Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Author: eskaftun (page 2 of 14)

Write-a-thon week three update

Only two days late. Don’t judge me.

So far, I’ve been doing … okay … on my Clarion West write-a-thon goals:

• Move website? Check.

• Add old posts to site? Check, 7 so far.

• Submit reprints? Negatory. I could use a lot of help with that. But I did update a bunch of submissions that needed it.

• New postcard stories? Check. Here they are.

• Finish current WIP? Check.

• Twitter? Kinda. I set up some IFTTT formulas that should help.

It’s not too late to sponsor me! I only have one sponsor so far. All sponsors will get a postcard! Maybe one of these:









I didn’t realize until after I’d written the last one that it had a name, “He waits through the winter.” Which just makes it so much better.

Write-a-thon week one update

I am writing into the void.

I am writing about the void.

I am avoiding writing?


Playing imaginary piano into the void?

It’s summer again, and that means Clarion West, and because I never learn I am signed up for it again. You can read all about it at www.clarionwest.org/members/eskaftun. So far I have zero sponsors, so I could use a few more! This year I have pledged to:

• Move my Blogspot blog to WordPress. I mean really. Blogspot? What was I thinking? (by end of week 1)

• Add a crapload of old travel writing, book reviews, and other junk to the blog. (at least 2 posts per week)

• Research and submit previously published stories to reprint markets. (at least 1 per week)

• Write and post new postcard stories. (at least 1 per week)

• Finish current WIP, a murder mystery set in a school full of invisible teenagers. (by end of week 3)

• Start some new fiction. (30 min. of fictioning per day). If no new fiction ideas occur on schedule, revisit old WIP YA novel about teens navigating a world where murder is legal, up to a point.

• Figure out how to have a twitter presence when I hate twitter. 🙂

So far I have mostly done the first thing, moving this site to WordPress. However as of this exact moment it only shows up if you DON’T type in the “www” part. I’m working on it. But in the meantime you probably can’t see me. So hello, void.

I’m a little behind on submissions and adding in old blog posts, but I have added one old post to the site. There will be more of these, and they will be backdated. Exercise in futility? Probably.

I have also written one of my famous postcards. It could be yours if you sponsor me.

On the “untranslatable”

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway
Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Last fall an article started to go around, written almost exactly a year ago for Matador Network, called “10 untranslatable Norwegian terms” (matadornetwork.com/notebook/10-untranslatable-norwegian-terms). A quick search will turn up many such lists, all with different words and terms, in basically every language you can think of.

It’s true, of course, that translation is an imperfect art. A language is about more than just words for the things we can all agree on (cat, dog, car, etc.); it’s innately tied up in the way the culture that uses it sees the world and therefore reveals things about that culture. Just think of the old chestnut that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow.

In particular, though, I was troubled by this list, which was:
Skjerp deg
Glad i deg
Takk for sist
Takk for maten

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Norwegian language (I’ve only been learning it for two years!), but to call some of these untranslatable seemed like a stretch to me.

Judging from the comments section on the article, I’m not alone. Collectively, folks with knowledge of Norwegian and English can translate all of these, though they might not agree on how.

I’d argue that the list falls into three main categories: words that don’t translate literally but have pretty clear parallel meanings in English (skjerp deg to “sharpen up” or even “watch yourself;” faen to a different f word; glad i deg to “I like you”), phrases that literally translate but aren’t used quite the same (we wouldn’t say “thanks for last time” to greet someone, but it’s not a hard concept to grasp), and words that we don’t have in English because the thing it describes isn’t big in the U.S. (we’re not as into open-faced sandwiches as our Nordic cousins, so we don’t talk about pålegg—though I’d also like to suggest “toppings” as a simple translation—and we just don’t have Russ at all).

And then there’s takk for maten. Does the author of the list really think that we don’t say “thanks for the food” in English? I am not inviting him to dinner.

Underlying quibbles about whether these words are really translatable or not is something deeper, I suspect. Because when you come down to it, English has a word for almost everything. Perhaps not a common word, but with over a million words to choose from (twice the vocabulary of the next most verbose languages) you can bet most concepts are covered. And if it isn’t covered already, English has no problem with simply annexing words from the nearest unwary language. I predict that the Danish version of kos, “hygge,” will one day be in English dictionaries.

I think what’s really being celebrated in these lists is the culture underneath. A list like this one tells me that the author thinks Norwegians, when compared to English-speakers, focus more on finding joy in simple pleasures, are more frugal in their use of the word “love,” give thanks more freely, feel closer to nature, and curse less inventively.

Whether or not that is true, it speaks to something. As our world gets smaller, as people from all over the world are able to talk to each other, to be influenced by each other’s cultures, to eat each other’s cuisines, and generally to “melt,” it’s easy to feel that the differences between peoples and places are wearing away. The downside of a global melting pot is that what makes cultures unique can start to fade, and even though the opportunities and advantages coming with globalization are huge, that loss is scary.

Is our insistence that some things cannot be translated a reaction to this? I see it as a way of asserting the uniqueness of a culture, though perhaps not the most constructive way. Do we need these barriers? To me they feel dismissive: “You wouldn’t understand; you’re not Norwegian.” Would it be threatening if we did?

What word would a Norwegian use to describe that feeling?

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Have we been there yet?

Photo: Amy Lietz We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Photo: Amy Lietz
We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Lately a thing has been going around social media: a map of the U.S. called “States I’ve Visited.” Visited states turn a vibrant pink, bragging to all Facebook friends how well traveled one is. It’s a digital, national version of a gift we recommended last Christmas, a map of the world you can scratch off to show where you’ve been.

I think these things are fun, and I’ve even given the physical versions to a couple of people as gifts. But I must confess I have a hard time filling them out for myself. My hesitation comes from an uncertainty about what it means to have been to a place.

The first time I remember doing this same exercise, counting which states I’d been to, I got into an argument about Georgia. I’d transferred between legs of a flight to Florida in the Atlanta airport. The judges ruled that I had not been to Georgia.

I accept that. In fact, I think it’s generally agreed upon that airports don’t count. Just because you’ve sprinted for a connecting flight in Frankfurt doesn’t mean that you’ve been to Germany. The basis for this rule seems to be the idea that airports are all the same. Which has some validity, if our starting point is that you are a fairly well-traveled native English speaker. Even the farthest-flung airports I’ve visited have been variations on a theme of large windows and moving walkways, had signage I could read, and sold overpriced snacks and coffees (even often for US currency), though of course the size, quality, and interest of airports vary wildly.

But this rule sets a dangerous precedent; at least for me it is the first step of a slippery slope. You see, lots of places are basically all the same. I once spent several months traveling the U.S. while living in my car (long story; another time). I was in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d walked around just a bit—just enough to be unpleasantly far from my car, though I don’t remember seeing much of interest—when it started pouring. I mean, seriously heavy, drenching rain. I would have been soaked by the time I made it back to the car (which is problematic when the car is your home for the night) so I ducked into a mall to wait it out. Long story short: I spent many hours in this mall, and when I could I left the state as fast as possible. So have I been to Rhode Island? Malls are pretty much all the same, aren’t they?

Or for that matter, what about any number of the U.S. states that I drove through, on the Interstate, and maybe only stopped at a rest stop or a gas station, and don’t remember a single thing about the state? Have I been to those? My map looks very different depending on these answers. I’ve been to either 35 or 43 states.

Let’s say I’ve made it to a state and done a legitimate thing—stayed overnight, saw the sights, ate some local cuisine—in one city. Is it really fair to say I’ve been to that state? What if the state is Texas and the city I’ve been to is Austin? Seems like a stretch.

For that matter, even my home state is mostly a mystery to me. I know western Washington pretty well (well, except for Bellingham and most of the islands and almost the whole Olympic peninsula), but though I’ve been to the eastern places a number of times most of it might as well be full of sasquatches for how familiar I am with it.

Often times, travel articles add to the feeling that the way I’ve visited a place isn’t good enough. Titles like “You haven’t seen Seattle until you’ve eaten these four fish,” or some such. I know it’s hyperbole, but I am left wondering: have I ever really been anywhere?


This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Not a blogger

Hi there.

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not much of a blogger. I accept that.

So welcome to my author page. I am still that, more or less. I utterly failed to promote a publication I had this spring, “No Alphabet Can Spell It,” which you can still find over at Buzzy Mag. I really like this story. It’s a bit wacky.

I’ve also got a story coming out in this month’s Ghost in the Cogs anthology, which is available for preorder and will be out by Halloween. This is my first attempt at steampunk, and I may have taken the title a bit too literally. I wrote it right after returning from a winter-time trip to Iceland, so that is where my story is set. Steam there is a life-saver, though not probably in the way I’ve used it in “Frænka Askja’s Silly Old Story.”

Steam in Iceland, inspiration for the story. Also, Nils Anders
Wik, mascot of the Norwegian American Weekly.

I’m back to fiction a bit, writing lately about sharks and invisible teenagers.

When I’m not writing fiction it’s usually because my life as Editor of the Norwegian American Weekly has consumed my life. For example, I’ve just returned from my first business trip (ever, maybe), to glorious Minot, ND, to sell newspapers at Norsk Høstfest. It was moderately successful. If you’re interested in Norway (and who isn’t, to some degree?), check us out. NAW is also a market for fiction, so some of you should send Norway-related any-genre English-language fiction of 1500 words or fewer to fiction@na-weekly.com.

That’s all for now! I will try to pop in from time to time to update things like publications, but no promises. Know that I love you, dear website visitors, even while I’m away.

A summer tour in the Holy Land

Ancient yet modern, safe yet violent, Israel is a land of contradictions

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.


Since returning from a hastily planned trip to Israel this summer, everyone’s been asking me how it was. Did I have fun? And I don’t entirely know how to answer. Many of the experiences one has in Israel can’t be filed neatly under the heading of “fun,” but it is definitely a trip worth taking.

The most prominent feature of the region is religion; therefore your experience with Israel will vary depending on your religious beliefs. For many Christians, visiting sites like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where, according to legend, Jesus was born) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where he was crucified and buried) are life-changing spiritual moments. Muslims have the Dome of the Rock, where some believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, and which is, in any case, an ancient marvel of architecture (or so I hear, as non-Muslims are no longer permitted to visit the site) and for Jews, almost the whole country is a sort of miracle, not to mention housing many sacred tombs and the famous Western Wall.

Our group wasn’t particularly religious, so I chose a “classical” tour that would give us a taste of everything with a focus on history rather than faith—to the degree they can be separated in Israel. There’s little variation in what highlights are included in most package tours, so go with whichever best fits your travel dates and budget. Ours was an “11-day tour” (with two of those travel days) that had us leaving Seattle on a Thursday to arrive in Tel Aviv on Friday. The guided portion of our tour began Sunday morning when we swung north to spend two nights in the Golan Heights before going back to Jerusalem for five more nights.

A few words of advice. One, do shop around for your flights—it would have been simple to use the tour provider for this, but we would have paid hundreds more in airfare and/or spent eight more hours in layovers each way. I took to Travelocity.com and found us an itinerary that was far superior.

Two, if your itinerary is like ours, consider spending extra time in Tel Aviv. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, when everything was just about to shut down for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, which goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Though more things in Tel Aviv remain open than in Jerusalem—like restaurants and some shops—this still limited our ability to see the city. On our only day in town, most of what we wanted to see—museums and two supposedly bustling markets—were closed or open for such brief hours that we missed out. This left us with Yafo and the beach (which, don’t get me wrong, are both incredible). To get our lower airfare we spent an extra day in Jerusalem, but I wish we’d had it in Tel Aviv instead.

Three, don’t let the tour people bully you into an upgrade; we went with base-level hotels and they were entirely acceptable. Only upgrade if amenities like swimming pools are vital to you. But if your trip is anything like ours, you won’t be spending much time at the hotel anyway.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

What’s awesome:
The age of the place. From Yafo (Jaffa), the ancient port city at the south end of Tel Aviv, to Tsfat (Safed), home of Jewish mysticism, to Jerusalem itself, it’s incredible to see how history has layered itself in these places, some of which have been continuously occupied for many thousands of years. For an American, this can be hard to quite understand. It’s hard to know how much of any given site is ancient and how much is new, because the construction matches so well. In many places it feels as if you’ve time-traveled thousands of years—until you catch the blue flicker of a television inside a building.

In Jerusalem, be sure to find your way to the “roof” of the city. The level at which you fight your way through aggressive vendors and crowds of tourists is only the middle. Older passageways are laced below, and newer ones above. The locals use the roof to bypass the throng below, but you can simply use it as a place to enjoy the view.

The food. Your mileage may vary, but I love falafel and shawarma in pita, hummus, and cucumber and tomato. The only downside is that there’s no bacon anywhere.

I found the implementation of kosher rules very interesting. Most restaurants do not keep kosher, but those that do are labeled as either meat or dairy (since the two are not allowed to mix). You can have pizza, but no meat toppings. Or you can have falafel (Israel’s national food—possibly in a semi-ironic way?), which I never even noticed was dairy-free. You can even go to kosher McDonald’s (we did not) and get a “Big American” burger, but you can’t add cheese.

The people. Get out of your tour group and meet some real Israelis. We did this by having dinner in a woman’s home (there are any number of people willing to do this, but we visited Iris: www.amechayeisrael.com). For the cost of a rather expensive dinner we had a truly fantastic dinner (with an obscene amount of delicious food), two or three bottles of wine, and hours of conversation on everything from American TV to cats to psychic powers to religion and politics. This was easily the most enjoyable part of the trip.

Another high point was allowing ourselves to accept a little Bedouin hospitality in the Old City. Of course, the shopkeeper would have been happier if we’d ended up buying one of his soft silk rugs, but he didn’t seem to begrudge the conversation and tea we shared.

What’s challenging:
The heat. Ohmygod, why did we go in July/August? I don’t recommend this. It was around 100°F most of the time, and we always seemed to end up out in the open during the hottest parts of the day, like when we visited Masada, the ruins of an impressive 200-year-old mountaintop fortress, at noon. I like hot weather, but there are limits.

The ubiquity of religion. Even a religious person will feel the strain of this, I suspect, because the three big “Western” religions are all heavily represented and have differing customs. Men have it relatively easy: for you it’s mainly a question of whether hats are required or forbidden. As a woman, I felt religion’s effects keenly. All of the holy sites require “modesty,” but they have differing standards and this is largely at the discretion of the man (always man) at the entrance. Is that skirt too short? Are elbows immodest? This leaves as the safest course wearing a lot more clothes than the summer heat makes reasonable. Female travelers, I recommend you carry a scarf in case your t-shirt is suddenly deemed unacceptable.

Another issue is that many of the Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall, are gender-segregated. Couples traveling together might find this inconvenient. Conditions on either side aren’t necessarily equal, either. I was shocked when looking at my husband’s photos how large the men’s section at the Western Wall was!

The fact that ideological violence is always just under the surface. Whatever your feelings about Israel—and there are definitely points to be made by all parties—the fact remains that the region is barely keeping itself together. During our week there, we learned of two ideologically motivated acts of violence. A house was set fire in the West Bank, probably by Jewish extremists, and a toddler inside was killed. And then, at the gay pride parade that wound right past our hotel, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people.

(A quick look at the news shows that the violence has only gotten worse since our trip, with another war with Hamas looking like a possibility. Yikes.)

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

One of the more interesting stops on our tour was at a hilltop overlooking the Syrian border. Part tourist stop, part military emplacement, it had metal soldier silhouettes with weapons, and it also had real soldiers with real weapons. The hill was catacombed underneath with bunkers, but it also had a café and gift shop. Coin-operated binoculars pointed toward the war-torn neighboring country, and from time to time we heard large-caliber weapons in the distance.

To be in a country that in many ways seems just like home, and then realize that a horrific civil war is raging mere miles away causes some cognitive dissonance. The fact that Israel refuses to take in refugees, despite being a country founded by refugees, despite the memory of millions of Jews in need of refuge during WWII, and what happened to them when all the countries turned them away… let’s just say I found it interesting.

I’ll sum up with a representative example from our trip, which can stand as a metaphor for the whole: our visit to the Dead Sea.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea is salty as all get out. As of 2011 it was 34.2% saline (and given that it’s losing around one meter of sea level per year, that number is probably higher now), about ten times more saline than the ocean. In contrast, Utah’s Great Salt Lake ranges from 5% to 27%—so even at its saltiest it’s got nothing on the Dead Sea. But this fact is pretty abstract. Going in we knew were going to float, and that’s about all.

What we didn’t realize was that the “beach” we’d be going to was made of sand pure salt crystals (sharp!). We also didn’t realize the water would be quite so hot—like shower water when someone else in the house flushes the toilet. Even the freshwater showers on the shore were uncomfortably hot on that uncomfortably hot day. Finally, we knew that we didn’t want to get the saltwater in our eyes or mouths, and we knew not to shave before the visit, but we didn’t realize that the water would sting the skin a little bit even so—and more than a little bit on more sensitive skin. It’s hard to keep water off one’s face when it’s on one’s hands, and when one’s own salty sweat (less than 1% saline, and think of how much that can sting!) is dripping into one’s eyes.

We did float, of course. You really can’t help but float in it, even those who sink to the bottom of swimming pools. It’s a strange, funny feeling, and there was much laughter. Am I glad to have had that experience? Absolutely. But overall, was our trip to the Dead Sea fun? All things considered, I’m not sure I can call it that.

And that’s exactly how I feel about the trip as a whole: I’m entirely glad we went, but it hasn’t made my list of places to return to again.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Israel in summer, part 7: The trip winds down

Then it was Saturday again, and again nothing was open. We slept in, for once, and headed to the Old City. I got us lost, like a moron, and a man gave us directions and then extorted us for “donations.” There is a culture in the crowded tourist sites of what I almost want to call harassment—aggressive deal-making or outright panhandling. This is not my favorite thing, and I’ll be happy to have a rest from it when we get home.

We finally arrived at the Tower of David, and wandered through the pretty unimpressive exhibit until we ran into Ken and Nori. Together we went back over the stations of the cross, which were hard to find. Ken bought a map of them and they were still hard to find. When we were done we tried to think of something else to do, but failed at it and went back to the hotel for a nap.

The Tower of David.

The Tower of David.

Mom decided to keep napping through the evening, so it was just me and Husband exploring the city. We started walking through the vibrant area near the hotel, but it was dead, even though the sun had set. It was almost fully dark, and as we walked, the stores and restaurants started to open up. We ended up being the first diners at a place in a little square. When we walked back toward the hotel everything was open again and there was a protest or rally in the square. We couldn’t tell what was being said, of course, but the speaker was angry. There was, again, a lot of security, and we knew that it might not be overkill. We tried to avoid the plaza, but would have gotten lost doing it.

Charming Jerusalem is charming.

Charming Jerusalem is charming.

Sunday was a day too many. We went back to the Old City again and ran into a Bedouin named Neil (or something like that). He took us up to the “roof,” which did have amazing views, and then into his shop where he brought us tea and let us try on strange garb and tried to sell us things. All we bought was one pendant.

The Husband enjoying some bedouin hospitality.

The Husband enjoying some bedouin hospitality.

Then we tried to visit City of David, but everything went wrong. We bought tickets and then found out that it was a long underground tunnel, so Mom didn’t want to go. We also couldn’t go, because you can’t go barefoot through the deep water, and didn’t have water shoes. After a long struggle we got our money back and gave up and went back to the hotel for a nap and to pack.

After dark we went out and ended up eating at a lovely restaurant that specialized in seafood—it was the first we’d seen! Shrimps in many sauces, and a lovely meze of sauces and hummus and focaccia bread. Delicious.

In the square, the protest or rally or memorial was happening again.

At four in the morning, our cab arrived to take us to the airport, and the long journey home began. Did I have a great time in Israel? I can’t entirely say that I did. But I did learn a lot, and I will never regret travelling to a new place, even when it’s too hot and the religion makes me squirm and our guide is a moron. I wonder whatever happened to Tomer?

Israel in summer, part 6: Flavors of Israel

The next day we first stopped at Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The site was used by a sect that was really, really into bathing. We saw the actual scrolls the previous day, of course, in the museum. This was just more ruins. It was very hot out there, at least 100. I hate to say it, but it was basically too hot to care about ruins, especially when you hate your tour guide. He was bossy and uninformative and apparently very concerned about being sued if someone fell.

Ruins at Qumran.

Ruins at Qumran.

Next we stopped at a kibbutz that makes products from the Dead Sea minerals, called Ahava. I would have liked to see the factory in operation, but the place we stopped was just a gift shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

From there we went to Masada–a fortress made by Herod, way, way up on an unpromising hill. It was built there because it would be so easy to defend. But it didn’t work; in the end the people there were besieged and killed themselves rather than become enslaved. Whoops. Still, it is a very impressive site. Amazing that people were able to live there and even retain their obsession with bathing and saunas and such. It’s also funny because it’s way, way up on a hill and yet it’s only at approximately sea level. I am still not clear on what they ate up there besides pigeons and fruit. It was noonish when we visited, which seems like the worst possible time to be somewhere so bloody hot, but I’m not in charge.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

After lunch in the cafeteria, we went to the Dead Sea. This is really quite an experience, not one I’d call entirely pleasant, but an experience! First of all, the shore of the sea has receded very far from the “resort” where we parked and changed and such. There’s a “train”–some seats pulled by a tractor–that goes to and from the shore every 15 minutes. Also, Israel could take a few cues from Scandinavia on how to design public bath-type infrastructure. The “resort” had dirty bathrooms with wet, grimy floors. Third, I wish someone had told me before we left for this trip how sharp the “sand” at the shore is. It’s salt crystals. Duh, right? But it hadn’t occurred to me. I would have bought some shower shoes or sandals if I’d known.

But! It is really a strange place. Even the Husband, who always always sinks, floats there. It’s impossible not to float. It’s hard to stop floating; your legs just drift back to the surface whenever you stop standing on them. It really is saltier than salt. Sweat drips in your eyes, but don’t you dare try to wipe it away, because your hands are covered in something much worse than sweat. There were fresh-water showers on the shore, but the water in those was so hot–even hotter than the water of the sea, which was almost too hot to get into—that it was hardly worth it. Also, the water burns men’s junk. Not women’s, apparently, so that’s one more check for internal gonads (and having tougher skin in one’s nether regions). We laughed as a set of three guys waded in and successively discovered that fact. Hee hee. The Husband found a hat floating in the water and kept it, because he is strange.

Back in Jerusalem we said goodbye to our traveling companions and got ready for our dinner with Iris. This was one of the highlights of the trip, a meal with a real Israeli in her home, though getting there was an adventure. The cabdriver we flagged down couldn’t understand me or read English (I’d written the address, as recommended), but he zoomed off confidently. Then he pulled over and asked a stranger to read the address I’d written. Then he called someone to find out where the street was. I had to talk to the person for a minute. Eep! We did find it, though, and in fact it felt like we were going the right way the whole time.

Iris was immediately wonderful. Her “sister” Tami was there too, and over a very long and excellent dinner of many courses we discussed everything from American TV to politics. That day, or maybe the day before, someone had burnt a house in the West Bank and a little child was killed. They said that as Israelis they wouldn’t go to the Old City the next day, out of respect. But oh, did we talk about everything. Israelis (or at least these two) like us think their government is crazy, and want peace. They support the Palestinians but also, of course, are pro-Israel. They know much more about American television than we do.

Israel in summer, part 5: The “new” city of Jerusalem

We began our “new city” day at the Israel Museum, which had many more exhibits than we were able to see. One of the most striking is a big model of the Old City, but it also contains the Dead Sea Scrolls, strange sculptures, and antiquities like mosaics, Egyptian stuff, and Roman glass. I would have like to spend more time there.

Scale model of the old city.

Scale model of the old city.

Then it was on to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. Honestly, I think the one in D.C. is more affecting. There was a wealth of information here, though, and the children’s memorial, a very dark room with reflected points of light, where the names and ages of the dead children are read, was touching. There was a HUGE group of soldiers at the museum, which made it hard to get through. The museum has no shortcuts through the back and forth structure, so it was a maze.

We had lunch in the cafeteria there, which was divided into “meat” and “dairy.” We chose dairy. Apparently fish goes both ways. Oddly, few restaurants we’ve been to are kosher, but our dinner place was too, and it was on the “dairy” side.

Next we TRIED to visit the Knesset. Almost the first thing the guide said this morning (but not so early we could have done anything about it—Avshalom is a terrible guide) was that we needed passports for the Knesset. So back I went to the hotel while we waited for Israel Museum exhibits to open. What he didn’t tell us–and apparently didn’t know–is that there’s also a dress code for the Knesset: no shorts, t-shirts, sandals, etc. Most of the group didn’t pass, but weirdly I did (in my orange dress). We learned about Israeli democracy, and the key word is transparency. I wish we had some of that! While we’re at it, I wish we had a party system with coalition governments, but that’s a different story. We watched the rest of the group walk away, through the security fence, and had only to hope that they’d come back for us.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

They did. Or rather, Avshalom did, and then we went back to the Israel Museum for the others, and then WALKED BACK to the same exact place he’d picked us up to look at a stupid menorah statue. He is really an idiot. I dislike him intensely.

We drove through the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, gawking at the Hasidic Jews. Seems kind of rude. I wondered what would happen to us improperly dressed gawking tourists if our bus broke down, but thankfully we didn’t have to find out. We skipped a stop from our schedule, Ammunition Hill. Will ask Avshalom tomorrow.

Back at the hotel, a pride parade was setting up outside our window. It looked very small compared to home, and with a HUGE police presence. This was needed, though, because there was a stabbing. We saw… not it, but the response to it. The emergency vehicles that had been trailing the parade suddenly dove through it like parting the Red Sea. Husband looked it up to know what had happened and found early news reports about the stabbing. In a shocking coincidence, apparently the same stabber attacked the parade 10 years ago, when Husband’s cousin was marching in it. Small world. The stabber had apparently just been released from prison, having had a 12-year sentence commuted to 10. Great job, guys. He was clearly not rehabilitated.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Even before the sirens started up, I’d been thinking how brave the queers of Israel must be to march in their pride parade. I didn’t even know how true that was.


Israel in summer, part 4: A city divided

Our first stop in Jerusalem was at Rachel’s Tomb, which is down a long, unpromising street of high concrete walls built to protect the Jewish and Christian worshippers from attacks. I didn’t go inside. It looked like there was little to see and I was unclear on the garb required and made very uncomfortable by the whole thing. This felt like a genuine, still-in-use religious site, and my secular tourism felt unwelcome.

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

The first real stop of the day was Bethlehem, which is in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It is in the West Bank. We had to get out of the bus, walk through a border, and meet a different guide on the other side–Adel. He was like Tomer light, but I presume he was a Palestinian Christian, because those are the things his guiding focused on.

He took us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which supposedly covers the place where Jesus was born. It’s a large church, shared by various Christian sects, with predominantly Byzantine art. Talk about gaudy! There was a mass downstairs when we went, so we had to wait seemingly forever to go down to the spot where Jesus was born, and then it was so crowded that we could barely see anything. Supposedly the manger is down there too, but I didn’t see it. I was surprised a stable would have been around long enough for people to start venerating it, but Bethlehem was in Jesus’s lifetime a very small town, I guess. It is pretty much inside Jerusalem these days.

They never heard the phrase, "tone it down."

They never heard the phrase, “tone it down.”

Next we visited a gift shop, which I suspect was run by Adel’s family. This took a very long time.

We got lost both ways going through the border again. We had to show passports to get back to the “Israel” side, though the person looking really wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

The border.

The border.

Then Tomer handed us over to a new guide, Avshalom, who was a huge step down from Tomer. Where Tomer was confident, Avshalom was timid and uncertain. We started with a VERY overpriced lunch, then visited the Mount of Olives. There is a massive Jewish cemetery there; very hot and grim, with no vegetation to speak of. At the base of the hill we drove past the Garden of Gethsemanee, which seems quite far outside the city for a quick place to go pray. We only drove past the garden, unfortunately.

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to be dead.

Finally we arrived at the Old City. We entered through the Zion gate, which is riddled with bullet holes. As it turns out, much of the “Old City” is only 50 years old, having been destroyed in 1948 and rebuilt after a few wars. As always, it’s strange to see how the country lives with history–and isn’t too precious about it. We are allowed to touch almost everything. The drag is the religious part, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so sexist. You really can’t tell me that god is offended by my shoulders. He made them!

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

At the old city, the first stop was David’s Tomb. Upstairs from the tomb is the room where the Last Supper supposedly took place–except that there’s absolutely no evidence to support that “tradition,” as Avshalom called it, and plenty to support the fact that the building dates only to the Crusader era. Oh well.

After that we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus died. As the story goes, all the important places (location of crosses, tomb) were once outside the city, but since they are now holy places there’s a massive church and it’s all within the current walls of the “old” city. In that church are the last few stations of the cross, including the crucifixion spot and the empty tomb–the latter having been excavated around such that it’s hard to see it as the cave it must once have been. The church is large, maze-like, and again shared by several brands of Christian, some gaudier than others.

Jesus's three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Jesus’s three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Then we hit the other stations in reverse, zig-zagging through markets and rushing through them until we hit the first one, where Jesus was sentenced, if I’m not mistaken. Things were really blurring by then.

After that we hit the Wailing Wall. Again, we were separated into men and women. I always find it weird to be in the presence of people with real religion. I don’t like it. Especially to come and gawk at it like a tourist. But nonetheless I put a very inappropriate prayer in the wall. One that would take a real miracle.

Prayers in the wall.

Prayers in the wall.

At around this point in the afternoon we had an awkward amount of time left (which never would have happened with Tomer as our guide), and walked a lot needlessly, then had less than an hour free before dinner. Diner was good–Armenian, which is more of the same–and then we went to the “sound and light show” in the Tower of David. This was very, very cool. Gorgeous and impressive. The Tower itself is really a castle. It has a huge moat and crenellated top and all the works. During the show Husband and I saw two UFOs. I think they might have been birds on an updraft–or possibly flying pigs. 

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