Thursday, April 25, 2024

When a War or Bureaucracy Are Not Enough, Nature strikes or How I Keep Failing To Go To India

BUREAUCRACY: Two years ago, after we had recently arrived in Israel, it was time for the Diplomat, Son and I to visit the family in India.  Procuring tickets from Tel Aviv to Chennai for less than one million dollars was a mammoth task, and the Diplomat came up with the brilliant scheme of flying on the cheap to Abu Dhabi, then grabbing a cab to Dubai, and flying from there on the cheap to Chennai.  One elusive element of travel to India is the fact that I need a visa to go there - an annoying formality to this pretentious American traveler. In the past, India, in a sudden progressive fit, had allowed for a visa on arrival in addition to applying and getting a visa online in advance. Well, apparently the sudden progressive fit was over, so e-visa it was. With the promise of getting the visa within 72 hours on the ministry’s website, I gleefully applied 96 hours because I am a CAREFUL PLANNER! As you can probably guess by now, I still had no visa on the morning of our flights. Emails and calls to the facility providing the visas were 110% futile because (a) no one ever picks up (which I can understand comes as a shock to many), (b) email responses take about 24 hours.  Undaunted, I got on the plane to Abu Dhabi with the grumpy Diplomat (who thought I should have applied, like, last year), and a nonchalant Son (who did not care one way or another).  I was CONVINCED that my visa would come through during the day. We made it to Abu Dhabi and took a $100 taxi to Dubai, managing to see downtown Dubai and the Burj Khalifa in the process (it is skinny and impressive). In a stunning turn of events (not), my visa did not come. At Dubai airport, the very compassionate and utterly unimpressed IndigoAir clerk firmly (but with a huge smile) refused to get me on that plane to India without the darn visa.  After hanging around the airport forlornly for about 2 hours, I called it a day, bought myself a ticket back to Tel Aviv, and went home while the Diplomat and Son flew to Chennai without me for a week. I received an email with my visa the next day. Naturally.

WAR: Accordingly, last year, we decided to try the trip again.  Never an easy feat given the lack of convenient flights from the places we have been living in the past several years, in 2021 we proudly managed to book a set of practically direct flights on Air India.  I had a visa, we told everyone we were going, this trip was HAPPENING! And then, on October 7th, some really bad things happened in Israel (unless you have been asleep under a rock for the previous 6 months, I will not explain what that was).  Which, naturally, meant that our flights were summarily canceled. Given that the airline was Air India, it also meant that we were not getting our money back without a massive fight, public shaming on social media, and an irrationally irate email exchange, in which I explained in minute detail to Air India exactly what I thought of them. We got our money back.

NATURE: Fast forward to April and we thought it was a very good time to try again.  Airlines were coming back to Israel, Son had a long spring break, I still had a visa, it all made sense on paper.  So, two months ago, I bought a ticket on Air India (I never learn) for a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Delhi.  For reasons too long to explain, but mostly having to do with the fact that he was procrastinating, the Diplomat had to buy his and Son’s tickets on FlyDubai instead with a layover in Dubai (this is all very relevant, I promise!).  The week before the trip, Iran decided to send some rockets in the direction of Israel. As you can guess by now, Air India promptly canceled its flights from Tel Aviv (we are officially done, I will never fly that blasted airline again).  I frantically rebooked myself on FlyDubai, and we were still on track. Until we got a notice that all of our flights were canceled because of apocalyptic flooding in Dubai. But I was more determined than ever! Despite a carefully planned trip around India, where we were booked to gallivant through Delhi for a few days for Son to see the sights, then see tigers in the Ranthambore reserve, and then go practice some yoga in Rishikesh before ending the trip with family in Chennai, we rebooked the tickets for several days later, hoping to save at least SOME of the itinerary. And yes, as you can guess how much all of this was costing us.  

I have never checked the weather forecast with such trepidation, monitoring the rain and humidity predictions. Believe it or not, the weather cleared, the epic flooding subsided, and we actually made it to India in the end. You can’t say that I am not tenacious! 


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Good Food and Two Weddings

It has been pointed out to me that it has been well over a year since I last wrote, and that I should really stop being so lazy and get back to informing humanity of the inane and vastly unimportant details of our lives. It is pointless to try and update on everything that the Diplomat, Son, and I have been up to during that time – one, it is a lot; second - I can barely remember what I drank with dinner last night, so anything before that would be even hazier. I guess most importantly, for those who have not realized this yet, this is the second consecutive country with 1) an active war 2) that broke out while we were there, that the Diplomat and I have served in. This will be my one and only, clearly self-serving comment regarding the ongoing conflict here.

After several months of utter shock after October 7, Tel Aviv society has more or less returned to “normal life,” which is to say that we once again need reservations for dinner at least a week in advance for even the most basic, hole-in-the wall kind of restaurant. Despite the astronomical prices in every single eating establishment in Israel, restaurants here are always packed and if you are naïve enough to go downtown Tel Aviv on a Thursday night, thinking you will have dinner before 11:30 pm, you are a tourist. Another elusive idiosyncrasy of Israeli nightlife is how many restaurants are actually closed on Friday night in observance of Shabat. As a result, the few that do stay open for those hungry heathens who refuse to cook at home are booked weeks in advance and those lucky diners pour over the pavement, eating at miniscule tables crammed next to each other in order to maximize space. At the least the food is epic, and that is an understatement.

I have eaten all over the world as eminently evidenced by my less than svelte figure, but Israel’s food is on a whole different level. As I have already mentioned, I have never, ever had a bad meal here. I have had expensive meals, I have had meals with bad service, I have had very messy meals, I have had exceptionally expensive meals, but bad food has never been the problem. I don’t know how they do it but it is a stuff of legends. have also developed a falafel/hummus/pita problem, which I now wear comfortably as an added layer around my waist.

This last weekend, the Diplomat and I had the privilege to go to a (somewhat nontraditional) Israeli wedding. It did not have a rabbi or any official ceremony, but rather the family and close friends of the couple gathered under the spacious chuppa (the canopy under which a Jewish couple stands during the wedding ceremony) and everyone told an apparently hysterical anecdote about the pair, of which we understood nothing but thought delightful as everyone around us could not stop laughing. It did have a ton of appetizer food (of insane variety and quality) BEFORE the anecdote ceremony, and then a serious late lunch AFTER it (of crazy variety and unreal quality). All the while we were drinking excellent wine and some other highly spirited drinks that I do not seem to remember well now. And then we danced. And then the Diplomat said we should be going home because he was tired. I think he did not have as many of the highly spirited drinks as I did, because I was of a different opinion. He won.

I should mention here that some months ago, before the war started, we also went to a Christian Palestinian wedding in Jericho, which is located in the West Bank. Here is a side-by-side comparison of both:

Palestinian wedding 

Israeli wedding 

Copious amounts of excellent food 

Copious amounts of excellent food 

Many, many dressed to kill guests 

Many, many mostly casually dressed guests        

Hours of constant dancing by everyone 

Some dancing by the young ones 

Really, really nice, interesting people 

Really, really nice, interesting people 

One bottle of scotch whiskey per table, which I took on as a personal challenge (wine and beer on demand) 

Open bar, which I took on as a personal challenge (including the random arak shots) 

DJ fond of Arab music, all of which sounded like one endless same song to me 

DJ fond of 70s music, sprinkled with what sounded like Arab music but in Hebrew (I was told it was Moroccan Jewish) 

I had a ton of fun but had to leave because of Embassy curfew on staying in the West Bank, which was unfortunate because by midnight, the wedding was just heating up 

I had a ton of fun but had to leave because the Diplomat claimed to be tired 

Now all I have left to do is attend a Bedouin and a Druze weddings to complete my local anthropological research of the region. I am open to invitations.

Monday, January 9, 2023

We live in Israel now!

We landed in Israel some time mid-August after a 10-day cruise through the emerald-green waters of the Mediterranean where we ate and drank our weight in exquisite buffet food and free drinks. Mortified by the weight-gain, we swore off booze the moment we mournfully descended the heights of the cruise ship. The line to board the little-known Israeli budget airline Arkia was unusually long, and had its own separate space at the very end of Rome airport.

That was the first time we realized that Israel would be a different kind of place.  Apparently, everyone going there needs to go through special security checks, which, needless to say, leave the unsuspecting traveler as little startled. We finally reached the check-in desk with our 25 different suitcases, when it became clear that we had not purchased luggage allowance online. After I politely explained that the airline site was exclusively in Hebrew, which I, sadly, do not read, the lovely Italian ladies behind the desk took pity on us and only charged us $200 for the entire circus and let us go and sip beverages in the airport lounge.

I must be honest, there is something about drinking in an airport business lounge or the plane itself – even if it is 8 am, you can already see people milling about the bar, pondering the shame of having a sip of cognac, and then with certain stealthy decisiveness, pouring themselves a solid glass of hard liquor and taking a selfie with it to send to their less cool, un-traveling friends. Our plane was only 3 hours late and so we postponed our teetotalling a little more, enjoying the lovely free Italian prosecco in the lounge. As a result, I climbed the plane in a fantastic frame of mind, ready to hug and love every single loud passenger on it.

3 hours later, slightly sobered up, we landed in hot and humid Tel Aviv, where colleagues from the Embassy picked us up and took us to our new home, just in time to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean from the rooftop of our house. Hello! Welcome to Israel – we can see the sea from our rooftop??! Whaaaaat? I was already imagining all the cocktails I would have there. Who said we are not drinking??

I admit that this is the best house we have ever lived in our Foreign Service life, and I spent a good 30 minutes trying to explore all of its nooks, crannies, and floors. With 4 floors (if you count the rooftop), the house even used to have an elevator, but someone came to their senses, boarded it up and turned the shafts into excellent storage space.

The Mediterranean sea within a 7-minute walk from our house or not, I was so exhausted from all the summer travels, that I simply refused to go see the beach that night (oh please, stop gasping! That sea’s been there for thousands of years, I was sure it would be there the following day). In fact, it would take 3 whole days for me to finally make it there and dip my feet in the tea-warm, crystal-clear water.

Now, when I say that we live in Tel Aviv, let me clarify that – since we chose for once to live in a house, and not in a tiny apartment in the party downtown, we now live in Tel Aviv suburbia. Think Herndon, VA, but with a beach. And warm. So warm. So wonderfully warm after the soul-wrenching cold of the Northern European winters from the past 4 years. It is winter now, and I often hesitate to wear a light jacket out during the day.

So, without further due, first impressions:

·       Tel Aviv and its people remind me of Rio de Janeiro!

·       There are cats EVERYWHERE. So. Many. Cats. If you thought the Greeks love and religiously feed street cats, the Israelis have them beat! Every street is lined up with piles of dry food and large containers of water to feed them. All street cats are fat, with glistening luxurious fur, and a lazy gait, suggesting a life of leisure and bonbons. In fact, when I was shopping for food for the Silly Cats in the store, the sales lady saw me perusing a certain brand (of admittedly cheaper) cat food and told me with clear disapproval in her eyes – “Oh, this is only for street cats, you don’t want it!” Lady, from where exactly do you think I have gotten mine – the Buckingham Palace?? They are purebred Ukrainian street cats and I am not about to ruin them or their unrefined tastes. Also, the other food was absurdly expensive…

·       I have never seen so many children and babies per square foot. Anywhere you turn, in any public transportation, in any store, street, or corner, there would be at least two strollers with babies about to run through you, toddlers running around, ideally screaming, multiple young kids discussing something exceedingly exciting in lightening-fast Hebrew and giggling delightedly at each other all the time, and more and more babies in various state of sleeping, eating, or crying. Next to them would be several pregnant women.

·       It appears as if half of the Israelis are dressed in military uniform and casually carrying giant automatic weapons around like it’s a regular bag of pita.  Military service is mandatory in Israel for everyone over 18, and both girls and boys serve in the army – boys for 3 years, and girls for two. Some of the them look so young that it is startling at times to see a baby-faced girl, with long, manicured nails and carefully maintained make-up, dressed in fatigues, dragging a giant backpack (and I mean ENORMOUS) and a rifle hanging casually off her shoulder as if it is a chic purse of some sort.

·       Israelis are as bad drivers as the Ukrainians are. Maybe even a little worse. ‘Nuff said.

·       Israel is EXPENSIVE. Like, major expensive. A weekly supermarket bill with no frills will set you back around $300 for a family of three.

·       Israelis are the nicest people – if you need help, they will stop whatever they are doing and insist on telling you everything you ever needed to know to solve your problem, or go solve it for you. Or hand you an umbrella on the street in the pouring rain when they see you walking miserably, clutching an expensive leather purse, trying to protect it from the elements. Or bring you a bottle of wine for Rosh Hashana and invite you to their house for their family dinner after having met you only twice.

·       They are also incredibly generous with their private life – whether in the street, in a restaurant, on the plane or the train, or the beach, anywhere you go, they would be talking loudly on the phone or to each other, or call out to each other across a packed bus, making sure everyone around them is included in whatever is going on in their life right that moment. Since I do not speak the language, I, sadly, cannot partake in the excitement, but I sure feel part of it.

·       THE FOOD!!!! I am yet to have a bad meal in Israel – whether it is the humus stand close to work, or an absurdly expensive modern restaurant, everything is simply delicious and fresh.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The end of the Roadtrip - from Portugal to Belgium

Portugal was a dream. Our fabulous friends G and T opened up their multiple gorgeous homes for us for the next few days and served as tour guides through the streets and foods of their marvelous country. After a sumptuous lunch in the lush garden of their generations-old house in Porto, we were taken for a long stroll through the old town, gracefully set against the banks of the Douro river. Not so graceful a mere 20 years ago, old Porto apparently underwent some serious community investment by the city and today its azulejo-adorned old merchant houses are absolutely spectacular and equally spectacularly expensive. We had sundowner drinks at the elegant rooftop of Espaco Porto Cruz, across the river in what would appear to be still the city of Porto but was in fact a whole another city of its own, Vila Nova de Gaia. The view was so stunning that I ended up taking over a 100 pictures, possibly persuaded by the copious quantities of porto I consumed there. After a later dinner of endless grilled meats in a local restaurant, we capped the night with a midnight walk to the  Farolim de Felgueiras to see where the river joins the Atlantic ocean (farolim = lighthouse). It was a surreal sight, walking into the warm night, watching giant scary waves crash into the large stones along the stone pathway leading to the lighthouse and the many lonely fishermen throwing fishing rods in the utter darkness with some sort of glowsticks at the end in the roaring surf (what fish in their sound mind would even swim in these insane waves let alone decide to bite on a luminescent bait??). We found the whole sight exceedingly funny (humor possibly fueled by above-mentioned porto drinking).

The next day we took a beautiful walk through the Parque da Cidade do Porto, a giant park in the western part of the city, which borders the Atlantic. The ocean was surprisingly not entirely freezing and a short walk on the beach took us to the neighboring town of Matosinhos (it is truly surprising how easily one leaves Port without realizing it). Matosinhos has always been known as a fishermen’s town, and so naturally, we sat down to lunch with two giant heaps of sardines. That night, we drove to Felgueiras to G and T’s ancestral farm stone house, and we got transported into Portugal’s glorious past for I have seen houses like this only in movies and magazines. The rows and rows of vines in front of the swimming pool were just the cherry on top. 

We had dinner at Restaurante Santa Quiteria, which is one of those places where they only ask you what type of meat you will eat, and the rest is left in their hands.  Once we finalized the choices of fish and lamb, a procession of appetizers, salads, and side dishes began streaming onto the table. We were asked about wine – white or red? Yes, we said. The while was Vinho Verde. The red - who knows. But both were local and fabulous. I think we drank 4 bottles, but I am not sure. Understandably so. We ended our Portuguese adventure with a day trip to Guimarães, a lovely medieval town with well-preserved buildings and an impressive hilltop, 10th-century castle, the tickets to which were illogically sold elsewhere so we ended up not going inside.  Instead, we chose to eat and drink some more in the main square while watching a lovely wedding unfolding at the obligatory church in the square.


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A few pounds heavier, we left beautiful Portugal and flew back to Paris, where we retrieved the car and set off for our next destination, Lille, to visit another good pair of friends. Yet another delightful medieval town tracing its origins as far as the year 620, Lille offers the curious traveler classic European cathedrals, sophisticated shopping (an opportunity utilized by the Diplomat and yours truly), and many enticing restaurants. After the Diplomat purchased a pair of chic light-blue pants, which, according to our friends, highlighted his butt (yes, our friends are French and such comments come naturally to them), we indulged in a pile of delectable Moules-frites, or mussels and fries, and (on the advice of our friends) something called The Welsh, which was a food coma-inducing combination of cheese, beer and ham and certainly not for those watching their waistlines. Of course, we also had a bottle of hearty Côtes du Rhône to go with it. We packed a couple more pounds in France as well…

We were ready for the last leg of our journey - Belgium! Used to hours-long drives of hundreds of kilometers, it was somewhat underwhelming to drive only a couple of hours to Brussels instead. We set off in pouring rain with the intention of stopping for lunch in Ghent, a supposedly particularly delightful medieval town but, unless we intended to swim to lunch, it was not going to be feasible or particularly pleasant to sightsee there. So, on we forged towards Brussels - a city we once saw about 18 years ago. 

After checking into the hotel, the sun finally decided to show up, which was fantastic as we were about to go and have dinner with one of my best friends from college, whom I had not seen for about 10 years or so. Annoyingly, he looked exactly the same - I guess this is what a leisure life of a bachelor does to a man. A mere three (4?) bottles of house wine later, it was as if we had never parted and, after the Diplomat waved a white flag and went to bed, we continued gossiping about old friends, loves, and acquaintances. 

The last stop on the road trip was Antwerp. Admittedly a bit of an unorthodox tourist spot, the reason we had to go there was that we had to finally drop off our car at the State Department warehouse and logistics center there. You see, when State Department diplomats travel across the Atlantic to their next assignment or come back home, our earthly possessions get packaged in giant containers and shipped to Antwerp’s warehouse. From there, they get re-distributed to their final destination, whether by boat, train or truck. When we evacuated from Kyiv, we left the vast majority of our stuff in our apartment there, with zero notion of whether we were ever going to see it again. We drove away in our own car, loaded up with what seemed like a reasonable amount of clothes and cats at the time. Luckily, we recently learned that our luggage was successfully packed out and sent to Antwerp in anticipation of our move to Tel Aviv, our next assignment. 

As far as the car was concerned, we undertook to drive it to the facility ourselves and hence our roadtrip final destination. You should know, the facility in Antwerp is something of a myth - not many of us have ever seen it and we all speculate what happens there, filled with awe and trepidation. Well, we saw it! Antwerp’s port is a maze of warehouses and logistics companies, and we watched un awe giant metal containers being moved with magnetic cranes around. 

In order to prepare for the car drop-off, we had to reorganize the absurd amount of suitcases of varying sizes (7!) we still lugged around since after Antwerp, we were going back to Brussels to board a plane back to the United States. While still in Brussels, we dropped off the vast majority at the airport hotel we were going to stay a few days later prior to flying away and arrived at our Airbnb in Antwerp with just two, TWO, suitcases. Which was lucky since the apartment was on the 4th floor of a no-elevator building.  That was fun for the Diplomat. 

With the car gone, just like that, our roadtrip was over! The bottom line - 5,125 kms, $865 spent on gas, and $286 on tolls. 15 countries in 30 days. Would we do it again? The jury is still out but I find it remarkable that we are still married and still quite like each other.

That night, we met our good friends Y and A for a dinner in downtown Antwerp, with the promise to go dancing that weekend with them. Filled with excitement to see this fascinating city over the next two days, instead, I fell quite ill with severe strep throat. The only thing I did the next two days was lie in bed in the small Airbnb apartment, walk feebly across the street for Chinese dumpling soup, and binge-watch terrible reality shows. Despite my best efforts to get better by Saturday night, no one went partying, which was most unfortunate - dancing in a Belgium nightclub has been an obvious bucket list item for me. Instead, I was feeling better enough to walk to old town for a dinner of rabbit stew at De Bomma’s in Antwerp’s delightful old town.

The next morning we caught the train back to Brussel’s airport, checked in the hotel and spent several hours re-arranging our possessions into the multiple suitcases. Our trip was capped with a dinner at the house of old diplomatic friends of ours from Sweden, who happened to be posted to Brussels and had us over for home-made pizza. It was surreal and comforting to end our epic trip by visiting friends we had not seen for three years and to feel like we were just together last week - the hallmark of a great friendship.

The next morning we flew back home.