All posts by theresac

Caesarea — Exploring Israel with Kids

One of the most amazing things about living in Jerusalem is living within spitting distance of thousands of years of history. Caesarea (pronounced Keh-sar-ee-ya) is an old Roman town on the Mediterranean coast of Israel. It’s about an hour North of Tel Aviv, and about 90 minutes from Jerusalem. On the first official day of my “staycation,” we loaded the kids into the car and headed to Caesarea bright and early, in hopes of avoiding Israel’s punishing mid-day sun.

Whimsical sculpture of horses and a chariot at the entrance to Caesarea National Park in Israel
Whimsical sculpture of horses and a chariot at the entrance to Caesarea National Park in Israel

Bertrand, and surprisingly, three-year-old Jasmine*, is into Art-with-a-capital-A, so we started the day by stopping in a couple of the art galleries clearly designed to separate tourists from their money. It almost worked, but happily for us, none of the credit card machines in the port were working. Bullet dodged (just kidding, sweetheart, we’ll go back and get those paintings).

Post-gallery, we watched a short film on the history of the port town. As one of my colleagues described it, “hokey, but worth 15 minutes of your time to situate you historically.” And then we headed into the park to dance on the ruins of the Roman Empire.

So to speak.

Caesarea provides ample opportunities for kids to run around and climb the ruins. While parts are fenced off or under active archeological excavation, the vast majority of the park is open for exploration.

Tour guide Jasmine in Caesarea National Park, Israel
Tour guide Jasmine
A quick pause for water and shade at Caesarea National Park, Israel
A quick pause for water and shade

Both Jasmine and Grace had a wonderful time climbing up stairs, through tunnels, and exploring every corner of the ruined city.

 

After we finished exploring the park, we set out a quick picnic lunch (how did we manage to not get any pictures?!) across from the columns pictured below.

(A quick aside to anyone who hates on Israeli customer service: the folks at Caesarea were great.  Even though it wasn’t their job to do so, the lovely ladies running the pre-tour film worked incredibly hard to get us tickets, once they realized that we hadn’t paid, we wanted to pay, the credit card machines weren’t working, the ATM wasn’t working, and that we had no cash. It wasa real challenge to take our money so that we could actually get into the park, and they figured it out graciously, then personally walked us to the gate so that the gatekeeper would believe us when we said we’d paid.)

* Definitely a humble brag.

What I’ve Been Reading – 7/24/2015

The Year I Embraced Minimalism and Completed a Yearlong Shopping Ban

I also added takeout coffee to the list of things I was not allowed to purchase. I’ve been drinking coffee for 15 years and, by the time I started the ban, I was buying $5 lattes at least 4-5 days/week ($80-100/month). That’s not a lot of money, in the grand scheme of things, but it was still money I could’ve done better things with than drink and piss away (literally). At Catherine’s suggestion, I started a “Shopping Ban” account, so I could save all the money I wasn’t spending on coffee as well as the money I got from any items I sold during my declutter. I started by putting $100/month into the account and assumed I’d have $1,200-$1,500 at the end.

The Myth of the Ethical Shopper: turns out, it’s harder to buy ethically than we thought.

The Foreign Service and the Single Parent: Fascinating perspective, written by a friend and colleague, on a life that’s hard enough on families with two parents, let alone when there’s no one to pick up the slack when the officer has a late night at the office.

NY Times profile of a container ship, specifically, how easily international vessels escape law enforcement efforts.

Chillin’ like villians at the playground

West Jerusalem has some really great playgrounds. The Israelis have a strong culture of outdoors and activity, and we are taking advantage of it while we’re here. Last weekend was jam packed, but somehow, my husband carved out a couple of hours to head down to a local playground and let the kids run around like maniacs. Our goal was to wear the kids out so that they’d both take long naps. We succeeded (of course we did!), and I thankfully had the presence of mind to grab the DSLR on the way out the door.

Like most parents, I find my kids absolutely enchanting. As someone who wasn’t particularly close to her sibling growing up, the closeness I see between Jasmine and Grace is mind blowing. Jasmine spent a lot of time helping her sister climb onto playground equipment, pushing her on the swings, and showing her how to swing.

And of course, Grace spent a lot of time mimicking every single thing her sister did. If Jasmine wanted a snack, Grace wanted a snack. If Jasmine tore off to one end of the playground, so did Grace. And if Jasmine tripped and fell, well, Grace threw herself on the ground too.

I had planned on walking up to the train station with one of the kids when they were done, but it was hot and humid and sweaty and frankly, I was absolutely wiped from chasing the kids up and down the playground.


So when we got home, I took a nap too.

Grace’s Baptism

The day after Bertrand returned from Cotonou with the girls, the monks from the monastery where Bertrand attends services called to remind us that we were baptizing Grace on Pentecost.

We hadn’t yet found godparents, we hadn’t made any plans for a reception. Hell, we didn’t even have a dress for Grace to wear. The brothers, however, were firm. Grace would be baptized on Pentecost, and the monastery would host a small reception afterwards for our family and their parishioners.

Friends were supposed to fly into town that weekend, I was supposed to be dropping them off in Amman the day of the baptism, and dear Lord, how was it that we didn’t know any Catholics in Jerusalem who could serve as godparents?

Oh dear.

Somehow, everything managed to work out. Our friends (sadly, but thankfully) canceled. Bertrand’s cousin, Fleur, flew in from France to be Grace’s godmother. George, a former coworker, agreed to be Grace’s godfather. And the reception was absolutely beautiful.

After meeting at our house, we caravanned to the monastery with Fleur, George, George’s girlfriend Fadia, and the girls. When we arrived, the monks ushered us to their receiving room, where George gave Grace a beautiful bracelet.

Grace didn’t care about the bracelet, but she thought the box was great!

As the hour of the service approached, we made our way outside, so that the baptism could begin.

Grace recieving a blessing at the entrance to the church

The mass and baptism were absolutely beautiful. When it was time to actually baptize Grace, we made our way down into the monastery’s crypt. For centuries, pilgrims and the church thought that this underground spring was Erasmus—where Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Other locations are now more in favor; however, baptizing our daughter using water from a two-thousand-year-old spring was just … amazing.

In the picture above, you can see the pitchers and basin that held the water for Grace’s baptism. Grace was bitterly disappointed about having cold water poured over her head.

Bertrand and I desperately tried to calm her down afterwards, to little avail. Finally, we whispered to her, “Bravo, Grace, bravo. You are so brave! Bravo!” There’s nothing Grace likes better than a “Bravo” and a chance to clap her hands and applaud herself. The priest smiled, and he too said, “Brave, Grace!” And the entire congregation burst into applause, I think both with joy for her baptism, and also in community with the difficulties of managing an unhappy 18-month-old. It was an incredibly sweet moment.

After the ceremony itself, we all filed upstairs to finish the service and take communion. Thank goodness that Fadia was with us to help with Jasmine, as I tried to navigate the steep stairs, hold onto Grace’s baptismal candle, and not drop anything (including the child). There were a million small details that Fadia jumped in to help with, and I was so grateful that George brought her with us!

Then we all filed outside for a few moments of community before continuing onto the reception.


We were surprised and gratified at how many members of the francophone parish community came to celebrate Grace’s welcome into the kingdom of God.

The monastery is absolutely stunning outside, and late spring is a perfect time for an outdoor reception in Jerusalem.

We ate fantastic food and drank delicious French and Israeli wines al fresco. The joke of the reception was that we were American-Beninese parents baptizing our Catholic daughter in a French monastery dating from the Crusades in an Arab village in Israel. There were Christians, Jews, and Muslims in attendance, and that too was a reminder of why I continue to be hopeful for this part of the world. Quite a story for Grace to tell her grandchildren, I think.

But even more than the incredible coincidences that, I think, are more common that you’d expect in my line of work, was the fact that Grace’s baptism was one of the first times either of us have felt really part of a community here in Jerusalem. It was quite a shock to be reminded of the fellowship and peace that can be found in communal worship, something quite separate from anyone’s actual religious beliefs.

Welcome to the kingdom of God indeed, Grace!

Solo Travel to Akko, Israel

Old City Akko is a tiny fishing village slash crusader fort, about half an hour outside of Haifa. Over the past thousand years, there has understandably been a great deal of development outside of the ancient walls, but the tourist attractions are all in the Old City itself.

I rose bright and early to walk the rampart walls before the city woke up.

Like many cities in Israel, Old Akko is a maze of tunnels and bridges and alleyways. It’s small, so even when I got lost, I was able to quickly find my way back to landmarks.

Aside from the beauty of the Old City, there’s an old crusader fort that was recently discovered underground. Akko has been excevating and rennovating the fort, so that tourists like myself can take a look around. The complex is enormous! The city has done an amazing job restoring the fort and creating an audio tour to take tourists through it.

Exiting the fort to the next destination on my intinerary, on the otherhand, was claustraphobic. I made my way through undergorund tunnels barely wide enough for my shoulders, and barely tall enough for me to stand. In some places, not at all tall enough (and I am not very tall). The path was unmarked, and I experienced a brief moment of panic, worried that I’d stay lost in the tunnels forever.

I eventually found my way out and to the Turkish baths, but a word to the wise, the tunnels are an experience it pays to be prepared for.

The history of the town of Akko is wrapped up in its leaders, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. In the 18th Century, one of Akko’s fiercest protectors, Jezzer Pasha built a mosque, still used today for daily prayers. One of the most bizarre moments of my trip was seeing a group of female tourists argue with the gatekeeper about their modesty before entering the mosque grounds. Sleeves and a hair covering are required; however, if, like me, you wear a hat and a shirt that covers your shoulders because OMG SUN WRINKLES CANCER, then you’ll be fine as you are.

Before stopping at the famous Uri Buri for lunch, I took a final walk around Akko’s walls. You can see the Port of Haifa in the distance.

Lunch was delicious, and quite reasonably priced for the quality and quantity that I recieved. Caviar with marscapone? Shrimp and artichokes? Delicious Israeli wine? SIGN ME UP.

Uri Buri is a hidden gem (well known, but also well hidden) in Akko. Highly recommended!

More Solo Travel in Haifa, Israel

Haifa’s a neat town. Traveling alone, I wasn’t looking for bars or a music scene—just beautiful scenery, the sea, and museums. Given that, it’s possible to see everything in a day, provided you’re traveling alone and don’t have to worry about potty breaks and naps and mealtimes like you do when traveling with children.

I left Jerusalem before dawn in order to get to Haifa just as the Baha’i gardens opened. There’s tons of free parking in the German Colony, right at the base of the gardens, and where my guesthouse was located. I took advantage of it, and began the treck to the gardens.

The gardens are split into three seperate levels, each of which must be entered seperately. Making my way from level to level, I discovered several parks and museums.


There’s a sculpture garden and playground hidden on the path between the middle and upper levels of the Baha’i gardens. These sculptures by Ursula Malbin are often whimsical, and clearly designed for children to play on and around them.

On my way up the mountain to the top of the gardens, I also visited the Tokaie Museum of Japanese Art, and the Museum of Avant-Guarde Jewish Art. The Japense art museum was serene and beautiful, but I was most struck by the Jewish art museum. The museum featured art from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, and it was a fascinating look into changes in Jewish identity as Jews colonized and settled Israel. It was very cool and surprisingly emotional (particularly for this non-Jew who has lived many years in countries still ravaged by the after effects of European colonialism).

After the museums and the gardens, I walked along the Louis Promenade, a shaded boardwalk at the very top of the city with spectacular views over Haifa and the port. There were lots of families out, and I was startled to discover how much I missed my children.

A few miles away from the Promenade, you can visit the Stella Maris, site of Elijah’s cave, and a small protestant monestary. The monestary has some beautiful art, but unfortunately, Elijah’s cave was closed for Shabbat.

After visiting everything I could on the beach during daylight hours, I headed to the “Old City” . The neighborhood is known for it’s art installations, one of which you can see above. It’s also known for the best falafel in Israel. Falefel Hazkenim was delicious and inexpensive.

I finished out the day by watching the sun set over the Mediterranean. I sat on the rocks for an hour, as the sky grew dark, people watching, and enjoying the peacefulness of the waves crashing against the shore.

Visiting the Bahá’í Gardens in Haifa, Israel

Traveling alone is a surprisingly communal experience. After years of relying on Bertrand’s charm and ability to make instant friends, I found is startlingly easy to find good company and conversation while exploring Northern Israel on my own.

When Bertrand abruptly left for Benin with the girls after his father passed away, I found myself with ample time on my hands. I would follow my family to Benin two weeks later, but in the meantime, I was by myself in a large empty house. I loved having time alone with my thoughts, but found staying at home alone to be unnervingly lonely.

I decided to travel.

The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa are perfectly ordered—every blade of grass cut to the same height, every pebble as it should be. There are three levels, built seperately as the Baha’i have acquired more land in Haifa. All three levels open at 9:00 am, but the shrine in the middle level is only open from 9:00 to 12:00.

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel – Lower Level

To get from level to level, you have to exit the gardens, then hike up Mount Caramel. Yikes. It’s quite a steep hike, and not through picturesque parts of town. After visiting the lower level, I took at taxi to the middle level (it was exhorbitant, and I walked from the middle level to the upper level).

At each entrance, Baha’i guards reminded visitors that we were entering a holy place, and to be respectful. Don’t walk on the grass. Don’t touch the perfectly clear and clean water.

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel – Middle Level

The shrine in the middle of the gardens is stunning, and incredibly peaceful. Pictures of the interior are verboten, as are shoes, but you can see below a photo of the beautiful stone and marble work on the outside.

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel – Middle Level

Finally, I made it to the top. My legs and glutes were killing me from the uphill walk, but the view was worth every moment of pain.

Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel – View of Haifa from the Upper Level

I found the Baha’i Gardens soothing in a way that quite surprised me. I didn’t expect the complete and total orderliness to be quite so satisfying. Bringing the children along, and I will eventually do that, would not have brought such deep peace to my soul.

It was an incredible way to begin my trip up North.

Easter in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Watching the sun rise over the Old City in Jerusalem on Easter
Sunrise over Old City Jerusalem on Easter morning

On Easter morning, we got up before dawn, dressed the girls, and drove downtown for Easter Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. What could be more spiritual than Easter in Jerusalem, supposedly on the spot where Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago?

Well, a lot, actually.

But it was a good adventure, and we’d definite recommend it to anyone without young children.

Easter in Jerusalem - outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
The church was deserted when we arrived — part of the reason we got there so early.

Once we got downtown (the city was deserted that early), we parked at the Consulate (yes, that’s one of the perks of working for the Americans—free parking in downtown Jerusalem on a Sunday morning), and walked to the Old City. We entered through Jaffa gate, and made our way through the deserted Souk to the church.

We arrived at the church around 7:00, and started asking where the Catholic mass would take place. The church is shared by Catholics, Syriacs, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox, so we wanted to make sure we were sitting in the right place. We found some wooden benches, and sat down with Jasmine in my lap, Bertrand to my right, and Grace still in the stroller (where she miraculously stayed until the service was almost finished).

The church slowly filled, and a Syriac mass began behind us. We quickly discovered that we’d chosen our seats poorly—the Syriacs had to walk through our aisle in order to touch the edifice in the middle of the church as part of their prayers. Oops! We were pretty easy going about it, much more so than the folks around us, and just pushed our bench back a foot or so to make room (it was standing room only behind us).

Easter in Jerusalem - Mass inside, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

About two hours into the mass, a young man came through, shouting at us to get up! And move! We did, and he pushed the benches out of the way so that the Catholics could make their procession around the the church. Previous to that, sitting and standing with Jasmine was no problem, but once we found ourselves without seats and pushed into the crowd, the experience was much less fun with children. Folks who’d previously been very kind about our stroller made several nasty comments, and, as we were pushed and jostled and Jasmine protested, we got a few comments about the noise as well.

Eventually, we just decided to leave. We couldn’t see, I was carrying Jasmine (who is getting big), and frankly, another hour of watching the Catholics march around the church and sing while being pushed and shoved in every direction didn’t seem like a terriblly spiritual experience for Bertrand or I. With the help of some lovely Syriacs, we lifted the stroller over the barriers, and pushed our way out of the church.

Perhaps the coolest part of the whole experience was listening to the three different Christian services going on at the same time in the church. It’s true that the different sects get along so poorly that they had to designate a Muslim family to hold the keys to the church, but at the same time, the fact that they somehow manage to share the space at all in a city as fractious as Jerusalem is beautiful to me.

Easter in Jerusalem - Snacks in the Old City after Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Post service snacks in the old city — pizza and calzones.

After the service, we drove down to First Station to meet another family for brunch, and had a lovely time letting the kids run around like morons.

Easter in Jerusalem - Breakfast at First Station

Not only was the food delicious, but there were tons of events going on for the kids, like live musicians and face painting.  One of the very real advantages of being in Jerusalem with Easter overlapping with Passover.

Easter in Jerusalem - Breakfast at First Station

Happy Easter.

Easter in Jerusalem - Jasmine is all tuckered outсистемы бесплатной раскрутки сайтов

Happy Easter from Jerusalem

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The photo above is of Jasmine skipping down the narrow passage ways of the Old City on our way to mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as the sun rose above Jerusalem this morning.

Easter is my favorite religious holiday.  I find it beautiful that Christians all over the world are today celebrating second chances.  Jerusalem is often heartbreaking, and Easter reminds me that there is hope.  And what are we, teeming masses of unwashed humanity that we are, without hope that tomorrow can be better?

Happy Passover!  Happy (Orthodox) Palm Sunday!  Happy Easter!topodin.com

Our first trip to the West Bank — Biblical Bethlehem

Pedestrian market in Bethlehem
Over the weekend, I woke up early and dragged our family out to Bethlehem. Like Ein Karem last week, it’s a quick inexpensive excursion that didn’t require a lot of advance planning.  It was more of an adventure than expected—both Google and Apple Maps failed us completely. No route available to get from our house to Bethlehem? Really? Maybe if we were Israeli passport holders, but as Americans? Please.

So we downloaded Waze, and hit the road. The first check point is actually only five minutes from our house. My colleagues had prepared me for quite a long wait, but they waved us right through. And then we were in the West Bank for the first time. We eventually found parking in the middle of Bethlehem’s market, and began making our way to the Old City.

We stumbled on a Syrian Orthodox church with an open door, and peeked in.

Mosaic at the Syrian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem

There were several men just hanging out, smoking, and drinking tea, one of whom spoke French fluently (and was happy to find a fellow francophone in Bertrand).  Jasmine and Bertrand turned on the charm, and before long, the girls were welcome to run around in the courtyard and touch the beautiful mosaics on display.

Syrian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem

After peeking into the church, the kids were hungry, so on the way we stopped for shawarma. Bertrand’s the friendliest man in the world, and we quickly made friends with the proprietor and his kid.  Chicken schawarma, hummus, Palestinian garlic sauce, cucumbers and tomatoes, pickles, hot peppers, and yes, the ubiquitous pita bread.  It was absolutely delicious.

Lunch at Al Sufara, Bethlehem

And then Bertrand had to shop. No jokes about how women like to shop in this family! Bertrand can’t resist a sob story (and this trip was rife with them), and so we ended up with quite a bit more knickknacks than we’d planned.

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Finally, we made it to the Church of the Nativity.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Which was beautiful.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

But also awful.

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Nothing like being pushed and shoved while trying to keep track of a three-year-old and a one-year-old to get to The Spot Where Jesus Was Born. And then doing the same to get to The Manger Where Mary Laid Him. I found the whole experience disappointingly commercial (complete with overpaid tour guide that we somehow picked up on the way).

Moasics at Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

I expected the moment to be spiritual, and instead, it just felt … crass.

Beautiful carved doors at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

So there you have it.  The Church of the Nativity.

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On our way out, we stopped to buy a rotisserie chicken (mmmm … those Levantine Arabs and their rotisserie chicken). The kids were getting crabby, so we stopped to buy some sweets. While we were pursuing the cookies, Bertrand was distracted by a juice merchant, and before we knew it, we were whisked away to a quiet side street blessedly empty of crowds of shoppers and tourists.

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The juice and tea were delicious, and the fellowship we found with those who lived on the street was also lovely.

Kafaiyas for sale in Bethlehem

Once we made it back to the car, we were surprised and delighted to come upon a shepherd shepherding his sheep across the road home.  Biblical indeed.раскрутка сайта