Friday, March 8, 2013

Life without a phone

It’s been almost two months that I haven’t had a phone. But it's not entirely true. I have my iPhone and can pick up WiFi. It's unbelievable all the ways I can stay in contact with people without having to make a phone call. I can text on Whatsapp, I have email and I can Facebook. I can Skype if someone else has Skype (I haven't increased my credit to make outgoing calls but that's a different story). Everyone else has Internet so it’s no problem to communicate like this.

Also, the temptation to look at my phone when I'm at the bar or a party is gone. It's contagious, when people look at their phone, I want to as well. But I know if I take mine out I'll just be checking the time, information I don't need, and looking at the uselessness of my mini computer without internet. 

Yet then I find myself more present. I become aware if I'm getting bored. I feel the urge to look at my phone, to see if I can disconnect from the current situation and find a more interesting one. 

But since I can't, I have to find a new way to entertain myself. Without putting my head down and hiding in my phone, I start a new conversation, or listen in to someone else's, or stare off into space and sip my drink until something interesting happens.

If I can't text, Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Four-square, Twitter or any of the other absurd modes of social networking and communication, I'm back to basics.

I've taken to going old school with meeting people. We arrange a place and a time to meet and it’s agreed upon. But the people who rely on their phones have stopped giving out the necessary information.

When I ask where someone lives, I first only get the cross streets. 

"But which apartment?"

"Oh yea, building 34."

"But which apartment?"

"Oh yea! 15D."

I idled by a coffee shop to soak up WiFi, Facebook messaging my friend, hoping she sees it because I'm in the area of her apartment but I have no idea which one. Last night, as everyone was walking into the bar, I awkwardly stood next to a table of guys eating hot dogs because I knew the exact spot I had to stand to get the best Internet connection from the restaurant and wanted to Whatsapp my friend.

The other night I was invited to dinner at an apartment and a neighborhood I've never been to. I tried to get as much information as possible before I left. I had the address; I knew which bus to take and when to get off. I knew that I would be able to walk in to the building and it would be "on the second floor, a little hallway to the right past the elevator." Sounded simple enough.

But we know these things never are.

I arrived and there were three apartment buildings all with the same number. They were recently built and not all the units were filled. Some floors had lights while others just had wires hanging from the fixtures. I walked into the first one and went up the first flight of stairs. To me this would be the second floor, but we're in Israel and this floor was marked "1." But my friend is American so maybe she meant second floor after the first flight of stairs. There was an elevator but there was no hallway, just a door to an apartment on the right. There was a hall light and I could hear people inside, maybe this was the dinner party?

But one more floor up there was a sign for "2." There was also an elevator and a small dark hallway to the left. The apartment door to the right was dark and quiet, did anyone even live there? I went back to "1" and knocked on the apartment door. 

"Mi ze?" 

I was interrupting. An older woman opened the door, clearly getting ready to sit down with her husband for a nice evening meal on a Tuesday night while watching the latest popular singing competition as background noise on the TV. This was not my dinner party. I apologized and backed away quickly.

I figured that was embarrassing, I might as well just try the door upstairs as well. When the man opened the door I thought he was a squatter. I could see a stand alone TV next to a mattress on the floor. His face was drawn and his beard was unkempt. I thought for sure I was just interrupting his shoot-up time. I also tried to apologize quickly and leave the situation as soon as possible. But he asked me who I was looking for and which apartment. When I looked closer I could see that he had just moved in, that was the lack of furniture. And his beard wasn’t unkempt; it was just full and a conscious style choice. He let me know that there were a couple of buildings with the same number and maybe I should try the one next door.

I walked outside and there were some young people on a balcony having a party. Was this my dinner party? I called out my friends name to see if she was up there. Nope. I walked into the building to see if the mystery directions would be fulfilled here. Again, the stairs were dusty with recent construction and there were no hallways. I walked up to a dark floor and stared out a window onto the street.

I wanted to cry. Why did I need to have a phone? I wanted it to be ok to go somewhere I’ve never been before and find my way without having to make a phone call.

What was my friend doing? Was she wondering where I was and that I was lost? Was she looking at her phone in helplessness because she couldn’t call me to see where I was? Or was she blissfully drinking wine, content in the knowledge that her directions were crystal clear and I would have no problem finding the place.

There was nothing I could do. I needed to call her. Embarrassment is short lived and I’ve come to terms with the fact that if I need to look foolish to accomplish my goals, it really doesn’t make a difference.

I walked outside and looked up to the balcony of the dinner party that was not mine.

“Excuse me, can I make a phone call?”

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The whiskey debate

Only in Tel Aviv do I find myself in a debate with the Arab affairs reporter of a popular English daily on what best constitutes citizenship in Israel. Six months in this country and I think I can have an opinion on such things? I’m from small-town Long Island.

But in that moment it didn’t matter. The most fun part was the show we put on and a jab I took at the reporters’ 93-year-old grandmother who had just made Aliyah - low blow Laura, low blow. In my own closing argument I mumbled something like "we have to build the Jewish dream" and sheepishly drank my whiskey.

Thankfully, due to much alcohol, the panel of judges wasn’t at their most sharp to disqualify my argument entirely.

But let‘s back up for a minute. How did I find myself in an informal setting at a formal debate, suddenly a loud and proud Zionist? Let’s start with a few hours earlier…

It was the last day of my internship. The only job I ever had that gave me purpose and really excited me. But it had to end and sadly, it was pretty anti-climactic. Despite my fantasies of being viewed as a journalistic messiah, I was slowly coming to acceptance with the reality that I was free labor. Sure people were sad to see me go, but they were more upset with the fact that the time consuming and menial tasks now had to be done by actual people. It was on to the next for them. It’s ok, that was the deal. I was just sad.

But earlier in the week my editor had given me an invite to a curiously conspicuous “whiskey debate.” At this point it was the only thing keeping me going. The email invitation gave the impression of exclusivity and prestige. I didn’t know what I was getting into so, with what felt like my life in shambles, I put on a nice dress and flat-ironed my hair.

I stood outside the apartment door which had a piece of paper, ripped from a notebook, that said “Whiskey Debate” in English cursive. It was myself, the newly appointed economics reporter for the JPost, and a random woman who assured us this was the right place.

And then there I was, sipping whiskey in someone’s living room watching two people face off in a timed and organized debate about the pro’s and cons of democratically electing the Rabbanut. I was definitely not in Long Island anymore.

And that’s what made me realize I can’t leave Tel Aviv. This place constantly amazes me. Maybe things like this happen other places too, but in America I can only imagine hipster liberals facing off against yuppie conservatives. They would throw out words like “debt ceiling” because they heard it on The Newsroom or “fiscal cliff” because the media made a big deal about it.  

It’s different in Israel. Being an American I’m constantly confronted with how my upbringing has colored my views and opinions. If you bring up the death penalty, the first thing that comes to my mind is punishment for reprehensible crimes or innocents on death row. Here, it’s a question of how it fits within the Jewish religion, the Adolf Eichmann case and then reconciling what it means to have targeted assassinations of terrorists.

The debate was organized so that two people would volunteer, they would have a few minutes to prepare and then they would face off. After they finished the room would comment on arguments made, style of arguing and then vote on which person they thought won. 

It was unbelievable to me. To have people, for fun, put them selves on a chopping block to be judged for their views and style of arguing. But that’s Israel and that’s Tel Aviv. If you’re not ready to argue, you’re not ready to live here.

The event was billed as a post mortem to the elections and it was apt timing. For weeks we had been hearing Israeli politicians tout their party’s platforms, ad-nauseam, to what seemed an increasingly apathetic and jaded Israeli public. But then a debate like this inspired me that these are living issues that we can participate in. This is a young country and its constantly changing and figuring itself out. It’s also an immigrant country. When people went to the US for a better life to make their dreams come true, they participated and found ways to add or improve to their new home. That’s the sentiment here. People definitely don’t come here because its easier, they come here for the adventure, to be part of something they believe in. Life here is ever changing and it’s always up for debate. An emphasis on liquor is just a bonus.

I’ve started a new job. I work nights in order to call young American Jews to tell them they too can come to Israel. I have a new apartment, a sub-let with an older Belgium gentlemen and an Italian woman. It’s yet to be seen how I plan to participate in this morphing country, if I can, or even if I’ll stay much longer. But for certain, I can’t leave yet.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

High highs, low lows

High highs and low lows, that's how I describe most of my weeks here. The highs came from feeling like I belong in this city, in this country. The lows come from the uncertainty of wanting to stay, but having no reason. I've never yearned for a city as much as I yearn for Tel Aviv. Every time I leave, I can't wait to come back. There is something here, between the manicured boulevards or the graffittied back alleys. The cafe culture where people meet up to chat about who knows what or take out their lap tops and work on whatever it is that keeps them typing away. A city of dreamers. People who work here either do what they love or are scraping by because they love this place and can't leave, like me.

I can't leave. I felt it when I first arrived in the disgusting heat of August. I had my travel backpack and was heading to the Central Bus Station, reluctant to travel more but with no where else to stay. Tel Aviv is not Israel, but its one of the best representations of it. Its beautiful in its people and diversity. Perfect bodies sun-tan on the beach while desperate African migrants steal their bags. Homeless men sit on the corner with festering sores on their legs begging for change and teenagers shriek with excitement to be on the street in the evenings. A shirtless, curly haired, young guy sets up a drum kit and bangs along to a speaker blasting Michael Jackson on the corner of the street. Young couples, better suited to be partying in a club, walk with their baby carriage and a dog on a leash. Bars fill up and pour onto the street and if you're an English speaker you're sure to get picked up.

I've never felt like I belonged more than I have here. I've also never been so scared that I'm not wanted. I get this city, but then I'm constantly challenged on my beliefs.

The buildings are old. They are falling apart and dirty. But they each have a balcony and the sun is shining and the air is sweet.

Its been six months in Israel and I've had the most amazing time. I started out my trip with a lay-over in Istanbul, calling in sick via skype to my former job from a cafe surrounded by Turks chatting, smoking hookah and sipping coffee. I learned the first amazing reality about traveling alone, you're really never alone. I visited mosques with an Italian girl, I talked with young Turkish boys in the square, I shared an amazing seafood dinner on the Bosphorous with a complete stranger, we were only put together by a mutual friend. I arrived at Tel-Aviv Ben Gurion at three in the morning to be greeted by the most amazing, loving, smiling friend I've ever made. We had only known each other for five days, six months before, but now we are sisters. We spent three amazing days together bonding, laughing and partying.

I traveled, I stayed, I left, I explored. I volunteered in a dairy, in a moshav, in the South of Israel. I thought I would hate it but found it to be one of the most fulfilling two weeks I've ever had.

I met boys. Lots and lots of boys. I had fun, I made mistakes, I had my heart broken.

I made a best friend. An unbelievable person that I didn't realize I needed so much.

It's the end. No, it's AN end. I was so fearful in the beginning of being on a "program" and I did my best to separate myself from it. Now that its over I feel like I'm clinging to it like its my last hope. This program gave me an opportunity I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else. Working at The Jerusalem Post was an unbelievable experience and I've never felt such a loss with it being over. The people I met were inspiring - in their abilities and their modesty. They work so hard to only sometimes feel the rewards of working in the news. It is the most exciting job and in the most interesting place.

I'm moving into a new apartment with an Italian artist and an Israeli named Ronnie. They both have twenty years on me easily. My room is a shoebox but I have three windows all at eye level. The apartment is only three minutes walking from the beach and just outside the Yemenite neighborhood and Ha-Carmel shuk. I made a deal for two months because I've started working a temporary job that will last that amount of time. It's the weirdest feeling to be moving and everything changing, but being in the same area and having life continue on as usual.

I don't want to be living in uncertainty month to month, but its all I can afford now - both monetarily and in life decisions. But the one thing that is certain, I freakin' love Tel Aviv and I can't leave yet.