Paris – Friday – Monday September 15- 18
…See notes on earlier visits to Paris in 1997 (Round the World Tour) and 1998.
I took an Air France flight that had a deportee aboard. Felt a little scary but was probably very safe since there were 3 marshals aboard with him. The 6 hour flight was uneventful. At the airport, pick up a Guide Paris which is a map of the metro system meant to orient arriving visitors. It was the best map I had and used it everywhere. Express trains go to center city in under half hour and leave about every 20 minutes. Hotel Ile de France. For all hotels, just go to google.com and type in the hotel name and city. They come right up. Cozy, small rooms but decent 3 blocks from the Opera (St. Augustin street #26). Rooms have A/C, still useful at this time of year (mid-September). Had mostly good weather for the 3 full days I was there. Arrived Friday morning; in afternoon strolled through the gardens by Place de Concorde. Saw Nicolas at Café du Paix (of Peace) right by the Intercontinental Hotel by the Opera. Nicolas is a Lebanese-French principal of an internet startup and is closing on a large round of financing. Hopes to compete in the US in a few years. He is ahead of the curve in Europe. Galleries Lafayette Department Store has lovely house brand collections in the men’s store on the 2nd floor. Interesting place to shop with innovative retailing techniques (ie: a DJ and all sorts of exhibits in the teen area); impressive dome structure on the main floor. Go to roof of the store to see rooftop view of Paris. Took elevator to top of the Arch de Triumph; just say you have a disability and they will take you up rather than make you walk the stairs. Best to visit in the latter afternoon. Wait time was minimal. Eifel Tower has long lines and less view I am told; I refused to stand in line for 90 minutes to go up. Always lots of people on the streets shouting something in Paris. Arabs selling mini-dancing Mickey Mouse figures on the streets; I wanted to buy some for the nieces but it was Saturday so I couldn’t buy any. Didn’t see them for the rest of the trip. Friday dinner at the Louvre Hotel (right by the Louvre). See the courtyard on the other side of the street behind the Comedy Theater across from that hotel (it is to resemble a huge field of soccer balls). Lunch at the King George V Hotel. Saturday walked around all over to Eifel Tower, Louvre courtyard and Notre Dame; students selling used books in a square near the Notre Dame. Dinner at Pizza Pino on a main corner of the Champs; returned to Eifel Tower via the Trocadero where the night view of the Tower is quite impressive. Good metro connections at Opera; there is an express subway called RER that runs between the most popular stations; from the Opera to the Arch de Triumph is one stop or 5 minutes on the RER. Also one stop from Opera to the transfer station to the train to the Charles De Gaulle airport (“Chatelet – Les Halles”). Met Laurent for a drink at the Café de Paix Sunday night and dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel above it. Thought I’d miss the Olympics since I am away from the US for a month; actually, here they show everything live. In the US, it’s all on tape and lots of commentary and no action. Lots of kissing all over in Paris; also lots of skating and scooters. Sunday a 45 minute train to Fontainbleau and then a half hour walk or a 5 minute taxi; allow 90 minutes to see the castle and walk the gardens. Now I appreciate how short Napoleon was. Took a little trolley around for a half hour tour. Nice hotel in the center of the city (“Hotel de L’Aigle Noir”); would be a nice place to spend a weekend just outside of Paris. Pretty homes just off the streets; walk around and peek inside the gates. They only checked my ticket one way on the train; best to buy one way tickets in case they don’t check them. This happens almost every time I travel this trip. Great having a cellphone; people can reach me from the US as well as along my itinerary. The hotel in Damascus reached me to confirm things while I was in Istanbul; strange getting that call from Damascus while on the roof of the Hilton taking my lunch. The 11:45 am flight to Zurich is 45 minutes.
Zurich – Monday afternoon 18 September
See earlier notes on Switzerland 1997 Round the World and 1999 Trip to Arabia. Free internet access in the airport near the passage to the gates with a network manager on site. Checked my mail at an Internet café at the Stars Buffet and Restaurant at the train station in center city. Again, buy one way ticket on the train from the airport to the city and try your luck. Same deal with the train to the airport in Paris. Metros to and from airport go every 5 minutes or so and take 8 minutes. If lockers are all used up, you can check your bag with the railway at the train station (under the airport) before going into town. Visited National Museum to see impressive exhibit about Da Vinci; he was really a versatile fellow. Met Chris for lunch; got a good briefing on current Swiss and Latin affairs. Saw some Miami people on the main shopping street (Bahnhofstrasse) – it never fails, I always see people I know on that street. I always love coming here; even a tuna fish on a roll at a kiosk in the train station is excellent. Changed all my leftover currencies from the last trip or two at the train station at the airport; no commissions and you can buy and sell any combination of currencies. Bought Turkish currency knowing I will arrive after midnight. Europe is unusually cheap this visit for a Dollar; late September weather was perfect. Swissair 9pm flight to Istanbul is 2.5 hours and quite full but always special. I managed to get a wonderful exit row aisle seat and a talkative Turkish professor as a seatmate.
Tip: On this trip, I’ve tried a new method; am carrying papers inside a plastic pouch sealed on the left and open on the right. It protects them against creasing and keeps a pen and a few items together for easy reach. Another packing tip: 1 or 2 instant shoe polish wipes.
Istanbul – Tuesday 19 September till Friday 22 September
Passport control moved fast; remember to get a visa for $45 (price varies for different countries but that is the US citizen price) just before the passport control. Take cash; they don’t take credit cards. Taxi to Hilton in center city was 22 minutes and was less than $20 (something like 13 million lira; too many zeros here and it is confusing to figure out what the taxi meter actually reads with all them zeros). Metal detector at hotel entrance and they check trunks of cars. I’ve never seen this before at a hotel. It’s all for show anyway; the Hilton compound is huge and someone with a bomb is not likely to come in through the front door. Tuesday I just slept late; had a leisurely buffet lunch in the coffee shop and ventured out for a bit of a walk around and a test ride on their brand new metro (to no place a tourist would need to go and it is so far underground that it is not useful for short trips). Then taxied to the Ciragan Palace Hotel (pronounced Chiran; otherwise the taxi driver has no idea where you are going). Gorgeous place to have tea; the back yard overlooking the Bosporus is a beautiful place on the planet and it is worthwhile to walk the grounds over to the ballroom and view the gardens and the sea from the upper floors of the ballroom. Also a real pretty shopping mall underneath the ballroom floors. Restaurant bills do not include service; I thought they were on the European standard and didn’t leave any tips for the first day till I asked about it. Culture shock; someone washing his feet in the bathroom sink at the Chiran Hotel. This is one of the leading hotels in the world and Westerners don’t expect to see a guy in a suit and tie washing his feet in the lobby bathroom. East meets West here at Istanbul. I would stay here but they are sold out; cruise ships and high season as mid-September is the best weather of the year. Even at this hotel, the waiters and busboys really don’t understand what you say to them; English is not in use here. Forget about taxi drivers; they know nothing except some numbers. But at least they use meters and the fares are cheap. No need to tip taxis; just round up to the nearest million.
Taxi Tip: Cellphones are good here too; if you get lost or want to improvise your itinerary, get your colleague on the phone and give the phone to the driver so they can talk in the local language.
Traffic is bad here but not as bad as New York City, I think. I felt the concierge at the Hilton was marking up the costs of services too much and went to the Pera Palace Hotel concierge who booked sightseeing for me for 25% less. I complained about the markup on laundry to the manager and he gave me a 20% discount as a courtesy. Television has too many commercials; the Europeans say the Americans have too many commercials; not so. All over Europe it is a pain to endure them.
Realized I would be going nowhere without a guide and returned to meet a friend for dinner and get the lowdown on Istanbul. Evening conversation on Tuesday with two colleagues who started a chain of coffee houses “Tribeca” that also serves pizza, bagels and even cheesecake; it is an unusual chain up to Western standards in an area that doesn’t offer much of this type of food at this standard. One is Jewish; the other Moslem. Their comments: Watch Romania. Up and coming young elite with money; the first country they would expand their chain into if they went international. Cyprus issue should be solved in 3 years with Turkey backing down in exchange for loans from the EEC once their inflation and interest rates have stabilized and Turkey is in a position to actually ask for those loans; economy is maturing and growing apart from the government sector; earthquake made people more ambivalent about the country’s army. Turks want a higher standard of life; not interested in being diverted by nationalistic issues such as Cyprus which is a tax drain and vanity show. Even water is supplied to Turkish Cyprus and the islanders pay no taxes. Turks want more democracy, and there is more private investment taking place. Islam is not seen as a route for economic salvation and the movement is at a low point in the country. Still problems such as inflation and infrastructure but they are improving. Good trade deals with the EEC. Not concerned about threats from neighboring countries; more concerned about domestic issues.
Sightseeing: Wednesday went to Dolmabache Palace. This needs 2 hours to see the Haram and the Sultan’s Palace. It is one of the great sites. Then to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Old City; nothing special. Then to underground cisterns (very cool in a double sense), a Byzantine church/mosque “Haja Sofia”, the Blue Mosque and the Covered Bazaar to kill an hour going through the ritual of looking at carpets. If you think you want to buy a carpet in Turkey, it is best to look at some carpets before traveling in order to know if these buys are any good. There are nice carpets to be bought but they are not cheap. The Topakeegee Palace is significant not for its grandeur but for one room in particular with sacred Islamic objects which would be interesting to all religionists; Moses’ staff, Abraham’s stick, Joseph’s turbin. A fellow inside a booth chanting Koran all day long. We drove to an old Jewish neighborhood and stumbled onto a Greek Orthodox church of several centuries history; then to the Asia side and lunch in a nice restaurant “Seaport” in the Beylerbey district along the water with big windows and good food. Sea bass is the big fish this month here. The Asia side is quieter but there is still traffic. Sitting on the water and looking at the bridge, it feels like San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sightseeing Tip: Istanbul consists of a new city, old city and the Asia side. To see Istanbul in a day, start in the early morning. Drive to East Asia side over the big bridge and ferry to the Old City. Ferry from Kadikoy to Karakoy. The ferry ride is :20 and is best enjoyed in the morning light. All the mosques ring the skyline; “Rock Around the Mosque.” Tea service on the ferry has a culture of its own. Probably also a nice ride at night. Taxi to visit the Blue Mosque (allow :15), also best in morning light. Then cross the street to the Haja Sofia (about :20), the underground cisterns (:20), the Topakeegee Palace (:30; skip the Haram) and walk through the Covered Market (:15). Allow more time if you want to carpet shop. All of the above are in the same area within a few minutes walk of each other. By now it’s lunchtime. The Hilton has a nice coffee shop with a buffet and a good view of the city and sea. (The Synagogue is not far from here but you need to use taxi.) Then to the Dolmabache Palace and do see the Haram (palace for the wives of the Sultan). Then to the Chiran Palace Hotel for high tea and view the sea from the ballroom. In evening, go to Taksim Square for local flavor. Walk along the main pedestrian street starting from the square for 15 minutes and exit right a block after the Richmond Hotel till you get to the first real street and then right to the Pera Palace Hotel and take dinner there. It is next door to the Mercury Hotel. Certain things are closed on certain days (ie: Tuesday) so choose a day when all sites are open. My guide was Neslihan (Neslihan@iname.com).
If you have an extra day, you could try your luck seeing the synagogue in the old Jewish quarter but it is a good ride from center city and you should go in the morning and check to see if it is open or else you waste a trip.
I have switched hotels today to the Pera Palace which is half the price of the Hilton at $100 a night. I was offered the Greta Garbo suite but it seemed noisy atop a highway so I went to a quiet inside room on Agatha Christie’s floor to hide away. Dinner in the lobby; salads here are nicer than usual; first of many dinners in this region with people playing the same standard songs on electric pianos; amazing how I will hear so much of the same lobby music for the next month. Beautiful public spaces in this hotel built to house passengers of the Orient Express train with lots of history all restored to its former grandeur including an old fashioned carriage elevator and there are legends regarding Agatha Christie and a famous key associated with the property. Be sure to visit this hotel of mystery and charm. Hotel is near a main pedestrian street and lots of young people hanging around out for the evening. Internet café for $1 an hour but it is sooo slow and their keyboards are strange. $20 an hour at the Hilton but it is 20 times as fast. It pays to use business centers at the top hotels. Time is money when you are on the road. Pera Palace Hotel has no A/C and strange bathrooms; it was like a Hamam (sauna) that night but friendly service and they did get me same-day laundry which is not easy outside the main hotels; the Hilton is actually reasonable for this and had a very good business center.
Can’t drink water in Istanbul and too many zeros in the currency for anyone to take it seriously; main streets are not in good shape. Still very third world as for infrastructure; not ready for the EEC but the Turks see themselves through their television as Europeans, perhaps Germans. The Hilton is worthwhile because it is civilization in a secluded quiet area of a place that is not totally civilized. Turkey is problematic for tourists because there is no bilingual signage and even in hotels, the staff doesn’t really understand you. Even though they supposedly are learning English as a 2nd language. Sorta like Japan where they learn it but don’t speak it.
Thursday night I moved to the Crowne Plaza just 10 minutes from the airport; I had a 10am flight and didn’t want to be nervous about fighting traffic to get to the airport. They gave me a beautiful suite on the 22nd floor at $228 per night (add 17% to all rates in Turkey for tax); first time I was in a hotel where you must insert your doorkey into a slot by the door or else all the lights go out after 30 seconds. I was in the bathroom and fumbled all the way back to the front door till I opened it and realized what was wrong. That’s the price for carrying your own bag to the room at night! I thought the Hilton was grabbing me for all kinds of extras and then I saw the price list for minibar and laundry at the Crowne Plaza; it is revolting to have these hotels charge ridiculous prices for these services. Whatever happened to being in the hospitality business? Their business center charged Hilton prices but with inferior services, but when I complained they took off the charges. Dinner at the next-door marina and the Galleria Shopping Center to see some of the newer developments; the mall had an ice skating rink and a bowling alley. Got a chance to see how bowling has become much more interesting than I remember it from years ago; I never go bowling in the US so I’m not aware of it except when I read about it. Met up with my colleague again for dinner; Rafi says Jews are assimilating; day school is $8,000 per kid just like in Miami. Petrol is $3.50 per gallon; you’ve got to be rich to live here. My guide pays $200 a month for her cellular on a $1,000 monthly salary; I would call that rent but she lives with her parents so this is where her discretionary income goes. People go through lots of hassles to be in business but if you stick it out, you can be a little king here. Too many old people in politics; too much bureaucracy; just getting a cash register for a business involves all sorts of licenses and approvals. Good thing that public attitudes are shifting toward acceptance of change. Too many Turks are still uneducated or lacking capitalistic common sense; lousy workers who don’t listen, says Rafi.
Tip: To get out of hotels in morning fast, prepack and lay all items inside various bags (ie: laundry, pants, shirts, jackets, undergarments). Don’t put things in drawers and make piles in a separate area close together on the floor or on a table. I could get up and check out in 30 minutes this way. I would look at the Swisshotel Bosporus, the Hilton or the Chiran Palace. Consider transferring to the Crowne Plaza the night before a morning flight. 2 full days in Istanbul is good.
Got upgraded to business class on Olympic airlines to Athens because I had business class later that day from Athens to Larnaca. Still a second tier airline with dirty planes and dirty info cards in seat pockets. Airport is small and the business class lounge is excellent. Flight to Athens is 1:00.
Athens – Friday afternoon 22 September
New airport soon to come; what is now the airport will be sports facilities for the Olympic games due in a few years. Pretty area along the sea; too bad to lose it. New airport will be other side of town much farther away from the city. Long and tall cup of orange juice with Chris and Anna at a seaside restaurant; sat for 4 hours and talked regional politics and economics; infrastructure here is better and cleaner than Turkey; I always expect Greece to look worse than it does and have been favorably surprised twice. Country is stable; looks forward to trade with Turkey. Internet commerce is still in its infancy. Blue waters and interesting topography in the background. Roads are landscaped and streets are neat. Enjoying late lunch in the business club. Here they put all sorts of sandwiches, pastries, fruits and drinks at your disposal. Business class is a real pleasure in Europe. For notes on earlier visit, see Archival Notes on Athens, 1995.
Limasol, Cyprus Friday – Sunday 22-24 September
Other notes from Cyprus from 1995 and 1997 visits.
A 90 minute flight to Larnaca and then a 35 minute ride to Limasol to the 4 Seasons Resort (no relation to the hotel chain) to spend the Sabbath. Am very glad there is absolutely no place worth visiting outside the hotel grounds. Pretty sea but water is cold even though the air temperature is in the mid 90’s. Good buffets and very nice hotel with attention to details (ie: they offer baby listening devices), nice rooms and very pretty public areas, pool facilities and private beach. Hotel offered in-room Internet via the TV; it is a good idea but doesn’t work. Prices are reasonable so you don’t get aggravated with all the extras; all the staff are white Europeans who speak good English. Hotel has different dress codes for different areas and restricts children from certain areas; this makes for a classier place. Also has a group of suites; they have well positioned the resort as a sophisticated spa/resort. Many Russians visit here and taxis attempt to grab you and take you to strip clubs where they reportedly give you drinks and a hefty bill afterward. Andreas and his friend visited Saturday afternoon; I am enjoying the quiet. All the Israeli radio stations are on the FM band here; they don’t come in like this in Beirut, Damascus or even Amman so I assume the Israelis have relay transmitters on the island. Even the classical music station is relayed here. I wonder why; it is strange that you should be in a foreign country with 3 home stations plus 5 stations from Israel 250 miles away. Quite a restful weekend; flew Sunday afternoon 2pm to Beirut.
Airport Tip: Middle East Airways doesn’t have business lounge privileges in Larnaca but for about $15 you can buy admission to the club no matter what airline you’re flying and in whatever class. It’s worth trying to do this in any airport. Lots of free food, high-speed internet and good reading.
Beirut – Sunday/Monday 24/25 September
Review notes from 1997 Round the World visit.
Middle East Airways is a small operation and it’s easy to get an upgrade if you bug them a bit and make sure they get to know you. Young airbus fleet. It is a 25 minute flight to Beirut from Larnaca. Now there are jetways and a brand new airport; transit visa for stays less than 48 hours is free; new road to center city with a system of tunnels to bypass traffic bottlenecks. I am there on Sunday afternoon and the city is dead; perfect to move around but outside city center you see there is still much traffic. Some reconstruction in the downtown Beirut area with pretty new yellow brick buildings near the new parliament. Lots of elephants, meaning projects that were in progress a few years ago that were not completed or that are being unused. Real estate values are same as they were 3 years ago. The view from the coast overlooking “Jounieh” is still as lovely as I recall it from 3 years ago and remains one of my all-time favorite vistas. Amine met me at airport and took me to view these areas, sit over a salad and visit wife and kids at a beach club. Costs $1,000 per month to rent a beach condo and it is an oasis of elite civilization but you still can’t drink the water. Visited his house and then dinner with wife and brother at a famous restaurant “Mounir” overlooking the city. Grandma babysat baby George. Both were memorable; his house which was being built last time I visited has authentic arches, unique antiques such as maps, tables and chandeliers and a real homey feeling; when you open the kitchen windows and look outside over the whole city and mountains, you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. The doorway has within it the design of a menorah. The restaurant I am told is the #1 Lebanese restaurant in the country; waiter stood by our table entire time; instead of clearing table for dessert, we simply moved to another table which was set up. Exotic fruits and freshly baked breads in the back kitchen which they demonstrated for me. Amine’s cousin owns the restaurant and the family owns the village. How convenient. The Syrians still post a guard at the entrance to the village to remind them who’s the ultimate boss for now.
Nightlife is more toward the city outskirts; some new hotels in center city and elsewhere; mine is not centrally located but it is cheap at $75 per night (“Hotel Promenade”). Nice hotel room and space is not skimped on although I would go to the Intercontinental Vendome in center city if I returned. Beirut is spread out and is less populated than it appears. Lebanon has 4 million population; 40% in Beirut. A good amount of the buildings are not occupied or are still bombed out. Some oddities: ATM’s here offer currency in a choice of Dollars or Lebanese pounds. Gas stations list price in 10 liter increments. There is internet access and my cellphone works. 3 years ago there were no ATM’s. Very good radio and TV with a lot of material geared toward young listeners; I even know some of the Arabic songs and enjoy humming along. It is a very commercial city with all the brands you know and quite a lively media.
In all, there is a good amount of change but much of it is cosmetic and there is less change than there would be if things were free; business is still depressed, people are poor and demand is recessed. Bashar is still a mystery to Lebanese; maybe also to himself. Syrians still in control but more subtle; not the typical mafia deal but more professional. They are not taking percentages from people but rather take fees to settle disputes and collect debts. Here I am told that the late Hafez Assad was not offered in Geneva in March 2000 what the Israelis said or what I was told was offered; the impression is that Assad was squeezed at a delicate moment and wisely resisted it. Lebanese are not pleased to have the sense that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was, at that time, boiling down to the Al-Aksa Mosque; what about the Lebanese refugees? Amine expects peace within 2 years. Maybe not anymore given the more recent events since my visit (which began the end of September). South Lebanon still dilapidated; the Israelis had contributed to whatever little economy had then existed before their withdrawal. Enough Syrian elites have investments in Lebanon that they should profit from peace and development, even if Syria withdraws. Ghassan says Bashar must make peace to survive. Ghassan does human rights legal work but the Syrians haven’t hauled him in yet; to do so would invite international criticism.
Monday 10am taxi with a driver arranged by Amine to take me directly to Damascus. It is 2:45 door to door and $100 plus $10 tip. The drive to the Lebanese border is amusing; Villages along the road have signs all over the place with photos of whoever the local leader is. Some of these are young handsome princes. Lots of recent election posters still up. Pretty dumpy areas with crummy roads but nice scenery over the Bekaa Valley. Hard to believe this area gets bombed every so often. About 5km of no-man’s land at the border where I crossed at noon just after getting some Syrian money at a black market exchange. I sat in the car during the formalities; the Syrians get baksheeshed to avoid spending an hour entering information into a computer and just write a number in my passport so I can pass through.
Syria – Damascus & Bosra
Monday/Tuesday 25 & 26 September
Border to Damascus city limits is only about 30 minutes and there are lots of little signs advertising various things such as companies and products. It is not familiar stuff. City brings lots of tall housing project-like buildings with schoolchildren on the streets at lunchtime. Funky looking 60’s traffic lights and tree-lined boulevards with traffic police in towers over intersections (like Moscow used to be). Toward center city there are more roundabouts than intersections with traffic lights. Just before arrival my driver had a close call at an intersection and paid $5 baksheesh to the policeman to avoid a ticket.
I am at the Cham Palace Hotel, one of 3 five-star hotels in the city and the only one downtown and of a Syrian chain. The others are the Meridian and Sheraton (which would also have been cheaper). Lunch at the hotel buffet which was very good and reasonably priced. My hotel room is $150 per night plus 10% tax but they upgraded me to a junior suite which they say costs $450 and has a stunning view of the city and the nearby mountains. I overlook an officer’s club with huge portraits of the Assads. Bathtub has a glass door by the shower that swings open. Novel idea.
2pm orientation tour with guide Ayman. Drove 5 minutes to old city to Al-Azem Palace which is a folklore museum with old exhibits and nothing in English. Syria and Lebanon are more French but Lebanon is beginning to use more English. Here it’s all French and Arabic. No one speaks English. I say to someone that I am Jewish. I figure he understands. Two minutes later he says to me, Are you Christian? Gives you an idea of how controversial it is to be Jewish here. Then to the Omayyad Mosque and tomb of Saladin. The Mosque also has within it a mausoleum of a famous Christian. This is a big site for Moslems. In Istanbul, the Haja Sofia was a church with Arabic characters all over as it had been used by Moslems. The intertwining of the two religions in this region within their sites is quite interesting. You wonder why the Moslems and Jews can’t figure out how to create something out of Al-Aksa in Jerusalem that can make it friendly to all tourists.
Coffee at a coffeehouse just outside the mosque. Then to shrine of St. Paul the Baptist who was famous for his revelations at Damascus. A bit of bazaar shopping; lots of pretty items of quality to buy at somewhat reasonable prices. Exotic chairs, tables and lacquer boxes are manufactured here. Cheap and fairly good clothing is also manufactured here. This is a hidden treasure for shoppers. Another courtyard of what was once the French school. Then to the mountain overlooking the city; view is best in late afternoon. Then a drive through the embassy row which is the prettiest neighborhood. Drank some fruit juice at a popular stand near the hotel. Now it is about 6:30pm. A short rest and then dinner at an exquisite Italian restaurant within the hotel; the Cham Palace has about 8 restaurants, one of them rooftop, with the idea that you’d never want to leave the hotel because there is no good reason to do so. The Italian restaurant had beautiful furniture and linens; freshly cooked food and live music; about 5 eaters. One good thing about these nutty destinations is that it is completely irrelevant that profit should be made and these lovely creations exist simply for your pleasure and for that of other visiting dignitaries. That evening the occupant of the VIP lounge just off the lobby floor turns out to be the rather young and dashing Iraqi Foreign Minister. He looks like Bashar Assad and I ask the security dude if the fellow nervously checking his handkerchief in his checkered jacket is him.
In Lebanon, you saw different pictures everywhere you went because people are more tied to their communities than the country. In Syria, it is Assad’s Syria (just like the sign at the border says “Welcome to Assad’s Syria.”) Everywhere you look there are pictures of the 3 leaders (the late Hafez, the late son Basil (who died in a car accident over 5 years ago) and Bashar. Both Bashar and Basil wear sunglasses in the photos. Hard to tell them apart. It is a bit of a joke to look at this postering overkill for what looks like a student council election gone amok. Every 10 feet in the city you see these pictures. Some shops put 3 pictures next to each other just to be sure (ie: you’re missing the 1998 edition picture, hmmm….). Pictures in the hotels, shops, ballrooms, military clubs, every town square has a bust or banner. From my hotel room I see Assad pictures all over the city.
A walk around the neighborhood that evening after dinner; people look happy and occupied; the radio and television are festive and filled with music and entertainment; newstands are filled with Arabic newspapers; I don’t know if they all say the same thing and if nobody reads them. A good number of clocks in public areas don’t work but who cares? This is not a society that runs on time. No Internet working in the Business Center; access to e-mail costs $2 per minute. Foreign newspapers are in the Business Center but when you pick them up you find they are over a month old. Magazines are a week behind in the lobby store. CNN is in the hotels though and satellite dishes are now legal but who can afford them? Lots of musicians in the lobby and the Olympics are on a big TV. Hotel room is first class but there is traffic and mosques nearby.
No ATM’s in Syria. No banks really. No credit cards outside the hotel except in a few tourist places. Use only Syrian currency. Another reason not to leave the hotel. No Western retail chains. Cellular use is just beginning but it is only within range of the top elite.
Politics: Ayman thinks Assad will be around for awhile at least. Thinks not getting all the Golan was a deal Assad could refuse. Arafat has no right to give up things such as sovereignty over holy places without consent of Moslem leaders and affected Palestinians. Can wait another 50 years for peace. Maybe Israel will not exist in 50 years. Absent proof of economic benefit to Syria, there is no bargain for peace with Israel. Syrians have a real sense that Israel has done cruel things, killed innocent people and tolerated massacres (ie: Sharon tolerated Sabra & Shatilla and still heads the opposition and is being considered as a partner for a unity government). They honestly believe Israel is a guilty party and that they have good reasons to hate Israel. From the Arab point of view, it would be their concession that Israel should continue to exist on 25% of Palestinian territory. Conspiracy theories gain audiences here (ie: Israelis killed Sadat – I’m still trying to figure out why they would have). There is definitely a different mentality here and it is hard to reason with people who base their opinions about the same situation on a totally different set of facts and considerations, but the important point is that the people here think they are in the right and it will be hard to deal with this obstacle since it takes 2 sides to tango in the peace process. For a deal between Israel and Syria to work, it must be unambiguous. The average guy has to be able to know what the deal is. Syrians are afraid of Israeli interference and domination in their economies.
It is hard to rate the points put forward by Ayman who was the most combative; he spoke in the presence of the driver Ahmed whom he did not know. There was a bit of a sense that he felt obligated to deliver the party line. Ahmed thought that Ayman was not being totally frank and might have been more conciliatory had he been talking in private.
Moving past this issue, Syrians are rather apathetic about the Arab-Israeli conflict and most other world issues. They are not as poor as before but they are pretty damn poor and many are farmers living off the land. Life is cheap, as long as you don’t buy anything. Travel is a fantasy.
Walked into a nightclub during my evening walkabout in search of conversation with some normal people (I didn’t find any I could talk to in English); the club shared space with a karate studio and a gym with a class in progress. There is a festive spirit here on the streets and in the media; lots of fruit juice stands but I didn’t see falafel. It is not an obvious police state even though there are lots of police on the streets, but the only park in center city is inside an army officer’s club which occupies several square blocks. Lots of real old cars and movie houses but there are some new cars and relatively new films (ie: Jackie Chan) and some other films from last year. There will be more new cars now that a law permitting their import was just passed but it is still very expensive. At the border they make a big deal of registering the taxis to make sure there is no car smuggling and adequate insurance coverage for vehicles. There were no obvious filming restrictions; there were mini-cameras for sale in the minibar. My guide never told me not to photograph. I think foreigners are too scared anticipating a police state in Syria. It is a very safe place to be a tourist and there are a decent number of Jewish and American tourists in Syria and even Israelis who venture to Beirut. It is also hard to make trouble and get into conversations with people because of the obvious language barrier. I didn’t sense that people were antisemitic even if they knew I was Jewish; Jews have been respected and given freedom of movement within Syria and they appreciate it. Israel is a different matter. My guide had a bit of a problem even bringing himself to pronounce the name until we started laughing about it after a few minutes. The hotel room guide had a map which showed Syria and its borders and left Israel out of the map. But Syria’s TV-2 channel in English gives full reports about Israel just as Jordan TV used to about 5-10 years ago. The weather report ignores Israeli destinations but offers forecasts for Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Not much of a circle of friends that can benefit Syria for long. Syria under Assad is beginning to change ever so slowly but so far nothing one could perceive.
Damascus is a relic of old-time 50’s Havana and it will eventually modernize and become like everywhere else. Too bad; go and see it while you can. Dress is western-style with few white robes except at night. Men walk hand in hand and hands round shoulders. It looks like a gay paradise except that I’m told people are just comradely here. Someone wanted to hold me and walk me across a street and I couldn’t tell if the person was being friendly or wanted to grab my passport and wallet. Language barrier at work. It can be an adventure to cross the street here since there is a good deal of distance between traffic lights.
Tuesday morning I woke up briefly to enjoy the golden city view from my window; should have taken a photo of the stunning color of Damascus. It is a large and impressive city to gaze upon from the top of the mountain the previous afternoon. Taxied to the Hamediah “covered bazaar” and bought some souvenirs (antique etchings with colored prints of fairy tale scenes and ancient scriptures) which I thought would be nice for the nieces but seems also appropriate for adults. You should know I rarely buy souvenirs. I’ve since had them framed and put under glass.
I walked around the market taking pictures of Assad pictures. A photo essay of course is on line on this site. There are overpasses for pedestrians over major thoroughfares, just like in Hong Kong. I walked back to the hotel and found my way somehow. The hotel is about 15 minutes away from the market. The taxi ride was a dollar and that was double-charged without the meter running.
I left at noon in a private taxi heading toward Amman prepaid with credit card through the hotel. I had my drivers deal with small change all day long here and in other places such as Istanbul and paid them up at the end with a big tip. Allow 2:45 to drive to Amman plus :45 at the border if you cross at the Old Border crossing; allow an extra hour if you cross at the New Border crossing. The new crossing has many tour buses. Lunch at the Cham Hotel in a border town called Bosra. We were the only people eating lunch at the hotel and they hardly took a credit card there. Bosra is a Roman ruins site with a big amphitheater and lots of ruins of an ancient city with market streets and structures. It goes on for a good quarter of a mile. 18-year-old Zachariah guided and will someday be an archeologist; he wants peace and change and his English was among the best I heard in Syria. Driver Ahmed wants peace and economic freedom. He only talks freely when solo. Put 2 Syrians together and you get no opinions; each fears the other is from the police. Nobody knows what other people think; there is no concept of public opinion in Syria. But if you talk privately you find that Bashar Assad is not popular and is more unknown than anything else. Syrians could relate to the idea that Bashar has about as much business being president of Syria as Bush Jr. does of America. No public appearances. His picture with the sunglasses next to 2 dead people is rather silly. Hafez Assad wasn’t popular either but he was respected and the respects paid to him at his funeral were genuine.
People work 16 hours a day at 2 jobs to make a total of $40 per week. A Ford Taurus right now costs $60,000. A refrigerator costs $400 and that’s 10 weeks work if you have 2 jobs. Nobody can afford to think about politics. No money for phone, video, TV. Just work and stay busy; there is no reason for the average person to worry he lives in a police state because he is really not interested in making any trouble. There is panum and circus (bread and entertainment) and the streets are colorful and gay (or whatever).
Amman, Jordan Tuesday-Thursday 26-28 September
See previous notes on visits 1995, 1997 and 1998.
Roads in Syria are not bad but in Jordan they are quite good. What a relief to see friendly not so military people at the border. Tired of seeing Assad pictures for the past 24 hours; now I will see Abdullah and Hussein pictures (though not nearly as many). There are Caucasian-looking people doing the customs clearance now and I have a 5 year multiple-entry visa to Jordan so for me entry and exit is very clean. The climb to Amman and the view of the Jordanian valley is quite pretty in the late afternoon. Here the roads are monitored with radar and people don’t speed. There are now female traffic cops and no one wants to be pulled over by them; you can’t argue with them.
Arrived just before sunset as I wanted not to be driving around at night, even in Jordan. There is a guy in a Barney suit dancing around in front of a toy store as we approach city limits. We pull over to an ATM machine to get cash to pay off my driver for tips and expenses. (Contrast this with my 1995 arrival escapades in search of cash when there were no ATM machines.) Check into Hotel Marmara at $75 per night; used Internet in the business center and had a good dinner in the hotel restaurant. They have a Swiss chef and the waiters have formal training. Prices are reasonable to the point I am not terribly curious about figuring out the exchange. Here cellphones are more widely in circulation, partially because they are a more reasonable alternative to landlines. Hotel is not busy and has quite a few Iraqis visiting. It is a sign that Jordanians and Iraqis are gearing up to do more business with each other.
Jordan is a safe spot for me in a way that Syria is not. It is also more familiar, this being my fifth visit. The hotel people know me by now. Both countries are quite friendly; Jordan’s advantage is that it is easier to talk to people when you speak the same language. Also, there is no sense in Jordan that people are afraid to speak their minds.
No soldiers on the streets anymore; they have really cleaned this up. Restaurants are very clean and food is good. You get the sense the health department is doing its job or that the market demands it. This is a country in which you feel that the King could be eating in the same restaurant you are and he just might drop in at any time. Islamic activity at a low point; King is jailing and punishing corruptees; his father previously simply retired them. King is moving to reform without seeking consensus after early moves were unchecked and popular. This King was not elected so he pretty much can do what he wants and try to push the envelope. At the Exhibition Center, all signs even down to the NO SMOKING are in English only. High speed internet access is now initially being offered. There are many Internet cafes. PC’s are as cheap as the US.
Wednesday featured discussions with Ayman at the Hyatt hotel lobby, then to lunch at a good fish restaurant known as 7 Seas, then to meet his family, to a Hi-Tech fair, dinner in the neighborhood, walk back to my hotel, check e-mail and sit and talk to the desk clerk.
The Jordanian desk clerk who speaks often with visiting Syrians (who do feel free to speak their minds outside the country) says that Everyman in Syria is neutral on peace and Israelis and mainly looks at this through the prism of possible economic benefits, much as Jordanians do. Syria is now dirt poor but it is not clear to me that capitalism will help or just make most people poorer and some of them richer.
Two of my three appointments for the next day are making presentations of IT-oriented projects to the King. So there is some movement here, at least it would seem. Thursday morning I meet up with Hanna in his office (where my Jordanian adventure in life began 5 years before); he is more pessimistic these days as he sees the nature of economies changing and his old business channels being replaced (ie: defense tenders used to be by newspaper ad; now they are B-2-B e-commerce auctions). Then to Awni who is dissatisfied with the totality of everything. Palestinians are getting the leader they deserve with Arafat. Put the Palestinian issue aside: Jordan made a treaty with Israel and Israel is not living up to its bargain. Most people I talked to could be OK with splitting sovereignty over Al-Aksa but Awni prefers the UN since the relationship with Israel lacks trust. Blames Israel for lack of PR savvy in not even trying to make things appear to be on the level (ie: Israeli president refuses to meet Jordanian king except in Jerusalem). Desk clerk perturbed by this too. Awni feels changes I see in Jordan are mostly cosmetic; no real overall development plans but just shooting at selected targets such as IT (information technology). Even in that sector efforts are not focused and consistent. He is not optimistic on any grounds and does not want to offer to study such problems areas as it will only politicize his consultancy and make him enemies to his business’ detriment. All his clients are foreigners who use him to strategize execution of their marketing efforts in the country.
Right now there is a liquidity crisis. No money to buy things; Hanna sells stock at a loss to get $10,000 to buy a kitchen for his newlywed daughter. Real estate is recessed and values have not appreciated over the past few years. Salaries are low and there is brain drain. Laws are restrictive; there is no law for Venture Capital yet. Jordan needs to shift from a situation of “unless it is permitted it is prohibited” to “if it is not prohibited it is permitted.” Very little seed capital available but VC firms here find few projects they like and are scrambling to give 2nd and 3rd level financing to the same 5 projects. Best to position seed capital as a “fund.” People are suspicious of “dirty” money (ie: drug or laundered money) and Israeli capital. Omar Salah who is heavily into his public appearances with Israeli partners is not a popular man in this town.
Ayman and I drove late afternoon to see the neighborhood where the king lives and where some nice new housing is and will be. At the Burger King at an intersection there are over 100 teenagers just hanging out in the parking lot. We go to a CD shop. Someone there recognizes me as the author of Global Thoughts. Dinner at the hotel and then out to the airport. The airport is a bit better now; some lavatories with flush toilets and chains such as DeliFrance and Pizza Hut. Airport is still a slow place; I basically walked up to a counter agent and told them to check me in and for the passport guy to take care of my passport; someone tried to get me to pay an exit tax at the gate. I said No Way and that was that. They don’t fool around with you if you let them know you mean business. No use getting a cart at the airport as you can’t take it upstairs to the gate area. Taxi to airport is $22 and 30 minutes from center city. Posters all over the city and the road to the airport show ordinary Jordanians with the words “Think Big.” There are still lots of pictures of Hussein, Sr. but the new king does not have to rely on his late father for legitimacy; he has done fine building his own. Amman is a nice place trying to become even more westernized, it is cleaner than its rich cousin city Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and the Jordanians are beginning to realize they are better off than the other Arabs around them. Probably one reason why the Israeli Arabs are beginning to riot these days. They’re noticing too. But that’s another story.
Today the world looks really promising; there has been steady improvement over a 5 year period and the dawn of a new era seems at hand. I didn’t know this but that day some Israeli soldier got shot in a place called Netzarim and tomorrow Ariel Sharon is to visit Al Aksa Mosque. Things are about to get really hot here and I have gotten out of Arabia in the nick of time only to go to Israel, a place which is not as safe as one had dared to hope. I actually am nervous today for the first time on my trip as I prepare to go to Tel Aviv.
The Royal Jordanian flight is filled with Israelis from Bangkok and India wearing clothes right out of the ashrams and talking on their cellphones they’ve been dragging around for the past 3 months. It’s a 25 minute flight to Tel Aviv and the taxi is $25 at night to center city Tel Aviv.
Israel: Tel Aviv & Jerusalem
Friday 29 September – Tuesday 10 October
Don’t worry. There is not that much to write about here so you are not about to read 20 pages about this part of the trip which was not that entirely eventful. Most of what I wrote about in the political area is in a different report published elsewhere on GlobalThoughts. I am here for 12 days because Friday night begins the Jewish New Year and 9th of October is Yom Kippur; my family and I are here for the holidays.
Tel Aviv Overnight: Thursday night at Top Hotel, 35 Ben Yehudah Street. $80 per night, very convenient location at an excellent price. No minibar; I understand Israelis are so bad they take out the mineral water, replace it with tap and put it back in the minibar. That’s why the hotel got rid of them. In the better hotels, they now have computerized minibars that debit your account the minute you remove the food from the fridge. Finally, fast internet access although I am paying heavily for it at $12 an hour. Tons of techno music on the radio. This ain’t Damascus or even Beirut. Friday morning it is the first rain of the season. Fat newspapers for New Years Eve. Mustafa drove me to Jerusalem. He is Jerusalemite with Jordanian passport working for Israeli company in Herzliya marketing hi-tech products to Arabia. Wants Israeli papers in case Jerusalem is given to Arafat. It is hitting me how profound Palestinian dissatisfaction is with Arafat. Mustafa offers a great business insight: There is no petrol station on the entire road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Met parents in the Rondo Café; brother Jason and his family have arrived. My parents want to put me under curfew having just heard I was in Beirut and Damascus. Sabbath in Jerusalem’s center is not as quiet as it used to be; I changed rooms that night because of the traffic. Tel Aviv is more open on Saturday than Zurich is closed on Sunday. The Great Synagogue: We have assigned seats and now plaques commemorating my parents and grandparents on the wall. The cantor is good but not as impressive as years ago; children make noise everywhere. We are bored of the routine having been here several times now for the high holidays but at least we can sing along with some of the songs we now know. Sheraton Plaza is $190 a night at the corporate rate; I am paying $85 a night across the street at the Tirat Bat Sheva but it is a real dump and I regret it. Meals at the Plaza are over $50 apiece, more than what you pay for equivalent buffets or prix fix menus elsewhere in the world. Food is good though and the incremental added cost is not worth being aggravated about it. Atara café on Sunday night is also expensive and not good food. People beg in your face. It is bothersome and we feel we tend to come here, get aggravated, say we are not coming back and then we come back anyway. But now we have come back and are doing this deja vu thing again. We know we’ve had it; we won’t be back for a good while. A point: To some extent we are hypocritical because we are putting up with much of the same stuff we get in the US but we somehow expect European standards from Israelis. Problem is that prices are European but standards aren’t.
There was a near riot at the Hilton Hotel because food service was really bad. We didn’t know it but they probably couldn’t get any Arab workers to show up because of the steadily deteriorating situation we don’t know about because it is a holiday. Israel has been on high alert since Sharon went to the mosque on Friday and 30 have died over the weekend. We saw pictures Friday afternoon on the TV but nobody explained it to us; we heard ambulances but didn’t think anything of it. Lots of soldiers on the pedestrian street in city center. I haven’t seen this in Amman or Damascus. Israel is looking less safe as I travel more.
Here’s a blow by blow of commentary as I received it at the time. It turned out to be mostly correct when pieced together. Oded agrees with Awni; says Jordan is entitled to be angry. Rabin never intended to deliver. Just viewed Jordan as a buffer of peace in time of war. Both Israelis and Arabs are morons with no hope for the future. My cousin Varda is pissed off at Arabs for overreacting to Sharon’s visit but Oded thinks my cousin and the rest of her elite friends are boring idiots and can’t believe they would expect Arabs to just sit there and not react. Mohammed thinks Arafat is orchestrating this to have his street blow off steam. Mustafa says no travel for him even to East Jerusalem or Ramallah; he lives in West Jerusalem and now moved to Tel Aviv. The Western Wall has been effectively closed for 3 days. Oded says the casino in Jericho has been blocked off to teach Arafat a lesson. He is right; although some addicts sneak in, it is cut off and closed down within 30 days. Oded says US state department analysts are the best, even better than British. He believes in the anti-ballistic missile defense program. Mohammed is optimistic that after this crisis the two sides will cut a deal because they must. No one sees an alternative to Barak except a coalition around Netanyahu; Mohamed thinks Barak will survive a year. Oded has no ideas for solving these problems. It’s just a f-cked up place but he couldn’t think of living anywhere else.
I am going to have dead time here; lots of people out of country and places I can’t go. Only the BBC is informative; I am tourist and have to call Arabs to find out what is going on here. More lit up buildings along Jaffa Road now at night and it is prettier to the eye. Not that much change in center city overall; little turnover of businesses and no new real developments.
Second day of the New Year Holiday we prayed at a little synagogue known as Khal Ha’Chassidim. Pure voice by a fairly decent Ba’al Tefilah (prayer leader) who has great lineage; we were disappointed after being told how great he was but it was a very devotional service and we could understand why some people really like it. On the way to the synagogue I pass the high school of the alumnus who died at Netzarim and see the death notices. In Israel, it’s never just a statistic.
Mr. Irving Moskowitz goes to synagogue and lunch with a bodyguard. He is investing money into building Jewish sites in East Jerusalem. Visited my cousin Varda and her husband; we have come to think they laugh at us as visiting rich decadent American cousins who show up for 30 minutes once every few years and then leave. They would have good reason to think thus. We both really don’t want to do these visits but don’t know how to gracefully get out of them. It’s funny; their family is all screwed up with dysfunctional relationships and divorces and they probably have more assets than we do even though they behave as if they are poor; even a crummy looking apartment in Jerusalem is worth $1 million. Even Manhattan real estate is cheap by comparison, to say nothing of Florida.
We don’t see infrastructure improvements beyond some cosmetics, but Israel is still way above its immediate neighbors in terms of spit and polish. There are no pretty bus stops, parks or consistent sidewalks or system of street lights, even in Amman.
Visit to Israel Museum with Mom. Collections have been expanded to include impressive Western European art as well as Judaica. Also a special exhibit on paintings from around the world with biblical landscapes. The taxi to the museum had curtains over the windows and an Arab driver; my mom was totally ballistic when he seemed to start driving toward East Jerusalem instead of the museum. The taxi driver from the museum has been called up to the reserves and goes to army the next day. Site visit to vocational training institute for hi-tech oriented engineers in a religious environment. Gala family dinner at the gourmet room of the King David Hotel along with one of my clients who has left millions to fund a trust for vocational education for orphans in Israel. Cost was $450 for 6 without alcohol. Dad and my niece are getting along real well with nose-kisses and Lena chose an etching for herself from among the ones I bought in Damascus. To sit with family and look at my 90 year old client from New York who joined us sitting against a background of flags and the old city walls on the porch of the King David Hotel is a truly memorable and uplifting moment in time. Another good restaurant for years consistently is Norman’s Steakhouse in the German Colony area; great burgers and grill.
I am cancelling visits around the country and am really pissed that the Enterprise is not working if this is the case and I can’t go where I want. Everyone is angry; Israeli Arabs are rioting to an extent they never did. The Israeli Army didn’t move quickly to rescue a soldier stuck in Joseph’s Tomb; military doctrine said you don’t weigh one life in danger against another (army feared ambush of rescuing soldiers). Now soldiers feel they are cannon fodder there. By the end of the week, the IDF will have withdrawn. Meeting with insurance expert to talk about a proposed deal I am looking at in Jordan. He is very bearish on Arabs and Jordan; says the Arabs are worse than Jews for filing false claims. Meanwhile, another big businessman (Jewish-Italian) is avoiding the Israeli/Jordanian free trade zones and said he was putting his factory directly in Amman.
I am feeling effects of a cold I picked up in Jerusalem, probably from my cold and dingy hotel room with holes in the bathroom floor. I want to be alone for a few days to recover: the cure is a good hotel with some good restaurants, preferably Italian. Now at the Intercontinental in Tel Aviv, first newly constructed luxury hotel in 25 years in the city. They made it nice but cut corners on the extras such as big towels, slippers, shaving mirrors and high speed internet access in the lobby internet café. One thing I have really come to like in a hotel is a lit-up magnified pull-out shaving mirror. They also charge ridiculous markups for services. My laundry bill was $80 and the manager wouldn’t discount it but I am paying $140 a night which is a good rate. This hotel has lots of Arab and foreign guests and is near Jaffa (where they rioted 2 days before) but quite safe. BBC World on the telly and a beautiful hotel room which is most welcome by this quite weary traveler who has run out of patience. GSM phones work great; even in the bathroom I get my calls. In Manhattan, I lose many calls using American phones. At the Intercontinental, use the high-speed lines in the business center which cost twice as much at $12 an hour (but the Plaza in Jerusalem charged $30 an hour which was nuts). Otherwise, it’s 56k lines and Israelis are all on 56k lines which are slow. High speed access not yet available to residential customers and normal businesses. Hotel is near the southern edge of the city and is far away from the other hotels which are on the northern end. Room has a lovely terrace but the view is of slums of southern Tel Aviv. They built a park out front but you can’t erase the parking lots, Carmel Market and slums behind it.
Dinner in Aubergine, the hotel’s Italian restaurant in the nicely decorated atrium lobby. Next evening the place was filled with Russians wearing the strangest suits and ties for a wedding. Dinner with colleague from PWC who reviews business plans for entrepreneurs seeking seed capital for hi-tech companies. Then a second dinner that evening with an attorney from Galilee who I was supposed to see up north but couldn’t. His 1½ hour drive was 3½ hours due to the situation.
Thursday I veggied out in the pool area. Hotel offers an impressive breakfast buffet. Lunch again at Aubergine. Business lunch specials are popular here (and in Jordan). Visited a lawyer colleague Avi and a relative who, with her late husband and my parents, sat with a kabbalist who a year ago said I’d be married this year. Visited the health club; the workers spoke only Russian. Sunset along the beach; hotel is right next to a mosque which was pretty to look at. Dinner again at Aubergine (a versatile menu: I tried grouper, veal and chicken during my 3 meals). Thursday night out with a friend Gil. Late night walk through the deserted Carmel Market with its freshly washed streets (looking for an alternate laundromat). Tel Aviv has lots of young pretty people out on Thursday nights all over the city. Nightlife is serious business here. Surprise phone call at 10:30pm on the cellular; my girlfriend is leaving in an hour to make a surprise fly-in to Israel.
Friday: Breakfast with David. Anesthesiologist making 24k a year net working dog hours. Could double his salary going to a private hospital but he likes the nature of a teaching hospital which allows doctors to go off the books in treating patients. David, mid-level manager at Hi-Tech company, makes 100k per year. Can this state of inequality in Israel last and should it?
Lunch with Arie and his Japanese wife, now in Israel 5 years with 1,000 other Japanese in the country. Arie met her while he spent 5 years in Japan. Arie feels government has not reformed in economic sector; points out the IT sector is 3-4% of the whole economy. Israelis would vote Bibi in just to get Labor to put up a new chief. Level of police is way down.
Transfer to Carlton Hotel which is on the northern side of town just next door to the Hilton. Totally renovated boutique hotel costing me $135 a night. I ate Hilton for sabbath meals. Barak cancelled out; his wife and kids just came back from Italy and are tired. Beautiful business club atop the building. So has the Carlton and Intercontinental. Saw Miami people there; they soon left the country. Night-time walk along the pier; I have done this same walk this past week in Limasol and Beirut; a pier is a pier and the skyline is the same in the dark. Although the hotels are mainly in the northern part of town, they are connected by a pedestrian walkway that has become so run down that is a no man’s area even during the afternoon. It should all be torn down and cleared or at least lit up and renovated.
Saturday: Three conversations. David: Israelis afraid to stop fighting for fear they will lose life’s meaning. Political parties are like soccer teams; if all players switched sides, they’d still support the same team. Jonathan: Economy still unreformed; violence is necessary part of the game; Oslo was flawed because Arafat was given free reign to rule and is unpopular. Favors giving Israeli Arabs a much better deal and agrees with Barak’s peace program except that it was error to make concessions off the top, particularly if Arafat can’t act on them. Thinks Bibi was not bad or dishonest; no goods on him. His style is populist and American so it puts off the elite. No viable alternates in either party. David and Jonathan both expect Bibi to win office. Arie says Barak could stay in for years. Nearly all Jewish Israelis think Israeli Arabs will tolerate their status viz. Palestinian Arabs. Mustafa joins me rooftop Carlton for sunset; he says no. Increasingly university educated and traveled, they compare themselves to Jordanian Palestinians who have more mobility and choice. But the Israeli Arabs don’t want to have their cities turned over to be ruled by Arafat. Mustafa liked the insurance project. We didn’t know the whole day there were kidnapings of soldiers on the Lebanese border, lots of riots and a 48 hour ultimatum issued by Barak. Seems like the day’s conversations were based on futile assumptions. But it is quite amazing to sit rooftop Tel Aviv with Arab colleague surveying the situation.
I am forming an impression this week that with all the closures, problems and attitudes (ie: Bernard’s 3½ hour trip to Tel Aviv; Barak cancelled Saturday night as he was called to Defense Ministry for consultations with deputy defense minister; Mustafa pays $650 for a bed I get in the US for $300) that this country is stagnating both in infrastructure and in its politics. Corruption and legalized grabbing here has become acceptable and taken for granted. Shmuel’s and Jonathan’s jobs are being blocked by tribal politics. Jordan shows more momentum; Israelis see no way out; Arafat can’t sign. Israeli Arabs mad as hell; see that making noise is how you get heard in Israel. Palestinians know that violence works in the long term and they see that Oslo has given them disjointed crumbs of territory while Israelis build on more territories and continue to force Arabs to go through them for everything. Arafat happy to have riots deflect attention from his corruption and inability to achieve anything. Israelis back the army; feel they are doing a good tactical job of containing violence. Sloppy PR by the Israelis; Barak talks to the press in an open shirt. No angels; both sides are rioting and destroying property. Joke: Peres wants to buy a big house so he can elect himself to the condo board.
Evening with my friend Dana who has flown in. Movenpik restaurant in Tel Aviv closed; the Yotveta dairy restaurant near the Opera Tower is excellent and lives up to its reputation. Like last visit, these Breslov Hassids (Na-Na-Nachman…) pull up in a van outside Yotveta and start dancing in the streets. It is sooo funny! Nice walk on the beach.
Sunday Ayal visits just back from abroad. Parents come to pick us up and we go to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur. Now in the Kings Hotel which is fairly decent but still comparatively expensive at the discounted rate of $155 per night. It is basically 3 star hotel. Tiny elevators for a large hotel. I give a taxi $25 to take me to the Western Wall to pray before Yom Kippur (should be less than $5); nobody wants to go there and you can’t park there or get a taxi or bus back. I got my driver to convince the policeman to let us in. I feel “I have been thrown out of nicer places the past 2 weeks” and have no interest in being intimidated here and now. Ten soldiers for each person praying. They do not look happy to be here as it is their Yom Kippur too. Cell phone calls on the return trip to relatives wishing them a good holiday. Dinner before the fast is at 3:30; by 5pm we are in synagogue. My dad is given a torah scroll to hold during the Kol Nidre service. As he is walking back toward the ark, Bibi starts grabbing away the Torah in a frantic effort to shake my dad’s hand. My dad has to tell him to back off. Ehud Olmert is two seats away from Bibi and not wearing a tie. Ted Koppel is across from me; he is here for a special broadcast and he and I talk a few times; we are both confused and disturbed. I tell him he is a genius if he can explain this to Nightline viewers in 22 minutes or less. He says “if the heavens are unobtainable, then what is the sky for?” Neither my dad or I can figure this quote out. Anyway, I tell him he has stumbled onto a major story that will occur within 3 days and it will be more than the-usual-around-here 3 day story. He says he has been covering this for 30 years and it is never a 3 day story. I said, yes, but just wait and see…. Of course, I am right. 3 days later is the lynching in Ramallah and the whole thing escalates.
Late evening walk around a deserted city (it is Yom Kippur). You can stand in the middle of a highway and there are no cars. The afternoon break from services is shorter than we hoped and we sit in the lobby and talk. The fast ends at 5:50 pm with the singing of “If I forget thee o’Jerusalem and the Hatikva (Israeli national anthem).” These are not usually done in synagogues and it is a special ending one would only have in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. At the end of the fast one says “Next year in Jerusalem” so it is quite special to be here and say instead “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem.” Beyond the politics, one cannot overestimate Jerusalem’s religious significance to observant Jews in their daily or most compelling moments of prayer. Turns out I sat in Harry Walker’s chair (I sat with him the week of Passover; he is Kissenger’s agent) and gave my prayer book to Mr. Sharf to hold as collateral for my next visit someday. The point here is to show that it is a small circle of people I see on a circuit in Miami, New York and in Israel and this is a place that my family has placed family memorials; the synagogue my grandfather was president of (and used to have plaques) in Miami no longer exists; here it is hoped that grandchildren can still come and remember. It’s like buying into a piece of the rock of ages. It is not simply a mater of traveling somewhere on the other side of the world that happens to be Jewish like a Greek-American goes to Greece; here it is much more personal. Which is why we complain all the time but continue ultimately to keep putting up with it and coming back for more.
Break-fast and then to sit with a friend who is in Israel for a year of brainwashing and seminary (and who knows it and was doing his best to get with the program wearing his fringes out and a big skullcap). He left the country 2 weeks later. Violence continued today in the country but of course we are oblivious to it; I understand the radio and TV did not totally shut off as it should for Yom Kippur. The mood is somber and quiet. Tourists and VC deals are cancelling. Israelis see how the Arabs inside the country effectively shut down roads leading to the front in time of war and are concerned for the future.
Tuesday I meet with an attorney who is expert on not for profit sector. Israel is to pass a law allowing contributions of appreciated land to charity to knock off the ridiculous tax hit that currently exists. Killed some more time and then to the airport. Israelis are piling out en masse for the holidays and foreigners are leaving as well. Business club here is filled with people and no real amenities. Flights delayed due to stricter security checks. Flight to Rome is catered from Israel and all the food aboard is kosher even if the people ordered regular food.
I am really glad to fly away from all this mess: “Balagan” they call it in Hebrew. This is no time to be a tourist here. On the plane I am writing most of these notes as well as the notes that will comprise my separate Middle East report. Reviewing my notes the overriding feelings are that I had to ask each waiter for a glass of tap water twice to get it. Order mineral water and you’ll get it the first time. The sense that the future looks hopeless in the short term. The Israelis don’t really control their country but even the most right-wing fanatics don’t want to absorb the losses necessary in order to put down the challenge. Better to be a welcome guest than a restricted visitor. This visit was not fun; it’s very aggravating and expensive to be a tourist here; there are other places in the world to go; Israelis see me as a source of revenue rather than as a colleague, so why subject myself to this again and again? It will be several years before I return and my parents have decided we will look for something else to do for the holidays for the time being. The one saving grace: Dana has come here unexpectedly and the experience to have time away from the normal routine allows for both of us to step outside the box and move a relationship forward. Maybe the kabbalist is right?
Rome – Tuesday/ Wednesday 10 & 11 October
See also archival notes from 1995 and 1998.
It is a 3 hour flight from Tel Aviv. A bus takes you to customs and then it is easy out. No taxis at the taxi stand. Took a car service for $42 to the hotel. The taxi to the airport from center city was not much less. Italy is cheaper than usual at 2,150 lira to the dollar (usually 1,650). From hotel Aventino in the San Anselmo district it is 25 minutes to airport; from piazza de Espana it is an additional 10 minutes; allow 45 minutes to airport from center city at rush hour. Taxi drivers tend to give themselves tips by never having any change. I stayed at this hotel in 1998 and continue to enjoy it. Private chalet just off the center garden. I am paying $90 per night with tax and breakfast. Ten minutes walk to the street will get you to restaurants. If you don’t get a receipt, don’t tip because he is not exactly printing you out a bill either but just scribbling an amount onto a piece of paper; he is either cheating the kitchen or adding in a tip. My waiter served me pizza, then pasta and then salad (I actually liked it this way). As I said before, no taxis at the taxi stand. This place runs off the books and on another frequency. Good gelato at the street corner; everyone talks to me in Italian and I talk back in Spanish. Few speak English anyway.
Taxied to an Internet café in Testaverde area; it rained and there were no taxis back so I started to walk back without a good map and amidst bus drivers who sent me off in the wrong direction but then some helpful tourists; an intriguing midnight walk along the antiquities which are very impressive even at night. It’s all pretty much lined up: Piazza Venezia, Forum, Coliseum, Circus Maximus, Arch of Titus. All lit up at night. It’s a 30 minute walk from the Piazza Venezia to the hotel if you go the long way and enjoy the sites; it’s shorter if you know where you’re going. No real informational signs or kiosks in public places to help orient the tourist, like in Paris. Unnerving city at night to a tourist.
Wednesday: Still no red oranges yet this season. A walk around San Anselmo, a pretty residential area with colorful homes and trees. People dress so nicely or casually; some are groomed impeccably while others let all hang loose in a uniquely Italian sort of way. There is no middle ground here. Ten minute ride to Rinascente department store and I fight with them to let me store my travel bag upstairs in their office while I shop. It is not a large store but everything on the two men’s levels is top notch. I make mental notes and then walk to Via Nazionale by noon for 2 hours of shopping on that street. Then lunch at a little shop with the most beautiful small pizzas a block and a half past Savoy 68 toward Socrate (names of prominent stores on that street) and then left one block. I don’t see pizzietas like this at home! Changes to the 1998 shopping list: Fisherman retired; Giraldi closed. Roger still has excellent stuff. David Saddler still makes exquisite shirts and matching ties; I have sent the shirts to Hong Kong to be fixed as they don’t fit me and await the outcome. Marco Polo gave me some new styles but not too much style for me to swallow. Prices were reasonable across the board. The merchants know me by now and are friendlier to repeat customers. Back to Rinascente at 3 to buy what I didn’t buy elsewhere and still want; by 4:30 I am done. I have spent about $2,500 in 5 stores showing I can make executive decisions and execute a plan; I’ve got this shopping maneuver down to a science considering I have done all this damage in 5 hours. Must continue to remember to try on stuff; not all size 46’s or 48’s are cut the same and what looks good on the shelf might not look good on me; I wittled down quite a number of otherwise attractive outfits that way. The Rinascente people gave me a fuss about watching the bags from the morning shopping as well during my return visit. Now VERY full of bags I taxi to Spanish Steps (piazza de espana) for a coffee with Dino and then off to the airport. Shimon Peres was here last night explaining Israel’s situation to the Italian Jewish community. He spoke in English and was translated.
Rome’s airport is still a bother. No trolleys past check-in for all concourses. The airport wouldn’t let me carry on all my bags even though Iberia’s Business Class Check-In said OK. Good thing I was in business class because I had them pull my bag at the gate to make sure I had not misplaced some important documents when they took my bag for checking; they would not do this kind of thing for a normal passenger. The VIP lounge was hidden so well upstairs that I literally stumbled into it by standing on an automatic door sensor. Here there is no food at all but I have some lira to spend and the restaurant across the hall on this upper level above the gates is, as usual, excellent. Spinach here is unusually fresh. There is an hour long air traffic delay due to rain in Spain. 2:20 flight to Madrid. They never announced the time of arrival; it is a hint that time is not on the minds of Spaniards. I continue to think Iberia is a good airline even though I have friends who don’t like it.
Rome has strange looking homes but still looks better than the Middle East. There are treasures such as statues inside hidden avenues inside facades of buildings. Roads often cobblestone, no clear lines for lanes, hard to know where curb ends and street begins. Cars come very close to each other on turns and passing often seems simply horizontal. Scooters add to the mayhem and cars park along the centers of avenues along the medians. There are gas stations that allow you to pull in right along the streets without exiting the road; there is a lack of traffic signals. Lots of lane-changing without signaling and intersections that branch off into several directions, all with the right of way. All these help to make it chaotic for pedestrians and nuts if you’re a tourist driving a car. Italy is quite civilized of course but it runs on its own frequency which only the Italians understand. I am lucky with a great currency exchange and the shopping is still worth the flight. I would choose a hotel more centrally located with business services and English TV channels; there are no services in the San Anselmo area but it is a quiet place to stay if you are just there to shop. I would like to spend a bit more time here just walking around (a weekend would be nice). I think I would be a perfect Italian if I were to be living in an Italian canton in Switzerland.
Madrid – Thursday and Friday 12 & 13 October
The rain is gone but the taxi line is long (about 30 minutes and I am told this is normal) and it is now after midnight into Thursday. Couldn’t find ATM’s on arrival but am told I made the wrong turn. 15 minute drive to hotel (allow 20 minutes during the day; taxi costs $15 and is the most practical way to get in and out of town) and we found an ATM along the way. Nice boulevards.
I am in the NH Hotel Nacional at $120 per night; it is on the Prado park across from the Prado Museum; 3 minute walk from the train station or 20 minutes walk to Puerta del Sol (ie: their Times Square). Hotel clerks don’t speak English and there is no concierge; they are clueless as to tourists because they cater to Spanish business people. Crisp rooms with colors, wood and a big cheerful room with lots of TV channels. Shower has a glass partition rising above the bathtub. Thursday the 12th of October is a national holiday.
Metro stations displays tell you elapsed time since the last train left, like in Moscow. My ticket to the bullfight doesn’t state the time. People seem to queue up for things and tolerate it well. It is a polite country and rather well dressed – almost as good as Italy.
Got up late Thursday and walked to a 5 star hotel (ie: Palace Hotel) to arrange a tour. Streets are closed for a military ceremony so I just walk around for now along the Prado to Colon Square where the ceremony is held but the best view is on TV. Metro works well at 75 cents; they give out little pocket maps at all points of entry. Lunch at the Palace which is a Westin. 2pm tour for 3 hours with a car and guide; Old Madrid; Plaza (pronounce Platha) Mayor (meaning Big); Royal Palace; Opera House; Porta del Sol (Times Square for Spain); Plaza de Espana (no access to the top of the Crowne Plaza Hotel which seemed to be the only high point in center city). Another high point is TV Tower but it is way outside center city. Passed the financial district, university of Madrid, drove out to Franco’s house and a bit of country and mountains (skiing is one hour away). Roads and streets very good except in the old city. Traffic is generally orderly. Pedestrian crossings are placed after turning points which puts cars right in front of people crossing a street. No right turn on red here or in most places I traveled on this trip. Right on red must be a US kind of thing. I paid $150 plus a $22 tip for the 3 hour tour. Sunset here is latest in Europe at this time of year since it is the south and west point in the continental European time zone.
Now for the bullfights. It consists of 6 bullfights, each 20 minutes. It follows a very orderly script. A trumpet announces each scene. Good to be there on time since they make a nice parade to start and that is probably the highlight. First, a bull enters. They tease him around the ring and make him angry. Several men wave flags to attract it and then hide behind a wall and make the flag disappear. Then someone on a horse enters and stabs the bull; he occasionally gets knocked over and there is danger until someone else distracts the bull. Then someone enters and spears the bull. Then the toreador leads the bull around a bit and shows that he is “master.” Then he puts a sword through it and then several people distract the bull till it falls and dies. They finish him off and hitch it to a few horses who drag the carcass around the ring pretty fast and then to the exit. The band plays; some stagehands clean up the mess. And it starts all over again as the next victim naively enters the ring. I paid $75 to a scalper to get in for a 2nd row seat; the stadium was 80% empty and chilly inside but it was a national holiday and the last of the bullfights of the season so how could I miss this pass at Spanish culture? Nice costumes. No entry or exit during a bullfight. There is closed circuit TV. Rather bloodthirsty, cruel and repetitive though there is art, skill and danger. Bulls must be pretty dumb; they always go for the red flag. I left after the 2nd fight. I had enough.
Then to El Retiro, their Central Park, for a sunset stroll along the lake and gardens. The Ritz Hotel has a lovely lobby for coffee and cake. The Palace also has a beautiful domed lobby. Museum Prado one should see but it was closed for holiday. Tapas at a local hangout with colleague Francesco who opened up a Mexican restaurant. He is optimistic and enterprising. Quite the warm, romantic, intellectual, timely, sporty and well-traveled Renaissance kinda dude. Made the rounds together to major points by night; the city and buildings are well lit up at night and things are lively. Late night snack at Burger King; they have tuna salad platter. Then to hotel to pack. Shoeshine service a nice touch.
Madrid begins to feel smaller once you start walking it and driving around. Lots of parks and pretty architecture. Old and new parts. Lots of trees. Very gridded with some circles. A city that works well and at points feels like Washington DC or other US places. Many more places in Spain still to see. I am glad I finally came to visit.
Tip: BBC Radio shortwave frequency for Western Europe in the evenings is 6195 mhz.
Next morning I get up and go to airport for an 11am flight. Airport departure: There is tax free refund line before and after passport control. The line after passport control is much shorter. Here at least you have a choice. All shopping should be done before going to Concourse A; it is strictly gates there. Pick up a luggage cart at the entrance to Concourse A if you are going to any other concourse because there is no trolleys past passport control. Delta is a 7:40 flight to New York; it is half empty and on time. Good security and corporate feel. It is a Spanish holiday weekend and Jews are not traveling abroad because of the high holidays, the flight attendant says. Didn’t know we made such a difference.
A final note: I went from New York City directly to the mountains for the weekend. The fall foliage is at its peak; the little pine trees rising from the golf course behind the lake look like lollypops. One need not go halfway across the world to see really beautiful sites.
Perhaps I should get a Palm Pilot so I can enter these notes in text form as I write them originally? I handwrite them and then type them after returning. I’m told that it is not so reliable. Any ideas?
For photo collage, click here to begin.
For detailed Middle East Report based on this trip, click here.