Being from Israel is not easy… Everyone has heard something about Israel, and often it’s not the good things. It is probably one of the places that people have the most misconceptions about, prejudices and strong opinions even without knowing much. Lately, while travelling we started saying that we are from Canada when asked, it just seemed easier, simpler if you like. But the fact is that we were both born and raised in Israel and (still) have lived there for most of our lives, even though each time we visit we feel a bit more like tourists, and a bit less like locals.
Don’t misunderstand me either, I’m the last person who will draw a pink image of Israel. This country has serious problems and it doesn’t seem like they are going to be resolved any time soon. But putting politics aside for a moment (if you can), it’s a pretty neat place. In a very small area (smaller than Vancouver Island), you have so many different types of climates, geographies and cultures. Hills and forests to the north, the Mediterranean coast towards the centre, urban and modern cities, rough desert and isolated communities to the south and so much more. Every place we visited was so different from the others, that we kept on saying “it’s a different world”, or it’s a “different Israel.”
After a chilly week in Vancouver and a cold and windy layover in Amsterdam we were happy to arrive to the middle of the Israeli winter – around 25c in mid February. The only problem was that it was freezing inside the houses, but once we went out it was nice and warm (kind of the opposite of Canada).
My mom lives in the busy city of Tel-Aviv, also known as “the city that never sleeps”. It’s one of the best party cities in the world and many young people are attracted to it. Even while growing up there I didn’t enjoy the party scene of the city, but the beach, the nice big park (Ha-Yarkon Park), good food and lately nice cycling paths make me like this city a little bit more each time. On our first evening, friends asked if we could meet them at a pub at the outrageous hour of 9:30pm! After living in Vancouver for awhile where people usually go to the pub at the civilized hour of 6 or 7pm, we completely forgot that when we lived in Israel we usually didn’t go out before 10pm.
We made our usual pilgrimage to Jaffa, a city just to the south of Tel-Aviv where you’ll find some of the best hummus in the country at Abu-Hassan. We both took the green bikes from the bike share system and rode along the beach on the promenade. We had to fight for a table, but that’s pretty usual, and leave as so soon as we were done so the next people in line would be able to get their share. From there we walked to the best Malabi in Israel, a small shop which doesn’t even have a sign, where we chatted with Shlomi who always remembers us even though we come there once every 12 to 21 months. A short walk took us to “Shuk HaKarmel” (the market) where we enjoyed a fresh pomegranate juice (one of many), and walked back to my mom’s place. Even though we basically crossed the city south to north (the “old north”) it didn’t feel that long. Tel-Aviv is actually pretty small and very manageable for walking or cycling.
Gili’s parents live in a small village about 45 minutes to the south, near the city of Ashkelon. To commute between Tel-Aviv and Ashkelon I mostly took the train and was very impressed by the train system! It’s not new, but the trains definitely keep on getting better and there are more routes now and more cities which are connected by train. The only problem with taking the train was that people speak really loudly on their cell phones, having their most private conversations in public. Luckily just before we left Vancouver I swapped an iPod shuffle for a batch of my delicious brownies (thanks Ignacio!) so that made the train rides much more enjoyable.
Thankfully we arrived just before the end of the orange season on the moshav (the village) so we could pick up the leftover oranges that the pickers didn’t pick straight from the trees, and managed to squeeze our own freshly squeezed orange juice every single day. Being in the village also offered much needed naps in the sun on the grass and long walks with Gili’s mom and her dogs, and every other dog who cared to join.
Gili’s dad is big into cycling, especially cross-country, which we don’t do much in Canada. Being so enthusiastic about the sport, he has three bikes, all of them in top condition. This way we could all ride together and one of our favourite rides is to the beach (but not the short way), and it was so hot that we could actually swim. Winter in Israel is weird…
We then made our way south to the small town of Mitzpe Ramon that stands on the edge of a huge crater. It’s a 5,000 people town and in Israeli terms quite isolated, as the biggest closest city is Beer-Sheva, about 45 minutes away. Our friends who we met in Vancouver when we just moved, Yaron and Michelle and their sweet kids, Maayan, Dolev and Geva moved there last year (via Brisbane, Australia). We hadn’t seen them for four years so reconnecting with them was one of the highlights or this visit. Their newest additions to the family, their two year old blond red cheeked boy Geva and their big white dog Duba (Bear) just add to the awesomeness of this family.
Going to Mitzpe also gave us the opportunity to ride in the area and together with Gili’s dad we rode along the edge of the crater having wonderful desert views all around and this big wide open mouth of a crater just below us. This trail is actually part of the “Israel Bike Trail” which is now under development. Eventually it is going to be over 1,200 km of off road trail right across Israel. I think we’ll have to ride the length of it once it’s done. I also hope they will advertise it smartly, because it could easily attract many cyclists from Europe, especially in the winter months. We spent time with our friends, just like old times when we were all neighbours. We celebrated Geva’s two year birthday, unfortunately by the time we got to the cake he was already fast asleep…
The older kids (ages 7 and 9) really wanted us to see their school, which is an open democratic school which involves a lot of play. They took us via the “secret” path (going through the bushes where some garbage piles up) and up to the school. As we entered the school a girl and her dad were carrying a big box with orange, red and yellow peppers. This girl lives in the Arava, which is an area where peppers are grown in winter, and within minutes many kids where walking around the school with a colourful pepper in their mouths. We were lucky enough to attend a general school meeting where a very important issue was discussed – which class would clean which area.
Yaron also took us on a few hikes in and around the crater, including a dip in natural pools (mostly for the dog) and climbing a hill to a flat summit where one can easily play soccer if you have a ball handy. Yaron is a geologist so he kept on explaining to us about the rock formations, fossils and more. Gili found what he decided was a fossil of a mango and was very excited about it (it might actually be true, as Israel was once very close to the equator). We took the bus from Mitzpe to Beer Sheva (the big city in that area) together with Michelle, Dolev and Geva. Dolev needed glasses and in order to get them they had to go to Beer Sheva. For them it was a trip to the big city, but many people from the centre of Israel are quite snobbish about Beer Sheva and think it is “provincial”.
Gili and I lived there for three years while doing our undergrad and enjoyed our lives there very much. One of the problems, though, is that the university is quite disconnected from the rest of the town, so many students actually go to school there, but don’t really know the rest of the city. For us, going back to Beer Sheva was a bit of shock and we hardly recognized where we were. The main bus terminal changed completely and also there are many new roads and the city is really expanding north.
We took the inner bus to visit friends and we got a bit of a tour of the city. Since we kept on guessing where we were (and weren’t correct) a woman and her daughter started talking to us. I guess that aside from speaking Hebrew we sounded like real tourists. We explained to them that we used to live there but that was 9 (!) years ago and we now live in Vancouver which is close to Seattle, Beer Sheva’s twin city. They were very impressed when we told them that there is a Beer Sheva Park in Seattle, just like the Seattle Garden in Beer Sheva (well, not just like it, they are quite different, just as the cities are very different).
On Sunday morning (which is not a weekend in Israel!) my brother, Ilan, and I took the train to Jerusalem. It’s definitely the long way, but also the scenic way which passes through a nature reserve with green hills all around. Then in Jerusalem we caught the light rail (my brother insisted that we should catch it from the first stop, so it made the journey even longer). It took about 10 or more years to build this train and to me it was an amazing sight. It seemed that everyone was using it: moms with strollers, Orthodox Jews, Arabs, and secular people, seniors and people carrying shopping bags from the market. One of the main streets in Jerusalem, “Jaffa Street”, in now completely blocked to other types of motorized vehicles and only the light rail passes through there.
We met up with Gili and his brother, Tal, who took the bus (definitely the shorter way) at the market (Machne Yehuda) where we found colourful gummy bears stands, the King of Halva stand (a yummy sesame dessert), fruit, veggies, baked goods and more. We had lunch in the Iraqi Market (the little market inside the market) and had some wonderful stews and kube (dough filled with meat – the Iraqi version). From there we caught the light rail to the Old City where we toured around the narrow streets and along the Via Dolorosa. When I grew up in Jerusalem and later on too there were periods when it was considered very dangerous to be in the Old City, so it felt great to be there without feeling fear and also to see so many tourists around.
Our last day in Israel took us to Ramle in search of Halil, according to Gili one of the best hummus eateries in Israel (although he’s also a sucker for their eggplant dip). Ramle, is what we would call “off the beaten track” although there is a very nice old city, and even an old underground pool with arches, over a thousand years old, and also a lively market. We had our last fix of pomegranate juice and the last little dose of Israel for a while.
From there it was hopping on a plane (or three…) and 24 hours later we were back in Vancouver, our adopted home. I guess that despite everything, Israel still has a warm place in my heart and a connection that is hard to break. I know that I’ll keep on going back there, so I will continue to look for the places and people who make me happy, and putting politics aside it’s a pretty neat place…