Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Visiting Israel: Tel-Aviv with Omer Czerniak, Take 2

Realizing that Friday night is going to be too boring if spent at home, I sent a message to Omer, asking him where would a single guy go out to in Tel-Aviv on a Friday night. He replied back with a few alternatives, I asked if he’d like to join me, so we decided to meet at 9:30pm and take it from there.

Friday night in Israel is equivalent to Saturday night in most of the Western world, when it comes to workdays; the weekend here is Friday-Saturday, rather than Saturday-Sunday, and this is due to Saturday (“Sabbath”) being considered a sabbatical for religious purposes.

I was dying to get some sleep, however my plans were foiled by my extended family’s visit. This didn’t come as a huge shock to me, as many family members gather in our house every Friday night, and this includes my sister and three kids. The level of noise in our place was unreal, and so were the chances of getting any sleep done. I was therefore forced to substitute “sleep” with “lying on the bed, waiting for a miracle”.

At 8:30pm I “woke up”, took a quick shower, got ready for the night out and joined my family in the living room for about an hour of extremely loud conversations – of course, you have to be loud when the TV is on (though nobody was watching it) and there are four young kids running around.

Omer came by to pick me up at around 9:30pm and we went to Tel-Aviv. Parked the car in Ben-Yehuda Street, a major street that runs parallel to the beach and hosts millions of places to hang out.

Our first stop was this place called “Eliezer’s Friends”. Ben-Yehuda street is named after Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited for “reviving” the Hebrew language at the end of the 19th century, so I’m guessing that the bar’s name has something to do with it. Omer called this place a “semi-intelligent, semi-sleazy singles bar”, so we decided to check it out.

We approached the place and encountered the bouncer, sitting outside talking to some girl. He saw us approaching and started talking.

“Hello guys. Just to let you know, ever since recently, Friday nights are reserved for Homosexual crowds.”

This is the place to note that, when it comes to the gay crowds, Tel-Aviv is considered a top destination, world-wide. The gay community in Tel-Aviv is huge and pretty diverse; enormous pride parades take place here every year, and there are numerous gay-only hangout spots throughout the city.

Omer felt a bit shocked, as he was sure that news like that would have made it to his ears already. He asked the bouncer if he’s serious, to which the bouncer replied, with a great level of confidence, that yes, this is true.

“Ummmm… Ah… Sorry, we didn’t know…”

To which the bouncer replied: “Why, what is wrong with that?” in a somewhat aggressive tone.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it” said Jerry Seinfeld about ten years ago. We felt quite embarrassed as there is no right way to answer this question. Clearly, neither myself nor Omer have anything against homosexuals, but how do you reply to this question without sounding apologetic?

We mumbled something, then said “Thank you” and turned to leave. It was then when the bouncer suddenly grabbed Omer by the arm, laughed and said “I’m just kidding” and opened the door for us.

That was a funny moment.

We entered the bar and I couldn’t really tell why Omer called it “semi-intelligent” as there was nothing semi-intelligent about it. The main thing about a singles bar is its crowdedness – you are literally touching someone almost 100% of the time, regardless of whether you stand, walk or sit. Given the fact that Tel-Aviv women – at least those who frequent singles bars - are insanely gorgeous, I found very little reason to complain about the crowdedness.

We talked and had a few drinks during the span of just about an hour, when we decided to leave and try someplace else. We decided to go to a neighbouring singles bar, which Omer called “sleazy”. We entered and, again, I couldn’t tell why this one isn’t as “intelligent” as the other. Then again, I am not known for my deep understanding of pub culture.

Spent another hour or so talking over a drink, then left for a nearby ice-cream place for some good ice-cream.

This time I decided to wander the streets a little bit before I go home. I started walking in the direction I thought home is – turned west on Bugrashov street, then right on King George street, all the way to Allenby Street. It was about 2:00 or 3:00am, but you couldn’t really tell as the streets were loaded with people. On Allenby street, I took a short walk and then hailed a “service cab” that took me all the way home. A quick snack and I’m off to bed after yet another great Tel-Aviv night.



Monday, February 9, 2009

Visiting Israel: Meeting with Ran

As my alcohol tolerance is very low, it took me some time to wake up after Thursday night in Tel-Aviv. I woke up at around 10:00am, exhausted; not enough sleep, but still couldn’t sleep anymore due to the jet lag.

So at 12:00pm I met with my friend, Ran Liebermann.

Calling Ran a “friend” would be an understatement, not to say an insult; we first met about 17 years ago, first day in high school, and remained good friends ever since. Sure, moving to Canada and the busy lifestyle of us both has caused us to communicate less and less as time went by, but still, we know each other so well that the classification of “best friends” is definitely appropriate.

Ran got married to his wife, Karin, in the spring of 2006; I juggled insane schedules and made it to his wedding – travelled half way across the earth for 4 days in Israel. The only other event I can think of, that would make me do such a thing, is a Mark Knopfler concert in Israel.

In my last post, I mentioned an extremely small group of IT professionals whom I can confidently call “brilliant”; Ran is one of them, though in a completely different area than mine – I deal with software while he deals with networking and security. I can hardly think of an individual as sharp and smart as Ran when it comes to his areas of expertise; a true guru.

I am lucky to have surrounded myself with such people.

Ran showed-up alone; his wife was busy studying. It was great seeing him, and I appreciated the time he took to meet with me despite his insane schedule.

We went to a restaurant called “Burgus” in Tel-Aviv; Burgus is a small chain that specializes in Hamburgers (Mr. Richard Bennett – if you happen to read this – if you thought Vancouver’s “White Spot'” was good, I suggest you pay a visit to Tel-Aviv and try out some burger places; trust me, you will be amazed). Food was great, however my main focus was to catch up with my best friend. We talked for a couple of hours about everything – business, personal life and whatnot. Once again I realized how sharp an individual he is – talks to the point, articulate and sensible.

We devoured the burgers, as well as an amazing dessert (“with extra chocolate-sauce” – Ran’s request, not mine!), and then decided to hit a coffee place.

We decided to go to a restaurant called “Lama Lo?!” (from Hebrew: “Why Not?!”) which is located at the entrance to Park Leumi - a major Israeli park right next to my place. Service was terrible, espresso was OK but we had a great chat.

I grew extremely tired because of the night before and the lack of sleep, so around 4:30pm we parted ways. We’re going to meet again soon, this time in his place, so I can see his wife and baby boy.

Went home, caught some sleep and woke up after a couple of hours. Time for Tel-Aviv again… see next post.



Visiting Israel: Tel-Aviv with Omer Czerniak, Take 1

Last Tuesday, I was originally supposed to meet with Omer Czerniak, a good friend of mine. Something came up and, instead, I found myself taking the train to the city of Be’er-Sheva, to meet with another friend.

The city of Be’er-Sheva is named “The Negev’s Capital” (the “Negev” is the southern part of Israel… essentially a mild desert). Not very much to see and do there – the main thing about it is the Ben Gurion University. Weather is very good there in the winter, and the summers are dry and very, very hot. We ended up going to a Sushi Bar named Kampai (http://www.rol.co.il/sites/kampai/). Very recommended. Ranks way up there, along with “Irashai Sushi” in Kerrisdale’s Village, Vancouver.

Plans to meet with Omer on Wednesday were foiled by his work; nothing interesting happened that day so I’ll skip it.

On Thursday I met with Omer. We spent a few years working together in Israel. We worked in the same team, doing software development for… well, you should figure it out yourself. Omer is one of these people that have interesting things happening to them far more frequently than average; “pulling an Omer” is a synonym for having some sort of a supernatural, insane thing happening to you.

Omer is also one of the extremely small group of IT people that I can safely, without hesitation, call “brilliant”.

He was meeting with two girl friends for dinner in small pizza place in Tel-Aviv. I will write about food in Israel in detail soon, but for now, I will just say this: had I seen the place from outside, I’d probably assume that this place sells junk and move on. However it turns out that Omer knows his stuff; the only pizza, which tasted as good to me as this Tel-Aviv pizza, is “Wooden Heads Pizza” in Kingston, Ontario (I raved about it in my KTGC blog). The only differences are that this Tel-Aviv place is far from being a sophisticated restaurant, and prices are about %70 lower.

I devoured the pizza with passion, then all four of us went to Omer’s place. We watched the Israeli version of “The Amazing Race”, and then split-up – the girls went home, Omer and I went to the streets.

Omer lives in a rather sought-after location in Tel-Aviv. It doesn’t get much more “downtown” than this; you cannot possibly swing a cat without hitting a nightclub / pub / bar / restaurant / you name it.

As we were walking down the streets of Tel-Aviv, I suddenly had some nasty, rude awakening.

I spent the first 25 years of my life in Ramat-Gan, which is a stone-throw away from Tel-Aviv. It doesn’t take more than 10-15 minutes drive (or 5 minutes, if all lights are green) to get from my place in Ramat-Gan into the heart of Tel-Aviv, and yet I simply hated that city. Believe it or not, during those 25 years I have never set foot in any Tel-Aviv pub, and except for very few occasions – no restaurants either.

Looking back, that was obviously a grave mistake. I started realizing that mistake as I was driving through USA / Canada last summer: Tel-Aviv simply has it all. Dubbed “the city that never sleeps” (it’s the city’s actual, formal slogan), this city always has something going on in it. You wake up at 4:00am and feels like hitting a night-club? you’ll find one, any day of the week; craving a cocktail at 3:00am? it’ll be very hard for you to not find an open pub.

It simply has it all – and, more importantly, it has it all the time. This city really never sleeps. It boasts one of the best nightlife scenes in the world, it has cafes, restaurants, museums, extraordinary beach… really everything.

And the food…

Israelis in general, and Tel-Aviv residents in particular, take their awesome food for granted in much the same way that Canadians take their peaceful lifestyle. This is one thing that I miss a lot in Israel – that food is not just a necessity, it is actually a culture.

It’s a fact: world-wide fast-food chains, such as Wendy’s, Starbucks etc, have failed miserably in Israel. The single Wendy’s establishment in Tel-Aviv’s history died in agonizing pain, and Starbucks was a failure right from the get-go. The only world-renowned fast food chain that survived in Israel is McDonald’s, and the typical Israeli will eat there only if he ran out of all other options (as a side note, I will mention that McDonald’s in Israel tastes better than in North America. Don’t ask my why).

I measure “food goodness” by the quality / price ratio; given that, I find it hard to think of any other place that beats Tel-Aviv. Food prices are now more expensive than they used to be, but still cheap comparing to North America and Europe, especially when you weigh-in the quality of the food you get.

There is all kinds of food here. Restaurants actually compete with each other over quality, and it shows; even the smallest establishments serve food that is hard to beat by rather fancy American / Canadian restaurant.

Nutrition-wise, Tel-Aviv wins too. As a matter of fact, not just Tel-Aviv; Israelis are typically much more informed and educated when it comes to whatever they put in their mouths, which explains the extremely low obesity rate. I can’t think of anybody I know who buys frozen foods – what the hell for? everything is available, fresh and cheap (two pounds of fresh, tasteful tomatoes costs here between 3-5 NIS, which is between 90 cents to 1.20 CDN).

Coffee too. North American so-called “drip coffee” (filtered coffee) is not considered “coffee” here; espresso-based products are much more popular (and tasty as well; European style), as well as Turkish coffee (extremely fine-ground coffee, cooked slowly on the stove). Coffee-aware people like my good friend Ash Christopher would have the time of their life here.

Nightlife-wise… oh well. I should qualify by saying that I’m not a night-owl and don’t hit pubs very frequently; still, walking through the streets you can see that, when it comes to nightlife, it is very hard to beat Tel-Aviv. Scores of pubs, restaurants, dance-clubs… everything from the sleaziest singles pub to the fanciest Italian restaurants – you can find it here.

Remember! land-mass wise, Tel Aviv is tiny (less than 52 square km; less than 20 square miles. Compare to Toronto (proper; not GTA) at 630 square km or 243 square miles – more than ten times larger!), so you are unlikely to find yourself too far away from a place of action, 24x7.

Anyhow: Omer and I ended up going to a wine bar near Rothschild Street – a tiny place where you sit down, buy a bottle of wine and chill-out with friends. We talked for more than an hour about everything, reminiscing, catching-up over a bottle of decent white wine. After that we went to a place called “Yogurtia”, which is somewhat of an ice-cream place, except that instead of ice-cream they serve yogurts (with all types of add-ons such as peanuts, strawberries and so forth). Strange? maybe. Tasty? hell yeah.

We spent another 45 minutes or so there, then left for another walk in the streets. It was loaded with people, even though the time was about 2:00am. At around 2:30am we decided to part ways; 25 minutes later I was home, relaxing after a great night out.



The Wind of Change

The last few days have been rather insane with way too much going on. Time unfolds to reveal what I consider my single best visit to Israel since I had left six years ago. The perfect weather; the unbelievable food; new & old friends; my family; this is a visit to remember, and happily so.

“High on the wind, the highland drums begin to roll
Something from the past just comes and stares into my soul”

- said a wise man nine years ago; rarely before have those lyrics been such a true reflection of my being as they are now. The highland drums being the voice of change, the sign of movement, an omen to yet another personal adventure coming my way. Some are positive, some are negative, but overall life still seems worthy of living.

“Something from the past just comes and stares into my soul”, indeed, when this “something”, in my case, is myself. A 25-years old Isaac, boarding an Air Canada one-way flight to Canada, is making a comeback six years later; staring into 31-years old Isaac’s soul, demanding some answers and posing new questions.

These are times of sacrifice, persistence, emotion and, above all, change. Times for judgement, conclusions, regrets and confidence.

Times for life.

The wise man from above also said the following, with which I will conclude this post:

“Well, if you’re inclined to go up on the wall
it can only be fast and high;
and those who don’t like the danger
soon find something different to try;
when there is only a ringing in your ears
and an echo down memory lane
then if it’s all for nothing, all the road-running has been in vain”