Official indifference vs. personal warmth

I was in Jerusalem and had to make a one day circuit to Tel Aviv, Yokneam and then Ben Gurion Airport to catch a flight. Avis had no cars to rent, so I walked up King David Street to the next car rental place, let’s just call it Nifty.
I filled out the papers, explaining that I needed a GPS because I lack a fundamental gene for directions. The woman at the desk pulled out the device, and I asked her how to work it. "The man at the car will explain it to you.," she told me. The guy who drove me to the car had no idea how to work the GPS (or how to get it to English mode). I asked him for a map. "We don’t have. The lady at the desk didn’t give you one?" he asked.
We drove back up to the Nifty office, and I got a map. To the Nifty people’s great annoyance, I insisted that someone show me how to use the GPS I had just rented. Five minutes later, an employee came out to try and figure it out. We programmed it for Tel Aviv, and off I went.
However, it was set on Pedestrian mode, and the lady in the GPS kept asking me to leave the road and head into the very beautiful hills. I gave up on the GPS, and got to the Hilton on HaYarkon in Tel Aviv just fine using a map. The guy at the hotel said the parking lot was full, and asked me to drive down HaYarkon street to the next hotel. The next guy said his place was full too. The guy after asked if I was staying at his hotel, and I said no, and he said I’d have to go ask special permission to park there from the managers.  I circled back to the Hilton at HaYarkon, and saw an Israeli guy shouting at the attendant, and then the attendant let him in the parking lot. My turn. The attendant angrily repeated that the parking lot was full. I told him that I was going to use the gas station inside, so he let me in. I filled up, and then I promptly parked in one of the many open spaces.
The conference, which covered the amazing high-tech and life science industries in Israel, would make any Zionist proud. Once it was over and done with, I fixed the pedestrian setting on the GPS and drove to Yokneam to visit family. I took the terrific route 6 back to Ben Gurion Airport with 2.5 hours to spare before take-off. All I had to do was drop off the Nifty rental car. I drove up to the departure terminal. No rental car signs. I looked on the GPS and the map for the rental car return, but there were no indications at all. I asked a taxi driver, but he didn’t know. I asked a security guard, who also didn’t know (where to return cars at the airport where he worked). He told me to drive back several miles towards the entrance to the airport and ask again.
Getting close to the entrance, sparse signs started showing up for car return. I found the rental-car drop-off with two hours left until liftoff. Except that Nifty wasn’t there. An employee said I had to leave the airport, and then gave me an intricate set of directions which included slaloming through three roundabouts. Off I went around the peripheries of Ben Gurion at 11 o''clock at night, by dark warehouses and empty office parks, with no sign of rental car return. I drove back to the security guards at the entrance of the airport. They tried to direct me to the car return place I had just been to (where Nifty wasn’t located). "That is the only spot," said one guard. "Go back to the terminal" said another. Yet another security guard said that Nifty was not at the airport. I pulled the car into a nearby gas station. An hour and a half until my plane took off.
I looked at the Nifty paperwork in the car, and noticed that none of branches said Ben Gurion.  There was a help number, but the number didn’t work from an international Blackberry. I thought about ditching the car. A guy next to me was filling up his car, and I asked if he could show me how to dial Nifty on my phone. He offered to use his. He called and they put us on hold. He smiled calmly. A Nifty guy finally came on the line, and my new buddy told them the situation.  The Nifty guy gave us directions that involved, again, zigzagging through several roundabouts.  Staring at the entrance right outside of Ben Gurion, I wasn’t even sure which way to start off. I kept asking for the directions to be repeated.
"I think I got it" my new buddy said. "Follow me." And off we went. Roundabout straight, roundabout left. Street light. Finally, diminutive signs for rental car return appeared. More roundabouts. I kept following my guardian. Snuck in at a comically hidden corner of an office park outside the airport, there was Nifty.
As we slowed down, I wondered: How to thank the total stranger who just took 20 minutes and saved me from missing my flight? Should I offer to pay him, or would that be an insult? Before I could stop the car, he disappeared around a bend. No thank you’s. Nothing. I rushed the rental guys through the rigmarole and made my plane.
Every place has this, but Israel has it in spades. When you deal with people as institutions or officials, you risk swimming in a stew of maddening indifference. You have Edvard Munch "Scream" moments where you want to pull out your hair, simply because no one has taken 10 seconds to think about you. And yet, when you deal with people as individuals, they will reflexively reach out in a way that only family members or good friends would do elsewhere. The same woman who didn’t think I might need a map or a working GPS or a warning about the location of the car return, probably would not think it strange to share her food with a neighbor on the bus or to invite the pizza delivery person into her home to share a bite. This split recurs and recurs like a trope for me in Israel: official indifference and personal warmth.
Brett Cohen is the President of JGB Management, an investment firm in New York.