Sunday, April 17, 2011

Estonia, where is that again?

It's Pesach (Passover) holiday in Israel.  While some are observant, this is still high season for family vacations.  Ben Gurion airport was packed to the gills with outbound travelers when we left.  After a four hour flight to Munich, we flew two more hours.  Then we landed in Estonia.

Would you be able to point out Estonia on a map?  I knew it was in northeastern Europe near Russia, at least.  But I couldn't have told you the name of the capital (any guesses?)  It's Tallinn.  The whole country is only 1.4 million people.  And they've had it rough.  They spent most of the 1900's under occupation never mind the last 800 years) and only got their independence in 1991 from Russia.  The Russians were here most of the time, but the Nazi's took a run at the place from 1941-1944. 

They have a beautiful old city with a mixture of Russian, German, Swedish and Estonian influenced architecture.  They have some of the oldest medieval structures in the world.  We took a 2 hour walking tour of the city today, seeing most of it, and hearing stories from the perspective of a college student who was clearly influenced by the history of her homeland, providing a humorous, ironic, athiest and skeptical take on the authorities who have ruled her country, under occupation as well as as a free state. 

We passed by the old KGB headquarters, where the street level windows had been filled in with bricks to block the screams of those being tortured inside.  The building is now empty, and they have plans to renovate it into apartments, which are controvercial, with opinions depending on how you feel about the process of moving on from the autrocities of history. 

Dinner was at the Olde Hansa, a restaurant in the old town that has researched and replicated medieval dining.  They pour water from a pitcher to wash your hands when you come in, light by candles at the tables, and theoretically serve food in period style.   Huge rich portions meant our simple soup and two dinners were a two hour excursion, requiring a few more hours of walking and digestion afterwards.  We were seated on the third floor, where a group of 35 local middle-aged Estonians came in for a "feast" about the same time we did.  Within 15 minutes they had broken out in song.  You're probably reading this and thinking what a nightmare.  But as it turns out, Estonian's are known for their singing.  They say they "sang" their way to revolution and freedom.  These guys were in perfect harmony.  And if that wasn't enough, a stag party of six men (on the older side) sat at the table next to us, in full pirate costumes.  It was an entertaining meal. 

Our second day in Tallinn we wandered an old neighborhood of stately wooden homes that ended up in a state of disrepair during the years of occupation, but interest and investment is starting to return it to the upperclass neighborhood that it once was.  It is near a large park which is across from the Palace build by the Russian Tsars  (for the Russian Tsars) as well as the current President's home.  They also recently built a beautiful modern art museum which we wandered in for about an hour. 

For lunch we headed back across town north of the old city, to a little place called Cafe Moon, where we satiated our empty tummies with outstanding fish soup and borshe soup.  Then we shared a salmon pie which was equally delicious.  We didn't think another meal could top lunch, but dinner of venison medallions and butter-seared halibut did.  All in all, Tallinn exceeded my expectations.  That's partly due to not really having any, but I would recommend it if you ever up in north eastern Europe.  Just don't go any earlier than April.  It still required my snowman coat. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another unusual day at Ulpan

Last Wednesday, April 6, Ulpan Gordon held a "mini" Passover Seder all morning.  I say mini, not because it was small (see picture at right) because all the classes were there, easily 200+ students and teachers.  It was also not shortened.  It still took at least an hour and a half of songs and readings before we ate.  It was "mini," because it only included the boiled egg, boiled potato, matza cracker and gifilta fish ball. 

I'd like to say it was interesting, but it was hard to follow.  We read the Passover story in class before hand, so I understand the holiday is about the Jew's exodus from Egypt, which included avoiding eight plagues.  I understand that the appetizers each represent something as well, and the readings and songs correspond to these.  But I couldn't really follow it. 

Still, I stuck it out until the end. 

Afterwards, upon leaving class and turning the corner onto Ben Yehuda a block north of Ben Gurion, we were haulted by the police.  They had cleared the intersection to check a suspicious "package" (I never saw it, so I don't know what it was).  The bomb squad hooked up some lines to it, went back about 50 feet, and tugged.  Nothing happened, so I guess they were sufficiently comfortable that it was a false alarm.  They packed up and left, and we were able to go on our way too.  

It reminded me of the NYC campaign in the subways - "If you see something, say something."  Obviously, somebody said something.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Throwing Money at the Street - The Economist on Arab Economies

It seems the middle east approach to quelling uprisings is handouts and buy-offs. It is strange to be in a tiny country that is a U.S.-Europe hybrid in the middle of all this. You'd never know it here. Sure, the culture is unique, and the language isn't English, but Israel is like a drop of oil in a bucket of vinegar (or maybe vinegar, in an oil field?).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Moth comes to Tel Aviv

When we were living in Michigan, we discovered a great live storytelling program called The Moth, thanks to NPR coverage.   The concept started in NYC, in someone's living room, where a group of people got together, people put names in a hat, and 10 were drawn to get up and tell an original story under 5 minutes.  You can read about the exact structure of the events on their website.  The concept caught on, expanded to public locations, and then to LA, Chicago and Detroit.  We attended the Detroit events several times.  You had to get to the bar, Cliff Bell's in Detroit, at least 2 hours before the storytelling began, if you wanted in the door.  And it was standing room only once you were in.  If you live in any of these cities, I highly recommend going in person.  If you don't, you can hear selected stories on NPR, or, you can do what the following couple did.

A few months back we met an American couple working here in Tel Aviv.  I was put in touch with them by a fellow Wellesley alum.  He works for Better Place, and she just finished her master's degree at Brandeis, where I began mine, so we have a few things in common.  In March they decided to start StorySlamming in Tel Aviv, by hosting the first one here (at least, the first one we know of, and almost certainly the first one in English (although one of the 10 stories did end up in Hebrew). 

They held it at their apartment, starting on the roof and then coming back to their living room when it got too cold.  (Yes, it can get cold here).  The theme was "danger."  There were about 40 of us there.  And Dan put his name in the hat.  Sure enough, he was picked, and I have to say he represented us very well.  I on the other hand, am not much of a live storyteller.  You'll have to settle for mine in print. 

They plan to throw another StorySlam after Passover.  We'll be there!