Memories and Inspiration for Food, Travel and Life
Something in me started really missing Israel recently. It’s not only Israel, but somehow my time there has seemed to become the antithesis to my current life in France. The constant grey skies and damp air in Paris are in sharp contrast to the brilliant sunshine and arid desert air that I breathed daily in Eilat. I am entering 2013 feeling rather lonely in such a large city…when I was rather alone but never felt so in the small beach town on the Red Sea. As Isolated as Eilat is from even the larger cities of Israel, let alone the world, it’s strange to have such an opposing sense of self in two environments from which the outside would suggest otherwise. 2013 is looking to be a year of solitude, self reflection, and learning to find strength from myself rather than those around me. This is funny to say while being married to a highly supportive husband, but between work and sleep I have little time to actually communicate with him and feel like the pressure of being my strongest ally is not fair to place on another individual. It’s time for me to work on becoming impenetrable, or the rain and cold is going to break my spirit.
Sometimes signs make us feel there is a reason we are somewhere, and that we made the right (or wrong) choice. Something told me I was meant to be in Israel the day after I arrived. It was a rather long and convoluted story which leads me to that job, but I had to leave Antibes. Mentally, I couldn’t live there anymore. I got a job on a boat leaving Europe, to cross the Atlantic, and as we left port (after all the goodbyes) it left me with one last reason to leave. Yelling as our boat left harbor, “Anne, I forgot to tell you! Your professor, John Higgins, died while working on the boat he joined. I thought you should know”. John Higgins was not only my favorite professor at my University in France, but I was also the person he contacted when he decided to leave teaching and take a break to work on the yachts. And now, only a year later, he was dead. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know where. Regardless of the reason, I felt guilty.
In the end the job crossing the Atlantic didn’t work out, that is a story for later, but eventually I ended up on a flight from Palma to Miami and a plan to try out the Fort Lauderdale yachting scene. It was November of 2005 and I was 24 years old and determined to work and get started on this next chapter of my life. I went to stewing courses to boost my CV and stayed in a crew house for the first time in my career. Even then, nothing was looking worthwhile and I was fine with that. Close to home (relatively speaking), I thought it would be nice to see my family for the holidays. But, that didn’t happen. No sooner than I was planning a trip to North Carolina, then I got a call from an old friend Kate. She was offering a chief stew position on a yacht in Israel, with an American Captain and Russian Owners. It was mine if I wanted and they would have me on a flight out tomorrow. OK. OK. This was nothing on my radar, but when else would I have this sort of opportunity? Someone was willing to fly me from Fort Lauderdale to Israel and it was a great career move, why wouldn’t I? Done.
Flying to and from Israel is exactly as one would expect, full of security. Getting out of the airport into Tel Aviv is a little different. I didn’t expect to feel so insecure for no describable reason. I was met at the airport and taken to the bus station to wait for the next bus to Eilat, which was in a couple of hours. I waited, only wishing to sleep, but staying awake to protect the few personal belongings I had in the dodgy bus terminal. Finally the bus came; I got on, and passed out during the whole six hour trip. I missed passing the Dead Sea and the desert, but I didn’t care. I needed sleep, because tomorrow would be work regardless. When I got to Eilat the captain picked me up; this tattooed American captain who drove like a maniac and talked like a California skater, who would turn out to be a lifelong friend.
The next morning in the galley I was talking with the Israeli/Scottish chef and discussing boats. I will be honest, I don’t know how we got started but he brought up the steward on the yacht next to us in the port. He was also Scottish, which was “until he died a few weeks ago from an aneurism while swimming”. The hair on the back of my neck stood on edge. My teacher, the only professor I had ever kept in touch with to that point, and who looked at me for a career change, had died here in Eilat on the boat next door. I knew there was a reason for me to be there then.
I think I lived life to the fullest from that point on and it helped me snap out of my prior despair at lost love. The reasons I had left Antibes and the death of my teacher all made living life any other way seem trite. Kate and I made a close lifelong friend in Eilat named Michelle and we spent the next months dancing all night in the sand at Dolphin Reef, eating wonderful sushi at Ginger and drinking with our bartender friend Yardin at the Mate bar.
Israel as a nation, in December of 2005, was dealing with Ariel Sharon falling ill, Hamas strengthening, and by the time I left in 2006, the first suicide bomber fatalities in Eilat. I experienced firsthand what it was like when a suicide bomb occurs close by while in Tel Aviv. I traveled alone to the Sinai in Egypt and got to see Petra by horseback. I tasted Za’atar on fresh bread sold in newspaper and drank coffee with cardamom from a portable kettle lit on the grass hill opposite outside the US Embassy. I was invited to dinner on Shabbat with Orthodox friends and ate a Passover dinner with a family in Jerusalem. I walked home for two hours on a random highway when the taxis stopped running on Shabbat, and waited in the middle of the desert alone with a stray dog for a bus to arrive on the way to a kibbutz. I never felt lonely or spiritually weak.
Kate and I took a Christmas trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, meeting up (oddly enough) with our friend from Antibes, Karl, for Christmas Eve dinner. When I thought about Jesus being born, typically it was in the desert. The warm, dry, and almost tropical desert. Jerusalem around Christmas was actually raining, and freezing cold. I walked around the streets of old Jerusalem with plastic bags around my fur slippers which were a better option to my Havaianas. The damp and dimly lit hostel, which also lacked hot water (thanks for the reminder Kate!) we stayed at was full of an eclectic group of travelers, often sitting in the dining area debating the dangers of visiting the West Bank. We had a lust for adventure. Why don’t we go to the West Bank? Palestine? It can’t be as bad as you see in the sensationalized news reports in America. Surely this strange, slightly mad, twenty year old guy sitting with his hands flying around the air describing the Palestinian atmosphere, dressed like an insurgent, surely he knows what he is talking about if he has been there and back in one piece. For Christ’s sake, it’s Christmas Eve, where better to celebrate the birth of Jesus than in Bethlehem! These opportunities are once in a life time!
There were a few taxis that looked at us and finally said no way as we walked into the night towards the border; no way would they drive into the West Bank. Finally we got one, but I was quickly told to remove the black and white scarf that I was naively wearing to keep from freezing…so I shoved it under the driver’s seat rather than throw it from the window as requested. There were multiple security checks, with scary men carrying automatic machine guns, which only got more intense the further in we got. Kate and I would look at each other for reassurance, to remind ourselves this was a good idea. It was pitch black and only small street lights lit the rugged stone corners of buildings as we passed. All the windows were closed and interior lights off. When we got to the church in Bethlehem, no one else was there. There were absolutely, positively, NO women in the streets. And we stood out like sore thumbs to the younger male population scattered about. We looked around, pensively, stressed at our decision and fighting the urge to run back into the cab and go back. We had paid him to wait for us for one hour. We went to an ATM to get cash for a drink at the only place that seemed open…but a group of men came towards us and started circling, so we abandoned the ATM and just walked quickly into the bar. How many shekels could a coffee be in Palestine anyway?
The café was bright, warm and crowded. There were a few out of place holiday decorations in the male saturated space. There was no table free of loud men who all seemed to glare when we entered. The waiter just pointed at a table with a single Western looking male and we sat. He was American, and here in Palestine to help broker a peace deal. He sat with us until we were ready to go and then walked outside with us. The church we came to have midnight mass at was still dark at 11:45 with ambulances and news crew waiting outside, and the streets were still stirring with a strange, indefinable but undeniably unwelcoming sensation. We went to the motioning cab driver and left the West Bank to attend midnight mass in Jerusalem. Probably high from our adventures, we couldn’t stop giggling during the singing. When mass ended we walked outside into the quiet and found soft snow blanketing the city.
Months later, when I was with the Scottish chef at his family’s home outside of Tel Aviv, we were talking to his mother. She had just returned from a trip to the Cote d’Azur where I used to live. While discussing the lovely weather, shopping and food she mentioned a serendipitous conversation she had overheard in a restaurant in Nice. “There was a Scottish family; they had come down after their nephews’ funeral. He had just taken a job working on a yacht in Eilat, Israel…” Speaking to the chef from my boat, she turned “Aaron, you remember that young man that died from the boat next to yours? Well, I realized I was his family! We ended up talking about Israel and Scotland; they were lovely people, such a shame”. I’ve never experienced such a story in life coming full circle like that; it still gives me goose bumps.
In a sense, I know somehow I have been meant to be in Paris since my first trip here when I was seventeen was almost forced, but I loved it. I fell in love with Paris, coming back as much as possible over the years, only later to fall in love IN Paris with my husband. I learned in Israel how to combat the potential loneliness by taking advantage of the time alone to do yoga, go out by myself and explore with no fear, to enjoy the solitude. After so many years of extreme sensory overload and stimulation I supposed I have forgotten how to enjoy this sense of isolation. It took a the first few days of 2013 to really address how I have been feeling and realize it is not the horrible fate I imagined immediately. There is possibly no better time than now to enjoy and reflect the life I have had thus far. Hopefully anyone else feeling this way can come to terms and learn to appreciate it because we seem to learn so much about ourselves in times like these.