The Old and the New, Jaffa and Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv view

MEOW!

The cat stared up at me with huge eyes.  She sat still like a statue with an intent look on her face.  She wanted something from me.

You picked the wrong man to beg from, furry feline.  The world is divided into two parts – dog lovers and cat lovers. I’m a dog lover and I typically push cats away from me with my foot (I would never admit to kicking a cat).  I made our cats sleep on the porch or in the barn.  I never let them in the house, because they are cats….

Tel Aviv view
The Mediterranean Sea and Tel Aviv, Israel.

I was having dinner at an elegant seafood restaurant in Tel Aviv, Israel.  The restaurant, called Manta Ray, sits only a few feet from the Mediterranean Sea.  Cloud cover had ruined the sunset, but the weather was warm and a light breeze blew.  I was sitting outside on the deck when this cat appeared and picked me out from the other diners.  How odd.

I had just finished a delicious dinner of shrimp, scallops, and fish.  I had a small pile of shrimp fins, and a fish skin.  The cat meowed again.  Hey, buddy, can you spare a fin?  Ok, you win.  I must be getting soft in my advancing age.

I scanned the restaurant for the waiters and waitresses.  When no one was looking I fed shrimp fins one by one to the cat.  She loved it.  For each shrimp, one second it was there, the next it was gone.  She remained by my side, patiently waiting.  She was giving me those big cat eyes of love. When the shrimp was gone, she devoured the fish skin.

Old Jaffa sign
The entrance to Old Jaffa.

Earlier in the day I walked down the promenade to the old port town of Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew).  Jaffa is just south of Tel Aviv along the coast.  It is built onto a hill jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea.  It is one of the oldest ports in the world.  In Old Testament times it was called Joppa.  The Bible tells us that this is where Jonah embarked on his voyage where he ended up in the belly of the big fish.  It is also where cedar logs from Lebanon were unloaded from ships and transported overland and up the hill to Jerusalem to be used in building Solomon’s temple.

Old Jaffa street.
A narrow lane in Old Jaffa.

The town is small and crowded. The buildings overshadow the narrow lanes and provide much needed shade in the summer.  They are made of buff colored stone.  A small stairway across from the wharf appearing as a hole in the building leads up into the old town. Coming from the New World, it was amazing to me to walk streets that were first built upon over three thousand years ago.  There is so much recorded history in the Mideast that it is hard for me to comprehend.

Wall in Old Jaffa.
An ancient wall in Old Jaffa.

The ancient streets of Jaffa are one extreme.   The other extreme is a short taxi ride back into Tel Aviv. In a few minutes one is back to the modern world.  Giant new condo towers are being erected for Israel’s rich and famous citizens to live in style with a view over the beach to the Mediterranean Sea.  Five star hotels overlook the Promenade while inline skaters and joggers use the paved trails in the park.

Tel Aviv condos and beach
Condo towers along the beach in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv was started in 1909 by Jewish settlers fleeing the crowded living conditions in Jaffa.  In the 1920s and 1930s it grew into a small city.  As a result of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s, its population exploded as many people came to Tel Aviv to start a new life.  Many of those people were artists and architects.  The architects were prominent proponents of the International school of design, called “Bauhaus.”  Their white buildings soon dominated the Tel Aviv neighborhoods.  Hence the city became known as the “White City.”

More recently, Tel Aviv has arrived as a hot spot for its fine restaurants, all night club scene, and sunny beaches.  I’m not much for the club scene, and I’m trying to move away from the meat and potatoes diet, but I never pass up a beach opportunity.

I hit the beach on a Saturday and it was filled with families picnicking, playing paddleball games, and relaxing at the many beach cafes.  It was a glorious late winter afternoon.  The sun was shining and it was a nice change from the winter weather in Germany.  I found an empty chair in the crowd, pulled my sandals off, and stuck my feet in the sand.

beach cafe in Tel Aviv
Beach cafe in Tel Aviv.

The water was too cold at this time of year for swimming, yet that didn’t stop several surfers in wetsuits from riding the small waves in sea.  I pulled out my book but was snoozing in no time…

The cat meowed again.  Hey man, don’t forget about me.  I’m still hungry!

You’ve got a good gig here, cat.  Eating scraps from a top notch restaurant in a city renowned around the world as a foodie capital.  Who said cats aren’t smart?  Shalom!

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Adventures in Chinese Dining – Tip #2

I cannot eat that green stuff

I think the measure of a Chinese host’s hospitality is how much food he or she can get their guest to eat. Whether it is at one meal or several meals throughout a single day, force feeding the guest with all manner of strange foods is as important as successfully hosting the Olympics.

We were visiting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in west-central China. Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. He. They were the parents of a boy who had stayed in our home for three weeks during a student exchange. Mr. He didn’t say much, but Mrs. He was a dominant chatterbox who was determined to win the Hostess of the Year Award. After visiting their apartment in Chengdu and touring the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, it was time for lunch.

I cannot eat that green stuff
Only one third of the food has arrived

We stopped at a nice restaurant in the countryside on the way back to Chengdu. We were led to a private banquet room on the second floor overlooking a tranquil pond. We sat at the typical round table with a “Lazy Susan” serving platter in the middle. There were five of us – our hosts, their son, and my wife Lisa and I. Yichen, the boy, was our interpreter, to the best of his fairly limited English skills.

Mrs. He launched into a lengthy dissertation on the culinary merits of the restaurant and the specialties of the Sichuan region. Or at least that’s what I think she said.

“My mother wants to know what you like to eat,” said Yichen.

I didn’t think they had what I like to eat in this provincial diner in Western China. No steak and new potatoes, no beef enchiladas with fresh taco chips and salsa, no pepperoni pizza.

“Whatever you would like to order is fine with us,” I politely replied.

First the waiter brought us some tea and soup. The waiter then brought a variety of appetizers. Some were delicious, some were not. Next the waiter delivered the main courses. There was enough food on the table to feed 15 people. All of these items were shared around the table by spinning the platter. It seemed that whatever landed in front of you was expected to be consumed. By luck or fate, I’m not sure which, a large bowl with a strange green substance arrived directly in front of me. I had no idea what it was. Vegetable? Meat dish? Dessert served early? Who knows.

Mr. He, who hadn’t said a word all day, started talking excitedly and waving his hands around.

“My father says that it is his favorite and you should eat,” said Yichen.

OK, I will do that. Should I check my life insurance policy first? I gingerly got a very small portion on my personally provided plastic fork. I put the fork into my mouth, faked a smile, and started chewing.

The taste exploded into my mouth. It burned hot and unbelievably caustic. I started to choke, my eyes flowed like the Yangtze River, and my body convulsed like I was spastic. A jet fuel fume burst through my sinus cavities into my brain. The taste reminded me of a mixture of turpentine and horse radish, although I don’t think I have ever drunk turpentine and horse radish, have I? I think I must have looked like Tom the Cat in those old Tom and Jerry cartoons when Jerry gets Tom to eat a load of hot peppers. My eyes bugged out, my hair stood on end, my extremities flailed and twitched. I knew that Sichuan was known for spicy food, but this was beyond belief.

I grabbed for my Coke and hurled it down my throat. I needed something to stop the pain and sensation of burning all the way down my gastrointestinal tract from my mouth to the other end. No fire extinguishers were within sight. I think I needed some of the water from the Dujiangyan Irrigation System.

My fellow diners looked at my distress. I calmed down and weakly spun the platter.

“Well…” I said. “Not my favorite so far. Let me try something else.”

The platter came to a stop. The strange green substance was in front of Mr. He.

He smiled at me and quickly devoured the entire contents of the bowl. He kept smiling the whole time.

Tip #2. Take a small portion of an unfamiliar food

This story was one of the winners of the First Travel Blogging Competition for Travellerspoint.com at 8 Blogs to Inspire Your Next Trip.

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Watch Out for the Waiter’s Scribbles!

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich

We had wandered the streets of Munich and ended up in the main square of the city, called the Marienplatz.  The Marienplatz is usually full of tourists and is a great spot for people-watching.  On one side of the square is the Neues Rathaus (the new city hall), which has a tower with a clock called a glockenspiel in it.  At certain hours of the day, the glockenspiel comes to life to reenact two 16th century stories of a Duke and his wife, the plague, and some barrel makers.  Stores and restaurants occupy the other sides of the square.

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich
Neues Rathaus in the Marienplatz, Munich

After the glockenspiel show, we headed straight for the nearest restaurant for a well-deserved lunch break.  We were a getting a little tired of sausages and sauerkraut and were ready for some pizza.  We were promptly seated by the hostess and a few minutes later the waiter arrived to take our order.

The waiter was a stout middle-aged fellow with slicked back hair.  He wore a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and a small apron around his waist.  So typically European!  He had heard us speaking English as he walked up to us.  He greeted us warmly in a thick German accent.

“Guten tag! Ja, what will you have?” he asked as he whipped out his little notepad.

His notepad was about 2 inches by 5 inches of rough buff-colored paper.  In his hand he held a small pencil.

We gave him our order of a couple of pizzas and soft drinks as he scribbled away on this little notepad.  With a final flourish of scribbling, he turned and scurried away.

The pizzas were very good.  We devoured them, fueling our bodies for the planned afternoon of touring.  With two hungry teenagers at the table, it didn’t take very long.  It was now time to pay the bill.

Getting a waiter’s attention in a European restaurant in order to pay the bill is almost always a strange situation for Americans.  In America, we eat, we pay, and we leave, so someone else can take our table and because we always have something else to do.  In Europe, people linger over their table and waiters have centuries of practice ignoring diners.

Our waiter walked by.  I waved.  He ignored me.  It happened again.  I tried a third time to get his attention.  Finally he got the message and came over.

“We’d like our bill, please.”

He rummaged in the pockets of his apron, looking for our bill.  After a few moments of searching, he pulled out a crumpled piece of notepad paper.

“Fifty-nine Euros,” he said.  I guess this was a restaurant where the customer paid the waiter, not one where the customer takes the bill to a central cash register.

As I dug into my wallet to get some cash, my brain started warming up.  How could this bill be 59 Euros?  These must be some expensive pizzas.  I don’t think the menu had prices that high for a couple of pizzas and drinks.  How could that be?  On an impulse, I asked to see the bill.

“Uh, Can I see the bill please?”

I think this was a new thing for the waiter.  He probably would go back to his waiter buddies and complain about the American tourists who wanted to see the bill.  Imagine, who would do such a thing here?

He flashed the crumpled note pad page in front of my face as he waived it around.  All I could see on the page were scribbles.  Some were numbers, some were doodles.

“59 Euros,” he said again, more firmly this time, holding his ground.

His behavior was now getting my attention.  My scam alert antennae were now in operation.  I started to visualize the menu items.  Let’s see, a large pepperoni pizza, a large sausage pizza, three Cokes, and a bottle of water.  That should be about 35 or 37 Euros.  Rounding up, it might come to 39 Euros.

“I want to see the bill again.  Let me hold it.”

He didn’t want to give it to me.  Now he pretended to not understand enough English to know what I was asking.  I motioned with my hands, pantomiming him giving me the bill and me looking at it closely.  Reluctantly, he handed it over.

I looked it over closely.  Yes, I could see our individual items, and almost illegible numbers for the total.  The final scribble showed a number that might have been a 59, but also might have been a 39.  This guy was trying to scam us dumb Americans out of 20 Euros.

“Drei nuen, nein funf nuen!” I said, trying to remember the numbers in German. I pushed two twenty Euro notes into his hand.

He looked at me with a blank look like I was an idiot child who couldn’t count.  That’s when I started to get annoyed.  I decided to pull the supervisor card.

“Let me talk to the manager of this restaurant.  Who is in charge here?”

Seeing that I was determined now, he quickly changed his tune.  He muttered something in his accented English about mistakes being made.  He took the notes out of my hand, plopped a Euro coin down on the table as change, and walked away.

“You see, kids,” I started in my typical Dad voice, “You never know when someone will try to take advantage of you.  You always have to be on the lookout…”  My kids rolled their eyes in response.  They get plenty of practice with this reaction.

“Chalk one up for savvy American traveler.”

The outcome was different in Rome.  We sat outside at a café on a glorious late summer evening.  The view of the Pantheon was splendid.  A horse and buggy were giving moonlit rides to happy tourists and local romantics.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Let's go for a ride!

The waiter, looking very competent in his European waiter uniform, attended to our every whim and desire.  He whipped out his notepad and scribbled away.  An appetizer, some vino, yes, a bottle of that fancy Italian water – no gas please…  scribble, scribble, scribble.

All of the courses were “al a carte.”  That’s Italian for “charge me an arm and a leg.”  And we couldn’t pass up desert.  It was chocolate cake.  Not my favorite, but not to be missed by others in my immediate family.  The waiter then brought us some limoncello, a cold desert wine to cleanse the palate.

After enjoying the nice meal, we enjoyed the view while hogging the table in European fashion.  Eventually it was time to leave.  It was the last night of our vacation, and a long travel day awaited us the next day.  Time for the bill.

The waiter was nowhere to be found.  I think he was in the kitchen practicing his penmanship.  I approached a guy who looked like the manager, although his name tag matched the name of the restaurant, so maybe he was the namesake and owner.  I motioned with my hands that we needed to go and wanted to pay the bill.

Without looking up from his newspaper, he said “One five nine Euros.”  Astounded, I gave him my best blank stare.  159 Euros, you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s over $200!  This isn’t even a nice restaurant, and the food was mediocre!

Before I could summon my best indignant, righteous anger, he pulled two crumpled pages of notepad paper out of his pocket while gesticulating wildly and spewing forth a rant in Italian.

I looked at the pages.  They were illegible.  Nothing but scribbles and doodles.  There’s no way I could reconstruct in my head what we ordered and approximately how much it cost.  As Kenny Rogers once said, you have to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.

Meekly I handed over my credit card. I had played the game with one win, and one loss.  It was time to go home.

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