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Express Yourself…?

by: Esther Katz - Last updated: 2007-07-23

Esther Katz

Esther Katz

Londoner Esther Katz has gone to Tel Aviv to experience some sand, sea and living the Israeli lifestyle. Find out how she gets on with her frank and revealing insight into what life is like there for a 20-something female.

There were a couple of things I knew to expect from my stay in TLV. One was to worship the sun. And the other was to argue with all and sundry.

Previous visits had taught me that the ratio of polite: impolite interaction in the city stood at on average 1:3. And during an especially hot day 1:5. Considering that I had arrived slap bang in the middle of the July/August heatwave I knew there was no helping it. I was going to get rattled.

The first frustrations took place on arrival at my hotel. It was 6am when I handed over my reservation print-off to a silent grey-faced Russian figure, whose eyes glistened at the sight of it.

"Check in is at 11am, you are early. If you want the room you pay extra".  No amount of fluttering eyelash was going to penetrate this guy, so with a lighter purse and feeling pretty mugged off, I dumped my stuff in the room and headed straight out for a run.

As expected, a jog along the stunning beach perked me up somewhat.  But no amount of sea air was going to soothe me when, on my return I was flagged down by another Russian, demanding a credit card swipe ‘to secure the room’.  A passport didn’t seem to count. Even if my Barclaycard was sitting in my wallet and not in an envelope on its way to me I wouldn’t have acquiesced. With a lot of protestation on my part and a phone call to the manager, I was finally allowed back into the room. However I was now almost certain of there being spy-holes in the bathrooms of this dodgy operation. Ok, I understand this may be more an example of the shifty hoteliers prevalent in any city, but it was a fitting start to my stay.

So for something less flawed. Walking to the beach-side café, after a strenuous day during which I’d purchased a good fraction of the furniture section at Ikea but eaten a total sum of naught, was an interesting one.

"What dya want?", my waiter Adonis (I have no idea what his real name was but if you saw him you’d assume the same) demanded as soon as I stepped inside. "I, errr, I’m not sure yet.." I stuttered, shaky under his dark eyelashes. "This one, this one’ he pointed at the Greek salad "It’s very good’.  I nodded, too scared to protest but mourning the fries I was so looking forward to.  "You sit here, in this section". I dutifully followed the direction of his arm but just as I was about to perch he started up: "No not there. Here, in this bit, this is my section."

Somehow the arm was now pointing in an entirely new area. Ok then. Stumbling through the sand, I homed in on a seat that was certain to satisfy but again I heard him protest. "Where are you going? It’s here, here my section!" He indicated another row.  I sat down and called over that I wasn’t moving. To which not only my Adonis, but one from another indefinable section kicked off. Something to the tune of "What did I think I was playing at?" and declaring they couldn’t serve me unless I moved.

"If you had showed me the seat properly instead of running off to fix your hair then maybe you wouldn’t have your customers zigzagging all over the beach" I hollered in English.  Not understanding, but able to sense I was not about to admit defeat, the ‘Original’ Adonis flagged down a waitress and shoved her in my direction.  At least I had no guilt in changing my order to potato wedges – I needed the carbs to sort out my newly contracted headache. 

Upset after an argument with a relative stranger, who mocked my objectives here and did so in Hebrew to the friends I was with (thinking I couldn’t understand him) one of them told me that I am a little too sensitive but acknowledged how different the Israeli mentality is to the British.  However having a friend from London visit was interesting.

If we weren’t being pounced on at the market by stall sellers thrusting their wares into our faces, we were being told to hurry up and decide what to order by a waitress or called after in the street by hot blooded males. While shopping, my friend left her changing room for a second to look at the mirror and could not believe it when some girl bolted into it and refused to exit.  "Even the resident insects here want a piece of you!" she exclaimed, scratching her highly mosquito-bitten ankle. As the locals did what they do best – ie. Whatever they want – her mouth gaped wide open for most of the week and confirmed it is more a fundamental difference in behaviour here than an over-sensitivity on our parts. 

While it’s true that TLV is brimming with high emotions as temperatures soar, this is about more than just heat.  Israel is at its core a passionate nation where the people are not afraid to say or do what they feel.  In light of its political history, wherein it has always had to fight for the homeland it believes to be its own and prevent it being torn apart by neighbouring countries, one can begin to understand these characteristics. 

A nations’ political climate after all, plays a large part in shaping its people’s everyday lives. There is little space for polite governments within the Israeli-Arab conflict that has shadowed Israeli life for decades, so it’s certainly interesting how the people here interact with such brazenness and severity. 

There are also a number of financial and emotional shortcomings that exist in this city of sunshine.  It is worth noting that the Adonis at the beach café, as brusque as he may have been, works all day in the blazing heat with no fixed salary and only his tips to take home (I discovered this from the girl he sent over to serve me). My cousin here earns a salary but it is approx 20 shekels an hour– around £2.50.  And eighteen year olds here face 2-3 years of compulsory military service, something which no doubt instills a political awareness from an early age and cuts short the footless and fancy-free lifestyle that is a given for youths elsewhere across the globe.

It was with all this in mind that I bit my lip as a waitress today held out the correct tip I’d given her and huffed "This? This is it?"