Monday, May 05, 2003

Running the Land

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, is a time to get back to nature. To hit the road. And Israelis are masters of the tiyul.

Getting to know and love this land is done primarily through one’s feet. We walk, we hike, we get to know every rock and curve of the trail.

The acclimatization starts early: already in first grade, kids are going on an annual class trip; by fourth, many are having sleep-away excursions - to the Golan Heights, the Galilee foothills, the Negev Desert.

Me, I get to know the land by running.

I have nothing against walking, mind you. Taking a slow tour of the countryside, smelling the flowers, eating the cheese is fine. But I’ve always been more of an “If it’s Tuesday It Must be Belgium” short attention span kind of guy. Watching the landscape whiz by, whether by bus or under my own steam, is just the ticket for me.

I have run all over the world. OK, that’s boasting a bit: I’m by no means a marathon runner. I prefer more of a gentle jog through urban landscapes. But I have run in some pretty exotic places: past the Spanish Steps in Rome, through Hyde Park in London, along the canals in Amsterdam and past the electronics shops and teeming masses in Tokyo.

But my most satisfying runs are right here, in Jerusalem. In Baka, where I live. Because this is how I connect to the land of Israel.

My route has changed over the years. I used to run on the Tayelet – the Haas and Sherover Promenades. The view there is breathtaking – looking out over the Old City with the golden dome gleaming in the distance. I got to know the Arab gardeners – we would wave and call out Ahalan! to each other. But then Jews started getting attacked and Moran Amit died.

Now I run closer to home. And, as the weather finally seems to have turned from winter to spring, I am out again most every day. I have my usual route and a regular cast of characters and places I see most days.

I pass Ora the Cat Lady, coming back from the makolet (the corner store) with her groceries, invariably accompanied by “Lefty,” the one-eyed cat whose tongue is permanently drooping, half-in, half-out.

I pass the elderly gentleman whose name I once knew but that now eludes me. He is always dressed to the nines in a three-piece suit with matching shoes, all shined up, as he walks towards one of the cafés on Emek Refaim Street.

I pass the slowest falafel stand in the Middle East, run by this guy who either cares deeply about his product or is just plain lazy. But there’s always a line for his humus balls dripping in greasy garlic sauce. In the morning, when I run, the shop has yet to open, but the smells from inside are already wafting downstream, rewarding me for finding the strength to climb that last hill.

I pass the old blind Arab man I have seen walking these streets for 17 years now, still calling out for charity or odd jobs. Back in 1986, he was accompanied by his small grandson. Now he’s with a young man in his early 30s. Is this the same boy, all grown up? I never ask. My pockets are empty when I run.

I pass a pre-school class out for a stroll. About eight kids, the oldest no more than two, are riding in what can only be described as a crib on wheels. A uniquely Israeli invention. In Hebrew it has the same name as chicken coop.

I run to connect.

I run for the exercise.

And sometimes, too, I run to forget.

When the news just becomes too difficult, running becomes a way to tune out. Or to turn on to something else.

I pump my body until it fills with adrenaline. I wait for the endorphins to kick in, to give me that burst of energy that is unlike any other high I know, where it feels that I can go longer and faster than I thought my body possible.

I crank the music in my headphones up at a particularly anthemic moment, and I am no longer in this world.

Running as prayer.

And then, as always, I come back. Just running. Back to reality. And I am surprisingly comforted to see that nothing has changed in those minutes when I left this earth. The world has not transformed from almond blossoms to nuclear winter.

There’s a man sleeping in his car. The backseat is overflowing with pitas. Wake up, I think. Your cargo is losing its freshness!

A young boy with an oversized pair of shears is clipping a single flower – for whom, I wonder. I smile.

A woman steps to the side when she sees me coming. She adjusts her wig. Her stockings are wrinkling.

And I go on and on and on.

Why do I run? Because it’s the most consistent, most normal thing I can think to do in these highly abnormal times.

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