Monday, March 9, 2009

Get Your Kicks on Sherut 66

22 Feb 2009
Tel Aviv

Today we went wireless. Not by choice. We'd been having internet problems for a couple of weeks. I awoke today (Sunday) to discover that my favorite tactic of shutting down the computer and letting us both get 8 or 9 hours sleep did not work. I also try this tactic with broken toilets and angina pains with equally spotty results. Liz reminded me that fixing the computer was one of my primary duties in our marriage (along with taking out the garbage and international relations – she gets the easy stuff like planning and preparing meals, keeping our social calendar and finding places for us to live). Today she was off without me to ladle soup at Lasova, leaving me to the tender mercies of Bezeq Tech Support. The day, however, ended not only as a technological triumph but also with shwarma, kubeh soup and chocolate.

Getting through to someone in Tech Support who can actually help you is always a challenge. But here I have the added burden of trying to find someone who can speak computerese in American English. The first thing to know about calling Bezeq is that you will get to choose from among three languages – Hebrew, Russian and Arabic. Do all those Anglos in Israel use another service provider? Are all Bezeq Techies multi-lingual so it doesn't matter which button you push? Hitting "0#" did not take me out of the loops and to a human being. So I took my best guess and selected 1 for Hebrew. I tried listening for a couple of words that might point me to the correct selection such as technai or sherut (technician and service). Nothing. So I just kept hitting “1” until, after a long wait, a human being answered. She only spoke enough English to tell me I had reached billing, I needed tech support and to call back on 166 and select option 4.

In Israel there are shortened telephone numbers that can be called toll free for certain services. For example, 100 is for the police, 101 calls an ambulance (Magen David Adom) and 102 is to report a fire. I tried 166, discovered there was no option 4 and decided, again, to just keep hitting 1. After another long wait a real person answered, said she did speak English and told me that I had reached billing at 199, not Tech Support at 166. This time, however, she offered to have an English-speaker from Tech Support call me back. Taking this as a friendly gesture I gave her my phone number. While waiting for the call back, it occurred to me that I may have dialed a wrong number so I tried 166 again, slowly and carefully.

During my third trip through recordings I didn't understand, my call waiting started to beep. The caller was a very nice person who said he was returning my call but that he also was from billing. I thanked him and went back to my telephonic wanderings. And so, about 45 minutes into my search, I reached a person who said she didn't speak much English but offered to transfer my call to someone in Tech Support who does speak English. In most call center systems being transferred is usually the kiss of death. Anyone who has ever tried to get help from Dell for a Windows problem knows what I'm talking about. But here in the Holy Land a miracle occurred. Yossi got on the line.

Yossi, who's English was great, quickly diagnosed our problem. Your modem is fried, he said. We'll have to give you a new one. Ah yes, first the miracle and then the black clouds come back. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Having visions of being modemless for a couple of weeks (Israel is notorious for installation delays), I said I couldn't wait. Yossi said that's no problem. I could do it today, myself, as long as I took the old modem and wires to a Bezeq store. And where is that? Yossi looks it up and says – Ibn Gvirol. Since I know Ibn Gvirol is a few kilometers long I insisted on a street number. Yossi said 108 and the clouds began to part again. The Bezeq store is near the Municipal Building on a stretch of Ibn Gvirol packed with restaurants, kiosks and chocolate shops. The day suddenly had potential. All I needed to do was get there.

Getting there meant going outside into the winter that had finally arrived in Israel. Winter in Israel comes with what folks from Maine would call “weather”. Not one giant storm but a series of squalls accompanied by bolts of lightning and thunder claps of Biblical magnitude. In between the squalls are clear skies and warm (if you're from New Jersey) breezes. One minute it's raining heavily and the next the sun comes out. Go to the north and you also get hail the size of golf balls, and snow. The upside of “weather” is that Israel is going to get very very green in a big hurry, flowers will bloom, crops will grow and, maybe, water won't be rationed this summer. The downside is this is a place where storm sewers and flood control projects are purely academic concepts.

The news is featuring stories about how Israelis are flocking north to look at the snow and watch water fall down rock faces (if you live in the desert this is a big deal – come from New Jersey and you spend these days sitting at a computer writing your blogs). These stories are quickly followed with the stories of hikers' cars skidding off roads and being washed away in the flood waters. Think of New Yorkers watching a tall building burn. The thought that it may fall on their heads never seems to deter the crowds. So I put on my waterproof, hooded jacket and walking shoes (schlepped here from the USA just for a day such as this) and set forth on my expedition.

Sheruts are a great, cheap way to get around Tel Aviv. These group taxis seating 12 to 16 riders follow bus routes. Only, unlike the buses they shadow, the sheruts will stop anywhere along the route, provided, of course, that you distract the driver from his simultaneous conversations on a radio, two cell phones and with the good looking woman in the second row. My life in Israel has been lived mainly along the 4, 5 and 16 lines. These lines run north – south and connect the port with the bus station and Hatikvah via Ben Yehuda, Allenby, Dizengoff, Rothschild and some South TLV streets you really don't want to walk on anyway. I have not used an east-west line, until now. I could have done the day's journey on foot but rain, hunger and the need to get the modem fixed before Liz got home from the soup kitchen took precedence over any guilt about needing the exercise.

Liz had told me about the Route 66 sherut a couple of weeks ago. She said the 66 crosses Ibn Gvirol at Arlozoroff, which I knew would be close to the Bezeq store. Even better, I could waive one down very close to the apartment. After all, I wouldn't want to take this going outdoors in the rain business any further than absolutely necessary. It turned out that the 66 passes a number of places we frequent such as Dizengoff Center (mall and movies), the Supersol on Arlozoroff (nicer store than the one on Ben Yehuda) and, after crossing Ibn Gvirol, the central train (and bus) station. In less than 15 minutes I arrived at the Bezeq store ready to swap modems.

The Bezeq store turned out to be pleasant to deal with. Sometimes privatization, deregulation and competition can be a good thing. They were even expecting me, thanks to Yossi's note on the account file. Before I left the apartment, I had given Dafna the Agent a head's up that I was trying to fix a modem problem and she got me in touch with the owner's cousin, whose name is on the account (don't ask). The cousin gave me his cell phone number and said to call from the store if I needed his help. So, when the Bezeq CSR told me I could have a free upgrade to a wireless modem if the account holder would agree to extend the contract, I put her on the phone with the cousin. The cousin not only took the upgrade for my apartment, he took one for his home. With a satisfied look on her face, the Bezeq CSR took the fried modem and gave me a new wireless modem. I asked if the instructions were in English. She said no but if I had any problems I could call 166. Oh great. Trek home through the rain and cold to spend another 45 to 60 minutes trying to get through on 166. Clearly it was time to load up on comfort food and worry about the internet later.

So off I went, south on Ibn Gvirol thinking about whether I would head to the shwarma stand just north of Hadassa (which is just north of Gan Ha'Ir (City Garden, a mall just north of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipal Building) or hit the ultimate winter comfort food of soup and chocolate tortes in Judith's Hungarian Cafe inside the mall. Oh, decisions, decisions.

The fact that it was now raining and the shwarma stand has only outdoor tables was not an issue due to the architecture of Ibn Gvirol. The International School buildings that line the avenue have their upper floors built out over the sidewalk. Resting on square pillars, the fronts of the buildings form a long archway ending a few feet in from the street. Set back under the archway are kiosks, restaurants, cafes and stores.
With a few strategically placed space heaters, most establishments offer year-round, day and night, outdoor seating. The net effect is to create a shady walkway that keeps diners and shoppers cool in the summer and dry in the winter while indulging their base, primitive needs for food and household appliances.

Having been to Judith's twice this trip, I decided on the shwarma. After all, those of us whose main contribution to Israel is to come here and spend money have an obligation to move our business around. For those of you who live too sheltered a life, shwarma (similar to the Greek gyro) is a huge slab of mystery meat, allegedly lamb or, more typically, turkey with lamb fat melted over it, rotating on a tall skewer in front of an electric grill. The meat for your sandwich is sliced off the skewer with the traditional long knife or an electric slicer that looks like it came from a Popeil TV offering. The shwarma stand I favor on Ibn Gvirol has a choice of both and is always busy (a critical factor when eating this sort of food). They also slice the meat with a long knife which somehow convinces me that this is the authentic Middle Eastern fast food I crave. Today I went for the lamb rolled in laffa (a large, flat Yemenite pita) with salads and chips but no harif (hot sauce).

Having downed the shwarma I stared at the wireless modem in its box inside the Bezeq bag and realized that I could not possibly continue without chocolate. And there was also the question of what, besides chocolate, could I bring home for Liz on this chilly, rainy day. Fortunately the next two blocks going south on Ibn Gvirol include some of the best chocolate shops in Israel plus the Kubeh Bar, purveyor of a variety of soups accompanied by kubeh and rice.

My contemplation of which chocolate shop to hit first was interrupted by the crowd of video and still photographers standing around the Memorial to Yitzhak Rabin. Built on the spot where Rabin was assassinated after attending a peace rally, the Memorial consists of broken blocks of black stone surrounding a plaque and eternal flame. Tel Aviv being the regional capital of fashion shoots and Indie filmmaking, a gathering of photographers and people with pads and clipboards is a daily source of street theater. So I stopped and joined a group of other pedestrians prepared to take time out from walking in the rain to gawk at whatever was about to happen. What happened was two men, one in a nice suit and another in a jacket and pants that did not quite match, walked up accompanied by functionary types holding umbrellas to cover the two men and what was obviously a memorial wreath with a sash. The better dressed of the two laid the wreath on the memorial and the two men stood still for the photographers to record the event. The well dressed man turned out to be the Mayor of Berlin, accompanied by the “fashion-don't” Mayor of Tel Aviv. That the Mayor of Berlin was honoring a Jewish martyr is the sort of thing that makes the 6 o'clock news in this town (and entertains those of us looking for any excuse not to get back on the phone with Tech Support).

I decided to pick up the chocolate first since the soup would be the heaviest part of my growing collection of things to carry and I was craving a really good chocolate cherry. So first I hit Daskalides, Belgian chocolate importers who have the real deal when it comes to chocolate cherries. A rich dark chocolate surrounding a decent liqueur in which floats a real cherry (be careful about the pit). I ate one while walking and brought two home to share with the wife. Next was Cardinal, whose proprietor makes his own chocolate right there in the store. The variety of individual pieces or slabs varies with the moods of and the fresh ingredients acquired by the proprietor. As I walked in today his assistant, a good looking young woman who was up to her wrists in chocolate, smiled and asked if she could help me. I soon had two decent sized slabs of dark chocolate – one with candied orange rinds (that was mine) and one with chili peppers (Liz' favorite).

So, carrying chocolate and the wireless modem it was time to get serious about the soup. Kubeh Bar is just across Frishmann from the southwest corner of Rabin Square. Their menu is easy enough to learn. There's the red soup, the yellow soup and the green soup. The red soup has a tomato base. I don't know what's in the yellow and green. The guys behind the counter will let you taste each one before ordering so you really don't have to get hung up on ingredients. Kubeh is a thick layer of starch around either mystery meat or entrecote chopped and cooked in, well, kubeh spices. It's Middle Eastern workers' soup, perfect for chilly, rainy days. I like the yellow and Liz likes the red so these, with a mixed grouping of kubehs and a bowl of rice all went with me back up Ibn Gvirol to wave down a 66 sherut heading back towards Allenby.

Arriving back at the apartment with my supplies I proceeded to install the new modem. Here's where standardization and globalization can actually be of use. Having installed a wireless modem in the New Jersey house I had a clue that certain things had to be hooked up to certain other things in a certain, nonintuitive order. I also found the “quick install” instructions, written in Hebrew but with 5 numbered steps and pictures. So I followed the pictures and, on the 5th step observed an Internet Explorer icon. So, having plugged the DSL line, the modem and the computer into one another I clicked on the web browser and found myself at a site to log onto Bezeq's internet service. Using the existing login words I actually got onto the Bezeq site but then hit a wall of Hebrew. So, fortified with the dark chocolate with the candied orange rind I again made contact with Tech Support. Ivan was kind of impressed that I had gotten as far as I had without crashing the system. He walked me through all the things on the ISP's website that no mere end-user could ever figure out on his or her own and here I am, well fed and blogging to you.

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