Monday, August 23, 2010

Israel - the first six days

This is our sixth day in Israel, and after almost a week, I'd like to write down some thoughts and observations.

First of all, Wow!

I really don't know where to start. The first week has been all about getting acclimated and settling in. This was complicated by the fact that on the second day, I developed a painful crick in my neck, and so I was quite limited physically. It might have had something to do with an 18 hour trip with 15 suitcases and 3 kids.

My first major observation is that the adage that you can get by on English in Israel and that "everybody speaks English there" is simply wrong. This was evident, for example, when I tried to get a car. I did some research from the States and tried to contact several rental companies, but I got nowhere. So, I decided to wait until I arrived in Israel. Once I got here, I called around for prices and found that you can negotiate quite a bit, and in fact, you have to. That's definitely a universal theme here. Ultimately, I got a deal for 10 1/2 month rental. It's not much of a car, but it gets me from A to B (aleph to bet?) and it fits the entire family. Looking back, there is no way I could have pulled this off without being fluent in Hebrew. In fact, if my Hebrew were better, I probably would be driving a nicer car now at a lower price.

I've had to deal a bit with various local and national government offices, and I am certain that my ability to speak Hebrew is the only reason that the experience was only "painful" instead of impossible. I have had numerous experiences in less than a week that simply could not have occurred without my knowledge of the language. One scenario that has played out several times is when we're in a crowded food court at the mall or near the beach, and people are pushing and shoving, and the guys taking the orders are trying to rush everyone. It's a hectic enough situation for native speakers. Those with less fluency left to fend for themselves in English or broken Hebrew simply cannot compete. My observation has been reenforced at the grocery store, the pharmacy, on buses, and interacting with people on the street. I'm sure that if I did not speak a single word of Hebrew, we could still do this Sabbatical trip, but I believe we would not have accomplished even 10% of what we've done so far getting settled here. Most phone numbers that you call (e.g. pizza delivery, government offices, voicemail, etc) send you directly into an automated phone menu in Hebrew. So, it's pretty useless for Ann to try to make calls, even if the person who ultimately answers the phone is friendly (likelihood = 25%) and speaks English (likelihood 75%).

Our luckiest break came before we even got here. We have these amazing friends, Sharon & Zvi Geva, who used to live in Baltimore and who now live outside of Tel Aviv. (I recommend that everyone who wants to come to Israel find such friends - actually, even if you don't come to Isarel you should try to find such friends.) They found our apartment for us, dealt with some banking issues for us, registered our kids in the neighborhood school, and basically did a lot of the ground work that we were not able to do from abroad. It's also been great catching up with them here, as we haven't seen them in 2 years. Without the Gevas, we'd probably still be in some hotel desperately looking for housing that meets our long list of requirements. The apartment they found us is gorgeous, with an incredible view of the ocean, a 20 minute walk to the beach, a 20-25 minute walk to my office, and easy bus connectivity to everywhere. It's taken us a while to figure out how everything in the apartment works - everything is different, and not just the voltage. We were challenged by the laundry machines, the TV, the air conditioning units, the lighting, the alarm (insurance policy *requires* that we set the alarm whenever we leave the house), codes for entering the front door, the rear door (different codes), and thin, slow elevators that aren't very friendly to someone as claustrophobic as I am. At first, we couldn't get the hot water to work, the toilets to flush hard (hint: push the lever twice), or the oven to turn on.

But, we've pretty much conquered all of these.

One thing I'm very happy with is the cell phone & Internet service. I highly recommend that anyone who visits Israel follow the steps I'll describe. First, before I left home, I jailbroke and unlocked my iPhone and ordered Israeli SIM cards from an online site. When our plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I popped out the AT&T SIM card and inserted the Israeli one. Turned on the phone, and voila, it worked. Then, I activated Internet service (129 shekels/month), and I was online with 3G service that is faster than AT&T's network in the States. Now, I've found an incredible use for this. Whenever I go somewhere on a bus, I enter the destination into the Maps app on my iPhone, and then I watch as the GPS tracks my location on the map on my phone as the blue dot representing my current location moves towards the destination. In the old days when I traveled in other countries, I was always stressed out about getting off the bus at the right time, missing my stop, or getting completely lost. So far, tracking the bus route on my iPhone GPS until I get close to my stop has taken all of the excitement (that I could do without) out of the experience. And, once I get off the bus, the GPS on the phone guides me right to my final destination. What a pleasure! Also, the Internet service in my apartment is 10Mbps bidirectional, which means that Skype and iChat work great.

Grocery shopping is a pleasure here. The nearest grocery store is just slightly further from our building than my mailbox is from my front door in Baltimore. You fill a cart with all of your selections, and then give them your grocery card at checkout. They have your home address on file, linked to your grocery card, and after you pay, they ask you when you want your groceries delivered. If it's right away, then 5 minutes after you get home, they show up with everything and unload it in the kitchen. Sure beats shopping at Safeway in Owings Mills. Also, even at the local grocery store, all the breads, including the amazing pita breads, are fresh baked and blow away anything I have eaten in the States. Of course there is falafel and hummus everywhere. I think the food is better here. We haven't been to any find dining restaurants yet on this trip, but based on my experiences on prior visits, I believe they are as good as or better than the very best restaurants in Baltimore, and even rival those in New York. So, gastronomically speaking, Israel is a huge win.

While buying food is more convenient here, other supplies are much more difficult to come by. There is no Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond. We sometimes have to go to several stores that may be far apart to find simple supplies that would be in adjacent isles in a US department stores. I have yet to discover Israel's equivalent to, and I've had bad luck in my attempts to purchase a printer/copier/scanner/fax. I think that I placed an order for one today, and that it will arrive within 14 business days, but I could be wrong.

We are not yet on a normal sleep schedule, but we're getting close. The kids are going to bed pretty late and sleeping in, but Elana has been up quite a bit during the night. I've been up at 4 a.m. most nights, and I usually fall back asleep after a couple of hours.

So, the adjustment is under way. Life is definitely more complicated here, but there are some real advantages. Ann registered for an intensive Hebrew language program downtown (Ulpan Gordon), and the kids start school on September 1. We've met Tamara's teacher, and we love her. Hopefully, Elana and Benny's teachers will be as good and as nice. We've heard good things about them from Tamara's teacher.

We are really looking forward to the High Holidays which start the week after the kids start school. I have not been in Israel for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur since I was a kid. We're also really looking forward to Hanukkah and Passover here in Israel. I remember that these holidays in Israel are absolutely incredible. I'm especially looking forward to a year without all the Christmas music in the malls. If memory serves, you don't even know when it's Christmas here.

We have not had any time to be tourists yet, and we'll probably be caught up in many more organizational details until school starts, but eventually, we will take some time to visit the sites and take in the experiences here. I have also not yet pursued finding a soccer team to play on, and I have not followed my one lead for a regular poker game in Tel Aviv. I'd like for Ann to be more comfortable here before I get involved in activities outside the house. But hopefully, I'll be able to play some soccer and poker here on a regular basis. We did join a pool and health club that is a few hundred yards from our building, and the kids have already enjoyed swimming there twice, with the weather in the upper 90s.

I will try to blog at least once a month and to post updates on our experiences. Elana is also posting on her own blog. It's quite a daunting undertaking to capture all of this week's experiences in writing. Hopefully, I've painted a picture of what it's been like adjusting to life in Israel. Please keep in touch and send emails. It's always great whenever we hear from our friends back home. I can't believe we're actually living here.