Friday, March 21, 2008

Bockfest 2008

One month ago Randy and I went to Bockfest at the Capital Brewery, my favorite holiday of all. Last year the Chicago contingent had come up for the weekend, but this year a scheduling conflict precluded their presence. How do you schedule against Bockfest? Undeterred, Randy and I decided that even if it was just the two of us, we'd still be going to Bockfest come hell or high water. As it turns out, the weather was splendid, possibly too nice given the crowds. The above picture was taken from the stairs leading inside. You can imagine how long the line for beer was. In keeping with last year's limit in Blonde Dopplebock one was allotted, an individual was entitled to buy just one 16 oz. cup. You could buy as much of the other beers, so we stuck with Maibock. Here's Randy, enjoying the first taste of Blonde (inside the warehouse, where we gambled the line would be shorter). We had started off the morning at the always-busy Hubbard Avenue Diner, just down the road from the Brewery. We got there at the perfect time, just before a mad rush of similar-minded people. You could tell who was planning on heading for Bockfest by how many layers a person was wearing. Following a fortifying breakfast quesadilla we drove down to the Brewery and went in. The crowd was massive, by far the largest I have seen at any time at the Bier Garten. The procedure had changed from the year before, and the taps didn't open until noon. It wasn't until about quarter after that we made our way up to the counter. Randy made the best decision of the day and we got a mug of Maibock with our pint of Blonde. As everyone has mentioned about this year's Bockfest, it was difficult to make your way back to get a refill. However, Randy managed to stake out a spot near the corner of the main tap area and it only took us about 20 minutes to get a second. We stayed until the traditional fish fly, and although I didn't catch a smoked chub (thankfully) I did snag a string of beads. I had to get going shortly after this, since I had somewhat foolishly agreed to go to a charity dinner with E & C - I always manage to double-book myself for Bockfest. I'm really looking forward to next year, since the crowds will hopefully be reduced since it will no longer be a "free" event. I certainly won't mind paying for a ticket for my favorite holiday of the year!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What We Need

From the new office refrigerator:

We really do need that microwave.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Natan and I awoke early in Jerusalem to another bright sunny morning. We checked out of the hotel and headed back to the Central Bus Station. The city was just beginning to wake up, with delivery vans unloading produce and baked goods all along Jaffa Street. We made our way to the bus station, which was already teeming with people. We would be taking a bus to Tel Aviv, where we would meet up with Natan's brother Daniel and then proceed to Haifa. We grabbed a cup of coffee and watched as Israelis tucked into their breakfasts. I was struck by the difference from the standard American breakfast fare. Instead of bacon, eggs, toast and the like, the Israelis went for large salads with a lot of vegetables.

The bus to Tel Aviv did not take very long. Getting off the bus at the station was where I encoutered my one and only unpleasant experience with the Israeli Security Apparatus. Natan and I had both stowed our bags underneath, and after grabbing these I followed him toward the station entrance. There a baggage screener was checking bags, which surprised me slightly since I had already gone through security at the Jerusalem station. The baggage screener, a middle-aged blonde woman, briefly glanced through Natan's bag. When I placed my backpack on the table she said something in Hebrew and made a gesture toward the door. I didn't know what she said so I took my bag back, which made her start to berate me in Hebrew. I shook my head and apologized, saying I didn't understand what she was saying. She repeated, in Hebrew and louder (I think I can now commiserate with foreign tourists in the States). Natan finally came to my aid and translated that she wanted me to open the bag. OK, but she had been opening everyone else's, but whatever. I opened my backpack and she pulled out the plate from the Old City, which was wrapped in a black plastic bag, then pulled out my "ditty bag" and said something else in Hebrew. I was getting flustered so I start rambling on about my toothbrush and toothpaste and Armenian ceramics, until she rolled her eyes and yelled "OPEN!" Now, I like to think that I made a genuine effort to try to fit in as best I could during my time in Israel, but I'm pretty sure I came across as an American that obviously didn't know what was going on. Once I did open m ditty bag, she didn't bother to look and just waved me away. I don't know why it made me so angry, maybe just the embarrassment of it all, but I stewed about that for the remainder of the day.

The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station is a huge structure that contains a variety of shops and restaurants. It is basically the combination of a bus station and a shopping mall. However it is starting to really show its age. Natan told me that it was a major destination when it opened in the 1990's, but now is in decline. The layout of the station was very confusing. There seemed to be multiple floors with almost randomly-placed escalators throughout the structure. It was really confusing to get around between the different floors, and I was never quite sure of where I was at any given time. Natan's brother Daniel met us at the station after about an hour. It really goes to show how difficult living without a cell phone becomes once you're used to them, since neither Natan nor my phone worked in Israel. Just like in olden days we had to figure out where to meet the night before.The bus to Haifa was also quick. We arrived and started walking, to where I was not entirely sure. This would be the theme of my time in Haifa, walking to some unknown destination. We originally tried walking from the Haifa bus station toward Mount Carmel but the sidewalk soon ended, dispelling that plan. We doubled back around the bus station, stopping at a nearby mall to grab a quick falafel. Natan and Daniel decided that walking up the side of Mount Carmel would not be the most feasible of plans, so we caught a cab and took a ride up to the top of the Bahai World Centre gardens. The views were astounding. We entered the gardens at the Upper Terrace. The port of Haifa was bustling, with a line of ships coming and going on the impossibly blue waters of the Mediterranean.The Shrine of the Bab was closed by the time we arrived, but several of the terraced gardens were open for touring. The landscaping was meticulous, as you can see. The gardens include 18 circular terraces that extend all the way up the slope of Mount Carmel on both sides of the Shrine. We started at the top and walked down toward the Shrine. It was growing late into the afternoon and the gardens were set to close at 5. We decided to head down toward the port and waterfront and find a hotel for the night. We kept looking but came across nothing. After a good hour of walking through downtown Haifa we stopped for a quick coffee. I went to use the restroom and came upon a problem. Up until this point I had been lucky to have either English translations or pictograms delineating the men's and women's. My luck ended here, as the two signs were Hebrew only. Luckily for me there weren't proper doors to the restrooms, just beaded curtains, so I could look into both and see through to the stalls. In the second restroom I saw the international sign of a men's room: the seat was up. Crisis averted. We resumed our search for a hotel and we were hopeful as we came up upon the building pictured to the left. If anything looks like a hotel, that would be it. Unfortunately it turned out to be the Sail Tower, a government building. So we kept walking. After another mile or so we found ourselves in a decidedly industrial area. It was time to give up and hail a cab. The cabbie laughed when Daniel explained our predicament and told us that there were absolutely no hotels anywhere near where we had been. He drove us halfway back up Mount Carmel to the Tower Hotel Haifa. The price wasn't terrible but the amenities weren't exactly modern. We were on the 14th floor, which did make for a nice view.We left our bags in the hotel room and walked down the commercial street where our hotel was located. About half of the shops closed around sundown, but we perused the remainder for about 45 minutes. Daniel had been stationed in northern Israel during part of his stint in the IDF, so he knew of a large mall called the Grand Canyon. The walk to the mall must have been at least three miles. I'm not really complaining, but I started off with Natan and Daniel with no real idea of where we were going since Natan and Daniel spoke to each other in Hebrew. After an hour of walking I was starting to have doubts. We found ourselves walking along a ridge overlooking the city. The view of the port at night was pretty impressive. In the distance the mall was visible, adjacent to what appeared to be a tunnel under construction. It took another 30 minutes to make it to the mall, and it became apparent that pedestrian access from the direction we had come probably had not been considered by the mall's designers. We actually followed the road down into the parking garage and took the elevators up. The mall was, well, very mall-like. There wasn't much to distinguish this with any new shopping mall in the States. Normally I'm not a big mall aficionado, but it was interesting to see the similarities of the respective Israeli and American consumer cultures. I attempted to order a falafel in the food court in Hebrew, which was a partial success. I nearly received shawarma, and after deploying my newest vocabulary addition (Water = Mayim) I got a Coca-Cola. Daniel also pointed out the Maccabi Haifa F.C. club shop, where I bought myself the one souvenir I had really been coveting: a knit cap with a soccer logo. When I was last abroad (read: Fort Frances, Ottawa) I bought myself an Ottawa Senators hat, so I felt I needed something comparable from Israel. This actually proved more difficult than I had anticipated. In searching the shops in Jerusalem and earlier this evening, I had found nothing except the occasional Yankees hat. Natan suggested I could just switch over to the Evil Empire and be done with it, but that simply will never happen.

It was sufficiently late enough to catch a cab and head to a pub. It was here that I enjoyed several Leffe Browns and spoke with Daniel about his job as a pub manager on a different kibbutz near Urim. It was a day that felt as if I could have easily have been back in Madison. It really drove home the point that the similarities between Israel and the U.S. are not insignificant. This night I also snapped the strangest picture of the trip. It occurred after I had gone to the restroom and for the second time that day realized there were no signs in English, just Hebrew. I stuck my head around the corner and saw a urinal, solving the riddle, but later as I related my troubles to Natan and Daniel they claimed that there were no signs in any language. So the next time I went to the restroom I snapped this picture of what I took to be the sign for the men's room.It's probably a good thing I didn't memorize these symbols, because Daniel informed me with a smirk that this sign read "Fire Extinguisher".

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Jerusalem, Day Two

I awoke in Jerusalem to a bright clear morning. The clouds of the previous day were gone, as was my slightly gloomy disposition. The night before Natan and I had gone to a shawarma stand a few blocks from the hotel, an experience that unfortunately ended my shawarma consumption for the duration of the trip. A brief aside into the cuisine: There were two things I was instructed to try by Natan, falafel and shawarma. The shawarma had similarities to a gyro in that the meat was cooked on a giant cone and shaved off. I tried shawarma twice, the last time leading to gastrointestinal distress. However I will not denigrate the shawarma since I believe it all has to do with the purveyor, just the same as a gyro. The falafel is delicious (though apparently of disputed provenance - they fight over everything). The only Hebrew that I really "learned" (read: repeatedly said incorrectly) was how to order falafel. I could really go for one right now. Natan has assured me that I cannot get a decent falafel in the States but I do believe I'll test that theory.

Back to the trip. Natan and I spent the first night in Jerusalem at the hotel playing cribbage using a cheap deck of cards. Natan did not know how to play the game at first, so I gave him a quick tutorial. Unfortunately for me Natan is a quick study and was soon besting me, leading me to feign fatigue to cover my irritation. It was late Monday night in Israel but we were watching the Bears/Vikings Sunday football game on ESPN. Natan went to sleep and I stayed up to watch a bit of the snooker on Eurosport. Here comes another brief aside. Every night at the kibbutz David watched the UK Championship on TV, and Natan and I both watched with him. I'd never heard of the game before this, but after David explained the rules I started to really enjoy watching the matches. Ronnie O'Sullivan was David's favorite player and also became mine as the tournament progressed. O'Sullivan ended up winning the tournament to everyone's delight. If I could eat a falafel right now while watching a snooker match right now, I would be a very happy individual.

Back to the trip. We woke up early as it would be a full day of sightseeing. I insisted that we stop at Holy Bagel so that I could experience an "authentic" Israeli bagel, mostly so that I could make Natan repeatedly state that there was nothing Israeli about bagels. Regardless, it was pretty damn good. Suitably fortified, we went back to the Old City. We intended to tour the museum at the Tower of David but we arrived around 45 minutes before it opened. Therefore we walked down a nearby street to peruse the souvenir shops. Natan was looking for Armenian ceramics for his mother, and he went in the first shop he saw and got a great deal on two plates from the elderly shopkeeper. I, on the other hand, went in to a nearby shop and was subjected to the hardest hard sell I've ever experienced. I'm not much good at haggling over prices, and once the shopkeeper figured out I couldn't speak Hebrew he could probably tell I was an easy mark. I ended up with a small Armenian ceramic plate depicting the Loaves & Fishes scene. I pretty much got taken for a ride, but all in all I paid about $15 for a $5 plate. Natan put it in perspective, saying that it was something that I couldn't get in the States, and also that shopkeeper probably needed the money more than I did. My mother pointed out later that the story alone was easily worth the price I paid. We entered the museum right after it opened and virtually had the place to ourselves. The weather was perfect. The Tower of David has been used as a fortess and redoubt on the southern city walls for centuries, and the interior consists of archaeological dig sites festooned with colorful sculptures. The museum detailed the history of Jerusalem, from the first beginnings 3,000 years ago to the annexation following the Six-Day War. From the top of the Tower of Phasael the views were astounding. Here is the view east, including the King David Hotel.Here is the view west, of the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives.Just to the northwest of the Dome and Western Wall is the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at Golgotha where the New Testament states Jesus Christ was crucified. Here's the view toward the church domes.Following our tour of the Tower, we made our way east. Our intention was to walk over to the Israel Museum, a trip that looked quite short on our map. This didn't prove to be the case, but several miles later we did arrive at our destination. We walked past the King David Hotel and took a quick look around the lobby. No $96 nights in that place. We walked across the street to the Jerusalem YMCA, pictured to the right. Not your average Y. We kept going, past the Prime Minister's residence and the King Solomon Hotel (not as impressive as the King David). We walked south of the museum and around, coming up the back of the hill the museum sits on. When we finally reached the musuem we learned that half of the exhibits were currently closed for renovations. Undeterred, we paid our admission and got a light lunch in the cafeteria. We hadn't walked all that way to turn back. We first went to the Shrine of the Book, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. The exhibit was located underneath this white dome in a tubular passageway that lead into the dome itself. Following this we went through two modern exhibits, one detailing water resources in Israel and another focusing on modern Asian art. After the Israel Museum we tried to walk over to the Knesset, but we couldn't seem to figure out the way. On our walk through a city park at the base of the hill we saw a group of Orthodox men playing softball, a slightly incongruous sight. We made it up to a dog run before having to turn around. As we came up another way we settled for walking up to the Israeli Supreme Court building, which was closed by this time. Evening was starting to come on, so we made our way back to the hotel to prepare for the next day in Haifa and more cribbage and snooker, stopping to devour some falafel on the way. But before we left the Supreme Court I took what turns out to be my favorite picture of the entire trip.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Jerusalem, Day One

Back to the trip. After the journey with Natan's parents to Masada, Natan and I prepared to strike out on our own for a couple of days in Jerusalem. We planned to spend two days in Jerusalem, then meet up with Natan's brother Daniel and spend a day in Haifa. Following this we would make our way back through Tel Aviv and end up back at the kibbutz. While the previous excursions were day trips, this would be more or less backpacking. Prior to leaving Natan found a hotel in downtown Jerusalem, the Lev Yerushalayim. We ended up with a great deal on the room - $96 a night, as it was the off-season and my American passport exempted us from the value-added tax. Seriously, I've paid the same for hotels in Mountain Iron, MN! Above is a view from the hotel room.

We also planned to take the bus from Ofakim, which David referred to as the "Religious Bus." Neither of us understood the implication until the next morning. Julia dropped Natan and I off in Ofakim early in the morning so that we could catch the bus for Jerusalem. We stood at the bus stop for what seemed an eternity. I've never been well-suited for waiting, and with each passing minute and each passing bus I felt my anxiety rising. I was certain we had missed the 402, and we were s.o.l. if we ended up stranded in Ofakim. Just before I gave up all hope the 402 appeared, about fifteen minutes late. Natan and I boarded the bus, and Natan paid for us both while I started making my way through the bus to find a seat. I saw a group of open seats in the back and went toward them, at which point an Israeli woman wearing a shawl and long dress started forcefully speaking at me in Hebrew. I shook my head that I didn't understand and received more Hebrew in response. Not knowing what the hell was going on I turned to Natan in a panic, who listened to the woman and informed me that I was not allowed to sit in the back and that I must find a seat in the front. It was at this point that I realized that the bus was segregated: men in front, women in back. I also came to the realization that everyone was Orthodox except for Natan and me. Thus I learned the meaning of "The Religious Bus" - the men and women are separated because apparently the tenets of Orthodox Judaism bans contact between the sexes and mandates "modesty" in female appearance. Natan later spoke with the bus driver and learned that these buses were very controversial since these are in fact public buses, and it led to a long conversation about the influence the religious have in Israel. I personally found myself surprisingly angry. I've never reacted well to any form of orthodoxy, regardless of the persuasion, and I fumed over this situation for the rest of the two hour bus trip.The unpleasant taste from the bus quickly dissipated as we walked the streets of Jerusalem. It was slightly brisk, meaning I put on a hooded sweatshirt and the residents wore heavy winter jackets. I'll admit that I had no idea of what to expect. I'd heard of the Old City and I knew that it was the location of the Knesset but I was clueless beyond this. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to see all the signs of a "modern" city as we walked to our hotel. The above picture is of a municipal building near our hotel. If you look closely, you can see two Orthodox men in front of the building. Jerusalem had a high concentration of Orthodox residents, much greater than anywhere else I had been in Israel. We did become slightly disoriented due to a quirk of our map. The street signs in Jerusalem were printed in Hebrew and English and our map was also in English. However, the English translations on the map were phoenetical translations, not literal. For example, Jaffa Street (which we were walking on) was written as "Yafo" on our map. This would be helpful if I were asking directions, but not for trying to match up a street sign to the map. Once the map situation was resolved we found our hotel and dropped off our packs. It was getting late in the afternoon but we had time to quickly visit the Old City before the sun set. I was surprised to discover that our hotel was about a half mile from the Old City - I'm still amazed at the deal we got. This is a photograph of the Jaffa Gate as we approach the Old City Walls. To the right is the minaret of the Tower of David which we would visit the next day. It was growing late in the afternoon, and most shops were closing for the day. Natan and I made our way through the narrow streets, dodging the occasional car. How narrow, you might ask. Pretty narrow. Here's a picture from the Armenian Quarter. As it turns out, this was one of the wider streets. Here's a picture of a street in the Jewish Quarter.The truly amazing part of the Old City is that it is a living museum in every sense. People still are living there. While the streets are crammed with tourists during the day, in the evening families return to their apartments and houses. We had timed it perfectly to witness this transition. We wandered the streets for about an hour, thoroughly lost. Our map, which had been of some use outside the Old City Walls, was virtually indecipherable in its depiction of the cramped winding streets. We inadvertently wandered into the Muslim Quarter trying to make our way to the Western Wall. I determined this when I noticed the street signs were written in Arabic instead of Hebrew - a whole new set of squiggles for me to not understand. Fortunately the signs retained the English translations, so it was not too difficult to make our way back. After turning around we came upon a military security checkpoint, a common sight in Israel. I stupidly thought for a moment that we had accidentally crossed into Jordan until my brain kicked in. The soldier at the security gate started to check my backpack he asked me where I was from. Upon hearing that I was an American he promptly handed my bag back, and when I went to hand him my passport he actually said "It's OK, you're American. Go on through." I truly do believe that nowhere else in the world are Americans treated as well as Israel. They frickin' love us there. And here I was all prepared to act like a Canadian.
We came through the checkpoint and suddenly everything opened up. I was momentarily uncertain as to where I was. It took a second for it all to come together. I looked to my right and there were throngs of people standing at the base of the Western Wall. Natan and I didn't stay very long, and I didn't come any closer to the Wall than from where this picture was taken. The area in front of the Wall is also segregated, men having the left three-quarters and women to the right. It was unsettling. Perhaps it had something to do with my previous experience on the bus, but I found myself very uncomfortable standing here. I could see the minarets of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as glimpses of the Dome of the Rock. While it was undoubtedly an inspiring sight, it also left me with a real sadness. As an American my mind returned to that bright sunny day six and a half years ago. I've always found it difficult to appreciate the good that can come from religion when compared to the seemingly unending violence that stems from the disagreements of the various faiths. And here I was, standing at perhaps the best example of intractable differences in the world.

My introspection quickly faded as we walked out the Dung Gate and tried to make our way back to the hotel. The skies had turned quite gray and it felt like it might rain at any minute. As we walked down a steep street that quickly turned out to be impassible to foot traffic, I took this picture of the city of Jerusalem outside the walls. Tomorrow would be another day.