It’s hard to explain my love for this sometimes stinky and often fragrant place. It could be hereditary, genetic, brainwashed, habitual or simply the real deal. Here I am lying awake again jet-lagged, exhausted, and headachy yet excited, exhilarated to welcome the new day. I’m here for a week, don’t want to waste a moment, but need to recharge, sleep is necessary to refuel to withstand the heat and bustling streets.
The birds are singing at this unusually early hour just for me, a night owl. Dawn is tinting the sky lighter by the moment and if i could wipe away my sleep deprived haziness, I’d arise from my bed, take a humid walk outside, even alone at 5 am, fearless and joyous, to witness the specialness of this Tuesday morning.
I am only five minutes walk from the Mediterranean Sea, it’s warm bath like water beckons me with the familiarity of the womb. My walk through the dirty streets of this old-new city is tainted by the nasty ever present scent of feline piss, yet is always overwhelmed by the intermittent heady aroma of luscious leafy green vegetation and blooms of every color.
The canopy overhead is filled with flying creatures, bugs, bats, birds. Cats reign from their perches, surprising me from atop walls, garbage cans, parked motorcycles, laying about lazily in the sweltering heat, and scurrying away like the New York City rats from my footsteps to hide beneath cars and bushes.
And the people, speaking in a myriad of tongues. I hear Hebrew of course, and Arabic, Russian, and Spanish and Italian, French and German, South African and British English. Hebrew is flavored with accents from these and other places, Ethiopian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Filipino, Argentine, so many cultures mixed into this tiny place the size of New Jersey or the Kruger Park. It boggles my mind, excites my brain, just as it does in my hometown of New York City.
Some tourists are polite and hesitant, while some locals are gruff and difficult, pushy and obnoxious. It’s too easy to generalize here, since I’ve seen these caricatures illustrated by the cartoonist Dry Bones, described in the press, and by my own prior experiences.
Taxi drivers have no patience for my American accented Hebrew, yet are curious about my confidence, my fluency. They bark, the questions ‘Why are you here? Why don’t you stay?’ readily rolls off their tongues. Queries and welcomes. They switch to English, I demand they speak to me in Hebrew because I want to practice and feel at home in my land, in my second home my third language.
My daughter is here, my heart and soul, some cousins and close friends. I belong here, it’s familiar to the tips of my toes. My soles of my feet know these streets, I own the map in my head without the need for google. I walk a lot rather than bus, enjoying each neighborhood, the changes and gentrification, construction, detours, cacophony.
People clog the sidewalks, shopping, drinking, staring, eating, working, talking loudly into their cell phones. They wear long skirts and sleeves, shorts and tank tops, keffiyehs, kippot, baseball hats, bare heads, tattoos, piercings, makeup, sun screen. They wait for the light to change to green, surprising me since they’re otherwise disrespectful, pushy and impatient.
And then there’s another side that rears its ugly head in my thoughts, my fears of past happenings, an explosion, a missile, a knifing, a car ramming. Those too real incidents I’ve read about again and again, yesterday, last week, last month and year, that make my heart stop for a moment, no an hour, a day, an eternity of heartbreak.
My daughter, a chayelet, a soldier, in green uniform, here like all the others, subject to chance, to hatred, to history. She’s sleeping beside me now, creating my current peace of mind. Myself, a visitor, walking the cities, visiting kibbutzim, famous sites, relishing street art, watching sunsets, sipping fresh fruit smoothies and upside down coffee. Jostling at the markets, at the shore and in the malls and movies. I’m wondering, weighing whether I should be frightened of possibilities or naively be in the moment. Awareness of the present, fending away worry of what’s to come. Because it’s happened before and will again. It’s in the papers, the breaking news. Only let’s not go there. Better to pretend it’s safe here, like I do in New York City. Living in the now, looking around, but not taking to heart the reality of disruption and destruction of lives and loves.
It’s full daylight now. Time for shakshuka, with freshly baked olive bread. A side of techina, chick peas, cool cucumbers and zingy tomatoes. The enticing blend of zaatar and the sweetness of date syrup on tangy yogurt. I smell the coffee, the sea is calling me. My feet are itching to move. My body ready for the moist hot air and the sounds of city life. I am here with my daughter in our special place. It’s yours and mine and everyone’s. if we can only share it peacefully wouldn’t it be eternally beautiful? I’d be forever grateful and we can enjoy the pleasures of this new old place together. Layers of culture and history and languages and tastes and scents, as many as the grains of hot sand on the beach.