The first leg of the flight, terminating in Madrid, Spain, is uneventful. Three of its eight hours are killed by two dreadful Hollywood offerings: The Rocker starring Rainn Wilson as a middle-aged loser who lives out his dream by playing in his nephew’s rock band, followed by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, in which young girls solve their problems with the aid of a pair of jeans bearing sparkling stars on the ass.
Madrid to Tel Aviv is more arduous. Being neighbored on three sides by yowling, slobbering, and spitting infants and their keepers doesn’t help my sleep-deprivation any. The keepers suspend their little droolers over my airspace and exchange precious memories and parenting lore as strings of saliva settle in my hair and on my clothes. I blast my iPod to diminish the assault. The horror is exacerbated as I finish reading 7 Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton’s chilling ethnographic safari through the key outposts of an industry to which I nominally belong.
I spend the rest of the flight sketching neighboring slumberers and willing the minutes to bloom into hours.
Passport Security takes pleasure in the detailed account of my life story, including the reason why, having been born there, I do not carry Russian citizenship. Then we have to wait as my brother Boris and his girlfriend Blakeney inquire about their luggage, which was left behind by striking Alitalia workers in Rome. At their place, my mother has already laid out a feast and grandparents and other relations soon follow. My brother Max is there too, but is a shadowy presence due to a severe bout of food poisoning. He shuttles between bed and toilet mostly, then leaves to welcome the New Year with friends in Boston.
Morning cigarettes on the balcony next to the washer, ashing over the clothes line, taking in the steep, tree-filled corner on view. Next, an excursion to King Herod’s fortress——now a collection of passageways and scattered stones on a hilltop. Visits to ruins like this are probably a pretext to conversation or bonding with one’s fellow travelers, but the climb and descent are what sticks in my memory. Also, the rolling desert landscape dotted intermittently with structures and flora like a sea of bald men’s heads with comb-overs or disintegrating toupees.
We’re told that the bombing of Gaza by the Israeli army has begun. The only immediate effect for us is that the planned excursion to Petra in Jordan is canceled. The endless bloodletting over this godforsaken strip of land has always been a mystery to me. More intelligent tribes long ago moved to territories more conducive to habitation. Yet the pull of ancient mythology and perceived ancestry keeps fanning the flames here. Having been to this country six or seven times now, there’s no sense in which this feels like home to me. But I know many others feel differently.
A walk through the Old City with my father, Boris, and Blakeney includes the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the spot where Jesus was crucified and monks of competing denominations now enjoy punching each other in the face. It is a rabbit warren of alcoves containing icons, crosses, and other Christian bric-a-brac, fawned over by packs of tourists and desecrated by the graffiti of true believers. Boris and Blakeney document this and other sites on various digital devices, while my father runs ahead and I try to keep them all within sight.
Boris and Blakeney leave for a restorative trip to a Dead Sea spa. I turn down proposals of sightseeing and work on a watercolor on the back porch. Tracking the path of the sun in this quiet corner is probably perverse while the bombs fall a few miles way, as strangely remote as the Iraq war back home, but present as an undercurrent nonetheless. Painting does bring me back to what passes for normalcy, removing the dislocating sensation of travel.
A mad search for a certain bakery located in an industrial block——the rolling racks of fresh-baked loaves the only clue among poured concrete structures, dumpsters, and loading docks. Then to my grandparents house in the evening to celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary. An hour perusing old photo albums is followed by the setting of silverware, plates, and food. Then toasts to health and future and family and past, then home.
We head south, picking up the mud bathers on the way, en route to Eilat. The ever-shrinking Dead Sea accompanies us for half the trip, visible to the left of the road, then tapers to nothing. The two-lane highway through the rolling desert makes for sometimes hairy moments as over-enthusiastic motorists pass within feet of oncoming traffic. Hairpin turns and undulating hills make visibility short-lived and sporadic.
Our destination is a resort town on the Red Sea, in the southern tip of the country, bordered by Egypt and Jordan. Having made dinner plans with a distant relative also staying in town, we circle about the hotels, restaurants, parking lots, and bridges to nowhere until a helpful cabbie finally sets us straight. At the table, Russian, English, and French mixes to sometimes jell into conversation. I opt out and doodle in my sketchbook instead. The stroll along the boardwalk brings a bombardment of neon, cheap tchotchkes, and signage in Hebrew, English, Arabic, and Russian. Promenading families, couples, and packs of teens compete for purchase on the path with hucksters and street musicians. The most notable is a fat Russian emigré in a white suit who enthusiastically puts his whole body into renditions of smooth jazz standards on saxophone and clarinet backed by a karaoke machine. The overall effect of the place is a sad mix of Coney Island and Atlantic City with clashing cultures as seasoning. Seedy, yet redolent of elusive thrills and forgotten joy.
Thrifty, as always, we sleep five in one room. I’m on the kiddie cot with the lights out, not ready to sleep or listen to my brother fart in his slumbers. Blakeney proactively purchased earplugs against my own operatic snoring. I wander out into the night instead. A cinderblock box building covered in neon liquor ads wheezes out disco beats to the expectant line of teens waiting to enter, while a strip club, Irish bar, and fast-food shack lonesomely await patronage. I think about coffee but return to the hotel and sit in the lobby reading for a while before going back to the room.
The breakfast buffet, included in the price of the room, ends at 10:30 am so we hurry to shovel in eggs, potatoes, coffee, and cereal among our fellow vacationists. The hotel is made up of three buildings in the shape of ocean liners with swimming pools in between, decorated with faux rock formations, palm trees, and paper maché birds and lizards worthy of Rainforest Cafe. A mini soccer field attracts little boys and their fathers in sweatpants, who occasionally play for real, but are for the most part content to knock the ball back lazily to their offspring.
Enthralled by this grandeur, I beg off the planned excursion to an ancient Egyptian site and stay on the balcony, attempting to capture some tiny sliver of the majesty before me.
I wait for my family in the lobby among the lingerers, web surfers, and wailing children. They return bearing shawarma sandwiches and we commiserate about what to eat next, between mouthfuls of lamb and tahini.
Dinner is at a place away from the main drag, past the harbor housing miles of recently delivered cars, across the street from a Club Med, on the last bit Israeli land before the border with Egypt. Then, a meeting with our elderly relative in the lobby of the Hilton, which also houses loungers, but of a decidedly more calcified vintage.
We head back to Jerusalem in the morning, with a detour to a historic site set high in the mountains, right next to nowhere. A harsh corkscrew of a climb leads to a plateau, past barbed-wire-fenced military installations and an oddly solitary factory, to a pile of rocks beyond a guard booth where our wallets are lightened slightly for the privilege of entry. A town once stood here, now partially reconstructed, but mostly a pile of once-used boulders. Some bits of mosaic have survived, but the rest is quite obviously recreated, leading me to wonder whether this is a view of history in any way different than a Civil War reenactment. What certainly is history is the adjoining cafe. A distant memory, judging by the view through its dusty windows.
After a forty minute wait approaching a checkpoint, we’re back in Jerusalem to greet the coming of the new year. The apartment fills with family arriving to eat and drink together. I drowsily and reluctantly joined in. My lifelong inability to engage in group revelry is probably exacerbated by being half awake. But soon another celebration has passed and it is time to clear dishes again. This is my favorite part of any gathering.
My flight leaves at 6 am but both mother and father insist on seeing me off, so we set out for Tel Aviv at 3:30. The check-in is going smoothly until I get to the Iberia counter, where I’m told that in the five days since the trip in, the airplanes have apparently shrunk. Now my carry-on bag, which hadn’t rated a second look in Chicago or Madrid, is judged oversized and has to be checked.
The return trip is mercifully uneventful. Besides the bandy-legged little man next to me, who insists on invading my leg room with his thighs, even the in-flight movies are better——Appaloosa with Ed Harris and Ghost Town with Ricky Gervais, which is sappy but still preferable to attempting sleep in coach. The best part of air travel has always been getting off, which can also be said of travel in general.
Coming back is the only thing that makes vacations bearable.