The first flight I took to the fledgling State of Israel in October 1949 was through Sabena a Belgium airline which was the only European airline I could connect to from London. Although it was more than a year since the pull out of the British Armed Forces from the Holy Land, Brits did not sanction travelling to Israel. As a consequence this trembling 18 year old girl who had never been on a plane in her life, flew from London to Brussels and after a 24 hour forced sightseeing tour of the capital of Belgium, boarded another Sabena plane to Israel.
It was again in March 1950 that I flew with Air France this time, directly to Lod Airport since named for our first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, the journey taking 10 hours.
This flight left London at 10 pm and I was excited to think that I would be having a champagne supper no less, at midnight. Needless to say I threw up the meal during the trip.
I was alone because the guy whom I had gone to join in Israel and returned with to London to wed (we were both under the legal age of consent) had been sent to Holland shortly after our hastily arranged wedding, to oversee the building of a fishing trawler. At that time food shortages in Israel were acute. Israel had opened its doors to more than a million survivors of the death camps in Europe as well as refugees from arab countries. A group of Mahalniks (volunteers from overseas) and sabras who had mostly been in the Navy had joined forces and set themselves up with the benevolence of the Van Leer Foundation to form a fishing cooperative. So to “feed the masses”.
Due to circumstances beyond our control it was only some years later that I returned to Israel, again to join my husband who had found us a place to live and work on a Moshav Shitufi (cooperative farm). I was accompanied by my two sons aged two and five. Inclement weather had forced our El Al plane to land in Switzerland. While sitting with the pilots in the sumptuous airport lounge eating food the like of which my kids had not seen,they became the focus of attention. The pilots one of whom was the iconic South African Doctor, Sid Cohen came over to chat with the boys.
“We don’t want to be in Switzerland” the boys,pleaded “When will we see Daddy?”
Once back on the plane the stewardess bent over and whispered in my ear. “The captain has invited your boys to visit the cockpit”
El Al has been witness to my joy and sadness, even bringing my whole family with the coffin of my middle son, from London to his burial place in Israel.
That time and the only time, I sat in the first class with my invalid husband. My son was a “Frequent Flyer” and close friend of the then Head of El Al operations in the UK.
I have flown El Al many times since then and always make it a preference, when I can.
Two weeks ago I flew to Marseille,France. The flight was perfect we had a good breakfast and I arrived refreshed to start my holiday. The following day I went with my cousin who was hosting me to explore the ancient and controversial town. I was enchanted and found more than I anticipated. Marseille has fabulous architechture, exquisite scenery abounds in history and great food! I was reminded of Israel, in that people especially in the hospitality industry were concerned that their image was tarnished and wanted to show visitors that great efforts were underway to restore Marseille to its former glory.
We were thoroughly enjoying ourselves when we were stopped in our tracks by an enormous demonstration.
“I cannot resist a demonstration” my cousin looked at me askance.The protesters were a rowdy but a seemingly well meaning bunch and I approached them in my school girl French, to ascertain what their cause was. Immediately leaflets were pressed into my hands and I was amazed at the “Marxist,Trotskyist and communist slogans being thrown about, with blown up pictures of the former great leaders of another era. “Join the militant struggle,power to the people and workers arise” They were protesting the Governments’ attempt to effect reforms on workers rights of employment, hours, holidays etc.
Over the next few days the number of strikers grew and demonstrations became violent and at all times threatened transport,fuel distribution and so on. Things were possibly grinding to a halt.
We left Marseille for my cousins’ home a charming 15th century cottage in Alets les Bains near to Carcassone.
WE were fortunate to get our train which had only been slightly delayed. I tried not to worry about how I would return home. I ascertained from El Al that my flight would be safe on the following Friday morning.
As I was at least a 5 hour journey away from Marseille, I booked a hotel near to the airport for the Thursday evening. I also booked a train ticket from Carcassone but was told to keep checking. Also I was warned that if I wanted help getting my luggage to the platform since there is no escalator or elevator at that station, I would have to book that too and arrive at least half an hour earlier.
I was becoming a nervous wreck.
In the event on the Wednesday evening we had a nice farewell dinner with some expat retirees living in the village. When I got into bed despite the copious amount of wine I had imbued, I had difficulty getting to sleep. I was up bright and early and we set off for Carcassone. It took about an hour for the suitcase problem to be dealt with. Were was my invalid certificate? Why was my case so heavy? I went to get a sandwich and drink for the journey as I had been too wound up for breakfast but out of a choice of 20 sandwiches I chose nothing, since they all contained ham. I settled for a cold drink and a packet of vegetable crisps which was the nearest thing to something healthy. It seems they never heard of vegetarians in that part of France!
Once on the train which was literally standing room only…….I relaxed into my comfortable reserved seat and thought of the hot meal awaiting me on arrival at the hotel.The three hours passed well, with me chatting to all and sundry as the occupants of the adjoining seats changed from time to time. I looked at the names of the stations and longed to be able to get off the train and visit Montpelier and Arles, the very names stir ones senses, but this was obviously never going to happen as I doubted if I would ever pass that way again.
Finally tired and hungry I arrived at St Charles Station.
I had a kindly gentleman help me with the suitcase and I tootled down the platform to locate the shuttle to the airport. Outside waiting were hundreds of people. Not one shuttle in sight. No petrol…no shuttle.
I spotted some young women who were flying to Spain and suggested sharing a taxi and we were joined by another lady flying to Corsica.
Eventually after a circuitous walk around the station we found two taxis.
That done the ride to the airport which should have been 8 euros on a navette (shuttle) was 70 which we halved and then I asked the driver to take me on a 3 minute drive to my hotel and he charged me a further 15 euros.
At this point money was no object, soon I would be in my comfortable hotel room and I could finally get some food. Once in my room I discovered that I could not get a hot meal until 7.30 in the evening. Never mind I thought, a shower and then out to the surrounding neighbourhood, surely a boulangerie or a rustic country bar?
I slid on to the bar stool,I could not dare take a glass of wine so I asked for a tomato juice to abate my hunger.The barman was sweet but no peanuts as I was not ordering alcohol.
After the meal which was such a let down after Marseille, I lay on my bed watching all the news from around the world till I dropped off to sleep. My wake up call was for 5.30 and at 6.20 I was on the hotel shuttle which miraculously had petrol.
I could not wait for the El Al desk to open. I checked in…at last.
I then had a tasty pain en raisin and fresh orange juice and coffee and seeing that the duty free goods were so expensive, made my way to the gate.
Our take off was delayed only for a short time and the Captain apologised profusely. Mothers and babies and “old people” were given preference.The food seemed the most delicious and I could relax in a safe and secure environment during the four plus hours it took to arrive HOME!
Nothing could have been as sweet to my ears as;
“El Al achi b’bayit shel olam”.