In a swift act of courage on a cold January night, I booked a flight to Israel. It was a calculated risk, no doubt–one that required hours of research, deliberate introspection, and a built up bank of vacation days. And while I had many a moment of ambivalence before clicking that oversized ‘confirm’ button, I’m proud that in that frigid winter moment, I did not let cold feet get the best of me.
Follow along day by day to see and read snippets of the most eye-opening, reverent, streetwise, blissful, aware, joyful 10 days I’ve been privileged enough to know. Israel did so very right by me.
T U E S D A Y 3/12 — The starting tone
As he drove me to the airport at 5 AM, my favorite brother-in-law asked me what Dad would think of me going to Israel. Like any good joke, my answer was stitched with the truth: “He’d say, NFW, Nicole. No Firetruck Way.”
But in my heart, I knew my dad would do the opposite of hold his adventuress back. He would have turned his own schedule upside down to help me in any capacity–’Do you have your passport? Copy of your passport? Enough cash? Snacks? Chargers? Modest clothes? Have you checked the weather? Is your flight on time? Who’s picking you up? Do you know how to say anything at all in Hebrew besides those three lines from the Torah you learned from attending all those bar mitzvahs?’
Yes. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. I have no idea. Ditto that. Absolutely not, Mazel Tov.
He would have printed my boarding passes and shepherded me to the terminal with an unforgivable amount of time to spare.
And in the car on the way to the airport with Yianni, I simultaneously smiled and cried to myself loving my father for that. I pictured him behind his Costco reading glasses tracking my flight as it soared over states, seas, and strange lands he’d never get the chance to visit.
W E D N E S D A Y 3/13 — Life in a floating torpedo
Sitting in the same clothes and inhaling the exhales of a hundred other passengers for hours on end was enough to make a girl mad. Luckily, a few things saved me from losing more than just 9 hours and a healthy line of immune system defense.
1. Austrian Airways indulging its weakness for particularly excruciating puns. It’s cheeky slogan, Time to Say Dubai, both won my heart and broke my soul.
2. Seeing the new parents in front of me do the ‘lift & sniff’ test on their baby no less than 25 times over the duration of the flight. Hyper considerate and cautious Russian first-timers, I thought. I loved them immediately.
3. Sharing row 11 with a hoary-headed Jewish man with gripping blue eyes and genuine intentions. He turned the pages of his book left to right as I turned mine right to left. He tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that by my penmanship, he could tell I had good character. He waited with me to make sure I made my connecting flight to Tel Aviv and told me of his wife, eleven children, father, home in Jerusalem, and his visit to Seattle where the rain, he said, was “gentle.”
T H U R S D A Y 3/14 –Jerusalem
I haven’t been particularly close to my faith over the last several years, and I’m beginning to think it’s because I never bothered to take the stories of the Bible as anything more than fable, let alone codified snapshots of history. This day trip gave me with context, relevance, and an unsuspecting closeness to the church my father was so faithful to. I felt close to him. I felt like I wanted to bury my nose in the Old Testament and history books alike to learn everything I possibly could about the 2,000 year old olive trees, tombs, walls, rocks and meaningful paths that encompassed me.
The view of Jerusalem from Mount of Olive:
The Garden of Gethsemane
The Church of All Nations which houses the rock where Jesus knelt to pray after The Last Supper, knowing how he was to die after being betrayed.
The Tomb of the Virgin Mary
The journey along the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked bearing his cross towards crucifixion.
Along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ hand print remains on the wall he used to support himself when nearly stumbling to the ground bearing his cross.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. [ Note the ladder on the second story. Known as the "immovable ladder," it has been there for as long as America has been a country. The six ecumenical Christian orders created an understanding that no one may move, rearrange, or alter any property without the consent of all six orders.]
The rock that held Christ’s crucifixion cross.
The rock Jesus’ cleaned body was placed on after death, as depicted in the icon above.
The Holy Sepulchre.
The tomb of St. Helen, and the deeper layers of the rock that held Christ’s crucifixion cross.
The Western Wall
The underground tunnels of the Western Wall. [ Jerusalem is a city that has been built and rebuilt on top of itself over thousands and thousands of years. These underground passageways go at least six stories deep into the crust of the earth and showcase the original stone work of King Herod's original temple and palace. Layers and layers and layers of history beneath unsuspecting pilgrim feet. Unreal.
The church of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, where she fell into eternal sleep.
The tomb of King David.
The place where The Last Supper took place.
F R I D A Y 3/15 -- Tel Aviv Half Marathon
After what could only be described as a spiritual whirlwind in Jerusalem, Inbal and I woke up at 4 am to hit the starting line for the Tel Aviv Marathon. Since she had to work the event, and I had no choice but to accompany, I watched the first signs of light dust the sleepless city and stretched for approximately 115 minutes longer than I needed to.
At 6 AM the race started. There is no better way to tour an unfamiliar city than running 13.1 miles through its veins and arteries. Despite the early morning heat and my inadequate training, I finished the Half in 2 hours and 5 minutes. I promptly vomited from a combination of sheer exhaustion, a completely effed body clock, and the questionable decision I made to down a whole milk yogurt upon crossing the finish line.
S A T U R D A Y 3/16 -- The Dead Sea
With a combined local and domestic knowledge that one upped any travel book I could have ever read, Inbal and her two friends, Keren and Rinat, packed a cultural and political power punch on our day trip to the Dead Sea. On the drive we passed through Druze and Arab villages, as well as Bedouin camps. The ringleted beauties offered me their opinions, thoughts, beliefs, and frustrations regarding the occupied territories and Jewish settlers. They offered me fodder for which to place my own opinion, that for once, would be contextually informed.
Just above the Dead Sea, a lush oasis of life exists. I give you an unintentionally asymmetrical tank top in front of the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve:
[Despite what it may look like, I am not singing sharp nor using a clear and coiled earpiece to navigate.]
The lowest and saltiest place on Earth:
S U N D A Y 3/17 — Losing myself on a long walk through Tel Aviv
I hope I never forget the happy little screams of these sweet mini humans as they yelled to ‘Abba’, Dad, to watch them play.
I also hope my part longing/part goofy stare and picture taking did not worry said ‘Abbas.’ YOLO.
The Carmel Market.
The Mediterranean Sky Gods flexed their guns real good for me. Nothing like a stroll in fine sand with this view of a striated horizon melting day to night.
And as night fell, Inbal and I gave Tel Aviv the old American cheese and laid down a Dropkick Murpheys song at an open mic night to pay homage to a heritage neither of us possess.
Lies on the Irish punk band point. We sang Lykke Li like good little indie girls.
Unfortunately, since we steered clear of Tracy Chapman, George Michaels, and Aaron Carter, our Israeli audience–of sophisticated music palette–did not recognize our song choice. The applause was one degree of separation from a golf clap. Can’t win ‘em all.
And then we danced until 5 AM. I may or may not have done the splits on the dance floor. And when I say ‘may not’ I mean: most definitely did.
M O N D A Y 3/18 — Nazareth
While Inbal was at work, I took a little adventure by my onesie. With a little faith and a stable internal compass, I set off for Nazareth to view the Church of the Annunciation, and the city where Jesus spent his adolescent life.
When I walked into the church, I was entirely alone. Except, that is, for the ‘keeper of the keys’ who was a sweet little Arabic man who looked alarmingly like Count Dracula, but in an endearing way. He spoke English well, and asked me about my religious background. When I told him I grew up Greek Orthodox, he immediately started reciting every Greek Liturgy hymn he had ever been exposed to. He missed some words all together, broke melodies without looking back, and blurred the lines between chants–connecting them in ways that were, for all intents and purposes, unorthodox.
He had this sincere grin on his face the entire time, and I knew he was so proud of both his memory and voice. We engaged in a little game of call and response chanting, until I exhausted his repertoire and he let me be.
It was, to be honest, hilariously magical. And it made me think of my dad and how he would always sing unfitting pieces of the Doxology at random times… i theotokos so son imas, aaaaammmiiinnn… in the shower, in the car wash, in the check-out line, in full confidence.
And then I wanted to go to this old underground spice market. The only problem, it was so hipster that no one had heard of it.
Except, that is, for Poopah. An unsuspecting thirteen-year-old on her way home from school, Poopah was kind enough to help out a wandering American who’s pursed lips and furrowed brow gave her less-than-found coordinates away. She led me down cobble stone paths, around markets, up hills, down corridors and to the Babor. But not without lovingly gabbing my ear off first about Justin Bieber, her music lessons, her mean music teacher, her Facebook friends, how she wants to be famous, and her flattering curiosity that kept her harping on the fact that I don’t have a boyfriend. But you’re so beautiful, she’d say.
I wanted to keep her and give her Justin Bieber, fame, and everything she could ever want. But instead, I said thank you and bought an absurd amount of spices from this scensational (couldn’t help it) little hole in the ground.
T U E S D A Y 3/19 — The Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee, Kibbutz
Wildflower season in the North. Every breath and step had me smiling wider than the Cheshire cat.
The Sea of Galilee
The Greek Orthodox church of the disciples Peter and Paul, right on the shore of the sea.
Dinner for three at a Kibbutz overlooking the sea at sun fall. That meal and those moments that wrapped the view in memory foam. Divine.
W E D N E S D A Y 3/20 — Jaffa, the ancient port city
T H U R S D A Y 3/21– Lod
I set out on another out of town adventure. Train>>>Taxi>>>Walk>>>Disappointment. The church that houses St. George’s relics was closed.
No no no no no.
With my tail between my legs and a perma-frown on my face, I made it back to Tel Aviv to meet Inbal for her coworker’s wedding. It started at 9pm, and breezed through the night. Love, happy couples light on their feet, an unstoppably Mediterranean menu of delicious proportions, and more love.
F R I D A Y 3/22 — Lod take 2.
I cannot forbear to thank Inbal for being not only an unbelievable host and guide, but considerate and loving friend. We spent 10 days around each other catching up and confiding. Trusting and loving and laughing and dancing and opening up about any and everything, and it was truly a rare and special bond we grew together. Over hummus. Over halva. Over careers, men, family, my father.
My father. George.
I couldn’t let this trip end without visiting the Church of St. George, and Inbal–bless her giving soul, did everything in her power to get me there. She found every possible loophole to maneuver around a city that shuts down for Shabbot on Fridays. She made phone calls to the national bus hotline, hailed taxis, found the right train that was still operating despite the impeding hours of rest. She braved a bizarre, yet unforgettable dust storm with me and walked through what, in retrospect, was a rather sketchy and questionable “city.” She joined me hand-in-hand and walked down the stairs into the crypt.
She wept with me as I thought of my own St. George, and how mirroring myth or legend or scripture–whatever it may be–he was the one to slay my every dragon.
It was a wildly beautiful visit. Surreal. Victorious against the elements. It was George’s will all along, though, and knowing that brought me unrivaled serenity.
And just like that, it is already a distant dream.