Driving in Israel – Part One

Coming to Israel has been the trip of a lifetime. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much biblical and historical importance all around you. Every experience is new and weighty with importance. Culture shock is too small a term. Not all of my observations, however, are deeply philosophical.

Two stereotypical notations from my first week in Israel:

  1. If you are a man in Israel, you are required to smoke.
  2. All drivers must honk their horns as soon as the traffic signal changes.

This is a deceptively simple game. Drivers in front are in competition with all those behind them. The aim is to be in motion immediately after the signal turns green. Time is not allowed for the transfer of the foot from brake to gas. All drivers from the second position back are poised for honking. The first one to do so is the winner, though there may be consolation prizes for a close second.

Occasionally several drivers combine the tones of their horns into some sort of native melody of varying tone and frequency. There is the short, high-pitched DINK of tiny sedans, series of staccato beeps from the truly impatient, and elephant-like blasts from city and tour buses, all of which combine into a symphony of sorts.  I believe there may be some sort of code embedded in the honks, like

  • “I’m about to pull in front of you”
  • “Hey! Who do you think you are for pulling in front of me??”
  • “Pedestrian, you better move!”
  • “And just WHY do you think it is OK to stop here? Unload your passengers elsewhere.”
  • “I have places to be and you are driving far too slow”

There may be others that, as a foreigner, I am not yet privy to.

My most extreme honking encounter came when we returned the rental car. The rabbit warren that passed as the lot was full of cars with only a narrow passageway for entering. Think of any Bass Pro parking lot on Black Friday, minus clearly painted spaces. Now stick some additional cars in every available nook and cranny.

There was only one path leading in and out. This T’ed left and right to more lines of bumper-to-bumper cars. I pulled up to the branch of the T. Another driver hemmed me in from behind, just as drivers also emerged from the left and the right. I was literally boxed in. All three of these drivers began honking in turn and there was quite a bit of yelling. To try and appease one raised the ire of the another. No matter what I did, someone was yelling and honking. Finally, I pulled forward, and that was decidedly the wrong thing to do, because when I moved, each of the others did as well, leaving me even less room to maneuver. I backed slowly (NOT my best direction) and almost scraped the full length of a parked car before I got straightened up enough not to cause damage. Seeing the tiniest bit of daylight, I was able to stick my car on a patch of dirt so that the other three drivers could then go wherever they wanted.

As my passengers and I emerged from the car, suddenly three other men standing nearby began yelling at me. Now, I’ve never been cussed out in Hebrew before, but I have all ideas that this is precisely what was happening. Somehow their tone and gestures did not imply a celebration of my superior driving skills. Sasha said to leave the car where it was and we went inside to finish up the lengthy return process. After a heated discussion with the man behind the counter, Sasha then burst into his hearty laugh, and the incident ended as quickly as began. People finally quit yelling at me and everyone was friends again.

Fortunately, I’ve had just enough exposure to these cultural interactions to be amused rather than rattled. In this particular instance, I’m rather glad NOT to know what anyone was saying. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Photo credit: MyParkingSpace.com

“Assume The Crash Position”

Where I come from, there are couple of running jokes. One is that there are more cows than people living on my road. The other is that when people come to visit, they have to check their passports at the border of civilization. While these are indeed exaggerations, they are not too far from the truth. It was a big deal a few years back when our road got paved with real asphalt and rocks. This was a step up from the layers of ash from the local paper mill that some bureaucrat thought would be a fantastic idea. (Just for the record, it was not.) Autumn mornings you are quite likely to see men in camouflage converge in wooded areas and grassy fields, hoping for a white-tail buck to fill the freezer and perhaps a set of horns to adorn the living room. (This is a part of Southern culture. Don’t judge.) Because we live in a rural community, most people work in the big city about an hour away, and the twice-daily bumper-to-bumper commute can be quite gruesome. Out here in the county, however, it’s only about a ten-minute drive to the nearest small town, which is a lovely old faded beauty currently being revitalized through some sort of Revitalize Cute Old Towns Grant. A traffic jam out here is most likely to happen when you get stuck behind a tractor driving down the road at 11 MPH, chugging from one hay field to the next, or perhaps a school bus-turned-convertible hauling large quantities of said hay. There are also what we refer to as “crop inspectors”, old men in old trucks who have nowhere to go and all day to get there.

Now I had heard of the autobahn before. It is spoken of in hushed tones of great awe by prepubescent students bouncing along on a school bus most likely older than they are. Years after being enlightened about this wonder, even my wildest fantasies of zipping along at such speeds were no match for my initial encounter with real, live European drivers.

My first year flying into Poland, I remember being incredibly impressed with the Chopin Airport in Warsaw. It was bright and welcoming. Though the pace was fast, the building is organized and well-marked, so locating our bags was a breeze. We met our guides who took us on a tour of the city for a few hours while we waited for the other half of our delegation from the US to arrive. After introductions all around, we piled into a 15-passenger van/minibus hybrid and away we went. And, man, did we ever GO!

As we shot into traffic, the first two minutes were better than a ride at Six Flags. The allure wore off quickly, however. Leaving Warsaw was simply an experience I was in no way prepared for. There were no discernable speed limit signs in the city, or perhaps they were uniformly ignored. People changed lanes at will, and a gap of about four inches was enough for them to squeeze their vehicle into – regardless of size. My Polish consists of about five phrases, but even my inexperienced ear could easily determine that our driver had an extensive vocabulary of Slavic profanity, which he exercised liberally, accompanied by a couple of hand gestures that are recognized on six continents.

We flew – or should I say, careened – down the highway, and our group of European first-timers foolishly thought that we would be able to enjoy the sights of both the city and the countryside on a leisurely three-hour drive. Rookie mistake. We moved as such a break-neck speed that what might have been interesting highlights were little more than a blur.

The inside of the minibus was lacking in certain accruements that I have become accustomed to. Since Polish summers are incredibly mild by South Georgia standards, there was no AC. (Did you even know that they still make cars without air conditioning??!!) This happened to have been a rather warm day and the only two opening windows in the vehicle were for the driver and shotgun passenger. As the vehicle barreled along in a herky-jerky motion, we all tried to time our sway so that no one fell from his seat. My seatmate, who later became a dear friend, was at the time a stranger to me. After about the third or fourth time I bounced off her left shoulder, I quit apologizing. Add to this, all of us had been awake for approximately 30 hours. Between the exhaustion, the heat and the bouncing around, I was fighting car sickness. I closed my eyes, hoping against hope that I could fall asleep and the ride would mercifully seem to end sooner. Nothing doing. I curled up every way imaginable in my portion of the seat and even considered lying in the floor. As soon as I would drift off, there would be another snatch of the steering wheel, and my head would snap awkwardly. By the time we arrived at our final destination, I was, as my grandmother used to say, “plumb tuckered out.” Kissing the ground would have been a tad melodramatic. But I did consider it.

My other experiences with European drivers have all been interesting, but not nearly so traumatic. It seems that red lights and stop signs are merely helpful suggestions and that use brakes is entirely optional. Whether the drivers were simply in a hurry, or were trying to shock their inexperienced passengers, they certainly did wonders for my prayer life! That being said, in my three summers of visiting Poland, I don’t recall ever having seen an automobile accident. Perhaps those European really are onto something after all.