"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back to the “Promised Land” – my thoughts on Israel

Dome of the Rock, with the Western Wall below

I’ve always wanted to visit Israel.  A close friend, Joel had a life long dream to become an Israeli citizen. So, when he told us last year, he was going to Israel in October to fulfill his dream, we made plans to go to Israel and help him celebrate.  Voila, we left October 4 from Paris.

Leaving from Charles De Galle Airport, my favorite airport in the world (yeah right), we first flew to Luton airport, and then took a connecting flight to Tel Aviv. Once we arrived in Luton, we had to go through customs, and clear security.  I was expecting security going into Israel to be much stricter; however, it was business as usual. 

The flight is about 5-hours from Luton. Upon arrival, we prepared for an inquisition at passport control. So, we had documents showing where we were staying and what escorted tours we were going on, and swore that I was not a militant anything, except for maybe marriage equality (but we didn't need any of these).  The immigrations officer, who was probably 12-years old, asked if I wanted a stamp in my passport, I said no, so she stuck a pink slip of paper in my passport, which was later taken by the customs officers.  We did this primarily because we plan on visiting other middle eastern countries, and some do not allow you in the country if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport.  All-in-all, it was relatively easy.

Ben Yehuda street
Although they do not have a subway system in Tel Aviv, public transportation is plentiful (trains/buses).  My thoughts on the train and buses, they’re air-conditioned and relatively clean, go figure? The trains run much slower than the RER in Paris, and another thing I noticed, there are a lot of young soldiers, some with rifles slung around their shoulder, I'm assuming they're going home for the week-end. (Note: weekday is from Sunday to Thursday). We took a train and then a bus to our hotel, which was located on Ben Yehuda street, it’s a great location only a block from the beach, and in walking distance to our friends Joel and Paul’s apartment, and lots of shops and restaurants.

Israeli Restaurant next to beach

We met up with our friends for dinner after we unpacked. I did notice something very odd on our walk to our friend’s apartment, bicyclists ride on the sidewalk, and not the streets, imagine that? After seeing how Israeli's drive, I now understand.  It helps if you can walk in a straight line.  Well I don’t do anything straight and that includes walking, especially after a few glasses of wine. So I almost got hit a couple of times. Oh yeah, if you have a hearing aid wear it, cause most don’t have little bells on their bikes, and they usually make funny noises or say something in Hebrew as they approach you, I’m sure they’re saying, “bitch, out of the way…”
All the side dishes and more came, imagine that?

It was about 10 pm when we got to the restaurant; however, it seems you can eat any time you want to in Tel Aviv, there is no set time for meals.  It was a warm evening so we sat outside. We had a typical Israeli Sephardic  type meal. What I was impressed was all the side dishes of vegetables (e.g., tabouli, baba ganoush, various humuus’) all very fresh, and it was volonté (all you can eat—the vegetable portions anyway). You don’t typically see a lot of vegetables in a French restaurant, so this was quite a pleasant surprise. I was later told that many Israelis and Palestinians eat quite a bit of vegetables. A friend told me when he and his family were in Paris, as they were in the check-out, someone said to them you must be Israeli? They asked how did he know, and he replied, “only Israelis get this much vegetables at one time.” Also, you’ll notice a lot of fresh fruit stands, where they’ll freshly squeeze e.g., orange juice, pomegranate etc.,  I suggest you bring pepto bismol or immodium if your body is not use to eating so much "organic" vegetables and fruit juices.

One of the best octopus salads I've ever had!

Next day we took a leisurely walk along the beach to Jaffa (Yafo) , believed to be one of the oldest port cities in the world. Along the way, we stopped for lunch, and I had an octopus salad, it was so tender it melted in your mouth. The seafood is incredibly good and fresh,  it should be considering its proximity to the sea, I’m sure most was from water to table.  Wow, I’m starting to like this.

Jaffa (Yafo), I found really interesting with all the markets, food stalls, and interesting restaurants. If you like to shop, always bargain.  If they give you a price, but you really want it, pretend you’re going to walk away uninterested, it’s amazing how they’ll come down in price. As a result, I bought a cotton shirt originally told it was about $20 and I got it for about $12.

"The boys" background is Jaffa (Yafo)

As we climbed up to the tower, it reminded me of  Montmartre, since there’s lots of artists and wonderful arts and craft galleries.  I couldn’t help myself and I bought a ring and Star of David made by Yemenite_Jews, all hand crafted and just beautiful.  The inscription on my ring in Hebrew is, “I am to my beloved, as my beloved is to me."

I recently wore the "Star of David", and someone commented, "funny you don't look Jewish?" and, he was caucasian with a Chinese character tattooed on his arm, guess how I responded?

One thing I did notice in Jaffa, there are a lot of stray cats, and later I noticed a lot of stray cats as well in Jerusalem. I was told that the British brought them to Israel to control the rat population.  I’m deathly allergic to cats, so I tried to stay clear of them, but one insistent cat kept sneaking under our dinner table one night, I guess he knew I didn’t like him, so he was trying to annoy the crap out me, go figure? So, I bribed that cat by dangling a piece of meat and throwing it across the street, I almost knocked down a pedestrian with that piece of meat, oh well.  Anyway, it didn’t work, he came back for more, oy vey!

The many fresh juice stands throughout Israel

That evening Tel Aviv was buzzing with activity, because it was the night before Yom Kippur. Restaurants were crowded.  We actually did not get seated until 11 pm.  Another thing I noticed is that restaurant prices are relatively inexpensive when compared to Paris or San Francisco and before the evening of Yom Kippur we were told that EVERYTHING would literally be closed around 1 or 2 pm. Since our friends do not cook, and typically go out to eat every evening, we decided we best get some food to cook for dinner.  The grocery stores were packed. People buying for a “pre-sunset” meal before the start of Yom Kippur and the day long fast (no food or water after sunset).  Religious holidays start at sunset, and end the following sunset. True to their word, at around 3 pm all public transportation and shops were closed, and later at sunset Israeli TV channels closed too.

Since none of us are religious and I’m hypoglycemic and must eat, some of my friends are probably shrugging at this statement, but I truly am hypoglycemic, I cooked dinner, and we had a lovely evening meal on our friend’s balcony. Only one incident happened as we were eating, a cop was running down the street, at first I thought he was going to run up to our apartment and arrest us for eating and drinking.  However, it was a car illegally driving down the side street and he telephoned for back-up and a chase ensued, imagine that?

We were told on the day of Yom Kippur, you will see secular Jews and non-Jews  strolling the streets and lots of bicyclists. Also, it’s advisable not to eat or drink in public as respect to those who do fast. It was interesting to see EVERYTHING literally closed. Just people walking and lots of bicycles.  You can even walk down the middle of the road if you like.  On the day of Yom Kippur we basically just walked around the beach and enjoyed the view.  However, I did see people eating and drinking on the beach, blasphemes!

Bicyclists on main street along the beach to Jafa (Yafo)

Once the sun sets and the fast ends, we were told that restaurants would be crowded, so we made reservations a day earlier at a popular Italian Israeli restaurant in the hip and trendy area of Neve Tzedek.

The day after Yom Kippur, we took an excursion to Masada and the Dead Sea.  First stop was Masada, what can I say except the history of what happened was amazing. I was lost for words, probably cause it was over 100 degrees and I didn’t have energy to talk. I could go into the history of Masada, but my brain got fried, so check this site on Masada.


After Masada we went to the Dead Sea, I was really looking forward to this since it’s reputed that soaking in the water helps alleviate arthritis, skin problems, and the mud is filled with potastium and minerals that you can smother on your skin for a minimum of 5-minutes will rejuvenate you, hmmm, I’m thinking if I look 20-years younger after doing all this and cured of all my ailments, then I’m building me a beach front house to move there permanently. Our gang of misfits decided since I was reborn from the Dead Sea, it would be appropriate for me to be baptized and renamed, so we unanimously came up with the name Gabby “Langue” Finkelstein, because after-all she has the gift of gab.

I hate mud, what we do for health and beauty

Everyone helping themselves to a  bucket of black mud

I loved the dead sea, literally everything floats, I tried standing a couple of times, but my legs kept wanting to float, so I fell on a salt mound and scrapped my arm. I didn’t feel it though, so I guess it’s also a miracle anesthetic, anti-pain, imagine that?  I now know why whales stay afloat, it’s the sea water; however, the dead sea has almost 9 times more salt than sea water. After the dead sea we headed back to Tel Aviv, and called it a night.

The next day we packed for a 3-day excursion across Northern Israel and then we’ll subsequently wind up in Jerusalem.  We met 2-lovely sisters, Rina and Tiffany with their mother Ginny. We all immediately became best friends on this trip. There was a lot of driving involved, thank god for air-conditioning.  Our first day we went to Tiberias and visited the Saint Peter’s Church. It’s a beautiful church, but I came across an interesting sign oh well, I guess I’m a heathen. Interesting city, it’s below sea level and quite warm.

Signage at the town square, go figure?

How appropos

After Tiberias we went along the Sea of Gallile and had lunch at one of the proverbial tourist places that served St. Peters fish, more commonly known as Tilapia. With the exception of the fish, the restaurant served God awful food and it was expensive, oh well. So, I suggest if you go to these tourist spots, go for the sandwiches, or in this case pita sandwiches.

After lunch we headed up towards to the Golan_Heights. It was captured by the Israeli’s in 1967 in the six-day war. It is a very important military strategic area for the Israelis.

Golan Heights

Later we headed down to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized.  As we arrived, we were lucky enough to see a Russian orthodox baptismal in progress. Very interesting.

Russian Orthodox baptismal, Jordan River

B'Hai Temple
We went to so many other places in Northern Israel, that I would need to write a novel to capture everything. I did find Haifa really pretty. It was very hilly, just like San Francisco, and most of the city had views of the sea. It does have a hot humid climate, and I can see why many would go there for vacations.  I was impressed with the B'Hai Temple, and the surrounding areas. The gardens were just beautiful.

Is that a gun, or are you happy to see me?

One of my more memorable photos was when we were at the border of Israel and Lebanon. There was a huge gate with a huge sign that said, "no photos beyond this point;" however, next to it I saw the border sign.  An Israeli soldier who was all about 4 feet tall came up to me, I thought he was going to shoo me away with his rifle or kill me for getting to close to the border gate, instead, he took his hat off and put on my head and stood next to me for my photo shoot, almost as if to say, "Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."  I was verklempt, how touching.  I asked if I could hold is rifle since I've never been that close to a machine gun before, but he kept saying "lo,lo", oh well... You gotta love a man in uniform, I didn't ask and he didn't tell.

Sukkot, to be used later that evening for dinner
Next stop Jerusalem. I was so excited about visiting Jerusalem, the history, being able to walk where Jesus walked, and where all the major religions converged.  On our first night, we went to the restaurant area near the “Old Jerusalem” the “walled city”. It was the night before Sukkot .  It was quite festive and crowded. I saw a sea of yarmulkes/kippa  and bad wigs. FYI…, for ultra orthodox Jewish women they must cover their hair with a scarf or a wig. We went to the Mt. Zion hotel restaurant, as we entered, they asked us meat or diary. They literally separate those who are eating meat and those who eating dairy, in accordance with  "kosher"  laws.  Since I’m lactose intolerant and Gabby is as well, we said meat. The food is what it is, kosher. I found some of the dishes a bit strange. No, worries, I behaved myself and did not try and order a pork chop. Chicken wings is a very popular appetizer or main dish.  They’re usually fried and served with a sweet/sour sauce. I had the Chicken livers with figs, it was way too sweet for me, but the breads were really good, I almost made a faux pas when I nearly asked for butter, but caught myself. So, this was probably the one not so good meal we had. At least we got seated at an outside table and entertained ourselves watching all the festivities surrounding us.

Mt. Zion Hotel/Restaurant dressed up for Sukkot

While at the restaurant we noticed more than 80% were Americans, apparently there is an American Yeshiva  close by. 99% of the patrons were ultra conservative Jews. Imagine me in that mix, 99% ultra orthodox Jews and 1% Randy, that was quite a sight.  They were probably trying to figure out what tribe I came from. I was going to make one up and say “Oriental” tribe, but that term already exists and is used to refer to Sephardic Jews. Oh well, so I just told them I was a tropical fruit version (Note: I was wearing black/white, their uniform du jour).  So, we befriended a bunch of teenagers at the table next to us, American students from the Yeshiva. We asked if they spoke Hebrew, they responded,  “not really” wow, how odd is that? isn’t the Torah in Hebrew, go figure?  They were like any normal college kids drinking lots of beer, but discreetly checking out the women.

The next day would be the start of Sukkot and we were told that all public transportation, except taxis, and all restaurant and stores would be closed, except for the “Old walled city” where the Muslims and Christian stores and restaurants would be open. So we decided to go to the Old city for our meals.

The following morning we walked to the old city, it was about a 40 minute walk to from our hotel…, downhill.  As we were walking downhill, I kept thinking do I have to do this in reverse? Please tell me no.

Where Jesus laid after his crucifixion
I found the Old City, Jerusalem fascinating at first. The wailing wall, the Church of the Sepulcher, the Arab quarter, Armenian quarters, simply all the old history.  But after I did all that, I just saw one tacky bazaar after another selling tacky souvenirs and tacky t-shirts. I guess there’s no escaping that no matter where you go.

Western "wailing" wall, I inserted a prayer I wrote

After spending a couple of hours there, Jack and I decided we needed to go back to the hotel freshen up and nap, maybe I could hitch-hike (note: cars are allowed to run, but not public transportation)! FYI…, when you hitch hike, instead of sticking your thumb out, you point downward with your index finger as if to say “stop here”. So we told Paul and Joel that we’d meet them later, and we’d have dinner at the Armenian restaurant.

Keeping the peace and ensuring our safety, on Via Dolorsa, the street where Jesus carried the cross (stations of the cross)

So, we trudged back up the hill to our hotel, got to our hotel and I literally passed out from exhaustion.  Then it was time to go back to the old city, again we had to walk another 40-minutes, but it was at least down hill. I swear if I don’t lose weight from all this walking it was for naught.

We met at the Armenian restaurant, talk about a beautiful restaurant. So, I start talking to the waiter, and assumed he was Armenian, he said no he was Palestinian, that in fact, no one in the restaurant was Armenian, maybe the owner was a quarter Armenian, so much for authentic Armenian food, served by Armenians.  None-the-less we had a great time.

Armenian Restaurant, where else, but the Armenian section of the "Old City"

After dinner, I could not bear the idea of walking back to the hotel, so Joel bargained with a cab driver (Note: you can either have it metered or you can bargain for a cab ride, if you’re a good bargainer, best to do that than have it metered).  Got to our hotel and literally passed out.

Arab Section of the "Old City"

The next day, was still a public holiday so everything would be closed until that evening. So once again, we all trudged to the Old City, but this time we took a different route and walked around the non-tourist Arab section which I found quite interesting, as well as the touristy sections.

I needed a nap, plus I was getting tired of seeing the "walled" city, it was getting “old and tired” sorry for the pun. So, I told them we were going back to the hotel, take a nap and we’d meet them at the restaurant area outside of the old city at 8. 

After our nap and freshening up, at about 7:30 pm we noticed the buses and trams came back to life; however, the trams we needed did not start yet, I took it personally, they’re punishing me for being a heathen, and we needed to leave a tout de suite. So, once again we walked back to the restaurant area; fortunately, it was half way to the old city.

It was relatively cold that night, and since it was still the holiday of Sukkot, I did not want to do another kosher restaurant, so we went to an Italian restaurant, which was just OK.  This would be our last meal in Jerusalem, since we were scheduled to fly to London the next day and then return to Paris the following day. So, we had an early night.

Photo of Tel Aviv taken from Jaffa (Yafo)

We were right next door to the bus terminal, so we took a bus into Tel Aviv and then transferred to another Bus for the airport.  A few thoughts. Israeli’s make no qualms about ethnic profiling. As we got on the airport bus, the only one’s that were asked for their ID from an armed solider was an Arab man.  As we got into the airport, we noticed that a young Palestinian was being interrogated thoroughly, and later we found out he was also “strip-searched.” 

Also, any single woman traveling will be interrogated. Inquiring minds want to know why. Single women are targets for terrorist to try to steal their love and affections. I think there was a movie about this. Oftentimes, they may be tricked into bringing a package on board or do an illegal errand, interesting no?  Regardless, I felt very safe with Israeli’s well renown security screening. Interestingly, I did not have to give up my bottle of water or required to take off my shoes.  Apparently, all of their machines are state-of-the-art. 

The Ben Gurion International airport is beautiful. Very clean, lots of places to sit and also get food and do some last minute duty free shopping.

My final thoughts on Israel. I really enjoyed being there. I found Tel Aviv more hip and happening, and with more to do, especially for the young. The city itself is a relatively new city, so there are a lot of sort of non-descript buildings. My favorite areas were along the beach and Yaffa (Yafo).

Jaffa (Yafo) from one of our favorite spots on the beach

Jerusalem is a fascinating city with the major religions converging into the “Old City.” It was awe inspiring to be able to walk where Jesus walked, touch where part of the old temple Western Wall  stands, and see the Dome of the Rock,  they all still exist today.  As for living there, I would find it a bit more difficult. Many of the young secular Jews are moving to Tel Aviv, since there are less religious restrictions for them.  Jerusalem, according to our tour guide is becoming an extremely religious city.  The population of Jerusalem is growing because of the influx of the Ultra Ultra Orthodox Jews from around the world and their belief to follow the tenants of the old bible and procreate. On average they have between 8-12 children. Many of the secular Jews call them “penguins”  I do not know if this is an endearment or a sarcastic term. It's not a city for everyone, because it is an extremely religious city.

Statue in Tel Aviv that I just related to...
On the food, I loved most of the food we got there. I leaned more towards the Sephardic cuisine, with all the various side dishes of vegetables and fresh squeezed juices were incredible!  The freshness can’t be beat. The best hummus I’ve had to date is in Israel. They have such a variety.

One big suggestion I have if you visit Israel, do not go during the high holidays (e.g., Yom Kippur), there is literally nothing to do, and you have no public transportation, all stores, restaurants etc. are closed, and in some cases cars are not allowed on the streets. 

Would I go back, for a wedding, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, absolutely! And, if ever I got a chance to go back to the "Dead Sea" -- you don't have to ask me twice.  All-in-all, we had a fabulous vacation! Thank you Israel and thank you Joel and Paul!

1 comment :

  1. Wow That was really awesome. It's really feel's very happy to see entire paris at a single place. thanks a lot buddy for posting such a beautiful blog.

    rent in luton