Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Last Leg

So here I am, back home (in LA, so not quite) dealing with the effects of jet lag by writing the last mainissue travel edition blog entry at 4 in the morning. Its quiet and dark; a perfect atmosphere for remembering and reminiscing. First, though, before I reflect, I'll try and bring the blog up to date:

Berlin was our last stop on our European leg of the tour. We arrived by bus from Prague, not sure how we were going to get in touch with our hosts. We met a couple Canadian girls from our bus also in the same situation, so we offered each other advice on the formatting of German numbers and hung out at the bus station payphones, trying to reach our friends. It turned out that the two girls were from Canada and had also done Birthright a year before. After the phone ate around six euros we were able to get definite directions from Max - Regina, our host's, son - and so we parted from our friends with plans to meet at the Jewish museum sometime in the future, pending email confirmation.

Al and I were very excited about our luck of meeting people so early on our stay in Berlin. I know both of us had great expectations. Things, unfortunately, did not turn out as well as we planned. We got in contact with our friends easily enough - via email - but when it came time to meet we ran into one trouble after another. Al and I diligently waited outside of the Jewish museum for quite a while, both looking indifferently cool slumped along the wall reading, which turned out to be a problem since the girls did not see us (though I think they could have looked a bit harder). We then set up another meeting spot, but they didn't receive the email in time. In their follow-up email they suggested a place to meet, but we did not get that email until the next day. Finally both the girls and us figured it was not meant to be and gave up trying.

So the beginning of our trip in Berlin was a bit disappointing socially. This, while putting a bit of a damper on things, did not take away from our enjoyment of Berlin. We wandered around the streets, marveling at the vibrancy we saw about us, from the culturally diverse neighborhoods full of Donar Kebab shops to the late night coffee houses and outdoor bars. The city was alive; maybe it was just when we were there and the sun was shinning brightly and the sky was clear, or maybe it was always like that, I couldn't say. I do think though that the warm weather helped to bring people out onto the streets.

We were initiated into the jovial atmosphere of the city on our first full day in Berlin. We had heard the night before from Max and his friends that America's presidential contender, Barack Obama, was planning to speak to Berlin the following evening. We decided to go, not only to get a good look at Barack but also to see what the Germans made of him. I wrote about our time at the rally in another post that the interested reader can refer to for more details. We found the event to be a bit disappointing, but seeing the Berliners have such a good time with it - drinking beer and yelling slogans - and being a part of the whole show was a nice first introduction to the city and its people.

We were lucky to get to spend our time in Berlin staying at a tasteful and spacious apartment on the top story of a beautiful building situated in one of the most dynamic neighborhoods of Berlin. Our hosts, Klaus and Regina, were incredibly gracious and friendly. Luckily our first introduction with Klaus - him finding Al and I asleep in Regina's bed after we had quietly snuck into the apartment the night before - was not too off-putting and was soon got over (We went on to share a nice few bottles of wine with him). We enjoyed not only our hosts but also their hand-operated Italian cappuccino machine. We helped ourselves to a beautiful espresso and foam mostly every morning on Regina's deck overlooking Landwehrkanal (a canal) and the bustling neighborhood of Kreuzberg. I haven't found a coffee shop that could rival Regina's house in scenery or elegance.

We were kinda in the dumps after our miscarried meetings with our Canadian friends, but this was soon remedied through couchsurfing. I have to give Al the credit for this: he really pursued those I had already emailed on couchsurfing's website, setting up dates with many of them - though they didn't all work out.

Our first outing was to Volkspark where a number of couchsurfers were getting together to hang out and talk (I think that was the idea). Volkspark is a very beautiful piece of greenery in what was once East Berlin. It was across town, and we got there somewhat late, but we were able to meet a number of friendly people, and when the party at the park rapped up we followed two crazy married kiwis (people from New Zealand for those not in the know) to a club. We ended up heading home though after the group decided on a punk club across town.

The next day we met up with another couchsurfer gal from the UK, who in turn met up with a few other Americans, and we all headed to a beach bar on the Spree River called "White Trash", near a remaining piece of the Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery. It was a pretty bizarre/cool place. I love hefeweizen so I had a good time.

We stayed there for a long time, talking to our new friends. One girl who was from Sacramento and was now living in Berlin, invited Al and I to her pub crawl (for free) that she led almost every night. I thought it was a great idea so I got her email. Sadly, this was to be another instance of hopes dashed, though this time I suspect that she ignored my email.

But Berlin had more to offer than a central valley dwelling Californian. We were lucky enough to have arrived in Berlin while a great exhibit was underway at the Pergamon Museum. The show, which was only traveling to three museums - The British Museum, The Louvre, and The Pergamon - was called "Babylon: Myth and Truth". It was a comprehensive showcase of all things from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, with extensive write-ups detailing even the smallest minutiae of daily life in the Biblical city. The "myth" section of the exhibit dealt with the stories and legends that the city of Babylon has spawned: the tales of evil and lasciviousness that have been passed down to us through the ages. This section was not as interesting as the "Truth" section, but together they both made for a great day at the museum.

On the final night of our stay in Berlin we made another trip to Museum Island (an island on which many of the largest museums are set) to take advantage of free admission Thursday. This time we went stoned, having scored a tiny bit of weed from some guys we met while playing ping-pong in the park. It turned out to be a really great night, our senses fully extended to take in all the art that the museum offered up. Luckily I was able to rid myself of all my giggles early on after Al bought for himself a faux East-German (GDR) officer's hat, which resembled a hat an S&M stripper might wear. I could really just focus on the 19th century art.

We were sad to leave Berlin, but I was also ready to continue on and meet my relatives in Israel. I didn't know what to expect: I knew it could be possibly very dull, with a lot of formalities and some guided touring around the country. But I was hopeful it wouldn't be so.

We arrived in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon and were picked up at the airport by my cousin Shani. She drove us to Afula where her parents live, a small town in the north of the country. We were greeted warmly by the whole family - Havov, Lia, Shani, Etay, Tali and her husband, who's name escapes me - and soon were around the table eating a delicious multi-course meal. We were informed of the plans for that night, or morning really, since we were going to be going with Etay to a rave lasting into the next day. Etay had planned the trip meticulously, anxiously awaiting our arrival at the airport to find out whether to get Al and I tickets for the highly coveted dance party in the Golan Heights. At the dinner party I also learned a bit about family history, all the way up to the recent wedding of Tali and her husband. After the large dinner we went to our bedroom to take a nap before our long night. Both Al and I had a hard time of it, and I finally gave up my attempt at some shut-eye and took a shower instead.

At around midnight we left the Rabkin house to go to Etay's apartment in the city of Afula. We hung out there for an hour or so, meeting Etay's friend Elad, before heading out towards the Golan Heights. I was a bit confused the whole drive, trying to place each left and right turn on the labyrinthine road network up to the Golan Heights into a coherent whole; I was unsuccessful. Etay, it seemed, was a bit confused too, and we arrived a bit late to our rave date - 3 in the morning. We got out of the car and into the surprisingly chilly weather and began the slow move to the entry of the party through thick crowds. Once inside all the misgivings we might have had as to the sanity of staying up this late were dispelled. Hundreds of tents were nestled in an expansive orchard of some sort of fruit or nut tree - no one was able to tell me what type of trees they were.

After a bit of confusion we were able to locate Etay's friend's tent, set our stuff down, have a few drinks and a light hummus snack, and then head off to the "dance floor," an outdoor arena with a large stage set in front of a geese pen. There we danced the dusk away and saw the sun rise, at which point we retired to the tent and slept until it became unbearably hot (around 9 o'clock).

After a morning dance under the cool rain of water misters we left the party for a swim in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). It was a beautiful day. We floated in the warm water of Israel's main water source, peering off to the other end of the large inland sea towards Jordon.

We were all hungry so before heading back to the Rabkin's house we stopped at a traditional Levantine restaurant, where we tried a large selection of salads and dips along with a large kebab plate, topped off with a desert and Turkish coffee.

Back at the Rabkin's we slept very soundly, only waking for our next meal, this time with my other relatives, Adik and Luba Kriger. After finishing yet another large meal we went with the Kriger's to their town of Ma'alot an hour or so up north.

The Kriger's lived in a nice complex inhabited mainly by Russian-Israeli's who came to Israel en mass after the fall of the USSR. The Kriger family came during this time - in 1991 - and wanting to leave the deteriorating circumstances of their homeland but not the culture, chose to live in a community of Russian-immigrants. People who came to the country in the 90’s from the former USSR populate much of the north of Israel.

Adik was excited from the beginning to show Al and I all that was possible in the short time we had, but was careful to find out where we had been before so as not to be redundant. Even if his English was shaky at times he always enthusiastically pointed out things of interest to us. We traveled all around with the family, from the ancient port of Akko to the religious sites on the Sea of Galilee. It was a nice change of pace to tour in a more leisurely manner, able to jump in a car to get to the next spot.

At night we had a great Russian meal of borscht and salmon, washed down with very good vodka with tomato juice (aka Bloody Mary's) and vodka straight. Later we went out on the town with Anna (my cousin) her fiancé and a few of their friends. After a bout of anxiety caused by our thinking that our flight back home was that night and not the following, we mellowed down and enjoyed our last night, drinking beer and talking with Anna's friends as the Mediterranean sea crashed along the coast only twenty feet from our spot perched on lush couches.

The next day we toured the Bahá'í Gardens in Haifa. Well, unfortunately, it was not quite a tour since they only let us walk through an itsy-bitsy section of the gardens secluded from the main terraced walkway. Nevertheless it was very interesting. From there we went up to the Lebanese-Israeli border to look around, and then headed back home where Adik and Luba had planned for us to have a light meal with their Mothers before heading to the airport.

Before lunch we met my relative Rosa - my grandmother's first-cousin - who was excited to talk politics with me. Anna was helpful enough to translate Rosa's Russian to me and visa-versa. Rosa began by asking me whether I was a socialist, and sensing where this was going I said no. She was happy, since, she said, she had lived socialism and hated it. She then delved into American presidential politics, telling me that she did not trust Obama and thought McCain best since he was more steadfast in his support for Israel. I gave her reasons why I thought Obama wasn't as bad as she made him out to be, but she was indignant. She had other strong things to say about the Palestinians, to which I objected, thinking the characterization unfair. The most difficult sort of political discussion must be ones involving a translator. Maybe that's why foreign affairs are always so messy.

Our stay at the Kriger home was concluded after watching a video of a trip my great-grandmother and great uncle took to Russia in 1960. It was an appropriate ending to my visit to Israel in which I met many relatives I had never met before and learned much about my mom's family's history.

The flight home was long but not all that bad, especially with lots of sleep, and we arrived in LA perfectly on time. After passport control, baggage claim, customs, and then one premature round of goodbyes done before Al went the wrong way to catch his flight back to SF, Al and I parted ways. It was the end of our summer jaunt through Israel and Europe.

I had traveled before but never have I had as good of a time as I did on this trip. I think the combination of traveling partner, being older and wiser, doing a variety of different things, and traveling in a less touristy way (at least for part of the trip) combined to make the trip what it was.

Most important, perhaps, was the reading material that I brought along with me. I can't imagine what it would have been like without it. My first book, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," vivified our journey through the Balkans, giving an appreciation for the place that would have been absolutely unattainable if I would have just relied on the Lonely Planet guide to give me a sense of the history and culture of the place. Next, Tony Judt's "Post War" gave me a better comprehension of the roots of the prosperity that became so conspicuous when we crossed from former Communist countries to the "West". My grasping - but still not totally understanding - the complex history of the continent was invaluably helped by "Post War". Furthermore, being able to place my surroundings in the historical continuum was not only enjoyable but also made the trip that much more meaningful.

My last read, Josephues' "The Jewish War," written in the 1st century, was entertaining and powerful as a historical work written from such a long time ago and referencing so many sites that still exist in and around Israel.

In reading so many historical tracts I, and Al, through osmosis I assume, began thinking about our trip in historical terms. Thus we came up with historicalesque "periods" to categorize our trip. So in conclusion, I will attempt to distill our trip down to six loose periods:

Semitic Period - This period was characterized by lots of traveling through the deserts - on a bus - being more social than I have been in years, and meeting more Jewish people than I have met since pre-school.

Greco Period - A short period but distinct in its chaotic and worried energy. Since it was the first stop on our month 'n more trip I think Al and I were both eager to get into traveling gear, and we probably overcompensated a bit. The chaotic nature of Athens did not help.

Tim Period - Ah the Tim period. At the beginning of the Tim period we met.... Tim, and subsequently a whole period bears his name. The Tim period was one in which we hung out with Tim from Australia almost exclusively, save for a short day with Delia and Tessa. We did everything with Tim: we traveled with Tim, we ate with Tim, we slept with Tim (platonically).

Post-Tim - Growing pains... Tim moves on, we move on, and we have to reorient ourselves towards the rest of the world.
It really wasn't that hard. We just thought it would be funny to name a period "post-Tim".
Tim still held a special place on our facebook friend list, but we were out and about. Al met a girl, I met some guys to talk politics with, and it was all good. Like the Tim period, in the Post-Tim period we were constantly on the move, though we slowed down just a bit to enjoy some nice cups of coffee and a good read/draw.

Sedentary Period - This period should probably officially only apply to Vienna and Berlin, but I think it well sums up the part of our trip following our departure from Zagreb. The pace slowed considerably, we spent many days at people’s houses, and we didn't travel long distances much. It was a pleasant lull, filled with a variety of small, but not overly ambitious sightseeing
Return to the Homeland with a 4-day stop in the Homeland (period) - We go back to Israel, visit relatives, go to a rave, see the site where Jesus was baptized, and then head back home to try and adjust to the time difference.

The End

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