I felt ambivalent about time off back ‘home’ in my apartment in Tel Aviv. I would go back there on my own, I was always painfully aware of the fact that there was no one waiting for me there, counting the days until I was next home on leave. After crashing on my bed I would spend a couple of hours at the the laundromat doing my washing, followed by some sitting on my bed in my room wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself during my time off. Of course all of the guys were on the end of the phone but I had just spent every waking moment with them and needed some space…but they were my only friends and if I needed time away from them it meant time on my own. This weekend was no different
As per usual I ended up in the beach side pub, Mikes Place, drinking as a substitute to talking to anyone. The army still hadn’t gotten me past a fundamental inability to communicate with the person sitting on the stool next to me, particularly if that person was a female. This weekend was no different, I sat there drinking my way into the oblivion only large amounts of alcohol can provide. The evening invariably moved from being a blank canvas of time to one slowly filled with each sip of beer or shot of whiskey that passed between my lips. I don’t remember most of the evening but I can remember the end vividly. The barman was getting annoyed with me because every time I picked up my glass I spilled some beer onto the counter and he had to wipe it up. I looked around and saw that somehow what had been a bar filled with revelers had become empty and that the shutters were halfway down. The evening was over and most people were already home in bed. I looked back at the barman who said to me “the others said I should throw you out, but I said as long as your money is good you can stay.” he shrugged and walked to the other side of the bar. I had, what many drunks refer to as ‘a moment of clarity’ it was time to leave.
I didn’t get far. I woke up a few hours later about 10 meters away from the pub, the sand of the beach had been my bed. The sun was beating down on me as I patted my pockets to make sure I hadn’t been robbed while I slept. I hadn’t. I crawled under some shade where I promptly passed out again. When I awoke I made my way home, to shower away the sand before getting into a real bed and nursing my hangover. At some point I got a call from Dave, he had moved to Israel from London at the same time as me, we had met on the Ulpan in Jerusalem just after I had moved to Israel. We had abandoned Jerusalem at about the same time for Tel Aviv and he now worked as a barman in Mikes Place. I didn’t like him. But when he told me to come over for lunch I couldn’t think of a reason not to, so back I went.
Walking in there I felt like I was revisiting the scene of a crime but managed to get over it enough to nod hello to Dave as I sat across from him and ordered a Coke. He grinned in a way which loudly exclaimed “I know why you’re not ordering a beer” he then said “sure you don’t want a beer.” I smiled and shook my head, “no thanks mate just the Coke”. The only other customers were sitting at one of the tables enjoying some time in the shade, with no one else there and nothing for him to do we bantered a little bit, there was a waitress there too and she joined in the conversation. She was French, she was tall and had very closely cropped hair. Mikes Place always seemed to attract people like us. Foreigners looking for something familiar, people speaking English, sport from our home countries, or maybe just companionship with people who knew what it was like when we would talk about where we were from.
The walls were plastered with Americana, old adverts for Coke, a jukebox, pool table and loads of televisions showing the most popular British and American sports games and when there wasn’t a game it would be the extreme sports channel. At night you would always hear a cacophony of different accents in there all trying to speak English over the noise of whatever rock music was being played LOUD. During the day it was different story though, the tourists who filled the bar in the evening were too busy sunning themselves on the beach to worry about getting a cheeseburger during the day.
So the three of us sat there, I ordered a burger and listened to Dave tell me the story about his latest conquest, the ease with which a barman could get women and how much all the bosses loved him. The waitress smiled politely, I ate slowly, the music played loudly and the sun beat down outside. We carried on talking shit until one of the bosses walked in, he nodded hello to us before going into the office, Dave promptly found stuff to clean and the waitress did a round of the other customers sitting there to make sure they were okay.
I had brought a map with me that had been distributed to us before we left for the weekend so that we would be up to speed for the next week of navigation. When the boss came out of the office and saw me studying it he sat with me. Everyone there already whispered about his military service, about how he dropped just enough hints to let you know he was in some ultra cool combat unit but then never actually spoke about it. He went over with me how to recognise the direction that water flows in simply by looking at the map, he showed me how the various small rivers all form little arrows into the bigger rivers that they run into. These arrows on the map point out the direction that the water flows in. Then he went off some place when I started asking him where he served in the army.
At the bar Dave offered me a brownie for free out of a dish that was sitting near him, he and the waitress watched as I took a bite and swallowed it down, “Dominique made them” he said with a nod towards the tall waitress watching me eat, waiting to hear what I thought of her latest, home made delicacy. I gotta admit, it didn’t taste great but I like to think that I pulled off a decent performance for this shaven haired French girl. At some point I left them and went back to my apartment wondering what to do with myself for the rest of the day.
I spent most of it sat at home watching CNN as the Americans and their allies plowed on into Iraq. I saw the pictures of US Marines in their Humvees, firing machine guns and I wondered how long it would be before I was qualified to go out on combat ops, even though I already knew the answer, there were 4 months left of training before I would be a fully qualified member of the Orev trusted to go out on operations. More navigation some hand to hand combat, technical courses and the final tests called the mesakmim (test weeks) were all waiting.
I tried not to think about the fact that once again I didn’t want to go back in. It reminded me of the kid I saw walk out of the gibush during a period when we were allowed to rest. There was nothing tough going on, there was no reason for him to choose to quit at that particular moment and every reason for him to stay, we were nearer the end with each moment that passed and yet he chose to walk away then. I now understood him. During training there wasn’t much time to think about quitting or about whether I was happy or whether the army was meeting my expectations, but when I was home, left to my own devices, that was when the thoughts of quitting came into my head. The non stop control that someone had over every aspect of my life, from what to eat to when to sleep to when to wake up is exposed in all its horror when those limitations were suddenly removed. I thought of England, of my friends, I felt utterly alone in this distant land, even despite the fact that I was surrounded by people for the vast majority of the time.
The next day I was going to jump on a bus up North to meet the rest of my team for another week of navigation training and the rest of the time lay before me, too little to really enjoy but too much to simply remain at home and do nothing. I remember calling a friend in London and staying on the phone to him while I walked to a cafe and sat there and ate an entire meal. Loneliness had set in. The relief of being able to talk to someone in English, without having to aimlessly grapple for words that were outside my vocabulary was something incredibly important. I didn’t care what we spoke about I just wanted to hear a voice from home.
The next day came and I was on a bus to the North, uniforms cleaned and rifle in hand.