with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Visa Dance – Shopping in Israel

Expectations and Shopping

One of my life’s biggest problems, self-imposed of course, is dealing with my expectations. In general, I don’t think they are too high, too low, or even unreasonable. In life I expect people to treat each other to the best of their ability, hopefully fairly, and that I will be just smart enough to survive this world intact until my job is done. As we’ve traveled I’ve been surprised by people exceeding my expectations. I been disappointed, too, but I chose to see that as a reminder for me to change my perspective.
Besides my personal expectations, there are many expectations that people living in the US and Canada, and even in England and France, take for granted. Among them you will find proper business practices, customer service, and manners. Unfortunately, I’ve seen them so rarely in Israel I am being to think “manners” are one of many endangered species left in Israel.

I’ve been hanging out on the Israel and Jewish forums on Compuserve. Mostly, I want to learn more about where I am. I am also learning about other people’s expectations of Israel. Many a discussion with a returning visitor begins with the words: “Israelis are rude and ill-mannered.” I’ve seen the defensive shackles raise up in response. I’ve read all kinds of “excuses” about the behavior, but rarely do I read arguments that deny the behavior. The excuses range all over the place from “A group of people who have suffered so much – of course they have a right to act that way!” to “It’s all those Russian and Romanian immigrants! They give the country a bad name.” Or the ever-popular: “Living with constant war doesn’t make friendly people.” A favorite of mine is: “If you lived with people who want to kill you all the time, you’d act this way, too.” All may be true and good justifications, but I find it interesting that even the Israelis agree that they are some of the rudest and ill-mannered people on the planet. I’ve even been told by many who were born and raised here that they love vacations so they can get out of the country and away from the Israelis, and how they can’t stand it when they travel and end up with a bunch of nasty Israelis. It doesn’t make sense to me as I don’t have a problem when I see or meet another US Citizen, except when I find them acting badly, but that isn’t a constant state of attitude for Americans. When I ask why they believe this way about their own people I’m told: “Because they’re Israelis!” I guess that’s as good a reason as anything. Interesting perspective.

The Orthodox Jews in their black suits and hats add to the mixed fashion statements of the Kinneset and Israeli life.In fact, the Israelis seem proud of the fact that they use the car horn in place of a screaming voice. They are proud that they can push and shove their way to the front of the line and GET AWAY WITH IT. They LOVE to scream and yell at each other, each one shouting louder and louder. The Kinneset (their Congress) airs on local TV when it’s in session. Brent and I watch the screaming matches for its entertainment value. Men and women dressed in everything from traditional business suits to blue jeans, all mixed in with Orthodox Jews with their black suits and hats adorned and long beards and curled up side locks, all yelling and waving their hands over their heads like they are flagging down an airplane. It isn’t like that all the time. Just when the Kinneset is in session.

In my family, the louder you are the more likely you are to be heard. Yelling is how we communicate. In Brent’s family, the quietest voice carried the biggest stick. His family is very strange for me, someone from a family of yellers. Maybe there is some Jewishness tucked in somewhere on my father’s side of the family? There are a couple of Jewish sounding names in our family bible. We got just about every other ethnic group mixed in there. So I’m used to yelling just to be heard.

Pushing and shoving are considered normal in Israel. Yes, a lot of people live in a very small space here. In other countries where the press of people is everywhere, I have not experienced the bruising from well-shoved elbows that I have here. In the Orient, touching in public is considered rude. Here, bashing bodies is considered normal. When walking down the sidewalk, I often feel like I’m playing chicken; who will give in first before a head-on collision. One morning I was walking quickly down an empty sidewalk, swerving on occasion to avoid the omnipresent dog poop. A woman with a stroller came out and started down the opposite side of the sidewalk to me. She went about 30 feet or so and then looked up at me. She swung her stroller right on a path directly with me, even though the sidewalk was completely clear of dog poop. I kept on walking in my narrow line, up against the parked cars, leaving the five feet of sidewalk clear to my left. She kept on heading at me. Three feet before we collided, I played the chicken and stepped aside. Her eyes never left me the whole time we walked towards each other. I stopped after I passed her, wishing I had the Hebrew words to scream what I was thinking, only to see her shift the stroller over to the other side of the sidewalk. Yes, before you ask, I did look for a reason that made her want to walk on my side of the sidewalk, and I found nothing. No dog poop, nothing. If I didn’t experience this same routine fairly regularly, I would think that she was just the strange one. But this is just so typical, and I’m the strange one who doesn’t do it to others and the one who plays the chicken most of the time.

Oh, the joys of grocery shopping. Graphic of a cow falling into a shopping cart.It is standard operating policy to cut in front of people waiting in line. Especially if the “cutter” has fewer items than you. It is assumed you will allow them in front as they are spending “so little” and will pass through faster. They totally ignore the fact you’ve been waiting in the grocery line for 20 minutes as others have cut in front over and over again, and your ice cream is melted, meat defrosted, and milk spoiled. After one grocery trip where five people cut in front of me, I finally created a “line policy”. I will let ONE person in, but not more. I don’t care if I had a wonderful day and am feeling magnanimous or a horrible day and resent everyone. Brent accuses me of being unkind when he is with me and these “little events” happen, but he isn’t out there every day dealing with it. One is fine, more is a bore.

You cannot return anything in Israel. You buy it, it’s yours – forever. Customer service where the customer is always right and comes first – it just doesn’t exist here. I’ve asked my neighbor, Naomi, about this attitude and she told me that the Israelis would take advantage of it. How can you take advantage of it? If it ain’t right, still in its package, and you have the receipt, they can resell it and I can get what I need and feel good about coming back to the store as I was well-treated. There can be all kinds of rules to protect the company from abuse. Good customer service keeps the customers coming in, right?

It doesn’t matter to most businesses here. Maybe it is because similar stores are all grouped together. Maybe it is for greed. Maybe Israelis are so intelligent they could figure out a way to abuse the system. Whatever the reason, you buy it, it’s yours forever. I’ve been yelled at, insulted, pushed and shoved by store clerks and owners. I was in a very small electrical/housewares shop looking through some small clear plastic “drawers” for an electrical connector. The lady behind the counter, serving several other people, started yelling and screaming so I turned to see what the fuss was. She was screaming at me. I told her I spoke English and one of the customers explained that the lady wanted to know what I was looking for. I explained that I could find it on my own in less time than it would take to explain. I assured her I wouldn’t mess up her bins. I turned back to the bins and there was more screaming. The customer told me that the lady didn’t want the bins “messed up”. Graphic of a European style electrical plugSince I’d already opened a couple of the drawers, and pieces of everything were already mixed in, I didn’t see that this was an issue, but the whole thing is so typical Israeli, what could I do? I asked the man to ask her if I could have permission to look for the item I came in for. I’d been here in before and I picked out what I needed by myself then. The man translated back that I had to tell her what it was I wanted. I asked again for permission to look myself. More yelling commenced, so I just walked out the door and into a shop 20 feet away, got the thing I wanted by myself within 45 seconds, paid cash and was out of the door in 2 minutes. The clerk there didn’t even say a word to me.

A lot of Israelis tell us that you can find anything you could ever possibly want in Israel. Unfortunately what you need is hard to find, costs 10 times what it would back home, probably doesn’t work when you get it home (and they won’t let you plug it in to test it), or they are sold out. My neighbor tells me to call the stores in advance to find out if they have what I need. Easier said than done as they often don’t speak English. Then I’m faced with the challenge that my word for what I am looking for doesn’t match their word for the same thing.

Oh, and let’s not forget the false promises. Some Israeli shopkeepers love to make sweeping comments on how much I will love the product and their shop is the only place in town to get this. Combined with their refusal, afterward, to treat me right, and their willingness to turn down my business and tell me to try another store, I find this behavior just as silly and rude. It isn’t pride, it is just this sweeping ego that cracks me up. They are similar to the infamous stereotypical used car salesmen, but different. When we refer to used car salesmen, we are usually exaggerating. When I refer to the Israelis here as used car salesman personalities, I’m under-exaggerating because they are the stereotype and MORE.

animated graphic of clothing“This is the best. So put down your money and let us do business.” “I am here for you. Anything you need, let me help you. There is nothing better than a happy customer and I am here to make you happy.” “You, my lovely lady, have come to the right place and I am at your disposal.” “This is the best product in the country. Only here can you find it!” “If this is not right, you come see me and I will make everything happy for you. This is my job. My customers come first.” These comments are always made with sweeping arm and hand gestures and sounded out with elongated pronunciation. The few times I’ve believed them, they proved to be false. I’ve only had one experience where the shopkeeper continues to live up to those commitments of good customer service. I hear this lovely excuse all the time: “You think you are in America?” In one store run by Russians, I kept telling them, in Hebrew, that I didn’t need any help and the man kept pulling the ugliest clothes off the racks and putting them in my hands. I kept saying no and handing them back or not even taking them (then he would toss them at me so I had to catch them). Over and over again he cried, “Here, you want, I sell, you give me money, I take money, we do a little business and everyone happy happy happy. You give me money, I happy.” I finally took the load in my hands and tossed it over a rack and said “No thank you” very loudly and got out of there. I felt mauled. The gushing and fussing is just too much and now I’ve learned to resent it and walk out as soon as it begins.

Graphic of a shopping bag and listI have learned to only reward good behavior with my money. If you treat me nice, I will return. Keep it up and you will have a good customer and I will tell others. Be bad to me, and you will NOT get my money. Hopefully others think the same and with the power of our money we will put the losers out of business. Unfortunately this bad behavior is the norm and people here are used to it and refuse to challenge it. They keep paying the people with the bad behavior.

Dealing with businesses, from retail shops to language schools, I swear that all gray hair I get while in Israel will come from the following trash-heap adventure in my next journal entry. Gray hair won’t come from worrying about whether the next scud flying from Iraq, Lebanon, or wherever will land near or on me. I am sick and tired, disgusted, and extremely frustrated with the rude and extremely unprofessional manner in which business is practiced here – at least the businesses I am forced to work with. You might think this is just another whining journal entry, but it’s more than that. It is a story truly reflective of what life is like living here. Just ask those in similar positions as Brent and I. Some of them are reading this email with you and laughing and crying because they can identify with this only too well.

Oh, yes, there is more…

The World’s Record Holder for Waiting for a Credit Card Approval

Graphic of animated globe - you would think in a technologically small world like earth has become, getting a credit card approved wouldn't be such an ordeal.Yes, you are reading the words of the all-time record holder for “credit card approval waiting.” I hold the world’s record of one and a half hours. Those aren’t metric hours. They are full of minutes, all sixty of them, sixty seconds in each. I know cuz I watched my watch spin around SLOWLY as I suffered.

IAI (Israel Aircraft Industries) has a “mini-mall” offering everything from laundry soap and toilet paper to furniture and computers to their employees and their families. Open very limited hours, the prices are fantastic. I wish Boeing would have something like this to take advantage of their employee’s mass buying power! With a 17% tax and high import fees, the IAI stores are an escape from the expensive regular retail stores and the equivalent of a Costco or Sam’s Club, though much smaller. The "mall" is broken up into small temporary looking buildings in which are stuffed different household items. There is an electronics shop, a CD shop, a clothing shop, a household products shop with cleaning supplies, toilet paper and such, a jewelry store, a big shoe shop, and a couple of furniture shops among other odds and ends.

Without stress or argument I purchased a way too expensive VCR from the west end of one of the stores. In the middle section, with no dividing lines anywhere I can see, I wanted to buy some pots and pans, a backpack, and a few other goodies for our new apartment. I’d love to tell you what the problem at the counter was but it took me all of those minutes that slowly churned into ninety to figure it out myself and you are not getting off that easy.

They swiped my Visa and hit some buttons, same as they had done for my purchase of the VCR at the counter only a few feet away. Then the screaming began. When this happens, which unfortunately is frequently, I always feel the same thing. I want to spread my arms like a ringleader in a bad circus and announce in a deep baritone: “Ladies and Gentlemen! Let the screaming commence!” And it does. With a lot of hand waving and shaking of heads. In one of those hands is, as usual, my credit card.

In the other hand is usually the symbol we have learned to hate. We’ve witnessed it over and over again – probably a dozen times on our first day. This gesture is so common, I’m sure Brent and I do it in our sleep. The meaning is “wait.” One hand comes up with all the fingers and thumb pinched together like you are making an “o” but the fingers point straight up and the hand bobs up and down. It is accompanied with a variety of looks and usually the word “ray-gah” (like “ray” of sun with a “guh" at the end). This means wait, but it also means “don’t bother me now.” People raise their hand this way in shops, from cars, on sidewalks, we see it everywhere. We even do it. The way the hand comes up, the pinched fingers pointing to the heavens, it reminds me of the Italian move that says “screw you.” I wonder if it comes from there.

So it begins, with me not understanding a single thing, but I sit back and enjoy the show, participating occasionally, though it proceeds with little help from me anyway. Join me as I witness the dramatic “Lorelle’s Credit Card Dance,” also known as the Israeli Visa Dance. It begins with an upward sweep of a sales person’s right hand up over their head, waving my credit card from side to side, while the other hand raises up in the “ray-gah” position, like an upside down snake seeking prey. This time more than one saleswoman joins the dance and they hop from foot to foot and shake their heads from side to side to up and down. I lift my own right hand in a fist to my ear and shout and point “telephone” – I must play my part in the dance, too! They scream back at me, spit flying as they gaggle the harsh sounds of the Hebrew language at full volume, and wave the credit card back at me, as if I know what is going on, then they turn in unison to the second group of dancers across the store. The new dancers respond back with the similar arm waving and yelling, and the occasional snake “ray-gah” hand motion bobbing up and down in mid-air.

Graphic of a spinning Visa and Mastercard, once thought to be interchangeable.Let me give you a little history about the famous “Israeli Visa Dance.” When we first arrived, we had occasional trouble using our credit card, an American Airlines/Citibank Visa. They called it a “Tourist Visa.” This is their name for the process of turning down my card and making me pay cash. Frustrated, I called our banks in the US and they never heard of a “Tourist Visa”. Eventually, we learned a “Tourist Visa” was the Israeli word for a Visa credit card issued outside the country. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to hear the words “Tourist MasterCard.”

After several months of phone calls to credit card companies and banks, this is what I’ve learned. Retailers pay different rates to accept different “kinds” of credit cards. Some accept credit cards issued by local banks only. Or they can pay a higher rate to accept Visa cards from all over the world. Since the latter is expensive, retailers not dealing with tourists go for the cheaper rate and only accept cards from local/national banks. To get a “Tourist Visa” accepted, it takes one phone call to Visa Israel or Visa International to get the “approval” number, but few companies know how or are willing to do this, especially if there is a line of customers and the phone is in the back of the store. So they make a sweeping refusal for all “Tourist Visas” to make their job easier. One thing you learn quickly here in Israel is that a lot of business people, especially in retail sales, really don’t want to do much to get your business. You either buy from them or go down the street and trouble the next storekeeper who has the same merchandise. Easier said than done if you are the shopper.

Is there any way to tell if a store won’t take your credit card? The sign says “VISA” so you don’t know until you get to the register. When I ask, I get told “of course” and think it’s a done deal. WRONG!

So back to the yelling, waving, and Visa Dance. The next steps in the dance involves pushing through the crowds in the store and running from side to side across the store through the crowded aisles. Brent and I make it a policy to not let our credit card out of our sight. So I gracefully chase the hand waving my card back and forth across the store. After twenty minutes of this, my gracefulness has now left me in the horrid heat and humidity, sweat runs down my back and legs and my hair is drenched. I decide to stand by the register and wait. Ten minutes later I pulled out my book and started reading.

A couple weeks after the Visa Dance episode, I started having more trouble with my credit card. Places I once trusted not do the dance were now turning it down. It wasn’t clear until a day trip to Ein Gedi Spa on the Dead Sea. There is only one tourist shop for dozens of miles in all directions and I purchased a few bath products from the Dead Sea there. The lady ahead of me from my tour bus put out her credit card and it caught my eye. It was identical to mine. I pulled mine out to check that I hadn’t lost it, and sure enough, it matched hers: Citibank American Airlines Advantage card! I don’t spend time with Americans here so it was a novelty to see a matching style credit card. I thought, “I hope she doesn’t have a problem like I always do.” And she didn’t. She paid for her $200 plus order and headed for the bus. I was impressed. So I proudly put out my card for my measly $50 purchase and the clerk took a step back, put her hand up (this time in a halt position) and told me that they don’t take “Tourist Visas.” Dumbstruck, I explained that she just took the identical card from the lady ahead of me. Was there something wrong with me? Am I some kind of magnet for trouble? Don’t answer that!

The clerk explained that the woman had a MasterCard version and they have no problem with those. Only Visas. Go figure! Very nicely they explained that about 10 days ago Visa Israel put a new “limit” on how much would be allowed for out-of-the-country Visa credit cards. Hold onto your hats! In the US and Canada there are often "minimums" on how much you can charge to your credit card so the retailer can cover the credit card expenses. It is often $10 or $20 USD. Now, in Israel, you CANNOT use your Visa for any amount OVER 20 sheqels which comes to FIVE DOLLARS.

Yes, you read this correctly. There is a new FIVE DOLLAR MAXIMUM on Visas. So if you spend 19 sheqels, you are okay. Spent 21 sheqels and you are refused. It is either cash or a different card. Want to pay with MASTERCARD??? A $500 limit or whatever. Is this crazy! So if you spent less than this $5 amount, there isn’t a problem. But spend more than $5 and the merchant has to call for a verbal authorization, and most merchants won’t do it as it is too time consuming, takes the clerk away from the counter, slows down sales, and they are just Israeli business people who don’t give a rip for the customer most of the time.

Next day found me on the phone to all parties concerned. The final story is that Visa International knew nothing about this. The limit was set by Visa Israel, for reasons I’ve yet to find out. I got as far as the office of the people who are supposed to set the limits but no one spoke English. Visa International says they will try to put pressure on Visa Israel to find out what the score is, but who knows. Meanwhile, here we are with several Visas and no MasterCard!

Back to the Visa Dance. As I am reading my book, I casually lift my eyes to check on, oh, yes – there goes my credit card doing the dance away from me….oh, here it is coming back again….and there it goes…here it comes…more yelling and arm waving….there it goes…..and as soon as a clerk catches my eye, her hand comes up in that bobbing snake motion again. Yeah, yeah, yeah…not much else I can do. I’m sick of the dance. I finally ask them if I can just leave my credit card here while they figure it all out so I can get spend my cash on more shopping before the shops close and I’ll come back before they close. Absolutely NOT they manage to tell me. Oh, so I’m speaking Spanish to someone who only speaks a little of it, but I make my point since none of them speak any English and I don’t speak Russian, French, or Hebrew. What a group we make!

Animated graphic of tools - Ace Hardware actually has a return policy, which is amazing in Israel.Ace Hardware is great here in Israel. It isn’t so much a taste of home, but it has housewares and tools all in one place, making the process of shopping much easier. While everyone has been really helpful, I have to go through the Visa Dance every time. Last week I shopped there and was ready for the Visa dance. When the clerk handed me back my card, no questions asked, I about fainted. I asked, in my horrible Hebrish (or Engbrew), if everything was okay. She got all nervous and yelled at her supervisor. Now everyone but me was confused and I quickly decided to just go with it and started shouting, “Bay-say-der, Bay-say-der!” which is an “okay, it’s alright, everything is fine” catch-all phrase. I took my stuff and got out of there – SAFE! No Visa Dance! Score: ONE for Lorelle – Israel 95,403,876. At least I finally got a score for my part of the dance.

I’ve gotten so used to doing battle, it was bizarre not to participate in the dance. This whole thing is strange because Israel is one of the most computer-connected-up places I’ve ever been in. They have more technological advancements in use than even in the US. EVERYONE has a cell phone and/or PDA, and bar code scanning is everywhere, even in some of the strangest places like the markets in old Jerusalem where you have to compete with the donkeys up the narrow alleyways. So the ease of access to credit card approvals should be the least of anyone’s worries. But it is the biggest stressor of our life here.

At the 30 minute mark in the dance, I tracked down my card in the back office, filled with smokers. I asked to borrow a phone (made hand signals and they got it in one) and called Brent. He was out of the office so I left a message warning them that if they heard a murder being reported on the news at IAI, it would be me killing someone. I’m sure it got translated to Brent in an interesting way as most of the people he works with speak fair English, but not perfectly. But I was far past caring by that time.

Graphic of a clock ticking awayOkay, it is now ninety minutes into the Visa Dance. My patience is exhausted and I’m ready to seize my card and leave after telling them to go do something creative with different parts of their anatomy – when finally someone who looks like they know the dance better than anyone else in the room steps to the middle of the counter area with a stack of receipts and my card. Through the mixture of Spanish, Hebrew, and English, it seems that in all the yelling and confusion, the clerk charged my account three times. They now felt it was all fixed and presented me with a stack of slips to sign. I made a mental note to check the statement to make sure it was indeed fixed. What a nightmare.

I went into another shop and paid cash for some socks for Brent. The clerk wanted to know, in broken English, why my face was so red and overheated. I told her my credit card was not wanted here and that I was sick of the BS (I used the full word which, as I’ve told you in the past, means nothing here but it’s use made me feel MUCH better.). She smiled and tried to make me laugh, and it helped, a little. Downstairs from there is the “grocery” store with non-perishable items. I had more problems, this time with shopping carts and smokers, so when a hand came down on my shoulder inside the store, I wanted to punch the hell out of whoever it was. It was Brent. One look at him and I started crying hysterically. He wrapped me up in his arms and just held on until I quieted down. He never told me to stop crying, or that it would be alright. He knows I don’t go for that false crap. He held me tightly and told me over and over that he loved me and let me cry it out.

Graphic of a typical personal grocery cart I use to haul my purchases through the streets of Tel Aviv.I recovered, but my angst about going out shopping, even for groceries, is now to the level where I wait until we are a day or two past due on even the most basic stuff, playing the procrastination game, before I finally psych myself up and head out the door. How I wish I could shop on the Internet from here!

And you think you got it hard!

Tel Aviv, Israel

One Comment

  • Mia
    Posted October 31, 2007 at 6:07 | Permalink

    i am an israeli, read most of your article. just wanted to agree yes most shop keeperes are wankers its not true about the returning policy. the other day my father brought a watermelon, got home, cut it, decided he didnt like it and took it back. also israelis are not ill mannered and rude. just sometimes crude.

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