Saturday, July 7, 2007

The road to Haifa

I got up this morning at 5:30, made it downstairs to catch the bus that would take me to the airport—about ½ a mile from the hotel. It cost 4 pounds to go that short distance, but the claim was that it would go door to door. Yeah, this is Britain. If the French can be officious, the British can be…inefficient. So the bus didn’t, in fact, go to Terminal 4. It went to Terminal 1, from which you could take a shuttle train to Terminal 4. A poor woman who spoke only Spanish got on and couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was to do, so I told her to follow me, because of course I knew what I was doing (or not—but at least I knew the language!). It took a pretty solid ¾ of an hour door to door, but I had allowed 3 hours, so I was still plenty early. And then both check-in and security were extremely fast (Okay, so not completely inefficient).

Breakfast was a venti latte and a chewy something from the airport Starbucks. It was a bit of comfort from home and I enjoyed every bit of it. Got to the gate easily on time and met Edward, who is a rising senior from UConn, planning on being a professor of Middle-East Studies. He already knows Arabic well and was coming to pick up a bit of Hebrew.

The flight was as smooth as could be. A good breakfast, a good book followed by most of Amazing Grace listened to on my noise-reducing headphones—I felt so well-traveled. And in the window, I watched the Mediterranean go by—parts of Italy, then all the islands of Greece. Then, toward the end of the flight, I pulled out the Ulpan papers and the guy next to me turned out to be an administrator in the international program. He has been in Israel for 44 years and Haifa for 36. His field was somewhere between sociology and social work and so we talked for a while about Jews in Israel and the US. The conversation was interesting, however, I found myself feeling like a bit of a fraud at the end of it. I’ve been in school long enough to need to explain myself and feel like, if I were any good, I would be done and out by now. I’m realizing that part of my task in is to find a way to feel confident, to believe in my path, however haphazard that path may appear or be—and it is and I really don’t care but I care that others might care and judge me.

When Israel appeared in the plane window I was surprised at how many and how tall the buildings were. It looked like a set of children’s building blocks laid out below. Unreal. But when we landed, it was hard to believe I was anywhere special. Turns out that all that stuff about California having a Mediterranean climate is true. The vegetation is somewhere between LA, SF, and Nevada. I don’t think I really believed that I was in Israel until I exited the plane and made my way down into a beautiful airport. The whole country, starting with the airport, seems to be made of beautiful light stone, pink, beige, not-quite white. In the airport, there is glass and stone and somehow there was quiet—perhaps because we were coming in just before Shabbat. And the signs were in Hebrew and I could read (some of) it. Then we were through passport control, had picked up bags, and were trying to find the taxis. It is clear that my Hebrew will improve a great deal—I am forced to read the signs and can speak enough to get by. I did manage to ask where the sherut (shared cab) to Haifa was, then to tell the guy that two of us were going to the University. Ten of us piled into the sherut, then began the two hour ride to Haifa. I tried really hard to stay awake, but didn’t. And when I awoke, we were driving along the Mediterranean and the landscape was hillier and greener. The roads and buildings feel so modern, but then there are curved shapes, white stone, and it is so different and so new.

We made it to the University around 6:30 PM. I hadn’t eaten or drunk since breakfast on the plane—I had simply forgotten. But the program is really welcoming. After they gave me my packet of stuff and Edward, another student, and I were standing there trying to figure out where to go, an angel appeared. Okay, his name is Or and he is one of the madrichim (counselors). He was very kind—first showed us the common areas, then took each of us to our respective apartments.

Each apartment has six rooms—three on the first floor, three on the second—plus a kitchen and a common area. My room number is 344-1. The first number is the block or “street,” the second the particular stack, the third, the level, and finally, the room within the apartment. So I am on “street 3”, block 4, on the fourth floor, and in the first room. I have two roommates—Hadas, who is a regular student at the university studying psychology, and Monique, who hails from Cupertino originally, and is now studying to be a rabbi in England at the Leo Baeck School. Monique and her husband, who is an Irish Jew, live near Cardiff in Wales, although they only see each other on weekends because of her program.

Or had told us there was a dinner at 8:30 PM that we would be welcome to. So at 8:30, I show up along with lots of other people and wait. And wait. Finally a short welcoming of Shabbat and the line begins to move. At some point it stops. No plates left. So, being my own obnoxious self, I go to find someone to get more plates. The person I’m directed to asks if I can speak Hebrew. “A bit,” I say (in Hebrew). So he launches into really fast Hebrew (yeah, when they say “typical Israeli,” he’s the one they’re talking about). Then he repeats in English that there are no more plates, so we’ll have to wash off the plates of those who have finished and reuse. Okay, so bad temper when hungry runs in my family. And I STILL have not eaten or drunk anything. So I go back in and announce what he says to the group. Then a few people go and bring down personal stashes of plates; another guy (from Brazil and London) and use a plastic lid as a shared plate. There was no chicken left, nor any other main dish. But there were enough side dishes to get by. As several of us are sitting and exchanging information, another guy comes by and apologizes.

It turns out that the Ulpan madrichim had told us to crash the university students dinner. And because of timing, there had been a lot of us. So the guy with the mouth was really responding to the Ulpan people who had screwed up his dinner. Very interesting—once I had eaten!

After dinner, someone loaned me laundry soap and I headed back to my room. There, I met Hadas for the first time, who was talking with her friend Dekla. I asked which language to speak and she said “Hebrew,” so I did—badly. But they helped and it went okay. A bit later Monique showed up, but with little Hebrew, so we exchanged life stories in English.

Oh, and the cats—I forgot the cats. The place is crawling with cats, everything from small adults to six-week or so kittens. I am trying hard not to get attached—I mean, there is no way one is coming back with me!—but we have named the one that Hadas adopted “Kaftzanit,” meaning—“the jumper,” for reasons that should self-evident!

So that was my first day.

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