Using public transport in Israel reminds me on the way I felt when I got my first iPhone: lots of new features and apps and no handbook to figure out how to find and personalize them. Until today, it gives me moments of prickling surprise when I discover something new or something I had long given up looking for. The difference to the phones I used before is not only the lack of an iManual, but its intuitive approach, a supposedly common sense logic instead of the technical appeal of other gadgets. Like the “business phone system” in my German office which used formal logic: For each call, you had to go through chains of yes/no questions which made you so dizzy that you would inevitably click the wrong answer at some point and were catapulted back to the beginning of your search.
So intuition is nice. More direct and fast. The only problem with it is: Intuition is highly subjective. The Apple team most probably consists of smart young men with a taste for perfection looking incidental and playful. My favorites are the little trash bins which open and close to swallow my deleted extra versions of the same photo. Others may like the trembling icons each time you try to tidy up the chaos on the overloaded screen.
The Israeli public transport system has an equally playful look-and-feel: It tries to embody the old joke “two Jews, three opinions”. Everyone can, of course, give a station or a bus stop a name and stick to it. But how would this do justice to the disparate impressions different people have of the same place? Some see the central train station in Tel Aviv as Rakevet Merkaz, others as Arlozoroff Station, and yet others as Savidor Merkaz. The first time I had to change there I almost missed my stop because what I read and heard had nothing in common with the directions I had been given and tried to follow meticulously. That’s how I started my daily commutes.
This way, the newcomer is thrown into the confusing Israeli diversity from his first step. And it does not change when you get on and learn Hebrew, it only deepens. Over the years, I’ve tried to solve the puzzle of seemingly arbitrary transliterations of street names—varying not only between maps and English website versions, but sometimes even changing from block to block, as in the case of Ibn Gvirol, Even Gabirol and all possible versions in between those two. Or Elkalay Street, given as the location of well-known cafés in the famous Basel (Bazel) area of Tel Aviv, but not found by Google Maps until you change the spelling to Alkalay. Funny actually that my Hebrew teacher was so meticulous about the different pronunciation of e and a. At times, I was really insecure about that, but I see I am not the only one.
A page I have bookmarked on my laptop is bus.co.il which shows you how to get anywhere in the country at which times. A great tool, with very useful maps, in English and Hebrew. But no guarantee when it comes to the names of stops. When I visited my friend in a moshav near Netanya for the first time, I took the bus there and, of course, memorized the name of my stop as given by the website. The driver had never heard of it. I took it as an occasion to practice my little Hebrew, describing to him what should be around there, which were the stops before and after mine (names equally unknown), and tried all ways of narrowing the place down. In the end I gave up, opened my iPhone and followed the little blue dot along our way on the map until it arrived close to my friend’s address and I got off the bus. The stop had yet another name than the one the driver had assumed. I forgot what it was, and I don’t bother too much anymore about keeping certain stations in mind.
Because after all, this is Israel, and you can’t really get lost. People will always help; and if they don’t know the bus stop you mention they have other directions for you. Last week, when the English menu of the ticket vending machine at the Tel Aviv central station (Arlozoroff Station, Savidor Merkaz) offered nothing but Hebrew catalogs of choices again, the woman standing behind me in line stepped in and, getting lost in the balagan on the screen herself, asked the guy behind her to help us through the menu. Only then all the three of us noticed surprised that the machine didn’t take cash—and the woman offered to take my money and pay with her credit card. Which she did, for me and, once again, for the man behind her. Never before did I get my train ticket so directly and fast.