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!
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.
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!
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…