Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tel Aviv

October 19 Wed

We arrived at 4:30 in the morning. When we deplaned, we saw an Israeli attendant standing by the plane's door. I saw a pair of empty wheelchairs behind her, but she told us very sharply that they were not for us. She told us we had to walk a distance down a hallway where we would find another attendant who would deal with us. Around several corners we came to the beginning of a long concourse, where other disabled passengers were getting into a golf cart. There was no room for us and the golf cart drove off leaving us behind. This is where and when we lost our cool. Not one single airport among all of those we'd passed through as we circumnavigated the planet greeted us with the inconsideration we were met with here in our home country. Welcome home world travelers! Some welcome! We had been met with deference and civility and special consideration everywhere else. But this is Israel.

Our rough Israeli edginess had been smoothed over by everyone else's pleasantness everywhere else in the world. It was time for us to adopt that edginess all over again, now that we were back. The thought crossed my mind that it was a mistake to have missed Israel so much. We expressed our pique to the next attendant we saw, who called on her walkie-talkie for another golf-cart and apologized for the rude reception we'd received, but our smoldering thoughts were not doused by her words. Shortly thereafter, another golf-cart rolled up and we were conveyed with an electric purr to where everyone else had gathered for passport control. Here, an attendant standing beside a wheelchair helped Razelle off the golf-cart and helped her get comfortable in the wheelchair. We, as entering citizens, were beckoned forward by the woman in the glass booth when she saw Razelle in the wheelchair, so we didn't even get to or need to use our magnetic cards in the palm reader that we had acquired on our way out of this same airport 121 days ago at the beginning of our Odyssey. Onward we rolled to baggage claim where, without any problems, every single one of our four bags came to us on the conveyer belt. Our bags had circled the world and returned to their starting point, too, a slight bit scuffed compared to their pristine condition at the outset, but without any damage to them, for all the gorillas who'd stacked them in the bellies of all the planes they'd been shoveled into and out of.

All that remained to truly complete our journey now was to get back to Beer Sheva from the airport. Shalev was waiting for us in the arrivals hall. He had been given leave from the army to come after us. We embraced and smiles broadened all our faces. Shalev led us to where he'd parked the car. The first thing I noticed was how dusty it was. I had forgotten how dusty the air is where we live in the Negev Desert. Shalev asked if I wanted to drive, but I let him do that. I wanted him to know we trusted him and I sensed he was pleased to show he could be responsible. We reached home as dawn broke and herded all our bags into the elevator and up to our apartment. Time to decompress!

Four month's worth of traveling led us to where we had started. It was odd to be in our home after so long a time away. We had adjusted to calling each and every temporary accommodation all along our route "home." But these walls around us now embraced us and welcomed us back. Unpacking would wait until we had decompressed. Stories of our travels jumbled together in the telling. Mail had accumulated. The house looked well maintained. An infestation of moths had afflicted our stored food and needed attention while we were gone. The smell of bug spray still lingered in the cabinet. There was very little food in the house. We'd have to stock up again. We had some laundry to do. But we welcomed all these with good cheer. Be it ever so humble there's no place like home … Home Sweet Home.

Did this experience change us? Yes. Inwardly we knew we had accomplished something monumental. No. We were back where we had started. One thing did change worth mentioning. Razelle said our next trip has to be a caravan trip through England and Scotland. I've always had the travel bug. Now Razelle had caught it too. That made my day. In fact, it made everything worth the effort.

London to Tel Aviv

October 18 Tue

Waking in our hotel room and turning on the TV, we saw Gilad Shalit himself being interviewed on Egyptian Television by a Palestinian Reporter. It was painful to watch. He looked weak and out of breath, but intact – something we were never sure of until now. He had the presence of mind to tactfully and diplomatically answer the politically freighted questions the reporter asked him – one last bit of torment before letting him go. The price for his release was steep (as was the price of his captivity).

Razelle still expressed no interest in seeing the sights of London and I was again mindful of the problem we were going to face hauling all our round-the-worldly possessions up to and through check-in one last glorious time. As carefully and calculatingly as I had packed each hefty or feather-weighted item into each bag in New York, here in London we had opened and used some of those items and getting them back into the proper bag in the proper position in that bag was more on my mind that the streets of London. I had no way of weighing the bags here, so everything was based on my best guesstimation, for the present. If it had all fit before, it had to all fit again. It simply had to. We had acquired nothing new here in London.

I sallied forth once more to forage for food. I now knew the way to the Tesco express and I knew what they had to offer. I paid more attention to the features of the landscape this time. Every time I crossed an intersection I saw "Look Right" painted on the pavement. It surprised me that I actually needed this reminder each time. Spending so many weeks in the United States had caused me to unlearn this simple rule of pedestrian survival. Every so often a big red double-decker bus came up behind me and surprised me as it whooshed by because it was on the opposite side of the street from what I subconsciously expected. Today's weather was a carbon-copy of yesterday's. I began to suspect that Razelle was right about the sameness of London's weather. At the Tesco express I bought the same food I'd bought yesterday: tuna-and-cucumber sandwiches and chocolate and strawberry milkshakes. I used as many of my "shrapnel" coins to pay for it as I could, but I still received more shrapnel in change anyway. Beyond saying, "Thank you" I had no need to speak and betray my origins, but the cashier's reply of "Your welcome" betrayed his Indian sub-continental roots. I walked further down Bath Street to a large traffic circle and watched cars circling it clock-wise (which again seemed unnatural to my addled mind's eye) then returned part of the way to the hotel on the opposite side of the street (for a change of scenery). The empty expanses behind chain-link fences on this side were parking lots for discarded soft-drink cans. Several hotels more prestigious than ours were also located on that side of the street. Almost no one was out walking. Of the very few who were, one or two of those who passed me looked familiar from our hotel lobby. Apparently, I wasn't the only food forager among its guests. Crossing back to the residential side of the street I saw the double-decker buses approaching this time. I had a faint urge to just get on one and ride it as far into London as it would take me. The diagrams on the Plexiglas bus shelters indicated that enticing districts lay ahead waiting to be explored, but the urge was too faint to act upon it, so I kept walking.

Back at the room we ate our food. Razelle didn't want the milkshakes so I drank the strawberry one and saved the chocolate one for later.

The boredom was getting to me. Our flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 22:30, but getting to the airport 3 hours before that seemed to be academic. Getting there even earlier made more sense to me. Leaving the hotel this soon didn't make sense to Razelle, but my nervousness convinced her to get her things together and help me convey it all down in the elevator in several trips. The next airport shuttle was not due for about 25 minutes, but I needed to be standing at the curb or it would just pass by. We checked out without using our room the second night and the desk clerk was surprised. Had we found fault with our accommodations? Were we leaving due to something they could rectify? None of the above; we simply had a flight to catch. It was too complicated to explain to the clerk so we left him flummoxed.

I stood out in the cold with all our bags stacked beside me and looked up the street for the shuttle as my breath condense before me in the cold evening air. Razelle waited just inside next to the vending machines. When the shuttle finally arrived we piled in with our bags and sat near the front and started a conversation with the driver. I tried to place his accent. We hadn't heard one like it yet since arriving in London. All I could guess was that it was from an English-speaking country somewhere in the world. I told him I guessed he was from Australia or maybe South Africa. He acted as though I had insulted him. He said he was a genuine Brit from birth, thank you very much, and he'd never lived anywhere else nor had he ever wanted to. We had been in London a day and a half and he was the first native-born English speaker we had heard in all that time (that we knew of). He did aspire to traveling soon though, with the Missus, after he retired. We gave him one of our Gold Jerusalem Hamsa refrigerator magnets and a nice tip as well for his pleasantries (and to jettison some more of our "shrapnel"). Of the original 100 Hamsa magnets we started out with four months ago, we have handed out more than 80, counting that one.

Into the airport we went. The last hurdle remained to be crossed and we would be truly homeward bound. I approached an idle check-in clerk and asked him, "If our bags were a kilo-or-three over the limit would that really matter?" He answered, "British Airways very strictly enforces all its regulations." He pointed to an area where several people were already busy with their baggage. There were tables and scales available there for opening and weighing luggage. I took Razelle and all our stuff over there and weighed each item. Their aggregate weight was over the limit, not by very much, but still over. Beads of sweat formed on my brow as I tackled this logistics puzzle head-on. Books out of one bag, shirts transferred to it, one less coat in one bag and worn instead, lighter shoes traded bags with heavier shoes, our carry-on bags stuffed even fuller. After perhaps twenty minutes of this (while Razelle remained discretely silent, but intensely attentive) I had every single bag weighing exactly 100 grams below the regulation limits and each bag weighing exactly the same weight as the next. And our carry-on bags accommodated the surplus weight without becoming over-sized. Around me were fellow travelers struggling with the same challenge. Some came with taped up heavy cardboard boxes for destinations in darkest British Africa. They had no chance of ever making their stuff comply. It was sad watching them. They hadn't a clue until they had reached the airport that they would face this problem. In the end, they actually left items behind.

We went over to our own check-in clerk for our British Airways flight to Tel Aviv when that counter opened. I told the clerk what we were told to say after our encounter in New York with an uninformed clerk there. I set each item on the scale. Each item still weighed exactly the same as the next, but their weights were actually 200 grams below the limit instead of only 100 grams. Sneaky airport scales! The bags were accepted, duly tagged and whisked away behind a wall and out of sight. The next time we would see them, we'd be in a Hebrew-speaking country.

A nervous man of slight build arrived with a wheelchair and took charge of ushering us through passport control and boarding-pass inspection. We reached a station beyond which I could not carry liquids. I still hadn't drunk my chocolate milkshake. Too bad! I left it beside the turbine-wearing ethnic Sikh inspector and passed through the metal detector. After I did he went off shift and left his station. I said to our wheelchair pusher that no one would notice if I just took back my milkshake in that case. I was joking. (Good thing he had a sense of humor.) He allowed us to explore the duty-free shops on our own rather than take Razelle directly to the boarding gate. Razelle found food that appealed to her but after we purchased it we still had some heavy metal "shrapnel" coins to try and get rid of. I wheeled Razelle to the boarding gate and looked for one last something to spend them on. 

A bookstore had the kind of books Razelle has been devouring throughout our trip. I found something she'd appreciate and took its picture with my cell phone and returned to Razelle to see if I should get it: "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." That suited her and it was the last thing we purchased on our entire trip around the world. 

When our flight was called, Razelle in her wheelchair and I were the first passengers allowed through the boarding gate. But until someone came to us to push her to the plane we had to wait and watch many of the other passengers pass through and walk down the ramp. Several passengers really were stopped for having one too many carry-on bags or ones that were too large in size. The guy downstairs wasn't joking about how strict British Airways was. We had run the gauntlet without antagonizing the airlines; others weren't so lucky. Finally we were wheeled to the door of our plane and we found our seats and stowed our hefty (but not too hefty) carry-on bags. We buckled up and prepared for our last flight. Five hours in the air and we would reach our point of departure and our round-the-world experiences would be one for the books.


October 17 Mon

Our overnight flight brought us to London on the morning of October 17th. We were met at the plane by a wheelchair, pushed by a man who was obviously of non-native ethnicity. He expedited our entry into England and patiently waited while we claimed and stacked our luggage and changed some of our money into British Pounds. We had made it this far with all our stuff and hoped to just identify our luggage and leave it at the airport to wait for our connecting flight. But alas, here is where my lack of experience caught up with me. Because we would be flying out of London more than 24 hours later, we couldn't leave our bags. We had to take them to our hotel and come back with them when we were ready to fly again. Our wheelchair attendant then took us to the spot where the shuttle to our hotel would stop to collect us, and left us. The shuttle driver who stopped for us was very muscular and wrestled most of our bags into the shuttle. We rode the shuttle all the way around the perimeter of Heathrow Airport on the opposite side of the road from the one I had been driving on in America for so long that it looked odd to me again, even though it shouldn't have, considering how much driving I had done in Australia so many months ago. We and our bags were dropped off at the curb in front of the Hotel Ibis, the accommodations I had arranged for while we were still in Atlanta. Razelle watched over them while I went looking for a cart. A lot of business-types were checking in at the same time, so carts were scarce.

We checked in for two nights, even though we planned to only be there one night.
It cost us less to pay for the extra unused night than it would have cost to keep our room extra hours past check-out time after the first night (for which they would have charged us an hourly rate). Our flight home – the last flight of this epic journey – is scheduled to leave late tomorrow. The elevator was in great demand, so Razelle sat in the lobby with some of our bags while I herded the others into the elevator. I found our room, opened it and saw that it was a bit cramped for space. The window was partly open and I struggled with its hard-to-work mechanism until I managed to get it closed against the chill London air. The view from our room was of planes coming in for a landing on Heathrow's tarmac against a backdrop of London's leaden sky.

Razelle come up with me as I brought up the last of our bags, and switched on our television. Most of our channels were an array of more BBC channels than I even knew existed. There was also Sky News. We were immediately transfixed by the latest news that greeted our eyes and ears. After so many years without knowing the true fate of Gilad Shalit, here he was: the subject of breaking news on Sky and BBC broadcasts. Gilad Shalit had been captured in June 2006 by tunneling Palestinians in a cross-border raid from Gaza and then hauled back through the same tunnel and hidden beyond rescue.  In the years that have ensued, there have been public campaigns, secret negotiations, bumper stickers and websites dedicated to securing his release, not to mention the shedding of blood and loss of property on both their side and ours. There have been national debates and hand-wringing over what price is too high (or whether there is such a thing a too high a price) to pay to have this bespectacled slip of a boy back with his family. And of all things, our last full day abroad, here we see that Gilad Shalit will make it home ahead of us, in exchange for over a thousand prisoners that Israel will be releasing (half now and half later). We had to be in Europe to be able to see this kind of intense news coverage. It reminded us of how little exposure we had had of Israeli news during our sojourn in America, and served to prepare us for re-immersion into the intense life we lead in the Israel that we are about to return to.

Here we are in London, with a day and a half intentionally budgeted into our trip by me for a window of opportunity to see something of London's landmarks and instead we are watching television in our cramped hotel room. Razelle had finally reached the point where leaving the cozy confines of our hotel room had no more appeal than the sunless London sky outside our window. We did venture forth to see what fare the dining hall had to offer for the mid-day meal. I ordered fish and chips. How could I not order this while here in London? The prices were a bit much, but the food was good. Our waitress was another non-native individual. And I thought I had an accent (American English, don't cha know)! Our waitress's accent was exotic enough that I didn't understand her at first (not veddy Brittish at all!).

Razelle and I went back to the room, but I was getting more restless as the hours passed. I had only been to London once before, and that was for a mere 4 hours on my way to immigrating to Israel in 1978. As it so happens, that was on the 19th of October of that year. The weather then was precisely identical to the weather outside on this October day. Razelle says that that's not so remarkable; it's like this in London most every day. How dreary! She has spent time here in the past and must know from whence she speaks.

Because of the cost of lunch, I decided that I would at least venture forth on foot a reasonable distance from the hotel and see what I could find foraging for food at a grocery store or even at an omnipresent McDonald's (they're everywhere, there everywhere) and secure some food at less expense.

The hotel lobby has a giant interactive map on a central pillar. You can select a category and it will show you where establishments of that type are found. I waited very patiently while an oriental guest of the hotel played and played and played with the options. I couldn't believe how inconsiderate he seemed. I had nothing more urgent to do than study this person, so I did. Eventually he became aware of someone staring at the back of his head and with great embarrassment he left the map to me.

Sure enough, there was a McDonald's restaurant within walking distance. I set out to explore the neighborhood. Something about the opposite flow of traffic and the overcast sky got me confused about which way I was going. After walking a block I returned to the hotel and the map to try again to set out in my intended direction. I followed the road that separated the Hotel Ibis and Heathrow Airport (Bath Road) for about a kilometer. As I walked a saw plane after plane come down out of the pewter-grey sky a few minutes apart and noted their tail insignias. Most of the air traffic I saw coming into Heathrow had British Airways markings. The constant wind had a chilling bite to it that made my eyes water. The homes built almost at the sidewalk's edge along Bath Road had planters with forlorn-looking flowering plants in them that weren't too cheery this time of year. I crossed a slow-flowing creek and saw a pair of mallards turn tail and hide behind the foliage at the water's edge. A small plaque on the short stone bridge that conveyed traffic across this creek announced that it had been erected in 1776. That date made me pause in my tracks and marvel at its coincidental significance to me. I came to a small commercial center that had small ethnic food stores and restaurants, and a gathering of kids in school uniforms that were loitering in knots before heading for home after school, which apparently had just been let out. They all looked non-native to me as well (I couldn't guess whether from the Indian sub-continent or from the West Indies, or perhaps from the Middle East). I entered a small grocery store, called Tesco express. I studied the items they had for sale and decided to get some ready-made tuna-and-cucumber sandwiches for Razelle and some chocolate milkshakes and strawberry milkshakes for both of us. I knew that the McDonald's was somewhere farther ahead but I gave up trying to reach it now that I had food. I did however make a mental note of the Kebab Centre and the Domino's Pizza I had passed. I paid for my purchase with the paper Pound Notes I had gotten at the airport and was rewarded with heavy coins in change. Now I know why Australian money is so heavy and clunky. They have the same "shrapnel" there as Mother England has here.

Razelle had no enthusiasm or interest in salvaging what was left of the day to see something – anything – of London, so we stayed put while Razelle ate her sandwiches and I drank the milkshakes. 

New York to London

October 16 Sun

Today I awoke with excitement and anxiety at the onus of moving along to another continent by air travel. The day of a flight I cannot help but dwell on the fact that everything has to work out time-wise or unpleasant consequences may ensue that I don't even want to contemplate. I was now of a mindset to leave, but there was still half a day's worth of hours to live through before flight time.

Razelle had scheduled one more family-member's visit at Monte and Mindy's. Her first-cousin Nicki lives in Manhattan and was scheduled to arrive at noon. She needed to be picked up at the Baldwin train station, so Monte went after her at the appointed time, and Mindy also left to buy cold cuts for a deli-style lunch in the house. Razelle and Nicki had much to talk about and I was left to my mental checklists and last-minute re-thinking of how to better pack all our luggage than I already had before – in fact, several times before. I interacted with everyone present, somewhat, but my mind was elsewhere. We had reached critical mass with all we had amassed on our journey, and I was more aware of this than anyone else seemed to be.

After photo ops with everyone taking turns being in the shots or taking the shots (Nicki's camera took that momentous occasion to misbehave and not capture the moment) it was time to say good bye to her; Nicki was the last in a long series of relatives Razelle and I had managed to spend quality time with all over this continent. Monte took her back to the station to meet her 6:30 PM train, and when he returned I was ready to pack our bags into his car. 

Even though our flight was scheduled for 9:55 PM I was too antsy to loiter any longer. There were too many unobliging variables to contend with for me to be comfortable waiting any longer. This was it; time for one last set of hugs and good-byes with Mindy. Monte and I struggled with the configuration of the bags in his trunk and finally ended up putting some of them in his back seat; not a reassuring thing at all. As Monte drove us to JFK he gave us an earful about his less-than-pleasant experiences with Israelis, the very people we were imminently poised to return to after some four months separation from them. We pulled up to the curb at the British Airways departure doors and found two luggage carts for all our stuff. One more set of hugs with Monte and we turned, pushing our belongings through the terminal's doors and switched mentally to "airport mode."

The woman at check-in announced that we would have to pay extra for two of our fours pieces of luggage. I firmly held my ground and told her she was misinformed AND mistaken. This went on for a few moments until a supervisor appeared. She had overheard the dispute from a distance and approached the clerk. She informed the clerk that we, as round-the-world ticket holders, were correct in insisting that we were in fact entitled to two pieces of luggage each. The supervisor helped us further by making sure that our luggage would be approved at the next and final leg of our journey so this argument wouldn't happen again. (Our bags didn't all weigh what they should but they were close enough). To further ameliorate the unpleasantness we had just experienced she upgraded our tickets on this flight to London to first class! We gave her one of our Jerusalem refrigerator magnets as a token of our gratitude (to learn that she was Jewish and intended to visit Israel soon herself). After all our concerns about getting this far, everything turned out for the best. We flew to London in the lap of luxury. So this is what it feels like to be in peerage instead of steerage.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

New York day 3

October 15

This is our last full day in the USA. Hard to believe that tomorrow we fly again after being such terrestrial creatures (albeit wheeled ones) for so many days and months now. It's been so long since we've been in an airport; such a distant memory.

It is Saturday and we have always made it a point to get to a synagogue whenever possible for Shabbat morning services. The fact that we chose not to go today testifies to the tension I was under by now to get the packing resolved before the Baldwin, NY Post Office closed today at 2:30 PM. I had to resolve the packing issue by that deadline or it became someone else's burden – and I didn't want to place that burden on anyone else. When I awoke this morning, I still didn't know if the remaining items Razelle and I had decided would be accompanying us back home would cause us to exceed the weight limit. I dug a bathroom scale out of its storage space in Monte and Mindy's home and weighed myself, then stood on the scale again holding each of the items of luggage in turn and calculated their weights. Some were grossly over the limit, some were happily well under the limit. The problem was that we had three semi-hard boxy back-pack-type bags, and one completely soft duffle-like bag. Fragile items had to go into the bottoms of the boxy back-packs. Larger flat pieces that wouldn't fit into the deformable duffle-bag also had to go into the back-packs. These items tended to be heavier, leaving me the light soft items to fill the duffle, but not sharing the weight distribution evenly among them because of this.

Ilyssa watched me stepping on and off the bathroom scale several times and announced she had a better device – a hand-held spring-loaded scale that hooked into the bag's handle; as the bag is pulled up off the floor, its weight can be read. Doing the math after using this device, I saw that the combined gross weight of all four bags came to just a bit less than the airline's limit. It would require creative thinking and artful packing (and packing is a fine art, believe me) to balance it all out. I applied this fine art as I transferred items from bag to bag to bag to bag until the weight was evenly distributed, eventually, to my ultimate satisfaction – and relief.

Then Razelle brought me some more items that hadn't been accounted for earlier and the process began again. We had some maneuverability with the carry on bags: these had weight limits we didn't see ourselves even reaching, and size limits we already knew we wouldn't exceed. Every item Razelle brought me just bumped something out of the bags and into the carry on – until that ceased to be practical. Still, I was convinced before noon that we were "good to go" to the airport tomorrow without needing to pack any cardboard boxes and mailing them or paying extra at the plane for them.

Now that that was off my mind, I had time to interact with Monte. He had purchased an articulating ladder and he needed help mounting it on the inside of his garage wall. It took the two of us to do this efficiently and I was happy to be part of this project. Afterward, when we went out to the back yard, we discovered that the Sukkah Monte had erected had been damaged by yesterday's storm. Its metal structure had suffered damage and would need to be repaired; so, together, we collapsed it entirely and stored it away.

Razelle had souvenirs of Israel she had promised to send to Joan in Connecticut – laminated placemats depicting the Mona Lisa of Galilee (a mosaic-tiled floor in the ruins of ancient Tzipori). Monte gave me the keys to his car and I drove to the Baldwin Post Office to mail the package to Joan from there. Whoa! After driving that van, driving a car again felt strange! I brought the car straight back to Monte after completing my mission and he left in it to keep an appointment.

After yesterday's experience at the restaurant in Manhattan, there was no way I was going take a chance on having that happen again. Already, while we were staying with Mark and Evelyn in New Jersey, my cousins Sherry (Mark's sister) and David had reserved time with us this evening. This was to be another family gathering involving Mark and Evelyn coming up from New Jersey, Monte and Mindy and Razelle and me. Razelle and Mindy and Sherry brainstormed earlier over the phone about just which restaurant we would meet at. It had all been settled by yesterday, but today, when I objected (quaked and panicked at the very thought of it!) the plans were changed. The restaurant was replaced with a pizza party.

We rode with Monte and Mindy to Sherry and David's home in Westbury, Long Island, NY. Mark and Evelyn had arrived ahead of us. It was a wonderful reunion. I haven't seen Sherry and David in about a dozen years and that was at a bar- or bat-mitzvah where we hardly had time to really talk. This was a very pleasant reunion of first cousins around a kitchen bar and dining-room table over pizza and pretzels and nuts and fruit and soft drinks. It was quiet and conducive to conversation. I learned that David had had a long career as a dentist, so naturally my saga of the tooth that had plagued me during the trip was a topic of discussion between us. Monte and Mark talked about paranormal phenomena, and Sherry related to Razelle what I had been like as a small child. Mark and Evelyn have traveled extensively all over the country and the world, so Evelyn and I had many travel experiences to compare.

I remarked after we took photos of several family groupings that this was the perfect moment to call cousin Belle Fields in Columbia, SC. Bell is 98 years old and we had stayed overnight in her home on our way north from Florida. Belle has been the family chronologer and repository of family memories and publisher of the Serbin Splatter newsletter for as long as I have cognizance of such things. Belle spoke to each of us in that room in turn. This important moment seemed to me to be the culmination of all the travels Razelle and I had done throughout America. During the time we had available, we had packed in as many visits with as many of Razelle's and my relatives as we could. And Belle was our witness to this. She promised to write something about this in the next edition of the Serbin Splatter. Now I look forward to seeing how she parses it.

We all parted shortly after that. Mark and Evelyn had a distance to drive to get back home to New Jersey. We didn't have far to drive, but it seemed to be a good moment to leave also. Back at Monte and Mindy's I looked at the bags assembled as they were in the "staging area" near the door to the garage. I hoped I hadn't overlooked something. It was a little hard to digest the fact that, except for the flights into and out of London, we were, in essence, truly on the threshold of successfully circumnavigating the globe. I took that thought to bed with me in anticipation of tomorrow.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

New York day 2 and New Jersey

October 14 Fri

I awoke ahead of everyone else in the house this morning. This is the day we've anticipated for the past 10 and half weeks. This is the day we part with the van. Originally, Monte was going to follow me in his car to North Middletown, New Jersey and after the van-returning process was complete, drive me back. But Monte really couldn't afford the time away from his business this would involve today, and I didn't mind at all. Adventures on Wheels advertises on their website that they provide free shuttle service to the airport, so I figured I could get that close from New Jersey on my own without a problem and call Monte from there to see where he was by then in the scheme of things.

It felt odd driving the van all alone without Razelle by my side and without a single item of our possessions in it, except for the GPS mounted in front of me and my small backpack on the seat beside me. I had a supply of dimes and quarters in the driver's door to cover the tolls in New Jersey and bills in my billfold to pay for the Verrazano Bridge crossing. I monitored the odometer as I drove from the Sunrise Highway to the Belt Parkway to the Verrazano Bridge and across Staten Island to the Garden State Parkway. As my GPS counted down the miles and my odometer counted them up I could see that I would reach my destination without the compulsory 5000-mile oil change being an issue. I would have about 120 miles leeway since the oil change in Columbia, Missouri. As I slowly moved along, accompanied by so very many other New York drivers this morning during rush hour as we threaded our way past a "serendipitous" stretch of highway construction, I switched on the radio for company. I came across an intriguingly annoying but captivating voice that stopped me from scanning the radio any further. So this is what "Imus in the Morning" sounds like! It was my first exposure to his show (and served to advance my understanding of the local culture one more notch). Imus and company kept me company all the way into New Jersey. I had occasion to use the wipers intermittently while doing all this.

Three miles from my destination I pulled into a Quick Chek gas station. It had a bathroom, and a coffee shop. I needed both and I had time for both. This was where I filled the van's tank with gasoline for the very last time. I brought the receipt with me to the drop-off location, as stipulated, to show that the tank had been filled within 10 miles of their establishment. There was a homeless woman loitering here with a cardboard sign and I appreciated that she didn't approach me.

I pulled into the "Road Bear" lot. I now understand that Road Bear is the name of the entire network and "Adventures on Wheels" is what Road Bear offers. Finally, that distinction has been cleared up. I walked into the office and was greeted cheerfully. I handed over the paperwork. They were expecting me by 10:30 AM and I had navigated all that traffic and arrived with plenty of time to spare. The significance of 10:30 AM – that's the hour of day I picked up the van in Agoura Hills, CA, 74 days and 13,600 miles ago, and that’s when they wanted it back. The receptionist seemed to be the person who took my frantic calls when I was still in California and the van was not behaving well. She was pleasantly surprised to meet me! She said a long time had passed since we last spoke and she wondered whatever had become of me and the van; and then, here I was and here the van was. I related some of our adventures and told her that in fact it was all on the Internet in the blog I was keeping. She asked for the URL for the blog and for a moment I hesitated. I tried to recall if I had written anything in it that would actually dissuade potential customers from renting it. I was quite unhappy with it at the very beginning and only learned to like the van and rely on it with the passage of time. I certainly looked after it as if it had been my own property and had returned it in the same condition I received it; no, actually in better condition, considering all the work that was done in Hayward, CA by their mechanic there. After a few second's pause, I gave her the URL and helped her with the spelling and punctuation so that anyone curious about our "adventure on wheels" could find it and read all about it.

The local mechanic came back with his inspection report: all was in order. She told me that within a few days I would find my bank account credited with the amount of my initial deposit and the cost of the oil change in Columbia, MO, based on the invoice I handed her. I was done here. That was that. Now "van-less", I asked to be taken to the airport so I could return to my brother's home near JFK. The free shuttle they advertised wasn't available at that hour, though. It was scheduled to go to Newark Airport several hours later to pick up a customer, but JFK was never an intended destination. Oh, I didn't know that! I asked if I could at least get a ride to the nearest train station. That they gladly did for me, and I was driven to the Middletown, NJ Transit Station. I paid for a ticket to Penn Station in Manhattan and the train soon arrived. I kept track of my location using my GPS in the train, even though it got confused often because it wasn't set up to follow railroad tracks.

At South Amboy, NJ, a group of 6 nerdy guys in weird black outfits and makeup carrying makeshift costume weapons got on. They didn't accost any of the other passengers, but they were rowdy and loud – and shockingly foul-mouthed. I overheard them talking about riding the train into Manhattan for a Comic Con Convention. The other passengers were mildly annoyed by their behavior, but said nothing about it to them. Even the ticket inspector let them carry on (he was only annoyed with them for moving from the seats they first sat in to a different set of seats without moving their ticket stubs as they did so – this is how he knew who paid for which segment of the train line). So, I took my cue from the other passengers and silently disapproved of their crudeness and inconsideration, and held my tongue all the way to the last stop at Penn Station, NY.

There is a lot to see in New York City. I called Razelle from Penn Station to see if she and Monte and Mindy wanted to meet me in "the City" since I was already there and do some of the sightseeing Razelle and Mindy had talked about earlier. Razelle said they weren't ready for that and I should continue traveling on the Long Island Rail Road to the Baldwin Station and then call to be picked up when I got there. I was very pleased with myself when I finally did alight at that station. I had independently traveled the entire distance back to my starting point of the morning by public transportation. It hadn't cost much either (less than any other alternate method of travel would have cost).

I decided to walk the last mile from the Baldwin Station to Monte's. This gave me the chance to stop at the Post Office along the way and check when it's open. The sign on the door showed that there is still a window of opportunity tomorrow for sending a parcel of our possessions to Beer Sheva if we can't get them all to fit within the weight limits the airlines have set.

Razelle said that one of her "bucket list" items for this trip was to ride in a horse-drawn carriage through Central Park. I fully expected we would be leaving Monte and Mindy's in time for Razelle to have this dream fulfilled. But she lost her enthusiasm for it when the weather reports said that stormy and possibly destructive weather was headed that way. By the time we did all leave together for Manhattan in Monte's car, dark threatening clouds hung ominously low ahead of us over the Manhattan skyline. The heavy showers they produced were brief, but convincing enough to justify leaving this item on Razelle's bucket list for a future visit.

We crossed into Manhattan on the Queensboro Bridge and Razelle pointed out the landmark smokestacks that can be seen in so many motion pictures filmed from this approach. This was a seminal moment for Razelle. During our entire journey across America, it was the signs announcing the direction to "New York" that had been her guiding compass. For the first time on this trip Razelle was finally in New York, New York. She was thrilled.

Between Monte's GPS and mine, finding a parking garage near the Fig and Olive restaurant should have been a simple thing, but neither of us could find one with our navigational devices. The parking garage we did eventually find simply came into view on its own. It was on 50th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, several blocks from our restaurant on 52nd Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. We walked this distance and stood before the Fig and Olive to wait for Barry and Brenda's arrival. Razelle, Monte and Mindy chose to stand under an awning in a dark spot in front of a cultural center displaying a sculpture of dismembered-anatomy that I found disturbing. I crossed the street to a brightly-lit bridal-dress store instead and stood alone. It was so much cheerier there.

Presently Barry and Brenda came into view and we all went into the Fig and Olive. We were met at the door and escorted up a set of stairs to a table reserved for us. We were handed menus and we began to study them. Shortly after we were seated Ilyssa and Mike also arrived and joined us at our table.

While we were reading the menus the ceiling lights were suddenly dimmed. Razelle and I exchanged glances. She knows I am not comfortable eating in a restaurant when I can't see my food. The place filled up quickly with patrons, who began to converse among themselves very loudly. I couldn't hear my own voice while speaking across the table to others in our party and I could hardly hear them either. I had something to share with Barry, but trying to explain it was hard to do. I wanted to give Barry a chance to read Phil Markowicz's book, which Phil had sign for me personally. At least Barry and I had spoken of it while Razelle and I were with them in Florida, so Barry recognized the book with no explanation needed as I handed it to him.

The place was rather pricy, but this is Manhattan after all. In light of that, I made a point to order a few of the least expensive entrees on the menu. I ordered a dish of assorted olives, a glass of inexpensive full-bodied red wine and a plate of creamed pasta with black mushrooms and scallions (this seemed more Italian than Greek, but that didn't bother me; it sounded like the meal I'd had in Canberra that I liked so much and wanted to try again). Razelle also ordered simple inexpensive items to keep the cost of our meals within a reasonable range. As our waiter took our orders, Razelle requested that he calculate our check separately. She insisted this was what she wanted, but he said he couldn't do that. Brenda said we could work this out later and the waiter went off to the kitchen.

The din grew worse, the crowd of patrons grew denser and the food took forever to arrive. Waiters bumped into us as they passed our table and argued among themselves over who ordered what among the various tables of patrons they were serving. I grew hoarse trying to be heard and eventually gave up trying to talk at all. After a ridiculously long wait our food finally arrived. I was extremely disappointed. Considering how long we had waited, I couldn't understand why my pasta noodles were so badly undercooked. The sauce was OK, but the scallions were too plentiful and too sharp to allow the mushrooms to be enjoyed. I drained my glass of wine but only ate half the pasta dish. I passed around my olives and they were eaten by others at the table and only a few were left when the bowl was returned to me. I could take no more of this place and got up from the table to take a walk in the fresh air outside.

Like a moth seeking light in the dark, across the street I saw a brightly lit passageway leading through the building before me. I went straight there, then continued through the passageway onto 53rd Street. Before me I saw a small cluster of delicate trees in a food court. Even in the darkness of night these trees served to lighten my disposition. I turned left. At the corner I found myself awestruck by the incongruity of a large gray gothic cathedral set among modern glitzy towers of glass and steel. I crossed the street to read the sign: St. Thomas Church. What an amazing discovery for me to find this here. I turned left again onto 5th Avenue and came to a pair of large department stores. One was a Hollister clothing store. I remember seeing someone in Hawaii with a shopping bag that bore this brand name; now, finally, I understood what the name represented. The other was a Zara department store. In front of it an obese, bearded and unwashed man was protesting the affluence this store represented and claiming it only sold clothing to an elite segment of society. Perhaps this character had wandered up here from among the protesters on Wall Street who were making news at this time. Passers-by didn't even engage him in argument. He seemed to need psychiatric assistance. As I prepared to turn left again at the next corner onto 52nd Street I noticed another cathedral one more block ahead on 51st Street. I walked closer to get a better look and saw that it had scaffolding around its base. It was being restored. It's spires pointed way, way up toward the firmament above Manhattan, but still they were out-competed by the towers of commerce on the surrounding streets. This short tour outside the restaurant took no more than fifteen minutes, and I was glad I had seen a little of the "color" of Manhattan this night. I was loathe to return to the restaurant, but knew I had no choice. I mounted the stairs and rejoined the family around the table.

Shortly after I sat down the bill was brought to us. It had been equally divided three ways. Our "share" (Razelle's and mine) greatly exceeded the cost of what we'd ordered. I looked at Razelle and she was in shock. This could not be so! We had purposely ordered so little and Razelle had insisted before we ordered that we be billed separately in anticipation of this problem. The atmosphere at the table took on an uncomfortable pall. It was embarrassing to be disputing this here.

Never during our entire trip had I ever felt so trapped by circumstances. This moment, without a doubt, was the lowest point of the entire trip for me. Barry saw our distress and after doing the math gave Razelle back some of the money she felt we should not have paid. That also made me uncomfortable, because now Barry was bearing the cost of this. There was no gracious way to repair the atmosphere. What a mess.

We parted at the entrance to the restaurant. Barry and Brenda headed back to their Hotel in preparation for tomorrow's cruise. Ilyssa and Mike went in a direction of their own, and Razelle, Monte, Mindy and I returned to the parking garage. The time we had spent in that restaurant was so protracted that the parking bill had ballooned. Razelle covered the parking bill for Monte. It was the least we could do to try and repair the evening.

Back at Monte and Mindy's I continued to feel bad that this evening had ended this way. That feeling stayed with me until I fell asleep.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

New York day 1

October 13

Sukkot I

We awoke this morning in the quiet coziness of our quarters in Monte and Mindy's basement, surrounded by our round-the-worldly possessions. Some semblance of order among them was taking shape, but much thought will still be needed before it is all reduced to what will fit into our luggage and what will stay behind and what (if necessary) will be packed into another parcel or parcels and shipped ahead (or by now behind, because if we send it/them from here it/they will arrive in Beer Sheva after we are scheduled to conclude this epic journey).

We went upstairs when we heard human activity above us (hearing Missy the family beagle's padding feet earlier didn't have the same significance). More piles of our possessions cascaded from where we had heaped them beside the dining-room wall, and another cluster of boxes and bulky items occupied a space in the front hall "staging area" nearest the garage where they will leave this place when we do in three days. I opened the refrigerator door and rummaged through the items we had taken out of our van's little refrigerator and had stashed within it. On the kitchen counter were several other consumable items that we hadn't managed to consume by this point. I ate some of these and self-consciously considered how it must seem to our hosts to have our stuff intruding upon their living spaces.

Mindy joined us for a light breakfast; then we rode in her car to Sukkot morning services at the Beth Shalom/Oceanside Jewish Center. This is the last in the series of conservative congregations we will visit during our round-the-world sampling of Jewish houses of worship. The weather we drove through was overcast but a half-hearted drizzle added a subdued sparkle to all it landed upon.

There were several lulavim and etrogim on a table at the back of the sanctuary. I received a nod of approval to take a set from someone watching me eyeing them so I selected one of each and joined Mindy and Razelle already in their seats. As the point in the service arrived when these are prayed over and shaken in six directions, the Rabbi climbed to his podium and warmly gave the clearest and most cleverly insightful explanation I can recall hearing about the proper technique on how to "Shake your Lulav." The enthusiasm of the congregants was infectious. Because we were sitting next to Mindy, someone linked me to Monte and approached to ask if I was his brother. I confirmed this and he offered me the last Aliyah to the Torah. I asked if Razelle could join me in this honor and he was pleased to have us go up jointly. Razelle and I stood before the Torah here and it meant a lot to us to have this honor at the conclusion of our trip across this continent and before our flight to the next.

After services we sat in the huge Sukkah they had built on the lawn beside the parking lot. There was plenty of room for everyone. The only problem was that the folding chair I sat on seemed imminently poised to poke its legs through the drizzle moistened grass the permeable-roofed Sukkah was built over. It was rather cool out in the Sukkah and bunches of concord grapes in bowls on the table seemed to be the perfect choice to pluck and munch on during this holiday season.

Mindy drove us back to her place and we changed out of our synagogue clothes and into casual wear. For me the task at hand was to continue consolidating our stuff. My greatest concern is not whether or not we can fit everything we want to take back home with us into the four bags we are allowed (plus carry on). I am concerned about the weight restrictions. It's not about paying extra for an extra-heavy bag – that's just not allowed by the airlines. It's about having extra boxes that get charged extra baggage fees and balancing these fees against paying the postage rate for sending them. How many extra boxes are we talking about? I had no clue at this point and the task looked overwhelmingly daunting. But that was my department and I was trusted with it while Razelle and Mindy planned how to see Manhattan properly.

Our last days here in the area have been tightly packed with planned visits to and from relatives on both sides of the family. This required some juggling of schedules and logistics to make it happen. Tomorrow I return the van so whatever transpires, transportation will of necessity involve others doing the driving. These visits include meeting Barry and Brenda in Manhattan tomorrow, where they are staying before their cruise of the Canadian Maritimes, and visiting my cousins Sherry and David, who live a short distance away, on Saturday, where we will be joined by Mark and Evelyn who we stayed with in New Jersey on our way up here. The morning of the very day we fly out of Kennedy Airport, Sunday, Razelle's first cousin Nicki will come out to us by train from "the City." Razelle has more cousins very nearby in New Jersey, but because Sukkot lasts two days here in the Diaspora (today and Friday) and is then immediately followed by Shabbat, we aren't able to include visits to them during this trip. They observe these days strictly and traveling to see them wouldn't be acceptable to them (we can't call them either). No amount of juggling the logistics can trump these religious restrictions.

Tomorrow is the day our "Adventure on Wheels" comes to an end. Mindy and Razelle sorted through restaurant options and Monte and I sorted through carpooling options for returning the van. Eventually the restaurant that was settled on, from information on their website and from their proximity to Barry and Brenda's hotel, is a Greek restaurant called "the Fig and Olive" on 52nd Street in Manhattan. Razelle and I have found that the Greek restaurants we have visited during our travels always reminded us of cuisine back home. We are looking forward to eating there tomorrow.

In the meantime, while I had daylight to work with, I went out to the van and went over every inch of it looking for anything we might have left behind. I brushed up all the crumbs and swept the dust out the door that we'd tracked in during 74 days of calling this van our home. I gave Mindy the grand tour of this "Bordello on Wheels" as Razelle likes to call it, with the mood-lights on behind the mirrors in the ceiling. Mindy was duly impressed. She had asked for photos of the interior of this van so she could consider such a cross-country trip with Monte some day. Well, this was her last opportunity to see it for herself, and now she has. Tomorrow it goes back to New Jersey.

This evening we stopped at an ATM machine and topped up our cash supply in case we needed some for unexpected contingencies in the coming days. Then we treated Monte and Mindy to a meal at the Outback. We have found that of all the food chains we have sampled as we've crisscrossed this continent – and we haven't even made a dent in the choices available to American diners – this is the one we have gravitated to most often.

Back at Monte and Mindy's, Razelle and I made some executive decisions about which items we are going to jettison and leave as gifts to Monte and Mindy or as contributions to the community they live in. Then we called it a night. I fell asleep still sifting through our stuff in my dream-fogged mind ….