Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding our rhythm

Just over six weeks in Israel and we're getting into a regular groove. We have soccer practices and games, piano lessons, parties, play dates, school, homework, and all of the every day activities that accompany regular life. Ann observed the other day that it no longer seems like we're on a trip, because we have all of the same routines that we do back home. We still have cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, taking out the garbage, recycling, buying gas and other chores. Gas costs double here, and at the moment, it is easy to figure out the conversion because there are 3.8 litres/gallon and the dollar is just under 3.8 shekels, so the price in shekels/litre is almost equivalent to dollars/gallon (a fact that I found much more exciting than Ann did). My last fill up cost 6.35 shekels/litre so you can do the math. However, we drive very little here, as walking, biking and buses are usually better options.

Although we've settled in and are starting to feel at home here, hardly a day goes by without some episode that is pure Israel. Experiences that could never happen anywhere else. A case in point is the purchasing of our bicycles.

Nestled between Ramat Aviv and Ramat Aviv Gimel is a lovely neighborhood called Neve Avivim, which sports several expansive parks with playgrounds, dozens of apartment buildings, and two small shopping centers, one of which plays host to Mordechai's bike shop. Mordechai is an Orthodox Jew who looks the part. I might describe him as a "Black Hat". He wears the requisite uniform, complete with yarmulka, tzitzit, and full beard and looks like someone you'd more likely expect to see praying at the Western wall than running a bike shop; someone whom at first glance I would associate more with the study of Torah than the adjustment of chains and brakes. His grease stained hands were in stark contrast to his overall facade.

Upon entering the bike shop, I was greeted by Mordechai with a warm smile, and a firm handshake.

Bruchim Habaim! What can I do for you?
Well, we're here for a year and we're interested in bikes.
Where are you here from?
Baltimore, Maryland in the United States.
And you've come to Israel! That's wonderful. What are you doing here?
I'm here on Sabbatical and I'm a visiting professor at Tel Aviv Univer . . .
It's so great that you've come to Israel, finally. But why just a year?
Well, the sabbatical is only a year, and then I have to get back to . . .
Why just a year? Why not two years? Maybe you'll like it and you'll stay. Any chance you think you might stay? Israel is a great place. I am telling you. Israel. There's nothing like it. Stay. You'll see.

I knew I was in trouble. We had not even begun talking about bikes yet, and he's already negotiating with me. Eventually, I identified a couple of bikes that Ann and I liked, and as luck would have it on that particular random day, all of the bikes that we considered were on sale, according to Mordechai. Of course, none of them had any prices posted, but amazingly, he knew all of the prices by heart. I pointed out that I was not just buying two bikes but five, and that surely there was a volume discount. Mordechai assured me that I was getting even better than the volume discount. We haggled a bit over the price, and I then asked if he would buy the bikes back from me in 9 1/2 months when I left Israel. Although he assured me that he would, I was not entirely satisfied, and I suggested that we determine the buy-back price now and then subtract it from the purchase price, in a sense renting us the bikes for our remaining time in Israel. He agreed and even threw in the helmets, bike locks, and baskets. He would not take anything other than cash, and when I asked him about paperwork, he scoffed and said, "I'm here. Where am I going to go? You have a problem, you come back and I'll fix it without charging you." I nervously mumbled something about getting that in writing, and Mordechai looked at me as though I had just landed from Mars, and I quickly dropped it.

We returned the next day with the children and they each picked out a bike. For Tamara, Mordechai suggested that rather than buying a new bike, I take this really nice used one he has at a really good price. It was indeed used, but not really nice, and the price didn't seem so great, but who was I to argue, so I agreed, over Tamara's protestations. The store was very busy, so Mordechai suggested that we come back later in the evening when he would have the bikes ready for us to take. Upon our return several hours later, we ran into Dafna, the mom of a girl in Tamara's class. Dafna had lived in the States and speaks English well. She came to the bike store to get some service on her bike, and when she saw the bike we were buying for Tamara, she took Ann aside and told her that this was her daughter's former bike, and that they had donated it to the store with the request that it be given to a needy family. Meanwhile, I noticed Mordechai glancing uncomfortably at the two women speaking from across the store. Ann told me what Dafna said, and suddenly Mordechai did not seem so pious. Meanwhile, the hour was late, the store closed, and we were asked to return the next morning.

When I arrived back at the bike shop the following day, Mordechai told me that he had bad news. Apparently the bike that he was going to sell Tamara had already been promised as a donation to someone, but to make it up to me, he was offering me a brand new bike in its place at the same price. Really?!? Once again I negotiated a price that included the return of the five bikes, including the helmets and locks, at the end of my Sabbatical, and I paid him in cash with no paperwork. He seemed very eager to please me and get me out of his store. His demeanor could be summarized with one word - "Busted!"
I should point out, though, that I never did ask Mordechai why he tried to sell me a bike that had been donated, and so it is possible that it was an honest mistake.

As I was leaving, I asked Mordechai if he didn't want some guarantee that we would bring back the bikes. He said that for most people he would request 2,000 shekels, but that I had an honest face and he trusts his judgement of character, and that he was not at all worried that I wouldn't bring back the bikes. I suppose he is right.

The bike purchase was an interaction that felt uniquely Israeli. At least that's what I thought, but I did not have a true sense of the Israeli experience until I opened up a bank account here. Up to now, I managed to get by with a US credit card and using ATM machines, but there are too many situations where it is inconvenient to be without a checkbook or an Israeli credit card, so I broke down and took the plunge. After our experiences with Israeli bureaucracy obtaining Ann's visa and getting my city parking permit, I dialed in my expectations, cleared my schedule, collected every possible document I could conceive of, except my American passport, which I assumed I would not need, and headed to the Mizrachi bank on my bike.

As an aside, my previous visit to a Mizrachi bank was somewhat awkward. I needed to exchange a document related to our apartment lease at a Mizrachi bank in Petach Tikvah, about a 15 minute drive East of Tel Aviv. When I arrived at the bank, there was a line of people standing at the entrance door and a guard holing the door to let people in one at a time after screening them. For some reason, he was not letting anyone in right now, so I assumed that there was some maximum number of people they wanted in the bank at any given time. The line was daunting, and I hoped that I would not have to wait in this line of about 15 people just to drop off my document and get a replacement. I walked up to the guard, avoiding the hostile stares of those whose line I hoped to cut and mentally prepared my case. "Excuse me, I'm just here to exchange this document," and I held up my one pager for him to see. He looked at me and sarcastically said, "Well, I'm just here to make a deposit." I was confused. "Oh, I thought you were a guard," I said. He looked at me like I was crazy: "What kind of guard? What are you talking about?" The crowd behind us was now more curious and perhaps entertained than hostile. I asked him why nobody was going into the bank if he's not a guard. Someone behind me replied that they were waiting for the bank to open. I sheepishly moved to the back of the line, and a few minutes later the bank opened, and I took care of my document exchange and got out of there as quickly as I could. Sometimes being a foreigner can make you feel very small.

Anyway, I did not make that mistake again and made sure that the Mizrachi bank in Ramat Aviv was open for business before entering. I asked someone who worked there where I go to open a new account and was directed to a desk in the back of the bank. As I sat down, I inspected the comfort level of my chair, as I expected to spend a considerable percentage of my time that day in it. The bank worker was very friendly, and she started asking me questions. Ten minutes later, we had gotten to know each other pretty well, but she had still not asked me a single question related to open up the account. To get us on track, I told her that I had never had a bank account in Israel, and so I was not familiar with the process. She assured me that it's very simple. She asked for my Israeli identity card and upon receiving it began typing on her computer. She paused from time to time to ask me questions. How old were my kids? What school do they go to? How do they like it here versus in the States? Questions that I suppose are necessary for opening up a bank account. Regardless of my natural impatience when filling out applications at the bank, I'll take extreme friendliness any day over any other kind of interaction. That said, I wondered if I was going to get out of this bank without an invitation to Shabbat dinner.

Once she had assessed the kind of account I wanted based on my banking needs (a judgment I felt I had to leave in her hands, as I was more confused by my options at the bank than I was about cell phone plans when I bought Elana's phone), the woman, whose name is Hen (pronounced with the harsh sounding H of Hanukkah, for which there is no letter in English) began printing out pages upon pages of documents, which she proceeded to review with me. These were the terms of my account. As she was turning the pages and showing me the terms, she whispered to me that nobody really reads these, and that she had never even read them, so I should just ignore them. Practical advice, which I don't imagine you get from the bank when opening an account in the States. The rules are different in Israel. You pay for every single teller transaction. You even pay to deposit cash in an ATM. There's apparently a fee for asking what the fees are and a fee for receiving the answer. Once the account was open, I was afraid to cough in the bank, because somewhere in my documents there was a fee listed for that. I declined an ATM card because the fees are high, and my US card works fine here. I did, however, sign up for a VISA card. Luckily, there is a promotion where you get an Israeli VISA card that is free for the first year, but then the fees are higher in subsequent years. Hen told me that there was no cancellation fee, and since we're leaving in less than a year, it seemed like a pretty good deal. When the time comes, we'll see if I'm really able to cancel the card with no penalties.

Banking is different in other ways as well. For example, when you order checks, you have to come back to the bank a week later to pick them up. They won't send them to your house, they don't notify you when the checks arrive, and they will not tell you on the phone if the checks are there. As I indicated, the service is much more personable. I was comparing stories with my cousin Abby who is visiting Jerusalem right now, and she told me of a recent bank experience. She was cashing a check and asked to get some of the money back in cash. When the teller looked at the amount, she said, "Why so much? Do you really need to carry that much cash around?" I cannot imagine that kind of comment at the PNC bank in Lutherville.

Once you have a bank account in Israel, the next step is to get money in. One way is to wire the funds from the US. Once the bank receives the wire, they call you, and you have to come in to transfer the money into your checking account. Of course, there are fees associated with that, and a commission on the exchange rate. The best way to get money into Israel seems to be via PayPal. I set up an Israeli PayPal account and linked it to my bank in the US and to the Mizrachi bank. Then I transferred funds through Paypal, and PayPal does the currency conversion at the going commercial rate, with no commissions. I was impressed that when I tried to transfer funds, my account was suspended, and the fraud prevention department at PayPal called me to verify my attempt before they would let the transaction through.

All told, I was out of the bank in less than two hours. The only two documents that they needed were my national ID card and, wouldn't you know it, my American passport. Apparently, I had to fill out a form to register as a dual citizen for some tax reason, and they needed a copy of my passport, the only document that I left at home. So, I brought the passport in the next day and everything was fine.

Tonight is Erev Simchat Torah, the Eve of the celebration of the Torah, which my friends in Nashville when I was growing up commonly referred to as "Another one of those made up Avi Rubin holidays". Here in Israel, this is one of the most joyous events of the year. We celebrate that another year has elapsed, and we roll the Torah scrolls back to their starting point and commence the reading of the Torah from "In the beginning." After the holiday, all of the neighborhoods have massive outdoor parties with bands playing music, dancing in the streets, food, etc. I've been told that it's not something to be missed, so we are looking forward to a great time.

Next week, Ann starts her Ulpan, which is an intensive immersion Hebrew program. She will have class downtown for almost 4 hours per day, four days a week for the next five months. The kids get back to school after more than a week off, and classes start at Tel Aviv University. So, our lives will get back on the daily grind track, enhanced by the novelty of being in Israel.