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Freedom in the Middle East: I get 4 wheels

March 28, 2011

Israeli parking at its best...

You may have heard – there are revolutions going on all over the Middle East. From our neighbors in Egypt unseating a long-term dictator to the folks in Yemen shaking things up, things they are a’changing.  It seems a fitting time to celebrate my own newfound freedom: I’ve upgraded from the Jaguar’s two wheels to the four-wheel riding comfort of a Mazda 2 (otherwise known as “the hockey skate car”).

I’ve been a proud if only mildly-assertive (by Israeli standards: link to “Top 10 Tips for Israeli Driving”) driver since January, and I must report that the M2 is a peppy little ride. It sneaks easily into the most creative of Israeli parking spaces, it scoots effortlessly between constantly shifting lanes of traffic. It sips gas – and jolly well should given the $60 price tag for a local fill-up for its miniscule tank. In fact, nothing automotive is cheap in Israel – gas, parking, parking tickets … that’s all in addition to the steep (100%) VAT levied on the cars themselves.

I spent much of the fall developing inch-thick callouses on my sandaled feet, then moved to the lesser-evils of bicycling on the sidewalks. My debt of gratitude to the Jaguar is huge; it opened up so much more of Tel Aviv to me, but since we suffered through the depths of a rainy winter (a bit of sarcasm here for my east coast US friends…) the wheels came off, so to speak. The M2 arrived at the perfect moment to spirit me up the highways to The Carmel Winery, to the big grocery store, and, on the rainiest of days, to the once-bikeable Port Market.

My wonderful Mad Scientist splurged on a new, Garmin-version GPS as a Christmas gift, ending my troubled relationship with the Mio. We – my electronic friends: the GPS, my NPR-filled iPod (plus newfound delight “Stuff You Missed in History Class” from howstuffworks.com), and the Mazda – make such a merry band that when I accidentally misinterpreted a “no enter” sign as “no parking,” we were just waved up on the sidewalk to avoid the oncoming traffic.  Jerusalem, once too complicated a trip to make on the spur of the moment, now beckons weekly – if gas weren’t so expensive I’d almost make the trip just for the pita at Mehane Yehuda…

I am well aware of what a luxury this all is – freedom, in so many senses. At a local, practical level I’ve heard how many people take bikes to sheruts to buses to get from place to place. In upcoming weeks I’ll have some US-based friends visiting and we’ll take the sporty M2 on some long drives – stay tuned for tales of our travels!

Nadia Comaneci, flex ve point, and Rotzah Fame?

February 21, 2011
Nadia is an Esser (10)!

Nadia is an Esser (10)!

In my athletic adventures as a Real Housewife, I was ecstatic to learn that the vocabulary of Pilates – the saw, rolling like a ball, v-position – remained in its original english, even at the renown Dror Raz Pilates at the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center.  Classes are in Hebrew, peppered with instructions like “flex, ve point”, and just-in-time suggestions for yours truly; it’s a special sort of feeling you get when after a long string of instructions something like “not that way, try harder” comes out in English. You know that’s an individual coaching message, delivered just for you…slacker.

The other students range from twenty-something dancers pushing the envelope of flexibility to sixty-something women elegantly maintaining their fitness. I strive to make up for what I lack in grace and accuracy with enthusiasm. Since Pilates demands precision in positioning and whatnot, “Not Nadia Comaneci, Bold Red, just arms up” is now a favorite refrain from one instructor. Only after I left the class did it occur to me that she’d pegged me as old enough to understand the Nadia reference. The hands-on approach is common as well, especially when I didn’t understand how to “put the table more on the floor” – what table? I have a powerhouse (the stomach) but now I have more anatomical furniture too? An adjustment here, a lift there – ah ha, she meant “tailbone” …

Usually the other students in the 6-person pilates sessions consider me a bit of a class pet.  As they might care for a homeroom hamster, they help me find the equipment and sometimes translate the pre-class social banter. Of course, class is easiest for everyone when I can get a spot near the mirror to mimic the other students following the instructor’s directions. Most people try to make me feel welcome, despite my language deficiencies; the best English speakers chalk up their skills to reruns of “24” and all of the Hollywood movies available at the big-name cinemas.

The first time I noticed Yoav (not his name, but about 50% of the men I meet here are, in fact, named Yoav)  I was pleasantly surprised to see a thirty-something, athletic guy in a pilates class – in the US, it’s often the domain of women, but many men actually attend Dror Raz. He towered over the class at a little over six feet and his too-tight lycra shorts suggested he might also be a runner. A mop of curly brown hair sat on his head like a german motorcycle helmet of the 1940s, but occasionally a lock slipped over his eyes, suggesting a stripe of boyish charm.

He scowled at me darkly after the instructor apologized to me for not knowing the English vocabulary for something like somewhat nuanced like “scapula.” I understood what she meant and waved off her apology, saying in Hebrew hakol beseder, “everything is fine.” Twisted into his own pose, Yoav deadpanned a comment in Hebrew that sent snickers through the class. As we finished, he sauntered lankily toward me as I offered him the sanitizing spray and said something quickly in Hebrew. “I’m sorry – I didn’t understand?” I said with a tentative smile. He laughed mirthlessly and left the room, not bothering to clean his mat for the next student.

Two days later, I arrived to find Yoav standing at the front of the room in the teacher’s normal place. Only after he began leading us through the typical warmup did I realize he would be teaching the class. I scooted my mat around to ensure a better a view of the ballerina whose flawless execution was easy to follow. I kept pace as best I could, listening intently for any familiar Hebrew words (I’ve mastered “ceiling”, “knees”, “inhale/exhale”, and “vertebrae by vertebrae”); Yoav launched into a full minute of instruction that elicited no visible movement from the other students. I sighed.

I realized with a start that the others were on their right sides while I was still on my back awaiting the conclusion of his diatribe. Yoav caught me scrambling to recover and, grabbing a foam roller to pound on the floor, intoned in screen-worthy English

You’ve got big dreams?
You want Fame?
Well Fame costs
And right here is where you start paying
In sweat!

Seriously?

The class fell silent for a moment, unsure of what would come next. My mind spun, searching for the actress’s name… Debbie Allen?  (a clip of her infamous speech, to save you from searching for it, since I know you will want to…)

And then again the realization … I guess I do look like I remember the 80s. Ah well.

Temptation Sunday

February 17, 2011

I promised myself that I’d seek out unfamiliar cultural experiences in Israel. Most specifically, I’d embrace wild foods. Anyone can sit in ignorant silence through an unfamiliar religious service or local rendition of “happy birthday” at a group dinner, but venturing into the unknown terrain of things that actually take up residence, albeit briefly, in one’s mouth is another kettle of gefilte fish, so to speak.

Soon after we arrived I stumbled upon a McDonalds/KFC duplex, wrapping all that deep-fried Americana in one building. I haven’t been to KFC since well before they dropped “chicken” from their name, but I’ve been known to drop into McD’s to soothe my ill self, whether from a cold or hangover. Their fries and sundaes bring sunlight and rainbows to thundercloud days. I beat a hasty retreat that day, resolved in my commitment to avoid corn syrup imported from Iowa. I can get that anywhere.

Thanks Landlopers.com: How to be the Worst Tourist in the World, on the Beach at Tel Aviv

The rest of September was a measuredly decadent buffet of savory and sweet. Only once –a bite of sautéed calf brains at a fancy provencal restaurant – did I regret my commitment to stretch the bounds of my culinary universe. Otherwise, the fresh baked pretzels surpassed any available on even the grittiest Philly streetcorner, where exhaust adds piquant flavor notes, and shwarma joined my favorite lunchtime options. I breezed past grocery store rows of Pringles, Oreos, and an entire aisle of Chicken of the Sea, heading instead for the fluffy hummus and honey-soaked baklava.

On a broiling October day, I saw the beckoning orange and yellow gleam again and could feel the cool touch of that bright white dairy-ish product of the Mc Sundae, feel the rub of the salt from slim, greasy fries. I averted my eyes and kept walking.

Weeks pass. The weather cooled, year end holiday festivities came and went. We’ve settled into an apartment a mile or so from the dulcet tones of Ronald’s soft ice cream machine. I’m over it. I enjoy gelato, fro-yo (real yogurt!) with unlimited fresh fruit toppings, and local malabi pudding.

On a recent drizzly Sunday, I’m out at a suburban mall on hour 6 of a wild goose chase for one of those highly critical items you can’t find in Israel – namely, men’s shirt collar stays.  Hurrying through raindrops, I hand over my bag for the mandatory if perfunctory entry search, not caring that used tissues littered the top. I sniffled a bit, maybe from the rain, maybe from my gloomy mood. I sighed, fortifying myself for the intricate Heb-lish/pantomime act I knew I’d need to perform in every store to probe for my grail. Surprisingly, “collar stays” is not among the useful vocabulary covered in the “Alef” level language classes.

Like a beacon through misty fog, light from a new Mc Café spilled into the main thoroughfare. I don’t recall the next few moments. Only after I had placed my order, in a fugue state of relief, anticipation, desire, and grill fumes, did I realize what I had done.

Taking the cold choco-caramel delight from the puzzled cashier (seriously, no one else ever orders two sauces?), I sat in a quiet corner and raised the first bite to my quivering lip, ensuring the spoon held representation from the three flavor experiences.

The rush of sugar! The creamy coolness! I was instantly transported to my mother’s car, circa kindergarten, when we’d hit the drive through sometimes after school.

Defeat was bittersweet. I snuggled up into the nostalgia and comfort of that little cup. One third in, as usual, the OMG-what-am-I-eating realization hit. I walked away a slightly less proud woman, but the sugar high pulled me through.

 

Superbowl Sunday: Beach Season Begins?

February 6, 2011

After a rainy and relatively chilly weekend – I donned both jeans and a light jacket, rather than the Capri-and-tshirt norm – the blue-sky sunshine of today was a welcome start to this week. Even better, I realized on a morning run, it wasn’t just not raining … it was hot. Not the steamy, 100+-degree temperatures Tel Aviv is sure to see come summer, but definitely in the high 70s.

Hence, today is my first beach day of 2011: the earliest start I’ve ever had to sea season, this day in February, and ironic that it’s one day when most of the US will be glued to their TVs …  it’s Superbowl Sunday!

Woo Hoo party! At the sushi restaurant ... inside the grocery store ... with monster TVs

 

Mixing bowl that Israel is, the spectrum of fellow sand-sitters runs wide, from locals in turtlenecks and long pants (this is the dead of winter) to shirtless surfers with board shirts and ubiquitous paddleball kits, splashing at the edge of the lapping waves to make the return volley. Somewhere in the middle you have tourists of all stripes with bunched-up sleeves and rolled pant cuffs (it is February, after all, and quite cold in the places, I’m guessing from their accents, these people packed their suitcases in) and me, in sandals and shorts.

Several folks who look like student travelers, with multi-tiered backpacks and ponytail-prisoned hair, are dozing in the Mediterranean sun, using the packs as back rests. One very adventurous couple, right on the periphery of my vision, seems to be, ahem, creating some heat of their own on this very public beach; I’m furtively averting my gaze. An ancient, sun-toasted man with a Merlin beard and long white hair is engaged in some sort of yoga; later, he comes over and gifts me two lovely conch-type shells. A gal from the Czech Republic asks me to watch her bag while she pops to the loo. I test the ocean water – it’s crisp, about as warm as the waters in coastal CT probably were this past July – and a few people are swimming.

Tel Aviv Beach on Superbowl Sunday

Somehow none of us seems out of place… except maybe the woman walking at the shore’s edge in high-heeled knee-high black leather boots. But whatever, it’s Tel Aviv, anything goes. I am, however, just a bit sad that the Superbowl festivities around the city and in Texas will begin just way too late for me to enjoy them – even though bars and restaurants around the city seem to be throwing huge parties.

I’m scheduled to fly to the US for a bit in late February; while I have some serious packing to do, if the weather stays like this the real project will need to be returning with a tan!

On my way home, I stopped at the part of the beach promenade TMS and I call Kitty Hill – and almost incited a riot! I guess the seafood flavor cat kibble is better tasting than we might think….

Party on Kitty Hill!

Sharing the Saslove: Barrel Tasting at a Kibbutz

January 30, 2011

In the last three days, I’ve seen an ancient Roman-era wine press at the Eretz Israel Museum, and I’ve had the 2008 vintage of the currently aging-in-barrel Saslove Cabernet and Cabernet Syrah. Both speak to the rich history of winemaking here in Israel (though, admittedly, I went to the museum because of the highly-rated museum store), and Saslove has a very bright future (I”m so convinced, I signed up for futures on the upcoming Cabernet Reserve…).

TMS and I have enjoyed barrel tastings at other favorite wineries in the US — Story Winery and Pride Mountain Vineyard in California, Heart and Hands in Aurora, NY and Sheldrake Point in Ovid, NY. Our experience at Sheldrake, as a formal, organized event with food and lectures to go along with the developing wine, most closely resembled the scene at Saslove. At the other wineries, we generally enjoyed a quiet “behind the scenes” trip to the barrel room with friendly baristas, reveling in the heady scents of oak and yeast  and young wine while extracting the glorious nectar through droppers I thought more suited to a chemistry lab.

Share the Saslove

January has been a month of wine discovery for us. After returning from Athens, TMS and I ended our holidays with a bottle of Yatir at Yoezer, part of their “year end wine clearance”. We first enjoyed Saslove at Joz ve Loz, where we couldn’t read the wine list and our server offered to “pick a good Israeli wine” for us. Two glasses and then a bottle later, we knew we had to find the source.

Saslove and Avidan Wineries are both located on Kibbutz Eyal, about 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, and, thankfully, for the heathens in the group, are graciously open on Shabat. I’d spent an hour at Avidan in November, getting a personal tour from the winemaker and tasting everything they had open. Luckily enough, when we arrived at Saslove the first time, Roni Saslove, the winemaker herself, was hosting the bar. Her father, Barry, came to Israel from Canada and made the brilliant move of switching careers from computers to wine.

The last time I visited Kibbutz Eyal, a cow got loose from the pen across the road from the wineries. I was the only one around — and, after briefly approaching the cow for what I thought might be a fun picture, and then realizing holy cow (no pun intended) this is a LARGE LIVESTOCK ANIMAL that could CHARGE at me … I hopped in my car.

No such drama on the barrel tasting day — TMS and I, not speaking Hebrew, had understood the general game plan for the day but didn’t really catch that there would be a lecture accompanying each barrel’s sample … so we showed up about 40 minutes before the end of the slated time to find a room of empty chairs and people milling about with half-full glasses. Roni, being both gracious and proud of her creations, personally walked us through each of the single-barrel, single-varietal tastes offered. I’d never quite before experienced such strong personality differences between American and French oak!

We’re hoping to head soon to the Golan Heights to visit more renown Israeli wineries.

Homage to Hummus: Jaffa’s Abu Hassan

January 21, 2011
Yafo Harbor

I really love Yafo – or Jaffa, as it’s also called, but that spelling just brings to mind the plastic snap-together crates that constituted “furniture” in my early 20s. [author’s note – apparently the crates are “Yaffa blocks”, not “Jaffa”]

Yafo Harbor

 

 

Yafo, once an Arab city,  became part of the incorporated city of Tel Aviv in 1950, but even next to my historic neighborhood of Neve Tzedek Yafo seems a more distant cousin than true sister of Tel Aviv. First and foremost, Yafo is old — archaeological evidence suggests that people have lived there since 8000 BC, and it’s mentioned several times in biblical stories (most notably, it’s the port from which Jonah supposedly embarked on the voyage that led him to the whale…) and in Greek mythology (Andromeda’s Rock can be seen from several lookouts).  I’m sure Tel Aviv didn’t spring from the ground whole when it was officially founded in 1909, but I see more new life than I see ancient history.

Today, Yafo draws Israelis (Arab, Jewish, and otherwise) and tourists alike for its sea vistas, a port which is widely considered to be the oldest in continuous operation, the (in)famous flea market, ancient ruins (including an Egyptian gate and a crusader-era sea wall), Arab night clubs, and a few key eateries.

Another day, we can discuss Yoezer Wine Bar and Abulafia Bakery . Today, my mission was to sample the heralded hummus of Abu Hassan.

Flea Market

Most Israelis I’ve met seem to have a favorite spot for hummus – even if they do just pick up whatever Tiv-Taam has on special for an everyday snack — but anyone I’ve asked has insisted that we stop at Abu Hassan’s It’s outside of the central tourist area, a bit of a hike up a narrow street and around a traffic circle in what appeared to be a residential neighborhood. At 1:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the place was packed — strangers sharing tables and a line stretching into the street. I had passed several men in work boots sitting on a low wall, enjoying tubs of hummus and pita out of plastic grocery bags in the glorious sunshine. I spotted the small place at the front window with three such containers and their prices tacked to the side wall … which looked like the “to go” section to me!

At 21 shekels for the 16 ounce tub (or whatever the metric is), 3 pita, and a small cup of an unfamiliar vinegar-and-hot pepper

Abu Hassan's in the late afternoon

liquid, this was a bit pricier than my weekly 9 shekel purchase from the Carmel Market. The pita were hot and soft, and I could feel the warmth of the freshly-ladeled hummus through the bags. The top of the hummus shone with a light layer of olive oil and sprinkles of fresh parsley, paprika, and chunks of whole chick peas.

Oh. My. Never before has a legume sung such a glorious harmony with my taste buds.

Typically, our hummus lasts at least a few days; this tub was gone in just 24 hours. Guess I’ll be trekking up that hill more regularly. It’s a short pilgrimage to this new “holy place”.

Oy vey, where are the elastic pants?

January 15, 2011

When I told people TMS and I were moving to Israel for a while, people talked about the beaches, the historic sites, dealing with the crazy driving, and, of course, be careful near that Gaza border.

No one told me that the real long-term damage would be from the food — to my waistline, of course. Restaurants and cafes of Tel Aviv have received strong press in the US recently (NY Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, for starters), but even the meals we’re making at home (despite the lack of good cookware and/or surfaces) pack more flavor and freshness. Having market-fresh produce down the street certainly helps my culinary product. I should write an Ode to Hummus — complete with tasting notes on various types and producers — perhaps a project for another weekend …

Since there are soooo many restaurants to choose from, TMS and I decided to start checking out those listed in the articles above; last night we sampled Joz Ve Loz (or Joz Veloz, or Joz Velos) at 51 Yehuda Halevi Street. I’d read about it first in the Balabustas article, but every guide book we own recommends this place (with the caveat that it’s “funky”). And, the blogger behind Live Well Tel Aviv gives it highest marks.

Indeed. First, I came by in the afternoon to scope out the place, forewarned that they have no posted menu, just a typed sheet that they prepare as the chefs decide daily on what they’ll prepare based on their haul from the local markets. At 51 Yehuda Halevi, I found a hardware store and an appliance repair shop, but nothing resembling a cafe much less a restaurant. Undaunted, I pulled up the name of the restaurant on my phone (a backup for my pidgin Hebrew) and asked the gal at the hardware store. Around the corner, at the end of the building, she said.

Joz ve Loz (courtesy of TLVfood)

I see the Franken-building phenomenon all over Tel Aviv — apartments, fashion boutiques, and cafes all tucked under one roof. In a country known for entrepreneurialism and creativity but short on room, you redefine your need for space. I would have never found Joz Veloz without the helpful instructions to head through the iron gates, down the path, and through the unmarked door. In their defense, it was well before the dinner hour, but a sign of some sort might have been in order.

No matter. By the time TMS and I arrived later that evening, the garden was aglow with single candles on each of a half-dozen mismatched formica tables, with a large kerosene heater marking both the entrance to the raised patio and to the door to the interior restaurant. We ducked into the dimly lit main restaurant  – its own kerosene heater pumping both warmth and fumes into the tiny pace – and cozied up in a table for two a few stairs down from the open kitchen. It was as if we were sitting in the living room of a busy apartment

Our choices from the menu – assisted by several of the very helpful staff – were as delicious as they sounded. Potato gnocchi that melted in our mouths, a fresh romaine salad with just the lightest hint of a caesar dressing, small rounds appetizers based on shrimp but melded with so many other flavors into a bundle of deliciousness. We were also introduced to Saslove Wine, which we visited (for the first time!) today. I was almost surprised when a bill arrived – I had nearly been lulled into a sense of being a dinner guest rather than a patron.

Although we’re on a quest to experience as many restaurants as we can in Tel Aviv, I’m sure we’ll be returning to this kitchen again.

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