It’s been five days since my plane touched down in Israel and I arrived in the hilly peninsula that is Haifa. Since then, it’s been a flurry of visits to the shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, special devotions and a Holy Day commemoration, and so many new names to learn. While I’m not immersed enough in Israeli culture to experience culture shock–indeed, the majority of people I’ve met are from North America–there are a few things that will take some getting used to.
1. The heat Haifa is sultry, and not in the attractive way. The highs don’t look terrible–mid-eighties so far–but combined with intense sun and humidity, the climate has me gulping water like a very sweaty fish. Thankfully there’s usually a breeze, and while my apartment doesn’t have central air, fans keep me less than feverish. Apparently August is worse. If I stop posting next month, you’ll know that I’ve found a nice corner with air conditioning where I’m estivating (summer hibernation!) until the city cools down. Lest I sound too whiny, I should say that the warmth stimulates vibrant flowers and fruit, like the oblong berry with milky, super sticky juice that an acquaintance picked off a bush and handed to me. “What is this?” I asked. “No idea,” she said, “but it tastes good.”
2. The language An English speaker can get by in Israel without learning Hebrew–street signs are translated, numbers are in Arabic numerals, and most people know some English. But when it comes to decoding a bread package, an advertisement, or a map that doesn’t cater to tourists, I’m confronted with an entirely unknown alphabet. I’m hoping to learn some conversational Hebrew beyond “Shalom” (hello) and “Toda rabah” (thank you).
3. So many Bahá’ís! They’re everywhere! Perhaps this should be obvious, but hey, I’m coming from a college community of five. (In reality, we comprise less than 0.003% of Haifa’s population.)
4. The wildlife Lizards and stray cats are the squirrels and chipmunks of Israel. I keep seeing lizards sunning themselves on the grounds of the Arc (the Bahá’í buildings on Mount Carmel) and at Bahji in Akka, and I’ve so far done a good job of restraining my instinct of giving chase to examine them, wannabe herpetologist that I am. We’ll see how long I can hold out before coming home with a new pet.
As for the cats, on my first day I went to the bus stop, where a cat with bright green eyes was waiting, I think for line 36. He was sitting on the bench and I joined him. He immediately avowed his affections for me by climbing into my lap. Envisioning tiny fleas hopping onto me, I stood up, and he jumped down only to wend between my ankles. But surely the most remarkable stray story thus far happened at Haifa Zoo. I was familiar with this zoo from a lecture by Israeli zoologist Avinoam Lourie, but while I knew the story of its fallow deer population, I did not know about its otter-kitten relations. Picture this: four sleek otters, chirping at the zookeeper as he dumps in their lunch of fish; two scrawny kittens in the exhibit, peeking out from behind some rocks. Tentatively, the kittens approached the fish. The otters and kittens seemed equally afraid of each other, and when the otters backed off a bit, the kittens began to snatch fish, scurry back to their hideout, then return for more. Who knows, maybe the otters will embrace the kittens as their own and become a feature on an “unlikely animal friends” documentary.
5. Late-onset adulthood For the first time, I have to think seriously about budgeting, and cook not just for fun but so that I can eat. Life in Haifa is pricey. For example, a falafel sandwich–the “cheap” food of choice–costs around US$10. As far as cooking goes, using a gas stove is proving tricky. Given my absent-mindedness, I have serious concerns about accidentally leaving the gas on and suffocating my flatmates. While the electric stoves I’m used to have clear numbers marking the heat of each burner, here there are only cryptic drop symbols. Before I try to bake anything, I’ll have to convert temperatures from fahrenheit to celsius to the numbers on the setting dial. Needless to say, it might be a while before I make an unscorched batch of cookies. At least I’m used to cleaning my own space…although my attempt to use the vacuum cleaner, a “Vampyr” model that lacks both fangs and decent suction, required a lengthy struggle just to find the power cord. (It retracts into the body of the beast.)