This is my 8th trip to Israel and I realize now that all the other times I’ve been here, I was on a tour bus, in a private car (with a private guide), flown in and out for business meetings by an old client of mine –or escorted by one or more of my Israeli family members. In each case, someone else was responsible for my health and well being…all I had to do was look, sit, get up and follow. This time, however, I’m dropped off most mornings at a train station 20 miles north of the city where my cousins live. I open my backpack for inspection by a young security guard before passing through the turnstile in search of a ticket booth, to wait for the electronic register to display the amount I owe for RT fare (so I know how many shekels to handover) from the “moshav” (parcels of farmland sold for suburban development to help support the remaining agriculture) to Tel-Aviv. I am on my own, solo, a guest in the Promised Land of ancient script and modern technology.
On my first trip into town, my cousin’s wife wrote the name of my destination (the middle of three main train stations in Tel-Aviv) on a piece of paper. I showed it to a woman waiting on the platform –and again to a guy I sat down next to on the train . . . just double checking to be sure I was heading in the right direction. I got off at the correct stop, followed the crowd out the wrong exit and spent the next hour and a half winding my way around and back to the center of Tel-Aviv, normally a 15-minute walk from where I got off the train.
I speak four languages but I don’t speak Hebrew. It is challenging enough to repeat the sounds of the Hebrew “alfabet” when they put the letters into words and the words into sentences. The sounds come up from their throats, nasal, gruff — and yet comically melodic to my Jewish American ear when they speak with each other … passionate, emotional . . . he inflection in their voices matching the movement of their eyes, their hands…As much as I’d love to mimic it, there are too many unfamiliar tongue twists for this linguist; my brain hasn’t yet been able to direct my mouth and throat together to form the right sounds.
I can’t read Hebrew either. It’s impossible for me to read words written in Hebraic script, which I guess they understand, so they use our alphabet in print to help us sound out their words. The tricky part is that the seemingly alpha words I read are not English translations of the Hebrew . . . they’re simply phonetic spellings using our letters. For example, the sign on the road that points to the train station, has “train station” written in Hebrew and Arabic characters (equally impossible to decipher) — underneath them, in smaller sized letters are the words: tahnat rakevet (which mean absolutely nothing to me – to you maybe??). They do not write t-r-a-i-n s-t-a-t-i-o-n. Don’t ask me why.
So I get lost. A lot.
Thinking it would help, I bought a map. But the only map I could find was an old map – and since Israel is a relatively young country, there are lots of new roads and buildings that aren’t on my map. Oh, and the names of the streets change too . . . if it’s a particularly long road, different sections have different names. After another frustrating day of walking 3 hours more than necessary just to wind up back where I started, I left my cousin’s wife a message on her cell phone in my voice with her accent: “this map is a map for our enemies, it’s so confusing… if we could sell this map to the Iranians, Tel-Aviv would be safe from invaders…”
There are buses but no bus maps. If I want to take a bus instead of walk (which could potentially shorten the amount of time it would take me to get back on track when I get off track), I have no way of finding out which bus goes where – unless I happen to know someone who knows — or I walk the route, see a bus and try to remember the bus number. Sure.
Still, most Israelis speak English and, being female and of sound mind, I’m not shy about asking for directions. I’ll stop anyone at any intersection . . . men, women, old, young . . . With my most humble “hum…help me?” expression. Unfortunately, I seem to have found more than a few know-it-alls who didn’t know at all –and my feet, tired and sore, are just not talking to me anymore.
But this is a country built on the backs of survivors, my people –and my survival is imperative. Before I head south to the Kibbutz in the desert, I am determined to find an easier way to get around the city streets…
I’m renting a bike.
For 75 Shekels (approx $20, helmet included), I can rent a bike with a basket from a shop just outside the train station, and peddle my way around town all day. January in Tel-Aviv is perfect biking weather — and there are bike paths throughout the City, mostly on the sidewalks, out of range of the crazy Israeli drivers. The bike paths are easily recognizable because they paint the same universal symbol on theirs as we do on ours. I can do this.
Veni Vidi Vici.
NOTE TO SELF: Cancel foot massage.