Like a cat in water

Admission: over the last month, I fell woefully behind in writing. There was so much to do before leaving the World Centre–boxes to pack, projects to complete, farewells to bid–that I simply could not make the few hours needed to complete this blog. So, these last entries are being written from within the purple walls of my home in Wisconsin, not from the Holy Land.


It might seem illogical for a couple with little interest in swimming to travel to a swimming hole, but once in a while, it comes time to explore something beyond the confines of our street. So, Sergey and I signed up for a trip to Gan HaShlosha National Park, more commonly known as Sakhne. People flock to HaShlosha from all over to shlosharound–I mean, slosh around–in the unusual turquoise waters of the pools, which are supposedly colored by natural minerals. So, after driving to the eastern edge of Israel, past vast sunflower fields bordered by low purple mountains, we found ourselves idling in a long line of cars, mostly filled with smoking Arab men ready to spend a smoky day with their grills, hookahs, and oh yeah, the crystalline waters.

After what felt like several hours of waiting, we finally made it to the parking lot. 9:00 AM on a Saturday and nearly no open spaces. Israelis take their weekends seriously, whether that means observing Shabbat or finding water to play in. We unfolded a towel and laid it on the dead grass on a hill beside the pool, from which point I surveyed the surroundings. Again, the main denizens of the water were Arab men, who had brought all manner of floating devices, including air mattresses. I had never realized that air mattresses could be seaworthy. The young men frolicked in the water, vying for spots atop the floaties, reminding me of walruses fighting for territory on an iceberg. Sergey remarked on the boyishness of their play–some of the men looking to be in their mid-twenties and above. Maybe the lack of women freed the men from putting on a display of savoir faire. Or maybe their playful jousting was actually for the benefit of the onlookers.

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be claimed!

Hey look, an unmanned mattress waiting to be colonized!

In almost all parts of the interconnecting pools, the water was over my head, and the shallows had other dangers (dead leaves, dirt, splashing kids). So, I spent most of my time perched midway down the steps into the water, letting my legs float like dead wood in the hopes of attracting the “piranhas,” as Sergey called them. These minnow-like fish enjoy snacking on dead skin, and they seem to get plenty of it from the hordes of swimmers, as it took a while for me to finally attract some. But once they came, they flocked. At the peak feeding time, I had at least fifteen fish giving me a pedicure. Their small beaky mouths tickled, but I stayed strong and still. (I can’t say the same for Sergey, who was reduced to giggling and squirming.) The fish were easily spooked. The slightest movement would scare them away, so keeping my legs immobilized became my mission. Of course, I couldn’t control the rambunctious people around me, who insisted on swimming, disturbing my piscine idyll. The fish seemed to sense even impending impacts–in the time between a boy’s leap and him hitting the water, they would race away from me.

Hungry fish

Just wearing my fashionable fish boot…

After I had my fill of the crowded park and the fish had full tummies, we headed home.

So, what do cats have to do with this story? Well, they also relate to our recreational activities.

When we moved into our apartment last summer, we became acquainted with several adolescent cat siblings, all with the same gray and white spots as their mama. Over the winter, they grew up, got hitched, and come springtime they were all pregnant. After they had their litters, we found a new hobby: kitten-watching. (Lest you scoff at our interest in strays, please remember that Haifa lacks cute rodents to observe–no rabbits, squirrels, or chipmunks…just rats, and once in a blue moon, a mongoose. Also, the feline families served pretty well as a compost solution for excess leftovers.)

One cat mama birthed a brood of three tabbies, and another had three distinct kittens: one completely black, one black and white, and one gray and white. If only she had an all white kitten, she would have covered the whole monochromatic spectrum!

Israeli wildlife

Israeli wildlife

I think the tiny black kitten was my favorite. It looks like a surprised bush baby, all shining eyes.

Feline bush baby

Feline bush baby

The Wild Kingdom

Bad hair day

Now that my brain has melted into a soup in which float the ratio of the legs of a 30-60-90 degree triangle (1 to the square root of 3), the application requirements for various graduate programs, faculty profiles with photos that blur into a smiling, silver-haired, bespectacled amalgam, and fancy terms to describe my academic interests in teaching and writing (I mean “pedagogy” and “composition studies”), I feel the time has come for a return to the blog. Somehow, writing timed 30-minute practice GRE essays cannot compare with free writing–and I must say, my newfound ability to churn out two 700-word essays in one hour leaves little excuse for my lack of entries.

Well, I could go on, but I’d rather not ramble. While I’d prefer to be less of a GRE hermit and thrall to my applications, I know these applications and the revival of math skills for the GRE are probably making me smarter and forcing me to evaluate my history and purpose. So, no complaining–let’s talk about my favorite therapeutic topic, animals!

In the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin roam camelids hailing from further south–South America, that is. At the honeymoon B&B, Sergey and I encountered a pair of alpacas. Alpacas are much like llamas, but more docile. One of the alpacas fit this description; white-furred like a lamb, it appeared uninterested in anything besides chewing its cud. The other, however, acted as the guardian of the pen. When we approached the enclosure, this redhead came charging at us. When I commented on his aggression to Sergey, he defended the beast. “He just wants to say hi!”

There are some animals who run at you when they truly just want to say hi. Actually, the only ones I can think of are dogs. But the gleam of anger in the eyes of this creature convinced me that his goal was not one of establishing a relationship with these visitors; it was to keep us out of his territory. Or he was really mad about his bad haircut, which left his body shorn but his head poofy.

Sergey optimistically persisted in trying to approach the Alpha Alpaca. Thankfully, no spitting resulted, but I swear it was a close call.

Alpaca eagerly sprinting toward his beloved Sergey

Alpaca eagerly charging toward his beloved Sergey

Over here in Haifa, our neighborhood offers three main forms of wildlife:

1. Kittens

2. Cats

3. Jackals

Around when Sergey and I moved to our current building, a family of kittens also took up residence. There are four striped ones and one spotted, plus a mom lurking around. They are excellent beggars, turning their innocent kitten faces toward us as we pass by, mewing hungrily. While I’ve always sided with dogs over cats, I have to say, this cat herd is pretty darn cute. My favorite is the cockeyed one.

Cats, while less adorable than their younger counterparts, offer their share of entertainment. In particular, there is a black cat that likes to roost on a tree stump outside our building. As we pass by, he lets out his strange cry of “meh, meh, meh.” No energetic “meow” for this feline; it is as if, world-weary or profoundly bored, all he can muster is a half-meow. He needn’t worry about a lack of cat voices in the world, though, since our days are often interspersed with sudden bursts of caterwauling.

At last we come to the jackals, the invisible neighbors who provide the canine counterpart to the caterwauling. Some nights, we will hear their chorus as a pack of them howls and yelps together. It’s a bit creepy, and it’s also odd to hear a sound I associate with wolves gathered in the middle of a forest so close to the heart of the city. Of course, this territory was theirs long before Haifa started expanding across the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Gettin’ hitched, part one

I am sorry that I have been away for so long.  I really have no excuse except that little one about how I was preparing to get married.   So please blame Sergey.  It’s all his fault!

Let me start back in Haifa with our preparations there.  One of our biggest concerns before leaving was getting a flat where we could live together upon our return.  We were assigned one in French Carmel, which is on the other side of the Bahá’í gardens from Hillel, the street where we used to live.

Our old neighborhood could be called Bahá’ítown, as it seems the majority of staff reside there.  You can’t walk down the street without bumping into at least a few people you know.  It’s nice to have so much community around, but also disconcerting for those who are less used to the “village feel” of everyone knowing everyone.  Also, if by some miracle you don’t see anyone you know, you’ll surely bump into one of the many cats that call Hillel home.  Or one of the cats will bump into you, as happened to me on one of my final nights in my old flat.  There was a kitten, apparently motherless, trying to find a human mommy to latch onto.  I heard her meowing and then felt her butting her soft little head against my ankles.  Goodness.  My heart came very close to melting into a puddle.

They say that the cats were brought to Haifa to eat the rats.  Then the jackals came to eat the cats, and then the boars came to eat the jackals.  I wonder what will come to eat the boars….

Anyway, our new flat is number 26 in a high rise with flat numbers 1 to 26 spread across about eight stories.  So, when we first came to check the flat, we logically went to the top floor.  The flats ended with number 25.

“Great,” I told Sergey.  “I guess we’re living on the roof.”

Luckily we do have an actual flat that is randomly on the second floor, above the grocery store beneath.  We just need to hook up a rope with a bucket at the end to our window, make a hole in the roof of the grocery, and lower it to pick up our food.   Yay for laziness!

Actually, we need to be upright citizens, since both of our bosses live in the building across the street!

Moving our things was anything but lazy, though.  I moved in first and Sergey moved his non-essentials while continuing to live on Hillel.  While I came to Israel with two suitcases, over the past year I had somehow amassed many boxes worth of belongings.  Actually, most of my belongings were a dozen or so houseplants.  I like houseplants.  As decorations go, they are fairly cheap and bring vibrancy and life to interior space, and for apartment dwellers like me who can’t go garden in the street, they offer a special opportunity to practice my green thumb.  Honestly, their only drawback is their awkwardness when a move comes around.  Have you ever tried to wrangle a 10-foot long philodendron into a plastic bag?  Or have you ever stuffed a dozen houseplants into the interstices of luggage in a sedan while Sergey laments, “They will die!  They will die!”?

They did not die.  Once unpacked and released into the new flat, they began to enjoy the new western exposure.  And who wouldn’t?

Sunset over the sea, seen from our flat

Sunset over the sea, seen from our flat

In my week of living there, I found myself transfixed on a daily basis by the inimitable show of the sunset over the Mediterranean.  I would reluctantly break the trance to return to my somewhat obsessive task of scouring every surface in the kitchen first with soap, then bleach, while washing every dish and pan.  (But after Sergey pointed out the dead gnat adhered to the teapot, how could I do otherwise?)

Well, dishwashing seems like an appropriate way to end this episode.  Stay tuned for parts two and three as I get up to speed!

Coming in for landing

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don't have triskaidekaphobia.

The view from my room on the thirteenth floor. Good thing I don’t have triskaidekaphobia.

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.

Affectionate guy

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.)