I can’t remember what my initial expectations were of Israel, but I was happily surprised at what we stumbled upon. Instead of an endless desert with bombs going off left and right, Tel Aviv was a cross between Miami Beach and San Diego in both beauty and first world amenities. Palm trees border roads and beaches, kite surfers spot the horizon line, women sport bikinis and are seated next to business men at coffee shops and restaurants. Glass high rises stand tall next to cracked cement residential buildings while green plants and flowers cascade from balconies. It feels casual and welcoming, yet sophisticated; old and new, beach and metropolitan. This was my kind of place.
The most amazing hummus and tebuleh salad I’ve ever had turned out to be fast food from a place called Abu Gosh. I never eat fast food back in the States, but I visited this restaurant every day. Open market stalls inside of filthy alleyways sold piping hot (and delicious) apple fritters just out of the oven. (‘That’s disgusting. Oh, wait, I’ll have 5, actually. Thank you…’) I sampled a large, delicious chunk of a sesame cake that looked like Pâté while I purchased a dozen different kinds of Baklava. ‘I have to try them all. How else will we know what kind to get when we come back?’ You couldn’t get a bad snack or meal, and each stop outdid the next.
We stayed at an Air BnB in the center of the city near the Dizengoff Center, just a 5 minute walk from the beach and walkable to nearly everywhere else in the city. The only time we took a taxi was heading back to the airport.
My mornings started with a run along the beach’s boardwalk where I was witness to the sun rise and locals getting fit (they have a free gym right on the sand with fun exercise equipment that rival a children’s playground- all just a stone’s throw from ever-occupied beach volleyball courts). During any day of the week, the beaches were packed. ‘Don’t these people work?’ we asked ourselves as we shook out our towels and got ready for another day in the sun. The Mediterranean Sea (as in Cyprus) was crystal clear, clean, and nearly void of fish. I was so excited that there was no fear of sharks, I strapped on my goggles and swam out well beyond the jetties, people appearing as tiny dots back on the beach. It was wonderful… one giant swimming pool to work off the loads of hummus and baklava I was consuming.
Although I would have been content staying in Tel Aviv every day, we decided we should explore the rest of the country with our limited time.
We took the #480 commuter bus to Jerusalem on our 3rd day and navigated the city by sight since our phones weren’t working. We wound up at the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City via Light Rail Train and asked soldiers to snap a picture of us in shorts and t-shirts, posing at the entrance of one of the oldest, holiest cities in the world. We covered up (sort of) once inside the city, but after having been in Morocco, it felt as if one could walk down the street in a bikini and no one would notice.
The look of the Old City of Jerusalem was a lot like the medinas of Morocco, though there was a familiarity this time: the wide brownish-yellow sand-colored steps that led down to narrow alleyways, brick arches and cobblestone streets. I had seen this before… was it Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, or something at Disney World? I had déjà vu.
Jerusalem was much cleaner and felt safer than anything in Morocco. It was clear that Jews, Christians, Armenians and Muslims all worked in the same vicinity, even if their sections were separate. That in itself was beautiful, even if it was for the tourists. Everyone we met there had grown up in the walls of the old city, generations before them had worked in the same shops and restaurants. Life is catered to a history that has touched all of us somehow, no matter what religion we come from.
We befriended an Armenian jeweler, Joseph (pronounced Yosef), in the Christian section who escorted us to his friend’s Lebanese restaurant, and who gave us a tour of the city walls and roofs after he closed his shop at the end of the day. The old city at night had a glow to it that was lost during the daytime. It came alive with locals and twinkling lights, with children running down the cobblestone streets exiting classes from synagogues and churches.
We made our way back to the Light Rail that evening with school children and workers, and eventually to Bus #480 heading for Tel Aviv, with the army kids and commuters. I was happy not to be boarding a tour bus, and I was also happy to be heading home to Tel Aviv. We were starting to feel like locals.