Ten Years, nine months, 30 days and a few hours give or take. That’s how long I’ve been marooned in the land of milk, honey and mangalim. It’s quite an achievement — to shed oneself of civility, courtesy and politeness like a rattle snake shedding its skin; to forget the meaning of patience, as one would the memory of a lost relative, whose facial features and nuanced contours have given way to a vague impression steeped in nostalgia. Perhaps most importantly, to relinquish all desire for one day shipping from Amazon Prime (and no shipping from Target).
Ach, to be a native; and speak in the ancient, native tongue of the Hebrews lapped up in the overcrowded, unruly classrooms of Holon and refined in the cacophonous mess halls of the IDF. To be a native, with one (and perhaps only one) true purpose to existence: never, ever to be perceived as a freir (a sucker). Yet, somehow, despite the flawless, accent-less Ivrit, despite the Havaianas flip flops from the shuk with a rubber strap that inevitably – invariably – pops free at the most inopportune times and despite the ability to masterfully negotiate the tax authority, bituach leumi and the fax machine song and dance still being propagated by financial institutions, this native son will never truly be native. Gaijin as the Japanese would say. A foreigner. Always.
To my American friends (those few left) I am now an expat — inexplicably pushy and direct.
To my Israeli friends I am eternally an oleh — inexplicably polite and, well, let’s face it, a freier.
On those days when my soul yearns for something else, anything else – anything but the insufferable heat and humidity of summer which pins you for 120 days underneath the frigid air conditioner wall unit; the never ending struggle to find a modestly-priced vacation in August; the inexplicable school schedule which gives your child nearly fifty vacation days while you, career-minded and ambitious, get about a dozen – on those days I close my eyes and pretend.
The wafting aroma of tef from the third floor neighbors takes me to Addis Ababa. It is there (or at least the portal there) on the third floor that I explore the vast wilderness of Ethiopia; the desert sand, the ancient culture and the cuisine (which causes the elderly man next door to strategically place air freshener dispensers in the hallway and mutter about the smell under his breath.) Oh how I long to be in Africa, where time seems to have stood still!
I am jolted back to reality.
The argument in Russian from the second floor neighbors is unintelligible. I invent scenarios in my head; he’s been cheating on her or she’s unhappy with the smell of tef. It isn’t immediately clear. She stands on her merpeset, smoking a cigarette and he rushes downstairs to put another coat of wax on his vehicular pride and joy – a 2012 Volvo that receives better care than Holocaust survivors do from the government. I am in a Gogol novel – or perhaps this absurdity is more Master and Margarita. I relish in this free trip to Saint Petersburg and dream of the one thing I have not seen in a decade – snow.
Every city here is known for something; Raanana for its plethora of Anglo Jews, Tel Aviv, pink in honor of the vibrant GLBTQ community and of course, my adopted city, Or Yehuda, for its high concentration of Gettaxi drivers.
An actual conversation I had with a Gettaxi driver last week:
Driver: You live in that building?
Driver: What floor?
Driver: Ah, my uncle Rami lives on the first floor. He also drives a cab for Gettaxi. You know him?
Me: The old guy with the kippa?
Driver: No, that’s Nahum. He’s also a Gettaxi driver. No, the door on the left. Rami.
Me: The guy with the grey hair in a ponytail and the long pinky fingernail?
Driver: What are you crazy? That’s Chezi. He works for Raxi. Rami. You know.
Me: No idea.
Driver: How long have you been living in the building?
Me: Two and a half years.
Driver: How is that even possible? Rami, nu! His son, Bentzi, is also a Gettaxi driver. Lives at home too. How do you not know, Rami?
Me: Huh. Not sure.
Driver: Israel on the fourth floor is also a Gettaxi driver. You know him, right?
Unfortunately, I do.
Karaoke into the night. Slamming doors. The ugly Israel if there ever was one. Five kids (teenagers down to a toddler) who has become a sort of immovable settler in his aging parents’ domicile. I offer to help the elderly couple up the stairs but their pride gets in the way. The old man, trapped in a fragile old shell that keeps cracking, is outnumbered by his kin in his own home. He comes by our place (unannounced and without knocking) armed with a plate of homemade stuffed grape vines as a peace offering. He pinches my son’s cheek on the stairs and I see the neck brace from the last time he fell down the stairs. An octogenarian, forced to climb a mountain of stairs every day because his son, the gettaxi driver, refuses to leave the nest. The settler’s wife, embittered by years of living with her in-laws, doesn’t even acknowledge our existence. She carries the fourth child down the stairs while the elder – a petulant teen – slams the door in his grandfather’s face.
When the desperation is no longer bearable; when the realization sinks in that I’ll never leave this place becomes paralyzing, I turn to Secret Tel Aviv and post an ad. Something like Lone soldier in need of furniture for an apartment. It’s not entirely a lie. I came here in 2007 as a lone soldier and there wasn’t a secret Tel Aviv then. There was barely Facebook here and all the army ever thought I needed was a microwave. Once a month the mashakit tash, a young idealistic corporal in charge of the living conditions, would call me and asked if I needed a microwave. If so they would deliver it free of charge. I don’t really need a microwave, I would counter. Perhaps a cup of Starbucks? Some Fig Newtons? Maybe some mint chocolate chip ice cream? Sorry, all we have is microwaves.
In the outpouring of comments and people willing to help; amongst the heartfelt offers and desire to help, my soul is nourished. I’m lifted out from my own funk (well, with the help of Telegrass and the sudden ease in which one can procure marijuana in this desert oasis) and reminded that perhaps all is not so bad. Perhaps this isn’t the worst place to live and die.
Worst case scenario, if life here becomes painfully unlivable I’m close enough to the airport and intimately familiar with the fleet of taxi drivers just waiting to overcharge me to get there.