Sunday, November 16, 2003

The Travel Doctor

“If I’d known we were going to need shots, maybe I would have wanted to go somewhere else,” my wife Jody declared when I called her from the Travel Doctor.

The Travel Doctor is the specialist in our kuppa (the Israeli version of an HMO) who advises would-be backpackers on the do’s and don’ts of exotic locations. And Jody and I were planning on exactly such a far-out trip: to India.

It was going to be our first extended vacation away from the kids since we got married. Nearly two weeks on our own. Jody’s Dad would be coming to stay in Israel while we were having our minds blown in Varanasi, Agra and Jaipur.

Jody and I originally planned on going to China. I had flown enough for work to earn two free tickets on El Al to as far as they go. That meant Bangkok, Hong Kong or Beijing, and since I’d been to the first two, the latter got the nod. That was supposed to be in May, 2003.

You all remember what happened then? SARS was raging throughout Asia and we thought maybe we’d be better off someplace else. We’d always been fascinated by India, so…

Visiting the Travel Doctor is already one step into another world. While outside on the street the usual mix of Jerusalem types parade by the Travel Doctor’s downtown Jerusalem office, inside you feel out of place if you’re not freshly discharged from the army and wearing tie-dye.

Indeed, everyone in the waiting room was young, pierced, and tattooed with long and scraggly hair. Most were wearing belly shirts.

Especially the men.

“I feel like a saba, a grandfather,” I said to the Travel Doctor when he called me into his office.

“Don’t,” he replied. “Just before you I had a couple here who’d make you feel like a little kid. No, it used to be that travel to India, South America, Thailand and the like was only for the young. Now, everyone’s going.”

Still, the greatest concentration of Israelis taking off for India and the Far East are the young – an estimated 30,000 a year – either blowing off steam after three grueling years in the army, or getting out a few yah-yahs before.

It’s become a rite of passage and it is not limited to any one demographic group – even the knitted kippa crowd of the yeshivas does its time on the psychedelic beaches of Goa and Koh Samui.

“This must be the greatest job in the world,” I said. “Everyone is so happy. They’re all about to embark on some great adventure.”

He nodded then began to explain what I was going to need. 3 shots – Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Diphtheria.

“You can get them today. Just pay the cashier and we’ll do it on the spot.”

Wait a minute now. I hadn’t prepared myself for a shot today, let alone three. I usually need a bit of time to psyche myself up, especially when pain is involved. But the Travel Doctor is only open twice a week and I already found a parking spot.

“How much?” I asked.

He added up the total – the equivalent of around $100.

That hurt. Probably more than the shots I was about to receive. I called up Jody for a quick consult.

“Seize the day,” she said.

“It’s not your arm that’s about to get whacked,” I replied. Then I thought, I could have a little fun with this. Kvetching more than necessary. Feigning off my responsibilities for a few days while I, ahem, “recovered.”

While he prepared the injections, the Travel Doctor called in a few of the long-haired belly-shirted tie-dyers to explain to all of us together what we needed to do in case of malaria and how to tell the difference between regular diarrhea and dysentery.

I called Jody again.

She said, “Are you sure we want to do this?” But it was too late, the needle awaited me.

I was very brave, I would later tell five-year-old Aviv. I barely cried at all. The implied message: your father is not a wimp.

Actually, I kept myself distracted by making conversation.

“Travel medicine is actually quite big in North America and Europe,” the Travel Doctor explained. “But I’m almost the only one in all of Israel specializing in it. I give lectures all over the country, in all the main hospitals.”

“There’s that much to say about shots?” I respond.

“No, no…it’s not just about the shots. You have to know about all the kinds of diseases that people might come back with and how to treat them. Things that aren’t normally seen in this part of the world.”

“Do people go to medical school these days and say ‘I want to be a Travel Doctor?’”

“More and more. When someone comes back from a post-Army tiyul and if they were planning on going to medical school anyway, they just might.”

“Do you get to travel?”

“Of course.”

“And the health fund pays?”

“Of course not.”

As I got back to my car, arm throbbing, the police were surrounding the street where the Travel Doctor was located. Someone had reported a suspicious object. And I thought: it will be good to get out Israel for a little while. To someplace safe.

I mean, it’s not like anything ever happens in Bombay...

And if anyone asks me where we’re going, I’ll just explain “our itinerary is all in my arm.”

With Jody and I off to India, "This Normal Life" will be taking a two-week break. Look for the next story the first week of December.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

The Cooking Party

Kids’ birthday parties are a big deal in Israel. Despite the worsening economy, they are still one of the last places Israelis splurge. After all, these are our children.

A recent article in Haaretz described some of the parties being thrown these days. Everything from dune buggy excursions, climbing walls and henna tattoos to an authentic Bedouin tent experience where the kids get to make their own pita and drink genuine desert tea are being tried these days as families try to keep up with the Cohens.

Over the years, we’ve had our share of pricey parties too. That was when we still believed money grew on trees (I know you’re saying: you mean it doesn’t?) One year we hired a magician, another year a clown.

More recently, as we’ve tried to economize, our planning has been more modest. Amir is happy inviting a couple of friends to the movies. Anything with Vin Diesel seems to be in style with Israeli 12-year-olds.

Planning for ten-year-old Merav has proven to tad more difficult.

“Let’s invite all the girls in the class to the pool,” Merav suggested.

“Hmmm,” I thought. 13 girls times 40 shekels each, plus pizza and party favors. Ouch.

Her best friend Michal had tried bowling a year ago. No, that was even more expensive.

That’s when it came to me.

I remembered a team building event that we had done at work once. We all went off for a day away to cook. We were responsible for making all the food for a gourmet five course meal.

Merav loved the idea. Within minutes she had taken charge of the event as if she had thought it up herself, drawing up the guest list, the menu, the groups of twos and threes. Amir agreed to babysit Aviv…for 20 shekels an hour. Invitations had to be designed and printed.

Ironically, it never occurred to Merav that a party is supposed to be thrown for the birthday girl. No, this was her day and she was in charge.

Is there a career as an event planner in my daughter’s future?

The morning of the big day, Merav woke up early. I had expected this. Too much excitement, who can sleep anyway?

“Imma, Abba, Aviv is throwing up.”


But he seemed to be better as the day wore on. And I think as the party guests started to arrive, he was so awed by seeing that many girls in one place, he totally forgot about his stomach.

Merav decided early on that the whole thing should be a surprise. So I gathered all the girls outside in the courtyard of our apartment building and like a self-conscious cheerleader, I started the build-up.

“What do girls love more than anything else?” I shouted.

“Clothes,” called out one girl.

“Slumber parties,” declared another.

“Going to school,” announced a third, a shy little girl with a head full of unruly curls.

“Who said that?” I demanded, returning a glaring look to the offending child. She quickly backed down.

“Eating ice cream?” she offered timidly.

“You’re getting close...”

“Eating!” screamed half the group in unison.

“Right,” I yelled back. “And that’s the theme of the party. But first you have to cook it. So today you will all be the chefs.”

The girls erupted into cheers. Except for the timid girl who looked up with earnest eyes.

“But if we’re the chefs, who will be the customers?”

“We’ll be,” Jody piped up quickly.

“You can’t,” said another. “You have to be the waiters.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

But by this time, the girls had stampeded up the stairs and were staring down a long kitchen table full of utensils and ingredients.

The menu tilted more towards comfort food than gourmet: Homemade Hummus, Israeli Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing, Macaroni and Cheese (fresh, not from a box), and Chocolate Chip Cookies. And my favorite: Pigs in a Blanket.

“Mmm…I just love pigs in a blanket!” one girl exclaimed.

“Me too,” I agreed. As far as I was concerned, at a wedding it was the appetizers that counted. You could skip the meal itself; just bring on more of them pigs.

As the girls went about slicing, mixing, rolling, grating and shaking, the volume level rose. This was no fancy restaurant kitchen. But the girls were remarkably efficient.

In fact, despite all the commotion nothing even spilled …except for Aviv who took a tumble on his bike and came in screaming for attention.

12 mothers-in-training looked up at him and extended sympathetic glances.

Jody and I flitted around in our capacity as supervisors. I noticed that the girls in charge of the pigs were covering up the tips with too much filo dough.

“Someone call a mohel,” I said to Merav.

She didn’t get it. Just as well.

About half way through came Brian’s special twist.

“Quiet! Quiet!” I called out. When the room was filled with just the right touch of dramatic silence, I announced: “Now everyone: Switch!”

Wherever they were in the process, the girls had to stop. They were assigned to new groups and someone else’s recipe.

You remember the origins of the party as a corporate team building activity? Well, this unexpected switch was designed to teach adult participants about their working style. Were they flexible? Able to go with the flow in an often unpredictable office environment?

With 10 year old girls, it was sheer torture.

That’s when we noticed the timid girl. She was still mixing the cookie dough.

“Sweetie,” Jody cooed. “You need to stop now and move to your new group.”

She didn’t look up. Her eyes were fixed on that cookie dough.

“You’re on salad dressing now,” Merav informed her.

Still she stayed with her sweet brown cookie mix.

Eventually she relented, though we almost had to pull her away. I have a feeling that someday, when she heads off to work, she may have certain issues with delegation of responsibility.

By the time we sat down to eat, there wasn’t a complaint from the bunch. No one whined “I hate hummus” or “there’s not enough cheese on my mac.” Every plate was cleared and more than one girl commented that the food seemed to taste particularly yummy.

Each girl left with a goody bag including two cookies and a printout of the recipes they’d just made. Merav was giddy with satisfaction, as were her parents. After all, adults are meant to suffer through kids’ birthday parties and we had actually enjoyed ourselves. And we got to eat our work. How many times can you say that at the office?

Now all we have to worry about is what to do for her bat mitzvah party. That’s still another two years away. If we start planning now…