Wednesday, August 09, 2006

War and Peace: Games, Food, and Surf in Tel Aviv

Wacky Adventures in a War Torn Country

Update: added pictures

Saarya, my fifteen year-old son, and Tal, my thirteen year-old daughter, and I went to Tel Aviv for a short vacation. The vacation started on Friday; our weekend experiences are covered in a previous post. This post covers Sunday through Tuesday.

Our original plans were to go north, but neither my wife nor my ex-wife would let me do that, even though, statistically speaking, there was still a four times greater chance of dying in the car trip up to the north than in dying from a Hezbollah missile.

In fact, Hezbollah has been threatening to bomb Tel Aviv, so, with any luck, we would still get to experience the thrill of shrieking sirens, the mad scrambling for bomb shelters, and the lingering smell of death and chaos. As luck would have it, however, no bombs fell in Tel Aviv. Rats.

The temperature was hot, by the way, but not New York City hot. And muggy.

The Safari

Our first stop was the Ramat Gan Safari. The main attraction here is that Tal has become obsessed with zebras, to the point of trying to acquire the nickname "Zebra" at school, with variable success.

Saarya warned that he doesn't like zoos, but, armed with seven books from Alan Dean Foster's Tar-Aym Krang series was willing enough to sit and read while we walked around. I went pretty sure that I had a moral objection to zoos, and in going to zoos, but having not been to one in more than ten years, was willing to take a chance at reassessing my feelings.

Unfortunately, my feelings were strengthened.

The "Safari" actually consists of a drive through area, along with a zoo inside, and then a return through another drive out area. The drive through areas had all the zebras Tal could ever want to see live. The zebras came up to our car and tried to eat our window.

Click here for eleven zebra pictures.

There were other less interesting things in the safari section, including some lions who were asleep.

Click here for non zebra pictures (penguins, giraffes, lions, etc.).

As a matter of fact, that basically describes all of the animals we saw. They were pretty much all asleep. The snakes looked like so much piles of plastic. The hippos might as well have been rocks submerged under the water. For all I know, they had already drowned.

The animals that were awake all did the very fascinating activity of staring forlornly at the visitors. They just sat there looking right back at you, scanning the crowd, and hoping that someone would explain to them why their formerly happy life in the endless prairie or tundra had come to be reduced to a life-long sentence in a prison cell. And those were the lucky ones. The less fortunate had electric shocks to contend with, or had had parts of their bodies permanently ripped out in order to make them more docile or less mobile.

Zoos were originally created in order to show the wonders of the world to those who could not otherwise see them. With the advent of pictures and then videos, what is the point? The only people who still go to zoos are researchers and children. Research I can understand. But this misery is too high a price to pay for the entertainment of children, most of whom don't like the smell anyway and would prefer to be playing games or running around.

There was one bright spot to the visit, and it came from the only animal present of its own free will, more or less: humans. There was a show at two o'clock.

I wasn't expecting much - something like a children's version of Little Red Riding Hood or such - but it turned out to be a very nice show with a magician and two acrobats. The magician was fair, although he did very nice work of making some people appear and disappear. The acrobats, especially the woman, were amazing, however; I'm talking Cirque De'Soleil amazing.

It was worth the price of admission.


We left at three, which is when check-in time was at the youth hostel.

The Youth Hostel

My budget is limited, as you may know; you may even be in the same situation. So it's nice when every once in a while you try to save some money and it actually works out well.

The Youth Hostel in Tel Aviv is a simple stark building right across the street from the lovely Yarkon river and it's grassy walking areas.

The receptionist is snarky. There is little in the way of amenities. What there is, however, is: a clean room with four beds, a strong and well heated shower, working and well adjusted air conditioning, and a reasonably edible breakfast. That's all that we got, and that's all that we needed. Oh, we also got an in-room refrigerator, and a television that could receive two channels, but who cares?

There was one problem: no parking designated for the hostel. We were lucky to find free parking across the street most of the time, and when there wasn't, we found a free municipal parking lot on a side street, directly behind the hostel.

Two nights cost us 680 NIS including tax, which is about $150. That left us more money for other stuff, or simply more money. Survey says: recommended.

The Game Store

I had brought some food along with us, intending to eat light Sunday, and spend money only going out to dinner at my favorite Tel Aviv Chinese restaurant on Monday. With that in mind, we went for a walk around dinner time down Weizmann street to find Israel's only game store that sells Euro games, Freak. The Youth Hostel is located right at the top of Weizmann, and so the walk was about ten blocks.

Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv's restaurants are generally not kosher. So we kept an eye out for kosher places just for general interest, and we found a few here and there on the way.

We eventually found the mall within which Freak was alleged to be, and after looking around, found it on the -1 floor.

Freak is a small store. There is a small hallway going into it directly up to the cash register. To the right is a small room with computer games and miniatures, and to the left is a small room with roleplaying and, in one bookcase, about 70 board games. Behind or on the cash register are CCG products. In the roleplaying room is a table that would fit around eight for gaming, and in the miniature area another two or three tables that would each fit two people.

Gilad from the Hebrew board gaming group alleges that twenty or more people come for game nights once or month here, but I just don't see how. Nevertheless, the store does host board game nights once a month, and weekly game sessions of Warcraft, D&D, Magic, and so on.

I had three missions. One was to see the store. The second was to meet and interview the owner. The third was to try to convince him to donate some stuff to my collection of games that I was sending to the bomb shelters in the north, or at least to let me buy them at a discount.

I saw the store, and it was modest. The board games are priced at what would be retail prices, plus 17% VAT, plus some probable shipment fee, plus more on top of that. Alhambra, for instance, was 250 NIS ($55), while Tigris and Euphrates was 240 NIS ($53). Apparently it depended on whether the game could be ordered in some sort of bulk shipment, or had to be ordered individually. They were out of Settlers of Catan.

All of the board games they carried came from Silver Stars, the exclusive importer to Israel of many of these games. (More on them later.) Suffice to say that Freak gets along with Silver Stars, but it is a business relationship, not a close personal one. I suspect that Freak would much prefer to do its own importing, rather than have to buy from Silver Stars.

Two people were working there, Eli, the owner, and Ilie, a worker. They had customers coming in regularly, so it seems that they are busy and profitable. There were also a few people playing an RPG at the table.

Eli told me that the bulk of his profits comes from the computer games. The other stuff is less profitable; if it wasn't profitable at all, he wouldn't carry it at all. Eli is happy with the gamers who come to play at the store; they get a place to play and access to the games at a small discount, and he gets the increased business by virtue of ready purchasers in his store, and as the known place to play games in Tel Aviv.

Eli himself plays some computer games and a bit of RPGs, but no board games, CCGs, or miniatures. He claims to be looking at opening a second branch in Haifa by the end of the year. Obviously, this plan is going to be set back a little by the current situation in Haifa. I later found out that he has had this plan for some time already, so I don't know how likely it is to happen. He has no plans to open a store in Jerusalem any time soon.

The Freak store has been around in Tel Aviv for quite some time, but only began carrying board games two or three years ago.

As far as donations or discounting, he didn't look too thrilled with the idea. He says that he could be more generous with the computer games, but that donating or discounting board games would be a difficulty for him. Nevertheless, he still offered me a "25% to 35%" discount on the board games, which I estimate is probably about what he pays for them.

I considered the board games. Even with a discount of 35%, 400 NIS was going to get me two, maybe three, board games, none of which had Hebrew translations. The same 400 NIS I spent last week got me two Monopolies, two Pictionaries, two chess sets, and buckets full of Legos, all with Hebrew instructions where appropriate.

I decided that although ultimately introducing kids to better games was a nice long term goal, in the short term it just didn't make sense to give out so little when I could make a whole lot more kids happier for the same price.

The First Restaurant

At this time, I decided that we could splurge a little for dinner. The mall had a food court where at least two of the places were kosher. If we all got something like a schnitzel sandwich, we would be spending about 70 NIS, which wasn't outrageous.

Unfortunately, Saarya wasn't too thrilled with the offerings, and we decided to go back to one of the places that we had passed on the way. It turned out to be a nice looking dairy restaurant. The price for all three of us now looked like it would be around 130 NIS, but the food would be better, at least.

Unfortunately, Saarya wasn't too thrilled with the offerings. I long ago decided to pick my battles. Saarya had been patient at the safari/zoo, so I wasn't going to start admonishing him for his fussiness here. I was a picky child, so I know what it's like.

We were directed to another meat restaurant called Meatos, also on Weizmann, but in the other direction (past the mall that we had just come from). We went to look at the offerings there; it looked really good, but even more expensive, around 200 NIS for the three of us. Saarya said that it didn't look any better than the first place we were at, and he was now willing to go back there, but I had had enough walking finally, and anyway, I'm a sucker for good food.

The food and the service were both excellent. Really really excellent. A low 4.

A brief aside about my food rating scale:

My scale works as follows:

1 - Inedible. The kind of food where you don't even finish it because you prefer to be hungry that have an upset stomach.

2 - Basic. This covers the Hostel food, fast food places, and quick dinners at home.

3 - Good. This covers good restaurants, normally the most that I can afford. A "1" hamburger tastes like leather. A "2" hamburger tastes like browned meat-like stuff. A "3" hamburger is thicker, has good quality meat, is cooked the way you want it, and tastes like steak.

4 - This is excellent food, restaurant quality that I go to only on expense account, or if someone takes me out. Also first-class airplane food.

5 - There is no kosher 5 class food, as far as I know (maybe the King David restaurant). 5 is from the best restaurants in the world, and would indicate not only perfect food but a unique experience.

End aside

So when I say that the food was low 4 food, for 3 prices, you now know what I'm talking about. The truth is that there were five items priced within our range on the menu, and the rest of it was out of our range. But that was adequate for us.

And that was Sunday. Peace.

The Mall

The next day, Saarya had originally planned to meet some friends, but it didn't pan out, so he ended up coming to the mall with us. It seemed to me that he once again tolerated rather than enjoyed the experience, but he claims to have been happy to go.

We went to Dizengoff Center, because that's where my eldest daughter Ariella always asked to be dropped off when I pass through Tel Aviv, and I trust her finely tuned shopping instincts.

I loathed it. The center is designed in the similar confusing style in which the "new" Tel Aviv central bus station is designed. The floors make big erratic rings around a central open area, while each ring is actually part of a spiral. Each ring is actually a double ring, and there are seemingly randomly located escalators which only go up, sometimes one, sometimes two flights. And there is a second part of the mall which does the same thing. Throughout, there are random nooks and crannies, side passages, sudden ascents or descents, or walkthoughs. And constantly blaring music and advertisements.

It's like Dante designed a mall.

Tal bought herself a few things with money she had made this summer, while Saarya mostly read. He did buy a book. I bought a newspaper. Although I was trying to keep off the grid, I needed something else to read at the beach.

After the mall, we went back to the Hostel and ate lunch. Tal and I played Havoc.

The Beach

The beaches in Tel Aviv are free, but you have to pay for parking. I spent a lot more than I realized, but still not too much, so hey. Also, there was a stack of chairs and umbrellas in a nice pile, and many people were using them. I thought it would be nice to have some, and only knew that I had to pay for "renting" them when a guy came by ten minutes later to collect money. Again, not too much, so I gave it to him, even though we really didn't need them.

The beach in Tel Aviv is really wonderful. There are no rocks, and little litter. The sand slopes out very gradually and the water was warm. It was also slightly less hot out than the day before. Really, a great experience.

It had been a long time since I had been in salt water. I was a little disconcerted by the saltiness on my face. What was fun was the nice medium sized waves that lifted you up every ten seconds or so.

When I got to the newspaper, I read about the dozen solders killed by a missile in the north, and then I found a small condolence message on the bottom right side of the page addressed to the son of my downstairs neighbor, consoling him on the loss of his father.

He had been sick occasionally, I knew, but he had been happy the last time that I saw him (last week), so it was a bit of a shock, as you can imagine.

We were ready to go at 6:30, but I wanted to see the sun set. It probably would have been very beautiful, but clouds completely obscured the sinking, so no go.

The Second Restaurant

We went home late, showered and changed, and were ready to go to find the Chinese restaurant. I remembered it being called China Lee, and on which street. When we got there, at about 9:10, there was a different restaurant called Shang _____ (something) and a meter or two afterwards a big sign saying that China Lee had moved to such and such a place.

I called them, and they couldn't fit us in until at least 10:30 pm. Meanwhile, this restaurant looked ok, still oriental (Thai), and could take us immediately.

Enter restaurant at 9:30. By 10:30, the restaurant had taken our order.

Apparently, as we were told by the nice couple sitting next to us, the new restaurant was under new management. I don't think it was entirely the management's fault - some blame must go to the waiting staff - but it was grossly mismanaged. Waiters and waitresses ran to and fro, and then back again. There sure looked like there were enough of them, and the restaurant was not at all packed. But it took them a freakin' hour to: ignore us, not give us enough dishes, not give us the "crispy" noshy stuff with sauce, not take our order, and then try to take our order again twice. We got the crispies only after our neighbors complained on our behalf to several passing waitresses.

I bet out loud that they would get the order wrong, and while they didn't bring us anything that they shouldn't have, they completely forgot half the order. So we got the main dishes and the rice, but didn't get the soups or egg rolls.

The food: excellent, excellent. Again, a low to medium 4, although this one was slightly pricier, a high 3, so more of a match.

The staff was apologetic after the first hour, at least. One of the waitresses tried to pour water for us into out glasses just to show how apologetic she was. But they didn't offer us any sort of discount. I left a standard tip. I just don't feel right in punishing the waiting staff for poor management.

We came home rather late. So ended Monday.

The Game Importer and the Game Center

I had read in the paper that the Educational Center for Games would be having some game mornings this week, starting Tuesday, from 9:00 to 13:00. I mentioned the EGCI a few months ago when I first found it. It is run by one Helena King (0544 717 314). She evinces no knowledge of the new games, but she has a good heart and spirit when it comes to games. She claims to get high double digits for various activities on occasions, all kids and their parents, of course. The ECGI has been operational for twenty-five years.

I very much wanted to go and meet her, so that was this morning's activity.

To kill another bird, I had also been in contact with Johnathan from Silver Stars, also regarding donations or discounts for games. I very much wanted to meet him, as well.

Johnathan was more forthcoming than Eli from Freak. While Johnathan has exclusive rights for imports, he very much has his eye set on the long term goals of building up the gaming community - the more people play any games, the better. The more they play his games, whether he was involved in it or not, the better ultimately for business.

He goes to events and does demos. He is also organizing Israel's first board game convention which will be later this month. See his site for more details.

He suggested that he could give me a free copy of the Travel edition of Settlers of Catan, and that a 40% discount on a Hebrew translated copy of Citadels would not be too expensive. I asked him for two copies, and arranged to meet him at the EGCI, which would also serve to introduce the two of them to each other.

Helena, it turns out, had just returned from outside of Israel the night before, and was unaware that the advertisements had run about activities in the game center this week, having thought that she had canceled them before she left. She called me at 9:00 in the morning to return my call, and I told her that she was expected at the center and that I would be there soon, too.

We met at 10:00. The EGCI has several rooms. In two rooms are slews and slews of games, mostly old fashioned, with the occasional gem such as some Go boards or a nice copy of Acquire. Several more rooms stock vintage games, such as puzzles from the 1920's, old first edition Hebrew Monopoly sets and so on. Another room has toys, another has a game library with about a thousand books on play, games, and toys (mostly older stuff), and the last room has a workshop for creating new games.

Helena is an old fashioned motherly sort of British woman, very personable. Johnathan showed up a bit later, and he was also very nice.

Helena and Johnathan. Helena holds an Israeli puzzle from the 1920s

Old Israeli games

Pewter pieces for a classic abstract game. Note also the Fortran game. Tal looks on.

We talked plans, about hosting activities, demos, coordination, and so on. We talked about Freak and another store that also carries some of the games, Gilad, other games groups such as the two Go game groups, and others who are involved in gaming in whatever capacity. Johnathan was persuasive in trying to get me to come to more Tel Aviv events, especially the one coming up this month. I promised to make an effort.

Johnathan does this full time. Helena is a volunteer. I paid Johnathan for the games and then he had to go, as he was in the middle of translating more RPG books into Hebrew.

Saarya read his book while Tal and I taught Helena how to play Acquire. Tal also needed to be reminded. Tal won by making the most out of mid game mergers. I out-earned her slightly in the end game, but not enough to win. The score was $58k to $46k. Helena had $26k.

Acquire, mid game

Helena is not a "gamer". She spent a lot of the time during the game teasing Tal about cheating (not seriously), or mispronouncing the hotel chain names. To her, games are not about the games, but about laughing and poking fun. She was a little surprised that even Tal played the game with a certain degree of seriousness.

On the other hand, she was cognizant enough to notice that Acquire was a much better game than Monopoly, and her judgment about the relative value of many of the other games around seemed pretty reasonable.

All in all, a productive and fun morning, although, once again, Saarya ended up only reading his book. I donated the Travel Settlers to Helena, since it didn't have Hebrew rules, and thus I couldn't send it up north.

The Negative Note

When we went to find someplace to eat, Saarya again found fault with the first place that I found. He and I got into a little tiff over the issue. He was then impatient to get home. There was one other activity that he would have enjoyed doing - some sort of Chinese circus - but it was only later in the evening and I deemed it too expensive when we went to check it out. In hindsight, it wasn't really that expensive, and I really should have taken them, but my judgment was impaired at the time.

Tal and I went to look at the river one last time while Saarya waited for us, and then we went home. When I got home, I went straight to a shiva call.

Overall, a fun trip. Interesting and different, and mostly enjoyable.

But no missiles. Rats.


Personal losses from the war, so far:

1) My step-daughter Ariella's step-brother Noam lost a good friend.
2) Gila Meyerson, the P.R. person from MaTaN, a place where Rachel works, lost her son.

May there be no more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Helena is much more beautiful than your photo shows.
She must have been over modest,as usual, about her knowledge and achievements or you would have mentioned her brilliance.
She is working on the growth of ECGI to be the heritage centre for play in Israel. All the stuff you mentioned is part of it. One man's rubbish is another man's collection.
A conference/gettogether/do is in the works on gameplayers in Israel.