A frosty winter

As the weather changes, so does the attitude of Tel Avivians. With every day of sunshine, the bubble melts a little more until, much like the Yarkon River, it evaporates entirely.

Tel Aviv winter view haze 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Tel Aviv winter view haze 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
For better or worse, a column about an ex- Jerusalemite’s move to Tel Aviv calls for a discussion on the weather.
For so many years, whenever Tel Avivian friends came to visit me in the cold capital, I would be forced to endure their relentless grumblings regarding the weather. Frozen to distraction, it was always a mission impossible to convince them to actually leave the apartment and take a walk around the winding alleys of Nahlaot – my old ’hood. Tel Avivians’ irrational fear of contracting acute hypothermia/frostbite/chill burn meant that said visits were, sadly, infrequent. Anyone would think I was living in Siberia. It’s especially interesting, since many of those friends are actually olim whose native countries are infinitely colder than Jerusalem.
But even as I write, I’m eating my words: Even though my visits “home” to Jerusalem remain frequent (for now), every time I’m there I inadvertently annoy all my Jerusalemite friends with some inane weather-related comment. See, it’s not that it’s any colder in Jerusalem than in New York or London, it’s just that here they don’t know how to deal with the cold.
For starters, Israeli apartments simply aren’t insulated enough – even in Tel Aviv. Although the only thing that really matters in a Tel Aviv apartment is that it has air-conditioning. To which my old neighbors invariably respond with a dagger-filled glare that clearly says, “We heard you. Tel Aviv is hot. Jerusalem is not. Get over it.” But it ain’t always sunshine in Sin City.
Early in the winter we enjoyed eight consecutive days of rain in the center of the country. I say “we” to refer to the collective and do not necessarily include myself in that. Perhaps because I was raised in a country that endured perpetual rain, it’s very hard for me to feign joy on those occasions when – courtesy of God’s blessing and this country’s laughable drainage system – I find myself walking in puddle-ridden sidewalks with sopping wet shoes.
Such was the case this winter. Yet at the same time, Tel Aviv has also made me warm up to the rain. While in Jerusalem the rain is often characterized by a neither- here-nor-there spitting coupled with ferocious winds, the same cannot be said of Tel Aviv. Much like the city itself – and, indeed, the people who reside there – Tel Aviv rain is extreme.
In lieu of Jerusalem’s ferocious winds, Tel Aviv rain is usually accompanied by a muggy, difficulty-breathing type humidity. And over here in the coastal city, it hardly ever spits. Reflecting the city’s attitude of im kvar, az kvar (loosely translated as “going the whole hog”), Tel Aviv’s torrential rain is show-stopping stuff.
As I’m sitting here in the zula (chilling corner) on the grounds of my apartment building, sheets of rain mercilessly collapse onto the sidewalk just meters away from me. There is a bus stop right outside, and a few commuters have gathered under the roof of my building for shelter.
I clearly look busy with my laptop, so no one disturbs me. I invite the commuters to join me and sit the rain out on the couches instead of standing. With a mixture of doubt and incredulity, they look at me and then at each other before eventually complying.
The incessant din of the rain is too loud to be able to engage in real conversation, so my couchmates and I watch it in silence. Only the occasional roll of thunder interrupts the steady sound of rushing water. The yellow street lamps cast an eerie hue on the mist rising from the puddles. The sky lights up for a split second and becomes neon purple as a bolt of lightning rips through it. We sit there mesmerized, staring out at the road as if some supernatural phenomenon were unfolding before our eyes.
The experience is somewhat bonding. I feel as if I managed to make the teensiest dent in my couchmates’ armor. It is the same armor that everyone in Tel Aviv seems to wear, one that betokens a vibe of autonomy and every man for himself.
Perhaps, then, the reason that Jerusalemites seem to naturally bond with each other is due to the bad weather.
After 20 minutes of spectacular showers, the rain stops as suddenly as it had started. My couchmates stand up, clear their throats, mumble their thanks to me and take off into the night. Never to be seen again, presumably.
That’s another thing about Tel Aviv. Had the same scene occurred in Jerusalem, I could almost guarantee bumping into those people again, be it on the bus, at a Shabbat meal or in the shuk. Chances are, one of them would be my best friend’s cousin. But here in Tel Aviv – the city cynically dubbed by some as The Bubble – anonymity is prized. It’s also one of the reasons I moved here, as I grew tired of recognizing every second face in Jerusalem and having every second face recognize me. But still, when keeping oneself to oneself is taken to the extreme – as we’ve learned is wont to happen with everything in Tel Aviv – it can become a very lonely place.
If I stand in line at the supermarket and randomly start chatting to the woman in front of me, it’s as if I’ve personally offended her. Her eyes dart around in a frenzy. She’s either looking for someone else whom I might be addressing or she’s planning her escape route.
Uninvited penetration into someone’s personal bubble is almost as criminal in Tel Aviv as it is in London.
But as the weather changes, so does this attitude.
With every day of sunshine, the bubble melts a little more until, much like the Yarkon River, it evaporates entirely. So instead of floating around aimlessly in their happy, self-absorbed cocoons, Tel Avivians find themselves swimming in the collective sweat of nearly half a million other souls that are also enduring the hell known as summer.
Around the same time that the city’s formidable army of mosquitoes is preparing itself for its annual onslaught, Tel Avivians also step out for battle. Halfcrazed with the same summer-induced dementia as said mosquitoes, they attack the beach in their thousands.
The battle cry heralding the success of the beach conquest can be heard in various forms, such as the strums of a guitar being played by some hippie who, having wasted all his money on a plectrum signed by Sid Barrett, has yet to invest in a pair of swimming trunks and is therefore wearing a ripped pair of boxers.
But more often than not, summer’s battle cry is signaled by the constant bellows of the lifeguard, yelling, “Lady! Yes, you – the woman in the itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikini – you’ve swum too far out; come back towards the shore.” And usually teeny-bikini lady chooses not to obey, instead shouting back, “I’m a good swimmer, and it’s not as if there are any sharks!” And back and forth they argue (and flirt), their yells carried over to each other on the sea’s nonexistent waves.
For the past 10 years that I was living in Jerusalem, I upheld the tradition of crashing on friends’ couches in Tel Aviv for most of the summer. The kinship that summer in Tel Aviv fosters – born of a mutual understanding of what it’s like to suffer heat stroke for four straight months – is a welcome change that makes me eager for warmer weather. I can’t wait to jump into the sea along with everyone else, and then emerge from the water feeling refreshed – until 20 seconds later when I’m sweating buckets again. But at least the summer weather permits me to complain about it to total strangers.
On the other hand, while it’s true there may not be sharks in Tel Aviv’s waters, there are legions of jellyfish that are just as predatory but far more likely to actually get you due to their clever “harmless plastic bag” disguise.
Perhaps this year I’ll start a new tradition – crashing on Jerusalemite friends’ couches for the summer.