Friday, October 14, 2011

Israel over a delicious lunch

Yesterday, the Travelife editorial team was very kindly invited by the Israeli Ambassador, H.E. Menash Bar-On, and his very charming wife, to a private lunch at their lovely residence somewhere in Makati. Security is pretty tight for Israel's top dignitary to the Philippines -- we go to ambassadors' residences all the time and I can tell you that Israel security is serious business -- so I can't give any details of his residence, except to say that it's a very tasteful home reflective of their life of travels, fine life and diplomacy.


On the wall of their dining room is a poster of an exhibit by a very famous Israeli artist. When this artist was visiting London, where Ambassador was once posted, he signed the poster of his own exhibit by drawing a caricature of Ambassador and Madame Bar-On and placing a personal message. This very valuable piece now occupies a place of honor in their dining room, and on the other dining room bureaus are photos of the Ambassador and his wife, and their family, from various diplomatic postings.


Prior to Manila they were in Latin and Central America, and London too; and one of their favorite postings was Panama, where they made many good friends and Ambassador Bar-On was selected as "ambassador of the year."

SPECIAL WEEK FOR ISRAEL

It's a holiday in Israel for most of this week so yesterday Ambassador and Madame Bar-On were home and we were very honored to be asked to spend this holiday with them in their home. Madame Bar-On and her residence cook -- a Filipina who lived in Israel for many years, so she's an expert on Israeli cuisine -- prepared an excellent Israeli lunch for us, which was topped up by a tray of lovely sweets that Madame Bar-On had baked herself.


Israeli cuisine is basically a mix of the food of different cultures including that of the Middle East. There's also a lot of vegetables involved. Madame Bar-On told me: "Israelis love salads. We eat them all the time. If you go to a coffee shop in Israel, it's not unusual to see someone having coffee and a salad."


LIFE & CULTURE OF ISRAEL

Three of my senior editors came along with me for lunch, and together with the Ambassador and his wife, we had a wonderful time discussing the life in and culture of Israel with them, and especially the aspects of Israel that are not tied to religious issues. Filipinos are quite familiar with Israel as a site of pilgrimage and prayer, but little is still known regarding the real life in Israel outside of the churches and the fighting between Israel and Palestine.


SOLO ADVENTURES IN ISRAEL

I related to them how I once flew to Israel from Malta via Rome by myself in September 2000, which was also exactly around the time that the second intifada -- the period of intense violence between Israel and the Palestinians, as a result of the Palestinian uprising -- began. Of course, when I'd booked my trip, which was a six-week trip through Europe and Israel, the intifada hadn't started and the first wave of violence had just occurred as I was sitting on a beach in Malta. So the full extent of the intifada had not been clear and I pushed through with my visit to Israel with no qualms.


THE BEAUTIFUL AMERICAN COLONY HOTEL

I booked my stay at The American Colony Hotel, which is a lovely and historical luxury boutique hotel in Jerusalem outside the Old City, and the hotel car that came to pick me up drove me from the airport straight to Jerusalem. It was only upon arriving in Tel Aviv that I began to get an inkling of what I had gotten myself into. And still it was only an inkling.

Along the way, the driver told me to get down on the seat and keep my head down and out of window vision because there was the very real danger of snipers.


The American Colony Hotel was very beautiful, created from the mansion of a very wealthy pasha in Jerusalem. It was a Relais & Chateaux hotel, which was why I'd booked it; and because of the initial events of the intifada, it was full of top Western journalists trying to get a story. I remember having dinner in the open-air courtyard and everyone was talking to anyone who would listen or discuss back, the events of the day or the week. It was very exciting -- just like living in CNN time.


A BAD IDEA

Then after dinner that very same evening, of course adventurous me was eager to maximize my stay and explore this ancient and historical destination. I still had not fathomed the intifada then as it was my first night in Israel. I walked over to the hotel's bookshop, which was manned by Palestinians, and asked them for directions to the Old City. I was thinking about walking around the Old City at night.

They looked at me as if I had asked them for directions to Mars or Venus. The bookshop owner said: "It's very dangerous right now. The Old City is empty at night because of the incidents. Please stay in your room."

So that was the end of my idea to explore the Old City on my own. However I did join guided tours around Jerusalem, as well as to the Dead Sea and Masada, run by expert guides who knew exactly how to avoid the snipers and any possible danger. A couple of days later, I then began to also worry somewhat about my safety in Jerusalem, especially as bombs were exploding everywhere.

I still remember distinctly going up to the front desk of the hotel and asking the desk manager: "Are we safe here in this hotel?" He smiled at me and said: "Don't worry. This hotel is staffed by Palestinians. They won't do anything here."

THEN AND NOW

This was over ten years ago, however. These days, Jerusalem is almost back to normal and it's so much safer. My college best friend Angelique and her husband just spent a few weeks in Israel a few months ago and they'd walked the whole city on foot and had an incredible time. Some other friends just returned from Israel as well and they told me that they were able to explore the Old Town by themselves and felt very safe doing so.

One thing's for sure, it's been very admirable that Israelis have managed to maintain a semblance of normal life in the face of all the stress, adversity and violence surrounding them. People go on with their lives even if possible violence -- such as terrorist attack or a bomb blast -- is always on their minds. This was one of the many things we discussed over our thoroughly enjoyable lunch yesterday. Just another day in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful, Travelife.


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