I’ve recently returned from a business trip to Munich and Tel Aviv. This was my second trip to Tel Aviv this year, and I was once again reminded of how quickly our outward appearance can lead to incorrect assumptions about us. Thanks to my olive skin and curly brown hair, from the moment I arrive at the airport from which I will leave for Israel, throughout my stay in the country, I am spoken to in Hebrew (Ivrit). I am always delighted by this and embarrassed at the same time, because my command of Hebrew is less than rudimentary. I am often subjected to the skeptical ‘double-take’ when I say, “Lo hevanti”:‘I don’t understand.’ My way of dealing with this inability to speak the language, as is likely true of most international travellers who have language limitations, is to say as little as possible. My trips normally follow the same routine: I go from airport to hotel to client meeting to team dinner, then back to the hotel. Email, sleep, rinse and repeat. This last trip however, I found myself with several hours of free time on my hands before my night flight back to the US. Not being able to hold onto my hotel room for an extra late checkout, I had the option of sitting in the hotel lobby for several hours doing email, or I could wander out and explore the beautiful, beachfront promenade along the Mediterranean shore. As it was 80+ degrees and bright sunshine, it was not exactly a tough choice for this Vermonter.
I set out on a two-hour round trip walk, intent to smile and wordlessly work my way toward old Jaffa. I was happy to see walking and bike paths with clearly delineated pictographs telling users which side and lane was the proper one to walk or conversely bike on, in either direction. Impossible to make a mistake – - the pictographs were thoroughly explanatory to the most casual observer. As I made my way along the promenade, a couple of people attempted to speak to me – for reasons unknown to me – though I supposed it was because I looked like I might be capable of explaining whatever info they it was they sought. True to my cowardly plan, I smiled wordlessly, and continued walking. I felt bad about that, thinking that I surely seemed rude, preferring to hide my incompetence rather than speak and confirm my limited abilities. Oh, dear reader, where have we heard that before?
I made it to the edge of Old Jaffa and turned back toward Tel Aviv on schedule. Having seen the sights on the outbound trip, I relaxed a bit more – I knew all that was coming my way. Imagine my surprise, when I, unfailingly attentive to the aforementioned pictographs, noted a biker heading towards me, in my directionally correct walking lane -the wrong lane for him, a biker, travelling in the opposite direction! I found myself irritated – he also looked like a native and I thought, should know the rules (yes, I made that assumption, too). He made no attempt to divert himself, and I made no attempt either. I stared at him as he came closer. Emboldened, I, now feeling very much like I knew what I was doing, made the well-known middle-eastern gesture (one hand with fingers touching and all pointing upward), as if to say, “What are you doing?” while pointing at the pictograph at the same time with the other hand. As he veered away at the last minute and zoomed by, I yelled a Manhattanite’s “eh?” for good measure. I was feeling pretty comfortable and ‘at home’ at that moment! My adversary was apparently pretty comfortable too. He also made a universal gesture, one so well known that it requires no explanation here. He was a bit more loquacious than me, uttering a long stream of –let’s call it “tonal” Hebrew that I prefer to think was something like, “Oh my bad. Of course you’re right. Have a nice day.”
I laughed as he left me there – in the right – but with ears ablaze. I’d made an effort to communicate with another of my fellow citizens and succeeded. Out of my comfort zone and in possession of the lightest of linguistic toolkits, I’d made a connection. In that brief exchange, I did what was expected of me: for at least a few glorious seconds, I did indeed speak very clear Ivrit!