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Rome Sweet Rome: Five Days in the Eternal City (Part II)

{To read about the first part of our trip in Rome, click here!}

On the next day of our journey, we were so tired and satisfied from our escapades that we decided to take it easy. Instead of walking through the city, Ken and I took the Metro for the first time, to the Villa Borghese Gardens.

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The Villa Borghese is an (apparently) gorgeous museum that was highly recommended in my guide book. It turns out that you need to order tickets a week in advance to get a spot. We didn’t think ahead, so instead, we spent a few hours exploring the surrounding gardens, referred to as the “Central Park” of Rome.

The park was pretty and very eclectic – much like Rome itself. Paths wound up and down, then disappeared; the park would thin out and then suddenly, bam, open up into a wide field; none of the buildings matched in style or century. One of my expectations was spot-on, though: my guide book told me that the park was especially good for people-watching modern Romeos and Juliets.

All over the park – hidden behind bushes, sitting in paddle-cars, or standing in the middle of the road – were couples. In the middle of the gardens was a beautiful, small lake where you could rent boats for twenty minutes at a time. At 3 a piece, Ken and I decided to go for it – and ended up being on many other people’s tourist pictures.

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We walked from the Gardens to the famous Spanish Steps, then wandered through expensive shopping streets with beautiful $4,000 dresses in the windows. No, thank you.

As afternoon turned into evening, Ken and I decided on a restaurant for dinner – a little outdoor place not too far from our apartment.

eindbaas-05.09.14-162Tired, but happy.

The restaurant was gorgeous from the outside, a Roman Holiday dream with ivy on the trellises and rich golden tablecloths. The food, however, was lackluster and overpriced. Ken and I decided that the restaurant was probably only in business for its pretty exterior and its proximity to a the neighborhood’s central plaza, which filled up every night with friends, young lovers, and street musicians. We left the restaurant poorer and a little grumpy, and ended up wandering around the neighborhood by moonlight on a beautiful Saturday night. Not a bad way to end the day.

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By the next day, Ken and I were both almost destroyed from exhaustion. Our feet were sore, our wallets were lighter, and we were each a little less patient with each other – mostly my problem (Ken is as patient as a saint). Our only goal for the day was to visit the National Museum with our remaining free museum pass, before it expired.

eindbaas-05.09.14-210A gorgeous fresco on the wall. Oh, also some sweet guy in the green shirt.

The museum had a (surprise!) beautiful collection of statues and frescoes, and was one of the highlights of our trip. Ken especially really cares for art, and was excited to explore the whole museum, especially the frescoes and mosaics on the top floor. I took a little more convincing (I know, I’m terrible when I’m tired), but was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful patterns and intricate work. Afterwards, wee had dinner in that are of the city, near the Termini train station, and spent some time late that night wandering the crowded streets of central Rome before heading home to go to bed.

Luckily, even with the 50,000 steps we had taken so far in Rome (thanks, pedometer app!), Ken and I had saved a little energy for one last adventure – the Vatican on our last day.

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Vatican City was huge, and bustling with lines of tourists trying to get into the museum. We were stopped every thirty seconds by tour guides trying to make change – so many that I stopped feeling bad for turning them down with a brisk, “no”. We skipped the line by buying tickets at the Information Center in St. Peter’s square, and then I spent a solid 45 minutes agonizing over which rosary to buy for my dear Italian-American friend back home. Our tickets were for 2:30, but we decided to head for the museum entrance at 1:45, since it was so far away. Indeed, the walk to the front of the museum took a solid 20 minutes.

The Vatican Museum was both breathtaking and frustrating. Breathtaking because of its size, its obvious wealth, its enormous collection of art. Frustrating because of, well, all those same things. You could spend a whole month living in that museum and still not see it all. Entire rooms worth hundreds of thousands of euros were blocked off from the public, their art never to be seen or appreciated. Imagine all the good work you could do with that money and space.

The crowds moved in a steady flow so you could never stop for more than a minute or two to look at one particular thing. And just as you were getting sweaty and cranky, you were ushered into the Sistine Chapel, and the long lines and stuffy crowds were understandable, and worth it.

DSC_9617Working our way to the Sistine.

Seeing the Sistine Chapel in person was really special. So much love, hard work, and skill had gone into this one room, that hundreds of years later, people still flocked from all over the world to see it. Ken and I listened to an mp3 tour I had downloaded to make the most of the experience (and felt cheesy and uncultured as we did so. Judge all you want, we learned a lot!). As we craned our necks for 30 minutes, we learned about the history of that ceiling, the passion and frustration that had gone into it, and how much Michelangelo had changed in the years between painting the ceiling and The Last Judgment.

After we had our fill, we unofficially followed a tour group through a short-cut to St. Peter’s Basilica, another breath-taking experience.

I have never been in a bigger, grander church. Everything about the cathedral was enormous, but built to make it feel smaller. The altar in the center of the cross looked to be about twice my height; as I got closer, I saw that it was, in fact, seven stories tall. The stained glass window at the very end of the church had a white dove in it, which looked to be a few feet wide. Then I heard it was actually about as wide as I am tall.

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The Basilica was maybe my favorite part of being in Vatican City. Sadly, the museum was so large and stuffed that it had felt inaccessible. On the other hand, this church – meant to welcome up to 7,000 people, and still feel like a personal encounter with God to each one – felt less overwhelming, and gave me the chance to really appreciate the craftsmanship that detail had gone into it.

By then it was late afternoon, so after a little more time wandering through the cathedral, admiring the art and architecture, we made our way out and walked back to the bus station.

DSC_9660A tiled wall in the Jewish district of Rome.

My dad, wonderful and generous person that he is, insisted on treating Ken and me to our last dinner in Rome. He sent us a recommendation for his favorite restaurant in Rome, a kosher place in the Jewish district, where we dined on hummus, falafel, and fish. After dinner, Ken and I wandered the streets, taking in the history and culture of the neighborhood as best we could in the little time we had. At last, we crossed the Tiber to wander into Trastevere for a final passeggiata on our last night in the Eternal City.

DSC_9675The Tiber at night.

The next morning, we packed our small suitcases, cleaned the apartment, had one last Roman coffee, and took a train to the airport.

My time in Rome was magical. After some consideration, Ken and I decided it was the best trip we’ve ever been on together, and it is now my favorite city in Europe. The streets are filled with color and character in a way that many other, equally large cities are not. We also really made the most of our limited time. For many of our trips together (trips being a relative term, as being in a long distance relationship means that any time you see each other is a vacation), we forgo our plans for lazy mornings drinking coffee or sleeping in. This time, we really made an effort to experience the city and do every thing on our “Roman bucket list.”

Well, every thing except one.

11.jpg1Photo source here.

My number-one wish for what to see in Rome was not the Vatican, not the Colosseum, not even the coffee. It was the Fontana di Trevi, a gorgeous and enormous wish-making fountain in the center of the city; one that had played a big role in many of my Roman fantasies (and in the Lizzie McGuire Movie. Cough).

The legend goes that if you throw one coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, you will return to Rome. Two coins means love, three coins means marriage. But really, said my guidebook and popular culture, your wish can be for anything you want. So for the long walk to the fountain, the great culmination to my Roman dream, I pondered my wish. What would I want as I finally stood next to this thing that I had waited years to see?

But when we arrived, it didn’t look like what I had been waiting to see at all. Instead of what you see above, we saw this:

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The culmination of my great Roman dream was under construction.

But you know what? That’s okay.

I wanted to see this fountain because it (and its wishing potential) symbolized, to me, the ‘incredibleness’ of Rome. But in my short vacation, I had already seen how incredible Rome was. I had eaten the food, met the people, and wandered the streets. I had had just a taste of this amazing city, when there was so much more to be tried, and I was already swept off my feet.

I didn’t need two coins for love – I had an amazing love standing beside me, holding my hand. I didn’t need three coins for marriage, which was years away at least.

So I stuck with local legend and tossed just one coin in this unfinished fountain. A fountain that now symbolized all of the parts of Rome I still wanted to see.

I guess you know what I wished for.

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Travel

Rome Sweet Rome: Five Days in the Eternal City (Part I)

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It’s been my dream to visit Rome since I first saw the Lizzie McGuire Movie.

the-lizzie-mcguire-movie-movie-poster-1020206719I was an aughts kid. Check out that ribbon belt!

Rome seemed like a magical place where dreams come true. Gelato, Vespas, wish-making fountains… What’s not to love?

But even on the smallish continent of Europe, Italy always felt a world away. Too far, too exciting, too beautiful for my boring, normal-person life.

I told Ken this one day, and he took a look online. It turns out that the flight from Amsterdam to Rome takes two and a half hours, and costs 150. That’s not much money when you’ve spent all summer saving for travel. So when Ken and I decided to go on a short vacation before I leave for Oxford, guess which city we picked?

ROME.

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BEAUTIFUL

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INCREDIBLE

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UNBELIEVABLE

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ROME.

DSC_9309Also, did I mention that all the above pictures were taken within three blocks of our apartment?

Alright friends, I warn you now that this post will be very picture-heavy and that words like “gorgeous” and “lovely” abound, because ROME. (Sorry, do I sound too excited? Rome!)

The city was incredible. Ken and I went for four and half days, renting a little apartment a few blocks from the Colosseum for less than we would have paid at a hotel. The apartment was amazing; it had a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, and a spacious rooftop terrace where Ken and I ate dinner the first night. Originally, we had planned to cook often and be as healthy as possible, but I suppose that when you’re in a culinary capital, plans can go (deliciously) awry.

DSC_9246Stairs leading to the bedroom.

DSC_9253Climbing up to the roof.

DSC_9255Ken on the sunny rooftop terrace!

Best of all, the apartment was only a ten-minute walk from the Colosseum – only a centimeter on the map that I constantly pored over. I had bought a guidebook to Rome that included a fold-out map and several walking routes through the city, which I marked up in red pens. I read through most of the book on the day of our flight, to be as prepared as possible for the greatest city on earth (well, I didn’t know that for sure yet, but I was pretty excited). The first walk was the one I was most looking forward to, the “Heart of Rome tour.” The route looked pretty close to the Colosseum itself, so Ken and I decided to do both on our first full day – meaning many hours of walking.

eindbaas-05.09.14-14At the Colosseum on our first morning in the Eternal City.

The Colosseum was incredible to see. We managed to avoid most of the long lines by coming in late September, and we each bought a RomaPass instead of a ticket – a great investment. A RomaPass is 36 and gives you free entry to two museums, plus access to all public transportation in Rome for three days. The price for entry to the Colosseum is 19 on its own, and public transportation can really add up, so if you’re planning on going to Rome, I highly recommend it.

I think my favorite thing about the Colosseum was how beautiful it was in all its disrepair. Its walls had crumbled, its pillars had broken, and the underground layer was inaccessible to tourists because it was still being excavated. Even so, the site was gorgeous in its grandeur and enormity. The beams and arches, and the instantly recognizable profile of the Colosseum, really took my breath away. It also felt really strange to be standing there on such a calm and peaceful September day, knowing the amount of violence that had taken place under my feet 2,000 years before. More than that, the idea that I was standing on something 2,000 years old was crazy, for someone raised in the US.

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From the Colosseum, we walked to the Pantheon, a beautiful Ancient Roman building that is still used today by the Catholic Church. Sometimes for weddings. I mean, can you imagine getting married in the Pantheon?

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After spending about a half hour at the Pantheon, we walked on to two beautiful piazzas that are populated by tourists and locals alike – Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori. This was a great area for both having lunch and people watching. We spent some time walking around, admiring the flower stands and cafés, and complaining over 4 espressos (basically the same price per ounce as printer ink).

There are two beautiful fountains in Piazza Navona. My favorite is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of Four Rivers. It displays river gods from each of the four continents that were known at the time of its creation in 1651: the Nile for Africa, the Danube for Europe, the Ganges for Asia, and the Rio de la Plata for America. What I loved about this fountain was its attention to detail and allegory. The Nile, for example, is covering his head with a cloth because no one knew the river’s source at the time the fountain was made, and the Danube is touching the Pope’s robes, as he was the closest to Rome.

eindbaas-05.09.14-37Chilling between the Nile and the Ganges.

It was 3:30, and Ken and I had been on our feet since 10AM. We were exhausted and ready for a break, so we headed to the bank of the Tiber to rest before we had dinner at a restaurant I had heard about for years – the Tre Scalini.

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The Tiber was shocking quiet and peaceful; in fact, it was so quiet for the first half hour that I almost wondered if we weren’t allowed to sit there. For about twenty minutes, Ken and I were completely alone on our side of the river, with only one other person nearby. As the afternoon progressed, however, a few more people came out to bike along the path or look at the water. With the sun setting, the Tiber almost reminded me of the Seine in Paris – but greener, a little grimier, and much more peaceful.

eindbaas-05.09.14-63That’s St. Peter’s in the background.

eindbaas-05.09.14-64Me, writing down our day’s expenses next to the water.

After about an hour of rest, we got back on our sore feet (after much groaning on my part, because I’m a crotchety old cow) and walked back to Piazza Navona, to eat at the Tre Scalini.

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The restaurant was beautiful, and the food was probably great, but I honestly don’t remember what I ordered, thanks to our dessert. The Tre Scalini has a famous dessert named the Tartufo, an ice cream truffle made from a secret recipe with 13 different kinds of chocolate. It was incredible. Ice cream, cake, chocolate chunks, a tiny taste of rum (maybe? I don’t know. It could have been fairy dust). In Ken’s words, “it’s amazing how many experiences there are in one dessert!”

eindbaas-05.09.14-88Anticipation!

Let me tell you, if you get one dessert in Rome, get the Tartufo. We devoured it in ten minutes.

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By the end of our dinner, we were dead tired after five hours of walking through the busy streets of Rome. We made one last trek – to our little apartment, for a good night’s rest.

Want to hear more about Rome? Check back for mistakes, food, and the Pope in Part II!

Travel

Canada, Eh? Spring Break at Niagara Falls

Maya and I have been best friends since we were 13. In the time since, due to the generosity of her family, we’ve taken a lot of trips together – to Seattle, Florida, and even the Bahamas (I, in turn, have tried to reciprocate with homemade scrapbooks). But for the last few years, college has eaten up most of our “friend time” – until February, when she decided to take the semester off for personal reasons. Since she would be around during my spring break (and we both needed a break from what had been a hard few months), we decided to finally bite the bullet and pull off the road trip we’d been talking about for years.

After less deliberation than we should have had, Maya and I chose for Niagara Falls, which I had never seen before. And thus began our road trip… To Canada. In March.

Break out the bikinis!

Let me tell you all something: I have spent years trying to figure out my mixed cultural identity, but I have never felt more American than I did in Canada. Every time Maya and I were alone for more than an hour, I started spouting eh’s like some kind of deep northern lumberjack (or, rather, sarcastic American). This happened a lot when we were driving, especially if there was a conversational lull. We would quietly be listening to music (Life is a Highway, anyone?), when suddenly:

Me: “Eh. Eh! Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Ehhhhh? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

Maya: “That’s not how you say it. It’s not a question or an affirmation, you say it at the end of a sentence.”

Me: “Ehhh.”

Maya: “Stop it.”

Me: (To the tune of the song) “Eh eh eh eh eh ehhhhh, eh eh eh eh eh ehhh, EH EH EH.”

IMG_5996This picture was taken from the window of our hotel room.

Niagara Falls (or just “the Falls” to locals) was absolutely beautiful, even in winter. Most Falls-related activity – tours, Maid of the Mist, etc. – was cancelled until June due to the snow and ice. Despite that, and even in the freezing cold, it was gorgeous. The Falls were much larger than I had expected, and in a cheesy way, seeing them made me feel small. Standing next to something so enormous, formed by nature over hundreds of years, gave me a little perspective on the size of my problems – or, rather, lack thereof.

That Wednesday night, Maya and I drove to Toronto and had dinner in the CN Tower, the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere. This was probably, for me, the best part of the whole trip. The first 15 minutes were pretty high in anxiety, though, because both Maya (who planned the dinner) and I have a fear of heights.

I know. What were we thinking?

I spent the beginning of the dinner constantly switching back and forth between checking if Maya was okay, and freaking out because the floor was moving. (The CN Tower restaurant is constantly turning, so you can get a 360 degree view of the city.)

We finally adjusted, and managed to take it all in – and the view was extraordinary.

Later that night, we went to the Observation Deck, which includes a glass floor that lets you look 150 floors below your feet. Maya saw it and immediately ran for the nearest wall to clutch and hyperventilate next to. After about a minute and a half, I got myself to stand on it and take a picture, as spritely seven-year-olds jumped up and down next to me and made me feel wimpy in my moment of bravery.

My smile says ‘All good!’ but my eyes say ‘OH THE TERROR.’

That night, as we drove back to Niagara Falls, Maya and I decided that, as a dare, we would listen to only one song on repeat, as long as we could. The song we chose was Caramelldansen by the Swedish dance band Caramell, which we listened to for a total of five hours as we drove back to Pennsylvania the next day. (I dare you to listen to it only twice.)

The trip was wonderful – my first time to Canada, first time seeing an American Natural Wonder, and, less relevantly, the first time I was ever given a hot stone massage (it was weird. Do not recommend). But despite the beauty of the falls, the wonderful food, and the spa trip, I think the best and most valuable thing about the journey was that it reminded me of how incredibly grateful I am for Maya. She had been having a really rough time (luckily, she’s doing a lot better now); as we ‘got away from it all,’ it was so great to see her laugh and smile, and I was so happy I could be there with (and for) her. The fact that she was still able to treat me to the wonderful things we did, even when she was dealing with her own difficulties at the time, reminds me of how selfless she is, and what a caring friend.

Maya is a lot less verbal than I am, so we didn’t always do much talking – more driving, singing in the car, walking, and lazing around. The fact that watching a Kevin Hart show in bed helped her up as much as a heavy talk about loss, reminded me that sometimes all we need from our loved ones is time. Not words, not touch, not trips or tours or fancy spa visits. Just time spent together to show the other person that you care.

I am grateful for this trip, but more than that I am grateful for Maya’s friendship and her love, and the things she’s taught me about being a friend and a good person.

Thank you, Maya. To many more poorly-planned trips, over (hopefully) many more years.

Faith, Travel

Israel in Review: Oh Great, She’s Talking About Religion Again

My laptop broke a few weeks ago, in what my computer scienc-y boyfriend diagnosed as a ‘kernel panic’ from 1,000 miles away:

 

(If you use your imagination, you can hear me panicking in the background, too.)

I’m letting him fix it when I get back to the lowlands next week, and as a result I haven’t blogged in a while. I’m currently typing this on my phone, which is a pain in the butt, because unlike my 16-year-old self, I’m terrible at texting. Also, my spell-checker is in Dutch, so it’s underlining the whole post in red dots.

This is the middle of my fifth week in Israel. I knew it would go quickly, and in the beginning, a part of me wanted it to. As much as I like travel and adventure, I also like feeling safe, and I didn’t love the idea of leaving my boyfriend and my family for five weeks to live by myself in the most contentious country in the world – and in East Jerusalem, at that. (Funny story: during orientation, the staff told us ‘which areas of Jerusalem to avoid, especially if you are blonde and female, or alone.’ The red circles, marking areas of racial and religious tension, outlined our whole campus.) I am, in many ways, a homebody. I like my patterns and routines, my crafts and my books, and most of all, my family. They are what comforts me when things go wrong, which is why the thought of leaving them behind is enough to send me into a ‘kernel panic’ sometimes (sorry, I had to).

But Jerusalem defied almost all my expectations. First of all, I have never felt safer. Contrary to what I had expected,  the military presence here is subtle and almost reassuring. The guards on the way to class start to recognize you, until you no longer need to show your ID to get into your dorm. Enough people are in all levels of the army that seeing a soldier sleeping on a bus is normal, and not a startling symbol of violence, or reminder that someone somewhere is fighting a war in your name.

The people have also been much kinder than I ever expected. I was told by many sensitive Americans (and self-deprecating Israelis) that the culture in Israel is brisk and unsympathetic, and so not to have my feelings hurt when people… What? Bump into me? When chassidic men don’t look me in the face? Now that I’ve been here for several weeks, I’m not sure what everyone warned me of. Every Israeli I’ve encountered has been kind and generous with me. Someone invited me to shabbat with his friends the day after I met him (one of my absolute best experiences here, and my first orthodox shabbat), and when my teacher at the ulpan learned I had sprained my ankle, she gave me her crutches and picked me up every morning for class until I could walk. If people see you on the street, looking confused and speaking English, they will come up to try to help you (and one of the benefits of a society in which so many people are religiously observant is that, for the most part, men don’t smush and crowd you on the bus). There have only been two exceptions to this rule of kindness: the barista at my usual coffee spot, whom I suspect resents me for looking too American (read: round and smiley), and an aggressive group of cab drivers my friends and I encountered when we accidentally wandered into Palestinian territory, who loudly offered us rides that did not involve their taxis. Blegh.

My stay here has been surprising in other ways, too. I think, in some ways, that I expected my faith to transform or strengthen in Jerusalem, the birthplace of both the religion I study and the one that I try to follow. My religious journey had been a winding and sometimes frail one. I think I hoped that I would come back a full believer, having seen the location of the Last Supper or Jesus’ birth. For a long time when I was a child, I hoped that I would have some kind of vision to confirm to me that God is real and I could stop worrying about it. But nothing ever came, and I suspect that if there was any such vision in store for me, the God of great displays (see: Red Sea, Jericho, pretty much all of Genesis) would not have wanted to miss this excellent dramatic window.

I’m kidding, of course. But I do think I expected to come back a changed woman, either from experiencing the tangibleness of the Biblical backdrop, or from living in a society in which so many people wear their faith so visibly on their sleeve. But neither sharing a bus with 30 chassidic men, nor standing in the room above where the Last Supper maybe-probably-kinda happened, made my faith feel more real to me. Instead, I have noticed my conviction in and love for God creep up on me slowly for the last two years. It turns out there is no magic, one-time cure for doubt: my convictions have been hard-fought and won, far away from the land of my namesake and nations she issued.

 

This is not to say that my stay in Jerusalem hasn’t been a spiritual experience. It has been, just not in the ways I expected (as it almost invariably goes with these things). I am filled with a wonderful joy each night as I hear the songs and fireworks of Muslims breaking their daily fast for Ramadan.

Every Friday evening, I hear voices below welcoming the Sabbath Queen as I make dinner to be shared with my friends in a secular ‘hobo’s banquet.’

(The meal itself is rarely faith-inspiring.)

And on the night of my first orthodox shabbat, as I was walked home by four kind-hearted men in kippas whom I had only met a few hours before, their tassels swaying in the wind as we walked up Mount Scopus, I thought to myself, this is the life I want to be living. I am filled with so much happiness to be surrounded by people who celebrate the rhythms and cycles of their religions with so much conviction and joy. It reminds me that faith is not a matter of doubt and belief, but one of commitment; that prayers and holy days and rituals are not in place for God, to let us prove our devotion, but also for us, to carry us through love and joy, and also the times in which we doubt and question and fear.

I sometimes worry about alienating my secular readers and friends with the special kind of joy I find here, in being surrounded by so many people of strong, different faiths. But my joy is not in that the love and devotion of the people around me is directed at what they call God, but in that it is used to celebrate and appreciate the gift that we have all been given in life. In the words of Daphne Rose Kingma, “Life itself is a gift. It is a compliment just to be born: to feel, breathe, think, play, dance, sing, and make love for this particular lifetime.”

 

Travel

Israel: A Shiksa in the Holy Land

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that my travels don’t always go as planned (examples 1, 2, and 3). But this time, I swear it wasn’t my fault.

Back in the spring, my friend Jo and I both won a grant to go to Jerusalem for the summer to study Hebrew. We were thrilled, and since she would, coincidentally, also be in Holland before the program started, we decided to fly to Israel together.

After booking our tickets, we didn’t talk for a few weeks. Four days before our flight, I sent her a message:

Hey, how are you? Have you gotten your ulpan acceptance letter yet?

No response.

Two days before the flight:

Hey Jo, what’s the plan for meeting in Schiphol? Have you finished up your administrative stuff?

The day before the flight:

Hello…?

A half-hour before the flight:

Jo, WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?

So I was sitting on the floor of my departure gate, wondering if my travel partner had been murdered sometime in the last two weeks, when I got this message:

Hi, yeah, so I’m going to miss the flight… Working on booking a new one… Dunno if you’ll get this message before the flight or no, and so sorry, obviously this is inconvenient for both of us… hopefully see you in Jerusalem tomorrow, though.

It turns out she had forgotten which day we were flying. And so I boarded our tiny plane to Istanbul alone.

The issue with this was, that in order to save $300 on our flight, Jo and I had planned to arrive in Tel Aviv around one in the morning.  We didn’t know anyone in Tel Aviv. We didn’t know much about the airport there, either, so how we were to spend the 6 hours until daylight, let alone the 16 hours until our check-in at the school, was still up in the air. Doing this with a partner is interesting. Doing it alone, in a new country, is a daunting at the least.

I arrived in Istanbul 3 hours later. In the time it took me to cross Europe by plane, my mother had found someone we knew in Tel Aviv who would let me stay with them overnight. I boarded my second plane with a little more peace, and with 5 euro’s worth of Turkish spices that I hoped would make my five-week diet of potatoes and Ramen a little more interesting.

As we descended over Israel, I thought deep things to myself, such as “From 30,000 feet Tel Aviv looks pretty much exactly like New York” and “I wonder if Jesus ever stood on that exact spot.” I am a wise and contemplative woman.

My thoughts turned even more sophisticated once we entered the airport: things like, “I’minIsraelI’minIsraelI’minIsrael” and “So that’s how you say baggage claim in Hebrew.” I stood in line at Security for an hour, listening to attractive tourists hit on each other, and then entered the baggage claim area. I stared up at the board, trying to figure out where my suitcase would be, when Jo came up to me and said “It’s rotunda number four.”

“Holy crap, when did you get here?”

“I booked a last minute flight and arrived fifteen minutes before you did!”

So now I would not be spending my first night in Tel Aviv alone. But I did have to figure out how to politely ask our distant friends if they would mind housing not one girl, but two. This from two people I had never personally met, one of whom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. And it was 1:15 in the morning.

So I called Susan, who was in the hospital, and asked if, due to a change of plans, it would be possible for both of us to stay the night in their home. She said they didn’t have a lot of room, but it would be fine, so Jo and I hailed a taxi that took us to their apartment in Tel Aviv.

When we arrived, it became apparent that Noah, Susan’s husband, did not know he would be hosting two girls instead of one (whoops). Luckily, he is apparently the World’s Most Gracious and Hospitable 2AM Host, and so Jo and I shared a futon for the night, and had breakfast with him and his kids the next morning. Then he called us a cab and we drove to Jerusalem, where they did not have housing or an ID card for Jo, who apparently had not, in fact, received her acceptance letter. Luckily, women’s colleges teach you how to get things done, so by that night, Jo and I had a peeling dorm room with a balcony and a view of Northwest Jerusalem.

We started class the next morning- hypothetically. When we tried to leave the building at 9AM, we were stopped by an armed guard.

“No, you cannot leave the building.”

“Why not?”

“There is a military drill. You have to stay inside and go to your rooms.”

“But we have class.”

“There is nothing I can do.”

“When will it be over?”

“I don’t know. Half hour, two hours, maybe three, four.”

Jo and I returned to our room and spent two hours listening to fake explosions and gunfire while laughing at the ceiling. What a first morning in Jerusalem.

I cannot emphasize to you how quickly the next two weeks passed – class for six hours a day, six days a week (all language instruction), homework and studying (we discovered very quickly that you will not learn anything if you don’t force yourself to do so), pita or ramen every night for dinner. Along they way, I sprained my ankle while trying to get a view of the Dome of the Rock, and had to go to the hospital for X-rays and a wrap-around cast. I was told “not to put any weight on it” for two weeks and then denied crutches. Another story for another day.

Yesterday, Jo and I went to Masada and the Dead Sea. Jerusalem is beautiful, but the trip reminded me of why I’m really here. We didn’t get this grant to learn Hebrew; we were given it so we had an excuse to be in Israel, so that we could see the sites and places that we’ve been studying all year, if not longer. On Tuesday we go into the Old City, and later to Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Ein Karem, and maybe Bethlehem (though the school technically forbids it). I am reminded every day of how blessed I am to be here, and as for the three weeks that I have left, I am determined to make the most of them – ankle be damned.