Friday, December 13, 2013

Perseverance Tastes like Strawberry Jelly

Dickinson College, circa not-that-long-ago, CE: Sitting at the ultimate frisbee table in the cafeteria one afternoon, I got myself into a hilarious little pickle. A friend of mine accidentally dunked his elbow in a bowl of jelly, (which was probably sitting there for alternative purposes to consumption, as we were deservedly loathed by the lunch ladies for food fights and other tactful mealtime shenanigans). As he reached for a napkin, I grabbed his wrist and said, “If you can lick that jelly off of your elbow, I’ll make out with you.” He spent the next eighteen minutes trying to lick his elbow, which is biologically impossible for most hominids. But most college kids are still easing their way into humanity – like slow steps into a cold pool of water. And as I gave him a final smirk and a condescending pat on the shoulder and turned to leave for class, my departure was stunted by an uproar (and a mildly strained popping sound). I wheeled around to find him rubbing his shoulder, but smacking his lips with the remnants of artificial strawberry stickiness on the tip of his tongue. He was smirking back at me, “I guess I’ll see you later. I think I’m going to go get a bowl of onions for dessert.”

I won’t bore you with the consequences of our bet; but the reason I am pausing at this landmark of maturity and tact on Memory Lane is because I was thinking of how with one great and final heave in the last seconds of his opportunity, he had accomplished the unaccomplishable. And earlier this week, I paralleled that feat in the Jerusalem housing market. I have been sleeping on a mattress on my host’s bedroom floor for three weeks now. He’d cleared room for me in the closet as if my stay would be longer than just a few days; but trying to fold myself into a two-dimensional existence to create as little consequence in my bachelor pad encampment as possible, I left everything in my suitcase and immediately, optimistically began calling on rental opportunities.

You can read about my efforts in my previous blog post, but for now let’s just say it hasn’t exactly been a cake walk. I won’t complain because the process got me oriented with the city. And my hosts have been so incredible. I’m staying with three guys in their 20s, all of whom are very unique, intelligent, kind, and hilarious. We chat about photography and philosophy courses they’re taking in school (college starts later here because of the military, so it’s very interesting to be back around academia (sans cafeteria food fights)). I assume they don’t mind my company because they keep telling me so in English, but when they speak amongst themselves, I wouldn’t know if they’re talking about the Queen of England or how females are solely responsible for deforestation given their exorbitant toilet paper consumption. But whether they appreciate my company or not, it is high time I find my own space and graciously return my host’s privacy to him. Which leads me to this week’s predicament…

I’d looked at a slew of apartments and my hunt had culminated in two options available to me. One was a huge apartment in a funky part of town about 15 minutes from the city center. My would-be roommates were three seemingly kind yet dweeby guys from the US and Australia. As set on this space as I was at first, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I would be creating a culturally-isolating Anglo bubble for myself. My alternative was a young, platonic pair that was getting an empty apartment near the city center. They’d narrowed their candidates down to two; and by their scheduling error, I went to meet them a second time while they were still having beers with my competition. The following hour was spent exchanging pleasantries and oozing as much awesomeness as I could in a double third-wheel group interview. I knew I’d won the guy over, but when I began to explain my work for a nonprofit that uses religious pluralism for environmental work, the girl cut me off after “interfaith” with “Aww, that stuff is bullshit.” Seriously put off but not seeing any other alternative, I forged ahead through the social sludge she’d placed at my feet to discover she was an environmental studies major…with a particular interest in sewage. We bonded over recycling, but I could tell that I lacked the charm and intrigue of my German neurobiology PhD student counterpart. I came home still feeling funky and trying to convince myself that I could make do in that apartment if I got to know her better and hung out more with the guy. It was like re-trying on a pair of pants that make your ass look great but the legs are simply too short. But winter is coming and I desperately needed pants.

Here is where my jelly-makeout analogy comes in: my final housing heave. I woke up the next morning knowing I had two options, one of which may not even be an option if Dr. BrainScientist von Shmoozer had anything to say about it. I reverted to my obsessive scanning of Craigslist, Facebook, Janglo and a few other apartment sites. I emailed three folks and against my better judgment of messaging anyone at 8:30am (they start construction out my window at 7:00am, so I figured what the hell – the world must wake up early here), I texted Rina.

Rina is Russian. Her husband, Jay, is an American who is home for an indeterminate number of months taking care of his mother in NYC. Rina keeps kosher, which I am learning to navigate; but she is not a fan of keeping Shabbat – which means we can turn on lights and make coffee on Saturdays. An economist by trade, Rina is currently pursuing a secondary degree in astrology. Rina was home that morning, so I trekked the two blocks from my current residence to pop in before work.

Another girl came to look at the apartment while I was there, and despite my empathy for every home-seeker in this town, I was turned totally cutthroat. I established a commanding presence, emotionally and physically standing my ground. Rina excused herself to answer the phone, and I gave the girl a tour of the home similar to that which I’d just received myself. When the girl asked to use the bathroom, I took a moment to cover a few more intimate details like move-in dates and deposits and such. When I took my leave, Rina offered me an umbrella. I secretly wondered if I could hold it hostage in exchange for six-months of a home, but I didn’t have to. She invited me for tea that night, and we made a verbal agreement that I’d move in later this week. Fast forward to Friday afternoon: I am actually supposed to be moving in at this moment, but instead I am snowed in and all of the boys are still snoozing. So instead, I am being patient with the world and satisfactorily munching on a proverbial, swinging-back-to-the-analogy-at-the-end-of-the-story slice of toast with strawberry jelly. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

It's Not Relevant

It’s not relevant. That’s the translation from Hebrew to English for telling me over and over again that the apartment isn’t available. That it’s already taken. That they don’t want English speakers; short-term renters; secular, non-practicing Jews. I’ve followed my tattered map to nearly every district in the city proper. I’ve stared into the eyes of thousands of potential neighbors – some showing only their eyes between a head scarf and a cloaked bosom, and others averting theirs, snapping the curls at their temples away from secular distraction to the dutiful attention to God. Some automatically speak to me in English, sensing a brotherhood of mutual nationalities. Maybe I smell like America – like dog food and new car and personal space. Others ask me for directions in Hebrew. I tell them that it’s not relevant. Older women carrying groceries and angst walk along the market cobblestones, side-stepped by Israeli soldiers nonchalantly toting a semi-rifle and smacking their gum. I make my way to another apartment catty-corner from the market buzz. He informs me that the rent is through August unless they decide to tear the building down. But bureaucracy slows everything here. So it’s’ probably not relevant. I’m greeted by students who don’t bother to side-sweep the shopping cart full of trash blocking the door. “It’s not mine. It was here when I got here, so I don’t want to throw it away,” they explain. “It’s not relevant.”

Yoga studios and daycare centers offer exorbitantly overpriced rooms with set quiet hours so as not to disturb their classes. Orthodox practitioners explain how turning on the lights or stirring instant coffee defies the stipulations of Yahweh’s law set forth for the holy day of Sabbath. I sit between fluent Hebrew speakers, smiling and nodding when it seems appropriate as the host explains the laundry, the utility bills, and that while she doesn’t really mind having boys in the house, we should first consider the how such a volatile decision may impact our moral integrity. It’s not relevant. 

The computer repairman – a kind, young guy familiar with the sideways idioms of the English language – suggests that his secretary is in need of a roommate. “Actually,” he says when he hangs up the phone with her, “it’s no longer relevant.”

Wandering back from another apartment, I realize that I haven’t eaten anything besides a Hanukkah doughnut in the past 19 hours. A vendor stuffs a falafel , fries, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, mango dressing, salsa, and tahini into a pita. After my third bite of the ethnic ecstasy, I pause to wonder if this is going to make me sick. I’ve been here before – I should know better about street food. The tightening of my lower abdomen is an instinctive reaction to an all-too-familiar trepidation. It turns out to be not so relevant.
I stare into the eyes of passers-by. They all live somewhere. How did they get there? I consider asking them how to find a house.

“The heart of the Old City!” the ad reads from Craigslist. “Just inside of Damascus gate!” For those who are unfamiliar, the Old City is divided into four quarters, though entirely under Israeli jurisdiction – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian. Damascus gate is in the Muslim quarter. One of my current hosts served in the Muslim quarter during his time in the army. “Maybe for you it’s ok because you are American. But I was afraid. They heard my accent. I mean, it’s safe. But the police – they can’t be everywhere.”

The renter comes to get me at the gate. “It’s nice, but don’t expect to get through here during call to prayer. Then I have to just go a different way.” I can see the Holy Sepulchre from the bedroom. Dome of the Rock from the balcony. And still, I have this lingering fear, injected by the racial divides as tangible as the holy, ancient ground I was standing on. I go back at night just to see how it felt. The air seems to shift as I cross New Gate into the Muslim quarter. Despite the defiant bustle of Friday night for all those not celebrating Shabbat, the gate is nearly deserted. I take a breath and walked through, suddenly struck by the stark contrast to the daylight world of the Old City. Where there had been spices, prayer rugs, loofas, tapestries, gummy bears, sneakers, falafel, pomegranates, beggars, tour group flags and slowly rotating meat, there is now absence and silence. Cats, overpopulating the city since those clever Brits figured out how to solve the rodent problem, dig into the trash piles left for late-night cleanup. One moans as it backs away from a gang of three. Two Israeli soldiers, halfway hidden by the shadows, pass their shift scrolling through their iphone photos. My chest tightened as three teenagers looked at me with a confused expression as if to say “what are you doing here?” What am I doing here? How do you see me? Will you see me differently if I open my mouth? Why do you see me differently? Is it the same reason I was told to fear you? Because someone told us to?

I’m not sure who is first to say it, but as I walk back up to the side of town I’m supposed to stay on, my program directors, the teenage boys, the Muslim taxi drivers, the Israeli soldiers, all but the blessedly blind expat already occupying the Bohemian alcove I’d never know intimately – collectively acknowledge that it’s not relevant.

And my search continues…

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jerusalem: Preliminary Observations of Foreign Immersion

I’ve been here for about two weeks now, and I have done a bit of writing, but most of my attention has been dedicated to finding a home, which is still where most of my attention is dedicated. While I feel as though I’m skiing along the surface, trying to find somewhere safe to sink in, I figured I’d at least throw out a few preliminary observations of my life thus far: And I apologize - I don't have pictures yet - just gives you something to look forward to ;).

·         I’ll start with the housing aspect that I already mentioned - a somewhat productive yet increasingly unhealthy outlet for my long-repressed obsessive compulsive disorder, which causes me to spend hours perusing websites I can’t read for housing I can’t access. Apartment spaces are being bought up in a foreign market for extremely high prices, which leaves fewer and fewer options for students and the working class. There are dozens of independence-craving young people looking at every space. Every open house is like an interview, or a modern scene from Catcher in the Rye’s matchmaker. As an English-speaking foreigner who’s only here for a short while, I don’t exactly come bearing a highly-coveted dowry.

·         It was a quite sloshy surprise to discover that beer comes in two sizes only: 1/3 and 1/2 of a liter.

·         Schindler was the only Nazi buried in all of Israel. He saved over 1200 Jews through his capital enterprises during WWII. I can see his grave from my office.

·         Living with three guys – really not so bad. They say what they mean; and I have learned to internally repress every natural bodily function, which will be exceptionally useful if I ever decide to become a spy.

·          Keeping kosher – also not so bad…until you forget. And then it gets very complicated.

·         Apparently there are a wide range of wild animals in Israel: a couple of tigers, wolves, deer, hyenas, wayward camels that got sick of the trade routes and decided to hang out in the deserts instead, and an enormous bunny whose closest relative is the elephant and who climbs trees sideways like a crab.

·         The official food of Hanukkah is the doughnut. The holiday celebrates a sect of revolutionary Jews known as the Maccabees taking back the Holy Temple from the Seleucid (Greek) Empire when the Greeks tried to force them to worship pagan gods. When the Maccabees took back the temple, they found enough oil to last them one night; but instead it lasted eight. In celebration of this miracle, the doughnut represents a sponge in which revelers can actually absorb the holy oil into their own bodies. I’m not sure what the sprinkles represent.

·         Harboring generations of exile and oppression, and decades of 4 million tourists annually who stop abruptly out of confusion or reverence of some landmark or another, people here are quite firm about standing their ground. No one says excuse me or moves out of your way. Ever. In the name of assimilation and mobility, I have begun to employ my elbows like a true native. I’d say toddlers and little old ladies beware, but they happen to be my role models for this technique. 

·         Everyone knows their history – but unlike my American history buff comrades from the ultimate frisbee table who debate about Taft, Roosevelt and Hamilton of the last two centuries, my colleagues here walk the Old City, pita in hand, and debate whether Paul was a Roman or a Jew, and when Judaism split from Christianity – arguing about the holy details from thousands of years past that caused monumental shifts rippling across the entire world.

·         The roads, like Mandarin, can only be learned by memorization. They also change names when they curve or reach an intersection, and are spelled differently based on various mapmakers’ interpretations of the phonetic translation. There is no logical layout, and attempts at rational deduction to orient oneself often literally lead to vertigo. 
Map of Jerusalem. The little red box at 2:30 on the map is the Old City - a winding, square-mile walled city within Jerusalem. I got lost there just yesterday, actually. I work at the bottom left-hand corner.
·         The Old City (the original, walled city of Jerusalem) is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. They each have their own calls to prayer (to an unaccustomed ear, I’d describe the Muslim call to prayer as extremely loud and simultaneously eerie and magnificent), bells, or times and spaces dedicated to prayer - like at the Western Wall (the base of the Temple Mount where according to religious text, God gathered the dust to create Adam, and Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also the third holiest site in Islam, the Mount has been under Muslim control - ie with the Dome of the Rock - since the 600s. Jews come to pray at the sacred base of this Wall, which is the last piece of the Mount that belongs to them).

·         The best falafel is in the Muslim quarter not far from the butcher with goat heads in the window. It (the falafel, not the goat head) comes in a pita pocket with hummus, French fries, tomato salad, and some sort of spiced salsa and pickled something-or-other. Tahini (pronounced like “teeny,” interrupted by an impulsive affliction of a sneeze or hairball caught in the back of your throat), is drizzled on top. Cobblestones in all quarters of the Old City become VERY slick when it rains.

·         Don’t be fooled by the $2.58 falafel, however. Life in Jerusalem is unG-dly expensive (heh. Sorry – I couldn’t help myself). Especially if you’re foreign – prices are jacked up everywhere if they think you come from money (read – are the offspring of an imperial society).

·         Real estate agents - if they don’t have a home for you, they will try to set you up with a home-owning boyfriend.