MAXWELL:  Adjusting to the comforts of home

6/16/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Regular readers of this column know by now that I recently spent six weeks in the Middle East, mostly in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Several readers, along with a few colleagues here at the St. Petersburg Times, have asked me about how I am adjusting to home.

Actually, I am having an awful case of reverse culture shock, my re-entry as turbulent as that of the space shuttle returning to the earth’s atmosphere. For me, the Middle East, Israel in particular, is spellbinding and I cannot get enough of it.

A friend said the other day that a sadness hangs over me since my return. Initially, I rejected her use of the word “sadness.” Now, though, I know that she is right.

Being in Israel alone _ and not part of a tour group and a body on a 60-passenger bus _ must be one of the most rewarding experiences a person, especially a journalist, can have.

Driving my own car, getting lost in the West Bank, washing my own clothes, preparing my own meals, shopping for groceries, determining my own travel routes and tours, paying for everything in shekels, living in the homes of Ethiopian Jews, interviewing officials and average citizens, spending time with soldiers in the occupied territories and getting myself in and out of trouble gave me an extraordinarily intimate view of the country and its people.

When I left there last week, I had begun to feel right at home, like a permanent resident _ except in the religious sense, of course. I had grown accustomed to the food, the hardship of nearly everything shutting down for the Sabbath, guns everywhere, the pushing and shoving, the worst driving in the world, the debris-strewn sidewalks and streets.

I knew that I was in reverse culture shock as soon as I got into my car and drove away from Tampa International Airport. Not a single motorist blew a horn. In fact, I drove to St. Petersburg without hearing a single horn. I have been back in the USA since June 10, and I do not recall hearing more than three horns. In Israel _ name the city _ horns blew constantly, no let up, not for a second. And no one has cut me off. I do not know what to do with myself behind the wheel.

The shock continued last Saturday while I was shopping at Publix. As the cashier rang up my purchases, I frantically began to bag them. “What’re you doing?” she asked. My mind was still in Israel _ where shoppers bag their own groceries.

Where are all of the dogs and their poop on the sidewalks? In Tel Aviv, dogs rule and they do their business anywhere they damned well please. And the air reeks. Hardly anyone, except for Americans like me from clean cities like St. Petersburg, seems to notice. Here, I do not have anything to dodge or jump over. Walking is too darned easy.

I miss the ancient terrain and buildings. Israel’s geography is history. Nothing filled me with more awe than the savage, lunar mountainscape of the Dead Sea and the breathtaking view from atop Masada. Nothing in America, especially in flat Florida, compares. I miss the powerful contrasts between the old and new, between Arab and Jew, between the religious and the secular.

And Jerusalem in the early evening, when the sun turns the limestone buildings the color of gold. The image stays with me. And Nazareth in the morning, when the sun paints all of the structures an eggshell white. Where can I find such a portrait in St. Petersburg? I cannot.

That Israeli gruffness lingers in my mind. Where are the Hasidic children who stared at me as if I, a Gentile, were from another planet? I had started to stare down the more persistent ones, even smiling at them. Invariably, the smiles would get to them. I miss these black-suited children, their gaunt faces already reflecting the contradictory forces of over-indulgence and sacrifice.

No longer can I look out of my window and see waves of green army uniforms tumbling toward a bus stop. Here in St. Petersburg, I rarely see a person in military uniform. The sight of uniformed Israelis manifests the nation’s sense of duty. It is a place where everyone, except for Hasidics and married women, serves in the defense forces. Such service to the nation is admirable.

Perhaps more than anything else, I miss the intensity and dynamism that permeate Israeli life. There, daily existence is not taken for granted. Apathy, found in many Western cultures, does not exist in the vocabulary of the average Israeli. Come what may, life is lived to the fullest.

Somehow, I must readjust to St. Petersburg’s slower tempo.