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.


Anonymous said...
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Ender said...

The comment about traffic fatalities is a myth. Oh, sure, they're more likely than dying of terrorism, but they're NOT more likely than dying in a car crash in the US. Israel may have unsafe drivers, but the per capita fatalities from car crashes are in fact lower than in the US (nearly half IIRC).

Just sayin'.

The Precision Blogger said...

Ender, I wonder if you're right. In 2001, signs were posted all over Israel at intersections, showing the number of serious accidents at each one. The numbers were impressive to me.

Accident rates over time are apparently not increasing in Israel, but they may still overwhelm other sudden death causes.

Please look at these raw mortality rates:
I'm sure you can digest these tables better than I can.

The death rates from accidents are higher, I think than rates for any other kin of death, other than by disease.

Ender said...

...but the same is true of the US. In 2008, the US registered a bit over 37,000 deaths in traffic accidents (quite a bit lower than the traditional average of ~41k). For an estimated population of 308 million, that's about 12/100k population; it was roughly half that in Israel (9.3/100k for men, 3/100k for women in 2007). In total, this is around 400 people a year.

Sure, transportation accidents (most of which are traffic related) are the largest cause of non-disease/cancer related death in most developed countries by a large margin - but this isn't surprising; most countries don't have widespread violence/wars/murders on the scale to compete.

Nevertheless, Israel's traffic fatality rate is far lower than the US'. Their overall death rate is lower, too - 5.4/1k to 8.4/1k for the US (largely due to a younger population in Israel resulting in lower deaths from disease/aging, I would imagine), but that doesn't come close to explaining the twofold difference in traffic fatality rates.

There's also some data I saw a while ago about traffic fatalities not as a function of population but as a function of distance traveled - certainly Israelis generally drive less than Americans - and I recall the rates being comparable then, but not heavily in favor of one way or another. I'll try to dig up that statistic later.

It may be that historically there was an unusually high traffic-related fatality rate in Israel, and the belief has persisted that things have not changed. I don't really know. All I know is that it IS currently a myth. I suspect that even 400 deaths a year are seen as too many in Israel, where every violent death is obsessed about in the national papers to an unhealthy degree. Maybe that's a good thing, indicating a deep-seated cultural desire to eliminate preventable deaths. Maybe it's just indicating that Israelis are liable to obsess about everything. *shrugs*

The Precision Blogger said...

This is all fascinating information. But it's not responsive to the one line that I wrote. People in the US (I've met lots of them) think that Israel is a place where citizens get blown up. But, as I wrote, the great day-to-day danger in Israel is car accidents. (It might have been fairer to say that the great danger was heart disease, but people generally put medical issues in a separate category.)
- PB

Ender said...

Of course you're right - the biggest day-to-day danger of an untimely death is car accidents, as with every other developed country. But the hyperbole surrounding such statements in Israel - 'everyone knows someone who died in a traffic accident' and exaggerating the danger of driving/walking as compared to your normal experiences in the US - are very common among visitors to Israel. How many Americans do you know who died in a traffic accident? On average, you should know about twice as many as the equivalent Israeli. Your statements were much tamer than some, of course, but it still paints a picture of atrocious traffic safety. While I can attest to the fact that Israeli drivers seem to have a more... unique... understanding of the rules of the road than drivers in other places, and that many of the roads (esp. in major cities) could use a major redesign, that doesn't actually seem to make it that much more dangerous than other places (quite the contrary, in fact).

*shrugs* This is all largely a moot point - your post was charming and fun to read as usual, I just find the whole 'OMG terrorists are going to kill me in Israel' to be just as inaccurate as 'OMG I'm taking my life in my hands by driving in Israel'.


The Precision Blogger said...

I agree. You're right, too.
- PB