I have a cousin, who I’ll call Avi for this story. He is the quintessential Israeli. He’s a businessman without a business, a politician without a party and a director with nothing to direct. He has three phones and talks on them simultaneously with three different people. It’s not unusual for him to have dinner at 11pm and breakfast at lunch time.
A few years ago on a visit to Israel, I was at his house one day, when he suggested we go to the beach. At that stage, he didn’t have his driving license, so I was the designated driver. We took my aunt’s car – which was a Fiat something or other. It was really small – and yellow. It had this cool feature, where you’d start the car and the safety belt would come down automatically. It had small tyres – really small. So small that kids used to try take them off to use for building Lego models. It also wasn’t very powerful – it had a 25 puppy power engine, so it was slow. So slow, that when we went for a drive up in the hills of the Galil, people on a leisurely stroll would pass us by. Even hitchhikers would wave us on.
Anyway, we headed towards the coast, me following Avi’s directions dutifully, and eventually arrived at an area overlooking the beach, where I noticed there was no car park. This fact didn’t seem to bother Avi, who also happened to be an expert in everything. He directed me to go down a slight embankment, which looked a little sandy for my liking. At this stage I started getting that nervous feeling in my stomach – knowing that if I decided to proceed, the next turn I make could be trouble. But Avi insisted it would be fine, as he knew the beach, he knew the car, he knew the sand and he knew… well… EVERYTHING! Kol b’seder, he said. Everything will be fine.
So I pushed that nervous feeling aside, deciding to rely on local expert knowledge, and proceeded. We slowly descended the hill arriving right in front of the beach when the most amazing, incredible, unexpected thing happened – WE GOT STUCK! The wheels were turning, but we weren’t going anywhere! So I got out the car and started yelling at my cousin, who simply shrugged and said: don’t worry! Of course, being right out in front of the beach, meant we had an immediate audience. All heads immediately swung towards our direction, and I could feel my cheeks warming up quite suddenly.
Now, this is Israel, where the words “not getting involved” are not understood in any language. Matkot (beach bats) games ended abruptly as people got up from their tanning positions and starting descending upon us, because everyone just had to see who this meshugenah was. Within seconds, a small crowd has gathered around – all voicing their opinions on our predicament. There were young people, old people, men and women of all shapes and sizes. Some of the men were wearing speedos way to small – and might have even been popular in the 70s. At this point, everyone suddenly became civil engineers or geological experts.
They started arguing amongst themselves about the best way to get us out of the sand. Someone began pushing the car and someone began pulling the car. Another person told me I was crazy for coming down the hill. Well, he didn’t actually use those words, but he made a lot of hand gestures that involved pointing at the hill, then pointing at me, then pointing at the car, then pointing at the sand, then making a whirling motion against his head. Another guy tried to sell me ice-cream and someone else wanted me to hire a beach chair. One person was shouting at my cousin, another person was shouting at the car, and another one was just shouting! Others ended up simply arguing with each other about politics. Through this whole time, the sweat was pouring down my face, which had already turned a bright crimson red, but I tried to remain calm, mumbling repeatedly: I’m not from around here! I’m not from around here! Meanwhile, in my head, I kept on saying: Why Justin? Why did you listen to Avi!?? Why!!? My aunt is going to kill me!
Avi, meanwhile, was way too calm, talking on one of his three phones making arrangements for the evening. I think I eventually ripped it away from him and told him to stop being calm and start to panic.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, where I had lost about 5 kilograms in sweat and all my pride, they managed to get enough weight on the car to get it out the sand, and stutteringly back onto the road – which led to a rousing cheer and laughter by all and a massive wave of relief for me. Even the fish popped out the ocean, clapping their fins. Then after giving each other, including my cousin and me, a congratulatory hug, the Matkot games resumed, and positions on the beach were taken up again – all as if nothing had happened. Something told me this wasn’t the most unusual event to ever happen at the beach.
In Israel, you don’t slip quietly into society – instead, society throws the door open and bursts its way inside.
In many ways, a day at the beach is a microcosm of Israeli life. You have politics, you have laughter, you have crises, you have arguments, you have opinions – strong ones. And yet, you’ll always have someone to tell you you’re crazy – and then still do everything they can to help you.
But that’s Israel – where the people are as warm as the sun, where the sand gets into all kinds of annoying places, where hiring a beach chair is a rip off, yet still at the end of the day you laugh, appreciating life while having chocolate milk and a felafel.