Thursday, April 29, 2010
Yesterday was one of those ‘Only in Israel’ days. I love this crazy country.
Not that it started out all that auspiciously – quite the opposite. I was dreading it. I had to do bureaucracy, never my favorite activity.
Mr. Micawber aside, I’d reached the point where I could no longer procrastinate in getting my Metrodan ‘Smart Card’. Metrodan, the local bus system here in Beersheba, changed their ticketing system. Before you could just buy a punch-card ticket, and the driver would punch a number each time you rode.
Now they’ve switched to a ‘Smart Card’, a plastic credit-card like thing that includes your name and photo. You can “load” it, prepay, for a number of rides, each of which will be digitally deducted each time you ride. I’m not sure what the advantage is, quite frankly, except that the cost of a bus ride when up a little bit. Nothing worth complaining about. I can’t imagine why anyone cares, but now, if they want to, they can monitor who, specifically, is riding where, and how often.
In any event, the switch meant that everyone who rides buses with any regularity had to acquire one of the plastic cards, complete with photo. That sounds like pure chaos. There are 205,000 people in this city, and a goodly percentage of them would need these cards. Worse than that, there appeared to be only one location where the cards were being made – if there were other locations, I couldn’t find anyone who knew where.
So I showed up at the designated location – just outside the busy Egged bus station – and indeed, there was quite a line, eight or nine people, waiting in two lines. Most seemed to be young religious girls who were enjoying the whole thing, talking and giggling, checking each other’s hair and makeup for the anticipated photo. Only two clerks were working -- both very young girls themselves – sitting inside a tiny kiosk behind metal bars, the better to protect them (I guess) from assault or robbery.
Everyone was required to complete a hand-written form and sign it. Only then did you go to stand in line.
I filled out the form as best I could, and then stood waiting when another group arrived – senior citizens from some common home, maybe, or else they just decided to come together. Holding on to each other, some with canes, they chatted away in Russian. As I struggled to write in Hebrew, a few of them were having the same trouble, in Russian. I don’t know about them, but I expected trouble when I reached the clerks. I wasn’t at all sure they could understand what I’d written.
Oddly enough, the line moved pretty fast. The Smart Cards were still free at this point – next week they start to charge for the service – so no money changed hands. That made it simpler. Each customer would approach the clerk, squeeze the paper form through the bars, together with a teudat zehut – identification papers – and then wait. Within just a couple of minutes, the customer was instructed to stand behind a white line and a photo was snapped – through the bars. The cameras looked like regular ordinary Canons mounted on tripods. They must have been pretty carefully aimed to avoid the bars.
My turn came, I handed the paper and my ID papers in, and waited for the fallout. I was pretty sure the clerk would ask for clarification of something, but no. That didn’t happen. Instead, I was amazed at how anything at all could get done inside that kiosk. The two clerks were not only carrying on a non-stop conversation with each other, but now they’d been joined by a young man and all three were talking and laughing. Making the Smart Cards for the lines of people in front of them seemed incidental.
There being no apparent problem with what I'd written, I was told to stand behind the white line. Pop! The camera flashed and that was it. Within another minute, I was handed my new Smart Card, complete with a photo that made it clear that I’m a dead ringer for Goldie Hawn.
(Ma Kettle is more like it. I was just checking to see if you’re paying attention.)
In any event, I had the card. My name was correct. The photo will do. I was done.
Total elapsed time? Maybe ten minutes.
How did they do that? Smooth what could easily have been utter chaos into a pretty darn simple system? Without a single break in their own conversation? I have no idea. Not that I’m complaining.
Having finished that, I decided to walk over to the nearby shuk and pick up a few things I’d missed at the grocery store – nothing exotic: cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs and onions.
This was late Thursday morning, probably the day and hour when the shuk is at its most insane. Vendors shout, people push through the aisles, standing several deep in front of every vendor, vying to have their purchases weighed and paid for first.
I had way too much to do yesterday anyway, so instead of seeking out one of the vendors I normally buy from, I went to the closest guy who offered nice-looking produce. I picked out what I wanted, finally got my turn to pay. I took my purchases, dropped them into my ogala, cart, and walked away. Like an ocean wave, other shoppers flowed into the place I’d vacated.
I was half way down the aisle, pushing through the crowds, trying to get past people loaded down with bags, shopping carts, children and overloaded totes, when I heard a commotion behind me, someone shouting “Geveret!” Since that simply means, “Lady!” every woman within earshot turned around. I looked back and there was the guy I’d just bought my tomatoes and cucumbers from. He was holding out his hand – with 20 agorot. “Here”, he said, “I didn’t give you the right change.”
Can you imagine? In this incredible chaos, the produce guy abandoned his stall and ran after me to give me the right change. I hadn’t noticed -- never would have noticed. It amounted to something less than four cents.
I took it, thanked him. He smiled, said ‘LaBriut!’ – to your health – and ran back to his stall.
The rest of the afternoon was less pleasant. I was struggling to translate a very long brochure that I needed for an article I’m writing. As I sat with my dictionary and a pen, trying to make sense of vowel-less printed Hebrew, I realized I’d never finish in time – it was taking me much too long. Nor was I sure I was getting any of it right, which mattered. Oh yes it did.
By 6 pm, I gave up. My brain had shut down. So I emailed a perfectly bi-lingual friend – who would be embarrassed to be named, so I won’t – who also had a copy of the brochure. I asked if I could call her, and she could read me the parts I needed most in English.
“Sure”, she said. “I’m here. Call anytime.”
I did – and even though this was at the end of a very long and exhausting day for her, too, she spent an hour with me, going over the brochure, not just translating, but adding tidbits of information here and there that helped me understand the significance of the whole thing.
Eventually, we hung up. Thanks to her, I had everything I needed for the article.
I had my Smart Card.
I not only had the best cucumbers the world has ever known, I had also been given the correct change.
Geez, I love this crazy country.