At last, I found a café in the center of Tel Aviv without air conditioning, without English menus and without an English speaking waitress. Now in my silence, I can think. I can hear. I can see. I can absorb and I can feel.
I taught my waitress the word straw in English. We laugh. She yearns for more interaction as do I. This is a different side of Tel Aviv, the side of town where tourists and trendsetters don’t hang out. I’d love to spend many more afternoons watching people pass by this little café, over an iced coffee, the kind with thick frothy milk on top.
For about a week, I’ve been traveling with nine other bloggers throughout northern and central Israel in an air conditioned van to visit companies and organizations in air conditioned rooms. In my travels abroad, I rarely have to deal with cold fabricated air like I do at home and its almost always a pleasure. People here seem to love refrigerated rooms and buses as much as the yanks do.
What I realized today was how little I’ve traveled in a group setting inside or outside the U.S. in the past ten years or so. There’s an occasional side trip with a group of friends or people I know inside a community but these are often short and center around food, drink and bonding.
The bonding on this trip has been wonderful, between learning about each others worlds in more intimate detail through conversation and observation and twittering silly and ridiculous updates to each other, none of which could possibly be understood by anyone else who follow our feeds, and yet we all decide we don’t care. We don’t care because we’re 10,000 miles away from home and can’t stop laughing.
When I travel outside the states, I never travel in groups. I tend to go ‘walk about’ by myself for hours and sometimes days. I rarely understand a country unless I do. ‘Walk about’ time allows me to hear a city or town’s soul.
It allows me to listen to its silence and to its noise: its music, accents, car horns, police or ambulance sirens, TV shows, radio chatter in almost always more than one language, passing buses and cars, taxi hoots, a shopkeeper yelling at a vendor, and the way waves crash up against its shore compared to the way waves crash up against a shore I already know.
Americans are not very good at silence, nor are they very good at being alone or making time to be alone. We’re always in a rush to go somewhere else other than where we are. We rush through a meal and applaud restaurants that can get us “in-and-out” rather than ones that encourage a four hour experience.
We’re also often in a rush to try something new and different, which makes us great at innovation, business, science, medicine and biotech. And, we often rush through a conversation rather than being in the moment, sitting still and quietly listening.
We have rushed around so much and for so long, its no wonder that yoga and meditation centers are exploding around the country and Carl Honore’s book In Praise of Slowness was such a hit. We’re starting to learn that there’s value in slowing down and spending time alone, with ourselves.
Despite our hunger for independence and freedom of expression, Americans tend to tour in groups more than they tour solo, rally around sporting events in groups and spend more time in chains, whether they be food or retail chains, than they do in smaller less mainstream alternatives.
Starbucks is almost always the first suggestion when I meet someone for business even in New York and San Francisco where we still have a wide selection of eclectic coffee bars.
I’m not suggesting that all Americans are shallow or don’t take time to reflect or appreciate a unique perspective or experience, but what I am suggesting is that as a culture, we’re more about movement and speed than we are about solitude and serenity.
Israel is birthing some of the same cultural energy for many of the same reasons America did one hundred years ago. People often forget how new Israel is because of the way Israeli business executives and government present themselves to the outside world.
There’s a tremendous amount of support for Israel commerce in Silicon Valley and because of this dynamic, we engage with Israelis on a more regular basis than the rest of America (NYC may be an exception). They live among us, VCs set up shop on Sandhill Road, Israeli engineers move their families across the world to be close to the action, and they hunger for success and the American dream in a way that Europeans don’t.
JVP’s Erel Margalit hit the nail on the head when he said, “Israelis don’t think about what they can lose but about what they can gain. Unlike Europe, they don’t have a plate on their door in a town where their family and history was rooted for 1,000 years. Israel is new and full of immigrants from all over the world.”
Because of this, the country is breeding risk takers who are moving at tremendous speeds and with a lot of energy. In a country that is constantly at war, entrepreneurs don’t fear failure because fear of survival is much greater than a failed start-up. As immigrants pour in, they are learning to live with diversity in the same way we did as a nation 60 years after our birth.
Like America, Israel is a culture driven by movement and growth rather than tradition, status quo and silence. They voice their concerns and opinions loudly in the same way the yanks do. People often view them as abrupt, even moreso than Americans because they don’t have the same infusion of puritan cultures that came over on the Mayflower.
These cultures taught us to be reserved, dress conservatively and not ‘rock the boat.’ Now, we’re a culture that says: ‘ask for forgiveness later,’ ‘do your own thing,’ ‘be your own person,’ ‘speak your mind,’ and yes, ‘take over the world.’
We’re a competitive nation. So is Israel. They want to win, whether its in war or in the boardroom. Rosenthal in her recent book The Israelis, put it beautifully: “to Israelis, the word ‘no’ is a dare. For example, when I tell an Israeli entrepreneur “the deal is dead,” he answers, “how dead? Is it still breathing?” There is no such thing is a dead deal. Israelis always try to find another way. You close the door on them and they jump in through the window.”
And as I sit here inside this quiet Tel Aviv cafe and reflect in my silence, I look around at the diversity and energy around me. What does it mean to be Israeli? Like a street scene in Manhattan, I see and hear faces and voices from Russia, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, England, Austria, Czechoslovakia, America, Poland, and Chile. And it doesn’t stop there.
I see Arabs that look like Jews and Jews that look like Arabs. I see a country yearning for peace but afraid that the other side doesn’t, so they hang on tightly to their freedom, to their space, to a land they now all call their own even if not everyone in the world agrees.
We all need to call ourselves ‘something,’ or at least we think we do. And although the world is getting smaller and cultures continue to blend and cross pollinate, we all hang onto a clan we can call our own. It is within the walls of this ‘clan’ that we ‘think’ we’ll have peace and where we’ think’ we’ll find acceptance. At the end of the day, it boils down to three things. Everyone wants to be respected, understood and loved.
While a clan may provide some of this, its only part of the answer. As these lines continue to blur, we’ll all learn that we can find a clan anywhere we go if we choose to wear peace and love on our sleeves rather than fear and hate. Only then will we become citizens of the world, where our clan is each other.
Next time you go abroad, be sure to listen to the silence.
Photo credit: timesofisrael.com. This blog post was originally written in 2008 during my trip to Israel and is being republished here.