Israel for a Beginner, or Trip to the Holy (Crap this is Amazing) Land – PART 1

Uri was invited to a wedding in Caesarea, Israel, in June. When I first learned about the opportunity to go on a trip to Israel, I was pretty hesitant. I didn’t know much about Israel, except that it was filed away in my head in “places frequently on the news for reasons to do with war or infighting, or airstrikes, or whatever… I would never have a reason to go anyway.” I didn’t understand the difference between an Israeli and a Palestinian, and I honestly didn’t know what side America even supported.

I was raised Catholic, but more influentially, was just raised in a place where I just didn’t have the motivation to learn much about things outside of my little world (see my previous entry). I also wouldn’t describe myself as an adventure traveler, keen to tick off the most risky places in the world. I am more of an experience-traveler. With every place I visit, I learn more about the world, the people in it, and how I fit. But ever since my extraordinarily well-traveled and adventurous great friend, Erik, made a video for Discovery Channel Travel, my mind had changed and I very much wanted to see this place for myself. Plus, I was dating a Jewish guy who answered my questions patiently and allowed me to grill him on risk aversion and current states of affairs, and his own opinions and experiences.

With all of this, I was very nervous to talk to my parents about making my decision to go. My mom’s reaction was as expected–she didn’t know much about the place, but she heard on the news that there was fighting and it could be dangerous. She didn’t want me to go, but trusted my decision. My dad’s reaction was less predictable. A history buff and a bit of a war alarmist-I was very afraid he would have a lot to say about going to a country where bombs have exploded on public city buses twice in the last few years, and where the U.S. Department of State travel site warns against visiting. His reaction was that this was a place as much for Christians as it is for Jews, or even for us agnostics who want to experience the historic significance. He wished it was something he could experience, and encouraged me to “go find out where I came from.” And with that, I was off to Israel.

Middle Eastern Arrival

My first touchpoint with the Middle East wasn’t even the Middle East, it was Turkey, and it wasn’t even reality, it was the #7 best airport lounge in the world (#1 to me!), the Turkish Airlines Lounge in Istanbul airport. As a layover to our overnight flight, I wished the 2 hours was longer… we arrived at around 4am waiting for the stalls to open. It was 3000 sq. meters (32,000 sq. feet!) of endless space, cold food stations, stations with 15 different types of nuts (10 of which I’ve never seen), stations overflowing with fruit and a fresh honeycomb, fresh omelet stations, a bakers corner where fresh sesame seed bagels were being twisted and dipped, coming out of the oven served with Turkish country butter, and best of all, the gozleme station, which I waited (im)patiently to open. I watched a Turkish lady prepping what became my layover breakfast: spinach, cheese, or potatoes, grilled inside paper thin, crispy sheets of dough (like phyllo), and basted with fresh garlicky butter. Delicious!!! The whole experience can only be described as opulent as was the experience of the ladies of Sex and the City 2 when arriving in Abu Dhabi. Hah!

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After two hours of bliss and a reminder from Uri of, “This is not what our trip will be like…,” we were off to Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv

After arriving at the airport, we took the train to Tel Aviv and hailed a cab from the station. That’s a lie. We didn’t hail a cab–we were accosted by snarly, screaming Israeli men, who yelled at us as if we were doing something wrong requesting a cab in the cab line. Apparently that is how it goes there. We watched as a cabbie tried to coerce a solo female traveler to travel with us in our cab without a discount on price or a proper explanation. We all refused and we were all again shouted at by the impatient cabbie. Once in the cab, we fought about price throughout the ride as he continued to give us the run around, until I finally snapped with “50 shekels – no more discussion!!!”

My first impression of Tel Aviv was, “Soon we will drive out of this dirty, rundown area, and into the city, yes?” But then we pulled up to our hotel, right in the middle of said area. I can only describe the area as something of a bombed out desert town with dilapidated buildings, stray cats everywhere, crumbling sidewalks, and trash strewn in all the streets. Then, someone decided they wanted to build Miami over it. They didn’t bother to fix the building facades, or to clean the streets. They just gutted the insides of the buildings, and opened up a bunch of restaurants a la the trendiest styles of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and beach clothing shops.

The good news is, my impression of Tel Aviv only gets better from here. Yes, it is run down city that needs a lot of love and care, but we eventually found the strips of streets and neighborhoods that give it its charm. Would I feel comfortable walking these streets at night alone? Probably not. But as with any other place, you become desensitized to certain things that initially stand out (throngs of tourists in Midtown NYC on your way to work, or smelling pot on the tourist streets in Amsterdam). If I spent more time there and explored more neighborhoods, I would probably grow to feel even more comfortable with the difference in what was “normal”.

Tel Aviv is also a city to eat amazing food. Coming from New York City and moving to Amsterdam, I have been coping with the adjustment to the suburbanized lifestyle (in comparison), and struggling with the dearth of decent food options. Tel Aviv, like New York City, is a city to eat delicious food. I had many memorable meals: kebabs, hummus, pita, tapas, pork chops (yes, pork chops), shaksouka, sweet potato and yogurt chive dip, and on and on. My favorite restaurants were Orna and Ella, Vicky Christina, and Gedera 26. I cannot say enough about how amazing the food was!

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Tel Aviv is also the city of contrasts. A beach next to a previously hollowed out desert town (at least by appearances), Old Jaffa next to the new ports, hedonistic tendencies in a place where the entire city shuts down for Shabbat*… And then the Israeli women. They are pretty looking and pretty tough. I’d go so far to say they were some of the bitchiest women I ever met as a combined group, as far as the shop keeps, waitresses, and observances of vacationers and city dwellers we crossed paths with goes. The locals explained to me that this is how Israeli women are built to deal with Israeli men. If the men are anything like the cabbies, then I understand 😉 Over and over again I was astounded by how stick skinny and gorgeous (not related) they all were as well. It must be something in the hummus???

*Don’t let anyone tell you Tel Aviv doesn’t shut down on Shabbat! Sure, it wasn’t dead quiet like Jerusalem would be, but every restaurant we wanted to try was closed and every store was as well. We eventually parked ourselves on the beach for hours, and found a few open restaurants to eat, but our options that day were definitely more than limited. Not to mention that there is no public transportation running. And remember those snarly cab drivers? They know your lack of options and will gut you accordingly for those extra shekels.

Next up: Jerusalem, the Dead Sea & Masada, and a Jewish wedding…

How did I get here, anyway?

When I was a teenager in suburban Philadelphia, I felt very accomplished when I was able to take 2 hour road trips to places like Baltimore and DC. When I graduated to getting on a plane for San Fran and Vegas, or the Caribbean, I thought I had really made it. There’s a perspective that sets in, in a place like I am from– “This is what you were given. Why would you want anything else?” But for me, there was something missing that seeing new places started to fill a bit. Without spending too much time on this for now, I’ll just say that moving to Europe wasn’t even on my radar or in my realm of possibilities.

Eventually, after having moved to New York in my early 20s, my perspective exploded wider than I even knew existed as possible. Surrounded by all types of people and new friends from different backgrounds, suddenly everything I knew in my little bubble was barely the tip of life’s iceberg. 7 years in New York gave me more than I could have imagined. I excelled at a career, created a new group of friends from scratch, and basically lived the New York life. I navigated subway systems daily in one of the biggest world cities. I survived an attempted aggressive mugging. I played the online dating game like it was a second job (unsuccessfully, if success is judged by settling with someone I met online.) My choices of what I enjoyed eating increased by 100-fold (before New York, I had not eaten oysters, asparagus, tomatoes, crab, sushi, fish, couscous, falafel, hummus, strawberries, or any type of Asian cuisine that was not General Tso’s chicken… And I could go on.) I was on the cutting edge of the new music coming in from Brooklyn, the food trends of the moment, and in the stopover area where people visited from around the world. But like anything else, it became my new regular life.

I eventually got a passport and, with a network of old friends, new friends, and new friends’ friends, I started taking one-to-two week long trips and saw Galway, Beijing, Phuket, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and took drives from the North to South of France, and Montreux, Nice, Monaco, Florence, Pisa, Luxembourg, Lima. I even hiked the Inca Trail.

Tick, tick, tick.  With each city and tourist site visited with my limited American-sized vacation time from work, I started to see the world. And how amazing I felt getting to do it! It made me appreciate a new level like when I left Philadelphia, to the next level. It impacted me on many levels – from the small impacts like making me look at restaurant names differently  (Hey, Cafe d’Alsace… I drove past there in France!) to the larger impacts like making me value my friendships with people with different backgrounds who help me (still) to see that the world is just not only how it was given to you.

Anyway… So that’s a little bit of background. Skipping ahead, 7 years spent in New York expanded my mind but also tired me out. It’s an exciting but exhausting city if your life currency is spent focusing on promotions, making money, eating at the next restaurant, finding free time after work to run, or meet up with friends (or all of the above in a given week). What’s good with that extra cash if it’s spent on your tiny apartment and on your meals for the month? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there’s a way to strike the balance, but I couldn’t see it and I needed to rip out everything I knew from under me in order to start figuring out the next evolution of me that I wanted to be.

I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with (blech, sorry 🙂 ) someone with two non-American passports and a tendency towards living around the world and experiencing new international adventures as a default to life, but yet who holds many of the same values and life goals as I do. It gave me the courage that starting anew in a strange land didn’t have to be just for the responsiblity-lacking drifters, trust fund kiddies, or trendy blogging travelers. We could get jobs (I’ll likely never change from requiring a safety plan), and reset our success metrics on a level that I could more easily comprehend and accept.

So, here I am.  I’ve traded my NYC salary for a modest European one, and my modest NYC vacation days for a more ample European plan. My weekends can be spent exploring new places on this European side of the pond without breaking the bank. I don’t have a goal in mind living here, and I also don’t exactly have a plan for the future yet. But in the 6 weeks of living abroad as an expat, I’ve visited quite a few cities and I’m looking forward to revisiting and reflecting on them here, and to document my adventures looking ahead.