretty decent, as opposed to my four semesters of college Hebrew that have completely evaporated) tells him we wanted to walk up to the top of the city, and he says, "okay, look at you, you walked enough -- take a taxi." And then he insisted on giving us napkins to wipe our faces dry. In New York, this conversation wouldn't happen. In a gelato place in Tel Aviv (Vaniglia -- seemed to be a small chain, but is highly recommended despite that -- the gelato was excellent), the guy who worked there insisted on giving us eight or nine samples, wanted to know what we liked, what we didn't, and when my wife picked two flavors for her cup, he told her to change the second one because it wouldn't go well with the first, and she should try this other one instead and so he just gave it to her and said she'd like it and she didn't have a choice. And she liked it. It was good. But that doesn't happen here.
In Jerusalem, we got lost wandering the Old City -- it's a set of narrow streets and alleyways, hemmed in by four stone walls with only a few exit gates. We thought we were heading toward one gate but had gotten completely turned around in the opposite direction and ended up deep in the Arab quarter, toward East Jerusalem. We stopped seeing tourists around us. A six-year-old boy tried to guide us to the nearest gate, but wanted money to do so. We passed from storefronts selling t-shirts and refrigerator magnets to storefronts selling things that locals actually needed. We went far enough into the Arab Quarter that we were off the map. Eventually we turned around and retraced our steps because we were getting farther away from where we needed to be next. But I think it was as close as we came to seeing the divisions in the country, to sensing any sort of danger at all (and, really, there wasn't danger-- we were Jewish tourists walking through an Arab neighborhood, but any danger we perceived felt like it was mostly in our minds and informed by our knowledge of history and the current struggles). One of the things that most struck me about Israel was how safe it feels, despite what we know. How safe it feels compared to New York, certainly. We first arrived in Jerusalem on a Friday evening -- shabbat -- and in Jerusalem, the city shuts down on shabbat. Streets virtually deserted, stores closed, a ghost town. In New York, you're alone on a street and you see someone coming and you (or at least I) grab my wallet a little tighter and feel a little uneasy. And here I felt that too, but I quickly saw it wasn't the same thing. There's no street crime. Stray cats roam the cities. It doesn't feel like a dangerous place. Except that sometimes it is. And there are metal detectors at every shopping mall or even pseudo shopping mall that's really just six or seven stores under one roof. You go to the bus station, you pass through security machines. The train station. The airport, certainly. There are soldiers on the street -- fewer than I was told to expect to see, but their presence is there.
We went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. I've been to others -- the one in Berlin, the one in Los Angeles -- but obviously this one had special impact because of where it is. It was incredibly powerful. It makes it impossible to not reflect upon the need for a Jewish state, for a Jewish homeland, because all too recently there was no place Jews were safe, there was no place for Jews to go, at all. It's so mind-boggling that the Holocaust happened in our parents' or grandparents' lifetimes. That this wasn't something from 3000 years ago, but in our era, in our time. That communication technologies existed, that the world knew, and yet... it still happened. And that a religion can survive -- a faith in a higher being can survive even when half of its followers are wiped off the map. How can anyone --- I don't know, I'm going to stop my train of thought there, because I don't quite know what I'm trying to say. Just that it was a really powerful experience to be there.
After Jerusalem, we went to the Dead Sea and En Gedi, did an easy hour-long hike through an oasis in the desert, saw some waterfalls and some ibex (think small deer) and hyrax (think bagers). The Dead Sea was... not for me, I guess. I don't know if it's because I'm barely a swimmer to begin with (I can swim, but I wouldn't win any races... against a child...), but the floating sensation made me very nervous. You can't really control your movement in the water. You certainly can't swim anywhere. You're supposed to just float on your back, but every time I tried, the water would start to flip me around to my stomach and I was afraid my face was going to go underwater and I wouldn't be able to flip myself back over and I wouldn't be able to breathe. So I found myself flailing my arms and legs and trying to tread water and stay in a vertical position. No one else seemed to have this problem, so I think I'm probably just missing some sort of floating reflex.
We took a bus up to Tiberias, a small city along the Sea of Galilee that is, to some extent, a tourism destination for Israelis (and not many foreigners) but it was probably the most disappointing stop on the trip. It was sort of like Coney Island, if everyone forgot about Coney Island for 25 years and let nature take its course. That's probably too mean. We had a nice meal in a fish restaurant -- grilled whole fish served simply with salt and some olive oil and some israeli salads -- really delicious. And I think part of what made Tiberias less than thrilling was that it was 106 degrees outside and we were staying in a very, very budget hotel, a 25 minute walk from the main part of town. My wife's parents used our trip to Israel as a reason to take a trip there too, and we overlapped at a few of our stops. Their hotel in Tiberias was in fact a lovely, beautiful resort, with a pool and beach access and great views. And staying there would have absolutely changed our experience of Tiberias. Although you can say that about anywhere -- if you stay at a nice resort, you will have a different experience than if you stay in a Motel 6.
After Tiberias, we went to Haifa, which was a very pretty place, despite the 1500 steps. We walked the city, walked along the beach, saw the market area, went to the zoo, took the subway, rode in a cable car, toured the Baha'i Gardens -- quite magnificent, as you'll see from a picture I'll post below. And then we finished in Tel Aviv, which feels like a lot like a modern American city -- Washington DC in some ways, I felt -- but with more outdoor cafes, basically. Had the lovely dinner with my Israeli publisher, got interviewed about Anonymous Lawyer for a piece that's supposed to appear in Time Out Tel Aviv this week, and went to the beach.
My wife has wanted me to go Israel ever since we started dating -- this was her sixth trip, although the first couple were when she was a young child -- and now having been, I know why. I think some of the experience is muted because there are so many Jews in New York, and seeing streets filled with Orthodox Jews, or seeing kosher restaurants and supermarkets -- these things aren't so unusual to me, and aren't surprising. But -- most acutely in Jerusalem, and especially at Yad Vashem -- there's a connection that I couldn't help but feel. And it's such a varied country, for a geographically small place -- the feeling in Jerusalem is very different from the very secular Tel Aviv, and they're only an hour apart. And Tiberias felt very far away from both of those places, stuck in a different decade entirely. Not to mention the abundance of nature and emptiness of civilization at En Gedi. And we didn't even go south to the desert and beach resort at Eilat. (Good thing, because 106 degrees was already much, much more heat than I could comfortably take.)
So, finally, I'll just post a few photos. Hope this travel report was interesting to at least a few of you.
On Thursday my wife and I are going to Israel for 10 days.
I just downloaded the Skype app for my iPhone and threw ten dollars into an account. A google search tells me that if I put my iPhone in Airplane mode for the whole trip and turn on the wireless connection, I can use the phone to check e-mail and surf the web as long as there's wireless, and I can use Skype to make cheap outgoing calls, to phones in Israel, and to the U.S. (and check my voicemail) all without incurring any AT&T international charges for either phone or data. (Alternatively, I could set up Google Voice and have my voicemails turned into e-mails, but this seems like a perfectly adequate alternative.)
Fifteen years ago, I went to Europe for the first time, junior year of high school with a singing group I was in. We were told to bring travelers checks. We called home from pay phones, calling collect, for some exorbitant cost I am sure. We did not use the Internet. I think I had an e-mail address on Prodigy at the time. I don't think I got any e-mail. Ever.
Ten years ago, I went to Europe with some friends after college. I think one of us brought travelers checks. It wasn't me. We used ATM machines. We called home from pay phones, with international calling cards. We checked e-mail at Internet cafes. I remember one in Venice. The three of us split an hour. I remember being very careful not to get lost as I wandered around to kill the 40 minutes my friends were using the Internet. Only turned right, so it would be easier to retrace my steps. If I had gotten lost, I don't know how I would have gotten un-lost. I suppose I would have just tried to meet my friends back at our hotel. But it would have been an ordeal to find them or to get in touch.
I've traveled a bunch of times since, but with no advances in technology -- have never had a phone with me, have relied on Internet cafes. I mean, phones have existed for a while, no one has used travelers checks in a while... and I suppose lots of things have changed in the past fifteen years, and a lot more dramatically than this. Maybe it's not so extraordinary that I'll be able to check e-mail in my pocket and make phone calls using Skype. Maybe it's not so extraordinary that I'll be able to access a map on my phone. And I'm sure there are more technological advances I'm not taking advantage of, or perhaps not even aware of. But I can't help but feel like it's pretty impressive how much easier international travel has gotten, at least in terms of communication technology and the practical mechanics of getting around, since I was in high school.
Now that I've written this post, I realize what I'm saying is probably way too obvious to be worth a blog post. Oh well.
-- Teaser for tonight's 11:00 news -- "find out which snack bag is the loudest" -- as they show someone opening a Sun Chips bag. Is this really something that news resources need to be deployed to investigate? A quick Google search tells me that, yes, this is something in the news: Sun Chips bags are apparently too loud, but, really, this is an important news story?
-- Also saw a commercial the other day for something that appeared to be called "Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Littles," smaller versions of mini-wheats, as if "mini-" didn't already mean small. Will they start calling the regular ones maxi-wheats? This seems to be the opposite of every other food trend in the U.S. -- instead of getting bigger, mini-wheats apparently need to get smaller.
-- Saw a sign in the library: the best way to avoid overdue fines is to return materials on time. Uh, that's also the only way, isn't it?
-- My wife and I are going to Israel next week, for ten days. (If anyone has any recommended sites / restaurants / etc., I'm all ears) So I downloaded an iPhone app put out by the Israeli Tourism Ministry with information about tourist attractions. For each attraction, the app has the address, phone number, and some slightly-confusing categories like "Banquet Halls," which seems to refer to whether the attraction has a bathroom or not, "Animals," which seems to be about whether you can bring your pets, and "Target Audience," which, for every attraction I checked, was "Jews." I clicked on a Bird Observatory, and under Animals it said "Irrelevant; Prohibited." Of course, animals seem like ought to be both relevant and permitted at a bird observatory.