Friday, January 21, 2011

What a forest should look like

This, to me, is a forest.  Not those dry Israeli deserts with only short pines growing and nothing more than dry dusty earth under foot.

It's January here in Washington State, so it's not as green as when spring comes, but it's still relatively green.  Ferns, moss, honeysuckle, salal, knick knicks, orchids, pipsa-something-or-others - all kinds of little brush grows along the forest ground.  The lakes and streams are running fresh water and a misty rain falls nearly every day. 

Sure, it's cold, and who are we kidding, I've entirely lost my tolerance for that.  I'm wearing 3 layers just to avoid frost-bite in the house.  But once you get the layers on and get out along the trail, the air is so fresh, the sounds of water and birds so pleasant (especially the little kinglets high pitched chirp), and the wild animal markings so interesting (bobcat scratches on trees, coyote poop on the trail), what's not to love?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Back in the U.S.A.

On my way to the U.S.A., I stopped in Prague for a night to visit my in-laws with my husband.  The first thing I noticed in their apartment (ok, maybe I am strange), was that the light switches were located inside the bathrooms.  They don't do this in Israel.  Imagine, you could be in there, and anyone can come along and shut the light off on you.  That's Israel.  Its really just one of those tiny annoyances that you notice when you go in, and realize you have to go back out to turn on the light.

Returning to the States, everyone's first question to me is, "Wow, how is it there?"  This is a hard question to answer.  It's all the little things like light switch locations that wouldn't normally even hit one's radar, that create the sense that you are in a foreign place (until they become the norm - and suddenly I am finding myself searching for light switches outside of US bathrooms).   

But there are also fundamental differences in human behavior, such as culturally accepted boundaries and expectations for type and quantity of interaction.  I couldn't have traveled between further opposites in this regard.  I am being reminded of the stark differences in parenting styles and family expectations.  Israel has a very traditional culture.  The northwest United States has gathered all the people who purposefully left traditional cultures over the last 200 years (with the exception of the Native Americans here, I suppose).   

It's nice not to have to think so hard about daily activities again.  But I'm already missing all the fresh fruits and vegetables from the shuk. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Last sunset

Last sunset in Tel Aviv until I return in February. 

I'm off to meet my nephew, Ernest, in Seattle!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ugly America

It's not all sunshine and roses here in Israel (ok, maybe sunshine), but recent dealings with U.S. lawyers and healthcare insurers have reminded me just how pathetic some American social systems are. 

The lawyers
We have assistance from lawyers as part of our relocation to ensure that we can be in a foreign country legally.  The work is outsourced to an American firm, which acts as a third party liason between corporate and the local country lawyers, who actually do the work here.  The American firm (ask me if you want to know which one so you can avoid them, although I have little faith that they are an exception to the rule), has done nothing but worry the local firm about the scope of help they can provide.  AND, they are now bullying the local firm against working with us directly (at our own expense) so that THEY can upcharge and take their piece of the pie.  Behavior like this should be criminal. 

Health insurers
Our plan offers 15 visits of accupuncture per calendar year, per person.  I have asked at least 6 phone agents since we got here whether there are any restrictions or special "medical necessity" paperwork required.  I have been told as many different answers.  Reading between the lines (or piecing together the bits of information they have let slip), there seems to be an internal list of which diagnoses they will actually approve in the claims processing department.  However, this list is not printed in any materials that they make public.  I have been able to get phone agents to rattle off parts of the list - coverage for pain, but not for carpel tunnel syndrome, for instance.  All I can say is, if you're going to provide coverage, do it.  If you're going to restrict it, put it in writing, and arm your customer service agents with the same information you give your claims processing agents.  Don't tell me that "acupuncture is covered, no pre-approval needed," and then reject a claim because the diagnosis was on your secret do-not-fly list. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Olive oil and honey

Our last stop on the one day Haifa express tour we created for ourselves was by a roadside stand selling olive oil and honey.  After tasting the olive oil, seeing the honeycomb in the honey jar, and negotiating a deal, we couldn't resist. 

I have been enjoying peanut butter and honey sandwiches at Ulpan most mornings for the past two weeks.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Israeli Wines

After our drive through the Carmel Forest near Haifa a few weeks ago, we stopped by several wineries which have developed quite a boutique following in recent years.   We tasted, talked, and bought a few bottles at each location.  Our favorite stop was at Tishbi, where they sell table wine in jugs direct from the barrel for 19 shekels/liter (about $5.25).  We tasted it first, and quite enjoyed the shiraz / cabernet blend.  If only this place were closer to home for refills!

In the parking lot I saw a new sight - an Egyptian license plate.  We wondered what brought them up north, maybe the fine wines?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

After the Fire

During the week between Christmas and New Years, we decided to combine a few errands and take a day trip north to Haifa (about an hour drive up the coast).  This is the town that Dan lived in until he was 13 years old and moved to the States.  When he was young, his family and friends used to frequent the Carmel Mountains for picnics on weekends. 

Per a previous post, these mountains lit up in a record-breaking forest fire at the beginning of December, ushering in a very solemn start to Channukah.  It took international support to put it out.  But a bus load of prison guards got caught and died in the flames before they got there.  Our cousin even knew one of the young women who was on the bus.  Being in a small country, I have often found that someone we know has had a direct connection to events here like this.  That's obviously quite different than my experience with U.S. news which often feels remote. 

We drove out to the prison that sits among these hills (they call them mountains here, but compared to the Cascades in northwest U.S., well, there is no comparison).  As you can see from these pictures, the fire successfully devastated the trees.  Areas that were once picnic spots had only charred black spindles of branches left.  The facilities, once likely hidden nicely by the foliage now stuck out like a soar thumb on the hillside. 

The fire must have burned hot and moved fast, as you can see this pine cone got scorched, but still shows wood coloring on the inside. 

There has been talk in the news about the best strategy to renew the area.  Forest fires are of course a natural part of nature's process to destroy and renew itself periodically.  The question remains whether an area that has experienced such extremes (severe drout before the fire) needs a helping hand, or is better left to run it's course. 

Friday, January 7, 2011


No, I don't mean Stallone, or a cat.  Sylvester refers to New Year's Eve, named for the Catholic Saint that corresponds to December 31st. 
To celebrate, we walked from our apartment down to a neighborhood street party in the Neve Tsedik / Florentine neighborhoods.  The city of Tel Aviv-Yafo had officially declared a "no open alcohol / street parties" policy this year (past years have been well organized, we were told, with on-street DJs, bars, etc) but the city decided there were too many days that this was taking place (Independence Day, White Night, etc).  The neighborhood fought back by holding it anyway. 

So the city sent down their security forces to "keep the peace."  As you may be able to see from the middle picture here, these guys aren't like your friendly neighborhood police (although they seemed friendly enough).  They are border patrol types, or so I was told.   The lower picture is one of those hi-tech mobile command centers that was parked at one end of the street. 
There were a dozen or so blocks with wall to wall teenagers hanging out.  It appeared that everyone over 18 had gone into the bars.  We met our friends Tali and Yair and went up to their apartment for a more subdued drink and chat.  Then we walked home around 3am.  By the time we reached home my dogs were barking - we had walked a 5K to bring in the New Year! 

Thursday, January 6, 2011

In the name of security

Yesterday I had a new experience.  I had just finished a meeting at Tel Aviv University with the Director of one of the Masters programs - Conflict Resolution and Negotiation (rather appropriate for the region, right?)  Upon return to my car, it wouldn't start.  Now, on the one hand, you could say that this shouldn't have surprised me, as it was the third time.  But on the other hand, it should have, as I had run it for over an hour, just an hour before I left for my meeting (to jump it). 

And it's a new car!  What's the problem?  Here's the deal.  Car dealers here in Israel are mandated to add safety and security features - I have a key that looks like a space alien, I have to punch in a 4 digit code within seconds of entry to avoid the alarm, and a hands-free cell phone receiver is installed.  These aftermarket gadgets are installed to avoid break-ins and car jackings (common in areas close to the West Bank), and to keep both hands on the wheel (important when driving with these maniacs.)  Much to my despair, they drain my battery if I leave the car sitting in the garage for a couple weeks.    This happened a couple months ago and it happened this week.  Dan helped me jump it before I headed out, and I ran it for over an hour.  So why wouldn't it start up again an hour later (mechanical engineering friends, step in any time here)?

It got me thinking about the stupid things we do in the name of security (in the US as much as Israel).  When has a car alarm ever deterred a robber?  I wasn't once asked if the car was mine during the half hour that it was going off every 2 minutes at the University.  It's surprising how used to security checks I have become at entrances.  Israel is a lot like New York City was after 9/11.  I used to get all kinds of security checks and clearances when visiting Executives there on behalf of the American Heart Association.  New York City has relaxed quite a bit in the five years since I started there, but this is a steady state situation in Israel. 

Unfortunately I will be testing the Israeli security system at the airport next month as well.  My current B1 Visa expires February 1st.  I had an appointment to renew scheduled for January 30th, but with my sister's early delivery of my new nephew, Ernest, I am leaving for Washington State next week.  Our legal council says that getting the new appointment end of February shouldn't be a problem, and they will provide me with documentation to bring with me upon my return, but it's likely to raise some eyebrows and create a circus of questions anyway.  As unfair as it feels to say this, thank goodness that I don't fit the threat profile in any way. 

If you don't see any blog posts after February 21st, I've been swallowed by the system.  Ha!