Wednesday, October 30, 2013

10 Random Early Observations in Jordan

1. I've made a few border crossings by land in my time -- U.S.A. to Canada, Vietnam to Cambodia, Thailand to Laos, and countless others traveling through Europe by train, most recently, from Germany to Poland and back again -- but none quite as pleasant as the one leading from Eilat, Israel (confusingly spelled "Elot," "Elat," or "Eliat," depending on what street sign, website or weather app you're looking at), into Aqaba, Jordan. It wasn't just that the process was frighteningly smooth -- no long lines, few questions asked, and the only fee I had to pay was the 100 NIS ($28) departure tax on the way out of Israel -- but rather that the guy at the end of it was, too.

Passport Control agents around the world, take note. This is how you treat a traveler going through Customs. When I handed my passport to the man at the Jordanian entry point, after having it stamped with a complimentary two-week visa by the one before him, he looked at the information page, then at me, incredulously.

"One nine six nine?"

"Um, what? Oh, yeah, right. The year I was born."

"I was thinking one thousand nine hundred ninety-two."

Say what? He thought I was born in 1992?! In the most unflattering natural sunlight, with sweat drizzling down my face, he thought I was barely out of my teens?!

Welcome to Jordan!

2. There was probably no place for my Jordanian experience to go but down after that. First, there was the crooked taxi driver (of course) who insisted that I pay him 4 Jordanian dinar (nearly $6) over the standard border-to-city center rate -- 11 dinar ($15.50) -- that's printed on a sign outside of Customs because he had to wait all of two minutes for me to get $141 worth of the local currency out of an ATM en route. He sapped away the faith in the goodness of workers behind the wheel that the taxi driver who took me from the center of Eilat to the border and charged only 30 NIS ($8.50) for it had threatened to restore.

3. And further down we go! Being in Jordan feels like being back in the '90s again, but not in a good way (no TLC on the soundtrack, though I have no complaints about the catchy Arabian beats that I keep hearing everywhere). Apparently, it's not against the law here to smoke in public buildings. Everyone's at it, and as a result, within an hour in the new country, my lungs felt like they were already turning a darker shade of tar. Cough cough.

4. At least the prices here are considerably cheaper than they were in Israel, where nothing ever seemed to be less than 35 NIS ($10). The quality of my first two meals -- a four-cheese pizza (possibly the best I've had, thanks to the smattering of tomato sauce on it, and only 5.50 dinar, or roughly $7.80) and a healthier and even yummier boiled fish and vegetables dinner entree that also set me back a mere 5.50 (in Israel, it would have been at least $20) -- nicely challenged the idea that you get what you pay for.

5. Why was there a box of tissues on each table of the restaurants in which I had those first two meals? Were they in lieu of napkins, or am I not the only one here whose sinuses are going out of control due to all of the secondhand smoke?

6. I've always thought of Days Inn as a low-budget U.S. hotel chain, but the one here in Aqaba is striving to be four-star and nearly hitting its mark. The lobby is spacious and elegant (though reeking of stale cigarette smoke), and my deluxe room is spacious and spotless, with a comfortable king-size bed, hardwood floors, a large balcony (alas, one without much of a view from the 2nd floor), a bidet in the bathroom, and a decent selection of English-language channels on the flat-screen wall-mounted TV. But what is it with Arab-run establishments (like the Commodore Hotel in east Jerusalem) and poor lighting? Doesn't one have to be able to see the Quran to read it?

7. Restaurant menus have a "non-alcoholic drinks" list and one with "cocktails" -- as in fruit cocktail, or shrimp cocktail, or smoothies. Clearly I won't be getting a buzz with dinner. Two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, I was told by a local that Muslims are strict teetotalers -- hence the relatively high price of booze in the bars and clubs of Kuala Lumpur and Dubai -- so I must assume that the liquor store down the road from my hotel is catering to Aqaba's considerable tourist clientele with its such surprisingly bargain booze: bottles of wine for only 10 dinar ($14) and 70cl bottles of premium vodka and Red Label Johnnie Walker whiskey for a mere 16 dinar (just under $23).

That's probably not even particularly cheap, but after paying 54 NIS ($15) per cocktail at the gay bars in Tel Aviv (in Israel, only the bartenders at straight bars were pouring them for free for me), it wouldn't take much to make me feel like I'm getting drunk at a discount.

8. As in Israel, local menus begin at the back and end at the front, and the waiters all seem to be male. In fact, the only female employee that I saw during my first day in Aqaba was the woman who was cleaning the lobby at the Days Inn. Clearly the division of labor isn't working in favor of females here.

In an interesting contrast, all of the state employees I encountered on the Israeli side of the border before entering Jordan were female. After crossing over into Jordan, I didn't see another woman until the Days Inn housekeeper entered my field of vision.

9. I suspected that English wouldn't be as widely spoken in Jordan as it was in Israel, but one might expect service personnel in the hotels and restaurants of a tourist-heavy city like Aqaba to at least be able to string a few English words together. On the plus side of the language barrier, during my first day in Jordan, not one person asked me where I'm from.

10. Jordanian time is one hour ahead of Israeli time, which means I lost those 60 minutes that I gained in Haifa on Sunday morning when the clocks moved back one hour. Judging from how dark it already was at 6pm and how dark it still was at 6am, there'll be even less time to enjoy the beautiful, bright, blinding sunlight here. I'd better work in some quality time by the Red Sea before it starts to look more like a black sea.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Horrors of Transit: Why I'd Rather Walk Than Go by Plane, Train, Bus or Taxi Driver

If there's such a thing as the worst section of the labor force to work in, I'd venture to guess that it might very well be transportation. That's not to say that this sector includes jobs with descriptions that I find distasteful in any way. Driving a vehicle, working as a flight attendant, and selling bus and train tickets are all nice work if you can get it, especially in this economy.

And I'm not saying it because I once went out on a terrible date with a guy in Rome who was a manager for one of Italy's national train lines and who hated his job because there wasn't even a sliver of creativity involved.

I draw this conclusion based on the general crankiness of workers whose job it is to facilitate the movement of people, en masse or one at a time, from point A to point B, while dealing with them directly. That would include taxi and bus drivers, bus terminal employees, train station staff, airport personnel and ferry crews, all of whom are paid to make customers feel like inconsequential cattle as they go from one place to another, and it would exclude airline pilots, who are separated from the public by the cockpit door and appear to be more cheerful because of it.

That's the reason why Morrissey doesn't like to fly ("I hate the dictatorial way that you're told to 'Pick this up, Get your bag, No, you can't, Yes, you can, Stand here, Join the queue, Leave the queue.' It seems as if as soon as you enter an airport, you're absolutely nothing. You're just this great big blob of flesh," he once said), and the reason I dread any kind of relocation movement that isn't walking or running. When they're not trying to rip you off (a favorite pastime of taxi drivers all over the non-English-speaking world), transportation workers are giving you attitude (we've all encountered those snooty flight attendants who act like coach is acceptable only if you're working in it), or barking at you, or ignoring you altogether.

In the rare instance that a transportation worker is kind to me -- like the lady in Haifa who patiently explained how to get from the bus terminal to my hotel without paying, and smiled while she was doing it! -- I'm completely floored. I feel grateful, as if he or she has done me the greatest favor, not just something that should be a part of their job description.

As I pointed out in a blog post a couple of years ago, taxi drivers are the worst offenders, rigging meters, inflating prices, and making life en route to anywhere fraught with anxiety and/or suspicion. Yesterday I watched as my taxi driver and the woman with whom I was sharing a ride from the HaShalom bus terminal in Tel Aviv to my friend's house outside of the city spent half of the trip yelling at each other in Hebrew because, she reasoned, if he was going to charge me 130 NIS ($37) when I was riding solo, why was he now charging her 70 ($20) and me 90 ($25.50) instead of charging both of us 65 ($18)?

"It's not right, but it's okay," she said, finally giving up, as I'd done before I even got into the taxi. I wondered if she realized that she'd just quoted the late Whitney Houston. I was impressed by both the entertaining pop-cultural reference -- whether intended or not -- and the zest with which she'd stuck up for me (so typical of Israelis, who, transportation workers aside, had been exceedingly gracious to me during my previous five weeks in the country). But I knew the driver, so typical of countless others I'd encountered throughout the world, from his mindless chatter to his oily outstretched palm, wouldn't budge.

Later that day, en route on a bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat, I watched another screaming match, this one between a male and female passenger at the back of the bus over what I presumed was his shouting into his mobile phone at whomever he was talking to while she was trying to nap. For once, I rooted on the driver as he stopped the bus and sent them to opposite sides of it like grade-school kids.

I might have totally missed this Eilat city view sitting
in the back of a taxi.
Taxi and bus experiences like the two above are the reason why I prefer to walk everywhere, which, I suppose, has several advantages, though none quite beneficial enough to redeem transportation workers for their general unpleasantness. You get to know a city better and experience it more intimately when you're walking through it than when you're driving through. And if taxi drivers were better people and bus drivers less impatient, I probably still would have the scrawniest calf muscles on the planet.

Unfortunately, for a frequent traveler like me, some form of public or taxi transportation is unavoidable, unless you can afford a private plane and a chauffeur to greet you at any airport in the world. I'm so conditioned by travel guide books to expect the worst of taxi drivers at airports, in particular, that when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and a taxi driver approached me, offering to take me to my rental for what I presumed was an exorbitant fare (160 NIS, or $45), I accused him of trying to rip me off and flounced away.

The joke was on me: I marched over to an "official" taxi, which ended up costing me 30 NIS ($8.50) more. I never took another taxi in Tel Aviv until four weeks later, when I left Tel Aviv to go to Jerusalem, where I was charged 50 NIS ($14) for a ride from Jerusalem's central station to Hillel 11 that the hotel's receptionist who checked me in said should have cost me 30. I never took another taxi in Jerusalem.

In Bangkok, it was never about the money -- taxis there are dirt cheap, even when the drivers are trying to rip you off -- but rather a matter of principle. I once dated a guy who got into a fist fight with three taxi drivers in Bangkok after he scoffed at one of them who had attempted to overcharge him. I was hardly surprised when he told me about the altercation the next day, despite the generally meek and mild disposition of Thai people.

I knew how to handle crooked drivers in Bangkok, but the crabby workers at Warsaw's central train station were beyond my realm of expertise. I knew I'd never be back within minutes of my arrival. Ironically, the first person to be nice to me in Warsaw was also my first and only taxi driver during my three-day stay there. He was friendly, chatty, informative, and he rescued me from having to walk to dinner in the rain.

Naturally, he overcharged me.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lou Reed: The Godfather of Alternative Rock (1942-2013)

I arrived at the temple of Lou Reed relatively late in life (when I was on the cusp of adulthood), and in the two and a half decades that followed, I never quite got around to paying him the respect that he deserves.

In my life and in my music collection, Reed was always overshadowed by peers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Everybody knows "Walk on the Wild Side," his 1972 Bowie-produced solo single and lone Top 20 hit, but as a kid, I noticed it more for the line "And the colored girls go 'Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo..." than for the guy who sang/wrote it, arguably the first, if not the biggest, influence, on future generations of alternative rockers.

(It could be worse: There's an entire pop fanbase out there who might know the former frontman and main songwriter for Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Velvet Underground primarily through "Wildside," Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch's 1991 homage to his greatest hit, or as the guy who denied Susan Boyle clearance to sing his solo classic -- and "Wild Side" B-side -- "Perfect Day" on America's Got Talent in 2010.)

I didn't start to become aware of his work as his work until 1988, the year the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies became the next big thing (for a very short time frame) with its hushed, mournful cover of "Sweet Jane." It was one of the best-known Velvet Underground songs, though not by me until the first time I heard the Junkies version, and its origins were revealed to me by someone, probably my friend Jennifer, who had the Junkies' The Trinity Sessions on cassette, or Adam Curry on MTV.

Along with R.E.M.'s remakes of "There She Goes Again" and "Pale Blue Eyes" (featured on Dead Letter Office, a 1987 album of R.E.M. rarities and B-sides that I bought on vinyl in 1988 at Record Mart during my freshman year at the University of Florida in Gainesville) and an early '90s cover of "Venus in Furs" by a long-forgotten band called Eye & I, it was my musical primer on The Velvet Underground.

The following year, Reed released New York, his 16th solo album and one that was regarded at the time as something of a creative comeback, that the name Lou Reed began to mean more to me. It was thanks to the single and video "Dirty Blvd.," which, like 99.9 percent of his previous singles, solo and with The Velvet Underground, failed to become a mainstream hit -- though it did top Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart.

I remember keeping track of the progress (or rather, lack thereof) of both Reed's New York and Sheena Easton's The Lover in Me as they hovered around the fringes of the Top 40 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart for weeks (New York would peak at No. 40, while The Love in Me would only go as high as of No. 44, despite launching a No. 2 Hot 100 hit with the title track), wishing they'd both go much much higher.

It would be two and a half years before I'd move to New York City and experience the true grit that Reed was talk-singing about firsthand, but something about "Dirty Blvd." rang so true for this teenager who had still only dreamed about New York City. Like Bob Dylan, Reed wasn't so much a singer as a storyteller, a proto-rapper from back in his "Wild Side" days, spreading hard, harsh truths about the mean streets of the city he loved and called home, like a poet/journalist with a guitar.

Three years later, Reed released Magic and Loss, a requiem inspired by the deaths of two of his mentors, Doc Pomus and Andy Warhol, that featured "What's Good," a second Modern Rock Tracks No. 1 and the song I consider to be his crowning later achievement, which had previously appeared in medley form with Magic and Loss opener "Dorita" on the soundtrack to the 1991 Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World. Reed's contribution helped elevate it to the status of my favorite soundtrack of the '90s, until Trainspotting (which featured Reed's aforementioned "Perfect Day") came along five years later.

Now someone else will have to write a musical elegy fitting for Reed, who died on October 27 at age 71 in Southampton, New York, from complications related to the liver transplant he received in May. I remember spotting Reed once years ago on the streets of New York City with his then-girlfriend Laurie Anderson, whom he married in 2008. His disposition was as stoic as his songs. He didn't say a word, and he wasn't looking around, just straight ahead. But I was certain he was taking in everything, collecting inspiration for a future great song.

I was too shy to approach him to thank him for the music. I didn't want to get the same kind of brush off that I once saw Deborah Harry give a fan who asked her for an autograph while she was dining at my friend's restaurant in Chelsea. Now I wish I'd sucked it up and offered him the compliment. I'll never get another chance to do it now.

The Best of Lou Reed

"Sweet Jane"

"Pale Blue Eyes"

"Walk on the Wild Side"

"Dirty Blvd."

"What's Good"

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dreaming of Paradise: 10 Songs That Take Us There

Spending the last few months in so many gorgeous settings, has gotten me thinking a lot about paradise: What is it? Where is it? How do we get there?

According to Charlene in her 1982 No. 3 hit "I've Never Been to Me" (co-written by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch and first recorded by the great Randy Crawford in 1976), "it's a lie, a fantasy we create about people and places as we'd like them to be." The Oxford Dictionary's take: "an ideal or idyllic state or place." 

In the beginning, that would have been the Garden of Eden. But Adam and Eve were the only two people who ever got to enjoy the breathtaking splendor in the grass there. Since their banishment from the first paradise, it's been up to all of us to find our own -- here on earth or in the imagined afterlife. 

For Christians, it's heaven, a place I've always imagined to be another white city, where angels sing, the band plays harps, and the sweet nectar flows freely. That's not exactly my kind of social scene, but when I think of the scorching hot alternative way down below, I'd gladly spend eternity lounging on a little fluffy cloud in a tunic as the angel choir provides the soundtrack.

Frankly, though, I prefer the more secular version of paradise, which, for most, would probably involve a beach. It would be a land far, far away from home, where you can walk on the water, splash around in it, or just sit and admire it, while sipping a primary-colored cocktail. 

For me, paradise doesn't necessarily involve a beach, though an obstructed view of one never hurts. When my mind takes me to paradise, I'm usually on top of a mountain, looking out at miles of nature in the distance, at the trees, at the blue sky. My paradise is blue, green and brown, and I'm definitely admiring it solo.

Paradise inspires so many mental settings, so many moods, so many songs. When songwriters dream of paradise, it's usually an emotional rescue, a state of mind for two, a perfect place for all of the senses, especially sound. Have you ever noticed that there are no bad songs about paradise? Here are 10 that prove that point.

"Paradise" Sade

"Paradise" Coldplay

"Paradise" Freddie Jackson

"Paradise" Robbie Nevil

"Paradise (Not for Me)" Madonna

"Paradise Is Here" Cher

"Paradise by the Dashboard Light" Meat Loaf

"Two Tickets to Paradise" Eddie Money

Pastime Paradise" Stevie Wonder

"Gangsta's Paradise" Coolie featuring L.V.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mineral Beach: When the Desert Meets the Almighty Sea

After a few false alarms in Thailand (where the beaches are so lovely, anyone could fall in love -- on them or with them), it's confirmed: I'm not a beach person. I enjoy being near one, or above one, with a perfect view of waves rushing in down below, but I have no business being on one.

I spent an entire month living one block away from the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv, running alongside it for one hour several times a week, but I only stepped foot on the sand once. I was told by the mother of a good friend who is from Tel Aviv that I at least had to allow my entire body to experience the water just once, but she was wrong. Stepping off the shore into water high enough to reach my ankles was good enough for me. I didn't miss a thing.

Don't get me wrong: I love beaches -- but more for the visuals they provide than for the full-on experience of being on one. I'm just not the guy who ever wants to spend all day lounging about in the sun by any body of water, getting blacker by the minute. But give me an 80-minute hot rock/Swedish massage, followed by 15 minutes floating in a hot spring adjacent to the Dead Sea, and how could I resist not going there -- for at least 15 minutes or so of idle shore time?

The weather couldn't have been more beautiful yesterday at Mineral Beach between the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert in east Israel, but rather than plopping down on a towel and letting the sunshine into my pores, I wanted to experience the scenery from as many points of view as possible. At the intersection of desert, mountains and sea, with Jordan visible just across the water (now I'm even more excited about my trip to Amman next week), the possibilities were nearly unlimited.

In the end, I skipped Mineral Beach's supposedly healing mud bath that's a huge draw for so many tourists and sought to maximize my visual experience by roaming the grounds of the resort, then walking a kilometer or two under the desert sun to the bus stop along the main road. That was where I waited for at least one hour for bus 421 to return me to Jerusalem, while taking photos and video (see below) and wondering how Moses did it. How on earth did he and his people wander in the desert for 40 years?

I don't know if this particular stretch of the Promised Land would be worth a four-decade delay, but the one-hour bus ride from Jerusalem (plus the one-hour wait and the one-hour return trip) was such a small price to pay to experience this side of paradise.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My First Six Impressions of Jerusalem

1. Just as Sydney vs. Melbourne in Australia, North of the Yarra vs. South of the Yarra in Melbourne, East Coast vs. West Coast in the U.S.A., and Red States vs. Blue States on Election Day there, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are embroiled in their own brand of one-on-one unarmed combat, a geographically and culturally defined competition.

I started to suspect this much the afternoon before my departure from Tel Aviv when I was at the home of the woman from whom I was renting my apartment there, and her husband emphatically announced his hatred of Jerusalem without offering a single coherent reason why. I knew it for sure shortly after I checked into Hillel 11 in Jerusalem the following morning.

Even if the guy at reception hadn't mentioned the rivalry himself, I would have gotten it from the way he dismissed TLV's Ben Yehuda Street ("Everybody stays there," he sniffed, after guessing that I did, too) while raving about Jerusalem's, touting its bustling shopping/nightlife scene. He then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes selling his city, pointing out all of the exciting things I can do in Jerusalem, handing me various maps and explaining how I can get to know the city and see all of the attractions around it (Bethlehem, the Dead Sea) without being at the mercy of any tour guides.

His sales pitch didn't include a word about the hotel he was checking me into, not even when he showed me to my room, a four-star "economy studio" which, frankly, could have used the build-up more than the city it's in.

2. Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays, the old saying goes (or maybe it's the other way around). But even if you didn't see the cities in action, doing what they do best, you'd have no trouble telling them apart. On a visual level, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem couldn't be more dissimilar. Jerusalem is the massive inland metropolis in Israel's tale of two cities (think Madrid and Sao Paolo in Spain's and Brazil's, respectively, only in the mountains, therefore considerably curvier), a proper urban experience. Tel Aviv, meanwhile, is far less congested (from a traffic, if not pedestrian, standpoint), quainter, with the waterfront picture-postcard feel of Barcelona and Rio.

If I prefer Tel Aviv ever so slightly, despite my obsession with cities that offer mountain views, it's only because it's warmer there. Still, even after less than 24 hours in Jerusalem, I think I'd be more than happy lingering indefinitely in either one.

Guys to the left, ladies to the right.
3. Apparently, women in Jerusalem are more comfortable with public displays of holiness than men are. The latter get more than twice as much prayer space along the Western Wall, but considering the number of praying people on the men's side vs. the number on the women's side, a switch might be in order. At first, I tried to enter the women's domain, because I wasn't paying attention, and I just assumed that the side with the line was where I needed to be. I've done that before when going to the restroom, and I don't need to tell you where I almost ended up!

4. Maybe the ladies in Jerusalem are making up for childhoods spent largely out of sight. During my first afternoon walking through the old city, I saw multiple groups of boys under the age of 10 who were playing and hanging out with their friends as well as solo ones who were helping adults mind the stores. But I saw very few girls under military age who weren't tourists anywhere in the old city, which made me wonder where they were all hidden away.

5. Want to get your money for nothing in Jerusalem's old city? Don't approach tourists at the various gates or at key spots asking, "What are you looking for?" (I got that one so many times during my first afternoon in the old city, I thought I was on Grindr!), and put away the red string.

Pick a spot slightly removed from one of the major attractions, and greet a random passerby with an even more random question ("Did you enjoy the Jewish Quarter?", for instance, right outside the Moslem Quarter). Don't ask if they need any help because that will give away your agenda as quickly as pouncing on them at one of the entrances to the Western Wall. Once you've gotten their attention, offer a little information about yourself, then ask something about them. Keep the small talk going, and once they've let down their guard, apologetically make a small request: "Do you have any shekel that you can spare?"

Only the coldest-hearted tourist will be able to turn down the friendly local they've just spent several minutes talking to. I certainly wasn't going to deny the older gentleman who tried this ploy on me. He was rewarded with 10 shekel (roughly $2.80) for his efforts. But as Roger Daltrey once sang on the 1971 classic by The Who, I won't get fooled again.

6. If you can judge a city by the coincidences it offers, then I was completely sold on Jerusalem by the end of my first night here. While exploring the areas that the Hillel 11 receptionist recommended, I came across a walkway off Agrippas in the Mahane Yehuda district that reminded me of those covered outdoor food courts in Bangkok and took a stool at the bar with a kitchen set up along the walkway, Bangkok-style.

That's when I noticed the joint's business card. Where had I seen that card before? Oh my God! It was the 6th of May -- only the 5th of May, the sister bar and, as everyone there was quick to tell me, the original version of my favorite place in Tel Aviv. The 6th of May bartender had told me all about it, but I had forgotten that I wanted to try to find it. Now, in one of those magic-moment twists, here I was.

Rani, the cute 20-year-old waiter with near-flawless English and perfect teeth who spent his night off drinking with me, raving about Jerusalem (repeating the Hillel 11 receptionist's point about all of its distinctive barrios), and introducing me to his friends (most of whom were also there on their night off) was even more impressed by my twist of fate than I was was. (Incidentally, Rani scored major cool cred by incorrectly guessing my age as 32. His response when I told him that I'm as old as Jennifer Aniston: "What? You're not 50!" Sorry, Jen!)

Despite another adorable bartender peddling free booze, 5th of May was as different from 6th of May as the cities they're in are from each other. If I liked 5th of May even better than my first love, it was because of the alternative crowd (ridiculously friendly and huge for a Sunday night) and the music, an engaging mix of '90s house, '80s new wave, Pixies, Janis Joplin, Jamiroquai, The Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, and assorted weird shit (like the coolest remix of Barbara Mason's 1965 classic "Yes, I'm Ready") from the personal playlists of 5th of May's various employees, none of whom had a clue what the names of any of the songs were. I haven't procured a single souvenir since I stepped foot into Israel, but I'm not leaving Jerusalem without that soundtrack.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

28 Things I'll Miss About Tel Aviv When I'm Gone

I'm off to Jerusalem tomorrow, but first, one last tribute to the place I'll be leaving. Here are 28 reasons why I loved Tel Aviv -- one for each day I spent here -- and why I might very well be back before I leave Israel for good.

1. The southwest corner of Dizengoff and Frishman. The architecture there isn't much to look at, but the granola-hot passersby are. It's my favorite people-watching spot in the entire city.

2. Waking up one block away from the Mediterranean Sea and being able to see all of its different shades of blue on a clear day (i.e., every day).

3. Running along the beach first thing in the morning.

4. The friendly bartender at 6th of May on Dizengoff Square.

5. The hilly city: The inclines are so subtle that you don't even notice you've been walking/running up and down and up and down until your butt muscles are still sore several days later.

6. So many hot, shirtless guys running on the beach.

7. So many hot, shirtless guys using the free workout equipment on Gordon Beach. The emphasis on abdominals-enhancing equipment explains why six-packs abound here.

8. Working out on Gordon Beach with a perfect view of those hot, shirtless guys and the Mediterranean Sea.

9. Vodka with a beer back at Evita.

10. The Tel Aviv movida on Allenby and Rothschild.

11. Isrotel Tower (left), my favorite skyscraper in Tel Aviv. If I ever return to here when someone else is footing the accommodation bill, I know exactly where I'll be staying.

12. The view of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean from the highest point in the old city of Jaffa (see main photo).

13. Low flying planes landing at Sde Dov Airport as I jog toward the lighthouse in the opposite direction of Jaffa.

14. Granola in the morning for the first time in decades.

15. Frozen supermarket pizza that tastes better than any store-bought pie I've ever had anywhere else.

16. The option of taking one of those shared taxi vans that I never got around to taking.

17. The architectural emphasis on white and off-white that gives "The White City" its nickname.

18. A microwave oven, an elevator in my building, AC everywhere and free shopping bags in supermarkets for the first time since before I arrived in Berlin.

19. Warm, welcoming people, most of whom speak English.

20. Knowing that if I ever ruin my Havaianas here, there are plenty of stores where I can replace them, which was so not the case in Bangkok a few months ago.

21. Pomegranate and mango juice.

22. Three weeks and five days without rain.

23. Highs in the upper 20s, lows in the upper teens to the lower 20s.

24. Free Wi-Fi at Sevidor central train station and on the commuter trains that go up and down the north coast.

25. The friendly blonde waitress at Fresh Kitchen Mapu, the one who made the just slightly above average comfort health food taste a little better and almost justified the "Service not included" on the bill.

26. Watching episodes of the '70s sitcom Maude on YouTube on my nights in during the second half of my stint in Tel Aviv. Though Jewish, Bea Arthur had no link to Tel Aviv that I'm aware of, yet along with Rihanna (whose October 22 concert here is being advertised on posters all over town), she will forever be the diva I most associate with my first trip to the city.

27. Guys who blow you off with or without some lame excuse, saving you the trouble of being the bad guy and leaving you free to be happily home alone, where you secretly wanted to be anyway, to do No. 26. God'll get them for that.

28. The utter gayness of it all.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thoughts on the Class of 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominations

1. The most shocking thing about the Class of 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees isn't so much who was nominated (eligible acts must have released their first record in 1988 or earlier), but that at least four of the rock & roll nominees aren't already in there. How is it possible that Kiss, the seminal American rock band of the 1970s, has yet to be inducted? Or first-time nominees Peter Gabriel, inducted as a former member of Genesis in 2009 but never solo, and Yes, the premiere progressive/art-rock band of the '70s (even more so than the Gabriel-led Genesis)?

One might think that Deep Purple would have muscled its way in solely on the strength of the band's 1973 classic "Smoke on the Water," which contains what might arguably be the best-known guitar riff in the history or rock? Meanwhile, ZZ Top, hardly what I'd call key to the history of rock & roll, has enjoyed a spot in the hallowed Hall since 2004. That nominating committee must be full of "Legs" men.

2. For years, I've been damning the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for failing even to nominate Linda Ronstadt, one of the guiding lights of the same country-rock movement of the early '70s that produced Eagles, inductees since 1998, whose four original members were once in Ronstadt's backing band. I suspect it has a lot to do with the Hall's bias against women and artists who didn't/don't write their own material. That didn't stop Brenda Lee and Dusty Springfield from gaining admittance, but I'm pretty certain it leaves iconic interpreters of song like Connie Francis and Barbra Streisand continuously on the outside looking in.

Ronstadt is unique among the aforementioned interpretative singers in that before turning to the Great American Songbook and adult-contemporary pop in the '80s, she embodied the spirit of old-time rock & roll from a female perspective. Her recent revelation that she's suffering from Parkinson's Disease probably had a lot to do with her first nomination, and after Nirvana, she's the 2014 inductee least likely to be passed over. Better 20 years late (she's been eligible since 1994) than never.

3. I love Daryl Hall and John Oates as much, if not more, than any child of the '80s, but the great duo's nomination might be this year's biggest head-scratcher for me -- not because there's any question about their worthiness, but because this is precisely the kind of mainstream pop act that the Hall (no relation to Daryl) generally ignores. I would say that the voters are running out of "rock & roll" to honor were in not for the perennially overlooked artists in Nos. 1 and 2, and the fact that acts as influential and decade (the '70s)-defining as ELO and Roxy Music have yet to be nominated. Though the input of fans (whose votes will count toward the inductees for the second consecutive year) gives them more of an edge than they would have had in 2011, Hall & Oates probably don't stand a chance of getting in this time. Their inclusion on this short list, however, bodes well for the future chances of '80s icons like Duran Duran and Pat Benatar.

4. At first, I was slightly perplexed by Cat Stevens' nomination because I've always thought of him as the Donovan of the '70s: a dark-haired male solo singer-songwriter responsible for a handful of standards -- "The First Cut Is the Deepest," "Moonshadow," "Peace Train" -- but always overshadowed by more iconic figures of his time (James Taylor, Elton John, the solo Beatles). Then I remembered that Donovan has been in the Hall since 2012, which makes me wonder, what took them so long to finally nominate the artist formerly known as Steven Demetre Georgiou (his birth name), now known as Yusef Islam?

Could his religious/political convictions (he converted to Islam in 1977) have had anything to do with it? Islam once said that author Salman Rushdie should be killed for committing the sin of blasphemy with his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, a comment that could be interpreted (and was, by some) as an affront to the freedom of speech that rock & rollers hold as being more hallowed than God, or Allah. As Sinead O'Connor well knows, it rarely does one's career or legacy any good to preach what you practice.

5. It's nice to see the Hall recognizing '80s college rock by shortlisting The Replacements, but I've always considered the Paul Westerberg-led band to be second-tier among the movement's headliners, and it seems even more so when you consider that far more influential and eligible "The" bands like The Cure, The Smiths and Pixies (who are generally, if not officially, known "The Pixies") continue to go un-nominated. I recently watched a 2003 documentary on Morrissey in which he said he wishes "the very very worst" for former bandmate Mike Joyce, so I'm curious which Smiths would actually show up if my all-time favorite band were ever inducted and what they'd do if they all did. It might be the best chance we'll ever have to see all four on the same stage ever again.

6. Why does Chic keep getting nominated for induction? I'd say the eighth time should finally be the charm, but I don't think Chic deserves to get in. Although the disco act was responsible for at least one of disco's greatest moments -- the 1979 No. 1 single "Good Times" -- Chic was basically just a moniker under which disco maestros Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards, with assorted, revolving vocalists, got to be a relatively short-term recording act. Those immortal basslines may have been infinitely influential to the stars of the second British invasion in the early '80s (one of which, Duran Duran, Rodgers and Edwards would go on to separately produce), but lyrics like "Everybody dance/Clap your hands/Clap your hands" only supported the dismissal of disco as mindless entertainment.

Instead of Chic, Edwards (posthumously) and especially Rodgers should be up for induction -- again -- under their own names. Scratch that. They should have been invited in years ago. Rodgers' production and songwriting credits outside of Chic (with and without Edwards), which include career-biggest hits by Hall of Famers David Bowie ("Let's Dance") and Madonna ("Like a Virgin") and four decades worth of smashes, from Sister Sledge's 1979 We Are Family album to Daft Punk's recent No. 2 hit "Get Lucky," trump everything Chic did during its six-year original run. He transcends disco, and he's so much more than Chic. He deserves to be honored for the entire spectrum of his talent, not just a few late-'70s hits, awesome as at least one of them was.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jump, They Sing (from David Bowie to Madonna to Rihanna)

Jumping, what an awkward thing to do. That's exactly what I was thinking when I obeyed the orders of the guy who took the photo above. "Jump!" he said. In everyday adult life, who jumps? When do grown ups actually jump?

I know, I know -- in sports. Athletes jump when they're dashing over barriers in obstacle courses. Daredevil skydivers jump out of airplanes. Crazy thrill-seekers bungee jump.

There's a "jumping" motion in Pilates ("Salta!" Laurentio, my instructor in Buenos Aires, used to shout), although you perform it while lying flat on your back. (Get your mind out of the gutter, where there's no doubt a certain 1984 Pointer Sisters single playing right about now -- see below!) And anyone who has ever gone hiking in the Thai rainforest in Koh Chang, as I did two Northern summers ago, probably had to jump over a few waterfalls, which I suppose is safer than chasing them.

But here in the non-athletic realm (where people don't go around hitting/kicking balls and swinging bats), when I think about jumping, it's generally in a far more sinister context, one that involves no upward motion, just a downward one, to a certain, gruesome death. That's hardly the smiley-face positivity that we tend to stamp on jumping, but I don't believe I've ever actually seen anyone jump for joy.

Still, the positive connotation persists, particularly in song. Despite the suicidal thoughts associated with a certain kind of "jump," the overall concept remains a favorite pastime in pop, which spins it as a sexy double entendre when not referring to the literal thing. It may have inspired more great music than any verb this side of love.

In fact, I don't believe I've ever heard a terrible "jump" song. So if you ever do get the urge to jump for joy (or Joi -- see below), you'll now have the perfect soundtrack to do it to.

"Jump" Aretha Franklin

"Jump" Loverboy

"Jump" Van Halen

"Jump" Kriss Kross

"Jump" Madonna

"Jump" Rihanna

"Jump (for My Love)" Pointer Sisters

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" The Rolling Stones

"Jump to It" Aretha Franklin

"Jump They Say" David Bowie

"Jump Around" House of Pain

"Jump for Joi" Joi Cardwell

"Jumpin' Jumpin'" Destiny's Child

"Jump in the Air" Erykah Badu

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Service Not Included" and Other Words That Make Me Cringe This Week

I never thought it could happen, but I might actually be starting to warm up to five words that have placed countless chills in my heart over the course of the last year: "It is what it is."

I still think it's the easiest way to ruin an intelligent discussion, and I stand by all of the negative things I've written about it, but I recently discovered that it could be the perfect way to put a mind-numbing line of questioning out of its misery, too. For example:

"But what do you have against shopping?"

"Nothing. I just don't enjoy it."

"Why don't you enjoy it?"

"Does there have to be a specific reason? I just don't enjoy it."

"But why?"

"Look, it is what it is!"

Yes, I used it, and I reserve the right to do so again in the future if desperation hits. And even if it one day becomes a fixture in my personal lexicon, it's not like I don't have plenty of other dreadful words to carp about.

"Service not included" The bane of my existence in Tel Aviv, the tipping capital of the world. On my first day here, somebody warned me that if I walked out of any service establishment without leaving a little something behind (the standard is 12 percent), they'd follow me outside to admonish me/remind me of my unofficial obligation. Apparently, the custom extends outside of Tel Aviv. Yesterday during lunch at The Pisan Harbour in Akko, when the surly waiter handed me the bill (which was completely in Hebrew) and announced, "Service not included," just in case I couldn't understand the written words, I came dangerously close to asking, "What service?" He hadn't cracked a smile all hour, and he made me wait a good 30 minutes for my kebab main course. Instead I held my tongue and handed him 110 NIS for a 95 NIS bill. "Thank you," he sniffed as he walked away, still scowling. I guess service and a smile costs extra!

"What are you doing in Tel Aviv?" Not to be confused with "Are you here on holiday/for work?", due to the hint of incredulity and the dash of disdain with which the question is typically posed, as in "Why on earth, of all the cities on earth, would anyone chose to come here?" Among unfathomable, overused travel/expat inquiries, this one is rapidly approaching "Do you like Buenos Aires?" (previously frequently asked by porteños after they found out I'd been living in their city for years). I mean, come on. It's not like Tel Aviv is on the outskirts of Timbuktu. Considering that it's a major international city that has topped countless lists of the world's top travel destinations in recent years, what's the big mystery? So unless you're working in Customs, why not ask me how I like it?

"Can I pick your brain?" Every time I hear or read this, I have a horrifying vision of vultures descending on a live cranium. The other day when a good friend and a writer I respect and admire above all others became the third person in one week to used it on me, I had my most nightmarish visual image yet: her hosting a dinner party, walking around and offering her guests chunks of my brain on a plate with toothpicks sticking out of them. Yikes!

"Let's dance!" I don't know what's happened to me. I don't even really want to hear David Bowie sing it anymore. Anyone who knew me in the '90s, or attended one of People magazine's holiday parties back then, knows that I used to be the ultimate dancing queen. Nowadays it takes a village to get me on the dance floor. My friend Rodrigo was the first to point out my presumed aversion to the beat during one of our nights out at DJ Station in Bangkok. And the other evening at Evita in Tel Aviv, similar entreaties for me to get my boogie down fell on deaf ears -- mine.

I could take the easy way out and say that at 44, one should put away his boogies shoes for good, but what's age got to do with it? Yes, I hate nightclubs, but my biggest problem with them isn't the dance floor but the soundtrack. I refuse to move to this contemporary techno crap that they call music when I have perfectly vivid memories of another time and place (circa the 1990s in New York City) when dance divas like Kristine W., Joi Cardwell, Ultra Nate and Billie Ray Martin ruled the world underneath the strobelight, honey (to quote the title of one of my favorite jams from back in those days). David Guetta can't even begin to compete with David Morales!

"What are you looking for?" Now there are five words that should never be uttered outside of the lost and found. When I was a kid and used to go to the mall with my mother, whenever a salesperson approached her and asked "Can I help you?" (the retail equivalent of "What are you looking for?"), she'd roll her eyes and snarl, "Can I look?" I've inherited her disdain for pushy salespeople, which now extends to pushy guys on online dating sites who ask "What are you looking for?" before asking your name. (Translation: "I came here for sex, and unless you did, too, I'm not looking to waste any more time on you.") Can they make those places seem any more like virtual meat markets? I've taken to using "I'll know it when I find him?" because "Apparently, not you" didn't go over so well.

"T.K.O." T.K.O. T.K.O. So I'm not cringing, but I'm thoroughly perplexed. The late Teddy Pendergrass's 1980 classic "Love T.K.O." (covered enchantingly by Regina Belle in 1995) remains one of my all-time favorite seduction suites, even if I've never quite gotten it. Now Justin Timberlake's humdrum current single, simply "TKO" (no relation), has revived the question that's stumped me for decades: What the H.E.L.L. is a "T.K.O." -- and whom do I have to sleep with to score one, if it's actually something worth scoring (and I'm not convinced that it is)? Oh well, at least I still get to enjoy the song -- "Love T.K.O.," not "TKO"!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Haifa, Israel: A Place I've Never Been

I've been around the world, and I-I-I-I have seen many cities situated on and around mountains and hills, two of my favorite things.

Istanbul, Rio, Penang in Malaysia, Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru, Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee, my birthplace of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, and pretty much every major city and region I've been to in Italy (Rome, Florence, Siena, Bologna, Pompei, Genoa and the Chianti region in Tuscany), with the exceptions of Milan, Venice and Pisa, come immediately to mind. Those cities and towns either offer breathtaking views of undulating terrain, or their buildings are judiciously peppered around and/or on the inclines so as not to completely obscure the natural element.

But Haifa, an underrated city in the north of Israel, appears to be something else entirely. The closest I've probably come to seeing anything quite like how I imagine it must be inside the city limits might be San Francisco and Lisbon. Both are hilly metropolises overlooking major bodies of water, but their upswings are not nearly as dramatic as Mount Carmel, a centerpiece of northwestern Israel that peaks -- figuratively, not literally -- in Haifa, the country's third-largest city.

From a distance, the architecture in continuous chunks of the mountainous Carmel city looks like it covers the slopes entirely, while in others, the mountainside appears to be building-free, with the town instead sprouting from the top. Capping off Haifa's Mount Carmel scene from way below is the edge of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. I'm pretty certain I'll be seeing it all in my dreams tonight.

Riding by the natural and architectural spectacle in a train from Tel Aviv to Akko (aka, Acre, billed as one of the oldest continuously populated cities on the planet), I didn't know where to look: The mountain or the sea? No matter which way I turned my head, I was going to miss an amazing view from the surprisingly high-tech locomotive (which was equipped with complimentary Wi-Fi and outlets, nearly all of which were being used by passengers to charge their smart phones).

When the train pulled into Akko just before noon, 90 minutes after leaving Tel Aviv, I was certain I'd gotten off at the wrong stop. My 70 NIS ($20) round-trip ticket was from Tel Aviv to Akko, but during the entire three hours I spent in Akko, I couldn't stop thinking about what I was missing 30 minutes away, back in Haifa, which I had neither the time nor the energy or wheels to explore after leaving Akko. I've been told it's impossible to get around there without a car, a warning that makes complete sense after what I saw off in the distance to and from Akko/Tel Aviv.

So today it was Akko on foot, which was hardly a letdown, considering the seaside views and antique architecture of the old city. It also has the best hummus in the world, a boast I'd heard several times (most recently from my favorite bartender at the 6th of May in Tel Aviv) that The Pisan Harbour, a restaurant overlooking the sea, confirmed. But if I make it back up north again before I leave Tel Aviv on Sunday, I know exactly where I'm headed: to Haifa, to give both sides (the mountain and the sea) their due.

Extra! The windows of the hi-tech train were too dirty for me to take photos of Haifa en route to Akko, but I did get a few decent shots of my afternoon in Akko's old city.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Days of the Week: Why Tel Aviv Is Thoroughly Confusing Me

One might expect more from someone who's done as much traveling as I have over the course of the last two decades, since 1993, the year I had my first out-of-the-country experience: an off-site in Bermuda with some of my colleagues at People magazine.

"What? They drive on the left side of the road here? I haven't seen that before."

Bermuda might as well have been another planet because of the peculiar driving habits there, an experience that I repeated one year later when I returned to my birthplace, the U.S. Virgin Islands, for the first time since I was 4 years old.

After at least a dozen trips to London I still hadn't become accustomed to left-side driving and didn't get used to it until I spent two and a half years based in Melbourne and Bangkok, where left-side driving applies. Now I'm such a leftie that when I was in Buenos Aires earlier this year, I kept trying to go up on the left-side escalator, and in rightie Tel Aviv, I'm always walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk, to the left, to the left.

Though I now think mostly in terms of Metric, I still haven't built up an immunity to culture shock, a talent for learning foreign languages (I tackled Spanish only because I absolutely had to), or a habit of picking up local slang and incorporating it into my everyday speech. (I may sometimes text "tomoz" for "tomorrow" because it's shorter, but I refuse to use "arvo" for "afternoon" or start calling everybody "mate"!)

So I had absolutely no reason to expect that I would so easily become accustomed to the forward shift in the days of the week brought on by Shabbat (aka, Saturday, or, technically, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, which is treated the way Sunday is outside of Israel and in the predominantly Muslim and Christian Israeli city of Nazareth). But there I was, days before my first Shabbat, already thinking of Monday as Tuesday, Tuesday as Wednesday and so on, until Saturday, which felt exactly like Sunday, only lazier.

By the time that first Shabbat rolled around, I was already thinking exactly like I do on Sunday everywhere else in the world and accepting the new days dynamic. Everything's closed today? Annoying, but okay. Friday and Saturday were the weekend? I can live with that. The Mamas and the Papas' "Monday Monday" would be the perfect soundtrack to Sunday, which, technically, is just another manic Monday? Got it.

But now, after three weeks, confusion has set in, for in my mind, I'm not only thinking of the days here as their equivalent days everywhere else, but I've also begun to think that it's actually the equivalent day. I keep forgetting what day it is. When I woke up this morning, Sunday morning, I thought of it as Monday. During my morning jog, people were starting to head to work as if it were Monday. If yesterday felt sort of melancholy in that only-on-a-Sunday way, today the world felt resigned to the weekdays ahead, just like on Mondays.

The real Wednesday, not the
one I keep thinking Tuesday is.
I almost missed a fun night out because of my confusion. You see, today, Sunday, someone invited me to Lima Lima, a Monday night party here in Tel Aviv, one that I went to two weeks ago and enjoyed immensely. "Ah, that's too bad," I muttered to myself, instinctively thinking tonight was Lima Lima night, because, you know, I thought it was Monday afternoon at the time. Unfortunately, I have a Skype interview at 7am tomorrow morning, which means tonight my bed time will fall even earlier than usual. I can't turn on the camera on my laptop with big bags under my eyes.

Had I thought things out completely, I would have remembered that my Skype interview was on Monday and panicked. I might have mistakenly thought I'd missed my Skype interview because it is scheduled for Monday at 7am, and at what I subconsciously thought was 7am on Monday, I was starting my morning run along the beach. But although I'd been living today as a Monday in my head, I never actually took the time out to name the day in my head.

I'm not sure what snapped me back to reality, but I recovered from my cluelessness before I had a chance to panic or miss a really fun party. Today might function as a Monday here in Tel Aviv, but everybody still calls it Sunday when speaking in English, which means that both my Skype interview and Lima Lima will be tomorrow, the real Monday, which will only feel like Tuesday. Looks like I can fit in both, after all.

Hopefully, I'll get this days-of-the-week thing straight in my head soon. I'm leaving Tel Aviv next Sunday, which, though it'll arrive in the spirit of a Monday, will still be one week from today, a Sunday that only feels like a Monday. I wouldn't want to mix things up in my head and try to go to the airport on Saturday, Shabbat, thinking it's Sunday, the day of my scheduled departure. The airports are closed on Saturday.

But then, I'm not leaving Tel Aviv by plane but rather, by bus, to Jerusalem. Public transportation doesn't run on Shabbat, though, so who knows how I'd get there next Saturday, if I was thinking of it as Sunday? So it looks like I won't be going anywhere, even if I mix up my days again.

Thankfully, the other two invitations I've received for the coming week, came with dates (October 16 and 18), not days attached. I've saved the dates, and I shouldn't have any problem keeping them straight. I've always been so much better with numbers than with names.