If you’ve read my previous post you might be surprised at the subject of this post. The reason is that I’d mostly prepared this post before the news about my father being in his final days. He has since died, and I”m grateful that we all had time to prepare, and to say everything to each other that we needed to say.

Part of returning of “normal” life has been to read and to write. Hence this post….


I recently returned from brief tours of Romania and of Israel. For what they’re worth, here are a few tips that you might not learn from more reputable and objective sources.

Travelling safely in Romania

Romanians don’t drink tapwater unless it’s first run through industrial-strength filters. Instead, they drink bottled water, most of which seems to be carbonated. However, the tapwater is safe to drink, just like a McDonald’s hamburger is safe to eat.

On the subject of potables, I’m not much of a drinker beyond the occasional glass of red or gin-and-tonic, so you can draw your own conclusions when I say the traditional Romanian celebratory beverage, usually homemade, is some kind of rocket fuel. That was my only coherent thought as the first sip of the clear liquid started to burn holes in my oesophagus.

Unless you’re in hospital in Romania, an experience which my Romanian doctor friend strongly discouraged – for one reason, you have to buy your own medication, even in the public system – you will travel. This will bring you into unavoidable contact with roads. In Bucharest, the capital of Romania, there are two kinds of road: good and bad. The good roads are wide, smooth, and clearly marked with lines and signs. The bad roads are not: imagine a close-up view of a teenager’s face: pitted, discoloured and uneven. The main roads are not necessarily the good roads.

The quality of the roads is only an issue when the roads are used by others, otherwise you could swerve around the potholes and cross over the faded lane markings without worrying about crashing. Other people do use the roads, but in Bucharest drivers swerve and cross over lanes anyway. What Australian drivers consider road rules, such as indicating before changing lanes, Romanian drivers consider as approximate guidelines.

The primary principle for driving in Bucharest is to be impatient. As nature abhors a vacuum, so do Bucharest drivers. If you wait for a courteous driver to let you enter ahead of them, your driving license will expire. If you do find such a driver buy a lottery ticket at the first opportunity, but also beware of airborne pigs. They can be seen by the light of that evening’s blue moon.

The impatience principle means drivers behind you will honk their horns a nanosecond after the traffic light turns green. Be grateful for this because many traffic lights (usually there is only one facing you) are placed so close to the stop line, or where a stop line might once have been, that you can only see them if you stop five metres back from the stop line, or where a stop line might once have been.

At a crossroads, don’t allow only one car to stay in the intersection: it will be lonely. It’s okay if two cars are in the middle, or three – two or three in every lane, that is; unless there’s also one car between lanes.

Park wherever you find a space, even right on the corner, so others have to drive into the intersection to see if there are any cars coming. Don’t worry, though; the oncoming vehicle will probably have had to move into the centre of the road anyway. This is because many of the minor roads are so narrow that you have to park partly on the footpath. Pedestrians have to walk on the road. People being narrower than cars, this gives additional room for the cars driving down the centre of the road.

Travelling safely in Israel.

The impatience principle of driving in Bucharest doesn’t work in Israel. In fact, you must take the opposite tack. You need a lot of patience to to get anywhere, particularly in Jerusalem, where traffic moves very slowly even before you enter the city proper. Bring a book.

Safety also applies to your money. Whether you’re a pilgrim or a tourist, natives of old Jerusalem can spot a visitor. Several people were “offering” simple red woollen threads, about ten inches long, which my Israeli friend said were amulets to ward off evil. The sellers varied but to my notice were of three major types: (1) shops, where they sat in containers amid a potpourri of gewgaws; (2) men in semi-clerical garb, were more bold, trying to tie them on your wrist before asking for a donation for “the poor of Jerusalem”; and (3) people, no longer in their youth or in full possession of their faculties, seated around points of access to the Western Wall, with the threads in small rectangular semi-opaque microwavable plastic containers. These people were probably closer to who the real poor of Jerusalem were. If you are going to give, perhaps buy them food from any of the nearby hawkers, who mostly sell bread.

The Via Dolorosa is traditionally the way Jesus took from the judgement seat of Pontius Pilate to Golgotha. Today this goes through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem (the other three quarters are the Christian, Jewish and Armenian). As with many of the other streets, it is narrow and lined on either side with small shops, which mostly sell similar articles: trinkets of many kinds.

Considering Old Jerusalem is a mecca for pilgrims, especially Christian ones, it was astonishing that you could get in free to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which surrounds the sites where Jesus was supposed to have been crucified and later buried. Sure, there was a line about 20 metres long to get into the chapel where the tomb is believed to have been located, but it would have been longer if it were tourist season.

You might expect, from what you hear on the news, that Jerusalem would be a militarized zone, with Jews and Muslims at each other’s throats. In fact I saw nothing of the sort, just people trying to live their lives among a gaggle of Gentiles and infidels tromping through their city.

General hints

If you understand English, be grateful. (I saw a poster reading “If you can read, thank a teacher. If you can read English, thank a soldier.”) Many countries have English as a compulsory part of their curriculum. This makes travelling easy for the monolingual, who are a minority these days. Having said this, it’s always good to learn a few basic phrases in the national language, like “Hello”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “I don’t understand” and “Do you speak English?” I think people are pleased if you make an effort to understand their language, even if you have to stumble through using Google translate or Babelfish: the effort shows respect for them and their culture.

Airport staff in general, and international airports in particular, have a humourless mien, fitting for trying to prevent bombs and drugs entering the country and its national treasures leaving it. This is especially true of Ben Gurion airport, whose security processes could be said to be the most stringent in the world. The security staff examine everything. After asking your about why you were in Israel, how long, and who you stayed with – and in some cases how long you have known your travelling companion! – they put your check-in baggage through an X-ray machine. (Actually, you do all the manual lifting.) Then you take the baggage to another desk, open it, where they examine and swab everything thoroughly, separating out the electronic equipment, to look for drugs. If they like you they might help you repack. Then you can check your baggage in and go through the personal check, just like other airports. You might find yourself being asked at random for your passport by staff while you’re standing in line.

All this seems tedious and irritating rather than a safety issue but since countries, the Israelis in particular, put so high a value on airport security, it seems fair to make a note of the topic, as well as the fact that border security staff in some countries carry submachine guns. The best way to deal with the probing and poking and waiting is to temporarily abandon your imagined right to personal privacy, and put up with it. Answer their questions seriously; don’t complain; otherwise you might find yourself at the wrong end of a disposable glove.