September 1st, 2018 I left my apartment in Tel Aviv, ended my lease, and packed a single backpack. This backpack would be my luggage for the entirety of my 2+ month backpacking trip throughout Europe and the U.S.
I had traveled a lot in Israel the past year and a half- and in extremely adventurous ways. More than ever before. I had amazing experiences like talking with Druze teens about what it’s like to be gay. Stunning new experiences like davvening in a Hasidic synagogue in Bnei Brak. Awe-inspiring experiences like dancing with Litvak Jews in a cave in Tsfat. Empowering experiences like dancing to Mizrachi music at a Tel Aviv gay party. Scary experiences like being chased by a violent Arab man in the village of Tira. Scarier experiences when I found myself lost on the wrong side of the West Bank border area as the sun was setting. Scariest experience when I heard air raid sirens on the first night in my new apartment.
So when I set off to Europe, I figured this would be a piece of cake. And in some ways, it is much easier than traveling in Israel. Nowhere I went in Europe has active violent conflict. There are no air raid sirens, nor suspicious packages, nor soldiers walking around- a constant reminder of the state of the region. You also can’t watch or hear the Syrian Civil War. You just meet Algerian men who are convinced that the whole thing was started by Israel and America. And you meet left-wing Belgians and Romanians convinced Israel is an apartheid state- but who have never been there. Europe- a great place to be ignorant but be really convinced you’re right. Maybe they’d make great Israelis 😉 Though they might not be so happy to hear that…
So what are the challenges of traveling in Europe? First off, Europe is not all the same. That’s like saying “what’s it like traveling in Asia?” I started my trip in Romania. Traveling in Romania is in some ways probably more similar to traveling in a relatively safe third world country. This is not a place where you can buy your train tickets in English. Maybe in Bucharest, but in hardcore Transylvania, you kind of mouth some words and they nod along and it works. But this is no Paris. It’s what makes it special, authentic, at times lonely, and challenging.
What’s cool about going to a place like Romania is not the wild dogs who chased me. (that’s a thing- one of the many natural threats I survived) But it is cool to see the unexpected. I always enjoy this. Cluj Napoca, for instance, is in the middle of Transylvania, a region with a rich Hungarian, Saxon (there are German settlers in Romania!), Romanian, Roma, and Jewish history. And today, unlike most of the largely decaying country, it is a high tech hub. Filled with young computer programmers. Many of whom are the avant-garde progressives of the country. There are even vegan restaurants. And some of these programmers are deeply religious Christians (like most Romanians). Who smile, say thank you, offer you rides, and then tell you you’re sinning for being gay. One of the hardest parts about traveling is the cues you’re used to for protecting yourself might not match up with the local culture. And so while I wouldn’t expect the average Silicon Valley computer programmer to be a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian homophobe, in Romania, that’s a real possibility.
Having escaped the wild dogs of Romania, I headed to Hungary, another of my ancestral homelands. Budapest is a strange place. Gorgeous architecture, amazing Jewish history, sweet views of the Danube. Gay clubs (I went to one with a Jordanian girl I met on CouchSurfing!). Something severely lacking in rural Romania. On the other hand, Hungary is really intense. Not the pace of life- Budapest is actually one of the quietest, most easy-going cities I’ve visited for its size. But the people. Boy! This is a place, quite unlike Israel, where following the rules is religion. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the incident where I was scolded for taking water from a water cooler- in an office where I was paying for genealogical research- might demonstrate the point. After I paused and asked permission to take the water, I was granted some drops with a scowl. I left Israel missing politeness, but Hungary showed me that when it’s imposed with fascist efficiency, it can be just as stifling. Thank God for the woman at a sandwich shop who helped me call a cab while I carried my heavy backpack. She was a bit nicer than the cashiers who repeatedly threw my change at me!
Slovenia. In Slovenia, in some ways I got the best of both worlds. Friendlier than Hungary and more modern than Romania, it was a step forward. And the mountains, wow. I have to say, I think I’ll be back here and I’ll head straight to the hills. Stunning. It takes your breath away. It was in Slovenia I realized how brown I am. You see, some Romanians and certainly some Hungarians can look kind of olive skinned at times. Or at least a bit less Aryan. Brown hair, brown eyes. Maybe a bit different from me, but not drastic.
Slovenians look (and consider themselves) some sort of Slavic Austrians. Having Austria on their northern border and being the wealthiest of the post-Yugoslav Republics, Slovenians definitely have a sense of difference. And if you take a look at them, you quickly realize how much you stand out as a Mediterranean-looking Jew. Their skin so fair, I was often considered to be a foreign worker. Frankly, it made me more empathetic to Arabs and other immigrants from post-Yugoslav republics that come here. Slovenians even have a slur for the latter. Because physically, you stand out right away. And while I enjoyed the amazing dairy vending machines and the cute cows and horses, I knew my stay would be temporary because I just didn’t fit in. In case there was any doubt, I saw a young man give a Hitler salute in broad daylight in the capital during my walking tour. I much prefer the wonderful young man selling cell phones- half British half Slovenian- who was excited to learn about the small Jewish museum. Who, when I told him about it, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down the address to visit. One of the hardest things about travel- especially as a minority- is protecting yourself. Staying away from the neo-Nazis (because yes, that’s still a thing), and trying to meet more of those wonderful young cell phone salesmen who tell you “grab your heritage and go forward with it!” Thanks Thomas 🙂
Belgium. Belgium is, unlike most of Eastern Europe, a place with living Jews. Other than the fact that small countries fascinate me and that I like speaking French, I came to Belgium to hang with real Jews. Not just the ones in abundant abandoned cemeteries all over Romania and Hungary. Often physically blocked off and locked to prevent desecration- vandalism that happens to this day. Despite the brave Jews and non-Jews who help us keep our heritage alive. Or at least preserved.
Belgium is where I discovered that I look Arab. Well, in Israel sometimes Arabs thought I was Arab, especially when I spoke the language. But in Belgium, let’s say Belgians know even less about the differences between Semites, so I was quite often assumed to be Algerian, Moroccan, Syrian- you name it. Even often by Arabs, who sometimes just as ignorant, couldn’t fathom a Jew who looked like them. Although one night, it got me delicious Halal food recommended by a Tunisian man concerned for my Islamic diet. The meal was followed by a free delicious dessert and a Kurdish man giving me PKK terrorist literature. I took some pictures then threw it out- an interesting memento, but not worth long conversations in airport security. I’ll have you know it was written in 6 languages- can’t say I approve of killing civilians, but I do like a nice multilingual brochure.
Belgium is also home to a lot of different languages. While in the news, you might hear about French vs. Flemish tensions (indeed, Belgium is a country almost constantly on the verge of dissolving, having set a record for the longest time without a government), there are lots of others as well. Before French arrived, southern Belgium had (and in some cases still has) a ton of Romance languages. Walloon, for instance. Even Brussels has its very own language- Bruxellois! I went to an adorable antique bookstore and bought a book about the history of the language from an older couple who still speak it! They even had Tintin translated into various Belgian languages- indeed “languages” because if you just know French you won’t even understand half of them! Travel guides portray Brussels as a veritable gangsters paradise, but I actually found the city rather quaint, with the absolute best, gooey waffles I’ve ever eaten. Step aside, IHOP.
In Belgium, I also learned the value of sitting put for a while. Traveling is exhausting. Even when you’re learning so much about yourself, it’s just overwhelming to be recovering from PTSD and abuse, thinking about big life decisions, making travel plans, and adjusting to local culture and language. Also, the random people who think you’re a millionaire because you’re traveling alone. Or a weirdo. I’m neither- my bank account is quite low, but I view travel as a strategic investment in me. And I’ve learned so much about myself in the process. Maybe these people will when they’re 60 and retire- but I’d rather not wait to experience the world. Also, traveling alone forces you to really think about what you want and gave me ample time to reflect without distraction. I’ve gone nearly two months barely using social media at all, and while occasionally I miss it, I find myself building deeper connections with friends- even from afar. By sharing with them directly rather than passively assuming everyone sees something I posted to my Facebook page. Even when it’s hard- like when don’t like where I ended up- not relying on social media helps me realize I need to go somewhere new. If you’ve never thought to pause your social media, I have to say it’s one of the wisest and healthiest things I’ve done. Give it a try 😉
So the benefit of sitting put in Belgium was that I had ended up in Antwerp. I was supposed to go to the Netherlands but I realized this city was better for me and I was tired. Indeed, I ended up spending several days in Antwerp. Slowing down, enjoying the abundance of East Asian food. Fixing my SIM card. Hanging with Hasidic Jews (and reconnecting with why I like them- something exorcised from my system due to tensions in Israel). Realizing that Jews really do stick together more in the Diaspora and the intense sectarian battles of Israel don’t really flare up as much in Belgium. When your whole community is 30,000 strong and a lot of the people around you hate you for just being different. I stayed with a wonderful Rwandan family in Jumet, a part of Charleroi. Just this week, a Jewish woman was threatened at gunpoint 10 minutes down the road in an anti-Semitic attack. It makes you appreciate just how special it is to be an American and Israeli Jew when you see how hard it is in other countries. And it certainly scares you into questioning when, if ever, you really reveal who you are. A kind of Jewish closet.
Luxembourg. The tiniest country I’ve ever visited. I’m so hipster that I didn’t even visit Luxembourg City. Instead, I hopped on a bus from Bastogne, Belgium and went to Ettelbruck. Passing through pristine forests along the way. I expected to see limos and fancy homes, but instead realized that it’s basically a foreign worker city. While you could tell the ethnic Luxembourgers by their luxury cars, almost everyone else was Portuguese, Chinese, African, or Cape Verdean. I was definitely the only tourist there- probably the only tourist ever. I got the most stares of my life. I did manage to meet an ethnic Luxembourger, who mostly laughed at me being Jewish. I did make friends with Cape Verdean women who loved my Portuguese and my passion for Kompass and Cesaria Evora. A reminder that while Judaism and being American and gay are my primary identities, my languages are also a sense of pride. And of connecting with people. A kind of safety, a tribe of sorts. One that helped me laugh and smile while waiting for the bus back to Belgium. I still haven’t been to Portugal, but I did use the language in Luxembourg!
Now onto Spain. While I enjoyed the beautiful historic sights of Belgium (not to mention discovering my great uncle was an American soldier killed in World War II liberating the country- while I was there!), I was ready for some sunshine. Belgium, although filled with delightful treats, is a rather rainy place. And Spain is warm and delightful- the people and the weather.
Spain is a place I’ve been many times, whose language- indeed languages- I speak. Spanish, Catalan, even some Basque 😉 Andalusia, the South, is filled with warmth. And also, a shitton of invernaderos. Greenhouses. Hardly a word you learn in Spanish class! Almería, where I spent a lot of my time, is home to thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of Andalusians were forced to migrate to Catalonia and Germany and indeed Latin America during colonialism. Explaining why Cubans and Puerto Ricans sound a lot like people in Granada. The economy, frankly, sucked. And still sucks. While I still consider myself deeply empathetic to Catalan concerns for cultural continuity, I can see why Andalusians have their own pain. You don’t leave a region of the country this pretty because things are going well. Also, some people here live in caves, but I’ll come back to that in a future blog.
It is thanks to these invernaderos that some Andalusians could stay put. I learned this from a nice man who I hitchhiked with out of a beautiful rural village (people told me there were buses back- there aren’t- a reminder that travel is full of the unpredictable, even if you read every guide book. And I don’t.) He even called his family and offered to give me a tour of the bell peppers and tomatoes. I politely declined- he seemed nice but it was getting late and you have to understand that while most people are quite generous, some people are looking to make a buck or worse. And you need to protect yourself. Hitchhiking is a delicate art, I’ve done it some. At its best, you’re riding through Romania with a really cool entomologist. At worst, you’re riding through Slovenia with an anti-Semite. It can be a real time saver, even a life saver. And it can be quite scary to be stuck in someone’s car. Frankly, I’m not sure how black people survive on this continent. I’ve faced enough prejudice for being a Jew. I can’t imagine the average Spaniard letting a Senegalese man hitchhike. When I told a woman from Jerez that I studied immigration to Spain, she told me (as if I would agree with her): “wow, did you predict just how bad it would get?” Like the thought had never entered her mind that I was studying the topic out of empathy.
Indeed, Andalusia is naturally beautiful and filled with friendly people. Frankly, some of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen. With smiles as sweet as their thighs. But for a moment, I’d like to validate other Spaniards’ stereotypes about the region. It is not the most cosmopolitan. People yell really loud, talk constantly, and quite a number of them have never stepped outside Spain. The friendliness was certainly a welcome change after Belgium, but I have to say I discovered that actually I don’t mind a little distance. Having people repeat directions three or four times is at first charming, and later gets kind of annoying or patronizing. Probably not the intent, but even warmth has its limits when you’re trying to go somewhere or get something done. I can’t say I’ll validate one Andalusian woman’s comment that people there don’t like to work, but it’s hardly Germany either.
In Alicante, in the province of Valencia, I was reminded why I love minority languages. When I left Israel, I felt rather dejected about languages. I’ve spent my whole life studying them and I saw in the Middle East that they alone will not bring peace. Morals, values, ideologies, personalities- are at least as important as knowing language. I once had a Hebrew professor suggest that if all Jews and Arabs spoke each other’s languages, there’d be peace. But now I’m fairly convinced this is not the case. Even if I believe it would sincerely help.
But when I came to Valencia and met a gay Zionist and bonded with him in Catalan, I knew languages were magic. I had a reason for falling in love with them- and for choosing to learn not only global languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and French. But also Yiddish and Catalan. Yiddish surprisingly useful in Luxembourg and with German tourists. And Catalan in melting the heart of a wonderful Valencian bookstore owner who frankly made my day. Maybe even my month.
After hearing British leftists say that Israelis deserved to die in terror attacks, to being berated by a Belgian man on an airplane for living in an “apartheid state”, to being strangely followed by an Iraqi man insistent on finding out where I was from- it’s not been easy being a Jew here. Certainly not being Israeli. So to find a Valencian man with a Hebrew tattoo was one of the most refreshing things to ever happen. Thank you Josep- visca Valencia, visca la llengua catalana!
One of the things I’ve learned on this trip (and noticed in Israel too) is that whenever someone says “I have nothing against…” or “I don’t see color”, it means they’re a bigot. It’s odd- but actually the need to articulate this is usually, if not always, a sign of deep hatred. I’ve seen this with comments against Jews, against Arabs, against gays. Consider this my travel tip 😉
My travels have revealed something very deep for me. When I left Israel, I left rather bitter. That’s putting it lightly. If I’m honest with you, I’ve thought more than once that I’d never return. But my experiences in Europe have shown me that indeed, every country has its problems. And frankly, there are reasons why 2,000 year old Jewish communities in Belgium and France are emigrating to Israel. And why almost no Jews remain in Romania- where 750,000 lived in 1939. Europe has a Jewish problem- and it’s not the Jews. This is a terrible place to be a Jew. I met wonderful young Belgian Jews who were accustomed to the fact that their synagogues are under lock and key and heavily guarded, inaccessible to the public except for prayers. In Europe, to visit a cathedral you just walk in. To go to synagogue, you need to provide your passport. Often a week in advance.
Anti-Semitism, along with other problems (Belgium’s teetering existence, Romania’s massive killings of wild dogs, poverty in Wallonia Belgium, discrimination against Roma almost everywhere), makes you realize that everywhere is a trade-off. And while Israel certainly has its unique problems, I think I underestimated the challenge of being a gay Jew in Europe. A place where the people who like gay people often hate Jews. A place where the people who like Israel often hate gays.
It’s for this reason I had one of my core beliefs in Israel validated: it’s always better to see things with your own eyes. If I had gone on an organized tour (or not traveled at all), I would’ve wondered in the back of my head if Europe would really be a better place for me to live. A lingering doubt that would’ve eaten me alive- especially because I could pay a few thousand dollars, learn Magyar, and become a Hungarian citizen. Gaining an EU passport through the suffering of my ancestors- and the intense nationalism of the Hungarian government.
But what I discovered is that there is no future for me in Europe. Visiting, engaging in activism, supporting Jewish communities, exploring- oh yes. I will be back. But living? I suppose that what I’ve realized is that while I’d feel suffocated to spend 365 days a year in Israel, I can’t live without it either.
Israel is imperfect. Sometimes awful. But it’s really a lot more normal than I thought. And despite the claims of boycotters, every country has issues. While one Belgian man said Israel should be boycotted because Arabs don’t have equal rights (a point I conceded- and fight against in Israel)- you could say the same about every country. Roma don’t have equal rights anywhere in Europe. Jews are being persecuted for wanting kosher food. Many governments, including France and Spain, give millions of dollars in tax money to the Church. The same church that covers up sexual abuse to this day and in the case of Spain, actually supported a dictatorship. For decades. And while I’d hardly suggest the issue of Muslim integration or Syrian refugees in Europe is easy (not a small number of Muslims in Europe are polled as saying Sharia law is superior to civil law), it is quite apparent that they suffer intense discrimination. But I’m hardly going to boycott Britain because the UKIP party wants to kick out immigrants. It’s counterproductive, it scapegoats the entire British public for a portion of the society’s thoughts, and I think it’s childish.
As childish as saying an Israeli scientist can’t come share life-saving research in Britain.
Whatever problems Israel has, I try to be part of the solution. And I’d encourage high falutin’ British leftists to start at home before judging my country so harshly. After all, 40% of your country’s Jews are thinking of leaving home because the Labor Party is led by an anti-Semite. It’d do you well to worry as much about your own country’s human rights abuses as you do about my own. Because believe me, it’s the definition of privilege for a powerful country built on colonialism to boycott a small country of Holocaust survivors. Who you actually detained in prison camps when they reached Israel’s shores. I’ll be just as thrilled when European leftists protest for the rights of Jews expelled from Arab lands with half as much enthusiasm as they do for Palestinian refugees. Empathy can’t be selective for it to effective- or just.
Tonight reading about the challenges solo travelers face, I saw a lot of myself in the commentary. And I felt proud. While some people have called my trip a “privilege” or that I must be “rich”, the truth is it was a bold move. With little money in my bank account, I left my apartment and carried only a small backpack for two months. I escaped an actual wolf in Belgium, a viper in Romania, and a psychotic AirBnB host who put me on the streets at 9pm because I complained about animals crawling around my room. I managed to make it to 6 countries. Some places where I spoke the languages, others where I didn’t. Some I had visited, some I hadn’t. I made new connections, I protected myself from scary people. I saw nuance. I met anti-Semites, Arab and European, and met wonderful Syrian refugees and curious Polish neuroscientists who welcomed me as a Jew.
I left Israel with the sounds of Hebrew and Arabic grating to my ear. And now I use them to talk to friends, a sometimes warm reminder of my past life.
If you wish you could travel, just do it. Unless you live in a slum in India, you can make it happen- even just for a week or two. There are inexpensive ways to do it and you don’t *have* to have a lease. You don’t *have* to have an office job. You don’t *have* to study. You make choices. We all do. With pluses and minuses. I decided to drop everything and go. Not knowing where I’ll end up. Still not really knowing what’s next.
Truth be told, reading the articles tonight about solo travelers, I realize I’ve always been one. Surrounded by hostile family, I’ve always been on my own. So the only real difference between this trip and the rest of my life is now I realize it. That while most people miss home and yearn for their family’s hugs or can’t wait to get back, I realize I have nowhere to go back to. Not if I want to live my life the way I want and to feel respected. I can only go forward.
That’s why I made aliyah. That’s why I built a new life. And for all its imperfections, Israel is one of my homes. Maybe my only real one right now. I’d like to build more of a connection to my American identity without the baggage of people telling me how to feel it. As an independent adult. I’m just as American as I am Israeli and I feel the pain and gain of having two homelands. Something people on both sides might want me to choose between but which I refuse to do so. They are both mine, they shape me, and I contribute to them. I’ll have my falafel and pumpkin pie, thank you very much.
When I’m in Europe, I miss two things. The delicious fresh rice noodles of Pad See Ew from my favorite Thai restaurant in Washington. And the slow quiet of a Tel Aviv street on Shabbat.
Sometimes it takes seeing what you don’t have to realize what you do.
As my cover photo says in Spanish: “shoot for the moon, if you fail, at least you’ll be among the stars”. In the village of Vícar, a white town covered in poetry that I never knew existed until a week ago. Go explore 😉