When I was a young girl, we used to play a game called “Bäumchen wechsle dich”. The group sits in a circle of chairs, except one person: there is always one chair less than there are players. Upon the call “Bäumchen wechsle dich” (“little tree exchange”—yes, it doesn’t make perfect sense in German either) everybody jumps up and tries to find a new seat. The seats to the left and right of your old one are forbidden, and one chair is still missing; so the whole crowd crosses the room quickly.
If you ride a city bus in Tel Aviv, that’s what happens at every major stop. Eight people get out, and twelve jump off their seats, rush through the bus and fall onto their new choice of placement. Next big stop, the same dance: a lot of hustle and bustle in the bus.
I can’t tell you what makes people do this, which is the secret call I fail to hear. But I can tell you what made me take part in the game after some months of riding the bus, back and forth between my university and home.
First, people love to sit close. I like space. I come from those northern plains. (Funny to call Berlin a plain, but it is, in terms of elevation and people’s feelings about private space.) If the whole bus is empty (which may indeed happen, at night or sometimes, unexpectedly, at noon) and somebody enters, he or she will inevitably sit next to me. Dozens of empty seats around, but he will make me remove my bags and my jacket, stuffing it all on my lap, holding my book awkwardly high above the pile—until the next stop. Moving, of course, will only save me for another few minutes until the next passenger enters. Or my neighbor, just having squeezed himself into the window seat, climbing over me and my heap of belongings, will actually get out at the next stop himself. Why not make the short ride a little more social? The only ones who don’t always follow this urge are ultraorthodox men. But even with them you can never be sure, social cohesion surmounts religious and political difference.
Secondly, Israelis are friendly. Even when they communicate in short shouts—like: Driver. D r i v e r! Open the door! (and usually half the bus joins in support)—they are open-minded and friendly. I have seen people getting up to offer me their seat so frequently that I wondered whether (a) I appear so worn-out that I’m already getting the respect due to elderly people, or (b) all the munching “gefillte bamba” at night makes me look as if I was pregnant. (Bamba are peanut puffs, and in Israel they come in huge varieties, even filled with halva, nougat cream or “cream bamba”.) It might be quite the opposite though, like (c) a charming gesture of courtship from some guys… but what about the women who also did it? Well, I take it as the Israeli affability that I have loved from the first time I traveled the country, decades ago, as a tourist.
Thirdly, there is the dirty boots rule. If you have bags, hold them on your lap or put them under your seat. But if you are wearing big and really dirty shoes, say army boots, you must place them on the seat opposite yours. Rest them. Don’t move them away, for any reason. In a whole year only once, one single time have I seen someone comment on this: a man in his fifties asking a girl of about twenty to remove her boots. She refused. He explained. He urged a little. She cursed him, and even though my Hebrew is not yet fluent, I could get she wasn’t being polite. He expressed his disapproval and leaned back into his seat. After a while he got off the bus, and in the same minute heads turned towards the girl and stated their support, acclaiming her courage to withstand. A brave soldier she was. And I understood suddenly that people maybe didn’t mind sitting backward on the bus, as I had assumed (and which might still be true as the dirty boots rule applies in either direction), maybe they just didn’t want to sit on those soiled seats.
Anyway—on one of the following days I observed myself squeezing me in next to someone in a narrow row without opposite seats, causing him to remove all his bags and his jacket—and to smile warmly at me nonetheless.