NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 3 – The Kindness of Strangers – In the Air between Tel Aviv, Israel and Warsaw, Poland – August 23, 2016
I must write this NOW; I already feel my mind slipping into a new reality, as LOT Polish Air flight 152 carries me to what I presume to be the land of my mother’s ancestors, who all had names ending with –-sky. Nothing further is known about their birthplace. Those with the info left this life before I had the awareness to ask about it. So I go to stand where they stood. Tonight I will sleep in Krakow, Poland, in the Jewish quarter that still remains, even after the Holocaust, and I will visit Auchwitz, because now I am strong enough to bear it. I hope.
But first a tribute to the kindness of strangers in Israel.
Myth: Everything in Israel is in English.
Myth: Everyone in Israel speaks English.
Myth: Everyone in Israel is Jewish.
The wedding over, the relatives kissed, the presents given, the advice taken in, I took off in my red Kia for Akko, a Mediterranean port near Haifa, which was populated at least as far back as 500 B.C. (Hellenistic Greek ruins have been found; but it’s probably WAY WAY older) and which was the gateway for pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land during the Crusades in medieval times. I did not go straight there; to satisfy my curiosity I took a quick side trip to Tsfat (aka Zefat, aka Safed) high above the Sea of Galilee, a center for Klezmer music and extreme Jewish faith.
I stopped for gas. (Which by the way costs more than $50 a tank.) But how to fill it? No English option on the gas pump. If you need someone to speak English in Israel, ask young people. They learn it in school.
A lovely young woman taught me how: first you put the nozzle in the car. Then the credit card. Then you enter your license plate number, then your ID number, in my case my passport number. Then you can buy the gas. Note to USA Homeland Security.
The new navigation app WAZE was invented by an Israeli, and I’ve now downloaded it and made it speak to me in English. It’s great. Up the mountain to Tsfat.
Since I arrived in Tsfat on the Sabbath, I was treated to a demonstration of that town’s extreme faith by the complete lack of activity in the town, which was to be expected. I headed down the mountain and west to the Mediterranean coast, to Akko (aka Acco, aka Acre, aka Akka), in search of my ancient past. It is blazing hot.
Israel is a narrow country and I arrive about 2 hours later at the ancient Mediterranean port of Akko. It is immediately apparent that I am in a different culture, while still within Israel. The roads are very narrow, the stores have signs in Arabic (an official language of Israel, along with Hebrew), the women are in head scarves and dressed very conservatively, the sounds of Arabic music waft through the air. And here’s me, brazenly coming into town in my red Kia.
A man is headed directly at me on his bicycle. My danger “flares” go up. I consider myself open-minded and progressive, yet in an instant I have identified him as “Arab” and his action as a dare. As if daring me to stop, swerve, or hit him. Is this a power struggle? Is it because I am a Western woman driving a red car? Perhaps just because the streets are too narrow for modern day traffic? I brake and avoid him, of course. He does not slow down. I’m now on my guard. And I’m aware that I just had a demonstration of my own prejudice.
I make my way to my hotel, built into the medieval walls of the Crusades era. I park, check in, clean up, and head out at sunset to find a fresh fish for dinner. My short walk to the port confirms that I am in a different culture. Arabic music accompanies a horse-drawn carriage giving rides on the narrow cobbled streets, already crowded with impossible 2-way car traffic and pedestrians. Boats in the harbor also play music, wild and fast, families crowd the port, speaking in Arabic, a mosque in view.
I feel conspicuous in my mini-skirt as I enter a restaurant and ask for a table for 1. Glad I have my long black cotton sweater on to cover my arms and legs, I sit and order. I’m ready for a vodka, but there is none, and I wouldn’t order it here anyway. The dinner is delicious and by the end I’m asked by the waiter where I come from. When I answer “San Francisco,” he nods knowingly. We smile. That explains it.
DAY TWO IN AKKO: I rise early to head out with my video camera, to capture the ancient streets in the morning light.
At the port, different in the daylight, I come upon a huge dead rat in the street, already being fed upon by insects. I’m revolted, and must remind myself that my dearest Venice, another port city, has its share of these tenaciously disgusting creatures. Both cities have a population of stray cats, which hopefully helps to keep things in check.
After breakfast, I purchase some items in the open air market on my way to the tourist info center. I walk where the Knights Templar have ridden, where pilgrims were cared for on their way to Jerusalem, traversing underground tunnels constructed 1000 years ago.
In the afternoon, I head off in the car, thinking I’m making a short trip to the Baha’i Gardens, but I miss the turn and so decide to go to Haifa instead, 25 minutes south. Not having researched (word to the wise: if you don’t know the language, do the research first)
I log into WAZE and simply put in Haifa Port.
I end up behind a slow moving line of huge trucks, bound for the port. I’m locked in, there are no turnoffs, my phone is dying, I don’t have my backup charger and I have very few Israel shekels with me. And I don’t actually know where I am going. I want to find a nice café, then a nice place to have dinner after I tour the town.
HA-HA. I finally get out of the truck line and bail to a working class neighborhood, which might have been called HADAR, near Haifa’s City Hall. Triumphantly I find a parking lot that has a system like the Sutter-Stockton Garage in San Francisco; you get a ticket upon entering and pay at a machine before you leave.
Another fabulous young Israeli woman answers my questions about the parking lot, I go check out the machine where I’ll pay in the end, and I’m off on foot, phone dead, making little drawings and notes with a pen in my diary so I can find my way back. Like breadcrumbs.
Gone my thoughts of dinner in Haifa, over a double espresso I decide I’d better head back to Akko. I pass a cellphone store. A Russian man sells me a car charger for my last 25 shekels. The box is so old he throws it away; the receipt is so faint as to be barely readable. He says I can return it if it doesn’t work. Fat chance.
I put my Wells Fargo bank card in at Bank Hapolim, expecting to get shekels. They don’t accept it.
I re-trace my steps to the parking lot, sure I can pay with my credit card for my parking. Again, no English in the machine. I buzz and ask for help in English. A male voice yells at me in Hebrew, obviously saying “I don’t speak English; don’t you understand?”
Yet another lovely young woman passes and understands my plight. She escorts me up one floor in the elevator, using gestures to communicate. Calls the supervisor to help. Puts my card in for me, helps me pay. I’m good to go. Blessings on you, thank you.
Now, just to get back to Akko with no cell phone, and not even a paper map. As you may expect, the car charger sold me by the Russian guy is a dud.
It’s time to roll down the car window and do it like the old days. Gestures and the name of the destination. At a traffic light, I ask a guy on the curb, “Which way, Akko?” He understands the question but has trouble explaining. I say, with hand gestures, “22, Blue?” (Route 22, designated by blue signs). A triumphant Yes! We have communicated. I’m off to Akko, which I reach fairly quickly with a sigh of relief.
But it’s not over yet.
In the maze of narrow streets and roundabouts, I make a wrong turn. I need to retrace my route in the town. The nightmare of the narrow streets is now mine. Scared I’m going to scratch my rented car, lost, making my second K-turn with no space, it is 7:25pm, the skies are darkening and the Moslem call to prayer sounds from a mosque right near me. But I have no cellphone to record it.
A lovely Arabic man rescues me, guides me through a narrow passage and instructs me how to get back to my hotel. In English. I’m SO grateful, and silently vow to toast him with a vodka in my hotel bar immediately upon my return.
Which I do. I’ve learned a lot in Akko.