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.