My first week or so in Israel was filled with a million little tasks. The “Egypt Evacuee” group was sent on errand after errand to try to catch us up on ordering cell phones, setting up university e-mail accounts, furnishing the apartment, and figuring out classes. We ended up doing a whole lot of walking around and not very much actual completion of these tasks- I guess we kind of threw a rock in the whole bureaucratic process because of our late arrival, and just caused a lot of confusion, but it’ll get figured out eventually.
We also started to encounter some of the many differences between Israel and Egypt. A couple of days after our arrival, we had made an appointment with Yoni (our study abroad coordinator, kind of like our “new Fadi”) at 9 AM to begin discussing class schedules. In Egypt, 9 AM means “sometime in the earlier part of the day… or maybe just tomorrow. Insha’allah.” So, the five of us woke up at around 10, grabbed some food at a cafe, and got to campus at around noon. In Israel, apparently 9 AM means… 9 AM. Yoni ran into us in a hallway while we were trying to find his office and didn’t seem too pleased. He had been waiting for us all morning, and even went looking for us at one point- oops. We hurried to his office and rushed through the details about how classes are numbered before making another appointment to complete the registration process at 2 PM sharp the next day.
Over the course of the day, we had gotten invited to a potluck at a friend’s place that night. I offered to contribute something to the meal, which meant that we had to buy food- we still had a very empty refrigerator in our even emptier apartment. So, we walked a block or two to the market down the street from the dorms to stock up on groceries. Right off the bat, I was shocked by the prices. I had gotten accustomed to 50 cent koshary and paying two dollars for a large bag of vegetables. Here, prices were either as or more expensive than they were in the States. The rest of my roommates and I sulked around the store, picking up the essentials before dragging all of our bags back to the dorms. It only took a few minutes to prepare a large salad for the potluck, but we were still on the Egypt time schedule- we ended up sitting around and talking for a good 30-45 minutes before heading to the potluck about an hour late. As we walked in the door, everyone there looked at us in surprise. They had assumed that we just weren’t coming since we were so late, and had started eating without us. After apologizing profusely, we dished out some salad and were able to join them for dessert. Moral of the story is, I really need to get back a more westernized concept of time.
Later that night, most of us headed to the small cafe in the Student Village (where the dorms are) to use their wireless internet. We still hadn’t set up our own router in our apartment, and were suffering a bit as a result. EuropeAssist had some last-minute things to wrap up with us, our families were confused, and we all had a lot to work on to get our lives back together in Israel. So, we spend quite a bit of time in this cafe. The good thing is, it gave us a chance to meet a few people, who helped us get settled around town- they recommended good places to eat, where to get our laundry done for free, and which classes to take. Soon enough, the owners and waiters at the cafe began to recognize us, mostly because we spoke some Arabic. Most of the men working there were Arab (and more specifically, Palestinian), so they were endlessly entertained by the fact that we could carry on small conversations with them. The cafe has turned out to be a good home base- it has cheap falafel (only 8 shekels!), free internet, and provides a way to practice our Arabic.
The day after we had gone to meet Yoni three hours late, we had another appointment with him to sign up for classes at 2 PM. I had felt really terrible about making him wait for so long for our first appointment, and made sure that I would get there on time, if not early. By 1:50, all of the “Egypt evacuees” were promptly waiting outside of his office, eager to show him that we weren’t completely hopeless. 2 PM came and went, then 2:05, then 2:15. At 2:20, Yoni finally hurried up the hallway, apologized for being a bit late, and took us into his office one by one to enroll in classes. I’m almost sure he was a little late on purpose, just to give us a taste of our own medicine. Regardless, class registration went flawlessly, and I was able to pick up my new cell phone while waiting for the other students to finish.
Hebrew University almost insists that study abroad students get temporary “rental” phones from a company called Talk&Save. It’s actually a pretty cool program- you get a free phone sent to the university, with 150 free minutes a month to call other students. All you pay for is texting, and a $200 deposit that you get back upon returning the phone. The one thing that I didn’t consider was what these “rental” phones would look like- mine ended up being a scratched flip phone that had obviously seen better days. There wasn’t even a flashlight, like my Egypt phone had! I also received a phone call from a woman asking for “Jonathan,” who I assume was the last person to have rented my particular phone and number. The woman apologized before realizing that he had returned to the States already, and must have returned this phone as well. All things considered, it’s a pretty cool company, and I have a working phone, which is what counts.
Before returning to our respective dorms after finishing up with Yoni, we decided to try to find a small falafel place that we had heard about right outside of the village. We wandered up the street along the wall that separated the dorms from the “real world” before running into an open door with a huge banner hung next to it that read, “Jeff Seidel’s” instead. Jeff Seidel is notorious amongst Hebrew University students. He’s basically a guy that provides free “student centers” for universities throughout Israel. These centers provide free food, laundry, internet, Shabbat dinner, and subsidized trips to places like Poland and Prague over breaks. When I first heard about him, I immediately thought that he sounded like a creepy guy who needed to let go of his younger years. A grown man offering free cookies to random college students? Doesn’t sound right. We had heard about this guy from quite a few Hebrew U students, but they all seemed to trust him for some reason. So, we decided to go inside and check this place out for ourselves.
The front door was opened by a 20- or 30-something man named Aaron, who welcomed us into a large living room and kitchen with cookies, soda, and coffee out on the table. He encouraged us to have whatever we liked as we bombarded him with questions. Who the heck is this Jeff Seidel guy? Why does he do all of this? Where does he get the money for it? And most importantly, is there really free laundry? Aaron explained that Jeff just liked to provide a little help for university students. He had good connections, which sponsored most of the events at the center. And yes, laundry is free (!). His answers were still a little vague, but by the end of our visit, my suspicions had been calmed quite a bit. Hebrew University itself promotes the center’s services, which lends it a good amount of credibility. Jeff was rarely around the center (meaning that he wasn’t just trying to hang out with college students), and most of the amenities had been donated or sponsored by his connections. It sounded as though he was just the name behind a system where people could donate to a center for Hebrew University students, some of which had religious connotations- the center also offers Shabbat dinner and prayer times. At best, it was a way for established adults to pay it forward to university students just starting out. At the very least, it had free cookies. We thanked Aaron for his hospitality, and made our way out to continue the falafel search.
Only a block or two later, we found ourselves standing in front of a hole-in-the-wall type place. Bingo! The place was full of Arabic-speaking men ordering shawerma, laffa, and falafel. This stuff looked amazing. We quickly ordered in Arabic (much to the amusement of the men behind the counter) and watched as a pita was stuffed with falafel, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, tahina, and french fries, and handed to us. This place also had self-serve toppings to choose from, which I had never seen before. I loaded fried eggplant, cauliflower, and more sauces onto my pita and paid my 10 shekels before sitting down to eat. Paying $3 for a falafel was still a little painful compared to the Egyptian counterpart, but it was really delicious. By far the best I’d had in Israel so far. The fact that they offered fried eggplant alone won me over- I’ll be back! We thanked the men behind the counter and walked the remaining couple of blocks back to the dorms to settle in for the night.
I actually have quite a bit of blogging to catch up on already from my adventures in Israel so far, so expect plenty of updates in the near future! Up next: trips to Ben Yehouda Street, the Old City and Wailing wall, Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as Mubarak’s resignation, my first week of school and Shabbat dinner, an Israeli Beatles cover band concert, and interviews with the Israeli media.