Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shit Happens and It does Matter – Why Living is Israel is not like living in the United States

Visitors from Europe or North America travelling through Israel will see a remarkable number of similarities.  They will recognize many of the brands and stores.  They will read the signs in English.  People drive cars on the right (in both senses of the word) side of the road, albeit crazily.  Even social manners are reasonably similar, if a bit more expressive than Northern Europe.  All in all, Israel does not even feel like a completely foreign country.
At the same time, life here is different than that in the West.  Even after many years, it is hard to put your finger on the actual difference.  I have an unproved theory, a gut feeling (not always good, either):
Outside occasional deaths in the family and even more rare mass shooting events, most people in the United States and Europe are insulated from tragedy.  Most people don’t know anybody who actually has been shot and wounded, not to mention just shot at.  Most people don’t know someone who has served or is serving in an ongoing war.  Even 9/11, an iconic event, was more a symbolic blow to security than an actual personal loss for the vast majority of Americans.  I am not saying this is a bad thing.  It is a sign of a normal life.  However, one of its side effects is that the great American expression “Whoever has the most toys wins” becomes very dominant.  The goal of people becomes to collect things, big or small, according to budget and nature.  Keeping with the Joneses, Lees, Rodriguezes, and Ivanovs is an extremely popular game.  A person can make a success of a football (any type) team the focus of their life.  In other words, for the most part, there is the automatic routine of living and there is fun, quite simple really.
By contrast, in Israel, shit does happen and much too frequently.  The recent bombing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria was a not so gentle reminder of how frail life and happiness can be.  A person’s whole life can and does sometimes change in an instant.  Almost everybody in Israel has a family member or friend who is serving.  Almost everybody knows someone who has been wounded or killed in the line of duty.  Everybody naturally looks for unnatural behavior or objects, albeit in a calm, natural manner.  Israelis almost always stop talking for the first ten seconds of the omnipresent news broadcasts to be sure that nothing “important” has happened.  On a certain level, this constant worry is negative: tension, worry, and negative thinking.  On the other hand, it has certain positive effects in my opinion.  Life is lived more intensely here; every day is long and every week is short.  Also, people really actively value their families and friends since a whole world can be theoretically upturned at any time.  You cannot take the routine for granted.  Finally, the whole issue of having more toys is less dominant here because there are more important things, although competition is a part of human nature.
So, while you would think living in the historically unstable Middle East would ruin your life, it merely changes it and not necessarily for the worse.
I once met someone who had lived in Sarajevo.  I mentioned how dangerous that must have been.  His answer would be utterly understood by an Israeli: “No, the fighting took place in the block next to us, not where we lived.” Shit happens.  Cope with it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Tempest in a Teacup

The word “exotic” can be defined as that what is extraordinary.  For example, blonds are exotic in the Middle East but quite commonplace in Scandinavia.  When a phenomenon is exotic, it creates problems of description.  While the dictionary literally translates words from language to languages, the phenomenon they describe can in practice vary, as in the example of weather.
Rain in some quantity is essentially a global event experienced by basically all cultures.  So, the word storm exists in all languages. However, it means different things to different people.  I lived in (Western) Oregon, home of such classic jokes as “It rains twice a year, from January to June and June to January” and “Oregonians don’t tan; they rust” (To be fair, the same jokes are made about the northern half of the Pacific Northwest, Washington state).  If the weather forecaster mentioned a storm, it had to be more than the usual constant piss outside, something with high winds and torrential rain.  There was no purpose in saying there was a storm outside to describe the constant fall of water particles typical of nine months of the year (in a good year).  I imagine that the British also can relate to this.   By contrast, in the arid Middle East, a storm is anything more than a half a day of rain.  A whole slew of experts appear on television to advise the public how to prepare for the event, each and every millimeter of rain, in terms of dressing children, driving precautions, and staying healthy.  Two days later, the whole nation joyfully listens how the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) went up such and such millimeters and is this far from the red line.  The only real damage is a few more car accidents than usual and a few low lying areas get flooded (as they do every year due to non-existent drainage).  However, you have to watch out for that storm.
In contrast, there is the wonderful term heat wave.  In northern Europe and parts of the United States, a heat wave is anything beyond 30° C (86° F) for more than three days.  The main reason for this panic is the lack of air circulation within the cramped cities, air conditioners, ice, or any other means of getting cool, and general knowledge of how to react to heat.  Hundreds people in Europe actually died during a recent wave there.  In the Middle East, this is not a heat wave; it is the climate.  From May until October, the temperature is over 30° C, often even at night, not taking account high humidity in the coastal areas, an added pleasure as any New Yorker would know.  A heat wave, like we are having now, is a week of over 104° with some added high humidity.  Now that is suffering, as we say as we sit in our air-conditioned cars, offices, and houses.
On a final note, I once asked a group of newly-arrived immigrants from the former Soviet Union what temperature they considered cold.  Apparently, most of them came from the Siberia region as their consensus was -30° C (-22° F).  They said that -20° C (-4° F) was quite tolerable.  To paraphrase Alice, a word means what I want it to mean.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Well-Grounded Coffee

The Middle East is a crossroad of cultures, ancient and modern, East and West.  Countless travelers, languages, foods and styles have passed through this gate between Europe, Africa, and Asia.  This blending of tastes is also expressed in coffee, more specifically in the types of coffee drunk by people here.
As befits an immigrant country, to drink coffee has different meanings to different people.  The ancient Arab way of drinking coffee is brewing strong black coffee, often several times, until it become quite concentrated and serving it sweetened in small porcelain or glass cups.  This tradition is alive and well and can be experienced in even the simplest of Arab restaurants, where the meal is capped with a cup of coffee and piece of Baklava.  I worked at a Druze school where there was an employee whose only job, as far I could ever see, was to prepare Druze coffee, granted extremely good, for the staff.  Imagine that in any Western school.
The modern, Israeli equivalent is a black coffee served in a normal cup prepared simply by pouring boiling water over the ground coffee and adding sugar, often called Mud for obvious reasons.  Traditional Arabs probably don’t consider this coffee, but it does have the virtue of containing caffeine, being easy to prepare, and not containing milk, which allows it to be drunk after a meat meal by those who keep Koshrut.
The Zionist contribution to coffee, if you choose to view it as a contribution, is Elite Instant Coffee or that of one of its competitors.  Elite is supposedly a pioneer in coffee processing technology and a world leader in coffee sales.  It is usually drunk with milk, similar to a café au lait.  As the French say, chacun á son gout, in English – to each his own, but it is not my cup of tea. However, to be fair, in terms of numbers, it is probably the most popular coffee in Israel.
The European influence is reflected in the omnipresent and quite good expresso bars in Israel. The smallest kiosk seems to offer expresso (as written in French) or cappuccino, even gas station convenience stores. Surprisingly, the quality is generally quite good. 
To set matters straight, I have a limited tolerance for coffee, but enjoy both its taste and its effects.  I drink either expresso (Nespresso machine at home) or an excellent French expresso instant made by Café Noire, for which I can’t seem to find any supplier that will ship to Israel.  I also can enjoy a good Arab coffee or Israeli black coffee, especially when traveling or hiking in the field.
So, if you want to visit Israel and are, for some reason, concerned about the available of good coffee, you have nothing to worry about.  Israel has adopted all the world has to offer in terms of coffee.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Important Room

A euphemism is a nice word for a concept that society does not want to talk about openly, even if it must.  Examples of this are dying, often known as passing away, among others (cf. Monty Python’s Dead Parrot routine for the best exposition on the subject), cancer, otherwise known as a terminal disease, and sex with its hundreds of synonyms.
One peculiar area where most societies prefer to shade the truth a bit is that room in the house or outside of it where people carry out those important bodily functions sometimes known mathematically as 1 and 2 or dimensionally as big and small.  In English, it can be called a restroom, where I suppose some people actually rest, a loo, derived from an old French term, a WC, standing for water closet, which at least is always present in the room, a toilet, a word emphasizing the clean afterwards of the experience, the bathroom, which often does not include a bath especially in small apartments, and the ladies and mens room for restaurant, a possibly justified euphemism.  I would agree that it is much more elegant to ask the waiter where the ladies room is as compared to ask where to go pee.
French shares la toilette, la salle de bain, and WC with the English.  However, it adds the charming “le petit coin” meaning the small corner.   Given the size of many if not most French toilettes, the description is precise in terms of area if not purpose. 
Hebrew has its own terms:   השירותים (hashirutim) meaning “the services”; בית שימוש (beit shimush) literally signifying “the house of use”; and finally המקום החשוב (hamakom hahashuv), which can be translated as “the important place.”  The latter may not be specific in function, but it is accurate in terms of status. 
So, I will end this post to allow you to go to, you know, the important place.