Friday, February 6, 2009

Visiting Israel: The Soccer Game

I am not a huge fan of sports.

Even 6 years of living in Canada hasn’t made me a Hockey fan at all. I don’t seem to like any other type of sport, either. I don’t know why. The only sport I feel some sort of interest towards is soccer.

Soccer is undoubtedly the primary, most focused-on sport practiced in Israel. Make no mistake: there is absolutely no relationship between how much soccer is liked here to the quality of soccer actually played. Soccer here sucks, and doesn’t even come close to the English Premier League, or any other major European league for the matter. Occasionally, Israeli players make it very well in Europe (Yossi Benayun currently playing for Liverpool), but on average, we’re talking about people who don’t really know how to play good soccer.

Israel has only once made it to the World Cup; Mexico 1970, when it didn’t make it past the first round.

Still, it is impossible to go through (normal) childhood in Israel without experiencing with soccer here and there. Soccer is what’s played in sports classes in schools, and what’s played by the youth once they finish their homework (or, more commonly, instead of doing their homework).

When I happen to actually take the time to watch a soccer game, it’s usually a game in which there is much put in stake, such as the finals of the European champions’ league, or the world cup.

I mentioned in one of the previous posts that a cousin of mine is here for a visit from Australia, and I have seen him for the first time in six years a few days ago. Another cousin of mine, a fanatic fan of one of the (rather incompetent) soccer clubs here, invited us both to join him for a soccer game on Monday.

The last time I attended a soccer game was the one between Israel’s national team to that of Austria, during the Euro 2000 qualifiers (I think it was in 1999, ten years ago). That day was a good day for Israeli soccer, as we welcomed the Austrians with a marvellous 5:0 beat-up.

Before I go on to describe the experience, I should tell you what soccer actually means to fans here – at least fans that make it to the stadiums for games.

Israel has virtually no middle-class; the middle-class has been bitten and bitten repeatedly through the course of the years, mostly due to financial irresponsibility on behalf of the (mostly corrupt) governments. The low-class barely survives; middle-class doesn’t really exist, and the rich – well, they are rich and pretty much don’t have to worry about a thing anyway.

The tough day-to-day life here clearly affects the people and is (in my opinion) the main reason behind the high level of people’s aggressiveness. Aggression always looks for a way out, and a few channels are as effective for this purpose as being a soccer fan and attending a game.

Anyway, as we made our way into the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel-Aviv, childhood memories kept creeping into my mind. In an instant, I remembered how it was like when my father took me to soccer games with him; the insane aggression exerted by pretty much everybody; and above all, the noise.

Israelis are passionate for their soccer teams. Make no mistake – the average Israeli attending a soccer game is fundamentally different than the average Canadian watching a hockey game. The level of aggressiveness is astonishing; they yell and curse (at everyone; the opposing team, their own team, the referees… sometimes even the announcers), shouting and going crazy for 90 minutes, with a 15 minutes half-time.

I spent the game looking not just at the field below me, but also at the crowd. Sweet nostalgia kicked in as I witnessed soccer fans channelling their aggression towards pretty much every living thing in the stadium, including each other. A typical Canadian in my place would feel like Tarzan – spending quality times amongst chimpanzees; most likely, would never like to repeat the experience either. But for me, it was a way to look twenty years into the past, to the age when I didn’t have to worry about anything, and all I had to do is sit down and enjoy seeing people unloading their aggression onto the world.

The opposing team scored first, rendering my poor cousin (the fanatic fan) totally angry. Our team tied the game 7 minutes before the end, sending my cousin to the roof – I don’t think I ever saw him more joyful.

After the game, a quick walk back to the car, about twenty minutes in traffic and I’m back home, with an unbearable headache due to the insane level of noise in the stadium.

But man, was it fun.




Monday, February 2, 2009

Visiting Israel (continued)

Pheeeew, what a day.

As I am jet-lagged to oblivion, I woke up on Monday at 1:00am (at the night between Sunday and Monday) and had great trouble falling back to sleep. I finally went to sleep at around 8:00am and asked my mother to wake me up in two hours, so I don’t spend the entire daylight time in bed.

I woke up at around 11:00am. I looked through the window, extremely pleased to find clear-blue sky instead of feet of snow. Temperature was excellent and so I decided to take a walk in the nearby park.

The nearby park is called “Israel’s National Park”. It is located in southern Ramat-Gan, a stone throw from our apartment. Takes about one minute of easy walk to get there, and it’s a beautiful place to spend a nice morning / afternoon in. A favourite spot for joggers and young couples, it boasts a beautiful small lake and lots of green – clean, well-cut grass as well as tall Eucalyptus trees.

It was sunny. The feeling of the sunbeams on my skin almost made me cry with happiness – what a great feeling! I had a quick walk around the lake, just to discover that the earphones I used for my MP3 player went bust (at first I thought I became deaf in my left ear… I really trusted those earphones). A quick walk from the park and I’m in my neighbourhood again, entered a small appliances store and bought an extremely cheap pair for about 10 NIS (approximately $3 CDN).

Jet-lag kicked in and I felt tired, so I made my way home, a quick 3 minutes walk.

Walking around my neighbourhood brought up distant memories about growing up. This neighbourhood is not the typical Israeli neighbourhood; it has its own history, its own people, and most of all – its own problems.

In the beginning of the 1950’s, very shortly after the establishment of Israel, huge immigration waves arrived from the east – Jewish people from Iraq, Iran and other places have decided to leave everything behind and to come to settle in the new country, established solely for the purpose of uniting the Jewish people from all over the world, following generations over generations of abuse.

As the country was so young, with little infrastructure and not enough to support the huge number of newcomers, temporary residences (dubbed “Maabarot” in Hebrew) were established all over the place, to temporarily host the newcomers before they can come up with permanent homes. It turns out that the City of Ramat-Gan was extremely lucrative for the Jewish people who came from Iraq; the neighbourhood I grew up in was one of the first neighbourhoods to be established for these newcomers.

Location-wise, this neighbourhood has significantly more pluses than minuses. It is a stone-throw away from a beautiful park, about three minutes drive from Tel-Aviv (which is Israel’s financial core), and ridiculously easy access to Israel’s major highways. Yet, this neighbourhood has always, since the 1950’s, been categorized as a slum. Despite attempts to revitalize the area, this neighbourhood is still a slum.

Walking through the streets of Ramat-Shikma (the neighbourhood’s name), through narrow streets I last walked through as a child (as an adult I haven’t really walked around that much), made me feel really old. Looking at those tiny streets that use to seem huge to me, those apartment buildings that were built at the 1950’s and remained pretty much the same ever since… I can’t help but think of the early 1980’s when I was roaming around these streets with absolutely no worries in my mind. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get when you see the place you grew up in in a completely different light, after years of living in a place so much different (such as Canada).

One thing I do know: at some point, some smart real-estate investor will discover this place, put a lot of effort into it and turn this slum into one of the most sought-after neighbourhoods in Israel.

Went back home for a nap. I slept for an hour or two before waking up to the sound of my father arriving back from work.



Sunday, February 1, 2009

Visiting home

1:50PM Israel time (6:50AM EST), February 1st.

Friday was my last day at work. Friends took me to a farewell lunch in a Waterloo-local Dim Sum restaurant, then we went back to work for a two-hour information sharing session, so I can pass-on my knowledge to other team members before I depart. On 3:00pm sharp, Jonathan and I left the building; I drove my car to the airport, and Jonathan took it back home.

I don’t know if any of you ever experienced a good Dim Sum meal but man, this thing makes you tired. By the time I arrived at the airport, I was exhausted. I was going to fly from Toronto to Frankfurt – some 8 hours flight – then have a 2 hours stop in Frankfurt before departing to Tel-Aviv, another 4 hours flight. Knowing I have trouble getting sleep in an airplane, I wasn’t impressed at all.

I checked-in online, although still had to wait in the check-in line to drop-off the luggage. I was determined to beg to whoever it would be in the check-in counter, in order to get a seat in an empty row or something.

Therefore I approached the check-in counter with a huge smile and an extremely romantic expression of the great ice-breaker “Hello, Darling”. It was either that or my extremely sleepy look that took the woman in the check-in counter off her feet as she started laughing. She gave me an aisle seat in the middle column (which seats 4), telling me that the seat next to me is broken so nobody’s going to sit there. For the Frankfurt-Tel-Aviv flight, she assigned me to a bulkhead seat so I can stretch my legs to oblivion. I was thrilled and told her that I love her.

A quick security check and I was already at the gate, half an hour before boarding.

It turns out that it was only myself and another guy in that 4-seat row, with two empty seats between us.

I am usually a rather shy person and I refrain from asking people for favours. The guy at the other end of the row was talking Spanish to some of his friends. I have no clue what they were talking about as Spanish is complete Gibberish to me, so I used the time to overcome all mental blocks so I can ask the guy for this huge favour. I thought and I thought, worked myself to once and for all just speak up. Worst case he’ll say “no”.

A few times I opened my mouth to start speaking, then changed my mind and entered yet another mental battle.

At the end, I did it. I turned to him.

“Excuse me, Sir…”

He looks at me.

“Hi. If nobody is seated next to you, would it be OK if I take a nap on the three seats because I’m really tired?”

“Oh, no, no, no speak English, no English”


I then decided to awaken the roots of Israelism in my blood. If nobody tells you what your limits are, why not find out for yourself? I then began stretching my legs, first over the seat next to me and then to the third seat. He seemed to not mind at all as he was concentrated in the movie on the screen in front of him (which I believe was in English, but never mind that).

So there I am, stretching over three seats, earplugs and eye-cover, and I still can’t get any sleep except for one short, 25 minutes nap.

I simply can’t sleep in airplanes.

I decided to take a look at what’s in there to watch. Nothing interesting except for one thing – the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert. Oh, nostalgia! Way back then, I watched this event live on TV, recorded it and watched it many times. What a great concert. What a great music era, the 90’s.

Flight made it on time to Frankfurt. 2 hours break and I decided to find the gate for the connecting flight before I search the area for food. Took about 20 minutes fast walking to reach that gate. It turns out that flights from Frankfurt to Tel-Aviv go through one designated gate only – this one - pretty much at the very end of the terminal. The special thing about this gate is that you have to basically check into it and once you’re in – you can’t get out.

I asked one of the workers there about food options. He told me that I can either go all the way back, go through passport control, eat and come back (within one hour), or I can check into some nearby gate which has a snack bar behind it. I started to walk back to where I came, only to realize that I’m too tired for this walking. I walked back to the gate, checked into the gate with the snack-bar, had a pretzel (2 EUR) and then checked into the designated Tel Aviv gate.

As you check into this gate, they re-scan your hand-luggage and some “don’t mess around with me” German does a body-search on you in ways that make you feel extremely unsexy. The reason they put extra security on flights to Tel-Aviv is, obviously, the constant threats of terrorism.

After the German guy took his hands off me, I went on to sit at the gate waiting for the flight. We departed and arrived on time.

The view of the Ben Gurion airport in Tel-Aviv gives me the good “welcome home” feeling. What a stunning terminal. Up to 2004, the Ben Gurion airport was a really run-down airport with boring terminals. In 2004 – four years behind the plan – the new terminal was opened and man, is this a beautiful terminal! Very well decorated, so spacious, with Israel’s history embedded in each and every spot you lay your eyes on.

A few minutes walk and I’m in the self-serve passport control (they installed a new system based on fingerprints, available only for Israeli passport holders). No waiting in line at all. The suitcase took about 10 minutes to appear, and there I started marching towards the exit.

As I entered the welcoming hall, I looked around searching for my dad. Within a second I found him waving at me. It’s been a year since I seen him, and it was very exciting to hug him and kiss him again. I never realize how I miss my family until I actually see them.

My dad warned me that it’s cold outside. I laughed at him and reminded him where I come from. What he called “cold” outside was actually really good weather – it was sunny, just a bit of clouds with some cool breeze.

I announced my visit in Facebook and instructed whoever is in touch with my family to not say anything about the visit. My dad was the only one who knew, and he decided to torture my mom as a surprise for her birthday (her 52 birthday was the same day I arrived). So the first stop was at my sister’s house, who, of course, didn’t know a thing about the visit. My dad entered first, talked to her a few seconds, then I entered her house. She flipped completely, losing control and started crying uncontrollably. A hug and a kiss, and then I noticed my three nephews sitting nearby, in total shock as well. How I missed them… hugs, kisses to no end.

My sister was going to smack my dad for his vicious surprise plan, until she heard that my mother is still up for the surprise of the year. She asked us to video-tape the moment as she was sure it’s going to be a rather funny event.

We drove to my grandmother’s house, where my two grandmothers plus my mother were sitting outside. My dad entered first, talked a few sentences and then I appeared out of nowhere, greeting my mother with a happy birthday wish. Oh, the yelling. All accused my dad in trying to kill my mother with a heart-attack, which was really funny. It was great to see my mother – 52 years old and looking in her mid-30’s.

Almost my entire wide family lives within 2km distance from one another, in a developing (formerly a total slum) neighbourhood of Ramat-Gan, a suburb of Tel-Aviv. The unity and closeness in this family is truly astonishing. Conflicts arise here and there of course, but overall, people care for and help one another. Great family, I love them.

A short walk and I’m at home, in exactly the same room I was growing up in. And the living room. Nothing’s changed, which makes the entire experience even better.

I am home.

My sister arrived shortly after, with her husband and three kids. In an instant, the quiet house became extremely noisy – a good noise of kids fooling around and Israeli adults who are complete strangers to the art of quiet communications. Israelis – well, most of them – speak with passion in their voices. Spending years in Canada, where people are generally much more restrained and calm, makes this sudden noise truly overwhelming.

It turned out that, by complete coincidence, a cousin of mine who immigrated to Australia is visiting home as well, with his wife and baby. He left to Australia 6 years ago, one week after I left to Canada. I haven’t seen him since. He soon came to our house with his wife, kid and parents. It was great seeing him and his wife after so long, and what a cute baby! The only baby so far who didn’t run away with hysteria upon me calling its name.

What a joyful house. The amount of noise is overwhelming! but it was fun.

I then came to realize yet another bonus of visiting home: my sister’s cooking. My grandmother is a wonderful cook; she inherited her talent to her daughter – my mother – who is such a great cook that it’s amazing. My sister took over the talent as well, and man, can she cook! My God! She baked a cake for my mother’s birthday. I don’t remember how many slices I took (despite the fact that I had dinner shortly before) – I think it was 3 or 4 – couldn’t stop. My brother in law is a lucky, lucky man.

Another cousin of mine came over shortly after, was great seeing him as well. After a while everybody left, and that’s when my brother in law and myself decided to eat a Lafa.

Whoever has made it to this point is probably inquiring “what the hell is a Lafa?”.

I won’t get into the entire history of Israeli cuisine; although, it’s important to know that there are generally four types of cuisines in Israel:

  • Eastern-European cuisine, brought over by the Jewish people who came to Israel from Eastern Europe;
  • The so-called “Eastern Cuisine”;
  • Arab cuisine;
  • Everything else (American food, Italian food and so forth, which arrived to Israel in later years; the first McDonald’s was opened in Israel in the early 90’s).

As my grandmothers and grandfathers – all Jewish - were born in Iraq, the cuisines normally consumed by my wide family are the second and third ones in the list. They both are characterized by being relatively spicy, sometimes hot and – allow me – always delicious. You can either love this food or hate it.

Whoever made the mistake and spent two hours watching the movie “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”, can find plenty of references to Hummus. The Hummus really isn’t an Israeli invention – it is in fact a Syrian invention – however it is regarded as one of the cornerstones of Israeli cuisine. It goes with everything. Israelis consume Hummus as much as Americans and Canadians consume vinegar; a condiment for everything.

A “Lafa” is called “Taboon Bread” in English (see in Wikipedia here: It is some sort of a wrap, only much thicker and much bigger in size, and tastes infinitely better. The great thing about it is that it can wrap anything. So you normally take a few skewers of any type of meat, put it in, add some condiments (don’t forget the Hummus), wrap it all up and you get one of the most loved, widely consumed food in Israel, shortly referred to as “Lafa”.

This thing is big. A typical Lafa bread is slightly over one foot in diameter, and it is thick. Though i am aware of a few people who can eat two, you have to be quite the eater to eat one full Lafa and still be hungry. But to remind you, this is my first visit in Israel after a year, and I have missed this food so dearly. Despite the dinner I had before, and the cake I consumed like no tomorrow, there was still room for the Lafa. I consumed it with much passion and was very happy.

Later on, a couple, friends of my parents, have arrived for a visit. We talked for about an hour until the food and being 30 hours without sleep started to make me very irritable and so I decided to go to sleep.

I fell asleep within a few minutes, woke up at 5:00am. My dad just woke up for another day at work, so we sat down in the living room and chatted for a while. I went back to bed shortly after he left, and woke up at 12:00pm.

It’s been raining lightly today, however the rest of the week is supposed to be nice (see this and weep…

Sun is shining now so I’ll go out for a short walk.




Into the Wild

Almost exactly one year ago, at the beginning of January 2008, I flew home, to Israel, for a visit. I can't recall why, but it felt like that trip just wasn't supposed to happen. The timing looked right when I bought the ticket, but as time went on I felt that I shouldn't be taking that trip. Very bizarre feeling, as I am always very happy to visit home.

Anyway, I figured that if I am going to be on this aircraft for more than 10 hours straight, might as well try feeling good about this entire thing. It was one of those new 767's with the personal touch-screen digital TV.

As I was wandering aimlessly through the movie titles, mostly Hollywood material (ugh), I came across this title called "Into the Wild". The description mentioned that the movie was based on a true story about a guy who spent some time in Alaska. I figured - hey, I like traveling, and Alaska is one of the places I'd like to go visit soon - so this may just be the movie to watch.

And so I started watching it.

I don't know how many of you have had the opportunity to watch a movie in an airplane using regular on-the-ear headphones (the ones they give you for free), but let me save you the trouble - don't even try. The engines' roar makes it nearly impossible to listen to the dialogues, let alone concentrate fully on the movie. I could barely understand what's going on before I decided to put an end to it after about 20 minutes of watching.

But something did remain in my head long after I stopped watching the movie - this dark, mesmerizing song. I had to find out what this song was, and who performed it – the engine’s noise made it impossible to tell. Shortly after I arrived home, I got my hands on the movie's soundtrack, only to realize that it was composed, almost entirely, by Eddie Vedder.

That brought up some distant, high school memories.

I went to high school in the summer of 1992; the year before, 1991, was the 90’s music year. Metallica's "Black Album", Guns n' Roses' "Use Your Illusion", U2's "Achtung Baby", Nirvana's "Nevermind", Pearl Jam's "Ten", Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Blood Sugar Sex Magik", Van Halen's "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge" - were all released within a few months' span in 1991.

Eddie Vedder’s voice was no news to me – damn, what a great voice – however the music in the soundtrack album was very different than the typical Pearl Jam material.

The song I was looking for turned out to be called "Long Nights". I found the entire soundtrack to be great - I loved it.

I got around to watch the movie a few months later, in the comfort of my own home: the engines’ roar was replaced by the chilling silence of the small neighbourhood I live in; the cheap $1 airline headphones was replaced by very modest, though powerful Bose Companion 3 desktop speakers.

As I happened to do the stupid mistake of reading the plot ahead of time, the end didn't come as a huge shock to me. But this movie does make you think.

(This is the time to ask whoever intends to watch the movie to skip the rest of this post as it may ruin it)

I found the story behind the movie extremely intriguing. At first I could not understand how it is possible for a person to get rid of all of his material belongings and simply drift away, putting his own life at stake in such ridiculously hazardous situations just in order to feel more and more connected to the earth and more and more disconnected from what he called “artificial” and we call “society”.

It took some serious thinking to grasp the true meaning and power of what he did. The guy simply flipped a middle finger in the face of whatever “society” taught him is “the right way”; relentlessly seeking the “absolute truth”, he realized that the only things absolute on this planet are exactly those things that mankind did not build or invent for itself. Whatever mankind has built or invented for itself is automatically deemed “artificial” and “unnatural”; “Society” is a concept invented by humans in order to grant humans the ability to live with each other through compromise; he questioned the validity of the mere idea of “Society”, and he questioned it through simply living off the land, drifting away and watch where life takes him.

Another reason why the movie appealed to me was that I found many similarities between McCandless’ character and mine. I can relate to the adrenaline rush that gets to you when you travel alone; to the euphoria achieved by always being on the move, when things happen, when I explore. A backpack fastened against my waist turns me into a completely different person. So yes, I may not be courageous enough to live off porcupines and squirrels in the wilds of Alaska, but I can see his point and I totally identify with it.

Also, his tendency to attempt to judge people and situations in absolute, clear-cut ways through extremely high standards – which was what made him denounce society altogether – is a tendency that I have myself, and it’s really hard to get rid of.

Impressed by the movie, I went after the sources. The movie is based on the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, who dedicated a significant amount of time to look into Chris' story in detail. A tenant of mine named Matt happened to have borrowed the book from somewhere, and left the book as a souvenir when he moved out, so I started reading it. The book adds lots of useful information about the story, however I’d recommend reading it after you seen the movie.

And now, to my rants.

It turns out that, once the story was initially told by Jon Krakauer in the “Outside” magazine way back then, many people – especially Alaskan – have expressed extremely negative opinions about Chris. Disagreeing with him on some things that he did is acceptable, however some comments went as far as calling the man an idiot, careless son of a bitch that deserved to die the way he did; that he was careless, arrogant, and so forth. After all, they claim, it’s very stupid for someone to die of starvation a few miles away from a major highway that crosses the park he was in; and if he was clever enough to have a map with him, he would notice that a few miles north of where he died, there was a tram that he could have used to cross the river that locked him in where he is, costing him is life.

One airhead went as far as posting a blog article, basically saying that Chris was an extremely stupid individual, deserved to die and it’s a good thing that nature has made its selection and eliminated Chris’ seed off the planet.

I say – these guys simply got it all wrong. Whoever focuses on the irony of the story and on his arrogance and ignorance of the concept of “bush safety”, simply didn’t get the point of the story.

Chris went into the wild, determined to make it there on his own. He wanted to live life in Alaska as it was lived hundreds and thousands of years ago – just him and nature. No maps, no other “extras”. He wanted to live life simply off the land. It was his choice to not pick a map, and he didn’t blame anybody but himself when he realized that he’s almost certainly going to die. He took an extremely demanding challenge; I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the disregarding and disrespectful comments were from people who didn’t have even one tenth of Chris’ courage.

(It has been determined that Chris died due to starvation – the question is whether it was due to him not finding any food, or – as per Jon Krakaeur’s conviction - due to consuming some sort of a poisonous seed that makes the body unable to digest food)

About a month or so after watching the movie, I went on the Kill to Get Crimson tour, following Mark Knopfler and the band. I was travelling, for the most part, alone – meeting new people along the way; much like McCandless, only that I didn’t have to hunt for squirrels and porcupines in order to feed myself. Driving through the vast distances alone, thoughts of McCandless kept creeping into my mind.