Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tel Aviv: first attempt at a summary

Trainblogging again, on the way to Munich to meet a client. Things always go crazy just before Christmas, as people realize that they haven't yet spent their year's budget. It's amazing that even in these hard times of belt-tightening etc, some corporations still apparently think that saving money is a bad thing. If you give me a budget of X and I spend X minus ten thousand, then surely you should thank me for reducing the corporation's costs, not punish me. Because that is what many corps still do: If you do not spend all your budget, then not only does it not carry over to next year, but you might find that your future budget gets cut by the amount you saved! The corporation forces its employees to waste money. How absurd is that? Bah.

Anyway, that's not my problem, except insofar as it causes a rush of urgent business in December.

Here I sit in an EC (older, slower, no electricity or canned radio) on a cool and sunny Wednesday. There's been a lot of rain recently, the rivers are all running fast and high, and the lowlying fields are wet. Hasn't yet been a frost except in the uppermost highlands, but that may change this weekend.

I haven't finished with Israel yet, though it is six weeks behind me now and all but forgotten in the mudslide of mundaneity. I have not yet sorted and posted my photos (nearly said "slides", how quaint) on Flickr, and probably won't have time for that before January.

But I do remember, with pleasure, walking the sunny streets and sitting by that perfect sandy beach. After the first Soup Salon, on my second day in Israel, Savtadotty and Miriam and I walked down Rothschild (pronounced in the European way, meaning "red shield," rather than the American "child of Roth") to a wine bar and sat outside (at 9pm, in late October) for an hour. I looked across the broad street, with its double row of plane trees and central stripe of garden, at a house on the opposite side, where a group of six thirtysomethings were having dinner by candlelight on their large balcony. I watched for a while, then pointed them out to the others and said "This is just perfect, you live in paradise." They agreed; then Savtadotty said with a wry smile "Even paradise is sometimes just another place after you've lived in it for twenty years."

Paradise indeed; had I been twenty years younger, I might well have stayed. (That marks the first time I have said such a thing about myself. Getting old.)

I met one of Susan's Second Life meditation buddies (whom I had previously met in Princeton last summer) and his wife (whom I hadn't met before) at the Manta Ray, an excellent fish restaurant at the beach. The food was marvellous, the wine was good, the conversation excellent; considering the quality of experience the bill was quite moderate. We talked much of expatriatism, as they had both lived abroad (separately and together) for several years. She had just finished two years as a Fellow at the IAS in Princeton, working on theoretical computation (I think she was teaching data-mining systems to act intuitively, but don't ask for details), which is how her husband met Susan in SL.

Perhaps I was lucky in my choice of restaurants, but I found the food in Tel Aviv unexpectedly good, the standard is universally very high. Fresh food, well cooked, well presented. It's not cheap, one can eat for less in other cities; but a meal of the standard that we had at the Manta Ray would have cost more in Germany.

Given my love of symmetry and repetition, it was appropriate that the week ended with a second Soup Salon, which went on until well after 10pm. It was such fun that we decided to meet the next morning for brunch, before my flight, at Idelsohn on Ditzengoff. Memo to anyone having dealings with Israelis: take appointments and timekeeping with a generous pinch of salt, and be prepared to wait. I got there at the agreed time and had the staff put together a long table for the eight of us, at which I sat alone for twenty minutes until Lisa and Savtadotty arrived. Anyway, it's just a local habit that one gets used to, the mirror image of the equally irritating Swiss über-punctuality. It was a very good brunch, in great company; and then I took a taxi to the airport. (No trains or buses run in Israel on Saturdays, travellers be warned.)

The airport. Israel is perhaps the only country in the world that is harder to get out of than into. Immigration on the way in was a bagatelle: the border guard looked at my passport, asked whether I was there on business, then waved me through. Getting out was an adventure.

It starts with a very long lineup, as usual, but slower-moving than most. The line is patrolled by young women (I'd guess that at least 80% of security and border-control staff in Israel are women) who pick people out of the line and draw them forward into a small open area. I was one such person. She took my passport and boarding card, then started asking questions about who I was and where I had been. "Who did you meet? Where does she live? Do you speak Hebrew? Do you have family here? Where does she live again? Did you pack your own suitcase, and has anyone else been able to get to it since? Who did you meet? You seem nervous, why are you nervous? Who did you meet again?" After about ten minutes of this, she decided that I was a hard case and went to get her superior (a slightly older young woman), who repeated the process with more emphasis on my supposed nervousness. Superior decided after five minutes that I was a harmless idiot, and sent me to the first baggage examination, literally pushing me in at the head of a long line of waiting people. My bags passed through the x-ray, and I was sent to the second baggage examination, this time by hand: swiping my laptop with the magic wand and feeling around in the depths of the suitcase while a colleague watched my facial expression closely.

That too passed, and I moved on to passport control, by contrast a mere formality. Off to the gates, passing through a third and final baggage examination on the way, this time the now-traditional x-ray scan and sensor gateway setup.

The reason for all this caution is obvious, and I am not complaining at all. I am not going to be lured into a trollfest of competing polemics, least of all by myself.

OK, I've been trying to avoid saying this, but the words are forcing their way out. The principle joy of being in Israel, even more than the weather, even more than the universally marvellous food, was being surrounded by Jews. Imagine an entire city populated by the offspring of George Steiner and Susan Sontag: that's what Tel Aviv is like. People of the book indeed. I have a fixed belief that the Jews as a group are the cleverest people in the world, and meeting the Israelis confirmed that. It's the result of millenia of knowing what's in the gene pool and minding that you stay at the deep end of it (in my favourite cousin's wonderful phrase).

Or perhaps it's just the fallacy of self-selecting groups in action: I like people who are like me, and they like people who are like themselves, so it's very highly likely that I will like their friends too. Tiny but utterly representative example: on the way down Rothschild to the wine bar on that first Friday, Jane walked with us as far as the bus-stop, saying as we arrived "I hope I won't have to wait for ages"; turned around and there was the bus pulling up. "Mirabile dictu!" she cried, and with a wave stepped on board.

Tel Aviv felt like home.

(On the train back to Stuttgart, after an embarrassing and short meeting. There is an internet connection available in the train (of course, just as each ICE train is a travelling cellphone node) but they want €30 for sixty consecutive days. Ain't paying that.)

Jewishness intrigued me as a child, because I could never figure out what it meant. I heard people said that other people were Jews, often vaguely implying that this was somehow a bad thing, but I could never figure out how they knew — nor why they cared so much about something that seemed so petty (in the sense that I couldn't see it and didn't care when I did). The amusing thing is that the people whom I eventually learned to spot as Jews were clearly superior to the rest of us. They were the best students: the musicians, the comedians, the ones whose assignments when read out loud in class had us roaring in laughter or nodding our heads thoughtfully. Theirs were the bylines that I learned to look for in the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement; the names I spotted in film credits and at Massey Hall.

I was three years old when Eichmann was captured and tried, so it is unlikely that I have any direct memories of the event; but I do remember something about him appearing in the papers in the mid-sixties (probably in connection with Stanley Milgram). I remember at that time asking my mother why the Holocaust happened, because I just couldn't understand why Jewishness was so important, so utterly other as to make genocide seem a reasonable response. I don't remember my mother's answer, but I do remember that it didn't satisfy me, didn't explain how or why this could happen. The search for that answer has been a lifelong occupation.

I remember a few years after that, aged 15 or so, spending the summer in an intensive music course (a string chamber orchestra run by my violin teacher); hearing two of the violinists (far better players than I) playing a strange and lovely song in duet. I asked what it was, and they replied in surprise that it was the Kol Nidre, hadn't I recognized it? I felt quite flattered after I looked it up at home that evening.

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Blogger Savtadotty said...

Udge, Your visit was a joy for me too, because I got to see my neighborhood through your eyes and - mirabile dictu! - we have the same prescription. Looking forward to your next visit (hint: double your biling rates for December gigs, so you can return sooner!)

December 10, 2009 at 1:09:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Dale said...

I also have had, for as long as I can remember, the impression that Jews were smarter and more humane and more vivid, on average. Nothing in my life experience has ever shaken that. Not that there aren't plenty of other smart and humane and vivid people. The concentration just seems higher among Jews.

There, I've said it too. Let the trolls roll! :-)

December 10, 2009 at 9:04:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Shari said...

Hi Udge...
What do you mean "had I been 20 years younger"??? Savtadotty was fifty-ish when she first moved (on her own) to Tel Aviv, as you are probably aware. And my mom is considering moving here; she's 76.
About the "smarter" bit.. well, I seem to know quite a lot of not-so-smart people here in Israel, too. I don't think the average IQ around here is any higher than anywhere else, but it's kinda nice to have that kind of reputation.

Finally, I hope to meet you again on your next visit, and to enjoy some great strolls around Tel Aviv

December 10, 2009 at 9:27:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your experience really reminds me of my first visit. Very moving post. thanks, Udge. Many more, long, trips to TA!

December 11, 2009 at 9:10:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry, forgot to sign,;)

December 11, 2009 at 9:13:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger judith said...

Came here via Lisa. I ate at the Manta Ray too, agree on the food. Just a nit: I find that "use your budget or else" almost universal in government agencies, less so with corporations. But maybe that's different in Germany.

December 12, 2009 at 4:25:00 a.m. GMT+1  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

Well, from your descriptions I would say that most of Las Vegas has been wading in the shallow end.
Glad you had a good time, and yes, what the heck do you mean by 20 years younger? Twenty Years from now you might be saying the same thing, so without a family there why not just do it?

December 14, 2009 at 11:37:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...


Thank you, my dears, for the nice comments.

Lisa asked whether I'd had any trolling after she tweeted about this post, and I was pleased to say that there hadn't been any nasty reactions posted. Perhaps because trolls don't read longer than a paragraph unless they wrote it themselves?

Dale: thanks for the support, we shall fight them together (if they show up).

Savtadotty and Shari: I will definitely be back in TLV; perhaps in Spring but don't hold your breath. Next year is already pretty full.

K: thank you, and welcome aboard.

Judith: I am sure that no country and no sector of the economy has a monopoly on idiotic behaviour.

Joe: it is tempting…

December 16, 2009 at 11:36:00 p.m. GMT+1  

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