/August 22, 2011
Made in Israel
Travelling with me to Israel was Veda, my 24 year old daughter. Charming, lots of fun and inspite of our generation gap someone who would occasionally allow me to be on ‘her’ side of the age barrier. We were exemplary tourists on the first few days of our trip. We lapped up the history, got up at dawn , diligently listened to our guide as he took us from one ancient site to the next . We went to Jerusalem and visited several Churches, the Wailing Wall and the museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We went to Bethlehem to the birthplace of Jesus Christ and visited the church built built to commemorate his birth and genuflected at the site of the ‘manger’. We visited the Sea of Galilee near the town of Nazareth which was famous for the first sermon where Jesus distributed bread and wine to all his followers. We went to the Church of the Beatitudes and read the words “ He who is meek shall inherit the kingdom of God” and made the sign of the cross – our early education in Roman Catholic missionary school had trained us well. It was our first trip to Israel and we had gone with open and enthusiastic minds.
Veda discovered what a Sabbath ‘elevator’ was in a slightly embarrassing manner as we had never experienced a Sabbath ( Friday ) which was a day of total rest and reflection. She followed me into the elevator , one hand clutching her many recently acquired souvenirs and the other her life line – her cell phone. She persistently pressed the 7th floor button and yet the lift stopped on every floor. No one got in or out and she looked confused until someone politely told her that this was a Sabbath lift and would stop on each floor, irrespective of being empty or full . Guests could get in and exit on their floors without pressing any buttons, and ….“would she please shut her phone ? “ Neither of us were familiar that during Sabbath no work was done and no gadgets or machines were used. Even pressing the lift buttons was unacceptable especially in Jerusalem which had a huge population of ultra orthodox Jews. The hotel that we were staying in had several lifts and the particular one that we were in was dedicated as the ‘Sabbath lift.’
After visiting the remnants of the port of Caesarea built by King Herod we finally landed up in the beautiful city of Tel Aviv . We had heard much of the night life, the sea and shopping and were looking forward to enjoy the cosmopolitan side of Israel . Shopping in Tel Aviv was exciting with its vast variety of shops! You had the option of going to the ultra modern ‘Up market’ Malls with international designer labels, or choose to go the traditional areas and visit dusty curio shops for tourists in the old town of Jaffa with quaint handcrafted items . Interesting items we picked up were beautiful metallic Menorahs – traditional candle stand lit on ceremonious occasions and artistically crafted Mesusas ( sacred door handles) . The young shopkeeper was quite smitten by my daughters dark curly locks and eyelashes and jokingly offered to marry her. I bundled her out of the shop super fast!
You could stroll through the bazaars, the open markets and feast your senses on the bright colours and the crisp smell of fresh vegetables, fruits , sweets and meats. There were also many open shops that sold other necessary items from clothes to suitcases, hangars to perfumes. It was like being back in a Indian market haggling with the shop keeper. Somehow whenever I was with Veda , we would always gravitate to shops that specialised in cosmetics, shoes, junk jewellery and clothes . She enjoyed shopping and bought a lot of stuff, sandals and clothes and caps and a whole lot of makeup. One of the more interesting items she picked up was a novel mascara bottle. The moment you took the mascara brush out of its bottle the brush would start to vibrate vigorously till it was put back into the container, becoming still only once the brush was twisted tightly into place. The sales man reassured us that this vibrating action enhanced the thickness of the eye lashes on application! Veda was amused with it and found the results quite satisfactory!
Our trip to Israel soon became a memory with its vibrant images immortalised on the ‘facebook’, and on our return home more mundane matters became important on a day to day level. Soon after our visit, on a sultry hot evening, the family was getting ready to go out on a family function. I walked into Veda’s room to ask her for some make up . Veda as usual was talking on her cell phone, combing her long locks with her other hand . She said to me hurriedly
“Mum here take this vibrator. I brought it in Israel . Try it ,you will like the effect” and handed me the mascara bottle that she had brought in Tel Aviv and resumed her conversation on the mobile. Having showed me its effect several times I quietly took it from her and returned to my room.
A few days later suddenly Veda rushed into my room., she was very agitated.
“The silly people in this city – they are all talking about me!” she complained.
I looked at her , “ Now what have you done”
“ Done .. done nothing , that silly ……” (she named her friend )
“He has gone and told all my friends that I share the same ‘vibrator’ with my Mom. “
I looked at her surprised not quite sure how I was to react to her remark. Then suddenly it dawned upon me – the vibrating mascara brush – I mean the mascara ‘contraption’ with the vibrating mechanism that is what the buzz in town was about ! I reminded her of the incident when she had handed it to me and had hurriedly called it a vibrator and we both had a good laugh. If only we had brought a few more mascara brushes with vibrating handles, made in Israel and shared them with our friends back home !
/August 21, 2011
Strangers in the night exchanging glances
One of the most beautiful sunsets I have witnessed recently was in the city of Tbilisi . The breeze wafted across us as we watched the sun set on a warm balmy evening whilst we were dining in a restaurant situated on a cliff . Below we could see the Mtkvari river as it passed us having meandered through the city. We were in the heart of Tbilissi – the capital of Georgia, a country famous for vineyards, folk dancing, banquets and sulfur baths. Infact the name Tbilisi is derived from the ancient Georgian word ‘Tbili’ meaning warm. Numerous sulphuric hot springs that dot the city give it its name!
Through the centuries Georgias famous hospitality and warmth has withstood attacks from numerous invaders – from the Mongols and Persians to the Ottoman Turks. The Georgians maintained their culture and identity even though their country was incorporated into both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Say the word “Russia” today and the Georgians do not smile, they have fought for their independence valiantly. We were told by our hosts that ‘after various attempts (some of them violent) Georgia got independence as recently as 1990’. Inspite of its violent history, Georgia as a nation has held on to its unique cultural traditions. Today Tbilisi its capital is a beautiful city bustling with restaurants, clubs, shops and galleries.
From our table we had a breathtaking view of several churches built in the Greek orthodox style and the mountains of Georgia. It was a little dark inside the restaurant but the stage at the end was brightly lit up and we soon witnessed several Georgian traditional folk dances. Beautifully dressed dancers in their traditional Georgian regional dress swayed to the accompaniment of live folk music , each dance lasting eight to ten minutes.
This was our first trip to Georgia and our group of 12 were seated on a long table which was almost groaning with the food laden on it . Large bowls of beautiful fresh fruit were surrounded by an assortment of atleast 10 different salads. If I remember correctly there must have been Assorted pickles (cherries, green tomatoes, pickles, peppers), Marinated mushrooms, Black Olives,Georgian salad, Greek Salad (with cheese and olives), Eggplant with walnut, Green Beans with walnut, Spinach with walnut, Cabbage rolls with walnut, a large variety of cheeses and delicious red caviar.
We were served Georgian wine and soon after whilst we were feasting on the several salads, the host of the evening got up to give a toast. He thanked us for being there that evening and hoped that we would enjoy their hospitality and we all raised our glasses ! My husband the leader of our group also offered an appropriate toast on our behalf. Having arrived that day, hungry and new to the Georgian banquet traditions we immediately wolfed down our salad with the local bread . We tasted everything, thinking that this was a remarkable meal where everything was laid upfront. This was our first day in the country and we soon realised that what we were witnessing was no normal meal. We had not known that we were to witness the Georgian ceremonial dinner known as the ‘supra’ – a highly ritualized event where rounds of standardized and improvised toasts alternated with the serving of warm dishes well into the early morning !
The first warm course was the traditional Khachapuri, which was like a pizza made out of dough, cheese and butter. This was accompanied by Red Beans in pots, similar to an Indian curry Rajma made out of kidney beans. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves), Chakhokhbili (chicken in tomato sauce) , Chanakhi (lamb with vegetables, eggplant, potato, tomato) and roast chicken. Our Indian palates relished the delicate sauces and sharp spices of the Georgian cuisine. We were also entertained by our local friends who willingly furnished us with snippets of information such as – “ The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was born in Georgia but he gave no support to Georgias attempts to win national independence from the USSR ” or “ George Bush visited Georgia and had a sulphur bath and the nearby restaurant he visited is now named after him !”
This was followed by another toast. By this time our host and toast master Mr Baker, knew all our names and had something nice to say about each of us . The lovely wine and grape brandy that we were toasting with and all delicious food in our stomachs put us in great spirits ! We all swore total allegiance to Georgia and promised to foster close ties with the country. Luckily we had amongst us a fellow guest who was familiar with the customs and rituals of the ‘supra’ feast. He told us tactfully that it was not necessary that we eat all the food presented in front of us. To the contrary it was considered a mark of dishonour if the table appeared empty after a guest had eaten , as that signified there was not enough food on the table! That was an important snippet of information – what a relief !
Another dance, more toasting this time on the popularity of Indian (Hindi) cinema and a special mention that all the pretty young Indian girls present in our group looked like Hindi cinestars and those not so young ( such as me ) vaguely resembled the Bollywood ( Bombay equivalent of Hollywood) heroines of yesteryear! It was interesting to observe that many of the senior Georgians loved Hindi cinema and the Indian culture. “We all love Raj Kapoor” they said. Raj Kapoor our beloved fair complexioned, blue eyed doyen of hindi cinema, who had made several movies featuring Russian heroines in the 70’s .
More wine, more food , this time mushrooms with sour cream and mozzarella, Fried Trout, Fried potatoes with mushroom, Chicken shish-kebab and Lamb shish-kebab.
Finally our host rose up to give his final toast. He said ‘This time, this toast was going to be a toast with a difference” , he was going to “sing” the toast to us. So the very charming and charismatic Mr Baker rose , walked up to the stage , took the mike and started singing Frank Sinatras
“Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, strangers in the night wondering what their chances ……doo be doo be doo….” . An old favourite with my husband, the song lured him on the stage as he joined our host Mr Baker. Their voices blended beautifully with each other. Everyone clapped and this was followed by much embracing and back slapping. To our relief no more food was served to us.
Finally our host sat down and informed us that as a special surprise for us the DJ for the evening was going to play an Indian song that we would all enjoy. We waited expectantly , confident that he would play a contemporary movie song . We waited in pin drop silence waiting whilst the DJ searched on his laptop. In the mean while another round of food – this time our dessert was served to us, ice cream and a special custard . Finally the DJ found the song he was searching for. The lights were dimmed, and we waited.
To our utter surprise we heard the sounds of our Indian national anthem being played! The DJ was not aware that the song he was playing was the Indian national anthem! “ Jana gana mana…..” He had only read the name of the artist “ A R Rehman” , the famous Indian music composer and artist who had recently shot to international fame when he won an Oscar for the music he composed in the film ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’. Once the beautiful stylised version of the Indian national anthem started all the Indians in the restaurant stood to attention. Gradually other diners followed suite and everyone stood up in respect. The DJ was totally bewildered , what he thought would be lively music to finish the party had actually turned out to be the Indian National anthem! It was a joyous occasion and another reason for more vodka – the final toast! This time our generous host Mr Baker thanked us for our patience , acceptance of their hospitality, and understanding !
It was a special and wonderful evening in Tbilisi, a cherished memory we brought back to India with us !