We stand on the Tiberias to Tel Aviv highway waiting or the early morning inter-city bus. As we anticipated the bus is crowded with soldiers and civilians returning to work after the Passover
holiday. My wife and the two grandchildren struggle into the bus, informing the driver that we have four suitcases that we’ll need to stow in the luggage compartment below. The driver activates a switch and a hatch opens. The luggage compartment is too full to fit a sandwich. I stand on the pavement with my four suitcases and a thoughtful expression. A soldier just old enough to grow a few whiskers has a backpack to stow. He leans deeply into the luggage compartment, bending his slim back, hefting, pulling, piling, jamming items of baggage together. He has created ample space for his backpack.
But he steps over his own luggage towards my array, grabs a suitcase in each hand and thrusts them into the space he has created. Again he leans, lifts and shoves. Somehow our cases are all aboard. I hoist the soldier’s backpack, find an interstice and widen it, shove the pack in and hope. The hatch closes and we two ascend, the last of the riders. I pay the modest fares for the 170 kilometre ride for four passengers. The driver apologises: regulations require him to charge the two thirteen-year olds full fare. He is sorry, what can he do? – he asks with a raised shoulder.
Inside the bus all seats are occupied. Three young soldiers lie in the aisle, one sleeps while the other two busy themselves with their screens. From the rear seat a figure in civilian red rises, beckons to me, indicates the seat he has vacated. I must sit.
Amused, grateful, mildly embarrassed, I tell him I’m alright mate.
No, he says, I must sit.
I shake my head.
‘Please sir, sit. Next stop, I descend.’
Three recumbent soldiers in the aisle rise with good grace and make way for the old man with his bulky backpack.
We emerge from the two-hour bus trip at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Passover has just come to an end and we are looking forward to eating leavened breads again. We emerge from Security and see before us a huge array of croissants, bagels, seeded rolls and pastries. I take the family’s orders and approach the squat woman behind the counter. ‘Two double espressos, one croissant, one chocolate turnover, one danish pastry, please.’ The woman maintains a studied silence. I stand for a moment, nonplussed. Has she not heard me? Is it perhaps, self-service? Is she perhaps deceased?
After a good time the woman passes me three paper bags. She manages to do this while turning her back to me. She has not spoken. Feeling like a semi-licensed thief I fill the three bags. Mrs Pastry now leans over her ranks of post-paschal breads in my direction, proffering coffee in a paper cup. A second follows. Still, no conversation.
‘By what sum am I indebted to you?’ – I ask in my courtly, non-colloquial Hebrew.
The oracle now speaks: ‘Forty.’
Ellie looks up and laughs through her mouthful of chocolate yeast turnover: ‘Look Saba, Savta!’
We look towards the tee-shirt shop next to Mrs Pastry’s, where Ellie indicates a shirt in pink with the text:
‘Ellie, would you like shirt like that?’
Ellie would like a shirt like that.
Ellie and I enter the tee-shirt emporium. Hundreds of tee-shirts of modest price and quality hang from cords suspended from the ceiling. All the shirts are suspended high, beyond human reach. Safe from theft they are also unpurchasable without human help. We look around us. Moving browsily beneath the display a handful of humans considers the merchandise. One sits, cross-legged on stool, like patience on a monument, entirely still. This person is slim, petite, elegantly presented.Her lips are the colour of venous blood. Her skin and hair are of midnight black. I approach her. She does not speak or move.
Hazarding a guess, I ask, ‘Do you work here?’
The merest of nods.
‘My granddaughter wants to buy the BEYONCE tee-shirt.’
Movement now as a slim arm emerges from behind the slight torso. Between two fingers of the hand at the end of the arm sits a cigarette.
The confessed employee inhales deeply and silently.
No verbal response. Perhaps we have visited her workplace during her sabbatical.
‘Can you help us?’
The Queen of Sheba points her cigarette over our heads. We turn and look up and backward for the shirt. We cannot sight it.
We gather we have made our visit at a time when the spirit of enterprise is not active.
Ellie, richly amused, decides she can be happy without beyonce.
Instead, chuckling, she takes photos of the the tee-shirt in the display.
At ‘Abulafia,’ the Palestinian bakery in the ancient port city of Yaffo, men in pious black yarmulkas queue to buy pastries from Palestinian men in tee-shirts.
In Hebrew and English the shopkeepers wear tee-shirts reading, ‘Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.’ Others wear shirts that read, ‘Headquarters of Israel-Palestine peace.’ As shopkeepers the peacemakers are indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis in their generous disdain towards customers. My wife, an attractive grandmother, speaks a clear and correct Hebrew. The bakery boys affect not to understand her menu enquiries. One shrugs and directs Annette to his colleague. He too affects non-comprehension. He winks at his colleague and turns away from Annette, his face closed.
When a second customer approaches, Annette’s two refuseniks compete to serve her. This newcomer is forty years Annette’s junior.
Now I try my luck. ‘A toasted pita please, with salad filing.’ The man I address does not look in my direction. Like a magician, he flicks an unseen cigarette from nowhere into his mouth. Exhaling dragon-like he grunts something indistinguishable. I look around, find myself the sole customer and ask, ‘Pardon?’
Harif is the Hebrew term for shrewdly intelligent. In fast food places it means, ‘spicy.’
‘A little, please.’
This is the second time I have spoken the P-word. ‘Please’ gives me away as surely as it betrayed Annette. Despite our better than serviceable Hebrew, we have revealed ourselves as that least assertive of all tourist species, the Anglo-Saxon.
A second smoker materialises, slides my pita into a toasting oven, smoking all over my lunch in transit.
Moments later, seated on ‘Abulafia’s’ dusty stone steps we enjoy our smoke-toasted borekhas, pitot, and pastries. Too hot to handle, ridiculously inexpensive, memorably good.