Saturday, December 24, 2011

'O sprawling dump of Bethlehem'

The star marks The Spot

IF EVER a place name over-promises, it's Bethlehem. Only a fool would expect the town to deliver on the Christmas magic even hardened atheists have sung about over the years, yet still the word teases, playing havoc with expectations. To minimise the disappointment, we saved our trip until well into December; a sweaty walk around Manger Square and its year-round Christmas shops holding zero appeal.

I felt bad using a copy of the Christmas Story to prime Louis: he was hoping for straw and an actual stable at one point despite all my caveats. Luckily his inner consumer was as excited about the wooden crib scene I'd promised as finding the actual spot of the birth.

While our journey, in the borrowed work jeep, was always going to be easier than that fabled one on a donkey, Bethlehem's West Bank location means getting there is never straight forward - something even Dubya found out after Condi forced him to swap his helicopter for a car. "It's awful," he admitted, Rice's memoirs revealed, despite sweeping through the checkpoints that make life such hell for Palestinians. The town is barely 10km from Jerusalem but might as well be on another planet for most of its residents, something we found out later on while driving around, lost, trying to find the gap in the separation barrier we needed to leave. With no road signs to Jerusalem we had to stop and ask, yet queries about the location of our destination were met with shrugs from several locals.

"O little town" it most certainly isn't; sprawling concrete dump being more apt, with the graffiti on the monochrome wall that hems the town in on three sides providing the only colour on the way in and out. With a wave of the passport we popped through the small gap, and into a dystopian Alice in Wonderland where nothing was as it seemed and the street names on Google maps are bizarrely blank.

We were headed, naturally, for the Church of the Nativity and the star that marks That Spot. Or, the spot as randomly decreed by Emperor Constantine's mum, St Helena, who decided where to build the church. Maybe it was because my expectations were as blunt as one of our kitchen knives, or perhaps carrying our own baby gave the occasion an additional poignancy, but I did find the church atmospheric. I guess all the candles lit for blessings must have got my inner pyromaniac into the mood.

Church aside, the real draw was the turning on of the Christmas lights in Manger Square. We waited patiently for what felt like hours along with thousands of locals. Personally, I think they should have turned on the lights BEFORE the interminable speeches because all was as dark as the carol says until the Palestinian PM flicked the switch. A highlight was the hiatus while the mosque opposite the Church of the Nativity called its faithful - two-thirds of Bethlehem's population today - to prayer.

This being Israel, or rather Palestine, something as simple as celebrating Christmas feels like a political act, essentially because it's such a big deal for the Palestinians (who get a day's holiday) and such a non-event for Israelis. Not that the politics bothered the three year old; what with the fireworks that followed the tree lighting and a souvenir snow globe with Mary and Jesus, Bethlehem's magic lives on - in his eyes at least.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The city that Christmas forgot

IT'S A magnet for Christian pilgrims and capital of the Holy Land, yet somehow Jerusalem is the city that Christmas forgot. Imagine getting to five days to go - or is it four, I've lost track - and not hearing a single Cliff Richard tune in a shop, eating a mince pie, overdoing it on the festive drinking, maxing your credit card on pointless presents, or preparing to spend hours queuing for that Kelly Bronze you'll overcook only to remember why turkey is a once-a-year dish.

Not that I'm complaining; December here is proving something of a joyous release from the consumerist celebration formally known as Christmas. Not to mention an excuse for being stingy and lazy. Luckily Louis at three is just about young enough not to know any better, although I fear it's the last year I'd get away with giving him one of Daddy J's socks to hang up on Christmas Eve (yes, really - well, it fits a tangerine, what more does he need?).

My initial excitement at spending the Christmas build-up barely miles from where it all - allegedly - kicked off was somewhat tempered when a Jewish friend pointed out that even the handful of Christians here are largely Orthodox so don't celebrate until January 7 or even later. And to the Jews and Muslims, the 25th really is just another day. In any case, the Jews are busy with their Hanakkah festivities, which the cynical might say conveniently overlap our own and include the main tenets, namely gaudy lights and presents, but I couldn't possibly comment.

All that aside, I feel we've done our bit: the tree - small and plastic and adorned with homemade origami decorations - is up and twinkling with some lights I picked up in the sole Christmas shop the Christian quarter of the Old City had to offer. All nine Christmas cards we've received (and that includes the extra ones for Louis and Raf from the grandparents) are up and I've listened to Stevie Wonder's Christmas CD. I've even scored us a table at Jerusalem's top restaurant for lunch on the 25th: try doing that in a city that actually celebrates Christmas. Best of all, turkey will be strictly off the menu. Turns out being here is win-win. With apologies to anyone who might have hoped for a card.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Shopping in the shuk

OCADO IT is not. There's the 3km walk there for starters: uphill, with two children in tow, naturally. And back again. Buggy laden with more plastic bags than the Daily Mail could hope to persuade Brits to save in a year. Such is shopping in the shuk, which sounds remarkably like souk, but is actually Hebrew for market, something I've been doing since our second day in this city and something I will miss more than just about anything else about living here.

It has its downsides. That walk, for starters. Especially the day Louis insisted on scootering. Or the one I left the buggy behind, but still bought two massive bags of produce, including a litre of olive oil. And I invariably pick the busiest of times to go, like the day before Yom Kippur and both the Shabbat-rules Sukkot holiday days. Not to mention most Fridays, including today, when seemingly all of Jerusalem piles in either to stock up for the one day that the shops are shut or to watch everyone else stocking up.

Me, I like to do a bit of both: stockpiling and watching, although as today was my third trip this week Louis got off relatively lightly on the shopping front. Best are the bearded, black-hatted Haredim men, armed with ancient buggies-cum-shopping trolleys, who clearly scout out the best bargains going. I saw a few scuttle along this afternoon barely minutes before the shuk shut to nab everything going cheap.

I used to lure Louis up there with the promise of a tram ride: the track goes down Jaffa Road, perpendicular to the shuk, or Machane Yehuda to use its proper name. But now he's ridden the entire line he's a bit more blase, so I'm left with tummy-led temptations. For a while I used the ice cream at Mousseline (on Ha-Eshkol Street next to the Khachapuri bakery if you're in the area): sublime. But now it's colder we're back to "pink pasta" at the Italian we found on that first trip, which I know now is called Pasta Basta. Back on day two, I was desperate for somewhere to feed both the little people and the tiny cafe, on a corner inside the warren of bustling streets, happened to have a seat. I was too daunted by the Hebrew menu initially to order much more than a salad and a juice, a mistake I quickly rectified. They keep it simple, with just three pastas and several sauces, onto which you can pile any number of toppings. It's quick, unusually cheap for Jerusalem, and exceptionally delicious, Louis' top pick being wholewheat fettuccine with beetroot, oil, and garlic.

The pasta place is emblematic of the changes to what must rank among the world's top food markets, with a number of new cafes opening in the past couple of years, not to mention upmarket cheese shops, olive oil stalls, and even shops selling locally designed pottery and jewellery. Come night time, when the vegetable (and meat and fish) sellers have gone home, cafe tables spill out into the shuk's inner streets and take over (so I'm told; I have yet to leave our flat). All very Borough, but with the bonus of coming home with change from £20 for more freshly picked produce than I know what to do with.

I used to think I'd be glad to get back to Ocado but after tasting the dinner I made tonight, which was nothing fancy (green beans, dill, onion, garlic, and feta, baked in olive oil and lemon juice with bulghur), I'm already in mourning for all the vegetables we'll leave behind. Air flown, polystyrene-packed Kenyan green beans just aren't going to cut it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dead buoyant

"HOPE YOU get treated to a couple of days in a Dead Sea spa," a friend wrote, on hearing of my 13-night sanity testing stint as a solo mum (with apologies to single mothers who have to do it day in, day out). The very idea got short shrift in the car on Sunday as we headed south along the Dead Sea coastline towards Masada, an ancient Jewish fortress high up in the Judean desert. Louis looked briefly panicked, before realising it was such a crazy suggestion that I had to be joking.

The sea - an inland lake where there's no need to hire deck chairs because you can just read sitting up in the water - stretches out below the vast hilltop palace, reflecting the intense blue of the sky most days. In the background is Jordan, all jagged hills rather than bands of angels but no less beautiful for it. The history is haunting: the site, built by Herod the Great, he of Nativity play fame, was the location of the Jews' last stand against their Roman oppressors in 73 AD. It ended with a mass slaughter, by Jews, of Jews, rather than become Roman chattels.

Staring at the sea was too much even for Louis, who had been warned he couldn't paddle because it's too salty (not worth risking getting it in children's eyes apparently), so we took the cable car back down after an explore and a picnic lunch and headed for Mineral Beach, one of only a handful of places you can swim because of the sinkholes. We made it with minutes to spare before the sun dipped behind the now pink desert ridge but there was time enough to slather on some mud and fulfil an ambition held since I was barely older than Louis after seeing a picture of someone reading a newspaper in an old book about the world I used to own. We gave the freshwater paddling pool a miss because it was too chilly. Ditto the hot sulphur bath: too many fat Russians hogging the water.

It was hardly that spa break, but fun nonetheless. And I spotted a shop in the Old City that sells the mud, although given the rate the Dead Sea is drying up I should probably stick to face wash.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Olive Mountain

Olive face

IF EVER there were a site to appeal to Louis, it's the Mount of Olives. The bitter, salty Middle Eastern staple after which the hill is named is, inexplicably, his favourite snack, so his eyes lit up when I suggested a visit. To lessen a three-year-old's disappointment at finding little more than a giant cemetery - Jews have been buried on the slope since Biblical times and it is home to more than 150,000 graves - I packed plenty of olives for our picnic.

The coach loads of Christians (who comprise two-thirds of all tourists to Israel) have to walk up the steep hill because the hair pin bends up are too sharp for a tour bus, but with DJ finally back in town we had some (borrowed) wheels, so were saved the hike. We might not have earned our lunch but out came the olives anyway. And quickly disappeared into Louis's stomach. With any luck, the stones will help to make up for the lack of olive trees there today.

From the top you can see not only the Dome of the Rock in all its golden glory, but also some of East Jerusalem's most contentious neighbourhoods, including Silwan, which is today home to Palestinians but the Jews value because it flanks their precious Mount of Olives. Hence the efforts by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from their homes, citing in some cases claims that Jews owned the houses before the anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1930s. Laws favouring Jews help, but the legalities are always murky and judicial battles can last decades. Settler victory comes with flags attached, reams and reams of blue-and-white Israeli flags, draped from every corner of their new home, like the one atop the ridge.

Hearing the afternoon muezzin call made me think that even settlers can't have it all: the thickest double glazing in the world couldn't block out the cacophony of prayer calls that bounce off each side of Jerusalem's many valleys five times each day. And there's no hiding from the glare of that golden dome.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The toilet lady

IT WAS Louis who spotted her: the stenciled lady on the side of a bus shelter, just up the hill from our flat. She'd appeared overnight, the familiar silhouette that adorns toilet signs the world over, rendered unfamiliar in the context of a Jerusalem advertising hoarding.

"What's that?" he asked, probably wondering where her habitual male companion was. I couldn't read the Hebrew daubed alongside but I could guess what it said given the city's unofficial ban on women appearing on public billboards. The image had to be part of the spiraling protest against rampant sexism that is turning Israeli women into second-class citizens.

It was still early - we were on our way to the yoga class at a local playcentre that keeps me semi sane - so I left the lecture on female equality for later in the day. But even our destination reminded me that gender segregation is commonplace here: all but three of the yoga classes are women-only.

From the army, where religious conscripts are being urged to walk out of events when women sing, to religious schools, which are banning dads from watching their daughters perform in end-of-term plays, women are getting an increasingly raw deal in public life thanks to pressure from the religious right. The situation is worst in Jerusalem, where even retailers can't use female images in their ads, but is deteriorating elsewhere.

Segregation starts in the synagogue, where men and women sit separately: at the Western Wall, a smaller wall divides the sexes. On the street, gender division is most blatant on buses, where the Orthodox men take the front seats, leaving the back for the ladies.

There are some unusual flipsides - some might say benefits - to such draconian notions about women: on Fridays there are more Haredi fathers than mothers stocking up for Shabbat in the shuk, the city's main food market. But there are downsides too. Consider the school textbook that teaches children about the virtue of respect. The illustration? A man.

With some leading questions, I managed to make Louis see the light but it's worrying to think his Israeli peers, including a new generation of kids whose parents have "made aliyah" (what Jews call emigrating to Israel), might ask the same question about a real female image on the side of a bus shelter elsewhere.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Israel Museum

Contemplating the Shrine of the Book

I HAVE discovered the secret to taking a three-year-old child round a museum. It's not the interactive kids' section (or, at least, it might be but I tend to avoid them - can't bear the other children), but rather the video art installations. Louis adores them. The more esoteric, the better, too.

Take today's trip to the Israel Museum: once he'd got over the excitement of the fountain spraying water over the white domed Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest bible ever found, for any heathens), the exhibit that most captivated him was a video of a pair of boots sinking into a frozen pond. Because every display had to have some kind of Israeli message, the boots had been first dunked into the Dead Sea to cake them in salt crystals, and then taken to a frozen lake in Gdansk where the salt was left to do its work.

To say the piece was light on the action is an understatement, but still he watched, spellbound, for the full 20 minute or so cycle it took to complete. Another favourite was a man spinning round on his stomach on some tarmac holding a piece of chalk. Yet another was some sort of take off of Eve and the apple, involving a naked lady, lots of watermelons, and some sea. It was supposed to represent the founding of a new country, but the nuances escaped me. And him, I imagine.

The only video installation that left him cold was the one I liked best, Chic-point, by Arab-Israeli artist Sharif Waked. Filmed on an "occupied catwalk", it featured outfits suitable for an Israeli checkpoint. Each one was cut away to reveal a slash of midriff, thereby saving the IDF guards the bother of stopping and searching each Palestinian hoping to pass through.

What with the scale model of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple, Anish Kapoor's polished-steel hourglass "Turning the World Upside Down, Jerusalem" sculpture, and the fun scooter trip, on an olive tree-lined path zig-zagging the hill up to the museum, the trip was a hit and one we will repeat - if only to brave the Youth Wing to see if it's worth the fuss.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

The Old City from the Haas Promenade

I STILL find it odd that I've wound up in Jerusalem. It's one of the rare cities in one of the rarer countries that I've never wanted to visit. Not that it isn't fascinating: as a historian, I could hardly ask for more to have happened in what is, after all, something of an outpost in terms of great geographic locations. It isn't on the coast, and nor is it on a major trade route. Yet it's been fought over more than most other cities in the world, changing hands some 26 or so times.

It's also beautiful, stunningly so, something a brief trip out to the hilly Ein Kerem suburbs yesterday underlined. Even the man made is easy on the eye thanks to British Mandate-era laws that prohibit building in anything other than limestone. How many new city centre shopping malls, such as Jerusalem's Mamilla arcade, which lies just feet away from the ancient city walls, chime in so well with the old ?

And yet Israel's contentious recent past has always put me off. It's been easier to avoid the country, then attempt to make sense of its domestic politics. We've still more than a month left but I know I'll go home more confused than ever about what to think. I'm fairly sure I won't succumb to the toddler-sized Israel Defense Force t-shirts on sale at the shuk but living here has killed any knee-jerk sympathies with the Palestinian cause. And I've yet to visit Yad Vashem, the country's Holocaust memorial museum.

I enjoy being here far more than I thought I would (and far more than I probably let on). We're spoilt with the location of our flat, bang in the middle of West Jerusalem. Which, incidentally, is politically incorrect - most Brits live in the East, in a show of Palestinian solidarity. But life is undeniably easier in the West, speaking as someone with kids in tow at least. There's a playground every few hundred yards, not to mention cafes a plenty and miles of beautiful promenades. Best of all is seeing the desert hills of Jordan from Louis's bedroom window, bearing in mind that just about every night since his birth I've sung him "Swing Low" in various ill-fated attempts to get him to sleep.

Even being on my own - if you can call looking after a three year old and a four month old being on your own - for two weeks isn't making me wish the time away. That said, Shabbat is looming, and another wet weekend. Perhaps we'll finally make it to the Israel Museum and nail some of that history.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Jerusalem's Train Theatre: destination somewhere dry

Watching the show

IF, LIKE me, you stumble across Jerusalem's Train Theatre and think you've hit kiddie gold then a word of warning: the company's repertoire is distinctly engine free. And it's no longer based in the old train carriage to which it owes its name, and hasn't been for longer than anyone working there now can easily remember.

Instead, what it is, is a charming little puppet theatre that puts on a wide mix of shows two or three times a week all aimed at children of varying ages. Given Louis's Hebrew is somewhat patchy, I'd been giving it a wide berth. But desperation and a Biblical weather forecast - I'm thinking Noah, not Moses's locust plague - forced me to reconsider, especially as it's based in Liberty Bell Park, a mere stone's throw, or short scoot, from our pad. Even better, it looked like today's show, The Cubes Circus, was set to music, making it the perfect choice for the Hebrew challenged.

Alas, one of the dancers was sick so they switched the performance to a story for the 5s and up: Rain Bird - A Paper Tale. Not to be defeated, I paid up for two tickets and scanned a brief synopsis of the plot - broadly, "the most beautiful bird in the world" finds it tough to cope with life in the 21st century - and we settled down, Louis on one knee and a squirming Raf on the other. Despite understanding just the one word in the whole show ("tinoch", which means baby) I think I made a fairly good translator, especially as Louis could hardly argue with my rendition.

I'd like to say he was entranced by the stunning origami puppetry, which spanned the set to the protagonists, but typical Louis, a single plastic car turned out to be his highlight. That and the police siren used to help create the illusion of the village, where life for a paper bird was easy, turning into a city. At least the car made up for the lack of trains, although Louis bought my ill-informed claim that the mini stage was based in an old train carriage happily enough.

Actually, I'm being unfair: he loved the whole thing, and best of all, it set us up for an afternoon of our own origami, which was useful given the rain is making me regret bringing just the one Snuggle Bunny and Mummy Nelly with us to Israel. If it keeps up for much longer, we'll be able to put on our own show.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The giant candlestick

Photo #36

NEVER LET it be said that Louis is having a dull time here. Today's treat was a visit to, wait for it, a giant candlestick. It had captivated him ever since he'd spotted its image on the mini Jerusalem jigsaw we picked up in a gift shop on our first weekend. He'd remark on it every time we saw a picture around town, and I'd promised him we could go and find it one day.

The candlestick, or menorah, sits opposite the Knesset on what felt like the highest of the city's seven hills. And that was my legs talking; goodness knows what our vertiginous scramble felt like to a three year old. It was a 6km round trip from our flat, which Louis initially insisted on doing on foot, but then conceded to take his scooter. As if that wasn't exercise enough, he stopped at a playground on both the outward and homeward legs of the journey.

Our trip took us through Gan Sacher, the city's largest park, which is somewhat hard to navigate as there are hardly any entrances. I'm sure we didn't go the authorised route, mainly because we were greeted by vast rolls of barbed wire. Then again, considering there were about three checkpoints even to get to the screening gate for the Knesset, maybe the barbed wire was par for the course; this is Israel.

My fears that what is essentially a 5m-high bronze sculpture would disappoint were entirely misplaced: Louis loved it. The 38 photos he took on my phone bear testament to his delight. I'm still not quite sure of the appeal. It's not as if he took in the ravages of Jewish history, as depicted by British-Jewish sculptor Benno Elkan on each of its prongs, or noted the irony that it was a gift from British lefties: the Labour Party in 1956 to celebrate Israel's eighth Independence Day.

But I guess to a three year old, it really is just a giant candlestick. Atop a very steep hill. And what's not cool about that?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Picnic for peace

WITH THE Palestinian quest to join the UN on the same footing as their Israeli neighbour a no-go, the army of lobbyists and activists kept in business by the doomed peace process will be scrabbling for a new strategy.

Given that simplest solutions are often the best, has anyone tried a picnic for peace? Sniffing the air this week in Liberty Bell Park, which is the city's nearest park to Arab East Jerusalem, makes me think they should. The place was packed with Muslims from East Jerusalem - making them either Arab Israelis or Palestinians depending on your political sympathies - celebrating Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, but if you shut your eyes, the holiday smelt like a Jewish one. Like their adversaries, the Muslims are fond of a barbecue, and smoke filled the sky, much as it did during many of the city's parks during last month's Sukkot holiday. The only difference being the Arabic on the bags of charcoal.

And it isn't just grilled food where the opposing faiths overlap on the culinary front. The hijabed mums sitting around the playground were doling out pittas and felafels all but indistinguishable from those munched daily in Jewish West Jerusalem. There was more popcorn and candy floss than I'd seen but I'm willing to bet it was Kosher. Not that there were any Jewish children to share it; Louis excepted, the playground was exclusively Muslim for the entire week, a first since we'd arrived.

Next time perhaps someone could lay out a giant picnic rug and spread the word. After all, if the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, perhaps the way to a nation's peace is through that of its inhabitants.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Israeli roadtrip

The Golan and Nimrod Castle

WITH HINDSIGHT there were always going to be flaws: it's no coincidence that the phrase "Israeli" and "road trip" isn't a classic. But remind me to check a country's car-to-road ratio (and if that stat doesn't exist, it should) before setting out on our next wheeled adventure.

Not that we didn't have fun. But spending half my birthday in a non-moving jam to do a 40-km journey from Caesaria to Akko wasn't a highlight. Especially not when a certain three month old defies baby logic by hating the car, even a $XXXXXX (blanked out to protect licence fee payers' sensibilities) BBC jeep . Nor was the near-stationery hour on our way to the mountains above the Sea of Galilee with said infant showing none of the stoicism a certain other baby doubtless showed on another journey not a million miles from our own, a couple of millennia ago, anything to write home about.

It took Shabbat and a drive through a minefield in the Golan Heights before we finally had the road to ourselves. We were headed north, as far north as Israel goes, and a lot further than the Syrians would like it to, in search of a medieval castle on a ridge above Damascus. Our route skirted the UN-monitored buffer zone that still separates Israel from Syria. Burnt-out tanks and abandoned Syrian bunkers from the 1967 and 1974 conflicts littered the hilly landscape, a living reminder that Israel is still a country at war. We paused at a viewpoint to take in the ghost town of Quneitra, once Syria's main Golan town but destroyed in 1967, and the red, white, and black of the Syrian flag flying in the distance. Perhaps it's the islander in me, but there's something innately thrilling about staring across an international border, especially one to a country all but off limits.

The drive wound up being a highlight, not least because Nimrod Castle was shut when we reached it, at just gone 3pm. A real shame, as it looked amazing. Lucky, then, that Israel does a mean line in crusader castles, with the 12th-century Belvoir Fortress making the perfect lunch spot on our way back to Jerusalem the next day. Being Sunday - and the start of the working week around here - we were worried about the traffic potential, but needn't have thanks to the fact that the road went straight through the West Bank. And I mean straight through: the Israelis purposefully ensured the road bypassed all Palestinian towns when they built it, just to make life that little bit harder for them. The net effect was an empty highway, which suited us and our two sleeping boys but was something of an anomaly given the traffic chaos elsewhere.

At least it explained the heavy traffic elsewhere if roads exist that most citizens don't use - Palestinians because there's no point and Israelis because they won't travel in the West Bank. Next time I'm sticking to disputed border byways or taking a leisurely approach to my road trip and just driving on Shabbat.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Palestinian walk

WE TOOK a leaf out of Raja Shehadah's Palestinian Walks book I gave DJ for his birthday by going on our own Palestinian walk today. Into Wadi Qelt, a valley that stretches east across the Judean desert to Jericho.

At least, I thought it was a Palestinian walk: the valley lies beyond the separation barrier, the vast concrete scar that stands sentry along Israel's perception of its West Bank border, and is the other side of an Israeli-manned checkpoint when it comes to re-entry. And yet an Israeli settlement - all smart houses, incongruous trees, and bougainvillea - overlooks the valley, which lies within an Israeli-controlled national park. "Welcome" said the sign, but the barbed wire ringed gate sent out its own message. As did our fellow hikers: where I had chosen to strap a baby to my chest, they'd opted for a gun. And not just any gun: MK 17s, or "battle rifles" according to Google.

Not that we paused to stare, opting instead to cross the stream that splits the desert valley and head up the hill the other side. The excitement of spotting the black-and-white paint dabs that marked the path was enough to lure Louis upwards, and the view across to Jordan, reward enough for reaching the top. Raf, meanwhile, was happy enough snoozing the trip away in what was his first Ergo sling outing - quite a moment, given how many hours/days/weeks he'll end up spending in said sling.

Back down and we found fig trees, palms, pampas grass and even eucalyptus (planted by the British forestry department back when we ran the show) lining the spring, which was invitingly cool for a paddle. And yes, more armed hikers, which begged the question of why there was a sign forbidding shooting. Unless it's a given that errant Palestinians are fair game. Certainly that's the impression the settlers give, arming themselves whenever they leave home, even to pop to the shops.

To an outsider, the trip summed up the complexities of the thwarted peace process. From the ambiguities over who controls which parcel of land, to the hostilities between the people that share it, the only thing that's easy to understand is the current stalemate.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Visit Palestine

At Hisham's Palace; note the flag

IT WAS Raf's third; and - embarrassingly - Louis's ninth, the UK excluded. I'm talking countries, or I would be if things hadn't gone so awry in 1948. We had wheels, serious jeep wheels, and felt we should see more of the state they call Israel than just the view from Tel Aviv's golden sand into the Med.

And so, instead of turning left to the beach, we turned right to East Jerusalem, and beyond. To Jericho, to be precise, which is thought to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Or one of them, although given it lies in the middle of a rocky desert, and didn't seem to have a whole lot going for it beyond masses of bananas and an over-priced cable car, I struggled to see why. More pertinently, it's in the West Bank, making it part of the Palestinian Territories, or, for kiddie country tally purposes, Palestine.

It certainly felt like another state: we might not have needed our passports, but we did pass through a Palestinian-controlled checkpoint. Israeli number plates (yellow, as oppose to Palestinian green) meant we got stopped, but saying we came from England saw us waved through. Not that they'd have stopped anyone with our liberal credentials. I mean, Robert Fisk is a colleague! Once through, the striking red, black, white, and green of the Palestinian flag hung from every possible vantage point. Per capita, it's a close call who waves more: Israelis or Palestinians.

Louis was under strict instructions not to repeat the faux pas he made on our first weekend: shouting "I love Israel" while sitting at an East Jerusalem cafe. (To be fair, he was reading it from his new mini Jerusalem jigsaw we'd bought at the Garden Tomb's gift shop. In the interest of BBC impartiality I'd hoped to find its Palestinian equal but all we came home with was a - free - camel.) DJ attempted to explain why affirming his affection for Israel would go down quite so badly, but short of deploying the Steamies vs. Diesels Thomas the Tank analogy I'm still working up, I'm not convinced Louis got it. And why should he, when even after my crash course in Middle Eastern politics I'm still struggling.

It sounds basic, but I found the lack of Hebrew on signposts striking. Especially when Arabic is liberally scattered throughout Israel, even if in the case of place names, it apparently just translates the Hebrew equivalent, rather than using the Arabic version of a town: so, Acre, for the northern coastal crusader town, and not Akko, as it's known in Arabic. Everywhere was also vastly more poor, albeit not quite on the scale of Gaza, which DJ likened to Dar-es-Salam after his trip there last week. Everywhere, that is, apart from the isolated pockets where the US has splashed its cash in a futile attempt to dull its pro-Israeli bias. Thus the site of Hisham's Palace, an archeological gem from the 7th century, had been newly tarted up with US money; as had the odd road.

The only tourists were religious ones: it was one in, one out to the cave atop the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus is reputed to have invented willpower, defying the Devil's attempts to make him break his 40-day fast. Fun as the cable car ride was up there, I fear we got more of a kick out of the political tourism than the religious stuff. That said, Bethlehem is also in the West Bank, so I guess we'll get another chance to combine the two.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Outsider

"Olden times cars"
Jerusalem March: as snapped by a 3yo

IT'S BEEN an odd week in Jerusalem. The never-ending Sukkot holiday - there are still two days left, and even then Shabbat looms on Friday night - has turned the city into one big party yet I've been left feeling my ticket got lost in the post.

It's mainly the Jewishness, which all the Sukkot-related customs has underlined since the festival began almost a week ago. It's impossible to step outside and not be reminded about the many ways I don't belong. And I'm not talking about one of the orthodox areas; even the local playgrounds, rich in expats, only serve to underline my outsider status simply because my reasons for being here differ so much from everyone else's. Take the American grandma who deigned to chat to me: her family come every year for Sukkot because her three sons all attended "yeshivas" (religious schools) in Jerusalem.

The influx of tens of thousands of Americans has exacerbated the weirdness: in the city centre, it's more common to hear a Yankee accent than someone speaking Hebrew. What with the vast American presence and Sukkot trappings - the shelters, the orthodox dress code, the constant visits to the temple, palm leaves and lemons in hand - I swear the city resembles a living theme park. Or one of those living history museums that the Americans are so good at, like the one in Plymouth, MA, where the Pilgrim fathers wander round in full 17th century garb. It's an usual town where men in giant busbys and satin frock coats outnumber those in jeans and trainers. By some degree.

The prisoner swap has added to the undercurrent of bizarre. It isn't often the Israelis and Palestinians have cause for concurrent celebrations but this is one of them.

Despite so much going on around us, it's been hard to find something to join in with. But I thought I'd managed today. The Jerusalem March is a day-long affair that starts with various groups hiking different routes around the city and culminates with the roads in the centre shutting down for a parade. We skipped the hike - I figured I walk most of the city most days anyway - but turned out for the parade, which kicked off a couple of streets from our flat outside the YMCA. It started well: two 1940s Army jeeps, several "olden times" cars, including one "just like the speedy car" he lost the day before (oops), three rubbish trucks (oh, the joy!), two fire engines, and a mini flotilla of motorbikes.

The marching soldiers weren't bad, although luckily Louis isn't the type to get excited by the guns. But then things went downhill. The parade's theme was something about welcoming foreign tourists - presumably to fleece them by charging through the nose for everything - so the procession comprised various different nationality OAPs waving their country's flag and banners praising God while tapping tambourines and shouting how much they love Israel. (Mini point of interest: massive Finnish contingent, small German one.) No wonder Louis wanted to retreat to the Y playground. I'm looking forward to everything getting back to normal, whatever that is, next week.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The flak jacket workout

A sukkah
Rugalech in the sukkah

YOU'D THINK with all the hills, not to mention a baby to lug round and a loaded buggy to push (either with shopping, or Louis, or both), Jerusalem would be the perfect place to shed the post-natal pounds. But that would be to overlook the vast array of baked Israeli delicacies. So far, Louis's top pick is the rugelach: a sort of smaller, sweeter sibling to to the pain au chocolate, which he scoffed today in a sukkah. Finally. Their preponderance around town make chores a breeze, especially in the market where they only cost 1 NIS (barely 20p). The downside has to be their calorific punch. But I'm figuring that if things get desperate I can always add a spot of resistance training to my daily workouts by borrowing Daddy J's flak jacket. Weighing in at 10 kilos-plus, it could provide a totally new kind of new Mum exercise regime. Forget the Haredim guide to parenting (and you will want to after listening to this piece DJ did for the Today programme with Kevin Connolly about groups of ultra-orthodox Jews hurling abuse, and worse, at young girls at a school just outside Jerusalem), I'm thinking the flak jacket Jerusalem workout could be my ticket finally to cash in on the lucrative new parent market.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sukkot and Christmas

The Sukkah at the Gilat Shalit vigil

AT THE risk of offending two faiths in one swoop, I've decided Sukkot feels a lot like Christmas. The emphasis is on eating and drinking and the sukkah decorations - the paper chains and gaudy metallic garlands adorning the temporary shelters that have popped up in every available bit of outdoor space - are just like the ones festooning homes throughout December. The sukkah itself, with its palm frond thatched roof and flimsy walls, might have its roots firmly in the Old Testament but is distinctly Bethlehem stable if you ask me. Then there's the "lulav" - those palm fronds: all the talk here has been of crop fails and escalating prices because the post-Arab Spring Egyptians have refused to meet demand (handily fitting neatly into the Israeli isolation story Daddy J is working on in Istanbul for Today as I type). All very reminiscent of Christmas tree price hike stories (seriously, I swear we paid £60 for ours last year), even if Britain hasn't fallen out with Norway.

Everyone in their Sukkot best for the Temple today reminded me of the few trips I have made to church on the 25th, with people dressed up in their new outfits. The one glaring difference is I've never seen the streets of London congested with people spilling out of church the way that Jerusalem's city centre was today after late morning prayers. Again, I was astounded at the high proportion of Americans: the airlines must have cleaned up with ticket prices last week. And walking through town, on our way to the park, the air reverberated with the noise of people clinking dish upon dish out to their sukkah (as instructed by Moses, meals have to be taken in the sukkah for the duration of Sukkot). I half expected to hear the Queen start talking after they'd done eating.

Once in the park, Gan Sacher, the city's largest and just up the hill from the Knesset, the vibe was distinctly secular, with groups of Russians competing to out-shashlik each other with their BBQs. Until, that is, a group of proselytising Haredim turned up, lulav and etrogs in hand. One by one, they went round all the picnickers around us, making them do the Sukkot thing of waving the lulav around. Funnily enough, they gave us a miss. Which means we still need to seek out one of the many sukkot erected by the city's Kosher restaurants: Louis is desperate to join in somehow so I've promised we'll find a falafel or such like to eat under the palm fronds. Either that or perhaps we can pick some up half price and build that indoor camp after all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sukkot and shopping

IF SHOPPING is the new religion, then imagine the frenzy when shopping becomes a Biblical imperative. That's what happened today, as the clock ticked down to another major Jewish holiday. Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, a seven-day extravaganza of a harvest festival has a shopping list longer than an Orthodox hemline before the serious business of eating and drinking can commence. And raucous singing, judging from the din outside our flat tonight, audible because Shabbat-esque rules on day one mean the 16 lanes of traffic have fallen silent.

God apparently told Moses to tell the people to stock up on all things leafy to build special shelters ("sukkot" in Hebrew) to remind them of the dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. Then there are the lemons, or "etrog": giant, knobbly affairs that get waved around during prayers. Or else. Cue frantic scenes across West Jerusalem as its entire Jewish population, and half of America's too judging from the accents and jetlagged children around, rushed to fulfill Moses' commandments.

The scenes in Jerusalem's Haredim quarters of Ge'ula and Mea Shearim made Oxford Street on Christmas Eve look peaceful. What I was thinking taking a buggy up there God alone knows. Stall upon stall of "lulav" sellers flogging myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds lined the tiny pavements, each surrounded by gaggles of frock coated, black hatted Haredim peering at each and every twig to check the biblical perfection of its shoots. The oddest thing was that in contrast to your typical consumer clientele, the Haredim out shopping were almost exclusively male. Given their general attitude towards women, I can only presume the fairer sex couldn't be trusted. This meant that my cunning disguise, of maxi dress, cardigan and headscarf - flesh being taboo - was for nought because simply being female made me stick out like a sore thumb. Not to mention Louis's shortish back and sides, or the boys' lack of matching striped shirts (I noticed some families prefer horizontal, others vertical, I know not why).

Being a kid after my own heart, Louis was keen to max the consumerist elements of the festival, and demanded that we too stocked up with palm fronds. But fun as the sukkot look squeezed into every available bit of residential outdoor space, from roof tops to balconies, I reckoned that a palm frond camp was probably beyond me, although I must admit I'm regretting it slightly now. Instead, we made do with our very own sukkot jigsaw, a 70-piece number for which I paid far too much. Still, it killed some time before the DVD went on. Not sure what Moses would make of it though.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The ultimate pre-school field trip

IN ONE of life's more ironic twists, this trip to the Holy Land has come up just as we're supposed to be applying for schools for Louis. "Ironic" because the only good ones near us are massively oversubscribed Church of England schools, and our agnostic son stands precisely no chance of getting a place. Somehow the christening never happened, and as for Sunday church attendance: well, it felt wrong given the motivation would have been for the wrong sort of educational reasons.

Yet here we are in the birthplace of two of the world's three biggest religions, living in a city that Muslims consider their third holiest. Just getting through a day here requires a religious sensitivity that is completely absent from life in London, even, I'd warrant, for the majority of parents whose kids attend some sort of faith-based school. And a simple sight-seeing trip, to the Wall, for example, has me in knots trying to explain what it all means to a three year old when even I'm not that sure. Heck, (and I just had to delete "Hell") I'm even rusty about my Old Testament stories; hardly surprising when all I can dredge up from the recesses of my mind is one junior school production of Joseph.

But Louis will go home knowing more about the big three than most children pitching up at one of the CofE schools that turn him down. Our impromptu trip to the Garden Tomb on Saturday (our trip east in search of bustle to escape the Yom Kippur shutdown had us seeking serenity pretty darn fast and this was the nearest to a park our particular bit of East Jerusalem had to offer) means he can already weigh in on the controversy surrounding Jesus's resurrection. (The controversial bit being where he actually temporarily lay, for fellow heathens like me.) Give me a couple more days and we'll have Calvary ticked off as well - that' s provided I can tear us both away from the water slide at the local swimming pool.

Where, I'd like to know, is the bit on the schools' application form marked "field trip"? Doesn't three months immersion in the Holy Land trump a couple of half-hearted Sunday morning church services? I'm guessing not......

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur at the Wall

WE JUST had one of those ultimate Jerusalem moments. Standing by the Western Wall at sunset on the eve not just of Shabbat but Yom Kippur, as the call to evening prayer at one of the Old City mosques mixed with the gentle wailing of the devout Haredi at prayer, Israel sniper overhead silhouetted against the darkening night sky, there it was: the essence of what all the fuss is about. I'm sure if I'd craned my neck I could have seen the Church of the Holy Sepulchre too.

Despite being but one of a swell of tourists, it felt like snooping to witness one of the most religious sights at arguably the world's most religious site, yet I couldn't tear myself away. A Louis in tow gave me an excuse to linger because he was fascinated by it all, begging me to take him up close. I was shy to barge in, but seeing his interest, an old lady gestured me in to the bit segregated for women - or "for mummies, little boys, and babies, but not daddies", as Louis put it.

He already knew about the religions festival because I'd had to explain why we were dashing to the shops yet again at lunchtime to buy a last bottle of milk before the Shabbat shutdown, but once at the Wall I think the lack of music and bands confused him. You see, the last festival we were at was a street festival in SE1, and before that, watching Lenny Kravitz at a music festival in Hyde Park. Which left me rather stumbling for words to try and explain what everyone was doing, gently rocking back and forth, prayer book in hand, and for what purpose. Telling him people were wishing for things that they wanted made it all seem horribly materialistic, especially when he started confusing it with the time we threw a penny into a wishing well.

But he nailed it eventually: "Like no killing," he said. Exactly. Someone get him a seat at the peace talks.

A tram fan

FORGET THE Dome of the Rock or the Western Wall, Jerusalem has a new top attraction. Especially if you're three. But, this being the city that it is, it's not without its controversies.

The Jerusalem light railway, or the tram to Louis, divides opinion because the first (and thus far, only) line runs from the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev in East Jerusalem (the Arab bit) to Mount Herzl in the west. Which to your clueless observer (hitherto me) might sound unifying, but granted that settlements are illegal - because they sit on land captured by Israel from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria during the 1967 war - riles those who want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestine because it tightens Israel's grip on the disputed territory.

Not that you think about the potential political implications of a bright, shiny, new tram if you're three. All you want to know is when you can ride it and whether you'll see "where the trams sleep" at the end of the line. I answered the first question by jumping aboard with them both but despite giving Louis free rein as to when we got off, we only went as far as Damascus Gate at the edge of the Old City before heading back up the hill in the other direction to the shuk. He immediately wished we'd stuck it out longer because he spotted - joy of joys - a track splitter up ahead.

Being brand new - it only started running in August - it made for a pleasant half an hour or so even if we couldn't get on the first one because it was so crowded. But there were plenty of fun signs to spot while we waited (road signs giving wheeled vehicles a run for their money on the excitement front for Louis right now). And the ultimate bonus is it's free to ride on because it's still being tested, which means that along with the massive bunches of herbs once we made it to the shuk it's pretty much the only thing that's good value in Israel. I predict we'll be like the homeless on the Circle line as was, riding it up and down, before next week's out.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Swings and Roundabouts

THREE DAYS down and the Old City may still elude me, but boy am I notching up my Jerusalem playgrounds. Happily for all three of us there are two beauties each within about seven minutes from our flat. Not that Raf's quite up to clambering up a rope ladder, but given the speed he backward crawls along the leather sofa I wouldn't bet against that happening before our stint here is up. He's happy enough sling snoozing while Louis scampers around though.

As guide books seem to have a thing against taking small people on holiday (see bwb posts passim), we're on our own when it comes to scouting them out. Some, like the multi-slide affair in HaPa'amon (or Liberty Bell Park, so named for its replica of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell), are obvious. Others, like the smaller one in Solovkov Park (pictured), less so. And others still, like one I stumbled across a block or so off the main drag in the German Colony while Louis grabbed a surprise late afternoon buggy nap on our first day, require a poke around the back streets. They're the ones I like best: where families spill out of their homes at the end of the day to congregate for a mass gossip while their kids run off yet more of their steam after a day at the 'gan' (daycare).

So far, we've mainly hit the playgrounds in the early afternoon, when they're all but deserted. The most Israeli new mums can take off is six months, of which only three are paid (by the government rather than their employer) so 'gan' places are in high demand, and there's a distinct absence of any little people around until their mothers have finished work for the day. Which will make it much harder to find Louis any little playmates. The poor child was so desperate for someone other than me to talk to today that he monopolised a brief Skype chat I had with a friend. Goodness knows how he'll cope when it really is just me and them 24/7. I'll find out soon enough though as DJ's first trip looms large next week. Perhaps if we can hit the after 'gan' crowd, and I can find out the Hebrew for 'slide', and 'my turn', Louis will manage to strike up a conversation or two on the climbing frame. Now where's that Hebrew-for-kids app?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yom Kippur and kids

TALKING OF fasting, we'll need to come Friday, and not just because I'll have run out of cash by then. It's Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which caps ten days of reflection since Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. It's the holiest of Holy Days, all the more so this year since it falls on Shabbat. The gist is abstinence: from eating, from driving, from pretty much everything bar intensive praying. That much is clear from the warnings I've had regarding making sure we've got enough food in, and giving sight-seeing a miss for 24 hours. We're talking a total national shut down, from the borders to the roads (although I'm told that the more secular minded take to their bikes and blades).

But what is rather more hazy is where that all leaves an avowedly secular Louis. (My attempts to explain why I'd donned what was effectively a curtain to nurse Raf in a market cafe today by talking about people's religious beliefs had him zoning me out even quicker than usual.) Where, for example, does the Torah stand on playing? Are climbing frames out? Swings frowned upon? And just what do the city's growing number of Haredi inhabitants do with their vast broods in between those five visits to the Temple? I'd like to see them try and make Louis sit still in contemplative fashion all day long. Come to think of it, if they could swing that, then perhaps the Haredi guide to parenting is the book for which the world has been waiting. I can see it on the bestseller lists now.....

Monday, October 3, 2011

Babies who fast

TWENTY-FOUR hours into life in Jerusalem and I'm no nearer thinking up a new name for a blog. With two tiny people in tow, I saw scope in the Wailing Wall or something about needing to Settle them in our own little corner of one-time Palestine. Then there was the Advent Adventure we'll be having come December. That's "we" as in my very own Angels in the Holy Land (son #2 is a Rafael after all).

But all those, and others, lacked the neutrality I sought as the unofficial plus one of a BBC producer. (It's an unaccompanied post, so we're not really here.) Not that Auntie exactly has a reputation for detachment in these parts. I swear the immigration guy was about to wave us through until Daddy J mentioned the "B" word. Then it was all, "Why were you born in Istanbul?" and "What was your father doing there?".

So babieswhobrunch it is, and will remain, although if the evidence of last night's shopping foray is anything to go by then babieswhofast might be more apt. Admittedly it was 10pm in a posh mini-market in one of the city's better-heeled neighbourhoods, but £6 for a box of Weetabix? The good news for Louis is that henceforth he'll be able to have olives for all three meals rather than just two.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The #Secret to nutritional goodness

I was invited to a party yesterday. Okay, so it was only a Twitter party; but, hey, I don't get out much. It's on Thursday from 1pm to 2pm and if I'm being honest, I shouldn't brag about the invitation because anyone can come. The party theme is getting kids to eat properly and all you have to do is use the hashtag #secret goodness and you're away. Oh, plus share a few of your concerns/tips in the nutrition department.

It's being sponsored by Kingsmill, which in my mind is synonymous with white sliced bread so doesn't exactly fit my eating agenda, but I guess those slices also come in brown. (I'll gloss over the fact that the loaves also come pumped with god knows what so they last forever in your bread bin.) And, let's face it, bread is pretty handy when you've got to feed a child in a hurry. Where would the world be without sandwiches?

Food is something I think about a lot, whether it's me or Louis who is doing the eating. Somehow we've lucked out because for a two year old, Louis is a pretty fantastic eater. (I've always figured it makes up for his ineptitude in the sleeping department.) Whether it's luck or by design, he's always had a pretty adventurous palate and a hearty appetite. Okay, so he likes cake and chocolate as much as the next toddler, even though I never intended to let him know what they were! But he'll chow down lentils for dinner and a pear for pudding happily enough.

He's always wanted what we're eating (which forces me to do a lot of surreptitious chocolate munching) and recently that means he's developing a taste for some serious heat. Spice heat, not temperature. It all started when we told him he wouldn't like Daddy J's stir fry because it was too spicy. "I like spicy," came the reply, so we let him at it. The upshot was lunch on Monday at a fabulous Japanese noodles house, Koya, in Soho. After polishing off the noodles I'd hived off from my dish for him, he demanded first DJ's curried version, and then more of mine, which by now came with additional zing. Did it put him off? On the contrary, and there's photographic evidence to prove it.

Which I think all goes to show that sometimes children might eat more than their parents anticipate, greens and all.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mea culpa: or what happens when someone reads what you've written

Odd thing, blogging: one minute it's just you, your sofa and a keyboard; the next someone half way round the world has read what you've written. Which shouldn't surprise me; after all, I make a (so-called) living writing for a national newspaper. And yet, when I got pulled up for something I'd written on bwb some months ago, it came as rather a shock to know I actually did have followers. Especially when it turned out they were somewhat closer to home than California.

So close to home, in fact, that the something I got taken to task about concerned Louis' nursery and some somewhat glib remarks I'd made about the torture that was leaving him there. (And when I say *torture*, I don't actually mean torture in a strict thumbscrew sense on the offchance I offend the same follower again; I'm exaggerating for something I believe is called poetic license, not that I'm claiming to be a poet.) Turns out, someone who knew Louis, read this blog, and, I'm guessing, knew of me, was so *worried* about me after reading a couple of my posts that instead of asking if I was okay, she - and apparently it was another mum - thought it best to show the offending posts to the head of the nursery because clearly they "had a real problem". Not with Louis; with me.

Never mind that this all blew up just as he was (finally) truly settling in. Or that it made me feel terrible, because inevitably the nursery then worried that I thought badly of them, when nothing could have been further from the truth. The only thing I felt bad about was me for dumping him there, which is a working mother's prerogative, after all. The one constant about Louis' nursery was how lovely the staff are, yet my throwaway remarks had made them feel bad. And me feel even worse.

Which I explain not for want of having something to blog about, but partly as a mea culpa for the original comments but also by way of explanation (if anyone was curious) as to why it's been nearly three months (three months?? where does time go) since I've last written a post. And for the record, an older and wiser Louis is loving nursery right now, which I'd love to report helps to ease that maternal guilt, but I'm not sure it does.