THE EPILOGUE for her four years of higher education was written on the back of a picture postcard. Like me, she toured Europe this summer and made the continent her finishing school, the final pane in the windows of her liberal education.
We met on a return flight from Athens and had 11 hours to review the frenetic pace of our cultural digestion: pension to musee to piazza to eglise to fontana to ancient ruin to modern tourist office to all-purpose post office to sidewalk cafe to all hours of the night.
Also like me, she wore her trip on her sleeve, around her neck, on her t-shirt, in her pockets . . . anywhere a souvenir could reside.
What did you see when you were there?
Nothing that doesn't show.
"I grabbed all these t-shirts and matchbooks and maps to assure myself I really spent time in all these places the past six weeks," she said. "I have so many bits and pieces tumbling inside my head from this trip, I'm scared I'll forget everything in two weeks."
A six-week European swing is eye-opening, euphoric and, often, a bit voyeuristic. It's staggering to try to perform brain surgery on the world's classic cities in five days. The feeling that haunted both of us through much of the trip was: I wish I could live here a while.
My wish materialized in Israel and the difference was immeasurable. For six days I lived with a family in Haifa. For five days I lived with a family in Jerusalem.
I say Paris. I toured Rome.
I lived Israel.
My traveling partner had a brother living in Haifa and, without forewarning, we arrived at his doorstep at l0:30 one night -- replete with the appendages of the previous month in Europe: backpacks (or, in my case, shoulder bag), cameras and "family jewel bags" containing such valuables as passports, wallets, travelers checks and bottles of suntan lotion.
Unfortunately, no one was home at the third-floor apartment so we sprawled in the hallway until an upstairs neighbor invited us to sit in his kitchen. In the hour's wait, the neighbor gorged us with everything in his refrigerator while we chatted.
Just talking to a native was already a novelty. Throughout Europe I saw every possible sight but I didn't learn much about Italy by gaping at Michelangelo's David. And of course the people one meets at tourist attractions are tourists: "Did you get to the Coliseum?" "Not yet." "Oh, don't miss it." "We didn't plan to miss it."
In talking to the neighbor, without having seen one sight in Israel, my preconceived notions started melting. I was startled to learn that:
Israelis have other things on their minds besides Israel. In fact, American Jews worry about Israel more than the Israelis.
Israelis ponder Arab terrorism only when a foreign visitor asks, "Is it safe to ride the buses?"
Most Israelis are not overly religious Jews. Other Israelis aren't Jewish at all.
Israelis are more concerned with economics than Arabs.
Israeli guys also fantasize about long, blond, Texan baton twirlers.
All of this in an hour. Mindboggling.
The following morning, after a few hours of obligatory sightseeing in the beautifully scenic (if not slightly antiseptic) city of Haifa, I went home for lunch.
I went home for lunch!
Here, I set down the strategy for Israel as possible as early every day as possible and then drop the camera, the bags, the passport and just live the life of an Israeli.
No more voyeurism -- let the tourists watch me.
Immediately I realized how different Israel looks through the eyes of a tourist whose eyes are owned and operated by a tour guide.
In rapid succession the mornings brought on trips to Akko (an ancient city), the Golan Heights (a controversial area of Northern Israel) and repeated stints in Tel Aviv. American sightseers on the tour buses, fresh from telling me about the luxury of their hotels and the thoroughness of their guided excursions to every point of interest in the Midwest, would often start explaining the Israeli lifestyle to me -- the constant vigilance, the Zionist furor, the solemn religious observance. When I would relate how I couldn't find a spot on the Haifa beach during the solemn sabbath Saturday due to the masses of Israeli sunbathers, the American tourists were suddenly fogged.
The afternoons were passed breezing along the streets of Haifa. After a few days I was nearly oblivious to the soldiers on the buses with M-16 rifles swinging from their shoulders. I stopped scanning the buses in accordance with the little sign that read, "Beware of any suspicious objects." aI absent-mindedly threw up my hands as the guards at the doors of the department store and movie theaters searched me.
The security web in which Israel lives appears blatantly ominous to the outsider. But it becomes a way of life and, therefore, there's no need to obsess over it.
I soon knew my way around town and what bus would take me where. I became a "regular" at a felafel stand. At the grocery I began cutting to the front of the line to have my fruit weighed. I was feeling so assimilated, I felt like getting a job and doing my assimilating during lunch hours.
I should mention that four weeks earlier I had made a lame attempt at being one of the boys in Paris. I loved Paris and thought it a perfect place to live. Wearing shorts on the Champs Elysee (the French never wear shorts) I was admiring the Arc de Triomphe (the French never admire the Arc de Triomphe) when an American asked me if I was also American. Despite my captain-of-a-Midwest-coed-softball-team appearance, I snapped, "Je ne parle pas anglais. "
A cheap thrill, no doubt, but now the American would have something to tell his friends back home about the brusque, snobby French.
Actually, compared to my Israeli insights, my travels through Europe resulted in typically innocuous and shallow observations:
Paris: "The lights in the bathroom don't go on until you lock the door."
Monaco: "Princess Caroline lives well."
Florence: "They sell Louis Vuitton Bags here like they're boxed lunch."
The Vatican: "This is the only place in the world worse than New York for meeting girls."
When you deal in sights rather than people, as I did in Europe, it's difficult to get a grip on the people. They have their lives to get on with. They're not tourist attractions. And when you do meet them there's rarely time to get past, "What do you like more, Washington or Athens?"
Living in Israel enabled me to draw a firm composite sketch. Dealing with business people and neighbors is dealing in a natural habitat. It was easily observed that Israelis are loving and friendly enough to take strangers into their homes like long-lost brothers and to heap almost exaggerated amounts of love on their children.
The basic pushy, aggressive personality of the Israeli was also visible through day-to-day mingling. They barrel onto buses and cross streets with the thrust of a play from scrimmage. Safely across the street, they'll break into open-face arguments with each other.
And, there's and underlying cynicism.
One night, a neighboring college professor had us over to his house for coffee. Gideon is in his 30s and loves Israel with a passion that most Israelis keep in their minds and locked away. He put the cynicism into focus.
"The economy is bad and people are talking about leaving," he said. "Israelis love telling American tourists how much they'd like to go to America, but amongst ourselves Israelis love Israel. The cynicism is a mask. I expect a war in the next few years, and then everyone will pull together very fast."
My traveling partner's brother has a girlfriend from Jerusalem, and her family invited us to live with them. The Zaken family is pure Israel. The parents speak no English, but the 24-year-old daughter, Hadassah, spoke quite well and we spent time with her and her friends.
Upon arrival, we were greeted with a torrential downpour of kisses and food.
This became a familiar theme the next five days. When we got sick from overeating, more food was the cure. The patient is supposed to love his disease.
I resumed my sightsee-assimilate strategy in Jerusalen as sightseeing under the equatorial sun consumed most of the day followed by family dinner, the evening news on TV and nightlife with Hadassah and her friends.
One night, after exhausting the cafes and piano bars of Jerusalem's new city, we all sat around the TV watching the news on Israel's one channel. (There is also reception of a Jordanian station which refuses to show any movies with such flaming Zionists as Sammy Davis Jr. or Elizabeth Taylor.)
It was a big day in the news. The story was on the finding of the body of an 8-year-old boy who was kidnapped a month earlier. Hadassah's friend Carmela explained that the incident was the first of its kind in Israel. Kidnappings and murders of one Israeli by another Israeli just don't happen. kExcept when they do.
We watched the news of the kidnapping with the horrified shock that, in America, is reserved for the assassination of a president.
A round of gleeful applause greeted the next news item about the arrival of several F-16 fighter jets just in from the Pentagon. Everyone was transfixed during the ensuing 15-minute special report on the operation of the F-16. I watched everyone else watching. The intense nationalism bottled up in all Israelis was seeping out in a rare display of pride.
The final item covered Menachem Begin's heart attack, which was met with a chorus of "Why doesn't he step down already." The Israeli prime minister is under a lot of heat but mainly for economic reasons. While Americans feel Begin is hawkish and extremist, Israelis see his diplomacy as quite moderate. b
The news ended and the one channel signed off at midnight. It dawned on me how watching the Israeli news with Israelis set apart from most tourists who say, "This is my vacation, I don't want to know what's happening in the world." They invariably get their wish. They don't know what's happening.
The last days in Israel were spent in the 110-degree sun of Eilat. Clearly visible to the southeast of this exquisite beach resort is Jordan. Clearly visible to the north is the Sinai Desert. Clearly visible to the south is a gunboat. It patrols just 200 yards from relaxing vacationers.
Finally, to the west, 10 feet from my place in the sun, was a soldier in full uniform to his army boots. It was so hot. But he wasn't complaining. It's just his job eight days a week. I looked at him and started thinking about living in Israel -- how I could never do it. Despite being in love with the country, my lifetime in America didn't prepare me for the Israeli existence.
I still think I could live in Paris, though.
But I really don't know.
I never lived there.