Shedding my American skin

Here I was, sitting on an Israeli’s couch, sharing my personal thoughts on everything.The other day, as I stood outside my newly acquired Jerusalem apartment, trying to figure out exactly how one opens the door, another resident of the building …

Here I was, sitting on an Israeli’s couch, sharing my personal thoughts on everything.The other day, as I stood outside my newly acquired Jerusalem apartment, trying to figure out exactly how one opens the door, another resident of the building began walking up the stairs.

Now I’m Ohio born and bred, but in my heart I genuinely believe that I was meant to be a city girl. New York or Montreal, I don’t care, but I’m quite certain that the stork got confused. Somewhere out there, some poor soul is probably wandering the streets of Manhattan, cursing her lack of proximity to cow culture. To her I send my regrets.

But anyway, I’m struggling with the door, and unidentified potential neighbor is quickly approaching. So as grew to be my custom in Montreal, I begin my, ‘someone is approaching, I must pretend that I am not ignoring them as I ignore them routine’.

For those of you unfamiliar with this routine, it goes as follows: you simply hunch your shoulders a bit, lean down ever so slightly, and focus very intently on the lock. It is essential that you show no outward signs that you have noticed anyone approach – that would be rude. Then, as you push open the door, you walk past it while pulling the key out of the door, and reach behind you, your back still to the hallway, and push the door closed.

Meanwhile, new entrant to the building walks passed you, engrossed in newly acquired flyer, lint on sweater, etc., so that they too can pretend that they don’t see you. Like a well choreographed dance – both polite and convenient.

But as it was my first day in the new apartment, I hadn’t quite mastered the finer art of the stealthy key in door routine, and thus continued to stand there and fumble with my lock, trying to look as engaged as one could possibly be with two interlocking pieces of metal.

“Shalom”?

Someone had spoken. I was taken aback, shocked even. My dance partner du moment was stepping all over my ballet slippers. I looked up.

A string of Hebrew words ensued, spoken so quickly that I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have understood them had they been in English. I opened my mouth to speak, but didn’t know where to begin.

“Ohh, English, right. Here, hold this.”

I put my hand out to receive the Israeli girl’s cigarette as she juggled her bags, unlocked the door and ushered me inside. Before I really knew what had happened, I had received the official apartment tour and was sitting on her couch with a hot mug of tea in my hand.

As we became lost in conversation about our lives, our travels, our educations, our futures, I couldn’t help but sit back and smile.

As Americans we spend our entire lives trying to be polite, while simultaneously avoiding any real contact with any unnecessary human being. We can go through entire days smiling, waving and nodding at exactly the right moments, without actually engaging in any meaningful conversation. Yet here I was, sitting on some stranger’s couch, sharing my personal thoughts on nearly everything.

I didn’t even notice that I was ignoring my ringing cell phone – a definite faux pas by American standards – as she regaled me with stories of the army, her travels in South America, and her opinion on most American girls.

We didn’t stop talking until she realized that she was supposed to meet a friend twenty minutes prior, yet another situation that would have sent me into a frenzy. As she walked me out she reminded me to come by anytime and to always ask if I needed something.

“Remember, we Israelis pretend we’re tough, and we’re certainly not polite, but you’ll never meet anyone nicer.”

As I wandered down the stairs to my apartment and leisurely unlocked my door, I realized that she’s right. I have been perpetually overwhelmed by pushy shop keepers, bus drivers yelling at me because I missed my stop, and pharmacists screaming out symptoms of my latest illness, mainly because they want to make sure that I understand that they are paying attention to me.

And though that is something that I am usually not comfortable with, after eight months, it’s starting to seem kind of nice.