with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

First Impressions of Tel Aviv, Israel

Israel FlagFirst impressions of Tel Aviv: crowded, busy, traffic, dirty, smokey, young people, cell phones, noise, noise, smoke, dirty, noise, and more smoke. There are street cafes everywhere displaying ice cream, pastries, falafels, coffees, teas, sandwiches, salads, everything of every smell, color, size and shape. Everywhere you look you will see young people, some not even legal to drive, others nearing thirty, dressed in totally American clothes, more often looking like they just stepped off the back streets of New York, all in greys, black and white, mostly black. Skimpy and tight is the fashion statement of Tel Aviv, and maybe elsewhere in much of Israel where the constraints of ultra orthodox and conservatism have loosened. I can tell that thong underwear is popular among the young women of Israel; can’t help it, but everyone can see the outline through their incredibly tight black stretch pants, often stretched further than the physical capabilities of the fabric and tighter than any fashion designer ever wished. Belly buttons, cleavage, bare backs, arms and shoulders abound, the rest barely covered in tight black polyester, nylon and other synthetics. Cotton is rarely found on anyone except the well-draped Arab woman.

Cellphones are EVERYWHERE in Israel. At the airport, you are greeted by a 2 story revolving cell phone upon leaving the airport.Let me describe the typical Israeli. According to some research Brent stumbled on, the average age of a citizen of Israel is 18. According to my visual research, the dress size is 0 or 1 (okay, maybe size 2 or 3 in the US). You will find young people everywhere in the streets, usually walking in shoes with huge souls topping three to six inches from the ground, totally inappropriate for the uneven, brick-lined sidewalks. The hair will be either long and flowing straight about the shoulders, or chopped incredibly short sticking out all over, for both males and females. One arm will be bent up, a cell phone to one ear, the other arm will swing front to back in concert with the fast walk in clunky shoes, a cigarette locked between the first two fingers. A deeply inhaled smoke is achieved exactly as performed in the old black and white movies, the arm swung out, then up to the lips, elbow extended outward, pinky finger straight up like sipping tea, the hair swung back away from the face and the cigarette entering the mouth in a very sexual, phallic fashion, as if kissing the cigarette and sucking the life out of it.

This scene is so typical Israeli, I about fell down in the streets the other day when I passed a group of children, not much older than 10, adorned in the latest sports and MTV t-shirts and baggy pants with Nike or Adidas tennis shoes, backs adorned with Jansport back-packs, on their way home. One of the pack had separated himself and was walking behind them, cell phone to his ear, his other hand swinging in the same fashion, crossing the hips in front and swinging around in behind the back, just missing the requisite cigarette, but the fingers in position to eventually hold one. Already he was in training for the day he would go against his parents to join the rest of the crowd. Then again, maybe he is imitating his parents. It is so horrible, and yet hysterical, to see all of this. You can tell by the dress code that going against their parents’ wishes and really working hard to look and act like a unique individual is standard youth behavior here, as in much of the Western World. The odd thing is that they all go about it in the exact same way, making them one of many instead of unique. Smoking used to be such anti-social behavior. The children act like anti-establishment behavior is the reason behind their actions here in Israel, a very conservative and Orthodox Jewish state illusion presented to the rest of the world. But since everyone is doing it, it makes them just one of millions instead of an individual. Guess this is what makes a fad; everyone thinking they are being an individualist but they are just one of the crowd of everyone doing the same thing.

Posters and banners put up during the recent election were torn down and abandoned on the streets and in the ditches, photo by Lorelle VanFossenThere is much to whine about in Tel Aviv, and throughout Israel, when held up to the great American White Light. I hate doing that, but using words and not images to explain this place to you, I’m trapped by such comparisons. In a recent newspaper editorial in the Jerusalem Post (English), the writer embraced the notion that with so many Americans coming to Israel, you would think that they would spread good American notions around. Instead Israelis quickly embrace the negative parts of the US: the yelling, pollution, materialistic cravings and obsessions, the horrible driving habits and horn honking, as well as the better-than-you attitude. The writer wished Americans would influence Israelis to embrace the higher standards of life like flexibility, compassion, consideration, passion, conservation, open smiles on the streets, hugging, and acceptance of diversity. When I look at the citizens of the USA, I don’t see many of those things, but I grew up expecting them to be there. Maybe that is the illusion the US presents to the world. In Israel, competing for space on the extremely narrow road ways makes it hard not to furiously honk your horn and jam yourself in-between the cars, after all everyone else does. At least here they use their blinkers, unlike most of the drivers in the USA.

After I’ve been here a little longer I will see the method behind the madness, but this journal entry is about my surface judgements and first impressions.

Bras line the wall as neighbors dry their laundry, photo by Brent VanFossenEveryone litters here. Walk behind these young people, cell phone in one hand and cigarette swinging in the other, and watch trash just spill from their fingers. Candy bar wrappers, cigarette butts, soda bottles, whatever they consume is dropped in their wake, flipping around like dead leaves on the ground from the slight breeze off the ocean or from passing cars. Behind them come the middle aged and elderly street cleaners dragging a trash bucket on wheels to sweep up the debris.

When I say everyone litters, I also mean everyTHING. Nature’s "law of the dog" holds true here. We’ve commented on this law before. The natural law of physics that states that the smaller the vehicle or house the larger the dog, and vise versa. The odds are that the bigger the mansion you live in, the more likely you are to own a "chi-wah-wah." The homes here are very small, mostly apartments and condos many in tall buildings with tiny elevators. In keeping with the "law of the dog", the dogs who make their homes with the citizens of Tel Aviv are HUGE. I’ve yet to see anything smaller than an Irish settler.

There are no poop-and-scoop laws here. If there are, they are certainly not respected. Sidewalks are fair game and you best watch your step. The logs and puddles left behind are equal to the size of the pooch that left them. Between target practice walking on the sidewalks, you have to watch out for the cats. Cats are everywhere in Israel. A few make it into Tel Aviv homes as pets. Most roam the streets dependent upon the kindness of little old ladies and generous trash bins.

cat sleeping on fenceOn a personal note, the prevalence of cats here doesn’t bother Brent and I. We talked about it and all of these cats are just that: cats. Toshi was never "just a cat" to me or Brent. He was our child, our little cuddly baby, and we suffer the loss of our child, not the loss of a "pet". The night is a concert of cat and dog fight choruses. We both ache inside when cats and/or dogs start fighting with all the appropriate sound effects as it brings back the horror of our loss and stabs us deeply. Over time, since this is a common sound in Israel, we should slowly become desensitized to the sounds.

Like most cities, Tel Aviv is going strong 24 hours a day. Some businesses and people keep hours similar to those found in many parts of Europe, including siesta time. Businesses open about 9 or 10 in the morning, with others opening at noon. Most stay open until after 8 pm with many open until 10 pm. The hours are in military time, as is much of the world. I’m having fun trying to figure out that 15:36 is 3:36 PM. Some people still refer to AM/PM hours but all businesses are in military time so a business can be open from 9:00 – 13:00 and 16:30 to 21:00. Most nightclubs stay open all night, with most nightly entertainment beginning between 8PM and 10PM. Tel Aviv is very open to all forms of entertainment for every lifestyle, want, and desire, a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The street we live on in Tel Aviv, photo by Lorelle VanFossenPeople live and work on the streets. They are out in droves, going from place to place, eating ice creams, sitting in street cafes for hours on end, and talking to a friend on the cell phone while that friend stands 10 feet away. I don’t know who all these young people are talking to, but someone has to be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. The rest of them are all talking to each other. Spending time with an Israeli means spending time with their cell phone. They LOVE to dial a number the moment they get into a car, chatting on the phone while driving with one hand through the insanely crowded streets.

Phones just don’t "ring" here. They have a whole variety of sounds from classical tunes to Looney Tunes. Some sparkle with sound, a few will beep, but I haven’t heard any "rings". You will see people on their cell phones in bookstores, restaurants, on the streets, hanging out windows, in grocery stores, and shopping for clothes. Everywhere. The hottest thing of late is to have small earphones and microphones attached to the cell phone so you can walk and talk, carrying the phone in your hand, waving it around as you talk into the microphone. I’ve heard of people talking to themselves, but this is very strange. I’ve heard that a cell phone can be cheaper than having a regular phone in your home here. It must be as there are so many of them. We feel a little left out without one.

Well, that is a first glimpse into our view of Israel. Sure, it ain’t the USA, but then it shouldn’t be. Part of Israel is like New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, and in a few places it is even like Johnson City, Texas, or Greensboro, North Carolina. The only exception is the transportation system. Be it rail, bus or walking, access to everything is incredibly easy. The US is definitely lacking in this area. Many similar businesses are next to each other, so when I need to find fabric, it is mostly found within a three or four block area of the city. I needed a shower curtain and found eight "bathroom" and kitchen stores all within a few blocks. This makes hunting for things easy as I can just ask for something and be sent to a place where there are many choices. It saves driving all over town for one thing. Why drive when a bus or your feet are easier. Parking is nearly impossible, so use your feet. It’s easy and there is a bus going everywhere every 10 to 20 minutes from everywhere else in the city. Everything else is walking distance.

So my new song is "I left my feet in Tel Aviv, high on a hill they call to me….."

Tel Aviv, Israel

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