During the week of May 1-5 I lived on Kibbutz Givat Brenner in Rehovot, Israel, and spent a little time seeing the sights in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For more detail see my previous write-ups about the trip.
While I travel I keep note of "tidbits," little bits of information that I think are particularly amusing or unusual.
Blending in as an American
"Try to blend in," say travel agents and travelers to Americans planning to travel abroad. I was told this when I went to Japan four years ago and it didn't work out too well. In Israel, though, I was mistaken for a local on more than one occasion: someone would ask me a question in Hebrew and I'd have to apologize that I couldn't understand it. On my first train ride into Tel Aviv, one poor gentleman asked the three people around him a question -- and none of them spoke Hebrew. Still I felt out of place not knowing the main language.
Elsewhere I found that being an American is not necessarily bad. With the U.S. as Israel's chief ally and financial benefactor, everyone in Israel keeps a close eye on American politics and current events. I found that many folks base their opinion of the American President largely on how he supports or interacts with the Israeli Prime Minister.
Animals All Over
Cats and dogs are popular pets on Givat Brenner though nobody ever bothers to tie up their dogs in the yard. I'm scared of big dogs so that was something I had to get used to. Apparently it's required by law to keep dogs leashed outside, but nobody bothers to enforce the law.
The other thing that surprised me: stray cats are everywhere, at least in Tel Aviv. You see cats all over the place in alleys foraging for food as squirrels and other little animals would anywhere else. Of course, rodents aren't nearly as common but I have to wonder if the cats are kept around specifically to feed on other vermin.
Jews Can Preach...
...but only to other Jews.
In America the notion of a preachy Jew is very rare and very unusual. There are plenty of signs, pamphlets, and graffiti tags placed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects specifically targeting other Jews. One famous example is the Na Nach Nachma mantra which I saw tagged, complete with vowels, on many walls.
In Jerusalem, as I noted in that article, Orthodox Jews also congregate near the kotel (Western Wall) begging for donations, even though panhandling is officially forbidden at that site. The Jews at the kotel were by far the most pushy I've ever dealt with.
Cafés But No Starbucks
You would think that in a country that loves coffee and has embraced European-style cafés, Starbucks would be all over. That's not true: I'm told that they entered the Israeli market but backed out after experiencing disappointing sales. The major chain, Aroma, started up after Starbucks' failed experiment and is ubiquitous today. I'm very surprised that even though so many other American brands hit it big in Israel, Starbucks was a dud.
Touching is Inevitable
The last big international trip I took was to Japan, where physical contact between strangers is frowned upon unless absolutely necessary due to space limits. In Israel, assertiveness gets physical quickly. Instead of sidestepping other pedestrians many Israelis will just bash their way through. Even women in their 50s pushed me out of the way to get to a bus stop -- and there wasn't a bus stopped there yet. On the flip side, affirmation or acknowledgement takes the form of a friendly pat on the back or some other physical gesture.
I'll head back to Israel some day, perhaps as part of the Birthright program (I'm eligible until my 27th birthday in early 2008) to see more of the country. There truly is a lot to see in a state the size and approximate shape of New Jersey.
Israel got me to drink cappuccino again. I tried one when I was in college and hated the gritty texture, but I guess that one wasn't made correctly. If only there were a place in Seattle to get a good cappuccino...
I've also been spoiled by authentic falafel. Hezi had damning words for what New York City street vendors pass off as "falafel."
Now I'm off from Pittsburgh to Seattle in the next leg of what has become an unusually busy travel year for me.