Tel Aviv: City of Encounters
Summer, though hot and humid, is the busy season in Tel Aviv, Israel. Nasal vowels from the mouths of French vacationers bounce off café tables and roll into the street. Russian tourists nurse sunburns and snap pictures. American teenagers, many of them on organized tours, descend upon the bars with their backwards caps and unfortunate footwear. And the city does its best to put on a show.
At the end of June, there’s a one-night celebration called Layla Lavan, or White Night, when many of Tel Aviv’s museums, art galleries, cafes and, of course, bars are buzzing until morning. The festivities carry over into the next day: a tradition five years in the making. There is a massive public water fight on Rabin Square on the afternoon of July 1. In light of the recent drought here, this year’s participants were encouraged to fill their squirt guns and buckets only from the fountain in the square, where the water is undrinkable and not even suitable for watering plants. There’s also free opera in the park – this year’s performance was Mozart’s Magic Flute.
But Tel Aviv, even without the seasonal events, is an exciting city: busy thoroughfares are lined with cafes that meld European and Middle Eastern cultures seamlessly, and boutique owners often sit outside the doors of their shops and chat with friends who drop by. Add to this the stalls selling art, street food, jewelry and fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and during the daytime, it sometimes seems as if God has taken the city like a shoebox, and shaken everybody out of their bedrooms and back offices, into the public eye.
I have spent over a year in Israel, a good part of that in the country’s largest city, so I’m something more than a tourist here, but much less than a Tel Avivian. The city continues to mystify and excite me, but I am no longer pulled to the main drags like Ben Yehudah Street or Rothschild Boulevard, and the beach has begun to look like every other beach around the world. Rather, what I’ve come to appreciate most about the city is something that’s not usually mentioned in the guidebooks or magazine write-ups: Tel Aviv is a city of encounters.
Though there are half a hundred skyscrapers in the city, most of the neighborhoods are composed of three, four, or five-story buildings. A brand-new structure often rubs shoulders with a crumbling façade, and in these small neighborhoods, the buildings compliment each other, rather than compete. I often find myself stepping off a main boulevard and roving in a maze of small one-lane streets. Laundry hangs out to dry and young parents push their children in strollers, and from one of the apartments an old man, wearing only a pair of shorts, leans over his balcony and surveys the sunlight. This, I imagine, is a much more effective way of patrolling the neighborhood than any alarm system. Once, I stumbled upon the words, “Don’t go, I’ll eat you up, I love you so,” spray painted in a corner of a neighborhood park. It was after midnight, and a kiss was fresh on my lips. This city, I thought – this city is following me.
Tel Aviv’s layout is in great contrast to, say, grid-like Manhattan, where the main avenues run north-south and the calmer, smaller streets run east-west. As a result, to get from one quiet spot to another you must, by necessity, traverse the sidewalk of a busy thoroughfare, at least for 20 steps. In Tel Aviv, the accomplished city walker can weave his way through the homier neighborhoods without hearing honking horns or squawking pedestrian traffic. And what’s more, the savvy peripatetic can turn around, and be back on a main drag in three minutes flat. More than once I’ve thought myself inextricably lost in a residential jungle, only to perk up my ears and follow the faint sounds of concentrated human life. Like a hunter, I follow the call, and in a moment I am stumbling over somebody else’s feet.
After one of these long walks, I am sitting at an outdoor café, having dinner. A man sees me eating from the sidewalk.
“How is it?” he asks. He looks to be about 70, and his white button-down shirt is yellow under the armpits and coffee-stained over the belly.
“Good,” I say, my mouth full.
He comes to the table to inspect my food.
“That’s a big bowl. Was the salad as big as the bowl?”
No,” I answer, “not as big as the bowl –but still, a good size.”
“Oh,” he says, a little disappointed, and walks on.
If, during the hottest hours of the day, Tel Avivians can most likely be found under café umbrellas or on their balconies, in the evenings they must, alas, retire to their apartments. This is where the brilliance of the city’s Bauhaus heritage comes into play.
In 2003, UNESCO recognized the more than four thousand 1930s Bauhaus-style buildings, whose white facades have earned the city the moniker “The White City,” as a World Heritage Site. The Bauhaus building-scape, with its focus on functionality, while incorporating some of the aesthetics of early 20th Century German Modernism, seems particularly appropriate for this young and electric Middle-Eastern city. In addition to balconies and flat, utilitarian rooftops where residents sip wine and smoke cigarettes in the breeze, many apartments have French balconies – small overhangs with doors or large windows that open wide to expose the interior, so that a living room or kitchen is easily converted to a sunroom.
When life takes place on the streets by day and you can peer into wide-open apartments at night, the passerby gets close enough to the inner life of the city’s dwellers to view the paintings on the walls, read the titles of the books on their shelves, and see the footballer falling to the ground in fake agony on the neighbor’s television. You even notice whether the man stretching to change a light bulb in the second-floor apartment across the alley has got an innie or an outie. It would be wrong to label this as voyeurism, though: for in voyeurism, one must be furtive and sly. In Tel Aviv, even if you don’t want it to, the city sashays smack into you.I run along the boardwalk at midnight, when the air is less balmy and the foot traffic is sparser. Headphones on, I pass a hustler conning people with a shell game, hiding balls under cups and challenging them to guess correctly. I pause to catch my breath and watch a few tourists lose their money very quickly. Then, as I continue on, a woman on a bicycle rides up to me.
“Don’t play with them,” she tells me, in accented Hebrew.
“I won’t,” I promise, not knowing who this lady is.
“They’re gangsters -from Russia. The worst. Actually, from Ukraine.”
“I know,” I tell her. “I was just watching. I never put any money down.”
We keep talking. I do not know why this woman chose to approach me. I am shirtless, sweaty, and wearing absurdly short running shorts. We are—rather, were—strangers. When I tell her what I’m doing in Israel—researching and translating Polish literature—her eyes light up. It turns out she’s Polish, and a journalist and poet. She’s just published a volume of poetry. Neither of us has a pen, so we accost an elderly woman with a titanic purse, who graciously hands us the required instrument. I scribble down my information and we agree to meet for coffee the next day.
I have to wonder if this city is seeking me out. In the same way that the architecture is open and promotes interaction and chance encounters, so do the people. Is this a case of art mimicking life or vice versa?
It sometimes seems to me when I wander here at night that Tel Aviv is a translucent city: you can peek inside it, through the skin of its buildings, to its inner core. I think of an orange that’s had a square cut out of its peel, or a fish tank with slightly murky glass. There’s always something unknown, invisible, ungraspable about a city and the people who inhabit it, but Tel Aviv is a place that lets you meander through its most intimate alleys, and get close enough to reach out your hand and nearly take hold of that slippery something that gives the city its soul. When the breeze from the sea picks up and blows its way across the coastal plain on which Tel Aviv is situated, it leaves a pleasant residue, as if coating everything in a diaphanous layer of paint.
I’ll wander this graceful city any day, where the pedestrian doesn’t have to strain his neck to gulp down the view, and where everything, it seems, is wide open.