Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

FrenchmanApparently I’m a French magnet. Every time I travel abroad I seem to run into French people. Well Americans and Australians and English too, but they’re boring so let’s forget about them.

I made a reservation to see the Bahai Gardens today, which unfortunately was a Hebrew tour because I couldn’t make it to any of the English tours. The gardens take up an entire hillside of the Carmel hills, so I didn’t really know where to go to meet the tour guide. I figured I would just get off the bus somewhere near the gardens and walk till I found the entrance.

This was definitely not as good an idea as I thought. Although distances in Haifa are indeed very small, it turns out that two places that are 500m apart on a map in longitude and latitude are usually also 500m apart in altitude. So after meandering through the hilly streets for half an hour I finally arrived drenched in sweat at the entrance to the Bahai gardens, having done enough exercise for my quads and glutes to make Jane Fonda jealous.

Bahai

As we were escorted inside (we = me and 20 Israelis) a group of soldiers who were also visiting the gardens were nice enough to translate the guide’s comments. But almost immediately after we got inside we were joined by two more groups, one speaking Russian and the other speaking… English! So I quickly ditched the Hebrew group and joined the English speakers, some of whom were actually Asian.

Shrine of the BabBahai is an interesting faith; I’m not going to go into a long exposition, but here are two tidbits that I found particularly surprising. First, Israelis are not allowed to convert to Bahai. Apparently the religious leaders think that having Israelis who are also Bahai might lead to conflict with the state of Israel and so in order for Israelis to convert they have to renounce their Israeli citizenship. Second, the original prophet of the religion (the Bab, whose shrine is pictured here) was martyred by the Persians relatively early on, and the guy who really spread the religion (the Baha’u’llah) was one of his followers. Not unlike Mormons, with Joseph Smith being the original prophet but Brigham Young being the one who really established the religion as a force.

Anyway, as I followed the English-speaking group I couldn’t help but notice how diverse the group was. There seemed to be a small Argentinian contingent, a bunch of Americans, a few Japanese, and some Commonwealth accents. I have a real hard time telling apart English from Australians, even though if you have them speak one after the other I can tell that the accents are different. There was one guy with the Commonwealth Delegation who couldn’t have been more than 18 years old, and who was really Doom-and-Gloomy, with a hoody on, smoking any chance he could get, and in general giving off a fuck-off vibe. In the back of my head I was thinking “Since when did the English start to behave like the French? They can’t pull it off as well.”

I followed the tour until the end and I started noticing some oddities. First, one of the Japanese guys kept speaking to the tour guide in Hebrew. I was surprised and to be honest slightly ticked off… I’m supposed to be the token Asian who learned Hebrew! Second the tour guide kept on mentioning “We’ll get falafel after the tour.” Why would the Bahai garden tour include falafel at the end?

I had nothing better to do and just followed the group out. The tour guide kept on explaining stuff after we left the gardens, telling us about how the German Colony was founded by Templers (not to be confused with Templars) in the 19th century, etc. etc. etc. Finally I went over to Asian Hebrew Speaker #2 and ask him “Is this just a normal Bahai garden tour or are you guys part of some separate tour group or something?” He didn’t speak English very well and muttered something about a kibbutz. Not really understanding what he said, I went over to the Commonwealth Delegation and asked them the same question.

Turns out the group was visiting from a kibbutz, and they were all visiting from abroad to learn Hebrew at the kibbutz. There were people from New York, NJ, Florida, Argentina, Japan, and of course the Commonwealth (England and Oz). Apparently they spend five or six months in the kibbutz working in one of the factories there; in exchange they get room, board, and Hebrew lessons. Almost like the Cultural Revolution I thought, instead the propaganda classes are replaced by Hebrew.

As I discovered this the group started wandering towards the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood for falafel. One of the Commonwealth Delegates said, “Come on get some falafel with us, I want to see if you can fool the lady from the Kibbutz.” I figured I had nothing better to do so I followed them through the winding alleys and sidestreets of Wadi Nisnas.

Haifa, German Colony and Wadi Nisnas

After getting lost three times we finally made it to this random falafel shop in the middle of the neighborhood. In fact there were dueling falafel shops, one right across from the other, and I felt bad for the shop across the street as they watched this group of 20 hungry foreigners wait for falafel at their competitor while they stood idly by. Anyway the falafel turned out quite tasty and the kibbutz lady did not notice that I’d snuck in line. Having gotten away with the crime I decided that, being a big red Commie deep down, I couldn’t take money from a kibbutz so I offered to pay the kibbutz lady for my falafel. But she ended up being impressed with my broken Hebrew and just let me get away with the free meal!

Dueling falafel

While we were waiting there, I noticed that Doom-and-Gloom was still smoking. As he pulled out his box of cigarettes I noticed that on it in big huge letters were the words “FUMER TUE”. It turns out D&G was French after all! I instantly switched to Francophile mode and started talking to him and his face lights up when he realizes I speak French. In one second he completely transforms from Doom-and-Gloom to, well, a normal kid, you know, one who actually smiles. Turns out D&G just immigrated to Israel from France (a lot of the French Jews are moving to Israel these days), and doesn’t really speak English or Hebrew. He’s on the kibbutz to adjust and learn the language, but, well, the French aren’t really renowned for picking up foreign languages and I think he was having some trouble adjusting. Not to mention the fact that half the group was American or Commonwealth and the rest spoke decent English; he must have felt really isolated, whence the Doom-and-Gloom.

We chatted for a while and he seemed like a nice kid. He left France because he hates the French. I can totally sympathize; the least attractive thing about France are its people… the culture, the wine, the food, the music, the nightlife, the cinema, it’s all amazing. It’s too bad that the people who produce it tend to be self-absorbed ungrateful pricks with an overly developed sense of entitlement. And now, apparently even the French can’t stand the French anymore! And I guess the attitude thing really comes natural to them; even D&G seemed to fall perfectly into the stereotype, but maybe it was just from habit. Hopefully Israel and Israelis will treat him well. So far people in Haifa have been as friendly and helpful to me as I could hope. Maybe it’s the blonde-in-Africa phenomenon, or maybe it’s because Israelis really are like sabra (prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside)?

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~ by therandomoracle on March 31, 2008.

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