Thursday, November 12, 2009

Impressions of Jerusalem, Autumn, 2009:

We just spent a wonderful two weeks in Israel. Nonetheless, many impressions of this foreign culture are relatively bizarre. Here are some of my memories from the trip:

They told us the weather was unusual for the degree of rain: torrents fell in blocks of days. But there were sunny summer and fall days as well. Sometimes we let Jersusalem's presence enwrap our own presences, joyous in the clear air among the bountiful views. And sometimes we engaged in what seemed like a war to overcome this country, however briefly, to accomplish some tiny goal. Israel is too clever; Israelis are too smart for their own good.

An elevator lifted us from the depths of a parking garage right up to the street. A one-way door allowed us to leave it, but there was no way for a disabled person to take the elevator back to our car.

A liberal sprinkling of traffic lights moves Jerusalem's traffic a little. Often you see many traffic lights at once (they are not masked for direct view, as in the US). Different lights, often in different colors, advise you when you can go straight or turn. Such ornament-driving demands great concentration.

Always, you must watch for 'turn-only' lanes. Near the King David Hotel, there's a tiny road that ends on a main street. You stay on the little road to turn left, but you must cross part of a gas station to find the right turn lane.

In the last twenty years, we have seen Jerusalem choke on its traffic. Despite some wonderful projects to speed traffic around the periphery, the narrow downtown streets fill with halting trucks and cars. And these winding streets have been intentionally narrowed even further: by reserving lanes for buses and taxis; and by destroying other lanes to build a light rail transport whose ongoing construction endures forever. When Israel decided they needed tunnels for some of their roads, tunnels sprang up in a year or two. But light rail construction appears to be similar to continental drift: centimeters per century.

Parking on streets is now civilized. You used to have to buy pasteboards at the post office and stick pins in holes to mark your parking allowance. As tourists, we used to park illegally, fearing that we could never deal with the P.O. Now you find machines at every parking site that sell parking rights for shekels.

Despite what you read in the news, the great day-to-day danger in Israel is car accidents. Everybody knows someone who died in one. Many of those dead are pedestrians. I kept a few of them alive myself, when – as usual – they stepped off the curb without looking.

There's a lot of negotiating in Israel, and it's fun to assume that no price is fixed. I parked in the Neviim Street Parking Lot, where the clearly posted price was a very expensive 12 shekels per hour. "For an hour and a quarter," the attendant told me, "the price is already 20. And it goes up from there. But you can pay me twenty in advance for the whole day."
I paid twenty, and the attendant carefully wrote 'all day' (in English) on my parking ticket. Maybe I could have bargained down to eighteen, who knows? But I parked there almost three hours, so I thought I had struck a great bargain, until I returned to my car. There was no attendant at the lot to collect fees! I could have parked for nothing, unless the only reason the two attendants left was that all the remaining drivers, like me, had paid in advance.

We drove half of our 960 kilometers in the West Bank territories, where friends, and children of friends, and even an express road have chosen to live. The K'far Adumim settlement, on a few hilltops in the middle of nowhere, offers stunning views. I stood on a porch where I could see both Jerusalem and Amman. "They are that close together," my host said. "Think about it."

Elaine gifted me with a special tourist treat: a 100-minute Segway ride, rolling through the parks and grounds near the Knesset. It will probably be my only Segway ride ever, and it was wonderful.

In the past, we traveled all the way to the depths of Tel Aviv to buy bitter almonds for Elaine's most special cake. They are difficult to buy, perhaps because a single bitter almond, uncooked, can kill a young child. A friend insisted that by now it must be possible to buy them in Jerusalem's great shouk, Machane Yehuda. We were doubtful, having failed in the past, but this time we succeeded. (You have to find a vendor who sells them, rather than a vendor who falsely claims to sell them and offers you ordinary almonds; the real ones taste horribly bitter.) We also discovered that Machane Yehuda has entered the 21st century, with HD TVs and a fine Italian restaurant, Topolino. (For dessert we ate chocolate-filled home-made ravioli in chocolate sauce.) In fact, fine Italian dairy dining seems to be a specialty of Jerusalem.

In Hebrew, the TV show 'Ugly Betty' is named 'Betti'.

We ate our last restaurant meal at Cafe Inbal in Ein Kerem. I made sure of the exact address before driving there: 25.

I don't know why I thought that this talismanic number would help me. Ein Kerem is a town spread out in patches along a twisting valley road. Building numbers are puzzling and rare, and signs are haphazard. Eventually I pulled up at a restaurant and inquired where I might find Cafe Inbal. They pointed to a sign behind a parked car. I was there.

At Ben Gurion Airport, I watched two workers sift a few kilos of dirt near some half-hidden ticket counters. At first it seemed that their desire was to keep (for themselves) what failed to fall through the screen, but then they took the finer dirt and mixed up some concrete. I'm sure they had a good reason; there's a reason for everything in fascinating Israel.
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