Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Living the high life in Tel Aviv

Last weekend, I was having coffee with a friend who is active in one of the olim societies here in Israel. He told me that he met two new immigrants (mother and daughter) who announced that they want to live in a spacious seafront apartment in Tel Aviv North. Both of us burst into Homeric laughter. Don’t get me wrong – we were not making fun of the ladies, just of their native dream…..

Tel Aviv is not only one of the most expensive cities in Israel (and in EMEA), but also ranks 14th on the Mercer’s Cost of Living 2008 list. For comparison, New York ranked 22nd…….The survey compares more than 200 goods and services in 143 cities around the globe. Well, you get the picture, don’t you?

The neighborhood that the ladies prefer can be compared to me wanting to live in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – unless you have a few millions to burn, not quite feasible. Cost of housing is high all over Israel, with only places like Sderot as an exception (for obvious reasons).

The country is small to start with, and most jobs are concentrated in the Tel Aviv – HaSharon area. Yes, you can find a job in the Haifa area or Jerusalem, but your salary will be substantially lower. The majority of your salary will be gobbled up by your rent or mortgage, with car and petrol expenses being the second major cost factor. This doesn’t bother the rich and mega-rich. They buy up real estate like it’s a monopoly game.

British billionaire Ephraim Shahmoon bought no fewer than nine apartments in the TreeTop Towers in Tel Aviv, followed by two more flats in Yoo Towers forking out a total of NIS 60 million (The average apartment goes for less than NIS 1 million) .

Billionaire heiress Shari Arison, who among other things owns the controlling interests in Israel's biggest bank, Hapoalim, and in the development company Property & Building. She lives in an apartment in Bavli, Tel Aviv and owns a penthouse in Gindi Holdings' "G" project in Tel Aviv.
Local entertainer Eli Yatzpan owns an apartment in Hamashtela, in North Tel Aviv, another one in the Manhattan Project in Park Tzameret, Tel Aviv, and a third one in nearby Pinkas Street.
Builder Alfred Akirov owns duplex apartments in several of his own projects, including in the Opera Tower on the Tel Aviv shoreline and in the TreeTop Towers.
Diamond baron Benny Steinmetz owns a double penthouse in Yoo.

If you think that this is unfair, just read on!
These real estate collectors, Israeli and non-Israeli, don’t even live permanently in Israel, and don’t bother to rent out their properties. They prefer to just let them sit there empty, managed by asset management companies. It’s their safety net against the rising tide of anti-Semitism and a nice pied-à-terre for family occasions and the High Holidays.

If you want to live the high life in Tel Aviv, make sure to have a high income – Euros preferred……..

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fun in the sun – Israeli style

Israel is hot – as a country and during the summer.
Funny enough, Sabras always seem to be surprised when the heat strikes.
It’s a phenomenon I also witnessed during winter, when it rains. And during Pesach when they cannot buy hametz. And when….. OK, let’s stop here; it will be too boring to go into details. But you get my drift.
Before the summer starts, there are heat waves (called hamsim or sharaf) that I see as a warming-up exercise for the sizzling summer. In the years I have been here, one always strikes during Pesach, which throws all of us in a slight panic due to the food poisoning risk at the seder.

But I diverge. Let’s go back to our current summer.
Going to the beach here is a health hazard – in more than one way.
For starters, Israel has one of the highest levels of Melanoma skin cancer in the world – only Australia and New Zealand have more patients. This doesn’t stop my fellow Israelis from happily exposing their scantily dressed, chubby bodies (m/f) to the baking sun.

Forget about reading a novel or dozing off – the ice cream (or Artik as it is locally known) seller will happily shout “ARTIK” while plopping through the sand on his Naots (aka Jezus Nikes) or Crocs. The chances that your sun-lotioned body and/or food items and/or novel or news paper will thus get sand on it are 100%, not in the least since the A-man will pass you at least every 15 minutes.

Once you get up and decide to stroll along the flood line (or to wash off the sand that is sticking to your body), your life is in real danger. Sabras invented their own version of a recreational ball sport, called matkot. It’s played with big sized racquets, making the same annoying plock, plock sound as ping-pong bats do. The ball whizzes past your head (if you are lucky) or hits one of your body parts (more likely). When this happens, don’t expect an apology – you will get the “you are a freyer (m) or freyerit (f)” look – so you proceed at your own peril.

The brave ones that survived the matkot onslaught (driving with Danica Patrick is safer, trust me!), and are now dipping into the waters of the Mediterranean. But be careful, there are strong riptides, whirlpools, and undertows – hence the many lifeguards you see. They may not look like Baywatch babes, but they do know their business.

So now you are relaxing in the warm water, the sun shining down on you. Hey, what’s that stinging feeling?! Yep, you have been touched by a medusa (not to be confused with the Gorgon Medusa) - a nasty jellyfish. These medusot (plural of medusa) make our lives a living hell for several months.

All that excitement must make you hungry, so you need some nourishment.
There is no lack of (comfort) food in this part of the world – no matter what you are looking for, you will find it. Depending where you are, don’t be surprised to find beach restaurants that serve treife food such as shrimps in our Jewish State. And there are lots of soft drinks, beers and wines to wash it down with.
Israeli restaurants are noisy and smoking is prohibited. But don’t be surprised if you see someone happily puffing away on his/her cancer stick. You have to handle this the Israeli way – if you are also a smoker, light one up yourself; if not, create a stir. You have to threaten the owner that you will report him and he will have to pay a knas (fine). Trust me; this is far more effective than starting a conversation with the smoker, especially if it’s a 30-year old woman looking like Donatella Versace or Iggy Pop.

Leaving a tip is a tricky business – service is in general mediocre compared to Europe and the US. The reason is simple: waiters and waitresses in Israel are often students and not professionally trained graduates from IHTTI.
In case you are in doubt if tipping is required or not – just check your bill and you will see one line (at the bottom) aggressively highlighted by a yellow text marker. No matter how poor your Hebrew is – the message is clear: 10%-15% is expected. Humor doesn’t work – I once told a rude waiter that my tip was “give better service”. I came perilously close to receiving a head wound, so be warned my sweetie (or motek, in the local lingo).

Talking about lingo - one of the fun things of being exposed to any gathering of more than 4 Israelis - you will hear multiple languages. On the beach, in restaurants, in the street (and last but not least in the office!) – your fellow Israelis are happily yapping away in Hebrew, Russian, French (especially in Netanya and Ra’anana), Spanish, English (by the “Anglos”) and a plethora of other languages. The lingua franca is Hebrew (or English if you deal with monolingual Americans) that is routinely slaughtered by olim chadashim and vatikim (new and seasoned immigrants) alike -myself included!.
It says a lot about the flexibility of the Sabras that they still are able to figure out what the Hackensack we are trying to say – no easy feat!

So if you want fun in the sun – go ahead, but don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!
And don’t forget to drink lots of water and put on heaps of sun block (o dear, do I sound like a Polish mother?!)