Wednesday, January 6, 2010

01/05/2010: Leaving Israel...

Woke up late from the wild night of partying, the remaining 6 of us decided to walk to old Jaffo. Arriving at lunchtime, we found ourselves on a quest to locate the elusive Abu Hassan hummus we had heard about during our visit to Tel Aviv over a week ago. There is a Hazan vegetarian restaurant that has hummus one the menu, but while chatting with the pushy host, something didn't seem right.

Me:  Is this Abu Hassan's hummus?
Him:  Yes we have hummus dishes on the menu (points at menu)
Me: Is this Abu Hassan?
Him: This is Hazam, Hassan is my friend
(start walking away)

We eventually found Hassan's in an alley of old Yaffo. It was just past 1pm and he was no longer selling hot dishes, which is perfect because it left us to sample his hummus plates (layers/rings of hummus, hummus mixed with something that seems like a ground baba ganoush, chickpeas, olive oil, and some herbs), fresh pitas, and Israeli black beer (tastes like a cross between root beer and Italian Chinotto). This place was well worth the wait!

Continued roaming around old Yaffo, going through galleries and artisan jewelry shops. One standout was Adina Plastelina, who makes jewelry by taking polymer clay, making a very large size item, smooshing it down by hand, and then baking it in a toaster. When you're done, the earring/necklace/cufflinks/etc have shrunk down to about 10% the original size a la shrinkydinks. All it took was the question "who owns this shop?" to set the owner off on an excited tour of the artifacts discovered during the various renovations of the building, including ancient coins, countless Turkish pipes, and one of Napoleon's cannonballs!

We headed back by way of the Carmel Market, and strolled through the twice-weekly craft fair on Nachalat Benyamin Street. I worked with Art-Goldberg to design a belt from the various art and components available, and it is the most comfortable belt I have ever had, and reasonable priced too.

For our very last outing in Tel Aviv, we had dinner and drinks at The Brewhouse on Rothschild Ave. I have to agree 100% with the manager of Dancing Camel: the food is pretty good but the beer is pretty bad. I tried the Moonshine (dark beer), Quantum (golden beer), and the cherry-vanilla -- I have to say the Quantum had a very nice aftertaste, and the other two were just bad. Although disappointing, it was still a nice experience. Apparently there is not too much of a beer scene in Israel, with the Dancing Camel being a rare gem, and the Brewhouse being slightly better than the mass-produced Maccabee and Goldstar and the strangely omnipresent Carlsberg and Tuborg.

Please follow Olga's continuing adventures on her blog:

01/04/2010: Back in Tel Aviv again

The gates were closed when leaving the kibbutz and we had to wait for somebody else to come along and open it. Luckily somebody was leaving a couple of minutes after us -- otherwise we could've been stuck there all night ;)

On our first day back in Tel Aviv, we were invited to visit Leonid's business partner's offices and see what they are working on. It was neat to meet everyone and see the prototypes that become products assembled by Leonid's firm and then eventually components on airplanes.

Dave: Do you have a city map?
Olga: I have a city map, I just don't know which city.

Olga and I found ourselves not invited to an impromptu business meeting during this tour, which gave us an opportunity to explore downtown Tel Aviv. It didn't take long for us to end up at Max Brenner's Chocolate by the Bald Man, referring to the Israeli choco-restaurateur whose place we frequent whenever in NYC. We shared an affordable fun business lunch with onion soup, an Israeli "market salad", a mango froyo lassie drink, and a petit multi-layered crunchy chocolate moussey dessert.

We all met up at a smoothie place near the hotel with Olga's cousins Sasha and Dasha, then did some people watching and shopping on Dizengoff Street. Most of the stores there shoestores and bookstores, FYI if you find yourself in that part of town in need of good footwear and reading material.

Then back at the hotel for a rest (or in Olga's and Konstantin's case, a quick January dip in the Mediterranean), proceeded to dinner at Rustico restaurant for a reunion with about 12 members of the extended family. Now we have officially had Italian dinner more than all other types combined :) This was really cool meeting a group with such a range of interests and ages. We sat in mostly age order, so throughout the night there was anarchy and silliness to our right -- and discussions of the intricacies of marriage/divorce and secular living in a religious state to our left. And no Italian dinner would be complete without the final Israeli performance by the 3 tenors: Leonid, Phil, and Konstantin.

Mike, Olga, Konstantin, and I cabbed to the Dancing Camel, a microbrewery that is literally in an alley in an industrial area, where we met up with my cousin Ryan and his friend Greg. Despite being well hidden, this is a magical place. The manager Ari went to the same high school as Mike, Ryan, and me -- and graduated with Ryan and me. It was such a huge crazy coincidence that I had to quiz him on the layout of the school, common friends, etc before I could begin to believe it. Their Midnight Stout is very good - by far the best beer we tasted in all of Israel (including bottled Guinness Extra Stout at the sushi restaurant in Caesarea) - and their selection of handcrafted beers is excellent. They also make a 12.5% ABV called Blue Golem that is only served monthly on the full moon. Delish!

Things started to wind down around 1:30, and by this time Olga and Konstantin had turned in for the night and cousin Dasha came out to play. Our last full night in Tel Aviv, we weren't quite ready to give up so easily, so we headed across the street to a sub sandwich and hot dog stand called Soduch. This place is cool and serves the late-night crowd that is partying in this industrial-turned-club area of the city. Even this was not enough, and Ryan, a basketball player with an appetite to match, kidnapped and took us to Dixie Bar, his dad's favorite restaurant possibly in the entire world. They have a good draft beer selection and the pancakes were so fluffy and scrumptious, I think they may have been made from manna itself.

On our way back to the hotel late in the night, passed by Leonid and Konstantin as they were heading out to the airport to head back to Russia. The trip was officially winding down.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

01/03/2010: Time to leave Haifa already

We split up for our final morning in Haifa. Konstantin and Phil visited the Ba'Hai gardens, Mike went haggling in the market, others slept in or blogged. No regrets! We converged back on our rooms, packed up, and slowly made our way to the cars.

Our first port of call was the Carmel Winery in Binyamina. Here we toured the 120-year-old winery and had one of the most fun and interesting wine tours. Learning about the intracies of making Kosher wine in Israel was expecially fascinating. The tasting was great too - we'll be returning to the states with a couple of bottles in tow.

Somehow Karen, Phil, Leonid, Maria, Olga and I got separated from the rest of the group. We couldn't seem to figure out how to leave the winery to go across the street to the wine shop. Some of us took turns going to the bathroom, exploring the machinery rooms, and pounding on the gate. Eventually Leonid hacked the security system and the gate started opening automatically. It was like the parting of the Red Sea, we took off in a flash!

Apparently the wealthy Rothschild family had given money to several families to start wineries/vineyards in the late 1800, and Carmel is one of them. The town of Binyamina is named after Benjamin Rothschild.

Our next stop was another area that benefitted from the Rothschilds - a return to Caesaria to test the acoustics of the amphiteathre. After the 3 Tenors reunion concert, we spent some time on the beach exploring the ruins (the old Roman aquaduct was especially fun to play on) and watching the birds.

Upon noticing birds flying South in a V formation:

Me: It's already the middle of the winter
Konstantin: it's already the middle of the south

In Rothschilds' Caesaria, we had an excellent sushi dinner - probably the first outside the US for Olga and me - and watched Olga's parents' eyelids get very very heavy. Leonid took a nap in one of the booths while we enjoyed creme brulees and chocolate soufflees and then was reenergined to drive again.

We continued the tour by stopping by Shefayim to watch my cousin Ryan's team destroy Haifa in a basketball game. It seemed a little unfair :)

Check out Olga's account of our road trip:

01/02/2010: Peter, I can see your house from here

Today we decided to book a minibus with driver and guide - and invite as many relatives we could pack in. It was a sort of rolling family reunion, stopping at various sites of interest including:

The Sea of Galilee - where all drinking water in Israel originates

Tiberias - seems to be a cute town with some Roman ruins and a cool name, but it was completely closed for Shabbat

Capernaum - where Jesus did a lot of his teachings. St Peter has a house here and there are largely-intact ruins of the synagogue that was one of the first synagogues built after Jesus' time, and it appears to be built on top of a synagogue Jesus' was said to have preached in.

The Golan Heights - home to battles with the Syria and Lebanon, several wineries (all were closed for Shabbat and the vines had been bare for the winter), land mines, cows near land mines, vineyards near land mines, and cows near vineyards.

We were also able to see the Syrian border.
We met and became good friends with Olga's cousins Ariel, Dani, and Sonia. Ariel and Dani's parents Gena and Marina brought equipment to boil coffee with cardamom to enjoy at roadside stops. We also noshed on figs, sweet tea, and other goodies. Lunch was provided by the Druze at a Druish (I think that's what the guide called it, maybe that's what inspired Mel Brooks) roadside stand: warmed thin dough (similar to flour tortilla) with goat cheese spread and olive tapenade. Yum!

At one point, Mike accused me of wining about something. Clearly he was overreacting, but now we have the classic quote "On Shabbat, the David winery should be closed."

On the way home, Sonia used her cell videophone to call a friend. The camera is on the same side as the screen and you can have a realtime Skype-quality videochat from a tiny cell phone. I think I saw our friend Johnny use similar technology in Russia a couple of years ago. Why don't we have this in the land of unlimited cell phone minutes/data?

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant again. They are hard to avoid! :)

Please read more about this family reunion on wheels at Olga's blog:

Friday, January 1, 2010

01/01/2010: Binary 14 or Adventures in Socialized Medicine

Please read Olga's blog for the detailed and amusing tale of my non-issue health scare:

At admissions, I had to pay a flat fee that converts to about $240 USD. I'm not completely sure, but I believe this would have also covered the surgery if it was needed. An amusing interchange with the admitting nurse:
Her: What's the problem?
Me: The eye
The eye is no good?
No good.
...and so it goes.
After awhile in the waiting room, a doctor called out "run-DAHL?" "run-DAHL?" It took a few moments to realize it was me. Admissions had taken my name from my passport as "D Randall Grenetz".

The total amount of time I was seen by doctors (high) and the number of levels I had to go through to get to a specialist (very low) are impressive. Maybe Michael Moore was right :)

Tonight was our third Italian restaurant on this trip (the 2nd selected by locals we were meeting, and the other time it was literally the only restaurant in town). Apparently Israeli Jews love Italian food as much as American Jews.

The phone in my room has a button labeled "Reception". I pressed it at 11:30pm to request a wake-up call, and it surprisingly (for all of us) redialed the guy who runs our tour company.
Him: Shalom
Me: I'd like a wake-up call.
This is Ami
Wake-up call? Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I redialed you by accident!
By popular demand, here are the cast of characters of this trip:

Phil (Dave's father) - right.

Karen (Dave's mother) - left.

Mike (Dave's brother) - right.

Dave (our fearless travel blogger) - left.

Olga (Dave's wife) - right.

Konstantin (Olga's brother) - left.

Maria (Olga's mother) - right.

Leonid (Olga's father) - left.

12/31/2009: New Year's Eve in Haifa

Today we decided to get an official tour guide, van, and driver so we could properly see the Northern countryside. After a guided walk around the ancient city of Akko, we proceeded to the Lebanon border town Rosh HaNikra. Passed so many farms growing bananas and even caviar -- this is such a fertile land -- and a very magical place where you can see several things:

You can get 100 meters from the Lebanon border, protected by the Israeli army. There are signs saying it is "forbiden" to take photos. Of course this made us want to immediately start taking pictures. No worries, we'll send them to Biden.

Rode the cable car to the bottom of the mountain. It's neat as you start the trip on the top of the mountain and funicular your way down towards the Mediterranean Sea (note: I was not nearly as scared as I look in the photo). When you land, there is a 13-minute-long film that explains the history of the Mediterranean sea-carved caves and also bombing of the train bridge by 1946 Zionist insurgents.

The movie itself was shown in a "theatre" that is a train tunnel connected to the bridge that was blown 63 years ago. Though very low tech, the movie had some neat features such as fans blowing, lights flashing, and water dropping on the audience at appropriate moments. Knee grabbing and neck blowing and hair pulling was supplied by the members of the audience. very cute.

    The Rosh HaNikra caves themselves are breathtakingly beautiful, with fresh blue sea water continuously crashing in. It's not a typical spelunking tour. The caves were carved out by the tireless waves of the Mediterranean, but to access them, a tourist bureau carved out a walking path between the grottos.

    Mike and I stopped by a schnitzel (fried chicken patty sandwich) shop across from the hotel. We quickly became best friends with the sandwich engineer and his magical sauces. Though we had set aside 1/3 of the sandwiches to bring back to our parents, somehow they never made it out of the shop intact :)

    We ended the night at Nemo's seafood restaurant in what seemed to be the only part of Haifa that was celebrating the secular new year. After a meal that couldn't be beat, fireworks set off by pedestrians (my dad said he felt the debris of one fall on his head!), the sight of a flying flaming kite, and drunk locals starting fights, we decided to walk back to the hotel in a consecration of two thousand nine - twenty ten.

    Please see Olga's thoughts on New Years Eve in Haifa: