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.