Friday, December 31, 2004

Haifa (I)

On my way back from Haifa, I decided to try the brand new train line.
I sit in front of a young woman wearing a light and colorful pair of pants, a sweater and a scarf that make her look as if she has just come back from India. She is studying what seems to be class notes. Tel-Aviv University is one of the stops, about an hour from now.
I'm sick from a cold that is just starting and sip the tea that a young boy hauling food and beverages has sold me. This is definitely much nicer than the bus, always crowded and cramped.
We've been traveling for about 20 minutes when a voice announces something over the public system. The distortion added to my cold and to my limited knowledge of the language make the announcement a mystery. I just catch the name of the station at which I am supposed to get off.
I ask politely the woman with the decorated pants. "Could you tell me what this was all about?" She translates in an hesitant English before adding "Some days, I hope they'll also talk English in the trains". I look at her and smile when I answer "No, no. Some days I hope I'll be able to understand Hebrew". Her face lights up. She looks at me with a joy that I recognize to be the gratitude to be accepted as she is. I don't ask her to change. I want myself to adapt. She does not hear that very often. Hence the smile.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Raanana (II)

The post office is tucked away in a quiet street. I submit my bag to the search that greats everybody here. Bags are searched when entering any public space: supermarkets, banks, cafés, restaurants, bus and train stations. Everywhere. I'm used to it and in a weird and twisted logic, it makes me feel a bit safer than in Europe or America where there is no systematic search. I enter the post office and go to the main line. There are 3 persons in front of me. As I am waiting there, someone taps on my shoulder. An old woman is standing behind me and she tells me "I'm right after you". I cannot help but smile at what I know to be one of the most endearing trick of Israelis in line. They'll say, "I'm right after you" and disappear to another shop or place only to come back 10 or 20 minutes later depending on the time they estimate the line will take. A nice trick to minimize idle time waiting in line. I learned very quickly the downside of the trick. I would enter a place with only 2 persons in the line, thinking "I'll be out of here in no time". Suddenly an old man would enter and say "I was after this guy", pointing to the first guy in line. The guy would nod and the old man would get in line. Then someone else would come and claim a spot after the old man. Lines became alive, growing. Potentially infinite.

The old woman turned around and goes to sit on a chair at the other side of the room. A man comes a bit later and stand behind me. I don't have the heart to tell him that he is not "after me".

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Bene-Brak (II)

We're still shopping when we hear the sound of sirens. It's an ambulance going past us. I ignore it. A few second later another one comes down the street. Same sound, same rush, same reaction on my part. Ambulances are part of life in a big town. When I lived in New York next to St Lukes Hospital, they were the sound of the city. I learned to block them out. My sister, though, has reacted to the second ambulance. She looks up and said mixing French and Hebrew "J'espère que ce n'est pas une pigouah" (I hope it's not a terrorist attack). We keep walking and the ambulances keep coming, one, two, three following each others like in a racing competition. My sister nods her head, saying "There was probably one. Somewhere nearby". And she keeps walking. I'm stun and impressed by her calm. If there was a bomb somewhere nearby, shouldn't we hurry to the car and leave? Stop shopping for the birthday present of a 4 year old and acknowledge our fears. My sister does not seem to be alone in her cool handling of the fact. Everybody has noticed, raised their heads to look at the cortege of ambulances and kept going about their lives. The only sign that my sister was concerned comes when we finally get back to the car. Her first gesture is to turn on the car radio. Pop music greets us. Nothing on a "pigouah". It was probably a big traffic accident. I wish that one day the sound of rushing ambulances will not conjure images of attacks. However calmly these are considered.

Bene-Brak (I)

Bene-Brak is a religious town with people going around dressed as in an old Polish town at the time of free-for-all pogroms. It is not the place I would go for anything but traditional objects but this is the place my sister has chosen to go shopping for toys. My nephew is celebrating his 4th birthday and we're in town to buy toys for about 30 kids between 2 and 5 years old. She figured that we could find more toys in a religious town teeming with kids...

We're walking past the vegetable stand when I notice an old woman going though what seems to be the garbage. I realize quickly that it is not. It is a large cardboard box of all the discarded fruits and vegetables that the owner has put on the side for indigents. Anything he cannot sell, he is letting the poor have for free. I think of the story of Ruth and the timeless practice of letting grain in a field for gleaners when I hear my sister saying "I've never seen this here!" I turned around to see that she is pointing to an old man sleeping on the opposite sidewalk. She is shocked and tells me that she will mention it to someone she knows in town. "How can they leave someone sleep on the street here?". There are homeless in Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem, but Bene-Brak? This is a religious town. She is still talking about the old man as we enter the toy store. I forget to tell her about the old woman.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Raanana (I)

I'm travelling so time is short to blog.
Many scenes from this country split between the East and the West in a region wrongly named "Middle East". There is nothing "middle" here. Everything is extreme. This is a country where religion is an extreme sport. Dangerous and unforgivable like any other extreme sport.
Today, though, I am not confronting religion or thinking about it. I am in a car watching as another car pulls to the side at the light. The driver is chewing gum. A young, hip, guy wearing sun glasses high on his forehead. I watch as I see him taking the gum out of his mouth and playing with it like a kid with play-do. He has not realized that less than 3 meters away, someone is watching. The pink gum gets extended, folded, pressed between his fingers, over and over. The red light that was holding us together turns green and I just have the time to see the man putting back the gum in his mouth before his car leaves us behind.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Vienna (I)

On my way to Israel, I had a stop over in Vienna. The airport is small and brightly lit. The plane for Tel-Aviv leaves in an hour: I have time for a real coffee (Vienna is after all the place where coffee was perfected…).
Prices are marked in Euros. I don’t have anything but dollars but get in line nevertheless, vaguely confidant that I'll always be able to buy what I want. Money is money.
My turn comes. As expected, the woman behind the counter seems used to my predicament and tells me that indeed I can pay in dollars (more than I can say of London’s airport where only the pound is accepted). For $5 I can get the coveted café latte. I nod and the waitress turns around to prepare it. She is mumbling in English (for my own benefit no doubt) about price gouging. “$5 for a coffee” I hear her say, this is insane! But if people are dumb enough to buy…” I laugh at her bad manners. What is it to her what I want to pay for a café? I resist the urge to tell her that $5 is not too much for the pleasure of getting back to life after an overnight flight crammed on a small seat with a snoring bold guy seated nearby. $5. The price of a return ticket to mankind.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Airport watching

My parents are flying out today for France and we arrive at the airport to find a long and slow line for international check-ins on United. There is only one line for all destinations and lugages are to be taken to the extra-security check, adding to the chaos that reigns in front of the United counters.
I notice an old couple struggling to get their luggages back to their cart. A young guy with a mustache has noticed them as well and he offers them his help. They have 4 suitcases, all coordinated in some flowery design and all neatly labelled. The woman accepts his offer with a smile but starts quickly to order him around. "This one first!", "This one should be put on the cart side-way" , "No, not this one. We need to have it near". She is bossing him around shamelessly and I can feel myself getting upset and marveling at the patience of the guy who does not seem to mind it that much. He is smiling to a young woman right beside me who is laughing at him and clearly making fun of his predicament.
Her laugh is saying "You wanted to play Zorro and now you're stuck taking orders from an old tyrannic lady". He is soon done with the suitcases and comes back to her, laughing as well.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Mixed pizza

The last Sunday of my parents visit to Washington, we went to eat in a small pizzeria tucked behind a shopping center. I am no fan of pizza but my dad is and he wanted to get a taste of "American pizza". For comparison I guess.
We're waiting for our order to come when I see one guy walking in the place. He gets to the register and I hear "$19.90" . He pays, takes a large box which is just next to the cash register and walks out. The whole scene has lasted maybe 30 seconds.
As soon as he has walked out, another guy comes by and I anticipate the same scene except that we all hear a small shout from behind the counter and I see the cashier jumping out and running after the first guy that left. They mixed up the orders. He has left with the order of the second guy who is standing there, waiting for his pizza to come back.
It eventually does. Apparently the cashier caught the car of the first costumer as he exited the parking lot. He is holding what he thought was his, handing it back over the counter and grabbing the other box. The cashier apologizes and he smiles saying that "no harm done" but I see him stopping on the way out and opening the pizza box to check it content.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Bumper sticker

Just a small image from my drive to work this morning. A white van right in front of me with a
"I Y concrete" bumper sticker.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Creeping out

We're visiting the new museum on the Mall. The fabulously designed Museum of American Indian that opened recently. An imposing and undulating structure that seems deceptively simple once inside.
There are several exhibits but we are in a hurry: we're on our ways to a movie and just dropped by to get a glimpse at the space and get a sense for the place. We go up to the top floor, enjoying the views and enter a large exhibit called "Our Peoples". The design is simple. They've used rice and corn grains between Pexiglas plates as decoration. The flow of panels is quite confusing, curved here and there with no obvious direction toward the exit. The quasi obscurity and the crowd add to the desolated feeling of the space. But I did not know it until I heard a kid saying to his mom. "Let's go. This place creeps me out". I didn't know this expression, but only then I realized he had exactly described the feel of the place.
I asked my parents to hurry and we got back out quickly, basking in the unusually warm sun of this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

No time to explore

I had a meeting early today at a local private school. It is a posh and fancy school, the sort of place where students can go to China for 10 days in their junior year and compare with their 2 weeks escapades in Russia the previous year. The last meeting was about 4 months ago and I am quickly lost in the corridors. I stop a kid carrying a backpack that looks as if it weighs as much as himself. He must be about 8 or 9. "Where is the teacher's lounge?" A shrug. "I don't know" said with a slightly longer "I". I points to the stairs. "Where do those lead?". Another shrug. "I'm not sure". I smile. "Do you really go to this school?" "Well, yes." he looks at me puzzled. "Don't you go exploring??" I want to know. Knowing my school inside out was a huge advantage when I was his age. I could escape, run or just hide in all the places found during my long explorations. He looks at me with a sorry air that says "You really don't get it. Do you?", rolls his eyes and utters "Exploring? I don't have time to explore. Too much work" before disappearing in the corridor.

Road rage

I was driving home yesterday evening. It was dark and I was suddenly startled by a blue car passing me on the right. Fast, dangerously close and reckless. I got really annoyed and caught up with it at the next red light. Right in front of me, revving up the engine, waiting to take off. Go! It flies out in the intersection, changes lines a couple of times to pass several cars deemed too slow. What a jerk! Endangering everybody for what? Three seconds? Two minutes? Who cares about even 5 minutes?
As I am mentally insulting and mocking the driver at the same time, I see the car turning into the parking lot of the emergency room of the hospital I went to when I had my car accident. The rage is gone and I am a bit ashamed of my thoughts. Maybe an extra 3 seconds will matter.