I had never been to the Middle East before, so when I had a business trip to Israel come up I was giddy with excitement. I had never flown anything but coach class on international flights before, either, and the man that sat next to me in first class wasn’t hiding his smile at seeing me pushing buttons on the map of my chair. I couldn’t help myself, I would poke and hold each button and wait to see what happened. The I would giggle uncontrollably. I punched a button, the motor in my seat whined and my body was moving. My back slid down. My feet slid up. My chair bottom dropped and pitched forward. It was like some sort of space age recliner and I couldn’t help myself–I had to contort the seat in the oddest way I could. I ended up in a configuration with my knees high, my feet low, and my seat back upright when the flight attendant appeared with a silver tray of champagne and orange juice. She asked if I’d like some and I replied a little too eagerly, “Of course!” She smiled as I sipped the sharp bubbles.
The man next to me finally asked if this was my first flight to Tel Aviv. I nodded. He said he does this flight from New York City once a month for business, but he lives in Tel Aviv. He then told me to visit Old Jaffa, the Carmel Market, and the Yemenites Quarter (where he said I would find the best falafel) in Tel Aviv. He also said, “Tel Aviv doesn’t come alive until midnight. Before that, it’s sort of a waste of time.” I laughed at that since I’m more of a morning person and not at all into the nightclub scene. I told him that I would be thrilled to see whatever I could.
I realized there was a small toiletry bag next to my seat on the shared console and I unzipped it. Inside was a set of ear plugs, mouthwash, a small toothbrush and toothpaste, an eye mask, some cotton swabs, and socks. I held up a pair of blue and grey striped socks to the man next to me and said, “I got SOCKS! This is so awesome!!” He laughed and said I would appreciate them once I went to sleep. Indeed, the passengers along the other side of the plane had already changed into pajamas and were snuggling under the comforter and two pillows (TWO PILLOWS!) at their seats. They were clearly veteran travelers of this flight, and not at all excited by a pair of new socks.
In between glasses of champagne and a couple of movies, I slept really well. I was awakened by the smells of coffee and warm croissants. It was breakfast time, just before landing in Tel Aviv.
Over the course of the next few days, I enjoyed wandering around different parts of Tel Aviv while wearing my new airplane socks. The city has a depth of personality. There are Arabic sections, Jewish sections, Christian sections, secular sections, all of which were juxtaposed immediately next to each other and often overlap like a blended fabric. Tel Aviv is a city by the sea, a city with old streets and new high rise buildings, a city with many people pushing babies in strollers, a city with haunting calls to worship at the mosques throughout the day, a city with colorful sunsets over the Mediterranean and smells of sour trash early in the morning.
When I walked along the water and through Old Jaffa, I chatted with the friendly “hooded” black crows that looked like they were wearing grey scarves. They were very friendly, and seemed to welcome me to their city.
The day after I arrived, I visited the Carmel Market and my senses were overwhelmed. The sun was setting, and as soon as I stepped foot down the first aisle of the market, I immediately felt out of place. People were talking and laughing with each other as they loudly and dramatically negotiated on price with the vendors selling various fruits, olives, and sweets. I am lousy at the whole back and forth dance of bargaining with vendors for price, or rather, I feel so intensely uncomfortable doing it that I completely refrain. This leaves me to either pay full price (which is clearly inflated for tourists) or walk away with nothing. My indifference in buying things was interpreted as a soft negotiation and while I was taking in all of the sights and sounds and smells of the market, several vendors would start talking to me in Hebrew or in English and would drop their prices as I tried to figure out what I wanted to buy. I finally bought some fresh dates. I had only eaten dried dates before, and the fresh ones were less sweet and had a thicker texture. They became my favorite breakfast during my stay in Israel. Likewise, I had never tasted so many olives with such a deep flavor, and I enjoyed
that the Israelis ate them at every meal. I couldn’t get enough of them.
I bought some Arabic sweets from a man with a beautiful smile. We didn’t share a common language so we pointed and gestured at the tall towers of pastries as we smiled at each other. He handed me a couple of small boxes and a spatula to serve myself. I explained to him that I was taking home some pastries to my daughters. I showed him pictures of them on my phone. He brought up his phone then, and showed me pictures of his son and grandson. We exchanged smiles, nods and a handshake.
The following day, with the sun high above, I walked over to Bograshov Beach in Tel Aviv to soak up the sunshine. A yacht cut through the horizon of blue sky and blue water. I was later told that it is the largest sailboat in the world and belongs to a Russian businessman.
From the beach, I wandered over to the Sarona Market, an historically German market. People were enjoying coffee at sidewalk cafes while their children played on swings and slides in a giant square.
As I walked throughout the city, I couldn’t help but notice all of the street art. I love seeing street art in cities as it seems to reflect the raw heart of the city. The art I saw in Tel Aviv most often depicted faces–some riddled with fear, some triumphant, some thrown back to the sky, and some ready to fight. I enjoyed the sense of anger, joy and playfulness that emerged in the brightly colored street art, that seemed oddly at home in this old city.
I strolled back to the beach just before the sun set, feeling the warmth fade and the cool air pinch my cheeks. People lingered in the water long after the sun dipped below the horizon, and they spoke in quieter voices. Sunset felt like a sacred time, many people lined up on the shore to sit and watch the colors over the water as the dark of night gradually settled in like heavy dust. I sat on some large rocks next to the water. I could hear a handful of different languages being spoken in hushed voices. I could see people of different ethnicity staring over the water, the sunset light reflected on their faces. Some women were covered from head to toe, some women were in bathing suits in the water. Young children stacked small rock piles on the beach or drew their names in the sand. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked around, watching the sun melt into the water with so many others. I realized then that this gritty, tender, wise, old city had captured my heart.
unset at the Mediterranean Sea at downtown Tel Aviv.