Mid-Trip Reflections

It’s so crazy to think that I have been in Tel Aviv for almost three months now! And by that I mean both “Oh my god it’s been three months?” and “WHAT I only have three months left?!?!” When I left my home in Colorado at the end of June I had no clue what I had really signed up for, other than the classic Israeli stereotypes I had gathered on my 10-day trip to the country last December.  As I boarded my plane from New York to Tel Aviv, the sense of beginning a six-month stay in the great unknown was overwhelming. Perhaps if I had known how quickly Tel Aviv would seem like home, I would have been more at ease.

What are some fun facts about Israel? The time difference from here to the east coast is 7 hours. The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday because of Shabbat, so the week starts on Sunday. That’s probably what took the most time to get used to, and even still sometimes I get really confused about what day it is. The mediterranean is super beautiful and the beach always crowded. The main beach is a quick bus or Shirut ride away from my campus. Shiruts are shared taxis, they cost roughly the same amount as the bus but they drop you off wherever you need on its set route. Tel Aviv is a wonderful, vibrant, and beautiful city that I quickly fell in love with. Even though I didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew when I got to Tel Aviv and everything was foreign (even trips to the store to find scotch tape and peanut butter were HUGE adventures) I’ve never felt remotely out of place. Maybe that’s because of the people in Israel, who are often described as being “very direct.” Perhaps too direct for some people, but I don’t really see it that way. I feel more like Israelis just lack the social barrier that Americans construct around people they just met. Instead of treading lightly and being overly polite until you get to know a person, Israelis treat you like they’ve known you forever. That means they’ll tell you exactly what they think, whether it’s politically correct or not, but it also means they’ll invite you over for Shabbat dinner 5 minutes after they met you. Israelis are very welcoming, talkative, and interesting. For me, I think my fascination with Israelis and their way of life really manifested itself in my first month in Israel.

Shortly before I left for my semester abroad, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped. As the search for the boys unfolded, I packed my bags, spent a few days wandering in New York with my mom, and arrived in Israel. That night, their bodies were found, and the following month was a little chaotic, with riots leading to rockets — even in Tel Aviv, which is really considered a bubble in Israel because it’s a very secular and increasingly international city — leading to Operation Protective Edge and a ground invasion and failed ceasefire after failed ceasefire until there was quiet again. So by a little chaotic, I mean for non-Israelis. For Israelis, I hesitate to call it normal, but it surely wasn’t too far out of the norm. For me and my fellow international students, being woken by sirens and running to bomb shelters was entirely foreign. Even though I guess it makes my study abroad experience atypical, I truly believe that I got a better understanding of Israeli life and the ever-present conflict here. It was strange how quickly it became normal for me too.  Seriously. My friends and family back home were more concerned about me being scared than I was worried about being in Israel. Being in Israel during that period of time gave me such an interesting perspective on Israeli life, and while I obviously wasn’t rooting for a fight to break out while I was there, I wouldn’t trade the experience. And by my family’s reaction and a few dozen google searches, I know that what was being reported on the news looked really scary, but I never felt unsafe. We knew what to do if a siren went off and of course we followed all of the guidelines for being safe, but above all else life in Israel went on, as it always does. This is one of the things that makes Israel very unique. I think because of the nature of living in a conflict zone, there’s a greater appreciation for the privileges that people often take for granted.

So what have I done in my three months in Israel, you might ask. Well,  I have visited the stunning Baha’i gardens in Haifa, eaten an AMAZING lunch in a Druze village after learning about their religion, hiked Ein Avdat and Ein Gedi in the south, floated around in the Dead Sea, learned about the graffiti/street art in Tel Aviv, wandered and bargained my way through the markets (Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv and Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem) while marveling at pomegranates roughly the size of my head and laughing at the vendors competing for title of “Loudest Person Lane Has Ever Come Across.” I got a hair wrap from super cool Ethiopian women who opened a hair salon near the shuk to make their talent for dealing with difficult hair into a successful business. I prayed at the Western Wall, revisited my favorite ice cream shop of all time, started to slowly but surely study the fascinating and frustrating language of Israel, Hebrew, and more. So I guess what I’ve done in Israel is learned and absorbed. In all seriousness, I have learned so much, both in the classroom and out of it. I’ve met amazing people from all over the world with a really inspiring love for Israel and desire to be a part of this country.

In a surprising turn of events, I write to you now from Slovenia! After a month of summer classes and 7 weeks of an intensive Hebrew course known as Ulpan, I got a month-long break over the holidays before my semester officially starts so I decided to backpack through Europe with friends from Ulpan. My oh my has it been an eventful trip! My friend Ginsey and I flew from Tel Aviv to Geneva with the intention of going straight to Milan because Geneva is very expensive. Well, fate was having none of that. I left my wallet on the plane and after reporting it to lost and found, they told us we would have to come back the next day at 11. Welp. So we found a hostel, stayed the night, and wandered around Geneva, which was of course very beautiful. Everything was picturesque and the weather was gorgeous. To put it in Ginsey’s words, no filter needed. After wandering to the UN building we made our way back to the airport where we found my wallet! Hurrah! Except they wanted 20 francs for it. No, really. The lost and found in the Geneva airport charges you for their services. My interaction with the woman working there went something like this:

Woman: Sign here and here and I don’t know if they told you this last night but it is a 20 franc fee to collect your wallet.

Me: Ha- WHAT?

Ginsey: 20 francs?!

Woman (without reaction): yes.

Me: Are you kidding?

Woman (woman or robot? We couldn’t tell): No. This service is provided by the Geneva airport and we do not receive any money from the airlines so yes, there is a fee.

Me: Can I give you 20 shekels*?

Woman (still looking vaguely like a robot): Perdon?

Me: And what if I take my wallet and run?

Woman (WHO STILL HAS NOT CHANGED FACIAL EXPRESSIONS ONCE): Well, I would have to call security.

Me: So you mean to tell me that because of YOUR inefficient lost and found system I had to stay a night in Geneva, a city we were trying to avoid, spend money on hostels and food here, and now pay 20 francs to get back my wallet?

Woman: Yes.

*New Israeli Shekels, the currency in Israel. I had a total of 14.60 in my wallet.

So, incredibly frustrated both by the situation and this woman’s complete lack of facial expression, Ginsey and I resign ourselves to paying the 20 francs… but we don’t have any francs, we only have euros, and the exchange rate is in favor of euros. So after arguing with the woman about this too, we finally throw her 20 euro and run to catch our train to Milan. When we got to Milan, we got lost trying to find our hostel and when we got there we found out they had cancelled our reservation because the only thing we had managed to relay via Skype was that we wouldn’t be there that night, and they’d booked everything except this quasi-room in the attic with enough space for our bags, a bed, and our bodies. We were so tired we couldn’t bring ourselves to look for another hostel and we found a random restaurant where the people didn’t speak any English, mimed our way through dinner, and fell asleep within minutes of getting back to the hostel. The next day, fate had its way with us again when the machine to buy metro tickets refused to take our cards and proceeded to eat 20 euros. After being advised to wait a few minutes to see if the machine spat the money back out (it didn’t) and filling out a form, taking it to the central metro station, and finding the right people to take it to, we found out that this would be the second 20 euros we lost this trip. An angry Italian man informed us that we were basically out of luck and he got very, very upset with us when we asked what we could do. He was shouting, bouncing up and down, and waving his arms in the air as we tried to relay to him that we understood what he was saying. So that was no fun. We faxed the form with contact and bank info to the main metro office and hopefully we reduce our “wasted money” pile from 40 euro to 20. We wandered around Milan and saw a castle from the 12th century, complete with Michelangelo’s unfinished last work, Pieta Rondanini. We saw the Duomo and a whole bunch of stores that were so fancy I was afraid to look at them, and the beautiful Milan Cathedral before we grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the train station for our next trek. In short, as I’m sure you can see, our first two days in Europe were a little rough. Even so, misadventures are still adventures, and Ginsey and I have mostly managed to laugh everything off and roll with the punches.

In stark contrast to our first few days, Slovenia has been perfect. It’s beautiful here. Actually, I don’t think beautiful even covers it – it’s unreal. Ljubljana is the kind of city where every building looks like it could be on a postcard. Right now we’re in Bled, a small town about 45 minutes from Ljubljana that’s right on a gorgeous lake with a magnificent church on an island in the middle of it. So basically it looks straight out of the movie Frozen. Everything is lush and green, we ate apples and raspberries and grapes and pears and walnuts straight off the trees as we walked through the village today, and the view from where we’re staying looks like it was painted. It’s unbelievable. Today we visited the Vintgar gorge and, even in the pouring rain, it was so so so stunning. The gorge is covered in moss, with a river running whose fluctuates from a deep, mysterious blue to a bright, clear emerald turquoise. Even soaked to the bone and shivering, we loved every second.

So that’s all for now! We leave on Saturday for Berlin where we will meet another friend from Ulpan, Rebekah. Three’s a party right? If you want to read more about my first three months in Israel, feel free to check lanewithalamed.wordpress.com, where I’ve been blogging until now, and click on the link below for pictures!

for UFIC