Saturday, November 4, 2017

Should You Go on a Cruise?

If you haven't been on a cruise yet, you should definitely go. Unless you are an extrovert who enjoys small talk and befriending new people at every possible occasion, I recommend going with friends.

I have just returned from an 11-day Caribbean cruise (Fort Lauderdale - St. John's, Antigua - Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe,  Bridgetown, Barbados - Fort-de-France, Martinique - Castries, St. Lucia - Basseterre, St. Kitts - Half Moon Cay, Bahamas - Fort Lauderdale), that I'm trying to summarize for my undecided readers. It was a new and definitely positive experience, without the slightest motion sickness I was a bit concerned about before leaving.

The best part for me was enjoying the view, especially approaching an island, observing the land getting closer and the behemoth ship maneuvered in reverse with millimetric precision to the pier and anchored.

The Caribbean beaches with their turquoise waters and white sand pictured in brochures don't tell the full story (excluding the Half Moon Cay private island). The part they usually miss is the poor conditions in which the local population lives. Add the hot and humid climate (with occasional hurricanes), perceived lack of personal security in a tumult of taxi drivers/guides and merchants invading your private space (a western notion) and the island visits can be quite unpleasant. BTW, taxi prices drop dramatically, the further you walk from the port. 

Some practical pre-cruise advice: make sure to arrive to the starting port a couple of days before embarkation to avoid any unforeseen flight cancellations or delays. These couple of days came in handy for us as our luggage was not on the first flight, due to a sudden airport luggage strike on the first leg. For any flight, not just pre-cruise, pack one day's essentials in your hand luggage - we didn't do this and needed to shop for underwear and toiletries right after arrival. Not that there is anything wrong with underwear shopping, but there might be more interesting sites to visit than a shopping mall.

And while we are at packing, I want to refute the common belief of needing lots of elegant attires on board. The cruising industry is undergoing a major change from old world classic elegance, decor and service, to a more modern concept that appeals to younger generations it is [successfully] attracting. The industry is expanding and will continue to do so according to various analysts. So, if you are not an evening gown/black tie person, just bring whatever clothes you feel comfortable wearing, and a few elegant outfits for formal dinners (that you can BTW avoid completely, although I recommend against).

A major aspect of any cruise experience is the food. It is tasty, diverse, tempting and always around you. You will definitely gain weight, even if you have the strongest will power to avoid temptations. However, you can work out in the well-equipped gym with a fabulous view, unless you prefer the treadmill monitors instead (don't). They offer various classes as well. In addition to the many food options included in the cruise price, you can also dine in high-class restaurants, or go to coffee shops and bars.

Entertainment on board was one of my most pleasant surprises. All the performing artists were really good, be it bar pianists, classical ensembles, singers, dancers or comedians. Turns out that entertainment jobs on cruise ships are very sought-after. The on-board productions were rich and well-choreographed, with advanced use of video technology blending in the theme. 

Cruises are well-oiled machines for extracting as much money as possible from guests, a captive crowd for expensive products offered on-board, such as jewelry, art (not to my liking), alcohol, perfumes and expensive clothing. Also some on-board lectures are sales-oriented. You can gamble in the casino, get body treatments or go on shore excursions. Alternatively, you can spend time around the pool and Jacuzzis, where you will probably consume cocktail, beer or coffee.

We took two group excursions: one to rum distilleries in Barbados (guess who wanted this one) and a dolphin encounter activity in St. Kitts (the preference of yours truly). Local shopping is either in tourist-only areas or in local markets and shops, where the offering is usually [made-in-China] souvenirs, foodstuff, clothing and costume jewelry. Makes you think that the beads given to the natives by the colonialists in exchange for gold are now sold back to them for dollars and euros.  












Saturday, August 12, 2017

Optimizers

I was in the car with my family and we were debating the subject of the fastest way to the train station, based on the green light duration of en-route traffic lights. And then it hit me. We are optimizers, obsessive optimizers. We want to know the best or most cost effective approach for everything, no matter how big or small. We want to know which appartment is the best for our needs (one's biggest expense in life) and what is the fastest route for a 5-minute drive.

It makes us happy to know that with a modest input (time, money, effort), we achieved the best possible output. We got a lifetime of career based on X academic years, a great trip for a reasonable price, floorplan modification ideas that gave us the most living space, you name it.

Although in retrospective the results look rewarding, the process is quite tirsome. Optimizers dilligently gather and [over-]analyze data, and try to understand the big picture (processes), as well as the details. This task is run continuously by our minds, we rarely turn it off. Even concious decisions to let petty things go unoptimized are based on yet another optimization algorithm that wheighs the enjoyement of letting go against the perceived loss. We even optimize the size of built-in loopholes (made possible by increased personal means) in the optimization process.

But where does this all come from? A long-stretch explanation could originate in Tikkun Olam (perfecting the world), a known concept in Judaism, or the resourcefulness needed to survive and better ones's situation in adverse conditions during 2000 years of diaspora, or the competitive nature of Israelis who are always improving positions (the Hebrew source לשפר עמדות is a known phrase), or even our own struggles related to returning to our ancient homeland.

I agree, these are generalizations. You are welcome to offer additional explanations.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Teeth

I have good, strong teeth, so how come I have fillings, caps and now an implant? When and where I was a little girl, there was very little awareness of dental maintenance (and healthcare in general). Using the same toothbrush for years was common practice, while flossing, dental hygenists and periodical checkups were unheard of. People went to the dentist if they felt pain, usually after procrastinating for a while.

I seeked dental treatment usually when the cavity was already large. Dr. Ackerstein was very patient, but he injected anesthetics with thick, reusable needles. That was the available technology at the time, and treatements were painful. So I was (and still am) afraid of treatements in general, and needles in particular. Up until very recently, I even managed to evade a full mouth X-ray status (taken 2-teeth at a time, quite unconfortable with one retch).

Old people, like my grandmother, had dentures. She never got used to them though, so she would only put them on for meals and when people came around. In general, her Austro-Hungarian ladyship dealt with grace with old age issues, such as her dentures, weakened eyesight and severe foot pain.

Dental treatement in Israel was never actually painful, but my fear of it sticked to me throughout the years, like chewing gum to a shoe sole. And although I did all the right things, with time I needed various dental treatements. BTW, did you know that most people here go to a dentist originating from the same country as theirs? That's what my modest statistics show, anyway.

In February I had a tooth pulled out and it took me till October to be taken (!) for a CT scan needed before the implant (not painful) and schedule the implant procedure for November. I was particulary afraid of the procedure, as I've never done it before. So, if you are also afraid and looking for reliable info about the procedure, here goes. Like all dental treatements, it starts with injecting anesthetics, this time more than for a usual treatement, so that the patient won't feel a thing (my doctor reasurred me I won't feel pain). Actually, one of the shots was a little bit painful. Then, I was requested to rinse my mouth with anti-bacterial lotion for 30 seconds.

During the treatement, there were 4 X-rays taken, to make sure the nearby nerve is not touched. The hardest part was taking a glimpse at the intruments used (immediately afterwards I closed my eyes), hearing the noise and imagining what is going on in my gum. Not only I couldn't turn that off, I also knew that reality surpasses my wildest imagination. Only once Dr. L touched a painful spot, but immediately stopped when I winced. During the entire procedure, the doctor's assistant used the sucking pipe to suck blood and I-don't-want-to-know-whatever-else from my mouth, while giving me encouraging looks.

After the implant went in, my dentist brought a long piece of string and started stiching that unimaginable thing in my mouth. "It's like heming a dress" she said, trying to calm me. After about 45 minutes, the assistant wiped my face and gave me a pack of ice to hold it to my face near the wound. Then I went into Dr. L's office and got instructions for the next few days.

On that day, hold the ice pack in place for as long as you can, to minimize swelling and the appearance of bruise marks. I recommend asking somebody to drive you home, especially if you have a long drive like mine (taking Ayalon south, during rush hours). Eat only cold and soft foods (ice cream!), do not brush your teeth and do not rinse your mouth. Take 2 antibiotic pills. When (not if!) you feel pain, usually after the anesthitics wear off, take a regular painkiller. Frankly, I didn't do anything else that day, except for wallowing in self-pity and waiting for pain to kick in.

Starting the next day, take 3 antibiotic pills a day untill you finish the package. Rinse your mouth with 10 ml of anti-bacterial fluid, twice a day. The next day, I couldn't open my mouth properly, and could only take small bites of food (excellent for your diet). Today is the second day and I can't yet move my tongue properly as the place is still very sensitive, but I can certainly blog about it. However, I could open my mouth better and courageously see the wound in the mirror.

The discomfort will decrease by the day and the stiches will get absorbed. Three more sessions (I was told) and a few thousand shekkels later, you have a new tooth in place, that looks just like your own. All that remains to do is fight the bureaucracy of the insurance company to try and get a refund. Good luck with that!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Short Visit to Hungary 2016

A while ago, I was found on Facebook by a woman who was collecting stories for a memorial book for the Karcag Jewery. Karcag is a small town in Hungary, where one of my grandfathers came from. I sent text and pictures and when the book was ready, the communitvy there decided to launch it in a festive way. They invited the families, dignitaries and an instrumental ensamble.

We thought it was a nice pretext for a short vacation, combining the book event with meeting friends and family and having fun in Budapest. And so we bought UP tickets online. For some odd reason, buying 2 separate tickets was cheaper than buying 2 together, and this of course impacted the seating arrangement.

After landing, the rep of the car rental company waited for us by holding a sign with our name  - a first for me. They took us by our future rented car (WW UP) to their office (2 km away), where we signed the papers and headed towards the hotel. If you plan to rent a car in Budapest, I recommend this cheaper option (the space further away from the airport is cheaper for the rental companies). However, only there I realized that the automatic shift stick was a robotical one, which was quite annoying for drivers like me used to the smoother version.

The 4-star hotel was decent, just the room looked straight out of the 70s. According to our freind P, who met us there with a local SIM card, the decor made him expect comrade Kadar Janos to welcome us in person. The location (the main reason we booked a room in this hotel) was excellent, close to a small park and public transportation. Later on we also found out it was close to shopping facilities. You can't return from Hungary without Pick salami.

That same day, our friend P giuded us through downtown Budapest and we had lunch at one of the restaurants in Gozsdu Udvar. What could be a better way to start a visit in Hungary than eating gulyas soup? As the weather was really windy, we met our friend K at a pastry shop where we had coffee and cake.

The next morning we headed towards the village of Kaposmero (a 2 hour drive) to meet friends, who live there with their talented dauther, five cats, a friendly dog, rabbits, many chicken and a rooster. They showed us around their farm and we had a nice lunch in this idylic setting, with chery petals snowing all over. After spending a lovely time there, we headed back to meet my cousin and her daugther for dinner at the hotel.

Lilac flowers have an incredeble smell
Samuel the Rabbit
The next day was dedicated to visit friends in another village (this time just a one hour drive away) on a Danube island. There I immediately felt at home (this was my second visit there) and started cutting up vegetables for salad. Just sitting on the swinging bench on their balcony felt like heaven on earth. Of course I realize how much work they invest in gardening so that the place feels like heaven for us, short time visitors. After a copious lunch, we returned to Budapest to see an operetta in the beautiful Operetta Theater (and I don't care what the cultural snobs think about this genre). Operetta and Budapest are inseparable. The shallow libretto sprinkled with old world nobility, the ear candy music and beautiful costumes transport you into a dreamland where all endings are happy. Add a glass of champagne in the intermission and the experience is complete.

The last day was dedicated to the book launch event (another long drive) in Karcag. We got there by noon, and were invited for lunch at the all-you-can-eat self-service resturant near the thermal bath. The simple, authentic food was cheap and tasty. We toured the tiny Jewish cemetery, strolled a bit on the beautiful main street and had coffee in a small ice cream parlor before the event began. After the introductory speeches, I was pleasantly surprised by the musical part. I expected a local klezmer group, but got the Budapest Festival Orchestra instead.
Karcag Town Hall

Full Synagogue in Karcag
A regional rabbi also spoke, mostly about hope and The Hope (Israel's national anthem), but the event ended without it being played or sung (although the Israeli flag was displayed along the Hungarian one). I felt disappointed, like there was no proper ending to the ceremony. Later I asked the rabbi why they didn't play Hatikvah. He explained in a roundabout way (a.k.a. a pile of excuses) that he was not in charge of the program and something about a minsiter being present. They weren't even sure the minsiter would have minded, but the organizers were afraid to upset the authorities.
Stained Glass Window
in the Karcag Synagogue
And that my friends is why I live in Israel, where the authorities are mine and I don't need to worry about upsetting them with my Jewishness. After the ceremony, all attendees enjoyed deleicious flodni slices (Hungary’s most famous Jewish cake). 






Hubby and Eva in the Karcag Synagogue
Jewish Cemetery in Karcag

Eva in the Cemetery
The next morning, we packed and drove to the rental office, from where they drove us to thre airport. I expected the regular security questions, but we were also asked what is the relationship between us. Told them we are married for 36 years, but the security person was not satisfied. She went on and on with questions about our aliya, place of birth etc. I managed to stay calm, but when she passed her suspicions on to her superior and he started all over again, I lost it. I always tell visitors to Israel to expect improper security questions and stay calm, but apparently it's not that easy. Of course I understand why they ask these questions and I don't want my plane to be blown up, but when they ask you personal questions, it just gets to you.

Lesson learned: next time we need to drive less and relax more.




Sunday, October 4, 2015

DIY for Me is Telling Others What to Do

I love design, watch the Design channel on satellite, and sometimes fantasize about implementing some of my design ideas. Why do I fantasize? Because unfortunately, I am not talented enough to implement any of my ideas, can't make anything useful with my "two left hands" other than food. And this is every bit as frustrating as it sounds. This is why it took time until I lost any hope in this direction and finally admitted the reality to myself. Better late than never.

I love to relax on the recliner in the corner of our living room and read newspapers or books. There is lots of light coming from behind, through glass doors covered by sheer, faintly golden curtains  (with a heavier curtain on the side with lots of gold in it). This means I can only read during daylight, while there is natural light from behind. When it gets dark and I switch on the ceiling lamp, the paper blocks the light coming from the lamp's direction. I imagine you grinning and suggesting to read some clever back-lit electronic device instead of paper. So before we go any further, let me state that I enjoy reading both paper and electronic.

We were planning for ages to buy a standing lamp to solve the problem, although there is no socket nearby. We'd figure that out later, we thought. The plans were so vague that we never got around to even start looking what's available, but as John Lennon put it, "life is what happens while you are busy making other plans". In our case, we were offered a used standing lamp as a gift and took it with thanks. It is a simple, IKEA-style lamp with an opaque, bowl-like glass shade on a silver-ish pole.

I immediately thought of adding some design touches to make it work together with the other items in that corner, first of all painting the rod gold and somehow customizing the shade. To figure out that "somehow", I googled for ideas, even signed up for Pinterest and found many lamp makeover projects, but none of them clicked. The only positive outcome was that I've enriched my vocabulary with the term "torchiere floor lamp" which is what these lamps are actually called. I refined my search by using the newly acquired term, but still nothing. While hopelessly gazing in the lamp's direction, it suddenly hit me. Not the lamp, the idea I was waiting for. I would spray paint the heavy curtain patterns on the shade to make them connect by subtle repetition.

Now, to the implementation. Painting the rod was the easy part. After two coats (hubby doing 90% of the work), it looked acceptable. But how to go about the shade? The first challenge was copying the pattern to paper and cut it out. I emptied the top drawer of my bedside cabinet, placed a headlight in it, covered it with glass dismantled from a framed picture on the wall, placed the fabric on the glass and a sheet of paper on top of this construction. This way, the fabric became translucent and Tom was able to trace the pattern with a pencil on the paper. Then he cut it out in pieces. The real challenge was placing the flat paper patterns on the hemispheric glass shade. After a lot of futile brainstorming, Tom decided to wrap the shade in 2 pieces of wet A3 sheets to get a "glued on" effect. Then, I randomly placed the cut out patterns and traced their inner border with a pencil. Tom cut the drawings with small scissors making sure the paper stays glued to the lamp shade. Lose parts were glued with egg white. All that remained to do is spray paint the shade and remove the "mask".

The result is a unique lamp I like and a resigned self.

 


Friday, February 27, 2015

My Cheesy Bragging Post about Three Closures

Haven't blogged for quite a while. I have lots of good ideas for topics that seem worthy to share, usually related to my life experiences. However, shortly after they happen, I'm starting to have doubts about their level of interest for others, and my enthusiasm fades away. Perhaps I should fear less and write more.

One of my fears is to become one of those old ladies who only talk about illnesses and grandchildren. I know it's too soon for this, but who said fears must be based on reality? Or logic.

As I'm pretty certain that today's topic will grow stronger in my heart and not fade away, 'nuff with this meta text and let's get to work.

Forty-four years ago, after struggle and humiliation, I left my hometown Oradea in Romania, penny- and clueless about my new life in Israel. With all my belongings representing my parents' work of a lifetime left behind, all I came with was Zionism and motivation. I managed to build a new life and family, raising two wonderful, loving sons. Last week, my son was received in Romania like a VIP and made me proud beyond words. What a closure!

Planning a diplomatic career, Dan went to tour guide school to better know and be able to represent Israel. After obtaining his license in Hebrew, English and Hungarian, his career plan changed and he is primarily a freelance ITIL consultant, but the burning passion for representing Israel has remained.

The happy participants of a Hungarian-speaking tourist group he guided in Israel last year, invited him to Brasov for a visit. And they (a cultural organization) are sending another group this year.


Prominent members of the Hungarian and Jewish minorities, drove, guided, accompanied, hosted and entertained him like a VIP, and enveloped him in immense affection. He was interviewed by the local Hungarian paper prior to his arrival and he held presentations in churches, a high school, and at the Jewish community center, where during the Israeli-Hungarian evening thrown in his honor, the community choir sang Hebrew songs (a moving experience) and the dance ensemble of the high school presented traditional folk dances. He handed out brochures he arranged to be sent in advance by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, he showed photo albums and video clips and talked about contemporary Israel and the history, archaeology and importance of the Holy Land for the various religions and denominations. De-facto ambassadorship and closure with the abandoned career path.

But my pride goes beyond this successful trip. I also admire Dan for his other activities. In parallel to his work as an independent ITIL consultant to prestigious organizations, he is a last year pol-sci student at the Tel Aviv university. After earning his BA diploma this summer, he plans to continue towards a Master's degree in technology and IT management. He also volunteers a lot for LGBT organizations, conducting educational activities in schools and organizations, and he is a founding member of the National Youth Council Alumni NGO, mentoring current national youth council members for the Ministry of Education. Dan is a true time multiplexer!

He is an improved version of myself, a genuine Erika 2.0. I have the seeds of his talents and ambitions, but they could not develop in my childhood environment. It took miraculous Israel and Dan's industriousness to become what he is. And let's not forget his Yiddishe ma'me and mensch father. And this, my friends, is my closure with myself through Dan.

PS: I have enough love for Tom as well, in case you were worried.



Friday, October 17, 2014

Returning to Israel

I've recently returned from a 10-day trip to Portugal. I learned a lot about this country and had a good time. However, I'm not going to describe the trip here, rather discuss insights I got by just being away. It's good to go away sometimes and get new perspectives.

One thing I realized is how much our lives here are abnormal in some ways. Normally, I would be the last person to admit this, but what seems natural when living here, feels different when you return. Our days are full with [bad] news, grief, politics, self-proclaimed importance of our agenda, cost of living and so on. These topics envelop us invisibly and we are either unaware of them or have canned excuses, like "we deal with important issues, rather than trivial ones of plastic". I admit being guilty of both coping techniques. Anticipating that in a couple of days the abnormal will become normal again, I'm capturing the feeling of the moment.

I have said many times that "our important issues" give additional meaning to our lives, a sense of purposefulness, for a price I am ready to pay to keep Israel up for Jews to "come home" in case of need. I never thought I deserve a prize for this or regretted the better life I could have had elsewhere. This is my choice, this is right for me. However, a Tel Aviv University professor has different ideas. He claims that we provide free insurance to Jews in the diaspora. They live their good lives, knowing that when need arises, they will just hop on a plane to Ben Gurion airport and be welcomed here, no questions asked. So basically we go through all the difficulties to act as shelter for them and not for ourselves. He is proposing to put a time limit on the Law of Return, say 5 years from now. Whoever wants to come after that date, should be subjected to immigration policy, like in other countries. He knows that such a change in the law would never be voted for, but it makes sense to him.

This reminds me when we went through some old photos and documents of a relative of mine, who lives in the diaspora. One of the documents was her parents' ktubah (marriage contract). "Please don't touch this, this is my proof for being Jewish" she said and quickly slipped the insurance policy back into the drawer.

It's complicated. Israel and the diaspora need each other. The wealthy will always have more options to go elsewhere and the poor should perhaps have that free insurance. For now, there is no differentiation and chances are it will continue to be so.