The outskirts of Beer Sheva – She was in her early 50s, with short big-hair and large rimmed plastic glasses. “What kind of car is it?” she asked skeptically, in Hebrew, from the other side of the counter.
“Subaru,” I answered. Two weeks of walking and taking cabs has been tiring and expensive. Whether to work, a nearby restaurant, or home from the Old City, every trip costs 25 shekels ($6). The distance just doesn’t seem to matter. It makes me nuts, and I’m wearing the soles of my shoes thin walking the hour home from work. The upside is that I like cutting through the Old City, buying some pistachios, and meandering through East Jerusalem. The downside is that it is almost all uphill (both ways) and trekking in a sports coat, in the summer, in the Middle East, isn’t pretty.
“What? We don’t have this,” she replied with a tone that implied that I was making up the names of cars.
“Subaru,” I repeated. “Forester.” I’ve been shopping for used cars. Well, not really shopping since I’ve only responded to one ad in the Embassy’s newsletter. The Sunday before, I’d driven to Gadera, south of Tel Aviv, in a rental car, on my way back from Haifa, to meet the owner, a tall guy from Michigan named Dave who works with the corps of engineers in Beer Sheva, and to test drive the car.
Driving here is like a race. You’re trying to escape the cars next to you as much as you are trying to actually reach your destination. Adding to the experience, Israeli roads have a special feature I call “the disappearing lane.” Two lanes merge to one with little notice. You have to anticipate the disappearing lane and speed ahead to beat the merge.
The Subaru performed fine in our test drive, but what do I know? I’m a city person – walking, riding buses and subways, and taking taxis when I need some social commentary.
So, I had to have the Subaru inspected before buying it. This meant renting a car and driving to Beer Sheva to take the Subaru to an “official garage” for a pre-sale inspection. When I called the garage for directions, I realized that no one there spoke English and that I was going to get lost. The place was on the outskirts of town in an area that didn’t have street names, several turns away from the junction that would take me to Dimona. The lack of street names wasn’t a big deal since I hadn’t been able to find a city map of Beer Sheva, Israeli’s fourth largest city. I found maps in atlases that showed the roads coming and going, but nothing for inside the city, perhaps a statement of some sort.
Getting lost isn’t so bad if you know in advance that it is going to happen and have a chance to caffeinate and snack. So, at a rest stop on a desert road outside of Beer Sheva, I stopped for a coffee and some grill flavored bisli, an Israeli chip that is a cross between dog food and Fritos. The ride, thus far, in my little white rental car with poor acceleration, had been nice. The rocky open valleys surrounding Jerusalem are gorgeous and I cruised down the hilly road in my soapbox racer listening to Galgalatz, a radio station that alternates between Israeli and English songs.
Before settling on Galgalatz, I skipped around between a range of Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian stations. Galgalatz’s variety was equally impressive – in a half hour they played Smokey Robinson, Stone Temple Pilots, and my new favorite hit, Ani Holech (I go/walk/leave). The only lyrics of Ani Holech that I understood were the chorus (Ani Holech), repeated again and again in grouchy vocals. I’m left assuming that the song is about an old man wearing a plaid hat and a white ‘members only’ jacket who is trying to return cold soup at a diner.
After racing through Jerusalem’s surrounding valleys, I passed some very green vineyards. I’d brought my camera and was going to take some pictures, but I knew that I didn’t have time to stop because I had to account for getting lost later. I figured I’d photograph the vineyards in the late afternoon light on the way home. I zipped past small packs of orthodox Jews in white shirts and black pants and young soldiers in olive colored uniforms looking to hitch a ride. The scenery changed again, tall fir trees became dusty rocky ridges. I slowed at a scene of a young boy herding a herd of goats around a water tanker with a Joshua tree placed teasingly in the background. On the way home, I told myself.
Percolating and full of bisli, it actually wasn’t that hard to find the garage. All of the signs were in Hebrew – usually signs are printed in Hebrew, English, and Arabic – but I stumbled upon the general area and only had to ask a couple of people for directions. It was more difficult directing Dave there, since he can’t read the signs and I could only use landmarks.
“What? Subru? This doesn’t exist,” the woman at the counter said, annoyed.
“Su-bar-ru, Su-bar-ru,” Dave said, losing patience with the communication problem.
“Su BAr Ru?? Ah, Su BAr Ru . . . why didn’t you say so?” she responded, shaking her head.
“Su BAr Ru, Su BAr Ru,” Dave and I said, nodding our heads and smiling.
Once we’d confirmed the existence of Su BAr Rus, the inspection was painless. We were sent to a group of cashiers, passed between them, and then on to a garage along the side of the complex where a man named Rafi inspected the car. No one spoke a word of English, and actually, until Rafi went through the inspection report relatively slowly, so that I could translate for Dave, no one made any special effort to be understood.
Jerusalem is swimming in English. At lunchtime, I walk through the Ben Yehdua pedestrian mall and I hear more English than Hebrew. At restaurants, stores, and even kiosks, in East or West Jerusalem, you can fall back on English, someone will understand. The garage outside Beer Sheva was the first Hebrew only environment that I’ve been in here, so far.
The car passed inspection and I made arrangements with Dave to make the exchange. Hungry, I drove down the thoroughfare looking for a place to eat. On my way to Gadera the Sunday before, I’d found a Burger Ranch – an Israeli fastfood joint – in a shopping center outside of Ramle. For 36 Shekels ($9) I got a spicy schnitzel sandwich (fried chicken in picante sauce that dripped on to my tray in a steady flow), fries, and a Sprite. Rip off! And it wasn’t just because I’m a foreigner – locals were eating there too! Some people think Jerusalem is nicknamed “Jerusalem of Gold” because of its beauty. I’m convinced the nickname comes from the cost of living. I’ll analyze my receipts for you in a different post, though. The important thing is that I was determined to do better than Burger Ranch.
Down the street from the garage, I found a warehouse-sized grocery store with a cafeteria. I got a freshly grilled, spiced ground meat kabob sandwich with all the fixings and a bottle of water for 18 Shekels ($4.5)! It is the best deal that I’ve gotten in Israel, and I happily scarfed it down in the meat section of the cafeteria. To my right, a row of potted plants separated me from a handful of guys eating dairy meals. Behind me, sat four industrial workers eating and chatting. Three of them sat at a table in the dairy section and the fourth next to them, but at a table on my side of the plants, eating a meat- stuffed pepper.
Since I had the rental car, I figured I’d do some shopping. As I fumbled my way through ordering sliced cheese in Hebrew, the woman at the deli counter asked me (in Hebrew) if I was from Russia. She assumed I was a new immigrant. I got similar questions at the checkout counter, as I struggled to fill out my “Super Card” form and then bag my own groceries as the cashier looked on. There was a Bedouin woman wearing a niqab (the Islamic face covering) in the aisle next to me. Hearing her buy groceries in Hebrew was alone worth the trip from Jerusalem.
Driving home, I pulled over to check out an ancient stone house in the middle of the desert, a few hundred feet from the road. I circled the roofless house, built of stacked flat stones, and went inside. In one of the back rooms, there was a cannon ball sized hole ripped into one of the external walls. It was a window into a desert whose brownness was only interrupted by a couple of dark green Joshua trees. With the afternoon light and the billowing desert dust, it was a trophy picture, justice for missing the watering goats earlier. I pulled my camera from its bag and turned the switch to no effect. The battery was dead.
So, no pictures from the road to Beer Sheva, sorry. I did buy the Su BAr Ru though. So maybe, I’ll go back. In the meantime, I need to name the car. Suggestions welcome.