Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nine Things I Learned In Israel

I spent around ten days in Israel over winter break, courtesy of Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Hillel organization. These, and what will probably be successive posts, are some of my impressions from there.

1. The deserts are absolutely beautiful. Especially if you’re a tourist who doesn’t have to actually live there, but I mean, wow. Especially for a flatlander like myself, the mountains and all that bare earth and rock are incredible.

Click for a larger version. These mountains are southwest of Masada.

2. It isn’t all desert, shockingly enough. Above the Negev in the south, Israel isn’t lush by any stretch, but it’s also not barren. There’s plenty of arable land, as well as… palm trees and all kinds of desert plants. (Probably should’ve expected those, but seeing something I’m utterly used to seeing, in California anyway, on a foreign continent shocked me out my metaphorical shoes.)

3. Israeli architects just do not give a fuck. They will build whatever they feel like and to hell with your ideas of architecture. Balconies everywhere, buildings that meet in the middle and have huge gaps below, high-rises that look like they’re going to fall over any second because it goes out where it should go up and you’re just open-mouthed as you pass it on the bus, wondering how does that even work?

4. This occurred to me specifically in the Old City of Jerusalem, although I suppose it applies well to the country as a whole. Somehow it never occurred to me that so much history could be concentrated into such a small geographical area. I mean, you go to the Old City and pass through the gate, and suddenly the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is right over there. Probably the most holy site in Christianity (feel free to correct me on this), and it’s not more than half a mile from the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. And then over there is the biggest synagogue in the city, and over there is a Jewish cemetery that’s been in use for three thousand years, and, and… I can’t get over it. It just seems so small to contain so many unimaginably meaningful places, and more to the point, where so many unimaginably important things happened long ago.

5. On a related topic, the Old City has to be the best parkour city in the known universe. Bar none. Once you get up on the roofs, a lot of them are basically contiguous and you can just run across them. Then there’s plenty of gaps, places where you can drop down to or below street level, railings to flip off of and things to climb up on… I swear, give the parkour elite a month of lenience from the authorities and a large sum of cash, and you could organize the most mind-blowing exhibition of parkour the world has ever seen.

Like this, only with multiple levels above and below the main streets.

6. On an unrelated topic, Israelis love cucumbers. Absolutely love them. I don’t think I saw a single meal—at hotels, at the kibbutz, from roadside vendors, in the middle of the desert, etc.—that didn’t either have sliced cucumbers somewhere or incorporate them into at least one dish.

7. The dish of choice there is shwarma, which is one of the de facto national foods. Basically you take your meat of choice (lamb, beef, chicken), throw it in a pita, add hummus, hot sauce, cucumbers, tomatoes, French fries (called “chips” there; thank you, British Mandate) and whatever else you want and serve piping hot. It’s kind of the best food: both delicious and a challenge, since the pita tends to fall apart as you eat it. (Those are the cheapest, but you can get intermediate- and expert-level bread products in which to wrap your shwarma as well. I have yet to level up sufficiently.)

8. Another shwarma anecdote—Most places use a rotating vertical grill to keep the shwarma roasted, juicy and warm so they can serve it at any time. Seen for the first time, it looks like some kind of enormous leg of mammal, like mastodon or something, because they don’t have individual carcasses hanging up. They just have this huge composite leg of lamb or whatever. The first time I saw it, it had chicken, beef and lamb legs turning side by side, three feet tall and maybe nine inches thick, and I had no idea what I was looking at. (Speaking of which, lamb is much more common and less expensive than chicken. It’s the little differences that astound you.)

9. You can learn about globalization in a classroom setting, you can read about jobs going to India or components from China or the homogenization of cultures due to it, but you don’t viscerally understand the concept until you’re standing in the middle of a Bedouin encampment in the middle of the Negev Desert, in Israel, in freaking Asia, and staring at the same make and model of paper towel dispenser as they use at your college. Made by Kimberly & Clark. I checked.

10. If my plans for my life go up in smoke, if everything goes wrong and my career lies in ruin and I have no options left for what I want to do, here's one of my fallback plans: I'm gonna move to Israel, I'm gonna open a factory, and I'm going to make barbed wire and concrete. My darkly comic observation during the trip was, "They're not going to run out of demand for those in the foreseeable future..." (Kidding. Mostly. We passed by a cement factory on the way to Tel Aviv, and some of my friends chorused "Andy, they stole your idea!") More to come.

1 comment:

Jenn C. said...

I live in a town in the northeastern U.S. that has an extrodinarily high percentage of Jews, and I have to say that this post was all new to me. I like your sense of humor!

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