Those three old ladies, those babushkas cloaked in fur. They exited the restaurant cackling, arm in arm in arm. Still, two of them slipped in the slush, and one fell on her ass. You’d think they’d know how to walk in it, what with their combined years. But they didn’t care, those drunk old beauties. Just howled as one of their number butt-planted in the snow. That laughter. They were strong. High spirits. Good bones. I kind of fell in love with them. Or the moment. As I shivered, walking home, breath fogging in front of me, thick as smoke, my own feet slipping, plastic sack hanging from my gloved hand. Two beers, 9.5%
I fell asleep on the bus. You could say passed out, but fell asleep is better. I woke up to eyes in the rearview, a voice calling Panu? Panu! (Sir? Sir!). In Polish, he explained (I think) that I needed to get my ass off his bus. It was the last stop of the night, I the last passenger. I didn’t understand anything except last stop, and I told him, and since mine was only one back, he sighed, put the bus in gear, turned around and rumbled one mile to dump me out. I thanked him profusely. He frowned and blew me off with a swat of his hand, which in Polish means I love you too, but it’s late and I wanna go home.
I saw a movie called The Pianist about life in the Warsaw Ghetto. I saw it in the actual Warsaw Ghetto. Or where the ghetto had been. That made it kind of poignant. Though I think the Poles had grown as weary as me by the end with Adrian Brody hiding in corners, hiking his collar against the cold, his breath fogging the air. He should have been clocking Nazis in the nose or something. Anything. Those old babushkas would have.
I wrapped my scarf around my neck, hiked my collar against the cold. Headed home hands in pockets, crunching snow. Looked up at the low, gray clouds, wanting out.
The Israeli agent opened my bag, that short man with short arms waving, searching, rummaging. What was in it, my bag, he wanted to know. “Hair dryer,” I said. “Why you have hair dryer?” he said, like it was criminal, or girly. I answered in English, with a fake Polish accent. To this day, I don’t know why. Maybe I’d started to feel more Polish than American. “In case I need one,” I shrugged. He stared, decided I was strange, perhaps, but not a threat, and let me on the plane. There were like, only ten people on the plane. So why not let me on, maybe.
Tel Aviv. Green grass, blue sky. The winter, if you can call it that, has been mild. Desaltification plants humming, sucking in sea water, pumping out fresh. Making the landscape luscious, at no small cost.
Shoes hanging from my fingertips, pant legs rolled up to keep them out of the surf. Two girls in bikinis smile, wave, wiggle things at me, one of them a camera. I take it. They snuggle together, arms around arms, legs around legs, touching foreheads and laughing. Every so often, I recall that moment, pretty certain I missed out on something there.
On the bus, terrified the next person on would be the one with the bomb. The everyday cool of the passengers is surreal knowing the ever-present risk of explosion. A more stressful bus ride than most. No chance of falling asleep or missing my stop.
The wind raises a ferocious sandstorm that afternoon. I walk the beach in a haze, eyes squinted at the dusty air, sand scraping eyeballs. The minarets call out for prayer, sounding so holy in the eye of the storm. Even if they are recordings.
Old Jerusalem, bright sun in the Jewish Quarter. Stone streets a few feet wide. A window opens above and laundry zips out on a line as James Hetfield screams exit light, enter night… grain of sand.
In the Arab Quarter, shops are left unattended with nothing more than a long stick laid across the entrance, suggesting that travellers from all corners of the globe might want to observe the honor system while the merchants pray.
We stand at the Wailing Wall, me and Tom. Orthodox Jews, in black head to toe, braided hair hanging under black hats, bobbing as they stuff folded prayers into cracks between stones. Tom wants a picture, all smiles, get the Jews in the background. But it feels wrong, like history itself would frown upon it, right here in the present.
The Sea of Galilee. Red plastic lawn chairs sink into earth among the waist high reeds. An empty bag of Fritos floating where Jesus walked.
Tom guns a rented Kia up the highway towards Haifa, like he’s driving I-35 casual, occasionally pissed at other drivers. This is fine, he says. Just know the trouble spots and stay out of them. Bethlehem, for example. Best not go there. Nazareth is okay. In Nazareth, I bend down by the side of the road to snag a rock for my pocket. Tom wrinkles his brow, doesn’t get it.
I don’t recall much of Haifa. Just how black the night, and how the lights cut it. Stone stairs, narrow streets, men in robes smoking hookahs at sidewalk tables outside cafes. Maybe not cafes. Sitting outside storefronts in chairs, talking, smoking. Lights. Laughter. Stares. Semi-hard ones.
Calls to prayer. The bells. Mesmerizing. Holy.
At the drug store I buy two bottles of Listerine for the trip back to Poland. You can’t find it there, and what they do have doesn’t cut it. Too sweet, no burn. The dentist I saw in Tel Aviv spent ten years in San Francisco, he said, and guaranteed my teeth for five more. Not to worry about that pain in the molar, he said. And I guess he was right, nothing came of it, but more important was the relief. Even the Poles said don’t go to a Polish dentist.
I throw in a package of 3 x 5 cards, blue lines on the front, blank on the back. Poland doesn’t have those either.
Snow is falling. I wipe the condensation off the window of the bus, wondering why that poor bastard walking in the slush would choose to live in winter when summer was an option. And for a moment I can’t let myself realize I’m back.
I never felt homesick until I’d been gone a year and saw some kid leaning out the driver’s side window, ordering a Big Mac. Which is funny, because when Olga picked me up at the airport a year ago, we broke the two-hour drive in half with a stop at McDonald’s. I couldn’t eat from the jet lag, the culture shock, but I wondered how much of it was to make the English teacher come over from America feel at home. Or to show the American how American Poles could be. Or how much of it was just their life, with no message or design to be anything more. Like mine.
Towards the end of summer, the plane leaves the ground for “home,” I cover my eyes so no one sees me dealing with it. With why I am leaving at all. I tell myself I’ll be back. Cars and trucks start to look like toys. I tell myself I’ll be back.