I learned decades ago that decades before that, Jerusalemites who were arranging to meet downtown said We’ll meet at the traffic signal, for there was only one in the city. I have been absent from Jerusalem for yet a further decade, so when the opportunity to sign up for a Bus 99 two-hour tour of Jerusalem surfaced, I signed. Bus 99 is a hop-on/hop-off tourist attraction, although this one was privately hired.
The weather this week has been so different from the usual that I left home with opposing accouterments: sun hat, umbrella and sweater. And the essential element, a book. My bag was heavy, my spirits light. The bus will be a double-decker and I almost died of the cold on top of one once, in summer, in Copenhagen. I have not, however, requested to sit up top.
All went well on the bus ride to Jerusalem until the road right up to the city, where the highway was clogged for about half an hour. I hadn’t noticed the lack of progress until the drivers of the three giant trucks that were blocking one lane of traffic were loudly and enthusiastically persuaded to relocate—or else.
In Jerusalem I took the new light-rail train to my old neighbourhood for a delicious lunch with an old friend, then rode it back downtown. It runs into only two areas and they haven't got it right just yet. The ticket machine offers many possibilities if you acquire the information in your chosen language; that took some convincing. I chose the ‘ticket and no receipt’ option; the machine produced a receipt and no ticket. At least if the cops had checked, they couldn't arrest me for not paying.
From downtown I walked cross-town forever until I came to the Dan Panorama Hotel, where Mrs Ditzy, organiser of the Tour of Jerusalem, had directed me to meet the other participants. Not so. The one person at the desk who seemed to know something instructed me to take the bus to the King David Hotel, about half-way back whence I came. Already exhausted, I thought Hell with that, if I have to go back to the King David I will go directly to the bus with my home-town name on it. No—I'll figure it out. Undaunted, and all that.
The desk clerk offered to ring Mrs Ditzy's office and heard We're only open until 2 on Sunday. It’s three o’clock and they’re not open, he says. OK, I say, but I'm fairly sure it's Monday. A woman, chugging by in Jerusalem’s requisite hat, skirt and sneakers, hears us talking and asks if she can help. I snivel out a remarkably obtuse sentence. Hold your anguish, says she, I'm taking that tour too and it starts right across the street. So why are you in this hotel? I like the toilets. Understood. She ushers me across a hugely wide and frantically busy street to meet up with a whole passel of skirted sneaker-wearers. Speaking English. Heaven.
The bus, scheduled to leave at 15:45, arrives at 16:10. It's a huge red double-decker and the driver parks it half-on-the-sidewalk in the approved Jerusalem manner. We rush to get in and just when many of us are comfortably seated upstairs and down, a tiny old man rushes through, frantically yelling Get off the bus, get off the bussss!! You can't get on until you're checked off my list! GET OFF THE BUS!!! Must be Mr Ditzy.
We descend to the sidewalk, trying to avoid eye-level ancient tree branches. As it happens, I land right under Mr Ditzy’s nose—or over it, as he comes up to my shoulder. He begins: BROWN!!! Where are Mr and Mrs BROWNNNNNN? A little old couple wriggles through the crowd and mounts the bus. SCHWARZ!! Where is SCHWARZZZ? Another couple, etc and so on. GOLDBERG!! MR GOLDBERG!!! Mr G nimbly leaps a garden railing to reach Mr D. I look down at his list and say Why don't you ask our names, then find them on the list? Oh no, he says with some horror, I can't do that. I believe him.
The next name is mine. Quietly I say I’m right here and he says You can get on now, gesturing like he's the Host with the Most, and I find a seat facing a charming couple who introduce themselves immediately. Within moments we discover a startling set of common experiences. They have relocated to Jerusalem only recently after visiting for many years; they have brilliant children doing wonderful things and I’m delighted to involve myself, although we are on a tour and we should be listening instead of laughing, I suppose.
In fact, we are the only ones laughing, the rest are trying to hear what the guide is saying. Her microphone goes off and on, off and on; the city is whizzing by and we are having great fun trying to put whole names to the ragged segments we are hearing.
We are shown the four corners of this beautiful city, glowing in the afternoon sun. I lived in Jerusalem for almost fifteen years so I find a number of opportunities to add my own arcane data: There are 57 steps from the street down to Mishkanot Sha’ananim, I climbed them every day when I worked there. That synagogue is the oldest in this area, someone once told me (irrefutable source). That restaurant was once—never mind, it’s an ugly story.
The enjoyable two-hour tour lasts for three hours. When it's over, I consider going out for dinner with my new friends and to my amazement, I decide I'd rather go home. Ninety minutes later I'm eating cheese out of my refrigerator.
Jerusalem is now enormous and exhausting, with uncountable traffic signals. I’m so glad I don’t live there anymore but I’d visit again in a heartbeat.
cross posted Geoffff's Joint