Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tel Aviv

Israel is a weird little place. Born and raised in violent conflict, home to the remnants of a slaughtered people, and despised by its neighbours, it’s not surprising that the Israelis are an insular race. Even friendly people like tourists are regarded with mild aloofness at best, and active hostility at worst. The unsmiling customs officer who stamped my passport did it as if the energy required was eating into her reserves and pushing her into hypoglycaemia. The security checkpoint guards snapped irritably at a tourist ahead of me who tried to walk through the scanner while they were having a conversation about a friend of theirs. Even the automated ticket machine in the train station rejected my perfectly good credit card with a brusque error message, for no apparent reason other than the fact that it could.

The Israelis don’t like you. They appreciate your money, but frankly they’d prefer it if you just mailed it to them from wherever the hell you come from. Failing that, if you must visit their country, they’d rather you did it as part of an organised and quarantined group, especially if you’re a fat dim-witted American who wants to visit the Holy Land so he or she can stay at the same Holiday Inn that Jesus stayed at. Tourists in such groups can be isolated from the general population, hopefully only noticed as a momentary glimpse of a coach rumbling by on its way to a tourist trap in Bethlehem.

Unlike most of civilised Europe, the Israelis strenuously avoid labeling anything in English. There are a few minor concessions on train station name signs, but other than that it’s the indecipherable scrawl of Hebrew everywhere. This might be understandable if they only spoke Hebrew, but everybody without exception speaks perfect English, generally in a faultless American accent. They’d just rather not. In Europe a little English text in an advertisement in considered to look sophisticated and international, whereas the Israelis regard it as indignity.

Frankly, they’ve seen the world outside their borders, and they just don’t like it all that much.

I learned all of this within a few hours of the ship docking in the northern port of Haifa. Many of our fellow passengers decided to take expensive excursions to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but I figured that my interest in those places begins and ends with what went on there two thousand years ago. So instead, I packed up the Admiral and we took the significantly cheaper option of riding the train down to Tel Aviv.

The train trip took around forty five minutes and the carriages were fairly packed, as Thursday is the day that youths doing their national service go home for the weekend. As such, we were surrounded by uniformed teenagers who looked like supermodels, apart from the assault weapons they were hefting and getting tangled in their iPhone headphones.

Apart from the unfriendliness, Tel Aviv is much like an Australian city - sunny, modern, outdoorsy - and the climate is so similar that half of the plants seem to be Australian natives. We spotted a fine red bottlebrush flowering in a memorial plaza to the victims of the 1972 Olympic massacre.

After spending some time wandering about the skyscraper-riddled downtown, we made our way into the charming Old Town of Neve Tzedek, now given over entirely to Greens voters. Nothing but organic, artisanal, Prius driving, marriage equalising White Privilege from one end to the other.

Beyond that is the old port of Jaffa, where the bazaar is slowly being gentrified but is still full of junk shops selling old brassware, inlaid furniture, worn rugs and all manner of other things that I can’t fit in my luggage no matter how much I want them. The Admiral and I decided to stop there for lunch, and lucked on to the pointy end of Arab hospitality.

Technically, I had a beer and a tahini-baked kebab, and my travel buddy had a couple of chicken skewers and chips: these were the items that appeared on the bill (160 New Israeli Shekels, which is 32 Euros, which is around $48). But what we actually had was those things plus two types of flatbread, eleven different dips and salads, four pistachio baklavas, two Turkish coffees, and bottomless homemade lemonade.

Notice the hommous in the centre. The only reason I didn’t smear it all over my body in ecstasy was because that would reduce the amount that went in my mouth. It was utterly amazing.

It’s also worth noting that when I ordered a beer, it arrived in a half litre bottle, without a glass. Clearly these people had met Australians before.

Grossly bloated and slightly hammered, we staggered out along the beachfront in the warm late afternoon sunshine, where lean and fit Israelis were playing volleyball or riding bicycles or lifting weights, and regarding us with their usual irked disdain.


Anonymous TroyG said...

The mental image of you filled with beer and smeared with hommus somehow makes me think of Homer Simpson watching the Superbowl.

As for Israel, you were just lucky you didn't have to leave via Ben Gurion airport. A full body search is just about the only security measure that isn't de rigeur. I wonder why it's so rigorous on exit, rather than entry.

9:33 PM  

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