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The Trip to Germany

The only way to fly

A few weeks ago, I had to go on a business trip to Germany. I’m not really big on “seeing the world”. When I was six (or seven) my parents did the European vacation. I’ve been to Hawaii and I’ve been to the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico a few times. Otherwise, all my travels have been within the continental United States (which, admittedly is a pretty extensive place.)

Germany.  I’ve already been there and I wasn’t that interested in returning. Besides, Germany gives me the creeps. However, it was a business trip and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do what needs to be done.

It actually was a nice and successful trip. It was a very quick trip.  I think I was away from Israel for only about 36 hours.

The initial security checkpoint

I was dropped off at the airport in Tel-Aviv at about 7 a.m. Airport security is taken very seriously. There is a security checkpoint that all vehicles must pass through to gain access to the airport grounds. The soldier at the checkpoint asked the taxi driver a few questions and then turned to me. Where are you going? How long are you going? Why are you traveling there? Where do you live? How long have you lived there?  Why can’t you speak Hebrew? I think he pretty much just made the questions up on the fly. I don’t think the questions matter. He watched me as I answered and then waved me on. I’m not the typical traveler.  I don’t look Israeli, I don’t speak Hebrew, and I’m traveling alone — I probably warrant a few extra questions (and profiling and investigator intuition are used as effective screening tools).

If I looked suspicious while in the taxi, it had to be worse when I got out. I wanted to bring a small carry-on suitcase, but I don’t own one (yet). As a result, I stuffed everything into my large, notebook-computer backpack. That includes two changes of clothing, tallit, tefillin, notebook computer, accessories, toiletries, etc.

As I approached the main airport entrance, I noticed a metal detector, a table, and a soldier situated about 30 feet from the entrance. It looked like something out of a Monty Python skit — a metal detector in the middle of nowhere. I really wanted to take a picture, but I’m not sure it would have been appreciated and I want to keep my camera.

As soon as I noticed the metal detector, I realized it was there for people just like me.  A guy with a big, overstuffed, backpack traveling alone. The soldier beckoned to me with a serious face and I couldn’t help feeling amused. He started with “the questions” and asked me to open the backpack. He lost interest when he saw the tefillin and didn’t bother checking the rest. A quick trip through the  metal detector and I was on my way…. to the next security checkpoint inside the airport.

Eventually I found myself on the plane. The flight was uneventful and I arrived in Frankfurt at around noon. I was traveling with a work associate named K’fir. We picked up a taxi and went straight to the customer’s facility which was located about a 20 minute drive away.

I’m pretty sure the taxi driver was an Arab. Why do I think this? Well, he just gave me that feeling from his general appearance. However, it was his driving that really convinced me. He drove as if he could become a martyr by taking out two Jews in an automobile accident. It is pretty established that “texting” while driving can be dangerous, but this was ridiculous. He must have been driving 70 miles an hour, weaving through traffic, and then took the off ramp at 50 mph — texting the whole time. We arrived at our destination considerably faster than I originally expected.

Arab driver "texting" at high speed

See the approaching off ramp on the GPS

Dude! Slow down and stop texting!

We stayed until about 7 pm and then headed to the hotel to check-in.  But first, I had to stop at a grocery store to buy some food (I had only brought a few snacks). I really thought finding kosher food at a grocery store (in Germany) would be easy. Aren’t all the products pretty much international? Apparently not. K’fir knew this; he brought his food supplies with him. Then again, I would not have had room in my backpack. Anyway, I bought a lot of fruit and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream — a great dinner combo!

The hotel was adequate.  The fact that my non-smoking room smelled like cigarettes was irritating, but I slept with the window open and the smoke kept the bugs out.

The next morning we left early for shul and then headed straight to the customer’s facility. I had a quick breakfast (more fruit, yum) and then had a few hours of meetings.

The best option when there is no chocolate spread available

Lunch time was the best part of the whole trip. K’fir was running low on food, but he had enough to make a sandwich — a chocolate sandwich. I started laughing at this sight and he didn’t realize why it was so funny to me.  He explained that he didn’t have any “spread”. I laughed even harder. When he said that he didn’t have any spread, he meant “chocolate spread.” The chocolate spread sandwich is a popular Israeli invention.

I told him that Americans don’t typically put chocolate spread on bread and he was shocked. He was shocked again when I said people put peanut butter and jelly on sandwiches. Quite dreadful sounding to the Israeli ear.

By 5 pm we were back in a taxi heading to the airport.  We made a quick hop to Vienna on Austria Airlines before heading home with El Al.

Categories: Food, Trips, Work Tags: , , , ,

The First Pesach

I felt like such a goof-ball.

Until moving to Israel, I had never lived in a large, observant Jewish community. I learned most of my Jewish practices from the small Chabad in Columbia, MD. On the morning before Pesach, we would gather our remaining chumatz, bring it to the shul, and burn it.

A handful of families would show up at the appointed time for the burning. The burning always seemed ad hoc. It rains a lot in Maryland at this time of year; we never had dry wood or cardboard. Hopefully, we had kerosene. Eventually, we would manage to get a fire going and toast some of the chumatz, hoping all the while that the fire department would not show up.

This year, I’m living in Ra’anana. The city has about 80,000 residents and maybe 30% are observant. I am on the e-mail list for a couple of shuls and both shuls send weekly announcements via e-mail. The announcements specified the time by when the chumatz must be burned, but they didn’t specify the location.

I had a meeting with our Rabbi to arrange the sale of the chumatz that would not get burned. While there, I said to him, “Back in Maryland, we burned our chumatz on the morning before Pesach at our shul. Do we do that here?”

Our Rabbi definitely follows the notation that there is no such thing as a stupid question. I was asking if we burn the chumatz here at the shul, but he responded with, “Yes, we do that here in Israel too”. I had goof-ball written all over me.

I tried the question again: “Do we burn the chumatz here at the shul?”

The response: “No, the closest burning location is at the corner of Akiva and Swartz.”

At first, I was confused by this, but then it dawned on me: “Oh, it’s a public burning?” (Now there was goof-ball running down my forehead.)

He had a half-smirk at this point as he explained: “Yes, the municipality sets up several areas where the residents can burn chumatz.”

I thought this was really cool. It was one of those only-in-Israel moments, until I found out that most large Jewish communities have public burning locations set up by the fire department. It’s still very cool.

At the appointed time, I left with our box of chumatz. You could smell the smoke from two blocks away. Within 30 feet of the location, the smoke was so thick it burned your eyes. Burning chumatz is popular. It was not only the observant residence — people were pouring from apartment buildings and walkways carrying bags of bread and cereal. It was truly amazing to me. Some Jews in Israel don’t attend shul, but they still burn chumetz before Pesach.

In the evening, I attended my first seder in Israel. It was very exciting. I arrived home from the shul to the buzz of an excited household — literally. Moments before my arrival, we had some unexpected guests. A swarm of flying queen ants, seemingly attracted by the lights, flew through the screens and descended on our table. It was our very own mini-plague. It took us a while to figure out what to do. By the time I arrived, the windows were already closed, but the ants were crawling all over the table and flying around in the dining area.

Once we figured out that the ants were attracted to the bright lights over the table, we were able to move and reset the table.

It was a different experience this year reading the Haggadah. For instance:

It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon were reclining (at the Seder) in Bnei Brak.

I’ve read this many times before, but “Bnei Brak” was just a name of some place in Israel. Now, I live a 10 minute drive away from Bnei Brak. I literally complain about the traffic on the highway around Bnei Brak. I know children that go to school in Bnei Brak. Wow.

On the topic of Passover and seders, I really have to say Obama is an easy person to despise. He makes it way to easy. How any Jew can support this destroyer is beyond my ability to understand. Wasn’t it just last year, after following the entire traditional seder reading (why is he doing it anyway?), that he refused to include the very last line which reads “Next Year in Jerusalem”. He didn’t want to make the seder “political”. This year, he equates the Muslim uprisings around the world with the meaning of Passover. What an ass. Obama’s new Passover message is here.

Yesterday, we decided to finally visit “Monkey Park”. Monkey Park is a monkey zoo and play area. It has a rustic feel to it (like most things in Israel). We had to drive on a narrow, dirt and gravel road to get to the dirt and gravel parking area. The area was pretty ad hoc, and I had serious fears that we would become boxed-in and would not be able to leave until most of the cars had cleared.

We had a nice time in the park. There were lots of crazy monkeys along with peacocks, goats, and an assortment of children-friendly play areas. The real adult “fun” began when it was time to leave. My fear that our car would get boxed-in was unfounded. However, we had to deal with a different problem. The parking areas must have reached capacity, because people parked on the side of the narrow gravel road leading to the parking area. This effectively left one lane for cars to both enter and exit — which they attempted to do.

About a quarter mile to go...

It was a huge log jam. No one could move back or forward — it was complete dead-lock. I think they had to back out most of the cars trying to enter. Some of the cars were able to advance with maybe a half-inch clearance. I’m sure the observing monkeys were very amused.

We finished the day with a trip to the mall. The food court was open and I couldn’t help but notice this:

Kosher for Passover Burgers!

You’ll notice the top-right corner of the signs: “ארוחות כשרות לפסח” — “Meals Kosher For Passover”. I think mall food courts that sell kosher for Passover fast food can only be found in Israel.

Burger!

Categories: Food, Holidays, Trips Tags: , ,

Pizza

I like mushrooms and extra cheese on my pizza. Pretty simple, but that’s what I like.  My children do not like mushrooms nor do they like extra cheese; they just want a plain cheese pizza.  How can you have too much cheese on a pizza?  My wife seems to think that having only mushrooms is boring, because she often gets pizza loaded with veggies.  Fine. Different people like different things, but it all seems pretty standard.

It seems reasonable that there should be regional differences in pizza toppings.  For instance, Hawaiian pizza has pineapple slices. Fine. So what odd toppings are available on pizza in Israel?

All the “normal” choices are available and seem to be popular.  Corn is also a popular choice (although I haven’t tried it).  There are a few other odd or strange choices (which I also haven’t tried.) Im not afraid to try them — they just seem uninteresting.

Having said that, all the topping options seemed generally reasonable until I discovered… sunny side up eggs cooked on the pizza. Curiously, this is a disgusting enough idea that I strangely feel somewhat compelled to try it.

Yummy -- eggs cooked on pizza!

Categories: Food, Israel Tags: , ,

The Driving Test

Watch out… it looks like I’m getting a driver’s license!

Okay, so it isn’t that awesome — I’ve been driving in Israel for four months using my license from Maryland.  I can use the foreign driver’s license for only one year; now I’ll be able to drive in Israel for at least another 10 years.

To get the driver’s license, I first had to have my eyes checked with an optician.  This only took about 5 minutes.  I was given an official looking green form that specified (I think) that it is safe for me to drive with glasses.

Next, I had to go to my doctor to have the form filled out.  The doctor is supposed to specify any medical conditions that may impair my driving.  I’ve never met my doctor. I picked him on a recommendation and this would have been our first meeting. I picked him, in part, because he speaks English; however, he was on vacation and I met with a substitute doctor. The substitute doctor, of course, did not speak English. We stared at each other for about ten minutes. There was a crude attempt to communicate. I think she may have asked if I have diabetes. Anyway, she eventually decided that I was in good health and checked all the boxes in the “no” column. A few official stamps and a signature on the green form and I was done.

After getting the doctor’s approval, I had to travel to the Ministry of Vehicle Licensing to get the green form approved for the next phase. This simple service is only done at the district level offices. In addition, it is only done on Monday and Wednesday between 8:30 and 12:30.  After a 45 minute drive and a 30 minute wait in line, a clerk stamped and signed the form in three or four places.

The next step is the driving test.  However, to take the driving test, you need to be certified by a driving instructor. I found an instructor in Ra’anana who is originally from Great Britain.  He is a former Israeli police officer and a former driving test evaluator.  I took a lesson with him and he explained everything I would need to know for the test. For instance, I drive automatic cars using my left foot on the brake. That may sound strange since most people use the right foot on both the gas pedal and the brake, but that’s how I do it. My instructor informed me that it is illegal to break with the left foot in Israel.  If I do it during the driving test I’ll fail.

He went over all the basic laws and basically treated me like I had no clue how to drive.  I was tempted to argue with him on a number of topics (like breaking with my left foot), but what’s the point?  Turning right on red is also illegal in Israel.  He is pretty sure that the only reason why it is still legal in most US states to turn right on red is because of the existing infrastructure — it would cost too much to change it!  I really wanted to explain that turning right on red just makes sense — it allows traffic to flow without adding much risk.  The biggest risk is probably the risk of hitting pedestrians.  The cross-walks here are always full of pedestrians, so turning on red is impractical anyway.

Anyway, I took the test. It was pretty stressful. There were two other students in the car and we all took turns. I went first and my drive was by far the easiest and shortest. At first, I thought this must mean that I’m such an awesome driver that there was no point in testing me any longer. Later, I discovered that I actually committed a driving violation and that I could fail the test as a result, therefore, perhaps my test was short because there was no need to continue the test. What did I do wrong?  I approached an intersection and the road that I was traveling on turned into a one way road moving against me (so I could not drive straight).  I also could not turn right (because there was no road to the right), so I turned left. Oops. The road that I turned on to was also one way and, although I was heading in the right direction, I turned into the right lane instead of the left lane. The truth is, I didn’t realize that it was a one way road!

Apparently it was not a major concern because I passed the test. My instructor is handling most of the leg work which is really nice.  He is supposed to cough-up my temporary license this week and then the permanent license should arrive in the mail in a couple of weeks.

Categories: Israel Tags: ,

No Parking!

Blue and white curbs are only for residents of Ra'anana

Ra’anana has a problem with automobiles.  In particular, there is not enough space for them.  It seems like this is a typical problem caused by (lack of) government planning. The plan was probably fine years ago when the roads were expanded and the parking spaces allocated, but now it is woefully inadequate and there is no obvious way to fix the problem without using a bulldozer.

Traffic and parking can be a nightmare. I walk or use a bicycle as much as possible.

About two years ago, in an effort to help fix the parking problem, the city of Ra’anana decided to have special parking areas for residents. These special parking areas are identified by a blue and white stripped curb. Almost all the available parking is blue and white.

I am a resident of Ra’anana, so I am allowed to park in these special places. However, normally your car has an electronic chip that identifies the owner as a resident. The chip makes it simple for police officers to figure out who is illegally parking in a Ra’anana resident spot. Since I’m still renting a car, mine doesn’t have the chip. So, if I park in a special space, I’ll get fined. In theory, I can show up in court and get the fine waved, but somehow that doesn’t seem like a good plan.

No parking in red and white spaces -- unless you use the sidewalk (or know the mayor)

A better plan is to just act like you own the place. People routinely park in no parking areas, double-park, or park on the sidewalk. This seems to be okay since everyone knows there is a parking problem and, as a result, the parking laws are (seemingly) not enforced. The no parking areas are easy to find because the curb is painted red and white.

Another solution is to use a motorcycle or scooter. These are commonly parked in little niches, nooks, or on the sidewalks. As an extra advantage, the motorcycles routinely drive between the lanes during heavy traffic. When that’s not possible, they can always squeak around a tight spot by using the sidewalk. It is basically a free for all, but the motorcycles and scooters do travel fairly easily even during the worst traffic situations. For this reason, all the fast-food delivery guys ride scooters with giant, oversized carrier boxes mounted on the back.

Although it doesn’t help with traffic, there is a third option — the mini-sub-subcompact. With this wondrous vehicle, parking is dramatically simplified.

The wondrous mini-sub-subcompact in (non)action!

Categories: Israel Tags: , , , ,

Not Really Funny

I returned to the train crossing to get a photo.  Again, I had to ride on a nearly abandoned road that ends at a closed gate. Beyond the gate is a dirt trail through an orchid that eventually becomes paved and finally reaches the train crossing.

I was wrong about a couple of points. First of all, the manually operated gate is always kept closed. It is only opened when a vehicle (tractor, scooter, bike, etc.) arrives at the crossing and there is no train.

The gate is normally kept closed

The gate is opened if a vehicle needs to cross and there is no train

I was wrong about something else. The last time I only saw two workers — one for each side of the track. Today, however, there was a third guy — he must be the supervisor.

He started asking me a bunch of questions and eventually we discovered that we could communicate using this thing called English. He wanted to know why I was taking photos and I told him that I thought the gates were interesting. He seemed unimpressed with my explanation.

Anyway, I suspected that all the extra precautions with the extra gates and personnel must be because people on tractors or bicycles sometimes try to beat an oncoming train and don’t make it. I asked him if that was the case. He told me that all of the precautions on this nearly abandoned train crossing are because it used to be a popular suicide location. Hmmm, not very funny after all. So, now they have people monitoring the track. Having said that, you would think it would be easy enough to get to the track through a field without using the roads.

I don’t want to end on such a sad topic, so here is yet another flower picture that I took today during the ride.

Purple!

Categories: Flowers, Israel Tags: , ,

The Car Rental

We’ve been renting a car for the last couple of months and have been happy with the car and the rental company — no real problems…until yesterday.

In the afternoon, my wife didn’t leave to pick up my daughter from school. She didn’t leave because the car wouldn’t start.  The elementary school is only 10 minutes away by foot.  After trying to get the car started for 10 minutes, she finally left on foot.

We contacted the rental company and they tried to help us start the car over the phone. They asked the obvious questions, asked us to do this and to do that, and eventually came to the conclusion that the car really wouldn’t start.  They told us that a mechanic would be sent to resolve the problem.

About 30 or 40 minutes later, the mechanic arrived.  As you might expect, he didn’t speak English.  He fooled around with the car, poked here, fiddled there, and seemingly came to some conclusion. The nature of his conclusion remained a mystery for a while until he had the rather clever idea of calling someone at his company who could speak English. He explained the problem into his phone and then handed me the phone.

I was told that the problem must be with the LATECOT. LATECOT is a technical term that I’m pretty sure you don’t know. My confidence comes from the fact that I just made up the term since I don’t know what it is really called.  LATECOT is an acronym for the little anti-theft engine cut-off thingy.

To start the car, you first need to enter a 4-digit code into this little box (the LATECOT). If you enter the code properly, the LATECOT makes this “you win” sound and you’re allowed to start the engine.  If you don’t enter a code (or if you enter the wrong code), then the engine will start, run for a few seconds, and then shutdown.

I was told that someone from the LATECOT company would call us in about 10 minutes.  After 30 or 40 minutes, the call arrived.  The LATECOT technician asked me to reset (or perhaps disable) the box by following a sequence of timed steps with the ignition switch. When that failed, I was told that a mechanic would be sent to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the nearest mechanic could not come for 90 minutes.

I was annoyed and concerned at this point.  I was annoyed because our plans for the evening were now trashed. I was concerned because I was scheduled to take a trip the next morning to Jerusalem and I needed a functioning car! The local car rental company was already closed at this point, but the person at the LATECOT company gave me the contact information for someone named Hadar at the car rental company’s 24-hour facility.

I decided to call Hadar. I wanted to know what would happen if the LATECOT could not be fixed. Here’s the transcript of that conversation:

Hadar: שלימ (Hello)
Me: ? את מדברת אנגלית (Do you speak English?)
Hadar: לא (No)
Me: I need to talk with someone in English
Hadar: <click>

Great. The “I’m Concerned” light was now blinking red on my mental dashboard.

By the time the LATECOT mechanic arrived, it was already dark. He fiddled around for 15 minutes and finally got under the dashboard with some wire cutters.  After some targeted cutting, he demonstrated to me that the car could now be started. I noticed that he started the car without entering any codes. He then asked me if I could bring the car to his shop in the morning to have the problem fixed.

First of all, the answer was “no” because I needed to take a trip to Jerusalem in the morning. The answer was also “no” because I’m not accustomed to taking rental cars to the mechanic. He told me I should really get it fixed as soon as possible.

In addition to the blinking “I’m Concerned” light, there was now an alarm sounding in my head. I recently had a problem with the phone company. We had a disagreement about my mobile data plan. Somehow I didn’t have one and the bill for the first month was outrageous. They added the plan, but still expected me to pay the first bill. Since I was receiving SMS alerts from the phone company (in Hebrew) warning me about data usage, they figured I was properly warned. In the end, we decided to basically split the bill, but the experience taught me some lessons and I was now very concerned about not having a functioning LATECOT.

I called the LATECOT company again and they told me that if the car was stolen, I would probably be responsible for the loss since the LATECOT was broken. She also agreed to call the car rental company on my behalf and have an English-speaker contact me.

The car rental company did call me and they confirmed that a stolen car was now my responsibility since the LATECOT was not functioning. I was also told that I could have the car replaced. I could wait until the morning and bring it to a local shop or I could take it to their 24-hour facility at the airport.  The airport is about 30 minutes away.

That was a no-brainer: off to the airport.  Of course, there was traffic. My wife and I did manage to get the car replaced. As an added bonus, the new car is clean and free of sand.

We finally arrived home around 10:00 pm with the new rental car.

It only took 8 hours to get this problem resolved!

Categories: Israel Tags: ,
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