Once a week, Baby and I go swimming. There’s a baby-mecca in the North of Tel-Aviv which holds seemingly continuous lessons in a pool about the size of a bathtub, growing from the building’s roof like a wart. It’s overheated, the water is syrupy and, being the germaholic that I am, I try not to think of the contaminants probably floating free around me. After all babies aren’t known for the control they exert over their bladders and their bowels. Adults often aren’t much better…
The first time I went, I was suitably encouraged by Baby finding the whole setup as distasteful as I did. For nearly a full hour she howled in non-stop panic whenever I ventured too close to the edge. She wouldn’t abide even a single toe submerged and we ended up crouched in a corner with the pitying eyes of all the other proud parents upon us. I went home, glad that I would never have to endure the ordeal again. However, having only a limited capacity to endure Wife’s Polish streak, I went back the following week knowing that twice was a pattern even for her, and that this would be the final time.
Not only did Baby not hate it, she positively loved it. She plopped and paddled, rolled and cooed, laughed at the creepy instructor and his even creepier singing. Unleashing her inner voyeur, she glared at the other babies and their parents as I yanked her around in continuous arcs by her finger-tips and toes. When the toys came out, she hoarded all the little floating balls and took a swipe at any of the other children who dared to steal them. She may be only ten months old, but I can see certain similarities.
I couldn’t be more proud…
… though I do wish she’d take after me somewhere other than in that putrid pool.
You could probably call Israel an island country.
Although geographically we’re wedged at the juncture of Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel often feels more remote than New Zealand. To the West and South there’s sea; to the South-West a cold, uneasy peace, and to the East a domineered people and another absence of war. There’s nowhere to easily travel to – even Sinai, so long a dominion, is now out of bounds – and venturing beyond the borders usually involves a connect-the-dots approach and an over familiarity with the world’s airports.
So why does every car in Israel sport a little blue and white flag with the word “Israel” in Hebrew, Arabic, and abbreviated English? Some will argue it’s for easy identification of Palestinian vehicles (almost unheard of west of the Green Line but ubiquitous on West Bank roads), but really, how close is the black-on-yellow to the green-on-white?
Instead, I believe it’s a kind of dream state, whereby everyone here actually believes that one day they’ll be able to get in their cars and enjoy a night’s clubbing in Beirut or a quick drive-by at the Pyramids. Either that, or a colossal earthquake will connect Haifa to Athens. If the cars in Europe need distinctive identification, the thinking goes, so do we here in Israel.
Of course, it’s a kind of national psychosis. The responsibility for the region’s eternal stalemate is not an issue for this blog, but let’s face it: it’s not gonna be over any time soon. Hell, even travelling to our ‘friend’ Jordan to the east requires a quick swap of license plates and a file of paperwork. I’m not sure what the process is like in reverse, but I’ve seen exponentially more UN vehicles in Tel-Aviv than I have Jordanian.
So imagine my surprise when I saw this car parked inconspicuously at the bottom of my street. Maybe there’s hope in this craziness after all…
Having drinks at Port Said, one of the trendier bars in my neighbourhood, I ran into some old industrial designer friends. We got talking but within a few minutes I realised I was already excluded. Usually I find this upsetting; but today I was relieved. For, panting like pubescent school-boys in the presence of a Playboy bunny, they gazed out over the sea of cigarette smoke towards the two bikes chained against the railings of Tel-Aviv’s Great Synagogue.
“I’m thinking of getting a new saddle,” said one, and the other simply nodded at the sage wiseness of this comment.
“A Brooks?” he said. “Which one?”
On they went. And on. And on. Never quite becoming bored of talking about a fucking saddle.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my bike. Love it even. Tel-Aviv is such a compact city and the weather is generally so good that there is no better way around than on two wheels. My bike is one of my most useful, if not prized, possessions But I’m not ten, and so I don’t – no, I can’t – fetishise it to the level of these two 30-somethings who really should know better. I have a saddle and it works. End of.
Their bikes, however, were even worse than the inherent creepiness of their conversation. You’ve all seen them – narrow frames, elastic-band skinny tyres, single speed (if not the dreaded fixed gear), ridden by smug bastards in American Apparel perfect polyester. In principle, I have nothing against them – I can see the attraction in flat, well asphalted, well maintained cities like Amsterdam, London or New York. But here in Tel-Aviv they’re about as appropriate as that Playboy bunny topless at the Hajj.
Tel-Aviv is built on sand dunes which means that the slightest crack in the road or pavement spews a sea of nasty, gritty, slippery yellow all over the street. Drivers are insane, tarmac often ends abruptly, pavements are optional on many streets and are usually covered with the rubble of a dozen demolished buildings. If my well-worn mountain bike has problems negotiating this urban obstacle course, these Hipster Wagons really are death on two wheels.
Yes, you can get them in any lurid (and, it must be admitted, attractive) combination of colours your little hipster heart desires, and yes they’re actually an Israeli company (with an offshoot in East London of course), but they’re corrupting the not-so-young and endangering an entire generation. Although, my friends aside, the ones they’re endangering probably won’t be missed.
When the waiter arrived and started panting too, I politely made my excuses and, with a heavy heart, left them be. Everyone needs a hobby, but they need one more appropriate to 30-somethings already crushed by the disappointments of life. Like internet porn. Or a suitable drug addiction.
Today, I did something I hate to do: I drove in Tel-Aviv. I’m glad I did.
As is always the case, there was no parking, so I queued for a place at the parking lot which, once-upon-an-Ottoman-time, was the railway linking Istanbul to Cairo. This middle of nowhere place forced me to walk down a horrible street – the main artery beside the Gan Hachashmal neighbourhood – and that’s how I stumbled upon Hamigdalor (The Lighthouse).
Nowadays, to find an independent bookstore anywhere is rare. To find one where each and every book is hand-picked by the staff and owners is a miracle. And so it is here: a compact yet immaculate collection of fiction, non-fiction, art and crafts in both Hebrew and English. Tiny, yet poetically perfect.
I spent rather too much money, yet far less than I could have – a book of Palestinian landscapes, a cookbook for Wife (a subtle hint that will probably get me punched in the face) and two new novels I’ve been looking for to no avail (the main Israeli chains, for want of a better word, suck). I also considered buying Baby a picture-book called “All My Friends are Dead”, or the sequel “All My Friends are Still Dead”, but finally refrained.
I have to leave something for next time.
Is in Taiwan, where the best of China and Japan do the dirty and have scrumptious little babies. But if I titled this post “World’s Second Best Street Food”, would you read it? Of course not.
So, after the bait, here’s the switch: sabich is really, really, really, really delicious. A refugee dish from Jewish Iraq, some intrepid individual took all the basic ingredients of the traditional shabbat (sabbath) meal and shoved it all in a pitta.
Fried eggplant, boiled egg, chilli salad, cucumber, onion, tomato, spring onion, potato, fresh chilli, crushed chilli, lettuce, cabbage, lemon, tchina, cumin and amba (an Iraqi mango chutney which – warning! – alters your body odour like asparagus changes your pee); this is one very pretty and crazy complex tastebud-assault.
Some people will tell you that the best sabich in Tel-Aviv is on Frischman St. near the corner with Dizengoff. This, I am sorry to say, is complete bullshit. The best – by far – is on Tchernikovski just a few meters from Allenby. It’s so good, it’s just named Sabich. Ask for a “Mana shlema im hakol” (a full portion with everything) with a side of chilli pepper strips in salt and cumin, and prepare to have your life changed for ever.
Now if only someone could return the favour with some tips on how to shift the extra tyres I’ve developed living too close to this place…
Over here, a lot of walls get put up; not a lot get pulled down. In the country, that is. In our apartment, it’s the opposite.
Just this morning, this disaster zone was my study. Now it’s a hole, and in a few days it will be the entry to Baby’s very own bedroom. She’s been sleeping in the bomb shelter since we moved her from just beside my ear and now, finally, she’ll have a bona-fide room without foot-thick walls, a reinforced door and metal ‘curtains’.
The flip side is that I’m homeless. My room was my sanctuary (or, more realistically, my Golem’s cave) – the place where I hoarded all my books and pens and inks and unused notebooks, and where the floor was littered with negative rolls and film canisters and contact sheets and those bloody electronic cables that can never be untangled and whose parent-devices have long been consigned to the rubbish bin of obsolescence. More, it was where I wrote and where Sufi (the Old Dog) and I used to curl up on the manky old couch together and work and read.
It feels strangely appropriate that the room has died with her. Since Tuesday, I haven’t been able to go in there without thinking of her. Losing my old friend and losing the room seem intrinsically, necessarily linked – like two facets of the same event. And I’m ok with that, if also a little scared.
Published Author told me last week that he once changed his desk mid-novel and found he could no longer complete it; that the plot, the characters, the broader understanding of it all had just suddenly vanished, never to be found again. I’m not as prone to sentimentality or self-mythologising, but still… that was just his desk…
If Unpublished Novel #2 never gets finished, I’m blaming Baby. After all, what is parenting if not the accumulation of slight simmering resentments? I think that’s fair, right?
Free babysitters in Tel-Aviv are like virgins in a Harem: if they do exist, they’re gone before you know it. So it was in desperation that, when Wife and I realised we hadn’t been out alone in a very, very long time, we dialled through the ream of numbers on the fridge. Finally we found a girl who wasn’t booked and, after making awkward, polite conversation with someone who really should be earning more than 35 Skekels ($9) an hour, Baby finally fell asleep and we headed out to 44 on Nachalat Binyamin.
I really love that place. OK, so the food isn’t the greatest (“experimental” and “Vietnamese-inspired” are two terms which should and do really set the alarm-bells ringing), but the garden is so atmospheric and the staff are so nice and the food so heart-felt that it is worth making excuses for (and avoiding with hipster-foodie friends who take their gastronomy too seriously to take them seriously).
But as the night progressed and the wine flowed, talk invariable turned to Sufi and our hearts weren’t in it. So reluctantly we said goodbye to the fawning waiter and headed back to the Kerem. The couch was empty when the door squeaked open. Even Young Dog had vacated the living room so something clearly wasn’t right. Paranoia dictated a violent kidnapping, but some faint noises from the bedrooms downstairs suggested other foul play. Young Dog heard us and lifted her head from her bed; I swear she pointed us towards our bathroom. For, lo-and-behold, though we have three toilets in our tiny apartment, there amidst the open drawers and cabinets sat Babysitter, perched high atop our own porcelain throne, her granny-knickers down around her ankles. Forgive me, but my first thought was “where’s the bleach”.
She shuffled out to the lift the colour of strawberry jam, and it was excruciating to watch the humiliation and shame of being caught so vivid on her face. Wife and I laughed and the Baby stirred and then we stopped. Cos we both realised at that moment how rare a commodity babysitters are in this modern day Sodom.
We’ll probably have to call her again. Maybe we’ll lock the doors next time…