Haifa, soup, and oh yeah, Christmas too

When my friends and I arrived in Tel Aviv on Christmas (Thursday) evening for Guy’s Secret Santa Christmas party, we passed by the occasional decorated window, a few pedestrians with hats on…but that was about it. All holidays in Israel feel less commercialized to me, even the “big” ones that shut down most schools and businesses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been a refreshing experience to enjoy the lack of advertisements and pressures of holiday shopping.

Needless to say, we still decked Guy’s halls with plenty of hokey Christmas joy.

Guy and Paul beginning to admire the job well-done

Guy and Paul beginning to admire the job well-done

The party was great fun – as always, I met great new people, saw some old friends…

A Christmas Selfie! With Paul, Me, Steph, and our new friend Amira (a British girl, living in Denmark, who visited Israel on Christmas)

A Christmas Selfie! With Paul, Me, Steph, and our new friend Amira (a British girl, living in Denmark, who visited Israel on Christmas)

…and I even ended up with an incredible Communist Russia hat from the Secret Santa gift exchange.

Showing off my new every-day hat

Showing off my new every-day hat

On Friday morning, I struggled through a well-deserved hangover to make an early morning bus to visit Haifa, but the journey was worth it. I met up late-morning with my host, Yonatan, who showed me to his apartment in central Haifa (on the high-side of the mountain). Shortly after, he had to go to work, leaving me for some independent travel time. I was so eager to start exploring, but my body wasn’t %100 adventure-ready, so I hung around the apartment a bit to regain my strength.

(minor digression:)

"Marak Batzal," onion soup

“Marak Batzal,” onion soup

This powder soup stuff? It was my saving grace when I came down with a cold. And it’s so easy to travel with. And it tastes amazing, and I eat it all the time… We need this, America.

While souping, Yonatan’s roommate Nitsan came home. I tried not to scare her by making myself visible, but I totally did anyway. It was fine, she told me, she knew I was coming, just not when. My scare must have charmed her, because after she joined me in the kitchen, and as I talked about my lack of plans, she kindly offered to take me around the city a bit.

My lovely tour guide, showing me the German Colony

My lovely tour guide, showing me the German Colony

Together we toured the mountainside by bus, by foot, and even underground cable railway, which I had no idea existed in Haifa. The “Carmelit” looked kind of old and strange, but it had some really cool art on the walls of the stations, and made for a quirky and delightful ride back up Mount Carmel at the end of our afternoon travels.

Looking up the spooooooky tunnel

Looking up the spooooooky tunnel

The cable car itself was constructed on an angle, with different levels. Neat!

The cable car itself was constructed on an angle, with different levels. Neat!

After arriving back at the apartment, a solid nap, and some sketching, Yonatan got back from work and we started preparing dinner together. I brought the makings for my spicy lentils, and he whipped up a mean veggie soup. While cutting the taters, we discovered one was rotten, but also rather beautiful and tree-like. Art, art, everywhere!

Don't worry, we didn't eat it. We had plenty more tates.

Don’t worry, we didn’t eat it. We had plenty more tates.

Stuffed from dinner, Yonatan offered that we take a short walk to see an incredible nightscape. The view from the heights of Haifa is spectacular, especially with the port, the Bahai gardens, and the German Colony. Spending most of my time in the flat landscape of the south, the depth of field appeared surreal.

Haifa at night, looking over the port

Haifa at night, looking over the port

The Shrine of the Bab (golden dome) in the Bahai Gardens, with the holiday lights lining the German Colony right behind

The Shrine of the Bab (golden dome) in the Bahai Gardens, with the holiday lights lining the German Colony right behind

As we walked, Yonatan also pointed out some fun graffiti art as well. How amazing it is to have welcoming hosts, who can show you the non-tourist sides of their home. I’d like to do more research about the sub-cultural art forms in Israel, so I was really glad to gather some super serious documentation for my studies.

Art is serious

Art is serious

The next day, I wasn’t able to squeeze in to the small English tour of the Bahai Gardens, but managed to get in on the next Hebrew one. I didn’t exactly catch too much of the history, but I had plenty of time to gaze over the pristine grounds and the many viewpoints of the city.

Looking down the Bahai, creeping on other tour groups

Looking down the Bahai, creeping on other tour groups

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the “Holiday of Holidays” celebration that was happening at the base of the mountain. I didn’t realize what a large Christian population there was in Haifa, but here I found a plethora of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim symbols representing the three very strongly present communities.

'Unesco Square for Tolerance and Peace" - pretty extraordinary

‘Unesco Square for Tolerance and Peace” – pretty extraordinary

Heading back up the mountain, I decided to go off the beaten-path and main roads, though still climbing many, many stairwells through residential areas. Almost immediately, I ran into one of the teachers from my school in Ashdod. This is Israel, always proving smaller than you would think.

Soon after, while overcoming one of the many stairs of Haifa, I found myself with a walking friend and mini-tour guide. I still feel awkward when strangers here start conversations with me. My instinct is to guard myself from becoming too comfortable and trusting, to prevent from getting taking advantage of. Yet I don’t want to offend or seem cold either, and I value the spontaneous connections one can make by opening up. The social balance is hard to achieve, especially when there is a language barrier.

But in this encounter, “Gili” proved kind and hospitable, and showed me some great viewing points on our walk up. He showed me the house where he grew up, and brought me through a beautiful sculpture garden that I never would have found on my own.

Gili leads me into a "hidden" sculpture garden, where locals can relax, picnic, and enjoy the view

Gili leads me into a “hidden” sculpture garden, where locals can relax, picnic, and enjoy the view

Almost back at the apartment, I stopped by the neat little French restaurant where Yonatan works. He brought me a gourmet onion soup that entirely trumps my powder stuff (though I will shamelessly continue to thrive on it regularly). It was the perfect sunset meal to enjoy in the slightly brisk Haifa weather, while regaining some strength from my long trek.

Who wouldn't want to demolish this after 12 miles of walking?

Who wouldn’t want to demolish this after 12 miles of walking?

Haifa is absolutely gorgeous, and I loved getting to see it all times of the day. I loved its architecture, the incredible views, and the secret little gems of art and nature hidden all along the mountainside. It felt good to travel in a new city, and with an independent agenda, though my hosts (Yonatan, Nitsan, and Gili) were so helpful with helping me discover what to do, where to go, how to get there, and to give me unique perspectives and journeys through the city.

"Dine with a view" ... yeah, no kidding

“Dine with a viewpoint” … yeah, no kidding

The next time I’m in Haifa, I’d love to explore the more natural landscapes, with at least one nature hike. I’m not sure where or when my next “new-city” weekend trip will be, but I feel excited and comfortable to go anywhere that shares in the same Israeli hospitality I had in Haifa.

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