Friday, 2 September 2016

Here we go again.......


Now I’ve not written anything on here for a while.  Partly I’ve been too busy at work, and partly I’ve been based in Amsterdam for the best part of two years so had relatively little new to say after the first few months.  What essays I have written have been published on LinkedIn as they have been less about travel and more about business and politics.  But the Amsterdam contract has finished and after a relaxing summer, recharging these clapped out old batteries, I’m on the move again.  So I’m back……

To a new project, and a new destination.

It’s a place I’ve been very critical of in past essays and conversations, both here and on other social media and over coffee or beer in a variety of places, and one I’ve always said I had no real interest in visiting.  But the lure of a long term project and a decent financial deal have brought me here anyway.  And before you ask, my scruples haven’t particularly changed – my wider view of the country’s politics and behaviour remain unchanged, and had I been able to find an equally attractive proposal elsewhere would undoubtedly have taken that instead.  But in the event that didn’t happen so here I am, at least until the New Year and quite possible for a good while beyond that.

So here I am, in sunny Tel Aviv.  Israel.



Getting here was challenging.

There are plenty of options, both direct from Warsaw and on various alternative routes with one or more flight changes, but because of some mild disagreements over contract details (happily and favourably resolved) my departure was delayed to the extent that those options were limited.  I had proposed a specific (very reasonably priced) pair of direct flights on my old friends WizzAir, but the airline is not on my agent’s approved list.  So last Friday, once the contract details were in place, the client company tried to book flights for the following day, to start on the usual Middle Eastern business day of Sunday.  No chance – fully booked.  There were two options offered – a direct night flight on LOT Sunday night (arriving Monday early hours) or a 9:15 a.m. departure Tuesday morning on El Al, arriving mid-afternoon. 

I had no choice in the decision, since I was paddling along in kayaks on the river Pilica with my beloveds, enjoying a final break before my return to gainful employment (and their return to school) and thus out of touch.  My project manager made a judgement call and chose the El Al flight on my behalf – and very happy I was too.  An extra couple of days at home and a full nights’ sleep before work.  Perfect.

I packed my bags, for a 12 day trip, and on Monday went on the website to check-in.

Now, everyone knows that El Al are incredibly security conscious – nothing wrong with that – and I had heard some horror stories from friends who work at Okecie airport in Warsaw about long queues and arrogant Israeli security personnel.  Equally I had conversations with friends already working here who were insistent that it was straightforward and nothing to lose sleep over.  Traveller opinions on TripAdvisor and elsewhere were equally split – a huge number were scathing (some of the worst I have ever read anywhere) and others very complimentary.  Usually when I’m doing research like this I discount the really good and the really poor and settle for the middle ground as probably more accurate – but in this case there was no middle ground at all.  And so no real help at all. 

Incidentally, I did notice a bit of a curiosity in the reviews.  The complimentary ones tended to be by short and medium haul passengers, usually from Europe somewhere, with names like Goldstein and Cohen.  The worst – by far! – were from US located long haul passengers with names like Goldstein and Cohen, whose expectations were clearly way higher than the more local passengers.  There were complaints about security procedures, flight delays, quality of the food and service (too small helpings delivered slowly by harassed cabin crew was a popular refrain), and – ludicrously! – too many children on the flight (are they supposed to swim the Atlantic?!?!?!?).  Now having flown on various US carriers a few times over the last 15 years or so, I simply do not understand this – I can honestly say that the worst flight experiences and miserable, old and ugly flight crews, and the worst food, were all delivered courtesy of those US carriers.  Delta in particular were abysmal. 

Which all goes to prove my belief that in general terms Americans have little or no taste – any nation even half-seriously considering an oaf like Donald Trump for President is really in trouble and has nothing to brag about.



Anyway, check in was easy enough, but I could not change my over-wing seat, despite being offered the option: a technical problem of some kind blocked the seat map.  Not a big deal, but frustrating – I do like a good uninterrupted view when I’m going anywhere new, and with the Mediterranean sunshine stretching pretty much all the way to Poland I anticipated a pleasant flight. 

The check-in also advised getting to the airport a full four hours before departure for the “enhanced security process”.  It seemed extreme and meant a 4:30 a.m. start, but ok – I’ll do it if I have to.  The website lied.  I dutifully got there at 5:00, and check-in didn’t start until 6:20.  At least I was at the front of the “Other Passports” queue.  Rather than just a couple of desk agents, the airline commandeered an entire block of six, and in front of them set up about 10 small portable lecterns and a maze of rope barriers.  Each lectern was manned by a customer security agent (their terminology) who made a cross-examination of each passenger in turn, before allowing them to proceed to three gate agents and two supervisors to deposit checked bags.  At each end of the zone stood burly guards in camouflage suits, bullet proof vests, headsets and dark glasses, cradling Uzi machine pistols across their chests and looking suspiciously all around.  Just a tad intimidating…..

I got the Third Degree Interrogation (as opposed to the “have a nice flight” most of the other passengers seemed to be getting).  The very nice Polish girl who conducted it was having problems understanding how an English man can own a company domiciled in Poland, and through a separate English company work on a project in Israel supporting a Swiss software house.  There was also a concern about some old Qatari stamps in my passport, so my baggage had a thorough going over, both hand and hold bags opened and searched.  Oh, and the lack of a work permit didn’t help – the explanation that I was visiting the bank this week to finalise terms and conditions and the bank would then kick off the application was eventually accepted after some discussion.  It all took 45 minutes.

Time for a coffee and cake for breakfast, then onto the flight.  I asked about a seat change, on the grounds that their check-in system was broken and wouldn’t let me do it myself.  They offered to sell me a different seat for an additional $200.  I stayed where I was, over the wing.  I had a good book, and of course my music, so was happy enough.

The flight was actually ok.  A 737-800 is a comfortable enough plane, just about enough leg room and the person in front didn’t recline her seat much.  The weather was perfect, clear and smooth air all the way…..just a shame about the (lack of a) view.  We had a just about adequate breakfast – a very plain and very small omelette, roll, butter and apricot jam, a yoghurt, tea or coffee (glad I ate something before boarding!) but at least the flight crew were polite and helpful (unlike some mentioned in the various customer reviews I had read).

Breezed through passport control on arrival, a 10 minute wait for my bag and out through customs with not a second glance from anyone.    Efficient taxi service, and into the city within an hour of landing – better than I had expected.  Hurrah!



I’m staying in the Dan Panorama Hotel.  It towers over the beach and my tenth floor room has a small balcony and a nice view north along the promenade, the beach and Mediterranean – all very pleasant.  There is a decent sized pool here and a gym, neither of which I’ve used yet, and a couple of bars and restaurants that seem a tad pricy.  TV is ok, local channels, plus German, Italian, Spanish and French options, the inevitable CNN and (for a change) Sky News UK rather than the much better BBC World News.  The bed is comfortable and very big, free wifi, kettle and coffee kit provided so I have no complaints at all really.  It’s also only a 5 minute walk from the site, so I don’t need to rely on local transport – given that I understand not a word of Hebrew (in which of course all the destinations and road signs are written) this is a great advantage.

My taxi driver in from the airport insisted the beaches here were the BEST in the whole world.  He needs to get out more.  It’s a typical Med beach, so sandy, with warm shallow sea that I tested Wednesday evening (delightful of course, especially after the chilly Baltic in July), and it’s very crowded – as you would expect for a city centre beach.  Lots of umbrellas and sunbeds (at a price, no doubt), and hordes of young people in very small swimsuits and bikinis playing beach tennis or a kind of football keepie-uppie and showing off their tans and bodies to anyone who cares to admire them.  Very much like Greece and Italy and Spain, except that they are locals and not drunken tourists.

I had a stroll along it again last night, and located the nearest Irish pub (my venue for the football on tv at weekends when I’m here) and a McDonalds.  I tried it last night, and had a burger I’ve not seen before (at least it’s not sold in Poland or, as far as I know, England).  It’s called a Big American, and is basically a Big Mac the size of a dinner plate – huge.  But very tasty, with large fries and a coke.  My usual healthy eating…….



Anyway, here I am, for the foreseeable future. 

It’s the weekend today (the usual Middle Eastern Sunday through Thursday business week prevails – I always find adjusting to that a bit tricky), so I’m off to the hotel gym and the beach in a minute, to burn off that Big American.  Tomorrow, when more things are open, I’ll have a bit of an explore, see more of the town, maybe mooch along to the old port town of Jaffa a mile or so south, and see what’s there.

So further epistles to follow.

Happy days.