I’ve got a thing for white towns, like Udaipur, like the Pueblos Blancos of Spain, like Oia and the villages frosting the Greek islands. It’s just one of the many reasons I keep returning to Israel’s largest city.
Throw back the curtains to a blindingly bright day, and the first thing you’ll see is blue, not white. It’s the indigo sea, winking up at you through floor-to-ceiling glass, lapping gently against land that was completely undeveloped just a century ago until a handful of settlers conducted their now-famous seashell lottery.
This is Tel Aviv, otherwise known as the White City, which makes complete sense as you finally shift your gaze towards the tumbling geometry of one blocky apartment building after another. Ahead of you, pure Mediterranean. Behind, pure Middle East.
They say Istanbul spans East and West, but its Ottoman exoticism is totally different than the quintessential date-palms-and-desert-sands version here. Yet even “here” is softened by rich foliage and shockingly vibrant flowers: lemon trees and pink bougainvillea, Cyprus and pine, olive, red hibiscus, eucalyptus, purple fig marigolds….
Up north where the affluent locals live you can grow dizzy counting the construction cranes hanging from high rises, but elsewhere the glistening and gleaming seen from the hotel room subsides at street level. A grittier reality appears. Even amidst the city’s priciest hotels, in a country full of overpriced hotels, shabby buildings sit forlorn and abandoned as if chained by the electrical wires flanking their walls.
Often you’ll find an entire street that is quiet, tree lined, and decorated with the clean Bauhaus architecture from the 1930s that makes Tel Aviv a UNESCO World Heritage site. In nooks like these I could swear I was back home in Miami Beach: smelling the same salty blossomy fragrance, feeling the same warm and moist air, and seeing similar architecture and plants (as well as an abundance of beautiful people and Jews, we like to joke).
But then you turn the corner and madness ensues: people jostle for space among market stalls, someone whizzes by on a motorbike while texting rapidly, a mosque calls believers in for prayer, horns honk, another motorbike whizzes by while its driver laughs into his cell phone, and black-haired people yell back and forth to one another with guttural words that carry not a trace of a romance language. To an outsider, the resemblance of these people to the ones that would do them harm is shocking and unsettling.
Which reminds me of our temporary home at the Tel Aviv Sheraton, supposedly one of the best-guarded hotels. Except that as we breeze through the entrance, it seems as if nobody gives us a second glance, let alone verifies that we are guests. Perhaps it is unnecessary. Rumor says the bellhops are all Mossad, and experts at visual profiling.
And that in turn reminds me of the Ben Gurion Airport, and probably my favorite arrivals hall in the world, which is usually only reached after extensive questioning and searches at the departure location by poker-faced agents.
A long, broad, high-ceilinged hall leads you towards passport control. You are descending, and what starts as shin-high stones to your right quickly rises to a towering limestone wall, evoking the ancient monuments and Temple of the Holy Land. It is a quiet, sobering space. No longer will you remain an observer, the stones whisper. Now you are here, engulfed by history and the reality of an entire country built around remembrance and religion.
A seemingly contrary observation: Tel Aviv is hip. It is young and bold and cosmopolitan and unafraid. It is both creative and creating. Street vendors’ stalls overflow with their fruits of labor, gorgeous and inspired and worthy of New York boutique space. Cafes and bistros line the streets. Benches are situated facing each other to encourage conversation. Street performers at the port generate an impromptu dance party with their drumming; elsewhere, the largest crowd surrounds the old-fashioned storyteller at the entrance to Nachalat Benjamin Street. There are secondhand stores and record stores and trendy shops and juice stands. The clerks inside those stands are dwarfed by their fresh hanging fruit; you squint to make out their face in the shadows as you point to what you want.
As sunset draws closer, the city quiets as if on cue. Most people head for the beach, dipping into the water and then resting on the sand. Beachside lounges put on mellow mixes whose tempos will escalate over the coming hours to herald in the famous Tel Aviv nightlife. Luminous grids of pointy cones become brighter as the sky dims, lighting up the sand wherever beach bars are located, and pointing the way to the historic old city of Jaffa, lights twinkling on the horizon.
This is the traditional time of beer and mezes, which are tapa-portioned samplers of Jewish delicacies: olives; tabbouleh (bulgur wheat with parsley, mint, scallions and tomato); babaghanoush (roast eggplant spread); strained yogurt; muhammara (hot pepper spread with ground walnuts and breadcrumbs); salad, roast vegetables, and the requisite chickpea hummus spread.
Yet I’m feeling something different tonight. Asked if they serve cocktails, our waitress answers, “Not really, unless you want a mojito or something.”
It’s Miami, all over again.