They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder. I couldn’t agree more. Especially when the distance is six thousand miles by plane, approximately twenty hours of flight time from what I like to call bed to bed; My comfortable bed in Davis, California to a not so familiar bed in a hotel or someone else’s home in the Middle-East,specifically Israel. Perhaps it’s the jet lag talking, or my advancing years and increasing intolerance for uncomfortable plane seats. In any case, nearly three weeks away from America and this sleepy little town made me appreciate where I live.
It began in the Tel-Aviv airport in Israel, a place in which I have done battle for various reasons over the years, yet had no cause to this time – all my documents were in order as I greeted the girl behind the counter in English (for the benefit of my non-Hebrew speaking family members), handing over our family’s five passports, four American and one Israeli, since I am a dual citizen. The girl was unwelcoming as usual, but I smiled anyway, a habit I have adopted from my American husband and one I have grown to expect reciprocated. My cheerfulness however, did not prevent the young official from sighing deeply and pausing abruptly when she arrived at my passport.
“You are Israeli?” She eyed me suspiciously.
“Yes,” I replied, smiling.
“You speak Hebrew?”
“Yes,” still smiling.
“Then why are you making this difficult for me?” She wasn’t kidding and I was no longer smiling at the lack of customer service and manners combined. Apparently having to speak English had caused her to unduly exert herself, despite the fact that she was sitting in a booth marked specifically for foreigners, and the likelihood that anyone in the line behind me spoke Hebrew was slim to none.
Welcome to Israel.
Still in the airport, I walked around the rental car with a very nice young man, pointing out various scratches for him to document before we took over the vehicle for the duration of our stay. He stopped me when I got to the seventh ding, stating that he’ll simply put “scratches” on the rental agreement, since, “no one can drive in this country without getting any,” he declared. He wasn’t kidding either, as my husband bravely pointed the car toward our destination and threw all caution to the wind. I don’t think I breathed until we pulled up to my father’s house. If you drive in Davis, you know that we deal with anything from overly cautious new drivers, newcomers to town who are unfamiliar with our bike lanes, to young UCD students who zip through our streets unaccustomed to our languid pace. Yet after sitting in the passenger seat of the rental car, eyes closed, teeth clenched, my right foot reaching for the imaginary break, I will NEVER again complain about the occasional young buck roaring past me on the causeway as I make my way to work. Rules didn’t seem to apply on Israeli roadways as car after car cut us off, drifted into our lane or simply drove in both. “Pick a lane! Any lane!” I yelled as my husband expertly maneuvered his way to each destination, not adding a single scratch to the collection already marring the car’s paint job. Ironically, most vehicles sported a bumper sticker asking, “How’s my driving?” Something tells me that they wouldn’t have cared for my opinion. As for parking? Anything goes. Sidewalks seem to be a favorite.
As for dining out – out was out. Despite the seventy degree weather in December, and our desire to drink our morning coffee on the balcony with the beautiful view of palms and pool, a wave of cigarette smoke washed over us any time we stepped outdoors. Sidewalk cafes, entrances to hotel lobbies, theatres, posh restaurants, lovely beaches – indoors was key, (except for pubs. They smoke in those,) far away from windows and entrances where people puffed away, oblivious to the 21st century’s scientific discoveries. Suddenly, Mishka’s and Cloud Forest Cafe held a newfound charm as I tried not to inhale my fifth cigarette of the day. And dessert? Yes please. Israeli bakeries have lovely offerings, a challenge to my sweet tooth and resistance. Yet when three of our party members ordered the same dessert, (a decadent chocolate mousse), the waitress actually questioned the third request, disappointed at our lack of individuality. “Why not a different dessert so it’s not all the same?” She meant well I’m sure, yet I couldn’t imagine an American server interfering with a customer’s request in quite such a familiar way.
And speaking of familiar – there is no such thing as personal space. Israelis do not know how to form a queue. The fact that they’re holding tickets with assigned seats (for a flight, a show), makes no difference. At the entrance to a play in the resort town of Eilat in the South of Israel, the woman behind me pushed and shoved as though her seat would be given away, and while I was disembarking the plane the day before, my back became so familiar with the large breasted woman trying to squeeze past me, I felt I should at least buy her dinner after such an intimate encounter. Thank you Davisites, for never supplying me with such detailed information about your physique while standing in line at the Varsity.
On the other hand, there is a warmth and closeness in the Middle-East seldom experienced in American relationships – Israelis and Arabs alike, aren’t afraid to touch. My best friend’s mother ran toward me with open arms and hugged until we were both reduced to tears. My friend in the Arab city of Tamra took me by the hand and walked me through her house, showing me changes that had occurred in my absence, her hand clasping mine for the entirety of the tour. And when she wanted to see one of my rings she simply wiggled it off my finger, no questions asked. As for Mediterranean hospitality – the Druze ( a monotheistic religious and social community), win hands down. Strong, thick coffee was offered in each shop we visited, chairs pulled out for an afternoon chat, and in one roadside stand we were waved into a makeshift “office”, where the vendor read our daughter’s horoscope (not my husband’s because that part of the paper was missing), from remnants of newspaper used to wrap souvenirs and then offered heavenly, homemade baklava.
I’ll spare you the details of our departure from the Israeli airport, the surliness, the cigarettes, the delays. The forgotten butter knife someone who shall remain nameless accidentally left in the cake I had to take with us…. Yet you will understand my joy when at the Dallas airport, the tough looking security official handling our passports turned to our son whose attire (black hat, shades, spiked collar) had alarmed every security guard across Israel, and with a smile on her face said, “Hey Hollywood, do you mind taking off the glasses?” I could have hugged her.
It’s good to be home.