Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Albania, Italy, Turkey: My First Hijacking

With my four-day vacation in Albania drawing to a close, I caught a taxi to Mother Teresa International Airport outside Tirana. When I arrived, it was around 1:30 PM and there were two hours remaining before my flight was scheduled to depart for Istanbul. It’s a good thing that I had disregarded the standard three-hour rule for international travel because in arriving two hours early, I was still looking at a wait of at least one hour before check-in for the Istanbul flight even opened.

Tirana is not a major world capital, and, not surprisingly, it has a limited flight schedule. The schedule for the entire day was posted, and it consisted of maybe a dozen flights. When I arrived to the airport, passengers for Istanbul had to wait for the London, Vienna, and Budapest flights, which departed earlier, to complete check-in. All flights funneled through the same handful of check-in counters.

With nothing much to do for an hour, I went to the bathroom to kill some time. What with the diarrhea I had picked up in Albania, any time was toilet time.

A squat toilet is no place to linger, so I was probably in the stall for a minute at the most. Then I washed my hands and stood at the hand dryer for a moment. As I was drying my hands, a man entered the bathroom and gave me a boisterous, “What’s up, man?” Actually, not much was up. It was a bit weird, though, to be greeted in English after a weekend of communication difficulties.

Back out in the waiting area, I took a seat and stared at the other people loitering around. As I was people-watching, a group of contestants from the Miss Globe International 2006 beauty pageant entered. I had never heard of this particular beauty pageant before. This along with the fact that it has been held in Albania for the past three years led me to the conclusion that this event was not really the big leagues of pageantry.

The young beauty queens were wearing their pageant sashes, so it was easy to tell from where they hailed. On hand we had Miss India, Miss Hungary, Miss Philippines, Miss Singapore, Miss Malaysia, and a blond woman who I think was representing Sweden. All but Sweden and Hungary would be on my flight.

These young ladies were all attractive, obviously. Incidentally, though, none of them were winners, except in the bogus sense that everyone who participated was a winner.

Anyhow, the ladies sat in some chairs about 15 feet from me and started talking. Miss Philippines was busy stuffing packs of cheap cigarettes into every compartment in her luggage.

Speaking of bags, Miss Hungary had about 20 pieces of carry-on luggage. She was traveling with a colorful individual – a fat man wearing a pink shirt, camouflage pants, and a red headband – who schlepped her things around for her. All and all, she seemed a bit high-maintenance.

Meanwhile, a group of Muslim Albanian men (as evidenced by their beards and WWMD [What would Muhammad do?] bracelets) entered the airport and staked themselves out near the check-in counters so that they would be in the front of the line once things got moving.

I watched the clock for a while longer, and soon enough it was time for us to check-in. When it came to be my turn, the agent issued me a boarding pass for both my Tirana-Istanbul and Istanbul-Tel Aviv segments. And what’s more, she upgraded me to business class on the Tel Aviv flight. Boy howdy!

Passport control went quickly, and then I got to security. I was traveling light, so there wasn’t much to scrutinize. There was one thing, though. One souvenir that I had purchased in Tirana was a wooden stick that was about three feet long with a forked end. Though actually something used for weaving, it looked like a big wooden grilling fork.

The Albanian security agent was like, “What’s this?”

I told him that it was for killing Dracula. We had a laugh, and I got to carry my wooden fork on the plane.

In the departure lounge, there were a few crappy duty free stores, a café, bathrooms, a CD/DVD store, and a jewelry store. I like foreign movies and music, so I went to the music and movies store. I asked the clerk when I entered if she took credit cards, and she said she did.

I proceeded to select several items with the saleswoman’s help, and with my selections stacked on the counter, I pulled out my Mastercard. Then the woman realized that she didn’t take credit cards afterall. This was no shocker since credit cards didn’t seem to be widely used in Albania, but it was a bit annoying since I had asked her about credit cards not ten minutes earlier. With the Mastercard out of the picture, I checked my stash of cash. I had only enough leke remaining to purchase one DVD, so I put everything else back.

Then I sat out in the departure lounge and waited for boarding to begin. There were three departure gates, and Istanbul was assigned to Gate 2. As our scheduled boarding time approached and then passed, several of the passengers got restless and started pacing back and forth between the gates to see if the Istanbul gate assignment had changed. I just kept watching to make sure that there was still a substantial number of my fellow Istanbul-bond passengers around.

Even after boarding was half an hour late, it was still showing on the departure board as on-time. Then it dropped off the board altogether.

The Muslims started praying in the front of the lounge, and everyone watched. There was no TV in the area, so entertainment was hard to come by.

When the bus finally ferried us out to the plane, we were probably 45 minutes to an hour behind schedule.

I had the window seat, and for the longest time, no one else was sitting in my row. The last two passengers on the plane, however, were my row-mates. They were two young guys who were part of the larger Muslim delegation.

They both had cell phones and continued texting and talking until we were practically in the air. As we took off, I got the distinct impression that my two companions had never flown before. My first clue was that they were constantly crawling over me to look out the windows. This carried on throughout the flight, and I didn’t much mind. Still, it’s a bit awkward to constantly have someone a few inches from your face.

These guys, especially the one right next to me, were curious fellows, and as soon as we reached altitude, they pushed the buzzer to summon a flight attendant. One came back to our row, and the guy next to me asked her, “Where are we now?”

He was not a native English speaker, and neither was she. The guy repeated the question a few times, and the flight attendant never did understand. A bit perturbed, my seat-mate was like, “You don’t know? Okay.”

This was funny. She could not understand his Albanian-accented English, and he couldn’t understand her Turkish accent.

When the stewardess left, the two guys in my row repeated the phrase, “Where are we now?” over and over again, with a variety of vocal inflections. The guy next to me was like, “Why doesn’t she listen?”

Meanwhile, according to press accounts, but unbeknownst to us passengers:

Twenty minutes into the flight, the captain summoned a flight attendant into the cabin to take a beverage order. When the flight attendant entered, a Turkish passenger followed her inside the cabin, threw her against the wall, and told the pilots that he was hijacking the plane. The Turkish man, later identified as Hakan Ekinci, presented no weapon, but told the captain that he had accomplices in the plane and that they were prepared to blow it up if demands were not met. [Numbers of supposed accomplices that I’ve seen in the press range from one to six.] At this news, the captain entered the code for a distress signal to show that there was an onboard emergency. The hijacker, however, was savvy to distress codes, thanks to supposedly studying them on the internet, and he told the pilot to turn off the general emergency signal and instead transmit the hijacking signal. The captain did as instructed. The hijacker also demanded that the plane be diverted to Rome. This was so he could talk to the Pope.

At the time we were flying over Greece. The hijacking signal was received, and two Greek Air Force fighter jets took to the skies and shadowed our plane. None of us saw them.

Back in the fuselage of oblivion, we were all zoned out. My companions asked another flight attendant who was passing by the old, “Where are we now?” There was more confusion, so I repeated the question for them. The woman was like, “I don’t know.” Then she walked on.

My small bit of assistance opened the door for a dialog, and soon my seatmate and I were properly introduced. His name was Saymir, and he was a part of a group of 20 men who were on their way to Saudi for hajj. His English was basic, and he also spoke basic Arabic. The other guy next to Saymir was also part of the hajj group, but he basically didn’t speak English and was not part of our conversation.

A second after the flight attendant left us, the captain came on the speaker: “Attention, ladies and gentleman: Due to a technical problem, we are making an emergency landing in Italia.” Then he gave the same announcement in Turkish.

My Albanian companions, like most of the Albanian passengers, were clueless as to what had just been said. I explained the message to Saymir, who thought that the captain must have meant to say Antalya (a city in Turkey) as opposed to Italia.

I told him that maybe he was right, and really, it didn’t make much difference to me. I had about a five-hour cushion once we landed to get to my connecting flight, so I figured that even with a momentary delay, I could still keep my schedule.

Saymir and I continued talking as our plane made a huge U-turn in the sky. He asked my religion, and I told him I was Catholic. At this, he asked me what I knew of his religion. I know most of the basics, plus I lived in Pakistan (a Muslim country) for two years, plus I have read the Koran. So, I knew more than enough to impress him – not that the threshold was very high.

Meanwhile, according to press accounts, but unbeknownst to us passengers:

We left Greek territory, and the Italian Air Force took over escort duty. In the cabin, the captain told the hijacker that we didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way to Rome and that we would have to land in Brindisi, a city in the heel of the Italian boot, almost directly across the Adriatic Sea from Tirana. The hijacker bought this. What a sucker.

Back in the fuselage of oblivion, Saymir and I had run out of conversation so we both read our in-flight magazines.

Before long, after what seemed like less than an hour into our flight, we made our landing approach. As we got lower and lower over the Adriatic Sea, my companions were again leaning into my space so that they could see out the window.

Saymir, still standing by his Antalya theory, commented, “This must be the Black Sea.”

By now, the supposed reason for our emergency landing – a technical problem – was prominent in my mind. This obviously implied that something was wrong with the plane, and as the plane went through the landing process, I focused intently on the wing out my window, lest it should fall off or something. As I watched the wing, I noticed a few loose screws and a lot of shaking in one of the flaps. Obviously, though, we were not landing because of any problems with the plane, and these things I was noticing were not serious issues.

As we settled on the runway, several fire trucks and other emergency vehicles were racing toward us. This only added to the notion that our plane was going to fall apart at any moment.

The landing was a bit rough, but nothing too bad. This was probably because the pilot was feeling the pressure of the situation that the rest of us knew nothing about. A few people cheered as the pilot fired the engines in reverse and slowed us down. Then the plane stopped on the tarmac.

Saymir looked out the window. “This isn’t Turkey,” he remarked.

As happens on every flight the instant that the plane stops, people threw off their seatbelts and started leaping out of their seats. The flight attendants came back and scolded everyone. “Get in your seats until the seatbelt sign is turned off. Do not stand up. Turn off your mobile phones.”

Everyone followed the instructions from the crew for maybe three or four minutes. After that, random people continued getting up to rummage in the overhead bins and whatnot. These people would get scolded, but the flight attendants were focused on other things, so it wasn’t difficult for someone to get something from his bag and return to his seat unhassled.

Everyone who had a cell phone was calling someone. The whole scene was pretty much one of fun and games. Everyone was chatting away, and no one seemed the least bit worried.

The captain came back on the intercom: “Attention passengers: The tower would like to know if there are any Italians on this flight. If you are Italian, please notify the flight crew.”

I explained this message to Saymir, who didn’t understand the meaning of Italian. Then he didn’t understand the word citizen, which was part of my explanation. Finally, I told him that the pilot wanted to know if anyone had a passport from Italy, and Saymir understood.

Meanwhile, the Albanian man behind us had been trying to follow our discussion. Out of the blue, he chimed in, “I speak Italian.” So, I had Saymir to explain in Albanian what I had just explained in English.

With the Italian citizen question, this was seeming less and less like a technical problem. Oh, and there were no Italians onboard.

After a bit, Saymir, my only link to English in the vicinity, began completely neglecting me and talking with his companions in Albanian. I had already read the in-flight magazine several times, and I was getting bored.

He turned to me after 20 minutes or so and said, “Don’t be worried, my brother.” I told him that I was more bored than worried. After this, he would periodically check on me by asking, “Are you boring, Chris?”

The confusion with bored and boring is a classic among non-native English speakers, and it always amuses me. Of course, every time Saymir would ask me if I was boring, I would tell him yes. In my isolation, how could I not be?

Soon people started barking for food and water. The time came for the Muslims who were fasting for Ramadan to break the fast. The rest of us had also not eaten for several hours and were also hungry.

In response, a flight attendant came back with like five sandwiches in her hands for 107 passengers. All of the people were shouting “me, me, me!” and sticking their hands out. The sandwiches didn’t get far.

The flight attendant left and returned with another small stash of sandwiches. They were again quickly claimed. All told, probably only 30 people got anything to eat.

The same thing happened with the water. The flight attendant brought out like a dozen bottles for 107 of us, and people snatched them up well before they got to row 15 where I was sitting.

I got neither food nor water, and I started thinking to myself, “Worst service ever…”

Some people who didn’t get any food got an enough-is-enough attitude and tromped up the aisle to the galley. They returned clutching sandwiches in their greedy paws, and more and more people started going up to the front.

Before long, several people were milling about the plane. The flight attendants would come back periodically, and people would sort of get back to their seats.

A lot of people were really hankering a smoke, which obviously wasn’t allowed on an airplane, even one that was stopped. Several guys had unlit cigarettes hanging out of their mouths as they waited for a chance to light up.

Early on, we were instructed not to use the bathrooms, and I think most people obeyed this directive. Luckily, there were no babies or children on the flight. A crying baby or a bratty kid could have made everything much worse.

As people were walking around, some started going up front and returning with intelligence. The plane was abuzz with Albanian, but I couldn’t understand a lick of it. Actually, that’s not true. The word in Albanian for terrorist is very similar to the English word. In any case, I was eventually informed that there were terrorists in business class.

Besides the people walking around the plane, intel was also coming in via cell phone. Soon after the plane had been hijacked, it was on the news. This meant that people who weren’t on the plane knew more about the situation than those of us onboard.

Even as the news of the terrorists was circulating around the plane, there didn’t seem to be an ounce of concern from anyone. I don’t know why, but I also didn’t care. I just wanted to get going.

At about this time, the captain was once again on the speaker: “Attention passengers: Is there a doctor on the plane? Is there a doctor on the plane?”

After a long pause, no one stepped forward. Then three or four people went to the front of the plane. I think that these people were not doctors but did have some medical training. They had decided to go forth when it was apparent to them that no doctors were on the plane.

This caused a bit of a stir among the passengers, but the excitement died quickly. It turned out that an elderly passenger had gotten dehydrated or something boring like that.

The flight attendants continued to come to the back of the plane to keep people in line. Each time they would appear, people would barrage them with questions. Unprepared to offer any information, they continued to repeat the party line about technical difficulties.

Some of these flight attendants were rattled and clearly stressed out. Others were calm and even enjoyed some laughs with the passengers.

A few of the passengers finally got irritated and demanded answers. One short, stocky man, who I would later learn was an American bound for Chicago, shouted at the flight attendant. “This is ridiculous! We have a right to know what is happening!”

He got no answers, though, and the other passengers helped pacify him. This also happened with another man.

In order to communicate better, the flight crew enlisted the help of a passenger who could speak Albanian and Turkish. It seemed that they set him out delivering the same uninformative messages as they had been giving before.

I didn’t have a watch, but after what seemed like hours, the passengers were getting a bit testy. I don’t know if it was in response to this or not, but suddenly the plane lost power. The main lights turned off, the emergency lights turned on, and we lost our precious A/C. Everyone shut their yap, though, and the plane was quiet for a few minutes.

The view out my side of the plane – the right side – was boring. All I could see were three big, stationary emergency vehicles. On the left side, though, I could tell that there was more happening. It was the side the doors were on, afterall.

When the power switched back on, the air conditioning did not return immediately. All throughout the plane, people were adjusting their air nozzles, trying to get more air. There was none to be had, though.

After several more minutes, we had air again.

People went back to chatting and getting irritable.

Then, things began to resolve.

There had been people taking photos throughout the ordeal, and all of the sudden, everyone was training their cameras and camera phones up the aisle. Having the window seat, I couldn’t really see what was happening all that well.

Then the hijacker stood in the middle of the aisle at the barrier separating business class from steerage class. He was smiling and waving, and the passengers in turn started cheering and clapping and waving back. It was bizarre to be sure. There were dozens of photographs and videos made of that moment. Sadly, though, I didn’t get a piece of the action.

Saymir was clearly excited as he turned to me: “It’s the terrorist! I was talking to this guy at Rinas!” [Rinas is the informal name for Mother Teresa Airport.]

I’m not sure what all the cheering was about. Maybe people were just glad that the ordeal was over.

The hijacker, now surrendering, turned and walked down the air stairs toward the waiting authorities with his hands up. During the entire ordeal, he had remained in business class, talking with members of the flight crew. He never came back into the economy section, and as far as I could tell, he didn’t interact with any passengers.

A moment after the hijacker left the plane, police entered. Again came the cheering and clapping from the passengers.

There were still people roaming around the plane as the police came aboard. The police didn’t bother to force everyone to sit down, so as they tried to count the passengers, they kept getting off track.

Several policemen passed through the plane to count us. Then one of them addressed us: “Take all of your things and depart the plane. After a few checks, we will reload, and you will be on your way.”

As always happens, we all grabbed our things and piled into the aisle. The line was barely moving, though. This was because the passengers were being thoroughly scrutinized at a handful of stations as they left the plane.

When I finally got close to the door, I was still near Saymir and his companion. The captain had left his hat near the exit, and Saymir’s friend put it on and posed for a variety of photos at the door. There’s always time for clowning around.

The crew members were standing on the top of the air stairs, and all of the passengers, especially the ones who had gotten combative, were overly affectionate toward them. People were shaking hands and hugging and patting backs and high-fiving. Also on the top of the air stairs, about 20 passengers were piled up, waiting to be processed.

Stepping out of the door, it was clear that the left side of plane was more interesting than the right side. There were several fire trucks and a wide variety of police vehicles. There were police everywhere. A few of the policemen were making videos of the scene, most were processing passengers, and a lot were just standing around.

When my turn came, I walked down the stairs to be processed. For this, they first took my passport, and one guy recorded all of my details in a notebook. Then they patted me down. During the frisking, the policeman made me remove everything from my pockets, and he inspected these things also. This joker even looked through all of the contents of my wallet.
I was traveling on my diplomatic passport, which is what I surrendered at first. I was also carrying my tourist passport, however, and the frisker found this during his check. He was confused at the two passports, but his partner told him it was fine.

After the policeman had checked everything on my body, he went through my bag. Several things caught his attention. Some items of interest like my digital camera battery charger were maybe understandable. Some were less so. At one point, the cop was holding my camera tripod asking, “What is this for?”

I was thinking, “Well, duh. They don’t have tripods in Italy?” but, of course, I played nice and told him that it went with my camera.

He also didn’t like my pitch fork stick or my alarm clock, but he didn’t make a big deal about them. I had purchased seven CDs and DVDs in Albania, and the cop opened all of these to inspect the contents. Nope, no bombs in there either. Then the checking was finished, and he crammed everything back inside my bag. Well, everything except for the things he forgot. I pointed these things out, and he dutifully crammed them inside also.

Then I got my passports and my bag, and I boarded the waiting bus. Miss India was on the bus trying to find a cell phone she could use to call her father, but everyone had supposedly run their batteries down.

It was taking a long time for the bus to fill up, so I decided to take a few pictures while I waited. Other passengers were taking photos and making videos all around the scene, so I thought nothing of it.

I took a few shots without flash, but the vibration of the bus caused too much blur. I put down the window and took a picture with flash. And in about five seconds, I had three new friends standing outside the window – two uniformed policemen and one guy looking preppy with a green and white striped sweater draped over his shoulders. Sweater Guy was wearing his badge around his neck.

The policemen got my attention, and Sweater Guy spoke. “Did you take a picture?” he asked, “This is not possible.”

I had taken a picture, so obviously it was possible.

I told him that I had indeed taken a photo.

He was fumbling around for the words in English, I so asked if he wanted the camera. He did, so I passed it through the window. The three policemen fooled around with it for a bit, so I asked them if they wanted me to turn the pictures on. Sweater Man waved me off, indicating that he didn’t need my help with the camera. I told them that they just had to push the green button, but they weren’t listening. Soon enough, though, Sweater Man handed the camera back to me and told me to show the pictures.

I was happy to oblige. I put the camera in review mode. Before I passed it back, though, I pushed the button to advance the photos. Since the camera automatically started at the last shot, in hitting the advance button once, I moved the first photo of my vacation onto the screen.

The police took the camera, and I told them to just push the arrow to go to the next photo. They nodded and started scrolling. Since I had started them at the beginning, they had over 200 photos to get through before they would get to the picture they wanted to see. As I watched from the windows, they scrolled and scrolled and scrolled and discussed my pictures of Albania amongst themselves. They were only at about photo 150 when Sweater Man started losing interest. Then my bus started moving. Sweater Man was like, “never mind,” and he handed my camera back through the window.

There were two policemen on the bus with us, and we also had a police car escort.

The bus took us to the terminal at the tiny Brindisi Airport, and as we entered, a ticket agent handed us transit passes.

Inside, there was a spread of food with an Italian flava. There were fresh calzones, cheese sandwiches, and prosciutto sandwiches, as well as prepackaged sandwiches. To drink, there was a choice of water, Pepsi, beer, lemon soda, tea, and several juices. Everyone gorged on this food and then sat around, fat and almost happy, waiting for information. We were confined to the small area at Gate 1.

All of the smokers were back in flavor country. The terminal was not set up for smoking, so people just dropped their ashes and butts on the floor. No one seemed to mind this, though, and the police were actually doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, it was time for more praying. The Muslim men were permitted to go to the Gate 2 waiting room to pray, and they were visible to the rest of us through the glass. Again, we all watched them for lack of anything better to do.

In the Gate 1 area, everyone just sat around chatting. There was one phone there, and a queue quickly developed. The bathroom was also popular.

The passengers on the flight were mostly Albanians. In addition, there were a few Turks, four Americans (including the stocky man who had demanded answers on the plane, an older man who worked for the Peace Corps in Albania, Miss India, and me), an Australian, a Kyrgyzstani, and one each from Singapore, Philippines, and Malaysia (the three other beauty queens).

As we waited in the Gate 1 area, the police took the Aussie and the Americans a few at a time to the police office so that we could call our consuls. When it was my turn, I was taken to the office with the Aussie woman. They connected her first, and she had her consul call her daughter and husband to tell them that she was fine. Then it was my turn. When the policewoman called the American consul in Naples for me, she told me that there was no answer. I was sent back out to Gate 1 and told that someone would retrieve me when the consul answered. No one ever did get me, though.

Out in the holding area, the police again collected our passports. They were entering the information into a computer, and they were also making photocopies of everyone’s passport except for those belonging to the Americans and the Aussie. I had seen this work in progress as I was waiting to talk to my consul.

Even though I had not gotten to speak with a consul, the Italians were on top of things. Somehow, information about us Americans had reached the State Department Operations Center in Washington. I assume that the Italians sent this information to our Embassy in Rome and that it was forwarded to Washington from there.

In any case, my good friend Nicole, who was back in Tel Aviv serving as the after-hours duty officer, received a call from the Ops Center informing her that I was on the hijacked plane. Pretty cool, eh?

As we waited around near Gate 1, I kept seeing Sweater Man. Since we now had plenty of time on our hands, I wondered if he might decide to resume inspecting my photos. He never did, though. The picture in question wasn’t anything great in any case.

The man who had been translating Turkish to Albanian on the plane seemed like he was a prime suspect as an accomplice to the hijacker. The police took him away from the rest of us several times, and it didn’t appear to be under friendly circumstances. If he was a suspect, though, then he must have been cleared eventually because he was allowed to rejoin the group.

At one point, the police started transferring us to the area around Gates 3 and 4. They sent us in small groups to go through the security checkpoint, where we would pass through the metal detector and our bags would be x-rayed.

At the security station, we encountered press for the first time. The Italian media was staked out right behind the security station, and as we passed through one by one, the cameras flashed away. Television cameramen were also collecting footage, and reporters were hounding us for comments. Now I know how R. Kelly feels when he shows up to an arraignment hearing. With as much footage as was generated as I passed by the cameramen, I was pretty sure that none of it would ever see the light of day. For starters, I am not photogenic. Beyond that, I knew that the beauty queens and the Muslim men with big beards would make better visuals.

As I passed through the security check, a policeman confiscated my big wooden fork. Then he sent me over to a table where a policewoman did a second complete hands-on search of my bag.

After the search, I had to show my passport to another policeman. He reviewed it and told me that I could sit down again. I asked him about my wooden fork thing, and he couldn’t understand me. As we were discussing things, a plain-clothed officer came up to see what the problem was. The cop I was dealing with handed him my passport, which the new-comer looked at.

He immediately saw that it was diplomatic and asked me how he could be of service. His English was good, and I told him that I was waiting for the x-ray man to finish inspecting my wooden item. I knew that it wasn’t being inspected, but sometimes playing dumb is necessary.

The helpful policeman went over to his colleague and asked him what the deal was. They discussed it in Italian, and then the helpful policeman explained to me that he had been told that I could not have my stick back until we again loaded on the airplane. This made no sense really. I couldn’t have the stick in the place where security personnel outnumbered passengers, but I could have it when I got back on the plane, where there were no security people?

The helpful policeman then told me to have a seat and he would see what could be done. I did as instructed, and within a matter of minutes, he handed me back the stick.

Now things got really boring. In our new holding area, we had to wait for many more hours while processing continued. It was also decided that we could not reboard the same plane that we had left, so we had to wait for a new plane to arrive. As we sat and waited, people chatted and walked around. A few people tried to sleep, but this didn’t strike me as very feasible.

Part of the ongoing processing was the photographing and fingerprinting of everyone except for the Australian and the Americans.

Besides the security personnel, there were several other groups of people looking after us. There were several medical technicians, airline personnel, cleaning people, and the hospitality people who served the food and drink.

Near Gate 4, there was a touch-screen computer kiosk, and one of its features was headline news. At the time, we were headline news, and I finally got to read the story of our hijacking.

While we waited, the airport staff brought us food and drink every hour or so. A man would come in with a tray of croissants, for example, and everyone would descend on him like vultures. Before he could even set the tray down on the table, people were grabbing. Some people were absolute pigs. They would take multiple pieces of whatever was being served. You would assume that they were taking some for their family and friends, but this was not always the case. Some men would take three croissants and eat them all. Meanwhile, some didn’t get any.

When the food delivery guy noticed what was happening, he tried to shame some of the greedier people into sharing more and taking less. The shaming tactic didn’t really work, though.

The whole food system was interesting to see. I doubt that anyone there normally ate constantly throughout the night. Yet, with nothing else to do, eating was a real diversion. Even the fight to get food was a game of sorts.

After a few snacks, I needed the bathroom again. I got in the line, and before long it was my turn. After a few minutes, I emerged to a room full of people eating ice cream novelties. Some were eating ice cream out of cups; others had ice cream sandwiches or Eskimo pies or sundae cones. This was our best treat yet, and I was sure that I had missed out. Luckily, though, there were two things left on the table – a sundae cone and a double chocolate ice cream bar on a stick. I chose the later.

For a few more hours, we sat around fighting over orange juice and pastries. Then the police herded us to the baggage carousel to collect our checked bags. There were luggage carts available, but they required the payment of one Euro. Many people wanted carts, but balked at having to pay for them. Most people didn’t have any Euros anyway, and there wasn’t anywhere to get any.

I didn’t have any checked baggage, so I left the baggage area with the same carry-on bag with which I had entered. In order to get back to the gate area, though, I had to have my things searched yet again. As the policeman was checking things, he asked me to open some plastic bags to show him what was inside. Evidently, I didn’t allow him enough time to see into one bag because he gave me a big spiel about how he was doing a thorough check for my safety and how he was looking out for my best interests and blah, blah, blah.

I got the all clear and then joined my plane-mates back at Gate 1. It was finally time to leave. Of course, there was a procedure for this also.

One of the policemen brought out a large stack of files that had been developed for most of the passengers. These files contained the passport photocopies, the fingerprint cards, the photos, and possibly other bits of information about the passengers. The policemen read the first few of these files, and people boarded as their names were called. Everyone was cracking up at the butchering the Italian policeman was doing on the Albanian names. Many of the Albanians couldn’t even understand what he was saying, so the translator guy from the plane finished calling out the names. At the end, those of us without files were also dismissed.

Once a name was called, the passenger had to turn in his transit pass as he departed the terminal. Several people had lost their passes over the course of the night, and they had to wait until the end before they could leave the terminal.

The plane was pretty close to the terminal, so we didn’t have to take a bus. The whole way from the terminal to the air stairs, there were policemen on either side, forming a corridor for us to pass through. The whole night I had felt kind of like a criminal and kind of like a VIP. The criminal part was understandable since to the police, any one of us passengers could have been involved in the hijacking and we were treated with due scrutiny. The VIP feeling was also understandable since we were being handled and taken care of by a variety of people, and because of the media interest.

Anyhow, as I walked through the line of cops, I definitely felt more like a VIP than a suspect. I tossed some ciaos out to the guys and hopped onto the plane.

Saymir and the other guy boarded a while before I did, and the other guy took my window seat. He offered to move, but I figured it was just as well if he stayed there. It would save him the trouble of crawling over me to look out. Anyway, I was planning on sleeping like everyone else was.

We departed at 6:20 AM, approximately 13 hours after we had arrived in Brindisi. I had missed my connecting flight afterall. Just barely…

I pretty much fell asleep when I sat down and woke up a few hours later just as breakfast was being served. I felt oddly refreshed after less than two hours of sleep, and I ate even though I had eaten all night.

When we landed in Istanbul, we got a sweet parking spot that put us near passport control. It was about 9:30 when we got inside the airport. We were not yet free people, though.

At the end of the jetway, there were dozens of policeman and several Turkish Air employees. The Turkish Air people split us up depending on whether we were ending our journey in Istanbul or were transiting. Once we were divided, the destination-Istanbul group was led away. The rest of us were told to wait for a Turkish Air supervisor to arrive.

I talked with the Peace Corps guy, and we compared notes of the hijacking. He had realized straight away that something was wrong when the captain diverted for an emergency landing to a place that was not even along our flight path. This made sense when he mentioned it, but I didn’t think about it at the time the hijacking was happening. He also told me that his call to the consul in Naples had worked. The consul told him that he could get him out of the airport if he wanted to leave, but he decided not to do this. I would have made the same decision, I think.

Then we just talked about other travel experiences.

As we were talking, a woman wheeled over a cart full of drinks and sandwiches. I was over the food by now. Rather, I needed to hit the toilet again.

I asked one of the cops if I could go, and he said that he would have to escort me. I didn’t care. It was his loss.

As we walked along, I asked him if the hijacking was big news. He said that it was. Then he told me that they expected to receive the hijacker back in Istanbul in about 24 hours.

At the bathroom, I started walking into the stall with my bag like I always do at the airport. My escort stopped me. “Relax,” he told me. “I’ll watch your things out here.”

Relax indeed. Once again I was being treated like a suspect.

Too bad for my guard, though. My parasites were still partying like it was 1999, and my session on the toilet was, well, explosive, let’s say. All the while, I could see the cop’s shoes as he walked back and forth in front of the door. Once I came out of the stall, he went in to look around, including in the trash and in the toilet. I suppose he was checking to see if I had disposed of anything suspicious.

I washed my hands and then we rejoined the group.

As I walked up, one of the Turkish Air people was saying something about us not having to wait any longer than an hour or so more. At this, the stocky American man started up again. “Wait another hour? I don’t think so. We’ve been waiting all night like prisoners!”

Before he got too wound up, though, they took him and the rest of the U.S.-bound passengers away.

They led the rest of us to a deserted passport control area, collected our tickets and passports, and told us to wait. As we were waiting, the police called me and Miss India over to talk to the American Consul and his Turkish colleague. It was a nice touch for them to come to the airport to meet us.

They asked us if there was anything they could do for us. I had already received a new flight for 2:15 that afternoon, so I only requested that they notify my supervisor in Tel Aviv that I wouldn’t be at work that day. As it turned out, my office was already aware of this thanks to the call from the Ops Center the night before.

Miss India needed more assistance, however. She had originally planned to stay in Istanbul for a week, but now wanted to return to California as soon as possible. The consulate personnel told her they would help her get new tickets. Then they left to wait for us on the other side of the passport control section because they had only been permitted to visit us for a brief period.

When they left, Miss India asked me what I did for the State Department. I told her that I worked in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. She managed to contain her excitement and almost appeared to be unimpressed by this. She returned to her beauty pageant friends, and I returned back to the Aussie woman, with whom I had been speaking.

The Aussie woman just kept saying how ridiculous our treatment was. In the place we had been made to wait, there weren’t even any chairs, so everyone was sitting on the floor. As the Aussie woman was talking, a few dozen more cops arrived on the scene and we both had a good laugh about this.

There are several flights a day from Istanbul to Tel Aviv, so my rescheduling was the quickest and easiest. The Muslim delegation was rebooked for a 7:00 PM flight to Jeddah. Other people received new flights for other destinations. The more complicated ones to reschedule were the Australian lady’s ticket to Sydney and the beauty queens’ tickets to Bangkok and Singapore.

Eventually, most of us had tickets in hand.

The main police guy told us all to gather around, and we did. As we gathered, the cops formed a tight ring around us. Then the main guy starting calling our names one by one to receive our passports and to pass through passport control. Like the Italians, the Turkish policeman was butchering the Albanian names. All of the cops surrounding us were laughing at him. Like before, he turned over the reading of the names to an Albanian. Oddly enough, though, the guy he chose didn’t seem to be very adept at reading Albanian names, either, and he had to constantly correct himself. With the name calling and the presentation of the passports, the whole thing felt like a graduation. We were very close to wrapping up the whole hijacking experience, so it was like a graduation in that way also.

Once all of the Albanians and the Asian beauty queens were called out, Miss India, the Aussie, and I were left. The policeman was like, “The rest of you can come and get your passports.”

Inside everyone’s passport, immigration personnel had inserted a slip of paper that bore our details and a seal. I believe that this was given to us so that we could legally leave the airport without purchasing visas (although I already had a Turkish visa).

As we were assembled on the backside of the passport control area, there was a mob of reporters separated from us by a wall of policemen. The Turkish Air supervisor told me that I could go to the business class lounge since my flight was only a few hours away. (Everyone else, who had longer to wait, would be going into the city to rest and/or overnight.)

The supervisor assigned another Turkish Air employee to take me to the lounge. I was the first person dismissed, and as I walked through the wall of cops, I was surrounded by the reporters. I had nothing to say, but they still swarmed around me all the way down the corridor. At that moment, I felt like Drew Barrymore coming out of a detox center.

Soon enough, though, my companions also broke through the wall of policemen so that they could collect their luggage at baggage claim. When they did, the reporters and photographers gradually peeled off of me and started stalking other people. Nearly everyone brushed off the reporters, except for the beauty queens. They all gave interviews. And why not? Publicity couldn’t hurt an aspiring model.

I saw the consulate people again, and I thanked them on my way to the lounge.

My escorting Turkish Air lady was practically running down the halls, and it took a bit of doing for me to keep up. We departed the baggage claim area and entered the main arrivals hall. There was a bunch more reporters staked out here.

We dashed through them, and I don’t think that they even realized that I was from the hijacked plane.

Now we were out of the secure portion of the airport, so we had to reenter. My guide led me up an escalator and to a security checkpoint. She brought me in through the crew entrance, and the security screeners told me to go back out and get in the passenger line. My guide quickly explained about the hijacking and all, and I got to stay in the crew line and cut in front of everyone.

Then we were off to passport control. My guide rushed me to the front of another line, this time right in front of a woman in a wheelchair. I suggested that we could go after the lady in the wheelchair, but my guide instead just trooped me to the front of another line with no wheelchair people in it. The immigration official seemed confused with the visa slip I had been issued, but he stamped my passport anyway and allowed me to enter.

After this, we rushed to the lounge. My escort explained the situation to the lounge attendants, and they let me inside with no hassle. I thanked her, and she zoomed away. I think she may be drinking too much coffee or something.

In the lounge, I had a shower, drank some whisky, sent some e-mails, drank some whisky, and watched some TV. Then I went to my gate and boarded without any drama. The sweet free upgrade to business class that I had received earlier went away when the staff in Istanbul rebooked my Tel Aviv ticket. Doh! I couldn’t complain, though. As I sat down, I realized that it was all finally over. No more being herded around, no more police, no more reporters, no more security checks. It was a great feeling.

I slept for most of the flight until we landed in Tel Aviv a bit after 4:00 PM. In short, my first, and hopefully last, hijacking was basically just a 16-hour inconvenience.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Israel: A Date in the Desert

Every few weeks, I would meet up with the guys for poker and pizza. Calling it a strategy might be a bit much, so let's just say that my modus operandi was to bet on nearly every hand. My thinking was that if I had any sort of halfway decent hand, I might as well try my luck. Everyone else bet much more conservatively, so my style became something of a running joke. I was dubbed “The Philanthropist” because I gave away so much money. This moniker didn't bother me, though. It had the ring of a Batman villain, and was way better than the other nicknames around the table. Besides, my career poker winnings were pretty respectable.

One night at a house party, I was talking with one of my poker friends, Jackson, and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Galit.

We were having a fine discussion and plenty of laughs when Galit declared to Jackson, “You're right; I think he's perfect!”

This unexpected exclamation was followed by a sales pitch for a young lady named Adi (Galit's cousin) who was apparently made for me. I am generally opposed to set-ups because they always seem to lead to the situation where outside parties take too much of an interest in a fledgling relationship, but I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement, and I took Adi's number.

A few days later, we met for the first time at a café where we had a nice, long conversation. It was first date talk, so while everything was pleasant and sometimes humorous, the conversation was also somewhat artificial.

Adi was a Jewish woman of Persian descent, and she was quick to throw out a general invitation for me to try her mother's Persian cooking. Then we started talking about things I had done in Israel so far in my tour. Building on the places that I had seen, Adi mentioned other places that she thought were worth visiting – some that were already on my list; some not – and any time I'd show interest in an idea of hers, she'd tell me, “We'll see that together!” Even then, I was wondering if she wasn't getting the cart before the horse.

While the conversation was generally harmless, there was one thing that did irritate me before long. Like me, Adi was keen on traveling, and she had recently spent time in South America – in Colombia, I think. While she was telling me about her trip, she repeatedly talked about her Colombian boyfriend. I know that finding love on the road is something some people seek, and that some people have a knack for, but the fact that she found a boyfriend on a three-week vacation was not a plus in my book. Besides, I think it is bad form in general to talk about an ex while on a date, and especially a first date.

Adi had grown up in Israel so Hebrew was her first language. Her English was very good as well, but it did have its limits. In what was partly a lack of confidence and partly a desire to improve her English skills, Adi was constantly using her pocket translator while we spoke. This was wholly unnecessary.

While I'm no linguist by any stretch, in the course of my travels and my overseas assignments, I have picked up bits of several languages. I can speak Spanish maybe at the level of a two-year-old; Hebrew at the level of a six-month-old; and Urdu and Arabic at the level of a third trimester fetus. English is not my only language of fluency, however. No, friends, I am also a master of English-as-a-Second-Language or ESL. I've spent years decoding heavily accented, and frequently broken, English. I've learned to speak slowly and simplify vocabulary as necessary. My ESL is quite proficient, and when I find myself in the presence of other gringos on, say, an English tour conducted by a local woman in Hanoi, I frequently end up as the interpreter for the group.

When Adi initially started struggling with our conversation, I adapted my speech for her.

A typical conversation would go something like this:

I might say something like, “Mortimer is selfish.”

“What's that mean?” she'd respond.

“That means he only thinks about himself,” I'd explain.

“Oh, I see.”

Then she would pull out her translator and type in selfish in English to see its direct translation in Hebrew.

As I said earlier, this last step was unnecessary, not to mention supremely annoying. When I would reword and simplify things that Adi didn't initially understand, she would then understand them, at least well enough to allow us to continue talking. In my opinion, if you want to have a conversation, even if you want to improve your language skills, it is more important to get the gist of the conversation and to maintain a conversational flow than it is to understand every word. Her heavy reliance on the translator would be appropriate if she were trying to translate a newspaper article or something. In a conversation, though, it was entirely too disruptive. That pocket translator was in use every ten seconds.

Adi was somewhat insecure about her English, and several times she asked me, “Is my English too bad?”

I spent a lot of time trying to convince her it was fine, but she still continued apologizing for it throughout the evening. I just wanted her to feel comfortable enough to ditch the pocket translator.

Adi told me that she hoped to improve her English by spending time with me, and in turn she was keen to help me with my Hebrew. Language learning was not a goal that was high on my list for this relationship, however, and in hindsight, I wish I'd done a better job of conveying this to her.

Despite the pocket translator and the talk of the Colombian boyfriend, I enjoyed that first date, and after six hours of talking we parted ways.

At work the following week, my colleagues Eve and Sandra grilled me about my weekend as they were wont to do. When I told them about Adi, they couldn't have been happier.

“That's great!” they told me. “She sounds perfect for you!”

That's what friends are for, I suppose.

Adi and I spoke a few times during the week, and then on Wednesday we met again. This time we went bowling – my choice.

I would go bowling nearly every week with some of my friends, so the employees at the bowling alley were well acquainted with me. When Adi and I arrived, the waitress (yes, the bowling alley had servers) came up.

“A half liter?” she asked me in reference to the size of beer I usually ordered.

“Yes,” I told her, “and...”

“Don't worry; I won't forget the pickles,” she interrupted with a smile.

At the bowling alley, beer was served with a complimentary dish of pickled vegetables, but half the time you had to ask for it. I always looked forward to the pickles, and I would ask for them every time. During my time in Israel, the bowling alley actually canceled the free pickle program entirely, but due to my history, the manager grandfathered me for the rest of my stay in the country, and I got free pickles until I left.

Adi went for a Diet Coke, and we also split a basket of fries.

While I was the Philanthropist at the poker table, at the bowling alley I was “Twinkle Toes”. My normal bowling group had bestowed this name on me because my bowling style closely resembled that of Fred Flintstone. It was all in fun, though.

Adi had never been bowling before, so she needed a lot of close instruction. As much as I tried to help, though, I was no miracle worker. Almost every ball that she threw unassisted ended up in the gutter. Thankfully, she was a good sport, and we had a fine time talking, eating, and bowling.

We were there for a few hours, and one thing made me especially happy: the pocket translator never made an appearance. Between the bowling and the greasy fries, there was never a good moment to pull out a small electronic device. And much as I suspected, we got along just fine without it.

At one point during the evening, the conversation shifted to our plans for the upcoming weekend. On Saturday, I was planning to go to the Dead Sea with some friends during the day, and that night I had a dinner to attend. Adi had plans of her own, so we agreed to meet the following week to catch a movie.

My trip to the Dead Sea was actually not to see the sea itself, which I had done on previous trips. Rather, I was going to see the Sdom-Tsefa Potash Conveyor in the nearby desert. The STP Conveyor is the longest conveyor belt in the world, transporting minerals from Sdom on the Dead Sea at a rate of 800 tons an hour a distance of 18,150 meters (11.28 miles) to the railroad terminal at Tsefa. The belt gains 850 meters in elevation over the course of its journey.

No doubt this was a geeky road trip, but having caught glimpses on previous trips of the conveyor belt encased in its yellow plastic sleeve, I wanted to go for a closer look.

If Adi had thought my proposed trip was lame, she didn't let on. She did, however, mention that she was afraid of the Dead Sea.

While this might sound strange at first, I've actually heard this from several ladies. In each of these stories, the root of the fear is the same. The woman had gone to the Dead Sea as a young girl with her family. Everyone was having a grand time rubbing on the therapeutic mud and floating in the super salty water – that is until the burning started. The Dead Sea is not just a really salty lake; it's a huge chemical soup. Guidebooks warn against swimming in the Dead Sea if you have a newish cut or even if you've recently shaved. Even if you don't have a cut, though, the water can still irritate sensitive skin, sometimes quite severely. And so, time after time, a loving papa has tossed his little girl into the Dead Sea, and soon thereafter she feels an intense burning below the waist. Then she's left traumatized forevermore.

I told Adi that this wouldn't be an issue on my trip since I wasn't planning on going in the sea. She wasn't able to join me anyway, so it definitely wasn't an issue.

We parted company that night, and over the next two days, my trip got turned on its head. The two people who were supposed to accompany me canceled, but I was quite happy to go alone. Then on Friday night, Adi called. Her plans for Saturday had fallen through, and she wanted to join me.

We had been having a good time together, so I was happy for her to come along.

The next morning, I picked her up around 8:30. She lived north of Tel Aviv in a town with which I wasn't familiar, and I got slightly lost on my first pass. I found her on my second try, though, and we were soon on the highway.

Adi was surprised to see that it was just the two of us because I hadn't told her that the others had canceled. She was relieved, though. I wasn't aware that they'd met, but it turned out that Adi couldn't stand one of the people who was supposed to join us.

Not long after we got started, Adi took an interest in our route. She consulted my road atlas and asked me what my plan was. I told her that I was going to make a big circle, approaching the Dead Sea by the south and returning by the north. She said that she understood, but several times during the drive, she asked me if we were still going the right direction. I had driven the route several times before, and I knew what I was doing. In addition, the highways in Israel are quite well marked, so even if I hadn't driven the route before, I could have easily figured it out. I think Adi felt compelled to second-guess me, though, because it was her country and she felt that this made her the expert by default. The problem with this was that she didn't own a car, and she had never driven to the Dead Sea or anywhere else for that matter. I had been driving the highways of Israel almost every weekend for nearly a year, and I felt completely confident in my ability to get from Point A to B.

When we weren't busy discussing the route, we listened to music and talked about a variety of other things. Of course, the pocket translator was in constant use.

One topic of discussion that I found amusing was Adi's creative use of her sick leave. In Israel there is a saying, “It doesn't pay to be OK,” meaning that if you are healthy and don't use your sick leave, you are wasting a workplace entitlement. Embracing this philosophy, many Israelis burn through their sick leave for frivolous reasons. Adi subscribed to this line of thinking as well, and she proudly told me how she never carried a sick leave balance because she would use it as quickly as it accrued. That's good and well, I suppose, until the day comes when you need the sick leave for a real illness or injury.

The southern approach took a few hours, and about halfway, I hit a very minor snag. As I mentioned earlier, the highways in Israel are pretty easy to navigate. The only problem, and a small one at that, is that many of the highways take you through the heart of the cities and towns that they intersect. So, you'll be driving along at a good clip on the open road, and then five minutes later you'll find yourself slowly negotiating residential neighborhoods, traffic lights, and shops. Once a highway enters a city, it rarely cuts straight through. Rather, it snakes through, forcing you to follow a series of signs to keep on track. In Israel, the system is pretty much the same as the state highway system in the U.S.

As I was driving through one of these cities along our route, I missed one of the signs that showed where the highway was going, and I didn't turn when I should have. Adi had been doubting my ability to navigate since our trip began, so when I mentioned missing the turn, she made it out to be a much bigger problem than it was.

So minor was the mistake, though, that by the time we hit the next red light, I was able to fix it.

“If we turn left at the next intersection that should get us back on track,” I told Adi.

“OK,” she halfheartedly responded.

The next thing I know, she has her head out the window, looking for a second opinion. After some back and forth in Hebrew with the young man driving next to us, she pulled herself back into the car.

“He said to just turn left up here,” she told me.

I didn't even respond. The issue here was not that I didn't want to ask for directions. It wasn't even that I needed her to admit that I had been right. Nope, it was the fact that she told me exactly what I had just told her, while acting like she was telling me something new.

At least once we had the random stranger's input, Adi didn't second-guess me the rest of the way out of town.

After another hour, we were in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

We passed the chemical factories along the southern coast, and then I veered off into the desert and away from the sea. As I had discussed with Adi before the trip, my intention was to see the STP Conveyor on this outing and not the Dead Sea itself. She had supposedly supported my plan, but when I turned into the desert it seemed that she had reconsidered.

“Why are we turning?” she asked me. “Aren't we going to the Dead Sea? I have my swim suit with me.”

I was beginning to wonder if she listened to and understood anything I said to her or if she just nodded along like a bobble-head doll. Besides her change of heart with regard to the day's plan, I wondered what had happened to her fear of the Dead Sea. Perhaps she thought it would be romantic if we overcame her fear together. Whatever her thinking was, I unfortunately hadn't brought a swim suit with me, and I wasn't interested in buying one.

We continued on to the conveyor belt, and at the most accessible segment there was a sign explaining its greatness. We took some photos and walked around in the sand and sun for a few minutes.

Then we loaded back in the jeep and headed deeper into the desert for a better look at the conveyor. We started on a graded dirt road, but it quickly deteriorated until we were basically off-roading on a marked path. As we were driving up and down some very steep canyons, the scenes of parched earth, marbled rock, shifting sands, and the odd gnarled tree were amazing. For the first time that day, I turned the radio off, and Adi and I enjoyed the desert and its stark silence.

As tranquil as everything was, though, I wasn't fully at ease. Some portions of our drive had been unnervingly steep. Others had been a bit too close to long drops. In short, the trail was a bit daunting in places, and the notion of turning around and leaving by the same way we had entered wasn't something that appealed to me. Adi was a real trouper, though. She expressed no concern whatsoever for our safety and seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself.

After about half an hour of driving through the wilds, we stopped for lunch. Overlooking a minor canyon, Adi and I left the jeep and had some sandwiches in a boulder field. There wasn't another person for miles; everything was still, and the sun was beating down relentlessly. I felt like a part of the desert, and that moment was easily my favorite of the day.

Forty-five minutes later, we continued on our way. As long as we kept to the path, I assumed that we'd reach a major road, and soon enough we did. I was thankful that I hadn't been forced to backtrack.

As we headed north on the highway, we made one more stop – this time to the lookout point atop Mt. Sedom. This vantage point afforded us great views of the Dead Sea and its southern evaporation pools, not to mention Jordan across the water.

We took a few more photos, and then began the journey homeward.

The desert had had a calming effect on me, and I was able to cast aside my annoyances from the morning. As we started driving, though, it didn't take Adi long to resurrect them.

We hadn't gone five minutes before she questioned the route again.

“I don't remember going this way before,” she told me. “Are you sure this is the right way?”

So, I explained again that we were making a big circle, and as such the scenery wouldn't be the same as it had been in the morning.

She accepted my explanation (or so I thought), but then we had the same discussion twenty minutes later.

Sprinkle in some more pocket translator action, and I was fit to be tied.

By the time I dropped Adi off at her apartment, I was well and truly ready for our date to be over.

Just before she got out of the car, I kissed her good-bye.

“It's too bad you don't have time to come inside,” she flirted, while at the same time aware that I had to get to my dinner appointment.

“Yeah – you, me, and the translator...” I thought to myself, “sounds like a blast.”

Then with all the sincerity I could muster, I did my best to bow out gracefully.

Our relationship had turned a corner. The annoyances now outweighed the joys for me, and after mulling things over the rest of the weekend, I decided it was time to move on.

On Monday morning, I called Adi to tell her the news.

“Did you already buy the movie tickets?” I asked her.

“No,” she told me. “I'll get them later today.”

“I won't need one,” I replied. “I don't think it's working out between us.”

“Really?” she answered. “I thought things were going great, but if that's how you feel...”

“Yes, that's how I feel.”

And like that it was over.

We said our good-byes and wished each other well, and I was feeling like a bit of a cad. Adi remedied me of this, however, as she piped in with the last word.

“I almost forgot,” she told me, “thanks for your help with my English!”

And then she hung up.

I had to tip my hat to her for managing to annoy me even as we were breaking up. She left me with no doubt that I had done the right thing.

Later, when Eve and Sandra heard the news, they couldn't have been happier. “That's great!” they told me. “She was all wrong for you. We never liked her.”

You've gotta love the peanut gallery.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Israel: Tzfat

The trip that my good friend Geoff and I made up to Tzfat one Saturday was a bit of a bust. We realized that most things would be closed there for Shabbat, as in most other Israeli cities, but we thought that there would still be enough to see to make the trip worthwhile.

Tzfat, also called Safed, is a nice little city built on a hill near the Sea of Galilee. It's one of Judaism's Four Holy Cities (along with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tiberias), so it's a very conservative, religious place. It's also the center of Jewish mysticism.

After a drive of two hours or so, we parked the G3, my green gas guzzler, at the bottom of the town and walked up the hill into the artist colony. In the colony, there were many galleries and studios, and many places were open even though the streets were deserted.

The first gallery we passed was open, and we stopped to have a look. The owner of the shop was a nice older woman of Eastern European descent, and Geoff picked up on this immediately. A true lover of languages, Geoff entered into a conversation with her that freely danced through Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. For my part, I could only recognize the occasional word, so I spent my time looking at the paintings in the shop.

Geoff and the shop owner must have yakked on for 10 or 15 minutes, and I finished browsing before they finished talking. Before Geoff and I moved on, however, the saleswoman did switch back to English in an attempt to peddle some art. Her daughter was one of the artists, and her medium of choice was ceramic tile. Her pieces were nice, but like everything else in the store, they weren't anything that I had to have. They were also a bit pricey. We moved on.

We stopped in a few more galleries and then moved on to Citadel Park which overlooked the town by virtue of its position on the hill. In the park, there were a few monuments and a path winding through some trees. There were several Jewish families enjoying the park, and there were some interesting wardrobes to be sure. The best were the religious men wearing long, black, satiny robes and big fur hats. The hats aside, these guys were dressed about like Hugh Hefner.

From the park, we reentered the cobblestone streets of the Old City and before long we came across a group of Orthodox Jews. The group consisted of a man who appeared to be in his thirties and three teenage boys. They were all dressed in their black suits and hats.

As we approached the foursome, the older man pounced on us. He was exceedingly hyper, and as he peppered us with questions at an annoyingly frenzied pace, his younger companions all cracked up.

Geoff was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of King Tut on it, so the hyper guy made a big show of jumping back like he was afraid. He continued to act theatrically dramatic about the shirt for what seemed like several minutes.

All the while, I was thinking, “We get it: the ancient Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Can we move on already?”

Eventually we did move on, but throughout the rest of our conversation, he continued to mention how the shirt was creeping him out.

Before he had moved to Tzfat, Hyper-Man had been living in Maryland and New York. In response, Geoff told him that he also hailed from the DC/Maryland area. They started compared notes on Jewish personalities in the region – which rabbis were still around and so forth.

Around this point in the conversation, Geoff also mentioned to Hyper-Man that he had recently visited the tomb of Rabbi Schneerson in New York City and had received a blessing from the dead rabbi. Hyper-Man acknowledged this and quickly turned his attention to me.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I'm Christian,” I replied.

And in response to this, Hyper-Man gave me a brochure.

“You should read this,” he told me.

As we stood there, I gave the pamphlet a look. It listed seven laws that I, as a gentile, was expected to follow. The seven laws included the following:

1. Don't have any idols before God.

2. Don't murder.

3. Don't steal.

4. Don't commit adultery.

5. Don't blaspheme God's name.

6. Don't eat an animal while it is still alive.

7. Do set up a judiciary to fairly judge observance of the previous laws.

The laws were good and well, but, frankly, I found the brochure insulting. I could understand its usefulness if I had admitted to being a Satanist or something, but I hadn't. I had told him that I was a Christian. Did he really think that there was anything on his list that wasn't covered by Christian teachings?

The conversation eventually wound its way through more pedestrian topics, and Hyper-Man started inquiring as to what Geoff and I were doing in Israel.

Geoff mentioned that we worked in Tel Aviv, so our inquisitor asked him where.

Geoff didn't think it would be a good idea to tell this guy that he worked at the Embassy in the visa section, so he started playing coy.

“We work in an office building,” he said.

Hyper-Man could tell that Geoff was being evasive, so he pushed the issue more. I followed Geoff's lead, and we both danced around the question until Hyper-Man accepted defeat and moved on to another question.

Eventually, we broke away from Hyper-Man and continued walking around the Old City. Before we left him, though, he offered us some more brochures which Geoff gladly accepted.

Once we were out of earshot, Geoff mentioned to me that as obnoxious as Hyper-Man had been, it would have been even worse if he had known that Geoff was Jewish. This is because Hyper-Man would have put his energies into encouraging Geoff to take his faith to a higher level.

I thought Geoff's comment was funny, though. If Hyper-Man hadn't realized that Geoff was Jewish, he wasn't very observant. Sure, a non-Jew might know the head of the Jewish Day School in Rockville, but I doubt that one would get a blessing at Rabbi Schneerson's tomb. I suppose it's possible, though.

Flipping through the brochures we had collected, Geoff also offered a bit of an explanation on the seven laws.

“To be a good Jew,” he said, “you have to follow hundreds of rules. But, if you aren't a Jew, you are only expected to follow these basic seven.”

It was nice that the expectations were so low for me, but by then I was already soured to the seven rules. Just to prove a point, I went out and ate an animal while it was still alive. Just kidding.

As Geoff and I continued to walk through town, we came to one of the more conservative neighborhoods. There was a sign at the entrance that explained that proper dress and behavior were expected. The unwritten, yet still understood, part of the message was that violators would be dealt with swiftly, quite possibly with a good, old fashioned stoning.

In many a t-shirt shop in Israel, there is a shirt with the words “I got stoned in” across the top. Below this heading, several cities are listed with check-boxes so that the wearer can mark the places where he or she in fact did get stoned. This shirt has a double meaning, of course, alluding both to flying rocks and to the marijuana culture in Israel.

Geoff and I were dressed appropriately enough to avoid any problems, but we did get some suspicious stares. In general, women are more likely to find themselves in violation of the dress code, I think.

As we walked through the conservative area, we passed by several synagogues that were closed to visitors.

Besides the synagogues, nearly everything else in this part of town was also closed. We didn't stay long.

After we left that neighborhood, we came across one more art gallery that was open: the Masha Gallery. Geoff's girlfriend was named Masha, so it only seemed fitting that we take a look at the gallery. Masha, the artist, wasn't on hand that day, but her husband was happy to show us his wife's collection of watercolors.

Both Geoff and I ended up making purchases. I bought a landscape that reminded me of Akko, and Geoff picked a painting of a pregnant woman wearing a red dress, sitting in a chair. He hadn't realized that she was pregnant until I pointed this out.

The Masha Gallery was our final stop in Tzfat, so after we finished there, we made our way back to the car.

Just as we reached it, a scraggly man materialized and started asking us for money. I spoke with him, and within a few seconds, I was sending him on his way empty-handed.

“Wow! You got rid of him quick,” Geoff observed, and he was right.

The interesting thing to me about the beggar was that his teeth alternated on the top and bottom of his mouth like a jack-o-lantern so that when he closed his mouth, all his teeth interlocked.

Anyhow, the beggar was the last we saw of Tzfat. After that, we didn't pass Go; we didn't collect $200. We went straight back to Tel Aviv.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Israel: The Galilee

It was ten minutes after eight on Saturday morning when I was woken by my ringing cell phone. It was my good friend Doni. We had planned to take a trip to the Sea of Galilee, and the departure time was supposed to be eight o'clock. Doh!

I told Doni that I had overslept and that I would be over in about ten minutes. Also scheduled to make the trip were my good friends Geoff and Masha, and right after I got off the phone with Doni, they called as well.

The most embarrassing part of the whole situation was that the night before, we had all been at the same party. As they left one by one, my traveling companions had warned me not to stay too late. When I overslept, they all knew all too well that I had indeed stayed too long at the party.

Everyone was still interested in making the trip, though, and by 8:30 we were on the road.

In my haste to get out the door, I had skipped breakfast. After a night of drinking, I always have to eat breakfast, and my decision to skip it meant that my stomach would be raw until lunch.

This was only a minor inconvenience, though, and we had an enjoyable ride up north.

In about an hour and a half, we reached Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. In Israel, the Sea of Galilee is called Lake Kinneret or just the Kinneret. The Israeli nomenclature is more accurate because the “sea” really is just a lake, and not a very big one at that.

By whatever name, the Galilee region is quite Biblically significant.

Although he didn't have anything to do with Tiberias, Jesus had many connections to the Sea of Galilee. It was here that he performed several miracles, including walking on water, calming a storm with his hand, and feeding a million people with a tuna sandwich. He also gave his famous Sermon on the Mount on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And beyond all the flashy things, much of Jesus's everyday life revolved around the Sea. He fished, washed, and swam there. He also drank the water of course. Even today, the Kinneret is an important source of drinking water.

Anyhow, following in the tire tracks of Jesus, I parked my SUV in a dirt lot near the Sea, and we set out to explore on foot.

The parking lot ran all the way into the water, and although there wasn't a proper beach, there were a few Israeli rednecks there having a soak. (No, America doesn't have a monopoly on rednecks.)

Doni, Masha, Geoff, and I walked down to the water's edge, looked for a moment, and moved on. We passed by a few churches and the ruins of a Crusader castle.

Then we reached the promenade (i.e., tourist central). This was the land of milk and honey and combination fish platters, and as we walked down the boardwalk, we were harassed by seemingly every restaurateur in town. The approach was the same every time. Once we crossed some imaginary line about 10 meters from the entrance to a restaurant, a guy would rush out and shove a menu in our noses. Then he would start rattling off everything that he was nice enough to include with the purchase of an entrée. The chips come with the fish? Wow!

It was a bit early, so as a group, we weren't really looking to eat just then. By the time we got to the end of the promenade, though, we had been broken. We settled down to lunch at 10:45 in the morning. With my stomach still struggling to emerge from party-mode, I personally had no objection.

The deal we ended up getting was pretty much what every restaurant had been offering: our fish came with chips, a few salads, tea, and dessert.

The food was OK, but the dessert never did turn up. Worse yet, none of us realized this until we had already paid and left.

All was not lost, though, because Geoff treated us to ice cream instead. What self-respecting promenade doesn't have an ice cream parlor or two?

As we ate our ice cream, we planned our next move.

Geoff and Masha are Jewish, so we decided to toss something Jewish into the mix. We would visit the Tomb of Maimonides, the famous philosopher rabbi. Maimonides is often referred to as Rambam, which is the acronym of his name in Hebrew.

So, armed with the basic map in our guide book, we set out to find the Rambam. We left the promenade and found that the rest of the town was deserted. This was no great surprise, though, since it was Saturday (Shabbat), and most everything in the entire country would be closed.

Tiberias is a hilly town, and we walked up and down several hills in our pursuit of the Rambam. In the end, though, he proved to be too elusive, and after 20 minutes, we terminated our search. Yes, we are lame.

A few days later, when I was discussing our trip with my other good friend Geoff, he told me how he had had similar problems in his search for the Rambam. Unlike us, he stuck it out and found the tomb. In his estimation, though, it wasn't worth the effort.

To each his own, though. I'm sure visiting Maimonides's Tomb is a powerful experience for some people.

In any case, once we had thrown in the towel on our tomb quest, we headed back to the car by way of the promenade.

We got attacked by the restaurant people again, but this time we did not succumb to their wiles.

No, instead of eating again, we took a gander at the small market that had sprung up in the center of the walkway.

I don't mean to be critical, but this was possibly the saddest market I ever did see. There were probably a dozen vendors, and every last thing for sale was magically craptacular. I'm talkin' mood rings, windsocks, lacquer boxes, lamp shades stenciled with the signs of the zodiac, faux leather belts, and temporary tattoos.

Oddly enough, we all walked away empty-handed.

As we left the market, our tour of Tiberias had basically concluded, and it was only 1:00. Since we were already in the area and since we still had daylight left to burn, Geoff asked if we would be interested in stopping to see some of his relatives (his aunt and uncle I think) who lived just south of the Kinneret. They lived on the Ashdot-Ya'akov kibbutz.

We were all keen on the suggestion, and in less than half an hour, we reached the gates to the little township. Geoff's uncle, whose name was Efraim, met us and showed me where to park. Then we walked with him over to the house where we met his wife (named Tirza, I think).

Efraim and Tirza had many lemon trees and they were heavy with fruit. Inside the house, there were copious amounts of lemons as well. All around there were buckets and baskets brimming with the fruit, and once Tirza had seated us all in the living room, she served us (what else...) lemonade and cake. I love lemonade, so I definitely wasn't complaining. I also love cake.

Initially our conversation was in English and very easy Hebrew, and I did OK, especially with the English. In no time flat, though, the conversation switched exclusively to harder Hebrew, and I was the odd man out. Geoff spoke fluent Hebrew, and Doni and Masha, while both novices, were able to understand quite a bit. My skills were just advanced enough to say things like, “More lemonade, please.”

As usually happens when family members get together, the talking went on and on. Occasionally someone would address me directly, but for the most part I just focused on my lemonade or the TV, which was also in Hebrew. I didn't mind zoning out, though.

Then, after two hours of this, Efraim broke up the party and offered to show us around the kibbutz. Before we started with the kibbutz, though, he showed us his backyard. There, there were more lemon trees and many cages housing a variety of different birds. With all the talk in the news at the time, my thoughts immediately went to bird flu. I brought this up, but Efraim didn't seem overly concerned about it himself.

After the backyard, we walked to my car and started on Efraim's tour. As we drove out of the gates, he told us a bit about kibbutzim and Ashdot-Ya'akov.

Here is my totally simplified version, which completely glosses over the whole Ihud vs. Me'uhad thing:

The original concept of a kibbutz was to have a community where everyone contributed what he or she could to the community and took back only what he or she needed. Property was owned by the community, not individuals. People didn't earn wages for their work. Daily life was communal with people working together, eating together in dining halls, sometimes sleeping in communal dormitories, and sometimes sharing child-rearing responsibilities. Initially kibbutzim were almost always agriculturally based, but as times progressed, many migrated into other businesses. Today, for example, there are kibbutzim making ammunition and bullet-proof glass. That's a bit removed from growing strawberries.

Efraim explained how Ashdot-Ya'akov, like many other kibbutzim, had really lost most of its original vision. Now it was almost indistinguishable from any other gated community. In the Ashdot-Ya'akov of today, people earn money for working, and they also pay for things that they need. The dining hall is only open a few times a week because it is too expensive to open it more frequently. Even when it is open, though, many people still choose to eat at home in private.

We drove by a building that I think Efraim told us had at one point been a bottle factory. It was shut down.

Ashdot-Ya'akov did still have plenty of farming going on, though.

We drove past groves of date palms and fields of other crops. Then Efraim took us to a spectacular viewpoint.

Ashdot-Ya'akov sits very near to Israel's border with Jordan, and it overlooks the Jordan and Yarmuk River Valleys. Efraim had me drive out to the border itself, and I parked the car there.

Down below, he pointed out some farmland that was technically inside Jordan but that the kibbutz had been allowed to keep. Using special border permits, the residents of Ashdot-Ya'akov were able to tend their fields.

We walked along the border, just near the barbed wire, and there was even an abandoned guard tower that we got to climb inside.

We remained on that ridge overlooking the Jordan River for about an hour. Then the sun left us, and we returned to the town.

Back at the house, Tirza was happy to see us again, and another conversation erupted. She and Efraim knew that we had to get going, though, so they didn't keep us long. Geoff, as it turned out, decided to stay the night in Ashdot-Ya'akov and return to Tel Aviv later by mini-bus. This would give him plenty of time to finish catching up without having to worry about Doni, Masha, and me.

In exchange for leaving Geoff behind, Tirza and Efraim gave us three large bags of lemons before they sent us on our way.

Geoff versus some lemons… Man, we made out like bandits!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Israel: Akko

When you bring people together from different areas of your life, they don't always hit it off. My trip to Akko in March was a good example of this.

For this trip, I invited my good friends Geoff and Masha from Column A, and my good friend Micheline from Column B. Geoff and I worked in the same office, and Masha was his girlfriend at the time. Micheline worked in a different office in the embassy, and she and Geoff did not know each other (or at least not very well) before joining me on this trip.

As we drove the hour or so north, things were sociable enough in the car. The conversation, however, remained a little too polite for my liking.

We reached Akko at around noon and found the Old City after a few minutes of driving around the New City. Then I parked the G3, the Green Gas Guzzler, on a street by the ancient city walls near the Mediterranean Sea, and we continued on foot.

Akko has been around for ages, and it's been conquered and lived in by the Crusaders, Ottomans, and the rest of the power players. Currently, and for at least the last century, though, it has been an Arab town.

We started our sightseeing by checking out the ruins of a sea fortress which was close to the car.
Then we passed by the lighthouse and entered the winding streets of the Old City. On our way to the souq, we passed through the Khan al-Umdan with its clock tower.

The souq was full of good looking fruits and vegetables as well as nice seafood. The shrimp in particular made me wish that I had brought a cooler along.

In the seafood area, there were also a few sharks on display that were for sale, I guess. Each was about six feet long, and they were hanging on hooks. Up until that point, I had never really thought about sharks swimming in the Med.

Near the sharks, there was a boy with a python around his shoulders trying to attract a few tourist shekels.

At the end of the food market, the cobblestone street gave way to a paved one, and the food stalls were replaced by tacky tourist stores. The crap in these stores was of two varieties: There were souvenirs like seashell baskets, belly-dancing skirts, and olive wood camels, and there were general, generic gifts like soccer balls, remote-control cars, and baby strollers for dolls.

Among these lower-end stores, there were a few places that were more upmarket, selling things like jewelry and art.

Micheline was interested in some small sculptures, but the prices were dangerously bloated in Akko. Pieces by the same artist could be found for much cheaper in Jerusalem, and the same was true for most everything else in the store.

We left empty-handed.

Our location at the market put us near the Citadel, so before we moved away, we put the Citadel to a quick vote. Masha, Geoff, and I weren't really interested in touring it, and while Micheline thought it was worthwhile, she had toured it already on an earlier visit. So, she also voted against it.

We moved on to the Mosque of al-Jazzar, where we looked around for a few minutes.

Then it was time for some lunch.

As we walked back through the market, we passed a variety of options but settled on a small hummus joint. It was after 2:00 by the time we sat down, so we had missed the noon rush.

We ordered some pitas, a few plates of hummus, and some vegetables to share.

It was good, and the price was right.

After lunch, we poked around the Old City a bit longer. When we emerged at the marina, Geoff suggested that we take a cruise around the harbor. Masha and I were keen on the idea, but Micheline wasn't interested. Her trick knees were already a bit sore from the walking earlier in the day, and she just wanted to rest. She found a bench and insisted that we go ahead without her, and we did.

At the waterfront, we found a boatman without much effort and bought some tickets for a cruise. Then we waited for several minutes for him to finish rounding up a critical mass of passengers.

The cruise itself lasted about 20 minutes, and it was a pleasant diversion. It afforded us nice views of Akko and of Haifa to the south.

When we rejoined Micheline, she was carefully studying the dynamics of a group of teenagers as she sipped on a cup of coffee. We tore her away just moments before she gained the trust of the leader.

Then we worked our way back to the market. Geoff asked if we were interested in getting a nargila to smoke, but none of us were. Instead, I purchased an assortment of Mideastern sweets to try from the market's bakeries, and the others had hot drinks.

As we had our snacks, the market began shutting down. It was approaching 5:00.

We wrapped up our day and headed back to the car.

Along the way, we passed a little boy who was peeing in the street.

“Just like a little taxi driver,” I commented.

Everyone laughed about this, and then we spent the next several minutes sharing tales of private acts done in public that we had observed on the mean streets of Israel.

Soon enough we were on the road again, and it wasn't long after we reached the highway that our conversation petered out. Micheline, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, went to sleep, and Geoff and Masha, who were sitting in the back, talked to each other. I listened to a CD.

About halfway home, Masha started laughing and groaned out, “Geoff!”

And about two seconds later, I could smell why. The hummus was fighting back.

Without saying a word, I used the master control panel at my seat to lower Geoff's window long enough to aerate the car. Then I put it back up.

I didn't think much about Operation Fresh Air, but Masha really got a kick out of it. She would laugh about the incident for months to come.

We made it home without any further excitement, and everyone claimed to have had a good time. I don't doubt that they had enjoyed themselves, but I felt that, considering the slight bit of tension that seemed to be hanging over the group, the trip could definitely have been better. In any case, Akko itself ranked very highly with me. Even though we skipped the Citadel, the subterranean Crusader city, and many of the other main attractions, it was still one of my favorite places in Israel.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Israel: Mini Israel, Latrun

It was a nice enough Saturday in March when I organized an outing to Mini Israel (See it all small!) in Latrun with my good friends Andy and Yoav.

As we started the trip, we weren't five minutes down the road before Yoav started complaining about the music I was playing. Not interested in the whining, I let him select a different CD from my collection.

He chose Yo-Yo Ma.

Unfortunately, we were flying down the highway with the windows down, and the subtlety of the classical music was overwhelmed by the roaring wind. In order to compensate for this, we had to crank the music to a completely inappropriate level, which we did. Thankfully, though, the complaining ceased.

Latrun is about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and we arrived in about half an hour.

Mini Israel is a tourist attraction (trap) that features over 350 models of the top sites in Israel. Nearly all are rendered at a scale of 1:25.

While the models were scaled down, the entrance fee certainly wasn't, and we all experienced sticker shock at the ticket window. An adult ticket cost 65 shekels, which was about 15 bucks a person.

After a moment of serious deliberation, we decided to tour the place in spite of the price.

The park was divided into six parts that were loosely laid-out in a Star of David pattern. The six zones included three cities (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa) and three regions (the North, the South, and the Center).

We started by touring Haifa and then moved on to the North.

At about this point, Yoav casually asked if anyone was up for grabbing coffee at the little café that was near the park entrance. Andy wasn't interested, and neither was I, so we continued looking around.

Yoav's query was more of a cry for help than a question, however, and when Andy and I passed on the coffee break, Yoav basically stopped functioning. He was debilitated by his lack of joe. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.

Before things got too theatrical, though, we trouped over to the snack bar, and Andy and I watched Yoav drink a coffee.

When he was sufficiently revived, we finished touring.

Mini Israel, while expensive, was actually pretty nice. The detail work on most of the models was impressive, and some were even interactive. For example, at the Western Wall, you could make the crowd pray by pushing a button.

On our way out of the park, we noticed a coming attraction that, when completed, would make Mini Israel loads better. They were installing a go-kart track.

It was after 4:00 when we hit the road back to Tel Aviv, so I tossed out the idea of stopping for an early dinner. Andy and Yoav were agreeable, so we set about deciding on a restaurant.

Yoav was from Bat Yam, which we would pass on our way to Tel Aviv. I suggested that we stop there for a bite, and Andy seconded.

We were both completely serious, but Yoav was convinced that we were making a joke. Bat Yam is a suburb of Tel Aviv, and it has a big inferiority complex. It is one of those places that people with Tel Aviv addresses like to mock, kind of like people in the U.S. used to (still do?) laugh about living in Jersey. I had been to Bat Yam several times prior to our trip, though, and it seemed like a perfectly fine place. Besides all the usual shops and apartments, there was an attractive boardwalk by the sea, and its reputation as the “armpit of Israel” didn't seem to fit.

The more we pushed the issue, the more adamant Yoav became that we shouldn't go to Bat Yam. By the time he wrapped his brain around the fact that we really did want to dine there, we were already back in the heart of Tel Aviv. I turned the car around and drove back.

Even as we parked the car outside the restaurant, Yoav continued resisting. “There - now you've seen Bat Yam,” he announced before we went inside. “We can go now.”

Of course we didn't.

We went to a branch of the chain steakhouse, El Gaucho, and it wasn't nearly as horrible and backward and uncivilized as Yoav would have us believe. We could have been in Tel Aviv as far as I was concerned.

Yoav never could relax, though, and so I stopped short of suggesting a second Bat Yam stop for after-dinner ice cream, lest the strain prove too much for him to bear.