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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I hate when that happens!

Yesterday while paying my daily visit to 'The Sneeze' I read with amusement Steve's pet peeve about the excruciating slowness with which pedestrians transit the crosswalk without any regard for the cars waiting to proceed.  He expressed outrage that they don't even make a token attempt at showing a little hustle.

Funny stuff. 

But the truth behind the humor got me thinking about the things that elevate my blood pressure in traffic.  Obviously, some of the problems I'm about to describe are cultural, and I've really gotten much better about 'accepting the things I cannot change' here in Israel. 

But I swear to gawd that one day they'll find me dead in the driver's seat from a heart-attack due to a few of these infuriating violations of the most basic code of etiquette:

First a list of stuff I've mostly gotten used to:

1. Signaling a lane change: An invitation to be cut off.  I'll admit I have gotten very selective about using my 'blinkers' since moving here.  I used to be quite conscientious about broadcasting my intentions to all drivers in the vicinity.  But I now realize that this is universally seen as a sign of weakness.  I now use my directional indicators only when a police car is traveling directly behind me.  Even so, it is worth noting that 8 times out of 10 the cop car will rise to the challenge and rush up to block my indicated lane change.

2. Safe following distance?  What's that?  Having grown up in the US I was taught to maintain a safe 'buffer zone' between myself and the car in front of me.  This would be a minimum of one second... but ideally two ("one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand...").  However here in Israel other drivers see this 'buffer zone' as an invitation (or even a challenge) to pass you.  I mean really... why else would someone foolishly leave such a big space in front of their car if they didn't want someone to fill it?  Right???  I've shared this story before but it's worth repeating:  A friend had to take a 'driver's education' class here after accumulating too many 'points' on his license.  During an attempt to teach the idea of a safe following distance, several of the students strenuously objected because to them it was obvious that someone would immediately pass them if they did as the instructor suggested.  The instructor said, "Fine, so then you back off to create a new 'buffer zone'".  The students were incredulous since this would mean that a driver would keep slowing down to create each subsequent buffer zone and eventually end up moving backwards as more and more cars filled the gaps.  It's nice to know that the instructors are interested in changing the driving culture here, but based on my own experience it hasn't yet 'trickled down' to the man/woman on the street.

3.  The world is your trash can!  Having grown up under the tearful gaze of 'Iron Eyes' Cody, I am part of a generation that was hard-wired to find the idea of littering personally offensive.  Yet I don't know anyone who, in a moment of weakness, hasn't tossed something small (e.g. an apple core, a wad of chewing gum or the paper sleeve from one's straw), out of their car window.   However, if/when we actually littered, it was something deeply shameful that one did only if nobody was looking.  Unfortunately there is no such stigma (that I can discern, anyway) here in Israel.  I can't tell you the number of times I've been driving in heavy traffic and seen drink cups, paper bags, cigarette packages, and even soiled diapers come flying out of the car in front of me.  Once or twice I used a red light to take someone to task for littering, but the look of utter incomprehension on their face told me that this particular stigma hasn't yet scratched the surface of the culture here.

Now the stuff that will most likely be the end of me:

1.  The casual U-turn.  Like littering, we have all executed U-turns in places where they aren't necessarily practical, much less legal.  And like littering, it's something done only when nobody is looking... and certainly never when there is following or oncoming traffic.  Yet here in Israel there is absolutely no shame in executing an impromptu U-turn... even at the height of rush hour.  Not only that, but it is executed in the most unhurried, casual fashion possible.  Once or twice I made the mistake of beeping to show my disapproval and was rewarded with that patented Israeli look of utter incomprehension, as if to say, "What?  I had to turn around!  Are you an idiot that you couldn't see that I needed to turn around right this second???"

Reuniting with long-lost friends.  In a country this small it is inevitable that people will constantly run into old army buddies... distant relatives... and friends from the past. Yet, no matter how statistically improbably, these chance meetings always seem to take place while driving on narrow roads and in parking lots.  Two cars will be traveling slowly towards one another when the drivers will suddenly recognize one another.  Without a thought for who might be behind them, windows are rolled down, handshakes are exchanged and long, unhurried conversations ensue.  Apparently it is considered very bad form to interrupt these chance reunions because whenever I've used my horn as a gentle reminder of the passage of time, I've been met with icy stares from all parties.

A little gratitude is all I'm saying!  Whether letting a pedestrian cross in front of me in a parking lot or graciously giving another car the right of way, I end up screaming obscenities at my windshield when I get absolutely no acknowledgment from the recipients of my courtesies.  Not once since moving here has anyone looked up and waved a thank-you, or even smiled to show their appreciation.  Not once.  I've held doors open, let little old ladies push their shopping carts slowly in front of my car, and even slowed down to allow cars to merge into a congested lane.  Not once has one of these gestures be acknowledged!  I mentioned this to a native-born friend who just shrugged and said, "Al tihyeh kazeh frier!" (don't be such a sucker!).  Apparently courtesy is also considered a sign of weakness here... and as such is overlooked in much the same way that it would be impolite to point out a kid with a hair-lip. 


I guess this is what they meant when they told us that no matter how well we learned the language or studied the culture we would feel like immigrants 'til the day we die.  I just hope that day doesn't find me suffering a stress-induced heart-attack behind the wheel of my car!


Posted by David Bogner on September 21, 2005 | Permalink


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When it comes to these kinds of frustrations, the best thing I can say is quote Prof Menachem Keller (I didn't actually know who said it until I looked it up):

"Israel is too important to leave to the Israelis".

Posted by: Dave | Sep 21, 2005 1:58:25 PM

"safe 'buffer zone'"
When I took drivers re-education here I tried to apply what I learned about traffic safty in the states at age 16. I had to un-learn some of it. For example, when switching lanes you have to be able to see both headlights of the nearest driver in the lane you are moving to in your center rear view window. And even then, you have to excellorate slightly in case the guy behind you does the same just as you are moving over. That's what they taught us in drivers ed, right?

Here, not only in classes, but even during the road test, I was told that I had to speed up to overtake a car so that I can get out in front of him to switch lanes! I swear to Dawg! Unveliebable!

Posted by: Andy | Sep 21, 2005 2:53:12 PM

Just think, David, someday you'll know enough people in Israel that you will stop to chat with a long-lost neighbor or old work acquaintance, and someone will honk at you, and you'll glare at them, because can't they see you are in the middle of an important conversation?

On a related note: in Boston (not Israel, Boston) I was once stuck in a traffic jam on a semi-busy street. After about three blocks I saw what was causing it: a woman who had stopped her car in a driving lane in order to get out of her car, get her baby, and stand next to the car rocking him, while everyone who had been driving behind her had to merge into the next lane to go around her.

Posted by: Sarah | Sep 21, 2005 3:40:10 PM

Uh, Sarah - I love Boston too, but I wouldn't use it as an example of great driving habits - even compared to Israel...

Posted by: Dave | Sep 21, 2005 3:53:58 PM

The good news: stress doesn't cause heart attacks, you just wish it did.

The bad news: is it worse knowing that you'll never really fit in, or worrying that one day, your kids will?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Sep 21, 2005 4:26:21 PM

Great post..now if I'm ever in Israel and assuming I have the guts to drive my own car I know what to do... This should be part of a how to section in your blog. There is another concept which you are very much aware of driving through the bad parts of Far Rockaway. That is the idea that pedestrians will walk into the street car or no car. There is no looking either way and don't even think about beeping if you value your life. The idea may stem from the idea that they can sue if you hit them...not really sure.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmeister | Sep 21, 2005 4:30:36 PM

I am a native Angeleno and have spent untold hours driving here in LA and around the country. I have listened to people speak breathlessly about the drivers in Boston and New York as they complained about just how bad they were and said that you had to be crazy to drive there.

Well I have driven all over those cities and never once found myself shaking in my boots the way those natives claimed I would.

But it wasn't until I drove around Israel that I realized how valuable my finely tuned LA driving skills were, or should I say that it was only there that I was able to let out my inner Israeli.

It was great fun to drive in a psuedo-demolition derby, although if I had not been on vacation I probably would have had that stress induced coronary you are referring to.

Posted by: Jack | Sep 21, 2005 5:21:35 PM

My Israeli driving instructor told me THREE seconds between cars.

My husband is Israeli and the first time I took him to my parents home (Scotland) he was in shock. "That lady stopped to let me past! That person waved Thank You! People in the supermarket WAIT PATIENTLY IN LINE!!!!!"

He still hasn't gotton over it.

I on the other hand find two geriatrics coming to blows over the front seat of the bus to be an amusing diversion, if not flat out good entertainment.

Posted by: lisoosh | Sep 21, 2005 5:54:36 PM

Hey, I'd feel at home in Israel then!

Lack of driving manners are here just like you described them. Taxi drivers seem to believe that they are exempt from respecting ANY traffic rules. Maybe pedestrians are a little more polite .

Traffic education campaigns seem to be ineffective. And the amount of people dying at car accidents in Argentina is huge.

Posted by: Sandra | Sep 21, 2005 6:36:30 PM

Wow, I feel like the Native American in the old anti-littering commercial, but I am crying after having read the part about the littering. The rest are annoying or interesting insights, but the section concerning the littering really upset me. First it was like the other sections, and I thought of when I learned about littering out a car window, but then, I get to the part about the diapers, and I feel like crying. The pioneers beat back the swamps and planted trees and created the lush modern State of Israel so that it could be treated thusly?

Posted by: stuck in united states | Sep 21, 2005 6:53:49 PM

Addressing the pedestrian thing:

As a frequent pedestrian (in L.A., of all places!) I have to say that I do tend to cross streets at a fairly rapid clip because my walking philosophy is much like my driving philosophy - get the hell out of the way. I figure it's the polite thing to do.


If I'm crossing in front of a car that is stopped - whether it be for turning or at a stop sign - and that car exhibits signs of impatience, by, say, creeping into closer and closer despite my rapid pace, I WILL slow down. If I'm in a bad mood or the driver is being really annoying, I have no problem stopping completely in front of the car and gesticulating wildly.

I have found that the impatience of the driver tends to be directly related to the expense of the car, which means that I've faced off against a fair number of Mercedes and Lexus(es).

However, I do acknowledge drivers who are being courteous with a wave and a smile.

Posted by: Carol | Sep 21, 2005 8:35:08 PM

Israel is one of the most anti-pedestrian countries on the planet. Ever notice that their walk/don't walk signs are in the form of people -a blinking person sign is not a signal to the cars that there are pedestrians so be careful (as in America), it's a sign to the pedestrian to walk at their own risk....or be mowed down by aggressive Israeli drivers. I believe they secretly have a point system, where you get extra protectzia for all the people you almost hit with your car...

And don't get me started on littering in Israel (one of my biggest pet peeves!)...

Posted by: mcaryeh | Sep 21, 2005 10:09:22 PM

You have got to be kidding me! I mean don't get me wrong, I certainly wouldn't wish for you (or anyone) to have a heart attack while driving. But it is my humble opinion that DRIVERS are far less considerate than pedestrians. I mean think about it.. they don't even have cars, and they just have to stand there and wait until those fortunate enough to have their own wheels decide to let them pass.

Posted by: Maria | Sep 21, 2005 10:12:35 PM

You have got to be kidding me! I mean don't get me wrong, I certainly wouldn't wish for you (or anyone) to have a heart attack while driving. But it is my humble opinion that DRIVERS are far less considerate than pedestrians. I mean think about it.. they don't even have cars, and they just have to stand there and wait until those fortunate enough to have their own wheels decide to let them pass.

Posted by: Maria | Sep 21, 2005 10:15:12 PM

I have 2 things to add to your list:

The driver who sees a long queue in one lane, say to turn left, and instead of waiting in turn comes up in the next lane and cuts in at the beginning of the queue.

The driver waiting behind you who thinks you're taking too long to turn out of a minor road into a major road and sounds his horn at you, even though you are waiting for a gap in fast oncoming traffic which the driver behind is too far back to see, or even if someone is crossing the street in front of you and if you drove off at that moment you would mow them down. On its own that is annoying but not really heart-attack material, and it happens in other countries too, but in Israel there is an unwritten rule that after this happens and both cars have joined the main road, the driver behind must demonstratively overtake the driver in front within the next ten yards, however unsafe it is to do so. For extra credit, flash the headlights or sound the horn while overtaking, turn and shout a few selected curse-words, or get out at the next red light after overtaking, walk back to the other car and favour the driver with a long shouted tirade. Naturally this includes furious gesticulation, usually with both hands thrust through the window and fingers waving in the driver's face.

Posted by: Simon | Sep 21, 2005 10:19:10 PM

But I swear to gawd that one day they'll find me dead in the driver's seat from a heart-attack

I sure hope not! :)
And littering is a huge pet peeve of mine, too.

Apparently courtesy is also considered a sign of weakness here

That doesn't mean you should abandon your good manners. Maybe you'll have an influence on some sabras!

Posted by: Essie | Sep 21, 2005 11:10:28 PM

Littering...It also sadden and angered me to see how badly they litter. I lived in Netanya and whenever I would entered into the city limits, I would always get upset by what I saw. Furthermore, it seemed that maybe within they apt building it may be ok, but just outside it on the sidewalks, would be ignored. Those old commercials that Stuck in United States mentioned also had a profound effect on me too. As a child, I would always shed a tear too.

As for driving...I hear Naples, Italy ranks high on the list for anarchistic drivers.

Posted by: jaime | Sep 21, 2005 11:53:43 PM

Now you understand why I sold my car last year. And whenever I ride in someone else's car, I sit in the back seat and pretend there are curtains on the windows. It's all part of my stress management programme.

Posted by: savtadotty | Sep 21, 2005 11:56:18 PM

Dave... It's probably a bit of anglo elitism, but I've often felt that way.

Andy... At least they're being honest!

Sarah... At that point you have my permission to shoot me dead. I know that as I get older I will lose the use of the internal radar that lets me know that I'm blocking the supermarket aisle... but when I start blocking parking lots and narrow streets with my car in order to carry on a conversation with another motorist... game over.

Dave... There are so many students in Boston at any given time that it's hard to tell if you've been cut off by an aggressive drunk from Southie or an inexperienced driver from South Dakota. :-)

Doctor Bean... To adapt one of my favorite sayings: 'Israelis don't experience stress... they're just carriers.' :-)

Jewish Blogmiester... There are actually parts of Far Rockaway where even the cops acknowledge that the rules don't apply. I was once on my way home from a gig at the sands and was heading back to Brooklyn. As I got to a red light in Arvern(sp), I treated it like a stop sign and kept going once I'd checked for traffic. a cop pulled me over on the next block and asked me why I'd run the light. I asked him if he would want his son sitting at that light at 1:00AM for a minute or more until the light changed? He handed me back my license and told me to drive carefully.

Jack... You had the added stress buster of driving a rental car. When it isn't your car the maniacs are aiming for it takes a lot of the urgency out of the situation. :-)

Lisoosh... "two geriatrics coming to blows over the front seat of the bus to be an amusing diversion" Hah, too funny (mostly because it's true!).

Sandra... I've always felt that Israelis are really just South Americans with bad fashion sense. :-)

stuck in united states... The pioneers who drained the swamps had a fairly limited sense of Israel's future prospects. By and large I think they'd be pretty blown away by what has been accomplished. But, yeah... the litter is sad.

Carol... I'm trying to picture you facing down a beemer while the self absorbed L.A. driver shouts details of his latest script treatment to his agent over the cell phone. Carol, Carol, Carol... how dare you stand in the way of greatness?! :-)

Mcaryeh... There is an old saying about Israelis: They will run you over and then drive you to the hospital.

Maria... Trust me when I tell you there is enough rudeness to go around over here. :-)

Simon... Nice additions, but I think I can live with most of those. It's the ones I listed that make me wish my car was equipped with a golf-ball cannon.

Essie... I doubt I'll have much influence on any native born Israelis. Don't worry though. I'm not about to stop being courteous.

Jaime... Naples has nothing on Karachi Pakistan. I still have bad dreams about the drivers there.

Savtadotty... Ah yes, the old ostrich method of coping with traffic. :-)

Posted by: David | Sep 22, 2005 1:41:24 AM

Dirty diapers?? I hope you're exxagarating...
Question: Are they changing the babies diapers while driving at 90mph??? or do they stop in middle of driving to change it and cause everybody else to wait (or change their own babies pamper)?

Posted by: Shevy | Sep 22, 2005 4:01:27 AM

I have a friend who is for sure going to die somewhere in Washington Heights b/c of the way he drives, and the way his mouth operates while he is driving with the windows open! Anyway, just wanted to let you know that I am back on the information super highway, or at least I have internet access again

Posted by: Faye | Sep 22, 2005 4:43:10 AM

Talk about stress-busters: long ago, back in the US, I saw an item in the supermarket: a small plastic switch meant for gluing one's dashboard. The words beneath the switch: "Death Ray."

I kid you not.

Posted by: Rahel | Sep 22, 2005 12:28:30 PM

Q. What is the shortest measurable unit of time?

A. The moment between the light turning green, and the Israeli behind you hitting the horn.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Sep 22, 2005 12:33:10 PM

David, now that you mention it, many Israelis are from South America. Hmm. No wonder.

For those amazed at the dirty diaper thing, it happens here too.

They say Cairo, Egypt, is very near the top on the list of chaotic traffic cities.

Posted by: Sandra | Sep 22, 2005 2:38:34 PM

I'm not surprised, If at all the F word isn’t that bad an insult there, then courtesy is definitely not something to expect. Hmmm… I wonder what the impatient or offended drivers yell out (In Hebrew or Arabic) when things don’t go as planned. The only cold things in Hebrew I can say is kar :-)

Posted by: kakarizz | Sep 22, 2005 2:50:09 PM

Andy, come on. You know the horn gets hit when the light turns yellow (before green) if you have nice, patient drivers who don't start hitting the horn at red.

Posted by: amechad | Sep 22, 2005 4:11:37 PM

Andy and Amechad...I once heard a story that took place in Miami. An Israeli had the misfortune to be at a light behind one of the locals. As their nature would have it, the Israeli, hit his horn as soon as the light changed and was soon going to regret it. The person ahead of him, got out of his car, walked to his trunk, pulled out a baseball bat...and well, I am not sure how the story ended, but I bet that Israeli learned his lesson..at least in Miami.

Posted by: jaime | Sep 22, 2005 5:54:37 PM

Fabulous Post! Everything I've been thinking since I got here...thanks for putting it into words.

Posted by: einsof | Sep 22, 2005 11:00:24 PM

My personal favorite (related to your point about the buffer) is that whenever a gap does open up, Israelis rush madly forward to close it, often speeding up then hitting the brakes.

This drives me nuts in a heavy-traffic situation. All the stopping-starting-stopping causes a ripple effect that actually makes the traffic a whole lot worse (I've seen computer modelling of this; it's pretty neat).

If people would keep a decent buffer around them then the traffic would flow a lot more easily.

Posted by: Shai | Sep 22, 2005 11:14:26 PM

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