Browsing Tag



Wanderlist: Where I’ve Been

I love to travel – new places, new foods, new cities. Recently, I saw a blogger compile a list of all the countries she had been to and all the ones she wanted to see before she turned 30. I was so inspired by her beautiful pictures that I wanted to share my own “Wanderlist” with you. I hesitated, though. I know how incredibly lucky I am to lead an international life, and it is a privilege that I try not to take lightly. I didn’t want to share this in a way that felt like pride – rather, I am so grateful for these many experiences, and if they interest you, I would be honored to share them.

So instead of making a laundry list, I thought I’d set up a blog “travel directory,” with photos and funny stories for all the places I’ve been. For each one, I’ll share when I was there, where I went, a favorite memory, and a funny moment. If relevant, I’ll include a blog post. I hope it makes you smile, or maybe even satisfies some of your own wanderlust – at least for an afternoon.

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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.”



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:


A half-hour before the flight:


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.