The quintessential Israel experience

By | June 27, 2006

My family is in the middle of a two-week visit to Israel.  Today is my “day off” to spend by myself, and of course, where else would I spend it than at an Internet cafe checking my email :-)?  I’m not one of those avid bloggers who must record every detail of his vacation, but I thought it would be amusing to recount one incident which fits the theme of my blog.

However, before I get into the whole righteous indignation thing, I feel compelled to mention how amazing this homeland of ours is.  Where else can one walk around town and see streets named “Mendele Mocher Seforim” or “Zerubavel”?  Where else can one run into trouble trying to return something to the supermarket Friday afternoon, because the supermarket closes early on Erev Shabbat?  Walking home from the closed supermarket with the item I had tried to return, I suppose I should have been irritated at being unable to return it, but I wasn’t.  I was overjoyed to see the supermarket closed, and overjoyed to see the nearly empty streets.

There is an energy in Jerusalem, a feeling of holiness that you just can’t ignore.  It is truly remarkable.

I’m pretty sure I’d go crazy in short order if I ever tried to make aliya.  But at the same time, I know that this is my home and where I truly belong.  A.B. Yehoshua is right: it is impossible to be fully Jewish outside the land of Israel.

And now, on with the righteous indignation…

For our first week in Israel, we stayed in an apartment in Jerusalem which we rented from an Israeli man who lives in Cleveland.  We know about this man and his apartment because A…’s mother helped his son find scholarships for college (this is what she does for a living).  It was Israeli “protectsia” at its best.  The building is located two blocks from the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall and within walking distance of the Old City.  It’s something like 18 stories tall and makes a distinctive mark on the skyline, since some of the upper floors are glass-paneled rather than Jerusalem stone and there’s a visible rooftop garden.

Yesterday, we left Jerusalem to spend a couple of days in Tel Aviv and then do some touring in the North (incidentally, I highly recommend the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv; we got a very good rate from hotels.com).  About an hour before we were ready to leave for Tel Aviv, I called a cab company to order a “special” taxi for the entire family and all our baggage.  Note for the folks who haven’t visited Israel: there’s regular inter-city van taxi services throughout Israel.  Usually, one end of the trip is fixed (e.g., vans going from the airport to wherever you want to go in Jerusalem, or vans going from a specific location in Jerusalem to wherever you want to go in Tel Aviv), and you share the van with others who are going to the same city.  A “special” is a dedicated van that picks you up and drops you off wherever you want, and you’re the only passengers.

We were assured that the van would arrive in an hour.  Of course, it didn’t.  It arrived 45 minutes late, after several heated conversations between me, the dispatcher, and the driver, who apparently circled around our (one-way) street five or six times in heavy traffic but was unable to figure out how to actually get onto it.  Finally, I went out onto the street with my cell phone, flagged down the driver, and showed him where he had to turn to get to the apartment building.

He said that neither he nor anyone in the office of the cab company knew where the street was or how to get onto it.  This, despite the fact that it’s less than a half mile from the office, it’s within shouting distance of the biggest pedestrian mall in the city, the building in question is 18 stories tall and easily visible from anywhere in the city, and I told the dispatcher how to get to the street when I called to order the cab.  I asked the driver when he finally arrived why he or the dispatcher didn’t look at a map of the city, and he said they don’t have one.  This is Israeli culture at its best (and why I would go crazy if I tried to live here).

But the story isn’t over.  I actually visited the office of the cab company the previous night and asked them how much the cab would cost.  They said it would cost NIS (New Israeli Sheqel) 250.  When I informed the driver of this, he (of course!) argued with me and said that he didn’t agree to that price, so why should he have to honor it.  We got that out of the way after some haggling, and he agreed to honor the price that had been quoted to me.

Meanwhile, we were arguing back and forth about exactly whose fault it was that he was 45 minutes late.  Why should he be expected to absorb the cost of driving around for 45 minutes looking for our building?  Why was it his fault that he couldn’t find the street?  Etc., etc.  He actually called the dispatcher and chewed him out about it wasn’t OK to keep me waiting, wasn’t OK that no one at the office knew how to get to the street, wasn’t OK that they sent him to the wrong place, etc.  Then he tried to commiserate with me about how no one at the office cared about him or me and it was the two of us against them!  This was all part of his efforts to get me to pay more than the price that had been quoted to me.  I was his new best friend, and all he wanted to do was make me happy.

Next we had to deal with the fact that I had to add a stop to the trip — my parents, who had been staying at a nearby hotel until the day before, had left a bag at the front desk containing my tallit, which I had accidentally left at the hotel when I visited on Shabbat, and I had to get to the hotel to pick up the bag.  I informed the driver that I needed to stop at the hotel to pick up the bag, and that given that he arrived 45 minutes late, I expected him to add the additional stop to the route at no additional charge.  Of course, he didn’t agree to that, which is what I expected; it was just my initial bargaining position.  He offered to stop off at the hotel for an additional NIS 50, a ridiculous charge since a cab from our building to the hotel wouldn’t cost more than NIS 30.  I told him I’d give him NIS 275 for the whole trip and not a sheqel more.  He argued, but in the end he agreed.

I know I’m not doing justice to the whole exchange.  It was just so amusing how the driver was at the same time trying to befriend me, make me feel at ease, and extract as much money as possible out of the situation.

In the middle of the trip to Tel Aviv, the driver pulled out a cigarette and asked if it was OK to smoke.  I told him we’d really rather he didn’t, since A… wasn’t feeling well and cigarette smoke bothers her even in the best of circumstances.  He insisted that he’d hold the cigarette out the window and it wouldn’t bother us at all, and he just had to have a cigarette because he had a terrible headache.  So, of course, in the end he smoked the cigarette, and of course the smoke bothered A….  Thank God, he listened when I asked him to only smoke one.  I’d been starting to feel a little warmth toward the guy and was thinking about giving him more than 275, but the cigarette incident put a stop to that.

On the way, we discussed our plans for the rest of our trip.  When we told him that we were planning on hiring a taxi to take us from the North back to the Jerusalem area (Maale Adumim) for Shabbat, he told us we should call him and he’d come pick us up.  Can you believe the chutzpah?!  As far as he’s concerned, we’re the best of friends and all he wants to do is drive us around Israel!  Yes, sir, I’d go crazy living here, but don’t you just love it?

Did I mention that he had to call the dispatcher to find out where the Dan Panorama is in Tel Aviv, despite the fact that it’s one of the biggest, fanciest hotels in the city?  At least he found it on the first try.

Of course, when we got out of the cab at the hotel he tried to convince me to give him more money than we’d agreed to.  I would have if it hadn’t been for the cigarette, but I held firm, and in the end, off he drove with the reminder for us to call him Friday morning and he’d come get us and bring us back to Jerusalem.  I haven’t decided yet whether I’m going to call him.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, except perhaps that although my Hebrew isn’t all that good, it’s best when I’m arguing :-).

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