with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Agony and Ecstacy of Living in Israel

I’m trying to find words to express how it felt to sit on the bed among the remains of our eight empty suitcases. Even though much of our life storage, odd bits and pieces, is spread across the USA, the remains just evacuated from our luggage is the only stuff that counts now. It’s here and it’s ours. And it ain’t much, though Brent still swears we brought too much. I sift through what managed to make it here and I want to cry.

Some of what we did manage to haul through the skies and across the ocean is critical to the success of our life here. Yes, I did manage to get in all my deodorant – enough for a year. Allergic to deodorants, this is important stuff. You got to have your priorities, and finding deodorant that doesn’t turn my arm pits into an itchy rash – well, let’s just admit that in this case deodorant becomes a priority. Especially in this heat. I’ve got toothpaste, aspirin, and basic medical stuff…of the things I had to leave behind may not be easily or ever found here.

Photo of candies in the market, great choices in candies! Photo by Lorelle VanFossenWe were told that we could find EVERYTHING we would ever want and need in Israel. After all, they puffed up their chests, it is a technologically advanced, civilized, modern country. We drive cars not camels now! What did your parents tell you about believing everything you read and hear? Suckers, that’s what we are, suckers. While I anticipated many of the things we would need, replacing the things we left behind is turning into WORK!

Two days after we arrived, I emptied our clothing out of the suitcases and onto the bed (Not easy with eight suitcases in a hotel room so small we had to crawl off the end of the bed to get out of it, and then crawl over more suitcases to get to the bathroom…trust me, I could hardly fit my Toyota in this room if it were a garage! Our trailer is bigger than our hotel room!). I put away a few pair of Brent’s pants and shirts and underwear, and then tackled my few items: three skirts, three pants, one pair of shorts, a couple of t-shirts, five bras (I knew it would be hard to find replacements for these!), and – what is this? ONE PAIR OF UNDERWEAR!

That’s right. Count them up. I’m wearing one, one is hanging in the bathroom drying, and there is only one pair to put in the drawer. There is something wrong here. I dug through Brent’s underwear. One, two, three, four…as there should be, there are eight pairs of underwear for him. All Hanes briefs, the only kind he will wear. But me, I only have three pair of underwear. I dug through the suitcases, books, computer disks, papers, camera gear. Yep, only three pair. Brent was in charge of counting out the clothing, all the underwear, socks, pants, t-shirts, etc. So where the hell are my underwear? I have arrived in Israel with three pair of underwear. Just great. Just freakin’ great!

Of course, Israel has underwear. It’s a modern, civilized country and underwear is a basic necessity. There are lingerie and underwear shops all over the place. I’ve peered into their windows with envy at the little lacy goodies designed to tempt a man into fits of ecstacy and erotism. The delicate see-through sexy things that I will never be able to wear…yes, I’ve lusted. So surely I can come up with some granny-style underwear for my fat body. Not a problem.

Problem. First, just about everyone here that I see on the streets is size minus one anorexia. Their stomachs are concave with hips jutting out like goal posts. Not only do their thighs not rub together, you can park a car between them. In the two days I’d been here, exploring all over the city, I’d yet to see someone even half my size. So of course, I can’t find any underwear in my size. Frustrated, I wash them out every night, continuing the hunt during my daily explorations.

I’m not alone in my frustration of not finding things and not understanding the language. A few days later, we discovered a HUGE grocery store in the Azrieli shopping mall right near the highway. After shopping in little expensive kiosks for some basics, this was American nirvana. The lanes were wide with bright florescent lights reflecting off the many tin cans and colorful boxes of CHOICES in food. The fruits and vegetables weren’t as wonderful as those I found in the market, but the rest of the basic requirements in food, housewares, and toiletries were sparkling in the light of modern convenience and commerce. Brent and I decided to thoroughly explore the household cleaning aisle for Lorelle had screwed up in her shopping experiments, and Brent was here to save the translation-day.

Due to the excessive smoking in all the restaurants, we had trouble finding non-smoking restaurants, confined to eating outside and challenging any smoker who dared to light up near us. Combined with Brent being exhausted when he got to the hotel each night, I started buying food in the market and at the delis and bringing it home. Therefore we needed to wash our little plastic dishes, spoons, and forks to reuse them the next day. I had bought a very small bottle of what I thought was dish soap. It was right next to the large bottles of Palmolive and Fantastic, featuring sparkling dishes on their labels. And this one featured a sparkling kitchen sink, and was half the size and price.

Washing dishes one night, Brent complained about the dish soap not lathering. I told him I got it because it was small and cheaper than the others. “But it doesn’t make a lather. I don’t feel like the dishes are getting clean.”

He picked up the bottle and then started laughing. I wasn’t sure if he was laughing at the bottle or at me, but I soon found out who the target was. “This is toilet cleaner!”

Sure enough, the “kitchen sink” was actually a toilet bowl. Oh, well, it still cleans. Disinfects, too. So we used the advantage of this huge grocery store to teach Lorelle about the difference between toilet bowl cleaners and dish soap. Oh, yeah!

After the quick lesson and purchase of a Palmolive dish soap, we turned down the dairy aisle to look for some cheese and yoghurt. A woman stepped back from the refrigerated shelves and shouted out in abrasive New England American, “Can someone here help me find some cottage cheese!”

She turned around and confronted me, some yoghurt looking containers in her hands. “Do you speak English? I’m going crazy here looking for cottage cheese. Where the hell is the cottage cheese?”

Calmly, I told her, “Yes, I speak English, and I have no clue what any of this means.”

She cried, “Oh, my god, you’re an American!” and hugged me. We laughed, instantly empathizing with the struggle to survive in a language and place so totally foreign. A man behind us tapped the woman on the shoulder and offered help to find the cottage cheese. After locating the item, she turned back to me, her face as red as her curly hair, and announced how wonderful it was to not only find another American, but also a fellow redhead. Instantly, Risa Blair and I became sisters in the defiance of Israel. We exchanged phone numbers and were in contact a few days later. Sharing horror stories of our couple of weeks in the country, she decided to join me in my desperate search for underwear. Okay, it was also an excuse to just go shopping and exploring.

Risa is a college professor teaching computer sciences. She is on “loan” from her university in Vermont to teach at a “sister” university in Tel Aviv. Her brash New England style puts off many Israelis, but I love her tell-it-like-it-is refreshing attitude. After almost two years in conservative North Carolina, it is amazingly wonderful to connect with such a breath of energetic fresh air. Only here for three months, her husband, Gordy, came over to help her out, acting like an assistant, cook, and bottle-washer. A locksmith by passion and trade, start talking locks with Gordy and hours will pass by as you learn everything and anything about locks. It’s wonderful to meet anyone so passionate about what they do.

Risa struggles against the lazy attitude of the Israeli staff of the university and her students. They clearly want to learn but their enthusiasm is at best, dull. She is obviously the fire in the hole and they are the black hole sucking her energy. Our outings become releases from the frustrations of her work.

Another female friend I’ve made is the wife of one of Brent’s co-workers, Here on the same contract from the states, Betty came over for a couple of months. A wonderful “southern-style gal”, she reminds me of the elegant older women friends I left behind in North Carolina. She has a wild streak to her, but she puts up a strong conservative front.

What a combination in these two new friends. Here I am in the “holy land” with a New England jew who wasn’t raised religious, and a Mormon. Ask Risa something about Judaism and the odds are that you will get a shrug. She knows bits and pieces but not much in the details. Betty is very open to talk about her beliefs and the way the Mormon Church works, admitting that she led a “rough” life before she found the church which saved her life. One of the oldest faiths but non-practicing, and the other of one of the newest faiths, and very dedicated to her faith. What a wonderful combo!

So, with the fantastic sewing machine here (old but perfect condition) I am anxious to start some creative work, but there are some things I need first. For example, interfacing and elastic bands are under a dollar at WalMart and easy to get. Here, it is really complicated. First, I have to find the sewing notions. I look in the English phone book under sewing and find machines and repairs. The English phone book was created for the tourists, a thriving business here making up the majority of income for the country. Since the phone book caters to tourists, mostly tourist oriented items are listed. So the section advertising hotels, taxis, and souvenir shops is HUGE. The sections advertising electrical repair, plumbing, and day-to-day business and needs is small and almost non-existent. A nice but ineffective helper for someone staying more than a month. But I try.

I crawl through the cross-referencing index in the front of the phone book, a fairly useless but desperately needed tool, and find that sewing notions are referenced under “Fashion Accessories and Notions.” Under that category, I use the great technique taught me by our landlord and slide my finger down the list to find the most common street mentioned. Kfar G’ladi is the most common street, also known as Giladi or G’l’di or whatever spelling they come up with, overcompensating for the lack of vowels in the language. As I mentioned before, Tel Aviv has a great way of grouping similar stores together. Gathering up Betty, we set off on a path of discovery. I wish I could admit it was just a trip to the fabric/notions store, or even a trip to WalMart, but it is a voyage into the unknown and indecipherable.

Photo by Lorelle VanFossen, some shops, like this in Jerusalem, are open and brightly lit.Within a block we were convinced luck was with us. There were lace and thread shops. Feels right, but then, we’re never quite sure. The shop fronts are basically a small window next to a door. The window is filled with the potential wares inside. They may or may not be showing off what I need, so I have to go inside to find out. The window displays are coated with dust from years, if not decades, of unchanging exhibition. I’ve learned that passing through the doors could be an adventure of color and magic, a brightly lit shop filled with everything in the planet arrayed along the walls and counters. Or it could mean opening the creaking metal door into a dark and dank place where light comes from a naked bulb overhead and I hit a grimy counter and intimidating troll who guards the gate of all treasures beyond the gate of shadows. Everything is stored in the netherworld reaches of the back of the store and I have to find a way of communicating exactly what I want, which will, upon comprehension (potential comprehension), send the toll of a shopkeeper into the dark eerie depths of the netherworld to retrieve what could, or could not, be what I need. Each time I open a door, fear creeps up my neck and tickles at the back of my hair. I’m hear in Israel for the adventure, but there are times when too much adventure is just too much. I’m not so sure that shopping should be that adventuresome.

Photo by Lorelle VanFossen, some shops, like this in Jaffa, are dark and scary.We finally happen upon a shop with elastic and ribbons in the window, laden with dust, and we feel confident that this might be it. Trying to find the words to explain what I needed, I had learned that “gummy” is Hebrew for elastic. That will only get me so far as I haven’t a clue how to explain non-rolling or anti-rolling elastic. As I get better at sewing, even though I’m still at the straight line stage, I’m learning to use what is good not just what is cheap. Everything we’ve looked at has been cheap and of a poor quality. Having already learned this lesson making pants in the states at my sewing class in Greensboro, I knew I would be miserable with an elastic waistband rolling and twisting up. But shopping here in Israel, a land where almost everything be shipped in that isn’t easily made here, elastic is one of those many things that gets judged on its availability rather than quality. I just don’t have the choices. It is either buy cheap and what they have or go without.

I debated over cheap and available, never finding better, and having it mailed to me from the states (hey, mom, can you send me some 99 cent non-roll elastic? Sure it will only cost $20 to mail it but I’m desperate!). I asked the shop keeper how much and he informed me that the “gummy” is only 15 shekels (USD $3.50). Willing to test it, but not invest in it, I asked for a meter. Confusion reigned. After much flapping of arms and spouting of words I struggled to understand, and a lot of me saying “Lo avanti” (I don’t understand), he struggled to explain that the whole roll of “gummy” was 15 shekels and they can’t cut it. Ah, but the whole roll is 25 meters long. UGH! No matter what the price, what in the world was I going to do with 25 meters of cheap elastic? That adds up to about 16 pairs of pants! So I declined. Better to get it from my mother. The interfacing was the same way. They would sell me 20 meters for a really cheap price but I only needed a half meter. I use this for reinforcing buttons and collars, something that doesn’t require much. So I walked out my hands empty.

We hunted the whole street, finding only a couple of “sewing notion” shops but a lot of other things. We came to a great conclusion. Instead of sewing notions, if anyone needs any hair clips, rhinestones, purses, cheap elastic, ribbons or any other fashion accessories, I know where to get some in Tel Aviv. We found the fashion accessory street.

So I keep hunting. Everything is like this. What should only take a few minutes to find and get becomes weeks and weeks of hunting through dozens of shops to find the simplest of things, like underwear that fits. I’ve been hunting desperately for a cookie sheet for Brent. I finally, after almost two months, find one. I’m ecstatic. I surprise Brent with it and he runs immediately to the oven, and the cookie sheet half of an inch too wide. “We could have slanted cookies,” he admits, trying to make a typical disappointment more entertaining. We used to get a lot of laughs over this kind of thing, but now it happens so frequently, it is boring and frustrating. Returning things here is a nightmare. It just ain’t done, and when it does get done, it took more time and effort than it was worth.

Some shop keepers, like this one in Jerusalem, are open and friendly, eager to sell. Photo by Lorelle VanFossenMy lovely neighbor, Naomi, has been giving a lot of thought as to why I am so frustrated and stressed out here. After all, I am wearing my stress not only in my body posture, but my face has broken out, I’ve been having rashes scattered across my body, I’m gaining weight – let’s face it, I’m a mess. Trying to help me, she explained the choices you can use to get help. “First, you must warn them you’re going to speak English so their heads can kick into the different language part of their brain. Be patient.”

Hey, I traveled all over the country living and working out of a fifth wheel trailer. I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, for a year where the most commonly heard phrase is “Well, I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout that.” I know patience. I live patience. I hate patience, but I’m experienced. See, it is written into my resume: Very patient person; borderline insane with patience.

She then suggests that I start with a story. I like this idea. Adding a vote for sympathy, she acts out my part in the conversation of commerce. “I need your help. I have no where else to turn but to you. [tears start here] I am trying to sew on this old machine in my apartment. I am from the United States and I just don’t understand how to find what I am looking for and I know you can help me. I need some elastic for my dress.” And so on. So I try it. Unfortunately I try it first on someone who speaks only four words of English so my story doesn’t get me very far. It just adds to the confusion. At this stage I’m willing to try anything.

“Then try to be very graphic in your descriptions.” Oh, I got that one down. I draw pictures. I do finger puppets. I am great at coming up with physical body movements and expressions to make my point. Chopping, slicing, and even shredding I got down. Those are easy. But trying to help Risa explain what athlete’s foot lotion is to people who barely speak English, especially when it is something that seems to rarely occurs here, well, it’s tough. My explanation led to dry skin lotion, foot deodorant, and mosquito repellant. No athlete’s foot stuff. Some things are just too hard to get across.

I told her that language differences are only the small part of my stress level. I can live with the rudeness, blaming it on Tarzan English. I can understand their frustration with me. I know I’m frustrated enough for twelve people. But she is determined to help me live a less stressful life, so I will keep you up-to-date with our success.

There are just some days when I find myself wanting to sit down and cry. It can get really hard to fight off the anger and depression that hovers over my shoulder. So far, I’m okay. Brent keeps me smiling. To be honest, all I have to do is look out our huge garage door windows, hear the sounds of foreign speech rising up from the park below me, the echos of the junk collector calling out indecipherable shouts as he rides through the narrow streets battling the honking cars, combined with the hacking cough of smokers, sniff the unusual scent of dry, hot, dusty, polluted air accented with the warm hint of dog shit and the disgusting stench of cigarettes, and I know I am a long way from home in a very exciting place.

But gee, I sure wish there was a WalMart nearby.

PS: Risa and I finally found some underwear for me. Giving up on finding anything my size, she suggested I look at men’s underwear. After all, they are comfortable on men and they have all those extra parts to fit into them. We don’t have the parts, so they should be even more comfortable for us. So we started hunting through the men’s underwear and sure enough found a XXXL pair of brief-like cotton shorts. Their XXX is the same size as a US extra-large, but it still intimidates me. But honestly, these are really comfortable. Sure, there is that extra fabric in front, but I like how they go down the thigh a little bit. That added protection keeps my thighs from rubbing together in the sweaty heat. I could grow to like these. See, even changing to strange and different can bring joy. But at last, after two months of three pair of underwear, I can take an underwear-washing day off.

Tel Aviv, Israel

One Comment

  • Me
    Posted August 2, 2007 at 7:44 | Permalink

    I have a problem with deodorants as well. I use a 50-50 mix of baking soda and corn starch with mineral oil mixed in as a binder. If it causes a rash, decrease the amount baking soda. I work outdoors in heat and humidity and I’ve found that this mix (which I got from my mother) works better than store-bought deodorants. Also, no aluminum on your skin, everything is safe enough to eat.

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