Sunday, January 08, 2006

Israel: Rosh Pina

It was a stormy January Saturday when I set out for Rosh Pina with my good friend Yoav.

I enjoy driving in a good downpour, and I wasn’t disappointed on this trip. The storms pummeled us in waves, and in between the sky would clear.

Rosh Pina is in the hills of the Galilee region, and as we gained altitude, low-hanging clouds shrouded the road.

In a little over 2 hours, we had arrived. The town was quiet because it was both rainy and Shabbat.

Having no specific plan, we decided to start by finding a place to eat. We picked a random place that was open and looked promising.

It was a bed and breakfast with a café attached.

As we passed through the courtyard, Yoav got distracted by an orange tree that was full of fruit.

The place was empty, so when the waitress seated me, I had the pick of the tables. It was at least 10 minutes before Yoav came inside.

This café didn’t have a written menu, so the waitress also stood around waiting for Yoav to come inside so that she could tell us the offerings for the day. I really didn’t understand why he couldn’t steal his oranges after the meal.

When he finally arrived, the waitress told us what was available. They weren’t yet serving lunch, so breakfast it was. I don’t know if there were other options, but the waitress was pushing a breakfast that included an omelet, coffee, juice, bread, and unlimited sides that included tuna, other salty fishes, jams and spreads for the bread, salads and vegetables, olives, and several cheeses. It cost about $11 per person, and we both ordered it.

Everything was good, but we didn’t end up requesting more on much of anything except for the tuna.

As we ate, a pair of hungry birds was lurking around. Yoav started tossing them pieces of bread, which they readily ate. He threw these pieces of bread all around, and the birds retrieved them. It was fine when the bread went in the floor. When pieces landed on other tables, though, it was kind of gross. The birds would jump all over the clean dishes, silverware, and glasses to recover their snacks, and I’m sure that these place settings weren’t going to be changed before they were used. Birds are notorious germ-carriers, so these little guys probably had a disease or ten. Of course, the restaurant was completely open to the outside, so the birds had probably also trodden on our dishes before we arrived.

When we finished eating and paid and started heading for the door, Yoav got distracted again. This time it was by a fireplace on the patio. After 10 or 15 minutes, Yoav finished trying to stoke a log that was never in need of tending. Then we were off.

Rosh Pina, which means cornerstone, was one of the first permanent Jewish settlements of modern times. It was founded in 1882 – in the times of the Ottoman Empire – by 30 Romanian families.

More recently Rosh Pina was in the news when Madonna started trying to purchase property there. The Times in London ran a story on this in March. Kabala followers believe that the Messiah will pass through Rosh Pina when he makes his appearance, so Madonna is looking to set-up a Kabala study center in town. Some residents were reluctant to sell because their homes had so much sentimental value, but Madonna’s name-your-price offer seemed to be helping several people to get over this hurdle.

Anyhow, the café where we had breakfast was close to the historic old city, so Yoav and I walked up the hill to have a look. The road was made of cobblestones which were quite slick in the rain. Yoav had a hell of a time walking on them in his no-tread sneakers. We reached the top of the hill, though, without any injuries.

The old city consisted of a few cobblestone streets flanked by little stone buildings. These buildings were mostly homes, galleries, shops, and cafés, and most were closed. There were historic markers here and there explaining the significance of certain buildings (“This building was the home of Dr. X, the dentist of the original settlement…”).

At the edge of the old city, there was a cemetery climbing up the side of a hill.

Yoav and I walked through town as the rain fell in various cadences.

Of all the tourist attractions in the old city, only two appeared to be open.

The first was a shop selling Moroccan products. While neither of us was much interested in the imported handicrafts, we were interested in getting out of the rain. We popped in for a look.

Right when we got inside, Yoav started playing with the owner’s white cat. He asked me to take a picture, and as I stepped back to frame the photo, I kicked over several glass lamps.

This was definitely a you-break-it-you-bought-it kind of place, and when the lamps fell over, the three of us shared a collective gasp. By some miracle, nothing shattered.

For all my trouble, though, the photo wasn’t anything special.

The owner was a bit perturbed by this point, but she still showed us the overpriced treasures that she had spread through the shop’s two or three rooms. Then we made a bit of small talk and moved on before I had time to smudge any expensive paintings or spill coffee on any fancy textiles.

Catty-corner to the Moroccan shop was Chocolatte – the chocolate café. Before our trip, some of our Israeli colleagues had told us that Chocolatte was really the only reason to visit Rosh Pina, so it was already on our to-do list.

When we entered, we were the only customers. The café was in an old stone building with a lot of arches supporting the ceiling. It was once horse stables or something.

As you probably guessed, the menu was all about chocolate. There was an assortment of chocolate-based beverages (hot and cold), as well as appetizers, soups, and mains, each with some element of chocolate. And, of course, there were chocolate desserts. There was also a glass display case near the entrance filled with truffles and other chocolate candies.

Having recently finished breakfast, Yoav and I passed on the real food. Instead we both ordered beverages made with melted chocolate and alcohol. I also took the house specialty: a chocolate soufflé with a hot, liquid fudge center, served with vanilla ice cream.

As we drank our drinks and I ate my dessert, Yoav noticed an advertisement. It was for a local psychic. This was right up Yoav’s alley, and he asked if I would mind waiting while he had a consultation. I told him that it was fine with me, so he called the psychic and she headed over to the café.

It took the good clairvoyant a good 45 minutes to get to the café. Then she and Yoav moved to a table in the corner and started the consultation which was supposed to take an hour.

By this point, my dessert and beverage were long gone. I whiled away the time by walking around the café looking at the décor. This killed about 5 minutes.

Then I returned to my table and sat and blinked.

After about 20 minutes of this, some other diners entered the establishment. Much to my satisfaction, they sat at the table directly across from mine.

With nothing better to do, I shamelessly eavesdropped on their entire conversation.

There were 3 guys in the group, and all seemed to be in their early twenties. Two were Israelis, and the third was a Brit. The two Israeli brothers had recently completed their compulsory army service and had not yet transitioned to the next phase of their lives (work, travel, or studies). The Brit was a friend of theirs who had been touring in Israel for 3 weeks. The day that I encountered them was the Brit’s last day before flying to Austria for some skiing.

They ordered the chocolate soufflé thing also, and when it arrived, the Brit asked me to photograph the three of them with it. I was happy to oblige. They wanted a few retakes, which I had plenty of time to do.

The rest of their conversation was standard last-day tourist talk. The Brit fell into reminiscing about his great visit to the Holy Land. He was really keen on Jerusalem.

At one point during the eating and the trip down memory lane, the Brit lamented that someone named Dana hadn’t come with them to Rosh Pina. He thought that she would have really enjoyed Chocolatte.

This reminded me of a Dana in Tel Aviv with whom I had been briefly affiliated. I hadn’t seen or thought of her in a long time, so when the Brit mentioned her name, I found myself wondering if I could still picture her face. I could.

Soon enough, though, my source of entertainment dried up. The three amigos paid and started to leave.

On the way out, the Brit decided to buy some of the chocolate candies as a gift for the people he was going to meet in Austria. He told the man behind the counter that he wanted half a kilo of assorted chocolates, and the man just couldn’t grasp the concept.

The man kept asking him which ones he wanted.

The Brit told him several times that he just wanted roughly equal amounts of everything so that the total weight was half a kilo.

In the end, he had to select each piece individually and wait for the clerk to put it in the box on the scale until the desired total weight was reached. It was all about 10 times as complicated as it should have been.

When they left, I resumed sitting and blinking.

Then I checked on Yoav. I don’t know what all treatments he received, but when I went over, the soothsayer was readying some tarot cards.

Not wanting to snoop in Yoav’s future, I didn’t linger.

Finally, after a very long hour, Yoav and the fortune-teller wrapped things up.

As we left Rosh Pina, the rain cut us some slack.

After a bit, we passed a national forest, and at my suggestion, we stopped for a look. It was nice for what it was – a bunch of trees – but we didn’t stay long. It was getting late, and we both had things to do back in Tel Aviv.

When we were back on the road, Yoav brought up his psychic consultation. Evidently, psychic predictions are like birthday wishes: if you tell them to anyone, they won’t come true. Yoav was torn because he wanted to share, but he didn’t want to queer the deal on the fortune-telling.

I wasn’t overly interested in hearing about it, so I encouraged him not to risk talking about it and to ponder the predictions silently. Yes, I’m a lousy friend.

For his part, Yoav agreed to keep it to himself. He did tell me a few things that the palm-reader had seen, though. For example, she knew specific things about his present life and some of his past lives.

As for the future, without giving any details, he was happy to report that within a year, every aspect of his life would improve – work, friends, love, money, and so forth.

I don’t know about the rest of the predictions, but Yoav did upgrade jobs within a year of the consultation. So, the psychic got one thing right at least.

As we continued on down the road, Yoav started doing his impersonations of people at the Embassy. He’s got a few that are really good and others in various stages of development.

After he had finished all of his stock material, Yoav tried out a new impersonation for the first time. The attempt sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than the intended subject, and Yoav ran with it.

So, I got to listen to Yoav trying to do Arnold for the next hour.

Very quickly this went on my list of processes that no one should ever have to witness, right up there with making sausages and passing legislation.

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