Go Cubs Go!

I woke up this morning to texts and facebook messages in glorious, all-shouty-capital red, blue and white technicolor letters: CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! And the only time I ever felt happier about MLB was when the Red Sox won the world series (and then again the second time….and also the third).

I woke my children with a rousing chorus of “Go Cubs Go!” and danced around singing it all morning. And everyone around me on the streets here in London thought I was completely crazy. It’s just some dumb American game that only Americans play. It’s not like football (soccer to Americans) or rugby that the REST of the world plays. Sure, I can feel pleased with myself, but come on, let’s save the celebrating for a real game.

Ok, it wasn’t that bad, but there were certainly no conversations happening about the extra innings in game 7 of the world series, or the amazing comeback from a 3 games to 1 deficit, and that wild pitch? A RAIN DELAY??? Holy sh*t I had trouble breathing through the video highlights, imagine watching the game! (Which, if you’re accepting excuses, I could not do as it wasn’t televised here in London, and it started at midnight my time. The first “CUBS WIN” text hit my phone at almost 5am)

So that’s the life of an expat. Especially if you hold on to your home country’s….stuff. Your victories are only yours. Your elections, your cultural references (got milk?), your food is just yours. I would do a lot for a great big Malnati’s pizza, or a cannoli from Mike’s right now. It’s a choice, however unconscious, that gets made when you move away, obviously.

And, frankly, it’s a persona I’ve adopted a little bit here. I’m American. I look American, I sound American and I certainly act American. I cultivate that persona as a kind of social lubricant. I can be excused when I don’t get it quite right because I’m American. I was sitting with some other mothers having a cup of coffee and they were talking about where they were when England won the world cup. And I asked, “Were you football (soccer) fans before the world cup win?” They all looked at me for a second. Then they said: “Oh no, this was rugby.”

And, if this election cycle has proven anything, it’s that it’s great to have an American around because that means there’s always a joke or a snarky comment available (at my expense). I take on that mantle too, because it gives me something to say.

But it makes me sad. It makes me miss home. I want to be there on the ground celebrating our loveable losers who WON, with everyone else who gives a damn. I want to go home.

Here’s the thing, though, I’ve lived here for more than two years. And I’ve lived outside of the US for over three years. I’ve never lived with the Affordable Care Act, or the new federal graduation standards. I have never seen a Hillary or Trump for president ad on television. I had to watch the nominating conventions the next day on youtube. I don’t listen to American radio, or watch American television. I don’t know what’s going on in American culture so much these days.

So what’s going to happen when I move back? Since I don’t really follow British culture that much (bake what?), and I really don’t follow British politics (in my house we have Brexit every morning when we wake up) I can’t be the fake ex-British-pat when I move back. Who will I be?

I wonder if, by moving away from home for so long and so far, I have effectively made it so I have no home.

Complaints Department

Transport for London
Customer Services 4th Floor
14 Pier Walk
London SE10 0ES
24 Febrary, 2016

Dear TFL,

I would like to lodge a complaint about your service. Particularly my own “home” bus route, the 3**.

It is true that, as a whole, in the aregate, the Transport for London transportation network is pretty freakin’ amazing. With one card (cleaverly called an “Oyster” card, presumably because the world is your…) I can ride any subway – which people do really call the tube – any bus, any Overground commuter train (within the greater London area), PLUS any bike in the Santander bike-for-hire bike scheme, AND any boat on the Thames River in the greater London area. I will stipulate that thats pretty awesome!

Furthermore, I will stipulate that, by and large, the TFL staff are friendly and even sometimes helpful. Out at my end of the tube system, the staff clearly feel there are not enough staff around (there is no longer a ticket window at either of the two stations I frequent the most). But the staff who are there are willing to stand at the ticket machine and figure out the cryptic information with would-be riders to help them along their way. AND they mostly let it go when you screw up. Like the time my family and I rode the overground too far and were supposed to have bought a paper ticket but didn’t, and the train employee just let us go and told us to “call the TFL and tell them what you’ve done,” and then opened the gate and sent us on our way.

Additionally, the tube stations are usually relatively clean and tidy. It is true that the walking tunnels between some of the stations in the center of the city often smell of urine, but with the amount of beer drinking that seems to go on in this city its a wonder we’re all not drowining in it. There are even somtimes trash receptacles on some of the platforms. Although WHY there are trash receptacles on the INbound side of my home station, but none on the OUTbound side, I am unclear, and slightly miffed.

I also must commend the people of London, at least on one respect: they are extrememly orderly when using the bus. As a complete rule they board the bus in the front and disembark in the back; they are conscientious – even militant – about getting up for, or reserving the special access seats for the elderly or disabled; they NEVER stand when they are on the upper deck of the bus; and they are often quick to offer a seat to someone they think is more deserving.

Furthermore, the electronic information system on the busses, when its working properly, is immesurably helpful. It announces the up coming stop – both audibly and visually – in a pleasant voice, with enough time to push the “stop” button, gather your things and make your way towards the door. And the prerecorded announcements are usually polite and informative. My favorite is “please move down inside the bus,” which is played when a bunch of lunk-heads have stopped right in the middle of the bus by the door and the rest of us can’t get on. My second favorite is “the wheel chair area is now required” so that we can all calmly move out of the way and not embarrass ourselves by blocking up that space when someone in a wheelchair genuinely needs it.

However, by far the most hated recording in my family is the “the destination of this bus has changed” recording. What it means, as we have learned in the past year and a half, is that the bus schedule has gotten so screwed up, or the driver has to pee so badly, that we all have to get off the bus at some god forsaken stretch of road with no proper bus shelter, and no electronic information board – usually in the rain – and hope and pray another bus will come along soon, preferably within the 8 to 12 minute time range as indicated on the posted schedule. Although its seems just as likely that a bus won’t come in that time frame as it will.

I would also like to commend the installation of the arrivals boards at the major bus stops and on most of the tube platforms as an exceedingly good idea. But here the crux of my complaint: its the follow-through with these information boards that needs work. For example, why, when it says my bus should arrive in 5 minutes, WHY does it actually often take 7 or even 10 minutes? Wait, don’t answer that, I understand why. What I don’t understand is how the information boards are so utterly wrong so much of the time. And why, if my bus is supposed to run every 8 to 12 minutes, why, why, why do I VERY OFTEN see a notice board that says another one is not arriving for more than 15 minutes?

But wait, there’s more. WHY does it SO OFTEN happen to me that my bus is too full to pick me up? Its always in the morning, and it happens at least once a week, sometimes more often. I would think that you, with your smart, realtime tracking technoloy that you advertise is used to track submarines on the bottom of the ocean, would use it to PUT MORE BUSES INTO CIRCULATION IN THE MORNING!!!!!

And if I’m questioning best practices here, I am wondering if it is acually part of the driver training for the drivers to wait on the curb while a person runs 300 meters at top speed (with two children) and then close the doors and pull away just as that person (and their children) arrive at the bus stop? Or do the drivers just pick up that skill naturally? I know how funny I must look sprinting down the sidewalk in my ankle boots, with my full backpack flopping on my back dodging pedestrians, strollers and small dogs. And I can only imagine how funny it must be to pull away and blow a cloud of exhaust into my huffing, puffing, red face. But, as it happens with alarming regularity, I really have to protest that its ruining my health; my calm, even temprament; and my faith in the humanity of TFL bus drivers.

And I have a question: while I think that it is really thoughful of your designers to put in a little area where you can place your bags so you don’t have to carry them to your seat and manage them there, I am wondering if you really, truly think they are the best possible use of the available space? I mean, I certainly never use that area for my bags, even though I carry groceries for my family of 5 on the bus several times each week. The bag area is near to the front door, as I have noted earlier, the drivers often use the “Please move down inside the bus” announcement, so I can’t stay near to my bags. Nor can I easily place them and retrieve them before I get off because I have to exit at the rear door, and as I’ve said the bag area is near to the front door. I have seen some buses where this space has been used to put in one more pair of seats, or even left open so that more people can cram into it on a rainy morning when they are in danger of having the bus next bus not stop for them at all. I’m just saying perhaps you might reconsider the use of this space in a bus where space is at such a premium.

All that being said, I would like to commend you on a generally well designed, well run, comprehensive public transport system (although I would like to point out that I have mentioned nothing about prices, mostly because I don’t have a car and therefore I have no choice), but I beg of you: Please put more buses on my route in the morning, becuase I can guarantee you, when its raining – and its raining more of the time – there will be a lot of people who want to get on the bus. And its incredibly dishartening to watch your bus sail past you in the rain and then have to trudge a mile to the tube station.

Thank you,

TFL Passenger

The TFL provides thoughtful, amusing posters gently reminding people to be considerate of other riders
Another thoughtful witty limerick to remind customers to “please move down inside the bus” (“We really don’t mean to chide, But try to move along inside, So fellow travelers won’t have to face, An invasion of their personal space”)
An arrivals board at a bus stop. The second bus is the one I’m waiting for (well outside the acceptable 8-12 minute range)
Another arrivals board, JUST inside the allowable time frame

Lets Take a Trip to A and E

See Amanda. Amanda lives in London. Amanda and her husband get to spend a night away from the children in a fancy hotel. Yay for Amanda!

Amanda and her husband watch a nice show. Amanda is happy.

Amanda and her husband go to look for dessert. Yummy!

Oh no, it is after midnight, no one will sell dessert. Amanda is sad.

Amanda and her husband decide to return to the hotel. See Amanda cross the street.

Oh no, Amanda has tripped and fallen down! Poor Amanda! She is having trouble walking to the hotel.

See Amanda look at the cut on her knee. She thinks she can see bone. Oh no! Amanda must go to the Accident and Emergency department.

See hotel security call for an ambulance. See Amanda and her husband wait, and wait, and wait.

See hotel security call for the ambulance again. See Amanda and her husband wait and wait and wait. See more than an hour go by.

See the ambulance arrive. See Amanda walk S-L-O-W-L-Y to the ambulance. Amanda is puzzled and confused that she was not put in a wheel chair.

See the ambulance arrive at the A and E department. See Amanda and her husband sit and wait and wait and wait.

Amanda watches the other people who are waiting. Amanda thinks many of these people are very drunk.

Amanda sees one young man with glass in his hand try to pick up a girl who looks very drunk. It does not work. It is funny to watch. Amanda sees the drunk boy with the glass in his hand and his friends pose for selfies with the man in the corner who is snoring very loudly. Then they throw food at the man. Amanda feels tired and bored and annoyed.

See the clock strike 4:30 in the morning.

See a doctor come out and call Amanda’s name. See Amanda struggle to walk to the examining room. Amanda is surprised that she has not been checked by a nurse before she sees the doctor. How odd.

Amanda is scared. She must have an x-ray to be sure she has not broken a bone.

Yay for Amanda! She has no broken bones! She can avoid immediate surgery!

See the doctor put 5 stitches in Amanda’s knee. See the doctor tell Amanda to stop by any clinic to have her stitches removed in 5 days. 5 Days! Wow! Amanda does not think that is very much time.

See the doctor tell Amanda she can go. Perhaps Amanda has misunderstood. She has not been given any discharge instructions or papers, or any prescriptions for antibiotics.

See Amanda go home and go to bed. She did not sleep in the fancy hotel.

It is 5 days later. See Amanda call the surgery where she is registered. In the United States we would call it a “primary care physician.” See the surgery tell Amanda she can not be seen until next week. Amanda feels angry and confused. She feels that having stitches removed must be a priority. See the receptionist squeeze Amanda in on Monday. It is only three days late.

See Amanda have her stitches removed by the nurse. See Amanda expecting a follow up appointment. See Amanda expecting some home-care instructions, exercises or stretches. See Amanda receive none of these. Amanda feels astonished.

Amanda knows about wound care. Amanda knows she must be very careful to take very good care of her wound so it heals well. Amanda asks what she should do to heal well. The nurse tells Amanda to “take it easy” for a few days. The nurse says good bye.

Amanda never sees a doctor again for her knee. It is 5 months since Amanda fell down and hurt her knee. Amanda feels that her knee is getting back to normal. Amanda thinks it is funny that her knee cap now has a dent in it. Amanda’s knee hurts when she sits curled up on the couch or when it is damp and cold outside. It is always damp and cold in London. Amanda continues to be surprised at the lack of follow-up care for her knee. She is also very surprised at the lack of after-care instructions for her knee.

Amanda is lucky. She was seeing a physio for her foot when she hurt her knee. In the United States we would call it a “physical therapist”. The physio has helped Amanda with her knee a little bit. Also, Amanda’s mother is a nurse. Amanda can get advice from her mother. Amanda feels happy that she is so lucky.

Amanda wonders about the people who are not as lucky as she is. Amanda wonders who tells them how to take care of their injuries? Amanda acknowledges that she never had to pay any money to see the doctor at A and E. She also never had to pay to have her stitches taken out three days late. Amanda thinks she might be willing to pay a co-pay if it meant she would receive more complete care.

(Amanda acknowledges that this may represent a simplistic view of the issues involved in acquiring good health care. S-I-M-P-L-I-S-T-I-C is a big word which here means “It is easier for the purposes of this blog not to have to consider the ramifications of a multifaceted socioeconomically diverse society and the costs and benefits of state run versus privatized health care.”)

Its Been a While…

It’s been a while…. and I promised to entertain you, or at least take up your valuable time occasionally. My adoring fans have even been asking for more from me (well, okay two people asked if I had given up), so I decided to do a quick run-down of our life at the moment.

The school year started again in September. I have two kids at a primary school (ages 3 through 11) to which it takes 45 minutes for us to travel each morning. We don’t have a car, so the kids and I leave the house by 8. We usually walk past the bus stop and try to determine if its worth it to wait for the bus. Twice this week the bus has whizzed by, too full to stop and pick us up. Twice. So after wasting 5 to 7 minutes waiting for a bus that doesn’t always arrive – or stop – we walk the mile to the tube station. We ride the tube 1 stop and battle the crowds up the stairs to get out. Inextricably its upstairs to get ON the tube and then again upstairs to get OFF the tube.

This is how it will sound in 50 or 60 years: “when I was a kid we had to walk upstairs in both directions when we rode the tube. And we didn’t complain. Kids these days…”

After the tube we walk about another half a mile down the hill to the school. In the afternoons its reversed, except that we usually DO catch the bus home. Thats when we have to battle all the boys from one of the local secondary schools to get on and find a seat. They’ve seen us around enough that some of them recognize us and stay out of my way. I went through a period where I used my umbrella to hold them back so my kids and I could get on the bus together – and I wasn’t particularly gentle. (Yes, I ALWAYS carry an umbrella, and its usually wet).

My other child is in secondary school (ages 11 to 18) which is like middle school and high school mixed together. At that age children are expected to navigate to school themselves. There are no school busses in London, so its public transport for everyone. And I’m perfectly calm every morning as my little child goes off alone to battle the crowds to get to school. I lie. The school is about a 30 minute commute by bus in a different direction from the rest of us.

My sainted husband walks to work (when he’s home). It takes him about 15 minutes if he’s slow. How did he wind up with the shortest, easiest commute?

When I am not traveling to and from school (three hours a day), I am managing the household. Gone are the days I can get everything I need from the little store in the kibbutz. I now have to cook every meal for my family, and wash the dishes afterwards. I have to know where my children are, what they are doing, and who they are with. No more can I just let them go and say “I’ll meet you in the dining room at 6:30 for dinner!” Just a wistful memory is the time when my mother-in-law did my laundry every day: wash, dry and fold. Oh how I pine for the days even in Chicago when I at least had a washer that could hold a whole load of laundry and actually dry said load.

Our current washer/dryer – a magical one-machine combo – holds about 5 Kilos. That’s a little over 11 pounds. Currently I run a load of wash every day. Then I sort through it to take out those things that our dryer – which gets over hot – will melt (which includes all of the school uniforms for three children 5 days a week), then I run the dryer for an hour. THEN, seeing as it’s still wet, I haul it all upstairs to the drying rack in my bedroom. Its been raining so much here this month that I discovered the clothes were getting mildew-y on the drying rack. So I got out the fan and now run the fan all day aimed at the drying rack full of clothes. All told, a load of laundry (well, a small load – as I’ve said its about 5 kilos) takes all day. My room is decorated in clean, damp laundry draped all over every available surface, several layers thick.

I have discovered that I can order groceries to be delivered to my door (IF I spend more than £60), but, you will be not at all surprised to learn, the produce is usually bruised and/or rotten. So I only order the packaged stuff. Which means I have to lug fresh fruit and vegetables for 5 people (we eat a lot of fresh stuff) on the bus a few times a week. Its me and the old ladies with our two wheeled grocery carts, fighting the mothers with strollers and the occasional wheelchair for space. I usually loose.

There are no Monday holidays here (except 2 or three in the summer which are called bank holidays. As near as I can tell they were invented because the weather is so terrible here most of the winter that people would just skip work all together if they weren’t given a few extra days in the summer when the weather has a chance of being decent. Its light out, even if its still raining). So people wait for the “half term break” (one week), or the “term break” (two weeks) to travel. We are no different.

This past half-term break we went to the New Forest (which is neither new nor a forest) to ride horses and trek around. It poured rain the whole time we were there, so our trekking was severely limited (one short walk during which is rained AND night fell), but since our rides were already paid for we did those…in the pouring rain. I did my first canter across open heathland, terrified the whole way that the horse would slip in the mud and we would go down and I would wind up with my leg pinned under the horse. Fortunately the worst that happened is we all wound up with a rash on our foreheads and under our chins from the nasty, wet riding helmets.

Our plan for the coming term break is to explore a little bit of Italy for 10 days. Rome is a 2 1/2 hour flight for us! So while all you New Englanders can make it to Florida, or you Mid-westerners can get to New England, we can be in Rome, or Barcelona, or Stockholm, or Nice. Nice!

On the horizon we are expecting the annual nativity plays in the primary school. Yes, every class does a play on the birth of Jesus every year here in the British state schools. Last year, I learned that they are teaching the children that King Herod was a tyrant who killed babies. In Israel I learned King Herod was a great planner who rebuilt Jerusalem and King David’s temple. I also learned in England that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, while in Israel I learned it was the Romans (and their lackies) that killed Jesus. I guess there are three sides to every story and all, but I still haven’t figured out where the reindeer come in.

And on a side note, I am now reading Harry Potter to the children…again. It makes so much more sense now that I live here – there really IS a night bus, and I’ve eaten treacle tart, and my kids all have to earn house points at school. No Quidditch, though.

More adventures to come!

Stay tuned…adventures ahead

A little over a year ago we packed our six suit cases, five back packs, three car seats and camera bag and ended an adventure…so that we could start another.

We had spent the year living in the desert in a kibbutz in southern Israel. Now we were moving to London in pursuit of a job opportunity for my husband and more adventure for the rest of us.

The change meant a giant leap for all three children in school (my fourth grader went to year 6, my first grader to year 3 and my preschooler to first grade); it meant that we would have to develop an in depth knowledge of public transportation seeing as we don’t have a car; and it meant adjustments in vocabulary, daily routine, clothing, food consumption and a general major life overhaul. It also meant we got our father and husband back. He had spent the year commuting between Chicago, Israel and Europe. But now we got to live with him full time again. It also meant we got our stuff back. We had spent a year living out of what we could pack into 6 suitcases – and what we could acquire along the way, while all of our stuff sat in storage in Chicago.

It has been quite a year. We have learned so much both academically and culturally. It’s true what they say: the Americans and the British are separated by a common language. We have taken the opportunity to travel – and are loving every minute. We have set foot in 7 different countries in the past year (if you count the time we accidentally went to Austria), and have plans for at least one other trip abroad within the month. We have also spent several weekends visiting different parts of England too. Alas, it seems like we will need a car to explore farther afield here in the UK – tains are fun, but taking three kids on a six hour train ride to get away for the weekend seems like a bad idea…

Now that I have picked up this blogging thing again, I hope to relate our adventures large and small, and I have done before, and you will be amused or intrigued or annoyed as you’ve done before. Stay tuned…adventures ahead.

Some Things I’ve Learned

In the past year I have learned many, many things. Here are some of them:

  • Heat can be a physical force; a weight pushing down on you. Walking outside in the Kibbutz in June or July or August feels like how I imagine it must feel in an oven. Its dry and the air is still and its physically hard to move. Even sound moves slower. Its so hot, that one of my children got an actual burn on the bottom of her foot from walking barefoot on the sidewalk. Its so hot that during the summer there is no cold water coming out of the tap because the ground is so hot. And there’s nothing you can do about it…
  • I can make a cake, a pie, and bread – from scratch – in a toaster oven. Also, I can do shrinky dinks and clay necklace charms. I failed with the baked potatoes, though.
  • Sand – you think, “I know it gets every where, but I’ll sweep a lot, and we’ll take off our shoes before we walk around the house. I can handle it.” But you can’t. It shows up on the floor even when you don’t wear shoes in the house and you sweep a lot; it shows up in your bed even when you take a shower just before bed, it shows up in your hair, and on your couch. Its weird, too, because the kibbutz itself it so manicured that you kind of don’t notice that its all made of sand. All the sand is covered with grass and plants and buildings. But its there, its always there.
The lush environment outside my desert home
  • Be afraid of snakes here, they could be poisonous. Actually, a healthy fear of many of the bugs here is a good idea. I have been collecting stories about people waking up to find a scorpion in their bed room, bath room, shoe…
  • I hate air conditioning. Well, okay, its a love/hate relationship. I love that it keeps my house tolerable (mostly, although my living room air conditioner could use some attention…), but I hate that its loud, and the cold air blowing on me is annoying, and it makes me cold! There seems to be no in between, I’m either hot without it, or cold with it.
  • There are some certain characteristics about Israelis that are…unique. I’m sure I could make an argument about how history has forced them to be this way, or culture or religion. But I’m just reporting the facts: Israelis are extremely direct. They tell you what they think, what you should think, what you should do, how and when you should do it, and why it was wrong in the end. Sometimes this directness can come off as pushy, or overbearing or condescending or…rude. But it can be extremely helpful, too. You know where you stand. And once they have expressed their opinion, thats it, the issue is over. They don’t hold a grudge. This characteristic might be helpful when used in moderation in other parts of the world: you are very clear about what you think and want and then you don’t let aggressive feelings linger. I will try to use this skill in the future (beware).
  • Wearing a white shirt in the sun actually feels cooler than wearing a black shirt. The physics tells us this, and common sense tells us this, but, where I come from, you don’t really think about it or act on it. But, indeed, walking around in a white t-shirt actually feels significantly cooler. And, here, any little bit helps.
  • Israel is a country of immigrants. Today I spoke with people who’s primary languages include: Hebrew, English (from the US, England, South Africa and Australia), Arabic, German (from Germany and Switzerland), French (from Morocco and France), Russian, Hungarian, Thai, Filipino, and Spanish (from Spain and Columbia).
  • Actually, I enjoy cooking dinner for my family. This is probably easiest said from my unique vantage point of not HAVING to do this task every night. Further, I have discovered, this task is immensely more enjoyable when: 1) I have a glass of wine in hand; 2) there is something great to listen to on the radio; 3) the kids are otherwise occupied so I don’t have to manage them too; 4) I have the right tools: a stove (not a hot plate), an oven (not a toaster oven), a microwave, counter space, measuring cups, sharp knives… this list could go on for a LONG time, because most of it I don’t have here.
  • The Five Things to take on a field trip: 1) Water (at least 2 liters); 2) Hat; 3) Closed-Toed shoes; 4) Sun Block; 5) Small Bag. Every field trip, every walk outside, every group outing requires these 5 things. If you show up without them they will most likely be provided to you (see below for more on how it will probably all work out), but you can’t go without them.
  • Some thing I truly HATE about Israel: all of the litter everywhere. EVERYWHERE!!!! I was hiking in the nearby national park (Timna) with some friends who are not from Israel. There had been a little rain and consequently a little flooding a week prior. I kept commenting on how clean the trail was because the floods had washed away all the trash. Finally one of my friends looked at me and said: “This is clean?” He’s right. The trash strewn about everywhere – EVERYWHERE – is truly disgusting.
Trash strewn around the foot of the tree – its like this every where!
  • Something I truly love about Israel: it is a country of people who like to get out and hike. I have traveled all over this country (although don’t mistake me, I have a lot more to see), and the sheer numbers of people who get out on the trails on the weekends – and they bring dogs and babies and grandparents, and they bring huge picnics, and they all have the 5 items (see above for more on the 5 items), and its WONDERFUL. It means that there are trails all over the country to hike on, and it also means that people have opportunity to litter all over the country… (see above for more on littering).
  • After 12 ½ years of marriage, I still really love spending time with my husband. This year when he has been here with us, we have had Sundays to spend alone together while the kids were off at school. We have gone hiking all over the region, and eaten all over Eilat, and gone snorkeling, and gone to have the fish nibble on our toes for a pedicure, and really, really enjoyed each other’s company.
My fish pedicure – it was so weird!
  • Even when the weather is pretty much always the same, people always talk about the weather. They say things like: “Wow its REALLY hot today.” I have seen people who live here – have lived here for years – post the weather report on their facebook page, even when it just says what it almost always says: hot and sunny.
  • Israelis, as a culture, don’t follow directions…or wait their turn. I don’t know if its about history or culture, or if its some kind of macho “I need to prove myself” attitude or what, but holy cow! If the sign says “No swimming,” don’t swim there. If the email says “starts at 4:30”, be there and ready by 4:30. Pushing in front of me in the line to get food in the dinning hall won’t have any huge pay off, we both still get to eat! If we all wait in line and take turns we’ll all get dinner. You don’t have to shove in front of me at the bus line, or the security line, or any where else; we’ll all get there.
Look closely, this is a picture of people swimming in an ancient cistern – directly below a sign that says no swimming
  • In Israel probably, everything will be okay. I mean, things usually turn out all right, without even trying (usually its better if you didn’t try). I am a planner, a rule follower, and a preparer (as previous blog posts have revealed). Israelis, not so much. What I’m trying to say is, it seems like here, if you go out with the intention of doing something, probably it will get done. Whether you are on time or not, whether you have all the supplies or not. It just seems to usually come together.
  • When Israelis want to tell you to wait they don’t hold up one finger like Americans do, they hold all of their fingers pinched together. And they do it in all imaginable circumstances: conversations, presentations in front of an audience, jay-walking (to tell the cars not to run them over), when they have double parked you in (to tell you “I’ll move in a few minutes when I feel like it”)…
The Israeli gesture for wait (it means something else in some other countries)
  • And when they want to tell you “No” or “that’s wrong” Israelis do a very slight shake of the head and click their tongue once. And if you miss this small gesture they can get very annoyed.
  • My children are amazing and resilient and adaptive. Really, really amazing.

An Ode

Alas my time here is near to the end,
And ‘tho I have had a wonderful time, I will not pretend
That I am not very excited to move to the west end.

The friends I have made here and the people I’ve met have all been so great,
The adventures, the experiences – school, the kibbutz, the travel- all were first rate,
But to pack my suitcase and move to my new home? Its getting hard to wait.

“Why?” You ask, “don’t you love us, don’t you want to stay?
Don’t you love the swimming pool and the freedom of the kids to run around and play?
Its so friendly, so communal, so welcoming on the kibbutz – that is our way.”

Yes, the family, the friends, the ease of life, I love you so,
I love the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the communal-type living – even if it is a little slow,
But my new home awaits, and I really must go.

I will miss the childcare where all the kids go every day,
I will miss the dining hall (although not the register where we pay),
I will even miss the cow shed, where the smell is more than hay!

(Ah yes the dining hall, where we all go to eat,
Were dinner is make your own salad and they add way too much salt to the meat,
and the pricing scheme is really screwy – you pay – individually – for every radish on the balance sheet!)

I will miss the beautiful landscape, the mountains that surround,
The acacias and the wadis and vistas that astound,
Every day is full of sunshine and hiking trails abound.

I will miss ten o’clock meal , and four o’ clock meal, and all of safta’s cakes,
I will miss lazy Friday afternoons, when of the computer the children do partake,
I will miss our friends – old and new – and our family. For all of these things my heart will ache.

But the place we live right now, it is so very small,
Just two bedrooms, a living space, and do you call that a kitchen? Not at all!
And I’m sure what to think about the cracks that have appeared in every single wall.

Sharing my tiny bedroom with my husband’s home office has NOT been a treat,
I hate the cramped entryway, and the ants that I can’t seem to beat,
And I wish we had some insulation to help keep out the heat!

Every whisper in the living room, it sounds like a roar!
The echo on the cement is so loud you hear us outside the door!
Add to all the echo, the air conditioner, the kettle and the radio, and I can’t take any more!

Most of the time the water runs just fine, although about once a month it does not,
And did you want cold water? Sorry, in the summer all we have is hot.
The electricity… well its pretty good. I guess that’s something that we’ve got!

Now, I’ve learned so much about Israeli culture during my time,
Most of it is truly great, and I will miss it just fine,
But there is one thing Israelis really must learn: my dear, its called a LINE.

How many times have I been waiting, patiently in the store or dining hall,
And someone stepped in front of me – cut me in line – and thought nothing of it at all.
Waiting at the bus stop, the airport, or the tramcar at Masada, they push you out of the way, and almost cause a brawl!

Its a simple lesson, that everyone must learn,
You line up in order and each one gets a turn!
Then your business get completed, and your anger will not burn!

I’ve heard that the country where I will live, they take it to extreme,
Lining up is more important than you could ever dream,
and I guess I can understand how that could make me scream.

But, I’ll take my chances with order and with lines,
And with cold, wet weather – they say its sunny sometimes.
And, of course, an abode with much larger confines!

My new dwelling, away up in the north, it has amenities galore,
Insulation, big bright windows, constant water and a mail slot in your door,
But the best thing it has: is a toilet on every floor!

Yes, its, true, the grass is always greener, in this I do trust,
And I am sure we’ll discover many things which will make our old home seem a plus,
But best of all, when we move north our husband and aba will once again live with us!

Playing Tour Guide

In the last few months we’ve had several visitors here to the Kibbutz. For almost all of them it was their first visit to a country they had never expected to visit. One friend commented that Israel was “never on my radar.” And I empathize. Israel was never on my radar, until I married a man who was born here. To be honest I only vaguely knew where Israel was on the map when I first met my husband-to-be. I never told him that…but that’s another story, for another blog post.

Playing tour guide to my friends in my temporary home has been an experience. Its shown me what is important to me, and what stands out to me.

I live in the very south of Israel near the border with Egypt. To describe it (which I have in past blog posts) I tell people I basically live in a northern extension of the Sahara desert. It is all sand and rocks and dryness and heat. Here it is April and we’re almost reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day. The barren mountains are exposed with all their peaks and folds. And the sun beats down on it all almost all day, almost every day. The first thing I want people to react to is the total alien-ness of the landscape. How completely empty and dry it is. And how captivating. I have always lived in the northern United States, and, in comparison, the landscape here is… astonishing, enthralling, confounding, amazing. And I want all of my friends and family who come here to feel these same things. And actually, they usually do.

Next I want them to see what a “normal” place it is. By normal I mean, we don’t spend all our time running to bomb shelters, and fearing for our lives. Mostly, here, in the south, we just do our stuff. Its true, three or four times in these past 9 months there have been a couple of rockets launched at Eilat from the Sinai Dessert in Egypt. Once they rang the air raid siren here in the kibbutz. But thats like saying, in the past 9 months there have been a few shootings in Boston or Chicago, and one time you drove passed the police cars responding to such an incident. Life is just… normal. We don’t spend all day arguing about the “Palestinian conflict” or dodging Arab people. We wake up and go to work and eat together in the dining hall and enjoy coffee together in the afternoon. Whats hard, though, is the constant reminders that violence is – could be – very prevalent here. And I find myself reminding my visitors that violence is – often – very prevalent in the US.

I am not a Zionist. I am not Jewish. I am not sure what I believe about the complicated issues of land and government and control here in Israel. But I do find myself pointing out to my visitors again and again the basic ingenuity of Israelis. How time and again, in their struggles, when they thought they could rely on allies from abroad, they have been forced to do it all alone. When the French stalled on delivering promised airplanes during one conflict or another, the Israelis just said “fine, we’ll make our own.” And they did. Israelis invented the Uzi machine gun, and their “iron dome” missile protection system actually works, well (which is more they we can say about the one developed for a lot more money and time in the US!!).

But excluding armed conflicts, the amount of innovation in this country – a place with a landmass about the size of New Jersey, and a population of less than 8 million people – is amazing. Instant messaging was invented here! The sheer number of technology companies and technology start ups is overwhelming. Some of the newest and most innovative technologies in smart irrigation, and water desalinization have been invented and improved upon here.

And, in the same vein, and even more impressive, I think, are the settlements out here in the dessert. Some one came out here, stopped and said ”yeah, I think I could live here.” And they did. They built a whole way of life way out here, far away from everything they knew. And they encountered a whole set of obstacles that they had to get around. And they did! Getting power and water, and building and expansion and sustenance. Plus they are farming here. When we lived in Boston we could buy our tomatoes in our local grocery store from the Arava region of Israel! And they keep innovating as they go.

AND ON TOP OF THAT they started a whole new experiment in community living. The Kibbutz movement is something special, if not unique. They have developed an entire, self-contained, small society, providing for the needs so of the members, so the members can provide for the needs of the society. Communal living and dining, education and the equal value of work are all under-lying tenants of the Kibbutz movement. The Kibbutz movement was not only a way to settle the land in some far flung out-posts, but it was a way to help create a new society, and new bonds to hold together people who had immigrated from all over the world. It helped tie the people to the land and to each other. And it has worked. The people I have met here, even those who may not have been so willing to come, love this place. They love the landscape and the heat and the community. They are proud to be from here. And I want my visitors to see that, and see why.

Lastly, I find my self continually pointing out the layers of history. So many societies have been through here. Every major society in western history has been here. And their stories are laid out for us in layers, one on top of the other, every where you go! I read an article that they were trying to build a highway north of here in Beer Sheva, and they uncovered the most complete Byzantine mosaic floor ever discovered. All they wanted to do was build a road! And the old Ottoman police station – which was first a Roman structure – is just down the street from here. This ancient structure is so common, there isn’t even a sign post saying what it is, or a lock on the gate! I am constantly amazed that people have been walking around here, living their lives for thousands of years. The weight of the history here, is great. And I want my visitors to feel that weight as we travel.

Now, I come from a pretty distinctly American point of view. My own country has been around for more than 200 years and the values and struggles from which my own country was formed are receding into the past for me. (I’m not saying they are not important, just that they are not foremost in my day-to-day life in the US). But Israel is relatively young, and, some could argue hasn’t even finished establishing its borders yet. And they are still very much struggling with their founding principles and the foundations of their society. And I am intrigued by these struggles, just as I am intrigued by the landscape so different from my own, and intrigued by the history upon which they are building their society. And I am eager to share these observations with my visitors.

In The Footsteps of Others

As I wander through my days here in the desert, on this Kibbutz, and this country that is both new and ancient, I am struck by constant reminders of the past, of the history here.

Here in the south there is almost no vegetation to hide the story told by the mountains. I can read about the oceans that once lived here in the rocks and fossils that litter the ground. And I see the huge valley created by the continental rift – a giant crack in the land.

And there are more recent, but still ancient stories, too. The carvings of water, and floods: astonishingly beautiful canyons winnowed through the flat, tan land; looking as if the water could come rushing back through any minute. And the wind, which works tirelessly, coming from the north day after day, and year after year blasting amazing shapes in the soft, sandy rock, and pushing around enormous sand dunes.

And, layered on top of all that, there are the traces of the people – ancient and modern. For thousands of years people have been traveling though, and living in this hot, dry, unforgiving place. The so-called spice route went through here, on which people traveled from Egypt to the ancient cities north and east of here, and to the Mediterranean sea. It feels so desolate driving in my car on the highway, I find it almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like in a caravan walking though all that heat and sand – so alone.

And then they discovered copper in the mountains near here, and they mined it. You can hike there today and crawl around in small holes dug 5 thousand years ago by some slave or laborer. You can still see the green copper seams in the sandstone. When you crawl in with your flash light, you can turn the light off for just a second to imagine what it must have been like – dark, and silent. And when the Egyptians discovered there was copper to be had here they came and took over and harvested the copper. And although you can’t touch it, you can come stare at their hieroglyphs, and wonder how and why they carved them into the giant rock canyons.

When I hike here I am struck by the thought that people have been here for so long. When I am sitting alone resting on the rocks, or wandering through a canyon, running my fingers along the smooth water-carved walls, tracing the layers of rock, I feel so alone. There are no sounds except the wind, no trace of anyone else (except the ubiquitous litter, every where!), but I know that there have been people here for thousands of years, and they rested on these rocks, and they traced their fingers along this canyon wall. And did they marvel at the colors and shapes like I do? Here in Israel, I am always walking in the the footsteps of others.

As we travel throughout the country – the Galilee, and Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and Qumram, and Masada, and even right here near my own Kibbutz – there are so many traces of ancient society. The Nabateans, The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Otomans, the British – they were all there. And of course the Arabs, and the Bedoins too. They all built amazing palaces, and temples, and great cities, and small villages, and castles, and dug wells, and cleared roads. They all fought, and farmed, and lived here. And they just kept building on top of the cities and temples and roads that were already there. You can walk around and look at it all, layer upon layer. Just south of the kibbutz, next to the highway, there are the ruins of an old Ottoman police station. The British used it after the Ottomans. Several years ago, while repairing a water pipe, some workmen turned over a stone and found an ancient roman inscription at the that very same building.

And layered on top of all that, there are the reminders that people still fight, and farm, and live here. The kibbutz is built on top of bomb shelters, hidden mostly underground, with their air vents tucked discreetly into bushes, or behind other buildings. And the kibbutz is surrounded by trenches, dug into the side of the hill to defend the people in case of attack from the neighboring countries. Its come before, and they desperately hope every day to prevent it from coming again…

But the bomb shelters are unused, and the trenches have filled in over time. They are shallow because of all the sand that has blown in. And the fences have fallen down, or been re-purposed, and the loops of barbed wire are bent and rusted, deflecting none but the most casual of intruders. But its here, left as a daily reminder of the history of this place.

And the mountains surrounding us, with all their folds and crevices exposed, remind me of the weight and the size of the history of this place.

And every morning, when I wake up to the sound of the construction on the house next door – I am reminded that we’re still here, still fighting, and farming, and living, and leaving our footsteps, for others to walk in.

Arches in Timna park carved by wind over thousands of years
Ruins of a Byzantine home in Avdat
Ruins of two temples: Nabatean and Roman in Avdat
The view of the mountains in Jordan from Kibbutz Grofit

The Story of the Furniture

A few months before we moved to Israel, my parents-in-law were shopping in Eilat and saw some inexpensive furniture which they purchased for us. A couch, love seat, a bed frame and a mattress. They paid half on credit with the other half to be paid in cash upon delivery of the furniture. It was agreed that the furniture dealer would hold the items for a few months, as we didn’t know exactly when we would be able to move in to our apartment.

So time passed and the appointed move-in day drew near. My father-in-law called to arrange for the furniture to be delivered. Except the dealer now said he was expecting a few hundred more shekels for the trouble of delivering the furniture. After arguing back and forth my father-in-law told him to just bring the furniture. That afternoon, as we waited for the truck, the dealer called and said something about his truck not being available or some similar excuse. He would not be delivering the furniture that day. But, he said, he would deliver it another day next week…That day came and went.

For several days, and then a few weeks, the excuses mounted – something wrong with the truck, something about his hired help, something about not having the items in stock. Several times my father-in-law spoke back and forth with the furniture dealer on the phone. Maybe he will deliver today, oh, no, sorry, actually tomorrow. It would cost this much more, now this much more. Eventually, one Friday morning, the call came that the furniture had been confiscated at the check point coming out of Eilat because my parents-in-law had not paid the appropriate taxes.

A side note: Eilat is a tax free zone, so items purchased in Eilat are 17% cheaper than the rest of the country. However, if you take those items out of Eilat, you are supposed pay the tax and the sales people will provide documentation of this payment. It is important to note, though, that in the rest of the country the tax is added into the price of the items and that is the price displayed on the price tag. If the price tag on a shirt says it costs 100 shekels you only pay 100 shekels, where as in The States the tax is mostly added at the register and the price you pay is higher than what you see on the price tag. So a price tag that says $100 would pay $117 at the register after taxes. )

HOWEVER the sales man – who agreed at the time of purchase to drive out of Eilat to deliver the furniture – never asked my parents-in-law to pay the taxes.

After that, you can imagine, there were many phone discussions about the furniture- he has to get more made, but its Ramadan so the Muslim workers are on their holiday; he might have at least a bed in stock but he never called back to confirm; how about a couch and a chair (on which we would take a hit, because those items are worth less than a couch and a love seat); oh now I have the items, I’ll deliver sometime this afternoon; oh sorry I didn’t deliver yesterday, maybe I can come tomorrow…

In the mean time, for these weeks my husband and I were sleeping on an air mattress, and we had one folding beach chair in our living room, to compliment our already meager furniture for the rest of the house. It was especially hard when my husband left for his first stint in the US. I mostly just went to bed rather than sit in my echo-y living room in a beach chair alone.

One time the furniture dealer actually drove into the kibbutz to deliver the stuff, but demanded even more money when he got here. When my father-in-law wouldn’t give him more he got ready to leave. But then, he claims, he saw me and the children, and he wanted to be nice (!) – unlike my father-in-law, who was mean, he said – and he set up the bed.

But still no couch and love seat.

At this point, I kind of stopped paying attention to the details.

And Then: At last one day, more than a month into this ordeal, my father-in-law showed up late to dinner smiling. He said the last of the furniture had finally been delivered (and I found out later, all of the extra demands for money had been met), and I could arrange it any way I want.

BUT there was one pillow missing.

And its true, there was one large cushion missing from the love seat. But don’t worry, it would be delivered soon.

The following week, my sister-in-law, who was visiting from Tel Aviv, was in Eilat to do some shopping. She stopped by the furniture shop to get the pillow. As she descried it, she called the dealer from her phone because he wouldn’t answer the door, and he told he her would be out in 5 minutes with the pillow. After a half an hour waiting outside (remember this is Eilat in August, temperatures top 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day) she called again from her phone, but the man didn’t answer. Finally she called from my father-in-law’s phone, which she had in the car with her. The man not only answered but came out with a pillow. It was dirty and dusty, but since its pleather (plastic that looks like leather), it didn’t matter.

At long last my furniture set would be complete!

When I got that pillow home and washed, it was the wrong size, and the wrong color. Fortunately its not too much wrong that it really matters.

A few days later my mother-in-law came over to see the furniture set up. And she asked if I like it, and I said yes, and thank you very much, it makes our apartment feel like a home now.

And she said, you know, this is not the color I ordered.

The Bed, complete with bedding provided by my mother-in-law (more on Israeli bedding later)
The Couch
The Love Seat with mismatched pillow