Saturday, February 27, 2010

The very Israeli butcher

This is about my encounter with the butcher. I told this story to Israelis and they wondered what I was going on about. But to me it was an example of just how different a foreign country can be.

I went to the butchers just down the street from Amit, it has a narrow entrance and you walk past rows of long freezers with not that much in them to a butchers window display at the end, with two butchers behind. I had a piece of paper with 'chicken breast' written in Hebrew on it that Amit gave me, and I'd looked up how to say it in Hebrew (חזה עוף or 'khaze off'), but the butcher spoke English of course. I said I wanted two chicken breasts. Then came the questions - how many people is it for? Four people I said. Well two pieces is not enough! You need more! What are you cooking? How do you want it cut? Is 800g ok? I still don't think it's enough! I was in shock, what was this butcher doing telling me how much meat I needed, why was he cutting the meat for me, where were the prices? 

I got out of the butchers shop with a bit more meat than I thought I needed, and it was a reasonable price for such attentive service. Having the butcher cut the meat for you with his very sharp knife is pretty handy actually! It was just so unexpected, after an Australian or English butcher who will offer advice only if you ask for it, always display the prices, and would never challenge you if you know what you want. You could describe this as very Israeli - being challenged by someone you're giving money to, and getting advice when you didn't really need it.

I used the chicken that night for my first ever dinner party in Israel, with Ido (who I'd met with Amit in Vietnam) and his girlfriend Efrat. I made stir fry with chicken, mushrooms and broccolini and a teriyaki sauce and rice. It was super quick, and turned out yummy. And it was finished up by the boys, so I guess the butcher was right about how much chicken I needed after all.

Efrat and Ido smoking the nargile (also known as the hookah, sheesha or water pipe)

I had planned on spending a few hours cooking that day, and a different menu for the dinner, but my domestic goddess practice was put on hold when Amit's mum picked me up and whisked me off to Zikhron Ya'akov for a delicious lunch. It is a beautiful town about 40mins north of Tel Aviv, on a small mountain looking over an ocean, with a paved street with cafes and cute antique shops along it. It was very picturesque, and with Israel looking so green at the moment after the winter rains it was a gorgeous drive there.

Paved street of Zikhron Ya' akov

Sunday, February 21, 2010

week two in Israel

Settling in
I cooked my first meal here in our kitchen. I managed to go to the supermarket and buy ingredients without being able to read most of the labels. In the bigger supermarket I was very confused that I couldn't find any bacon... turns out it was a kosher supermarket. I made spaghetti bolognaise, a classic fave of mine, and it turned out fine, despite me buying veal mince instead of beef mince... That's what happens when you can't read labels!

The spaghetti sauce - From Our apartment in Tel Aviv

Smoky bars
I realised that it had been years since I'd stepped into a bar or pub and been assaulted by cigarette smoke when I came across it here. There are signs in every bar saying no smoking, and there are no ashtrays on the tables or anything, but everyone it smoking inside! The bar tenders make ashtrays from folded cardboard coasters, so if the police come in they can say that they had nothing to do with encouraging the smoking. It's another little thing that tells me I'm really in the wild west, rather than a western country! And I really do hate that smoke of course, it makes your clothes stink and your eyes water, so unpleasant.

Seeing the country
I went to the area near Be'eri twice in the same week, just by chance. It is about an hour or so south of Tel Aviv, close to the Gaza Strip, that is famous for the red anemone flowers that are (supposed to) carpet the grass fields there. The flowers don't seem to be that cooperative this year though, probably due to the very hot weather we're having (about 28 degrees C each day - lovely!). 

I went first with Amit's mum for a drive around the area to visit some memorials (including an ANZAC monument, how unexpected!) and to view Gaza from a safe distance. We couldn't see much, just a densely populated city in the haze. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. We drove through towns nearby and saw the missile shelters on the streets, as missiles randomly land in these areas. It was an interesting experience, and made me think about the fragility of peace in this country. In Tel Aviv and surrounding areas you would never think there is any danger, yet 80km away missiles could land on your street. Amit's mum said something about how Israelis don't really talk about the weather in Israel, there are more important things to talk about, like life and death.

View album - Heading south - looking at Gaza

I went again to Be'eri on Friday (the weekend is Friday and Saturday here) with Amit, Noa and Yair. We had a lovely picnic in a eucalypt plantation (very common here) and then a 'hike'(what we would call a walk or a bush walk) through some lovely grassland dotted with wild flowers. See photos on Amit's album.

The Synagogue
On Saturday we went to a synagogue in Petah Tikva (where Amit grew up) for a religious ceremony related to Elad and Einat's wedding last week. After the wedding the husband goes to the synagogue to say a prayer and say basically that he will be a good husband in front of god. Amit and his friends go to the synagogue only very rarely, so everyone felt a little out of place at this event, not only me!

Men and women are segregated in synagogues, with the men downstairs in the main part, and women upstairs, behind a curtain, so the men aren't tempted by us (apparently). So we go upstairs, and you really can't see anything from up there - you can peek through the curtain but the religious men don't really like that. Us ladies sat up there and whispered about what was going on, wondering when Elad would finally get to speak... Once he spoke we all threw wrapped lollies on Elad (and all the men down there), which was quite fun. Then we escaped to the outside.

That was about it. I would describe the experience as being just as dull as a church, but without being about to see the people speaking or what is going on, or understanding a word that was said! Also, the building was very modest, not decorated and grand like a church. This was Bulgarian type of synagogue with it's traditions by the way, there are many different branches of Judaism I hear. While we were sitting in the synagogue, Amit's friend pointed out a line in the Torah, a very famous prayer that says something like "Thank you God, king almighty, for not making me a woman". She said that explained one of the reasons she wasn't too enamoured with the religion... Fair enough!

After the synagogue we went to Elad's sister's house in a town nearby. There we had a fantastic lunch, reminding me of probably my most favourite thing about this country - the food! It is incredible - huge quantities, amazing variety, great quality and super fresh. I could go on and on about it... and I will, but later, after I've eaten the delicious leftovers from Friday dinner at Amit's family's place. His mum is the most amazing cook!

Finally, the people
I've reached the end of this blog post without talking about the people here, which is a huge oversight. Of course everything I've talked about couldn't have happened without the amazing people facilitating it all. Amit's family have been so welcoming, asking me for lunches and dinners and taking me on day trips and cooking amazing food. Amit's friends are lovely and making sure I'm enjoying life here. The people I meet are so open, warm and friendly, it makes me feel so excited to be here. It is hard to describe how wonderful everyone is, hopefully you can see it throug the smiles on our faces in the photos. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tel Aviv, some observations

I'm past my first week in Tel Aviv now. It's an amazing city, so different from where I left - Canberra! The streets are always filled with people. The boulevards are lined with green leafy trees. There are no houses, only apartment buildings, all about 5 or 6 stories high, and all white. Some are covered in tiny white tiles that shine subtley in the sun. A lot look very run down, showing that this is a new city, built quickly with population explosions. There are cats everywhere, tonnes of stray cats. There is tonnes of dog poo on the pavement.

From First week in Israel

And then there's the people. I have never been in a more multicultural city. Forget Melbourne, forget New York, Tel Aviv wins in multiculturalism hands down. There are people from everywhere - the middle east, europe, asia, africa, india... there is amazing cultural diversity. I can be walking down the street feeling very white, when someone much whiter than me speaking Hebrew walks past, and I remember that this is a melting pot of every kind of person.

And of course there is the reason I'm here - Amit. Things are going great. It is wonderful to finally be in the same place in the world... I've put my things into his apartment, I'm fitting into his life here and finding my own way too. It's great.

From First week in Israel