Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bye Bye Blogging :(

My laptop is dying. It has been having troubles since we got here. Now it's operating only minimally. I'm running purely on battery now. Yet another new thing to buy when we get home.

Anyway, I am posting this to let you know that unless Jeff can fix it (and I really doubt he, or anyone, can fix it), then I won't have a big chance to blog anymore until we get home. That goes for uploading photos onto flickr too.

So you'll just have to wait (on pins and needles, to be sure) until next month to hear about our trip to Turkey. And Egypt too, I guess, as I haven't got around to blogging about that either.

We still aren't sure when excatly we are coming home, but it will be the first week of April.

See you stateside!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Running out of Time!

Just wanted to check in to let you all know that we are alive and well and, well, busy!

We travelled to Egypt last week. We saw the pyramids and took in Tut and cruised down the Nile. We had a wonderful time and pictures and commentary are up on the Flickr account. Click the photo stream on the right to go to the site. I'll blog about it later, when I have more time.

Over the weekend we went to Jerusalem and Haifa. Visited various museum and the Western Wall and the Baha'i gardens.We hope to get a trip in to Masada and the Dead Sea before we leave in a little under three weeks, but there is a lot to do and see before we go.

In a few days, we are travelling to Istanbul, Turkey.

We are enjoying ourselves and creating great experiences and memories. But sometimes it feels like we are on the tv show Amazing Race. We speed from one country to the next devouring culture and history. And then home for a little while and then, bam, it's onto the next place, with yet another language and currency.

When Jeff and I normally travel, we are usually pretty easy going about the whole thing. We take an attitude of, "we'll be back." We are not in a rush. Things unfold organically and we come back having not only seen great sites, but also with a true feel of the place, and the people and their way of life. We plan our trips a few months in advance and check out travel books and read fiction about the region we're going to. Learn a little bit of the language. Usually it takes a long plane ride to get where we are going. And when we arrive, we arrive!

But the Great Pyramids of Giza were an hour and a half flight away! I barely picked up a travel book before we left. I was too busy recuperating from the last trip. And we are headed to Istanbul in just a few days, and I just opened the travel books yesterday. It takes about two hours to fly there from here. Two hours! My mom lives more than three times farther away from my home in Portland than I am from Turkey right now. This whole Middle East adventure has become an exercise in 'winging it'.

Maybe after I get back to Portland and take a good long nap, and really look over the more than two thousand pictures that I have taken on our four month vacation, I will be more appreciative and the scenes will settle into my psyche. But right now I am travelling too much. My visits to countries have taken on the persona of Daniel Day-Lewis' character Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, “I drink your MILKSHAKE. *SLURP* I drink it up!”

Saturday, February 14, 2009

We don't get fooled again!

"It is the worst thing for an Israeli to be, a freier in his own eyes and in the
eyes of other Israelis."
--Tom Segev, Israeli journalist and historian

There is an interesting and totally Israeli concept we discovered recently. And it explains a whole heck of a lot Israeli behavior. It seems like the essence of all Israelis, more than Zionism, is to never be a freier. What's a freier (also spelled fraier, frayer, frier)? It means sucker or chump or pushover.

It seems like the thing that Israelis fear most is being a freier, or even being perceived as being a freier. They don't like being taken advantage of or fooled, and they don't like being accused of doing it to someone else.

Thou shalt not be a freier

By Shahar Ilan

It doesn't just seem that the term freier (sucker), or more exactly - the abysmal fear of being a freier - is a completely Israeli matter. Several local researchers have investigated the Israeli institution of "the non-freier" in depth. One of them, Dr. Linda-Renee Bloch of Bar-Ilan University, explains that the term, which has Germanic roots, exists in other languages, including Russian, German, Polish and Romanian. But in some of them, its meaning is completely different. Even in other places where it describes someone whom others can easily fool, the concept of freier is not a cultural symbol like it is in Israel. Even the English word "sucker" doesn't play as central a role. During her research, Bloch collected more than 1,000 articles that mention being a freier. In the Haaretz newspaper alone, the word has appeared more than 1,000 times in the last decade.

Jeff was at lunch the other day with some co-workers who, in trying to edify him on the Israeli culture, explained the term freier to him. He told me that it was like a light bulb went off in his head. It's an Ah-Ha! moment, to be sure. Jeff told me about this concept, and I have been thinking about it non-stop. I am reminded of a lot of our dealings with Israelis. I don't want to label an entire nation, but the concept of not being a freier explains a whole lot of the reasons why Israeli behave the way that they do.

Simple things like why do Israelis rush onto an elevator on the ground floor instead of letting the others out? Why do Israelis take up two lanes in traffic and merge incessantly? Why do Israelis crowd to get on a plane or a theater even though there are assigned seats? Why are there no lines in Israel, just a mob of people in front of a door? Why do they bring a cart full of groceries into the express aisle? Why are Israelis so confrontational? I had read in other places that Israelis are rude. I had been told that Israelis are pushy. Israelis are none of these things. Israelis just refuse to be seen as a freier. Ah-ha!

After talks with Palestinians broke down yet again, then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu proudly told Israeli journalists: "I am no freier! We are not suckers," he said. "Israel cannot give and give and not get anything back in return." Even now, talks are being held up because current PM Olmert says that there will be no deal unless Israel gets back the sole POW/hostage that Hamas had captured. One soldier, Gilad Shalit, captured two and a half years ago, is holding up peace talks. I found a t-shirt that read: Shalom Ken Frier Lo! Shalom=peace. Ken=yes. Frier=sucker. Lo=no. "Peace, yes. Frier, no!"

But even in everyday life, I see this behavior everywhere. Once I scrutinized a restaurant bill for a minute too long. The server rushed over to aid me. In broken English she went on and on trying to explain the charges, long after I had handed her a credit card. I said "it's ok, it's ok, I pay now." But she wanted to explain, so she got out her cell phone and called a friend for a translation. The extra charge was tax. She went to big lengths to explain because she didn't want me to feel like I was a freier.

Yesterday, there was a huge traffic jam on the freeway due to an accident and weekend traffic. Jeff, who is in essence an Israeli driver now, forced his way from the on-ramp into the incoming traffic. This is the way Israelis drive; they force themselves in. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the same car that Jeff 'cut off' was forcing his way back into traffic! The guy had maneuvered his way from behind our car to the oncoming lane again, just so that he could cut our car off. So Israeli! He didn't want to be seen as a freier.

I heard it explained like this: In America, a sucker is someone who buys a stereo out of the back of some guy's van in a parking lot. In Israel, a freier is someone who doesn't know about the guy with the van in the parking lot and instead goes and buys his stereo in a store.

Think of Israel this way, "the Jewish people have been freiers for 2000 years and they'll be damned if they're going to let it happen again. The thing is, this is sometimes taken to extremes. Some think that obeying the law (particularly when no one is watching) makes you a freier - paying parking tickets, obeying traffic laws or paying taxes can be a freier's hallmark. " -- from This American Life

It seems like being a freier applies to most everything. Rules especially. A freier follows the rules. And everyone knows that those who follow the rules are suckers. Those who get ahead in Israeli society know how to bend the rules to fit their own goals. I am not sure if that's why there are corrupt politicians here (there are corrupt politicians everywhere). But I know there is a whole lot of illegal parking!

I am now convinced that Israelis are not cheap. I don't think they haggle neccessarily to save money. I think they haggle (both sides, the seller and the consumer) because they do not want to be taken as a freier. Once when I was in the process of being short-changed at the shuk, the guy who was trying to cheat me smiled broadly and gave me back my correct change and an extra piece of bread. I think he was giving me his approval, "She may be an American, but she is no freier!"

Anyway, if you think about it, it's quite a big conundrum. Here you have a society where in almost every situation absolutely no one wants to be seen as a freier. Unstoppable force vs. immovable object. But compromises happen. People argue/negotiate. Things eventually get done. To me, though, it all seems like such a big waste of energy.

Here's some one's great blog post of being taken as a freier in a supermarket: http://bogieworks.blogs.com/treppenwitz/2007/10/waste-my-time-s.html

Another about not being a driving freier: http://zabaj.com/2007/08/15/udi-manyaks-guide-to-not-being-a-frier-tip-25-driving-etiquitte/

Finally, what torah.org has to say about kindness: http://www.torah.org/features/spirfocus/kindness.html#

Monday, February 9, 2009

Election Day!

Tomorrow is Election Day here in Israel. While the country will effectively have a new president, they are actually voting for a party, not a candidate.

This top office is not called president, it's called Prime Minister, who is the head of the party that has the most seats in the Knesset (the Israeli senate basically, though there is no house of representatives). Israel has a president, Shimon Peres, but it's more of a ceremonial role. The Prime Minister must reach an accord between all of the many parties in Israel's coalition-style government.

So while there are maybe a dozen or more political parties, there are three front-running parties in the country. They are Kadima, Likud and Labor. Kadima and Likud are very close.

Kadima= Benjamin Netanyahu, former Prime Minister
Likud=Tzipi Livni (a woman!), Minister of Foreign Affairs
Labor= Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister, current Minister of Defense
(also, the spoiler party, on the very hard right is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party)

So when people go out to vote, they are voting for a list of candidates for each party. The party with the most votes gets to have their leader be Prime Minister. But since there are so many parties, the vote is split, and in order to get a majority, one of the front-running Prime Minister candidates needs to get the support of other parties to boost its numbers. The other parties are represented in the Knesset according to the share of votes they received. This election is kinda special, though, because the current Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert of Kadima, is resigning due to an investigation into corruption in his office. Though Livni won the September election, she was unable to form a government. So now there is a full-on election.
As you know, Israel has what one might call "instant citizenship". You come to Israel as a Jew and you can become a citizen if you like. That means that there are thousands of people voting in this election that are new citizens, many of them from Russia, many of them lacking basic Hebrew, and many of them haven't been here very long. If the current polls are any indication, a whole heck of a lot of these votes will go to the very hard right candidate Lieberman. One story I read quoted a rabbi saying that a vote for Lieberman is a vote for the devil. Why? He is so far right that it will surely bring up an uprising of the Arab community.
Also to the right, and currently the front-runner by a hair is Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi owes Hamas a debt of gratutide, because if it weren't for their incessant shelling and the susequent war, the country wouldn't be right as it is right now. Bibi will send Israel into war again, to be sure.
Livni, by comparison and though Defense Minister, is a moderate. She is 50 and has had a comparatively short political career. She was protege, kind of, of Ariel Sharon, who promoted her from within while he was Prime Minister. She seems to have the youth vote, which is sick of political corruption. Perhaps she is courting it: it was reported that she took over the DJ booth at a Tel Aviv night club over the weekend, giving a speech and then playing nationalistic songs.
Though the race is close between Livni and Bibi, with Bibi having a slight lead, the 'undecideds' are at 30% here. That's huge. When J and I went out to dinner and drinks that other night, I took an informal (and quite lubricated) poll of the people around us. Everyone hated all of the candidates, and was choosing the 'lesser of two evils'. Half of the people I talked to weren't going to vote, or said that the would make up their minds when they got to the polls. the other half were voting for Livni. When I asked the follow-up, "who do you think will win?" everyone, without a fault, said Netanyahu.
Hamas rockets are still dropping on Israel today, a day before the election, so it's no wonder that Netanyahu has an edge. Not to play the gender card, but in times of war, could a male-dominated society like this one actually vote for a woman? Even a woman who has been Defense Minister for years, and who once worked intellegence for Mossad? I don't want to be cynical, but I don't think so.
Back to Lieberman and how he plays in all of this. Here's some analysis that I read this morning in Haaretz: "Even if Kadima gets one or two more seats in the Knesset than Likud, Netanyahu, together with other right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties, will be substantially larger than the center-left bloc. And even if Lieberman joins Livni. she needs another right-wing party to form a government, because Meretz and the Arab parties won't support a government that includes Lieberman. Livni's bloc, which today stands at about 52 or 53 seats, will lose 12 or 13 spots the moment she goes with Lieberman." So Lieberman, while not having enough votes to win, could end up being a king- (or queen-) maker.
Up until the war ended, you wouldn't know that there was an election coming up. There were some billboards and ads, but not the amount that we have seen the past couple of weeks. The press seems to have covered the candidate equally.
I am not sure who is going to win. I like Livni because she was the candidate I saw most during the war coverage. She is tough and well-spoken and has this no-bull demeanor. It's not really clear what will happen if either candidate wins, either. But, once again, it's an exciting time to be in this country.
-----> Coming up in Bitai Avon: If all goes as planned, we are heading to Egypt next weekend. Also be on the lookout for a Purim report (it's the Jewish Halloween).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tu Bishvat

You've gotta love this country...they have special food for almost every holiday. A lesser holiday, but still one to celebrate with sweets, is Tu Bishvat; it's kinda like Jewish Arbor Day.

It's not an official holiday, no one takes off of work or anything, but school children celebrate, and there are programs in the country. There's a national program aimed at planting trees and kids have a little break during school and eat dried fruits and nuts. From torah.org (which answers all of our Jewish questions):

Tu B'Shvat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. The Torah states that fruit from trees which were grown in the land of Israel may not be eaten during the first three years; the fourth year's fruit is for G-d, and after that, the fruit can be eaten. Each tree is considered to have aged one year as of Tu B'Shvat, no matter when in the year it was planted. It is customary to plant trees and partake of the fruits of the land of Israel to mark the occasion.

Jewish tradition posits that time is both linear (we are progressing) and circular (that each time of the year has a spiritual similarity to the same point in the other years). And so, just like a place can be holy, a particular time, being simply another dimension, can be holy. Just like a place can have a certain attribute, a particular time can have a certain attribute.

To put it in larger terms, Jewish holidays are _not_ a re-enactment of an event, or simply a memorial or remembrance of an event, but rather it celebrates an appropriate time for a particular aspect of human growth.

So the holiday used to have more of a practical purpose (determining tithes) rather than a fun one (trees are great and lets eat almonds). Now, the newspapers have huge special supplements advertising all the activities, and it's a day for people to visit the kibbutz and plant a tree. It *is* somewhat ironic that these special supplements in the newspapers are quite thick... But back to the holiday, it seems to have become very secular and more of an Earth Day kind of thing than anything remotely spiritual.

But I digress, I did mention cookies, didn't I! Seeing as almond trees are the first ones to bloom, their fruit (or nut, rather) takes center stage on Tu Bishvat. Almond cookies, and cookies stuffed with dried fruit are now all over the place. An article tells me that almonds are mentioned nine times in the bible. It says that almonds are one of the earliest cultivated foods in Israel. Almond in Hebrew is shaked, and the word actually means "wakeful hastening" in reference to it's impatient blossoms. The almond cookies that you get here are exactly like the ones you get in Chinese restaurants, but chewier.

So happy Tu Bishvat. I'm off to the bakery!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Here we go!

I have to explain why we both look so tired and terrible in this picture. It's 3 a.m.! The game started at 1:30 and we went to bed at 5. Here's the story.

After asking everyone all over for a place that might be showing the game, we just happen to walk past an Irish Pub two blocks from our hotel that had a sign outside advertising the game! It's amazing what you find when you take the wrong way back. The place was just perfect for watching the game. Lots of big tvs, and good beer, and they served a free buffet at half time.

So we took a nap from like 9pm until 12:30 or so and then got up and heading out to the pub. The place was crowded but we managed to get seats. On either side of us were groups of American exchange students. And holding court in another corner of the bar was a rabid Steeler fan, an American who has been living in Athens for 14 years, running a Mexican restaurant. Everyone tells everyone what town they are from, and where they went to college, and we all talk about how long it's been since we have been home.

It sounds corny, but I got very homesick during the national anthem. Not because it was the national anthem, but because it was quiet and I was in a bar surrounded by Steeler fans. This is a constant no matter where we have lived. There is always a Steeler bar, and there are always Steeler fans. Even in Athens. I wished the tables next to me weren't filled with exchange students, but my friends. You don't really miss home when you are taking on new adventures, but a slice of the familiar will make you well up. Or maybe it's because it's because it's one in the morning. I get weepy when sleepy.

But the game was so tense it was definitely keeping us awake. There were so many highs and lows, and we were sitting on the edge of our seats most of the time. Towards the end of the first quarter, we notice that there are some Cardinals fans in the house too, as they begin ratcheting up their score. And then, at the very end, our team won! After four hours sitting next to strangers, we were all high-fiving each other.

The night manager let us into the hotel and said, "your team won!" Our team won!


Never on Sunday

From the moment we stepped on the plane to the tune of piped-in bouzouki music, we knew we were taking off for some place very different from any place that we had been to before. We had 8 days in Greece, which is not a lot for this country, and we were going to make the most of it.

It's winter in Greece, so our plan was to skip the islands, all of them, and instead concentrate on sites close to Athens and the Peloponnese. We decided to rent a car and tour around the country, seeing as J. has the chops now to drive almost anywhere. We would hit the Peloponnese first, then drive to Delphi and finish up our stay in Athens.

We took a very early morning flight into Athens and through much trial and tribulation got the car and set off. Armed with just a couple of simple maps, we made it to the ancient site of Epidaurus. We met a curious couple on the way in (an older gentleman and his young companion...shades of ancient Greece?), but otherwise, we were the only ones there.

Allow me a digression. As I mentioned, it is winter in Greece, but all of the sites we visited were deserted. We were often the only ones staying at the smaller inns. We had all of ancient Greece to ourselves. There are troubles in all of the countries that we want to visit, but Greece seemed to be doing better since the huge riots of December (tens of thousands of people protested the police killing of a man then). I had read of some problems with the farmers of Greece the week before our trip, but thought it was the typical gas crunch issue. When we rented our car, the agent told us that up until a few hours earlier, the main roadways in and out of Greece had been blockaded by farmers. http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Farmers-Protest-In-Greece-Over-Agriculture-Prices-Causes-Fuel-Shortages-Through-Road-Blockades/Article/200901415211127?f=rss

He assured us that the route we wanted to take in and out of the Peloponnese was open now, but to keep a watch on the news. We entered through Corinth and then drove the seaside length of the Peloponnese to exit over the new Rio-Antirio bridge (which was so modern and sci-fi looking) to get to Delphi.

Back to Epidaurus. We were the only ones there. It was a little spooky at first, but after while it got to be fun. No one was around and we had the huge site to ourselves. The main attraction at Epidaurus is the Theatre. Set into a beautiful rolling hillside, the Theatre seemed to me to have perfect proportions. I had read in a book that from the very top row, you could hear a person rustle a piece of paper on the stage. J. went to the top to test it out. The acoustics are not quite that perfect, but the sound of one's voice resonating back from all that marble is quite simply the best karaoke machine in the world. We took turns singing, and then harmonizing from the stage, turning our heads every once in a while to make sure we were the only ones there.

We drove into the tiny town of 'modern' Epidaurus for lunch. We were starving, so we just went into the first place we saw with people. Those people happened to be a half dozen or so scruffy old Greek men sipping wine and ouzo, flipping their worry beads and lounging over the dregs of their lunch. We sat down and were greeted by a fat and happy old lady who brought us beers and told us the menu: 'fish or lamb' was all she said. We'll have one of each. Both were absolutely fantastic. The fish was a whole fish, unidentifiable by me, which had been liberally season with salt and then fried. The skin had become so salty and crisp, it was good by itself. I pointed at it and asked the lady, "what is this?" "Fish." The tender lamb was served in a rich curry-like stew with carrots and potatoes. We sopped up the broth with bread. So a whole fish, a big bowl of stew, basket of bread, a big platter of thinly sliced fried potato chips, a huge salad and two half liters of beer...less than $20! Our trip was off to a great start.

We drove through miles of olive trees and ended up in our stopping place for the night, the charming village of Nafplio. "Legend has it that Nauplios, grandson of the sea god Poseidon, founded the city. Nauplion passed from the Byzantines to the Franks in 1247, then to the Venetians, who fortified the city and Bourdzi Island. Turkish forces occupied the region in 1540..." Then it was recaptured by the Venetians and then went back to the Turks, etc. The old town where we stayed is a tiny little peninsula with a dozen streets and one heck of a beautiful sunset. There is the island fortification (Bourdzi) and a hilltop fortress called Palamidi (from the second Venetian occupation).

The old town was built for wandering, eating, drinking and shopping. And that is what we did. Dinner was forgettable, but for one thing: the first (and last) time I tasted retsina. Retsina is a white or blush wine which has been aged in pine barrels. The nose, and unfortunately the taste, are all of pine resin. I woke up with a very bad headache the next day, and only after a couple of glasses of the stuff. I guess you have to try everything, even that which is bad.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up the car and headed for Mycenae. This is also another site where we saw only one other couple. Another 'according to legend' story: Mycenae was founded by Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae who supposedly erected the city's massive stone walls with the help of Cyclops (yes, those Cylcops). The man who unearthed Mycenae claimed that he had found the grave of Agamemnon (though that was believed for a time, it was later discovered that these ruins were too old). But the really aren't new at all. They could be the oldest rocks I have ever seen. 16C BC. That's old.

You enter the site through a massive gate topped by two now headless lions. Immediately on the right after you enter are the double walled circular burial tombs. They are just so curious looking, almost alien-looking, ringed by these headstone-like rocks. Further up through the site are the remains of a palace and ramparts, but it's the graves that make this site interesting.

I guess it's the graves that give us almost all of the objects we see in the museums. Had people not been buried with this all this stuff, it would not have survived.

Anyway, back in the car and heading for the long drive to Delphi. Half of the drive is along the coast of the Peloponnese, which is beautiful. Then you cross over the bridge (we could have taken a ferry, but decided on the bridge) to the other side and it is almost mountainous. Very different landscapes. We drove alongside the mainland mountains for an hour and a half and then come upon a vast plane of olive trees. But as you drive the miles and miles through them, you begin to climb up a hill. Up and up and up the signs point to Delphi. Looking down you can see that there must be thousands of olive trees in the valley. They extend almost to the ocean, and that's what you see: a vast swath of green and then the very blue sea. It's breathtaking.

We walked through the little town of Delphi which seems to exist for tourists who aren't there. We found a restaurant and sat by the window and watched the sea and the olive trees until the sun went down. The wine tonight is much better than last night's retsina! We wandered around town until we find a semi-full restaurant. They must all be locals who live further up the hill. The place smells of wood smoke, so I know what I am ordering...meat, grilled meat. I get lamb and J. gets something unidentifiable (both are very good). From the edge of my seat I can see the kitchen. There is no chef, really, he is more of a butcher. He has a massive cleaver, and he cuts every dish to order. I see an order of lamb chops go through. A thundering and confident whack cleaves another chop off the big cage, and then he hammers it with the side of his blade to flatten it. A little seasoning, onto the grill it goes. Another fantastic meal, also very cheap.

It is raining and cold in the morning and we bundle up and lumber out to see Ancient Delphi. The story is better than the site: Delphi was founded by Zeus, and by the 2C it was a holy place dedicated to the Goddess Gaia and her daughter Thermis, who as the story goes was guarded by her son, the snake Python. "A hymn attributed to Homer tells how the god Apollo in 750 BC killed the Python and took his place, giving oracles through a priestess known as the Pythia (later called the Delphic Sibyl). The priestess (always a woman over 50 whose life was beyond reproach) would go into the temple and enter a trance, delivering ambiguous replies. ...During it's hey-day Delphi attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek World, from Spain to the Black Sea."

Blah, blah, blah: there's a treasury, sacred way, theater, temple and museum. Perhaps it's the weather, or the fact that we locked our keys in the rental car that morning, but we are not digging Delphi. As the rain starts to come down, we decide to leave for Athens.

High in the mountains we pass through a couple of ski towns (which are packed with tourists) and then come upon a taverna. We are famished, lunch is served. The taverna overlooks a mountain, and though the menu is in English and the place seems kinda touristy, the food turnd out to be great. We order the plat du jour, menu del dia, blue plate special and end up with a very filling and wonderful three course lunch. It starts with salads and snacks that include kebabs and stuffed cabbage, then onto a huge wood fired half of a chicken (for me) and then finally, some kind of apple strudel/pie thing with a thick cream anglais-style topping. I fall asleep in the car and Jeff wakes me when we get close to Athens.

It's a long day when we finally get to our hotel in Athens, the Ocher & Brown. It is plush and posh and the bed feels oh so good. I am too stuffed from lunch for dinner, so J heads out and gets a gyro. He loves it so much that we go back there in a couple of days.

The next day brings more rain, so after our included a three course breakfast, we head to the National Archaeological Museum. The museum houses the actual ruins of Mycenae, a huge collection of classical art, kouros, and most notably for me, Cycladic art.

Do me a favor and go to Google images and type in "cycladic art". I lack the capability to explain these pieces, but they are again, almost alien, and modern-looking, like Brancusi sculptures; though they are from 3000-2000BC. These sometimes faceless sculptural interpretations of the human figure are smooth and compact, with arms tucked close into the body. They have faces that look like the back of a shovel and totem-like bodies that are interpretation of human form, not the idealizes copies that you see in classic Greek sculpture. Like so much on this trip, Cycladic art is new to me, and a wonderful personal discovery.

You know what's cool? J. knows all of the ancient Greek myths. I am sure I took a class somewhere along the way, but I have long forgotten them. Though I am not sure if his knowledge is garnered by way of Graves, or Clash of the Titans, most of our trip has been comprised of him telling me stories. It's a lot of fun, being told stories, and he seemed to like telling them too.

The next day in Athens brings a lot of sun and the pinnacle of our trip, the Acropolis. The Acropolis is one of those places that I am almost afraid to see; one of those places that you have seen so many pictures of, you wonder if it can possibly compare to the images already lodged in your head.

Like most things in our travels, getting there is half the battle. The Acropolis sits on the top of seemingly the highest hill in the city, and you see it every time you turn a corner. So after climbing to the top, passing by yet another theater, you go through the grand Beule Gate. On the right is the Temple to Athena Nike and on the left is a massive pillar (atop which used to sit the Agrippa Monument). Though in a perpetual state of construction, this is all pretty impressive. And then you climb and come upon another gate, the impressive Propilea. Go through that and there is it. It sure is spectacular.

Much has been written about the Parthenon, about it's perfect proportions and intricate construction. I will say this, it's big and it's falling apart. It is undergoing massive renovations too. But I like it all tumbled down. Like your hair-do when you wake up on the morning after your wedding, or the table after a New Year's party: everything's all falling apart and somewhat smashed in places. But it still looks good, and you can see what used to be.

Also on the Acropolis is Porch of the Caryatids, see the photo at the top of this post, all of statues are copies. In the far corner of the Acropolis is a outcropping with a large Greek flag. Here's the story:

"When the Germans occupied Athens in WWII, the Evzone who guarded the Greek flag which flew from the Acropolis, was ordered by the Nazis to remove it. He calmly took it down, wrapped himself in it and jumped to his death.

The plaque by the flag commemorates Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, the two eighteen year-old heroes who tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. It is of particular interest because these names are known not only by Greeks, but by many Europeans, because this act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression was an inspiration to all subjected people."

We saw many more ruins and museums on our trip, so these are the highlights. As usual, if you want to see more pictures, they are posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sudssister/

Sunday, January 18, 2009


The following post has been submitted by guest blogger JP Ganong, who does all of the driving here in Israel. I am just too terrified to get behind the wheel.
It isn't easy to navigate Israeli cities. Most roads twist and turn and change names with little warning. There are signs with arrows indicating which way you should go if you want to go to some other street, but nothing to indicate how to continue on the one you're on. Worse, there are plenty of one-way streets so you can't retrace your path when you inevitably miss your turn. Then when you want to turn there are signs posted that no turns are permitted. I'm convinced that the second Lebanese War occurred when the IDF got into the wrong lane and couldn't turn around.

Israelis are championship lane changers. Even on the open road they alternate lanes as if they were walking across hot coals. They can squeeze into even the tiniest gaps. It's like parallel parking at 75 miles per hour.

You could probably drive in Israel if you were blind but not if you're deaf. Israelis completely ignore emergency vehicles with their flashing lights. It's as if they were at some sort of disco. I've even seen people speed past police cars. They only pay them any heed when they have their sirens on. And if you're deaf you can't hear the most commonly spoken language in Israel, the car horn.

The car horn is used for a variety of purposes. For example, a short urgent horn while changing lines means, "This lane is occupied." A medium, insistent honk at a light means, "The light has turned yellow for the other direction, you should start accelerating". Two honks and headlight flashing from behind means, "I want to drive a higher multiple of the speed limit." And a long, agonized honk from a parked car means, "Someone triple-parked where I was double-parked and now I'm boxed in." I have heard many other car horns and even regional dialects but it is difficult to translate with the phrasebook while dodging motorcycles. So far the only thing I can say in my rudimentary car horn is, "Please don't kill me". It sounds like kind of shrill squeak.

Israelis are more predictable than US drivers. You don't know whether a US driver will let you in or whether he will be a jerk and accelerate. All Israeli drivers just go. In Israel, if you decide to let someone in as you would in the U.S., they won't budge. The secret is to act momentarily distracted by the radio, or by a map or the collar of your shirt. Then the Israeli instincts will kick in and they will zoom ahead of you. You can try to honk and wave and eventually they'll get the idea but they won't take any pleasure in it and you'll hold up traffic.

Another thing to get to used to is motorcycles and scooters. Traffic laws do not apply to motorcycles and scooters. Newton's Laws do not apply to them either. Motorcycles go between lanes, along the shoulder, up the median, across the sidewalk and circle your car twice before leaving the driveway. Looking both ways when crossing the street is not sufficient. You have to look both ways, up, down, behind you, around the corner and under the bushes before you can be sure that no motorcycle is approaching. We had to lay strips of spikes to keep them out of the bedroom. At first I was really uneasy about motorcycles passing me on all sides at high speed and between buses But I take some consolation in the fact that if I ever am in an accident that two or three motorcyclists will soften the blow of the collision.

Taxi drivers have to work particularly hard in Israel to distinguish themselves as crazy drivers. They do this by straddling lanes for miles, picking up imaginary fares in tunnels and using their turn signal only when changing three or four lanes at once.

Despite all this, there seem to be remarkably few crashes in Israel. I think that this must be due to drivers expecting everyone to drive like a maniac. I have seen evidence of only one serious accident. The wreckage was almost like a Hollywood prop. It looked like the Death Star at the end of the movie. Like it had suffered a head-on collision. Several. It was as if the police had left it there as a deterrent to other drivers.

The accident report will surely reveal that the root cause was a car horn malfunction.

Monday, January 12, 2009

See it all...small.

Over the weekend we went to see Mini-Israel. It's replicas of all of Israel's attractions in miniature form. The buildings are nothing special. I mean, the real buildings are special, of course, this is the Holy Land. But the mini buildings are too small to impress. It's the teensy people the make this place cool. All of them are different. Or at the very least, a heck of a lot of them are different. Look at all of the little people in the pictures below. Everyone is wearing different clothing and stands in a unique position.

I didn't really notice that the people were different until we reached the Wailing Wall. You can't tell from the picture, but all of the people who are praying are unique. Above you can see people praying to Mecca. Their little backs are hinged! You press a button and they pray and go up and down. Looking at the Muslims, you think that they all are the same (because they move up and down at the same time) but get in closer and you will notice that they are all different, they are all wearing different clothes. At the Wailing Wall, all of the Jews are wearing the same clothes, but they move uniquely and are postured differently from one another.









Right about now, I am sure you're all thinking that I am now going to draw a picture of 'all of these different religions and cultures all living in one small area', or 'all of these unique individuals, everyone, at their core is human." But that isn't true. I guess that's why there is all of the fighting.

So no, I am going belabor the point of 'people are people' sharing a sacred area. Mini Israel, to me, is not really an accurate portrayal of the region. The problem here is that everyone lacks concern for the individual. If Mini Israel were an accurate representation of real Israel, then all of the Jewish faces would be the same and so would all of the Muslim. The real problem in this region is that the individual is not valuable, it's the whole that matters. Be it the Zionist's dream of a Jewish State or Hamas's human shields, both sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole.

But I will say this: if you look down on the Temple Mount (Mini version, of course), all of the areas seem exactly equal to me. It's like the architectural equivalent of my mother counting out the jelly beans in our Easter baskets...with four kids everything has to be even or there's fighting.

Back to the displays. There is a display of a kibbutz with farms and dairies and teensy animals, and a tiny speaker playing a tinny Jewish folk song. There is a tiny Ben Gurion Airport. Masada is big, though! There is a tiny Haifa, and a tiny Ceasarea with a tiny aqueduct and a tiny collesium. There is even a tiny version of the neighborhood I live in, and a tiny version of the street I walk the dog on.

I live in the Bauhaus neighborhood, for which Tel Aviv got it's Unesco World Heritage status as the White City. The architecture is Modernism, or what I like to call, "Boxy, but Good".

The street I live on is called Ahad Ha'am. Everyone knows it, it's a long street. But every time I try to say the street name, people have no idea what I am talking about. Cabbies give me a blank stare. I should preface this by saying that nearly everyone under the age of 40, and mostly everyone over that age, speaks English. As a result, and out of laziness and convenience, I have only bothered to learn very basic phrases in Hebrew. You know, "please", "thanks", and "I'll have another". But my pronunciation is horrible. In fact, when I am pronouncing things the correct Hebrew way, I feel like I am being offensive. Hebrew sounds like every terrible Yiddish characterization. It's very difficult for me to bring an "h" up from the back of my throat like I am going to spit. I feel like I am making fun of the language!

The Israeli newscasters on the English language channels speak with the Queen's lilt. Until they come to an "h", that is. One of them, a doppelganger for Julie Andrews, is the perfect Brit until she says the one word that's in all the news these days, "Hamas". Perhaps it's all of our disdain for the group, but even Mary Poppins spits at the camera when she says it! Hamas!

Anyway, as I was saying, I live on Ahad Ha'am. Try and say it while spitting the "h"-es. It's tough! Ahad Ha'am literally means "one of the people", and everyone points that out to me. It's also the pen name of a notable Zionist, Asher Ginsberg, who spoke of "a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews". His grave is in Tel Aviv. From Wikipedia:

Ahad Ha'am's ideas were popular at a very difficult time for Zionism, beginning after the failures of the first Aliya. His unique contribution was to emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, something that was recognized only belatedly, when it became part of the Zionist program after 1898. Theodore Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha'am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.

Ahad Ha'am's 'cultural Zionism' and his writings have been widely distorted however, or misunderstood and quoted out of context to imply that he thought Jews should not settle in the Land of Israel / Palestine, or that he thought it was impossible to ever establish a Jewish state.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bombs are dropping. Why are you shopping?

In Portland several years ago when the Gulf War first started, there were protests weekly in the city. It so happened that a throng of protesters were standing in front of what was then Macy's when I wanted to enter. They yelled, "bombs are dropping! Why are you shopping?!" I said, "I need socks."

War has come to Israel, but you sure wouldn't know it from the people that flock to the suburban stores to shop. Just a half hour outside of Tel Aviv is a big shopping area with an Ikea and a host of other 'big box' stores. In the photo above, people are lining up not because there is a big sale (well, actually there is a sale), but because of security. Security points like this one are are a way of life in Israel, even before the war. You go through a metal detector and your purse or bag is searched. When you enter a garage, they often open up your trunk. They are polite and fast and thorough. Israel has to do this, people want to kill them.

So we drove to the suburbs today, ostensibly to buy Jeff a proper pillow (no down for him, he needs foam), and ended up cruising the other major markets as well. Things are packed on a Friday morning, as most shops shutter for shabbat at 2 or 3pm. We went to Ikea, a Whole Foods like store called Tiv Tom, and another store which was kinda like Target with groceries but without all the designers and branding. Visiting museums and historical sites are all part of travel. But show me where a man shops, and I'll show you his soul!
Ikea is just like every other Ikea on the planet, except that they serve hummus in addition to meatballs in their cafeteria. And you can buy Absolut at the absolute cheapest price around. I was fearful of spending too much money, but I showed restraint and just bought what we needed: some glasses, a lamp, a some more hangers. And the pillow, which is the most expensive thing we bought today by far, about $40.
The Target-like store is fantastic. It has a
football-field length deli case with feta as far as the eye can see. We pick up a few things including some tasty halva and baklava for tonight's dessert. That's the halva lady on the right, there.
The Whole Foods-ish store, Tiv Tom, is quite posh. Their deli is selling sushi and they have a Sur la Table like housewares department. Prices reflect this. The have a sausage and cured meat station that is shaped like a big square, with a long line snaking around it. There are many samples and everything is so delicious. A whole other section is is devoted to 'bulk': dozens of pickles and salads, spices and spice mixes and bins of different tea blends. The descriptions are written in English, too! I buy several rice mixtures and some other seasoning blends. Prices are pretty good. You end up spending about $1.50 for a pint-sized container of mix. I love tasting before you buy. Things are unfamiliar to me and expensive here. I am much more likely to take a chance and buy something if I can taste it first.
The title of this post is, "Bomb are dropping", so I'd better deal with that. Even though there are a lot of people shopping and carrying on with their lives, it is by no means business as usual around here. The animosity towards Israel in the international media is especially troubling. I don't want to wage an un-winable war of words with anyone, but if you are not living here you can't possibly understand the need for Israel to continue defending itself.
I want to clarify a few things and give the whole picture. First and foremost, Hamas (the 'political' party that runs the region) is a terrorist organization funded by Iran (among others), which has been bombing Israel for years. Before we decided to move here, we researched the region and read about the many bombings that had been happening in and around where Jeff works. A shopping mall in one area we were interested in living in, Ahskelon, had been bombed by Hamas in May. Intel would not longer allows its ex-pats to live there. The bombing from Hamas has been going on for a long time, and the international reports that say that Israel initially broke the cease-fire are ridiculous.
There is no international media inside Gaza, there is only Al-Jazeera. It's a whole 'nother argument why Israel is not letting international media inside the area. But the pictures, video and indeed many of the statistics (especially those about civilian casualties) that the international media are getting are from Al-Jazeera. The old adage is true is that if it bleeds, it leads. Hamas is bleeding, so the international media could care less about the just motives of Israel. One friend argued with me that I might only be seeing one side of the story. I am obsessed with the war. I mean, I live here, it's only fitting that I would read endlessly about it. I get almost all of the international tv news and read two newspapers a day in addition to reading all of the internet sites (NYTimes, et al). It isn't me that's only getting one side of the story.
I could go on and on about the atrocities that Hamas has committed against the country, but there is just one simple point that I need to make. Hamas has openly declared that its goal is not to just eradicate Israel, but all Jews. It is not just their political goal, but their sacred religious goal.
Jeff sees the victims of Hamas' reign of terror every day at work. If we had decided differently on where to live in the country, I would be sending you these updates from inside a bomb shelter. The sad fact is that a lot of Jeff's co-workers live in the strike zone and are constantly hearing the sirens warning them to get to a bomb shelter. The siren goes off and you need to get yourself and your children to a bomb shelter within a minute. No matter what time of day it is, no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing, you have a minute to get to a safe place. Can you imagine what that does to a child day after day? More Israelis aren't killed because they *do* have this sophisticated warning system and bomb shelters, but the schools have closed and life is far from normal for them. And Hamas has been bombing Israel for years!

Israel may be losing the PR battle but the important thing is that it is continuing to protect its people, regardless of the pressure of the world community. And right now, I am one of its people. Hamas is bombing 45 miles from where I live, and 12 miles from where my husband works. Hamas has frequently used suicide bombers. So yes, you can be sure that I want Israel to keep fighting until there is a regime change in that region, or until Hamas is no longer able to send missiles into the country.
I have received and responded to all of my friends' and family's e-mails about us being safe. Yes, yes we are safe! Do not worry, I tell you all, we are safe! But over a million people, hundreds of thousands of them children, are not. And Israel must be allowed to protect and defend them.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Match me such a marvel
save in Eastern clime

A rose red city
half as old as time...

It is not easy to discover Petra. Each and every step of the way, from crossing the border into Jordan to fully exploring the site, is difficult. But as people coming down from El Deir told us as were scaling the mountain, "it is worth it."

First, some background for the uninformed. Petra is a 2000 year-old city carved into mountains by the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab tribe. The Nabataeans were, "masters of the region's trade routes, levying tolls, protecting caravans laden with Arabian frankincense and myrrh, Indian spices and silks, African ivory and animal hides." And Petra was on a trade route.

Petra seems to me to be shaped like a watering can, and the only way in is through the spout. The spout, in this case, is called the Siq. The Siq is a narrow and nearly mile-long canyon, carved by wind and sand. It's a natural defense. To me it is the Siq and the rest of the impenetrable natural surroundings that make the buildings of Petra so spectacular.

Like I said before, you have to work to get here, and it ain't easy. After waiting in line for a hour to cross the border, you take a two hour drive to get to the town of Wadi Mousa. You do this the day before so that you can see Petra in the morning, when the light is the best. Wadi is the Arabic word for valley and Mousa means Moses. The town is named for the perennial spring, the Ain Mousa which according to the bible is where Moses struck a stone with his staff and "water will come out of it for the people to drink". The water itself, which still spews forth, is the reason the Petra is here in the first place. It's a desert. Any city will sprout up around water in a desert. The Nabataeans channeled this water through crude aqueducts in the Siq and through the city.

So you walk a half mile from the entrance of Petra to get to the Siq. The Siq is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. As you can see from the photo above, it's a narrow and winding slot into the city. You walk along, looking at all of the beautiful rock formations and the color of the stones and then suddenly you turn a corner and there is the Treasury. It's a couple of stories high and carved into the mountain. The word Petra, in Greek, means "rock", and it's fitting given that all of the buildings are carved into sheer rock.

It's not actually a treasury, it's a tomb. All of the building's names are the same original names used by the Bedouin and the Swiss explorer who discovered the site to the Western world. Anyway, the Treasury is huge and this beautiful rose color in the morning light. When we went back in the evening, the color was a dustier darker red, so if you go, go in the morning. The building is this hodge-podge of architectural styles: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. The rooms are carved out of the stone mountain as well, though they are plainer than the facade.

In all of the photos of Petra's buildings you get this idea that they are all in one central region. And while that is true for the most part, it is really a city, with different parts to it like any city. And it is spread over a lot of land. We hiked for nine hours and still didn't see anything other than the main buildings. Also it's exhausting to see the site on foot, as you are hiking over rocks and trudging through sand. Some people used the camels and donkeys that the Bedouin are constantly proffering, but we had little cash and were kind of stubborn, so we hiked.

Around the corner a ways and over the hill from the Treasury are a series of buildings called the Royal Tombs (which, I think, were actually tombs). They sit all in a row, and are all very different. They are huge and it takes an hour to explore them. The one at the right is called the Palace Tomb. (kinda looks like a palace, doesn't it?). There are several others, including the Urn Tomb (whose actual urn is kinda small) and the Silk Tomb (named as much because it's walls look like washed silk). Allow about an hour and a half to visit this area.

Though all of the tombs are weathered, they still have very sharp architectural details that stand out. I can't imagine these being tombs though. Why all the rooms?

Back down the hill from the Royal Tombs is a Theater and a Colonnaded street, both of which look very Roman to me. The Romans did take over the Nabataeans, and I know that they enlarged the Theater...I need to do some more reading. Anyway, the Theater is also carved from the solid rock wall. It originally sat 3000 people, but the Romans carved into existing tombs (see the rooms in the back) so that it sat 7000. I did read that the tombs had been covered with masonry originally, so the Romans weren't too unkind to the dead. You can barely see it in this picture, but a wall was also constructed around the stage (the side facing the Colonnaded street). I am thinking this is to insure that everyone who wanted to see the play had to pay! On either side of the Theater are two vaulted passage-ways. I need to remind everyone that this is carved out of solid rock! Yes, there are bricks here and there, but the passage-ways, the seats...all carved out of the mountain!

So the Theater is kind of at the top of the Colonnaded street and at the very end of the street is the what was the main temple of Petra, the Qasr al-Bint. It's the only free-standing building in the city to have survived the earthquakes and floods that have hit the area over the centuries.

Jeff and I decide to skip lunch and "do" the Monastery, or El Deir. I am glad I brought water. I read in a book that there were 800 steps leading up to it. I asked Jeff how many there were to the top of Notre Dame (which we visited in the Spring). "Oh, about 300." Okay, so at least two Notre Dames high, I think I can handle that! I mean, we've scaled the Great Wall, how hard could this be? It took us more than an hour to climb up the mountain. I must have stopped to rest 50 times. Yes, it was hard, very hard. And those "steps", uh, only in the loosest terms would them be called steps! They were boulders, not steps. It was a very steep, uneven and treacherous, and littered with donkey poo. I did feel smug as I lumbered past some 20 year-olds (and I recognised their coughs as being those of a smoker...thank God I quit)! We finally get to the top. As you can see it looks a lot like the Treasury, but it is much, much bigger. Maybe it's the climb up to it, but it seems to me to be the biggest building in the city. For being at the top of a mountain, the facade is incredibly well-preserved. No one knows whether this was a tomb or a temple. I can't believe that some people travel all this way to see Petra and never see anything more than the Treasury.
We are at just the right age to be tavelling. Not so young as to be broke or uninterested. Not so old as to be physically unable to handle the journey. Not so middle-aged as to be weighed down with life commitments. This may not be the right time to be in this place (the Middle East), but it seems like it's come at a great time for us.

I could write a thousand more words about Petra, post a hundred more photos and it couldn't come close to conveying the wonder of the place. For me it's become one of those three or four things that you need to see in order to know. It's one of those places that you need to experience.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Happy New Year!

For New Year's we decided to drive to Eilat, at the Southernmost tip of the country, spend a couple of days there and then head over to Petra in Jordan. So we packed up the car, dropped off the dog and headed south through the desert.

Two major highways run the length of the country, one goes through the desert in the center and the other snakes alongside the Dead Sea along the border with Jordan. We decided to take the "scenic" route on the way down, even though it took us through Be'er Sheba (the site of some bombings). More than half of Israel is made up of the Negev Desert, and this might be our only trip south, so we wanted to see it. The highway that takes you through the Negev is windy and very scenic. We drove for desert for at least four hours. It was quite a spectacle. Just nothing for miles but deep craters and moonscape-like canyons of desert.

We drove through Mitzpe Ramon, the location of a huge 28 mile-long crater, and Israel's largest national park. The highway descends steeply through its five mile span. It was thrilling and precarious, a great drive!

After five hours, we finally we arrived in Eilat! No wonder most people prefer to fly here!

For New Year's Eve, we decide to take the easy route of going to the dinner that our posh hotel is throwing. The menu looked great, and the stumble back to our rooms would be short. The only problem is that neither Jeff nor myself planned on going anywhere fancy. After deciding that no, my beach cover-up would not work as a dress, I put the one sweater that I brought and lipstick. Jeff wears his sneakers. The dining room is filled with either very elegantly dressed Jewish people on holiday, or tacky tables of Russians.

The night is like the weirdest wedding that I have ever been to, and it went on and on for 6 hours. Playing is a huge band of black Jews from America who sing a range of songs as varied as the crowd. The song list includes Islands in the Stream, Hello Dolly and selections from Depeche Mode.

There are a trio of Norwegians at our table, two of which speak English. We wait for an hour for food and by the time it comes, I have already probably consumed approximately two bottles of Yarden Chardonnay. Please let them bring food soon, I think. Jeff comments on the evening as being, "the strangest cultural juxtaposition as was ever found on the deepest, darkest shelf of Goodwill bric-a-brac." I think he has had some chardonnay too!

The food starts coming out and it is very, very good. I don't mean good, as in, "this is good for a hotel who is serving 500 people," but good as in, "wow, who's the chef?" There are maybe 8 courses served, and in between each, the band plays a few songs and more wine is consumed. A long night. The most memorable of the dishes was a starter that was a sliced torchon of foie gras with a sweet and tangy fig compote. The fish course was also great. It was a fillet of the local specialty called Dennis, wrapped around asparagus spears. We were also served lamb chops and fillet mignon. I was pleasantly surprised the food was as well-prepared as it was. It's very hard to turn to out dinner for that many and have it come out hot let alone tasty.

We love the band. The lead singer looks like one of the Commodores. He says something pithy about the war, and then scats What a Wonderful World. The band is the highlight of the evening, and they all wearing matching suits and dresses. I am momentarily blinded by sequins caught in the lights. Fueled by the bottles of vodka at their tables, the Russians are dancing. Everyone is dancing. Strapless dresses and yarmulkes and fur coats are flying. And I think to myself, after a certain age you really shouldn't wear satin. The band plays a Banana Boat version of Graceland and the lead singer shouts, "feel free, feel cool about yourself." And suddenly, we are imitating the band's moves and dancing with the rest of the crowd. Jeff is in a conga line and I get dragged in too. And the band plays It's Raining Men and I stop and look around at this varied group of people dancing: the Russian trophy wives with fake boobs and plastic faces and dresses, and older Jewish couples with ropes of pearls around their necks, and a trio of Norwegians and two Americans in sneakers. I laugh out loud. We all go out and watch the fireworks and come back in and drink some more champagne. I am falling asleep at the table when they serve dessert and too full to eat it. We head back to our room and I say to Jeff, "that was one of the best birthdays on record."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Jerusalem Syndrome

Jerusalem Syndrome.

"Reports of visitors to Jerusalem being seized by a religious psychosis date back to the Middle Ages. In the 1930s, Israeli psychiatrists formally described the condition in which tourists assume the persona of a Biblical character and make strange pronouncements at a holy site. (In one 1969 case, an Australian tourist set fire to a local mosque, sparking a citywide riot and a 1998 film of the same name.) An article in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000 noted that 1,200 patients had been referred to a central mental facility with the disorder between 1980 and 1993. Some had previous mental disorders; others seemed quite sane before and later resumed normal lives. The authors warned tour guides to be alert for the disorder's seven characteristic stages: Sufferers appear agitated; seek to leave the group to tour Jerusalem alone; become obsessed with purity and cleanliness; prepare a toga-like gown "often with the aid of hotel bed linen"; shout Bible verses, then march to a holy site and deliver a confused sermon that often appeals to humankind to adopt a more moral way of life."