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Julie Gray Headshot

Not Home for the Holidays

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Nine and a half months ago, more than an alarmingly overdue pregnancy and much to the mystification and consternation of many, I moved from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, Israel.

I have experienced my first air raid sirens, my first war, my first bus bombing. I have lived in a city and in a country whose language I cannot understand beyond the basics. I live in a country both beloved and despised, where the past, modernity, religion and politics collide with intractable, relentless tragedy.

I live on the corner of Rehov Bugrashov and Rehov Hamelech George where vivid, sometimes DEFCON 5 protests occur weekly, on various topics ranging from animal cruelty to one of my favorite euphemisms -- hamatsav (the "situation" with the Palestinians).

I left behind my friends, my pets, my stuff, my life. I have never eaten so much hummus in my life and I never knew my sweat glands could be so prodigious. I am not from here. I am reminded of that daily. I am "the American." Nothing is as I expected, nothing goes as planned. My life is now 85 percent less convenient. Gradually, as I am forced to let go of my American expectations of order and instant gratification, I am beginning to shift into a new reality; I am growing much more circumspect and patient.

I am in a relationship for the first time in many years, after much fruitless, lonely searching in what felt like a dating wasteland in LA. I'm not in a relationship with just with any guy either; my boyfriend is an Israeli man of the sayaret variety. Gender roles are much more old-fashioned here, on the whole. Israel is no tragically backward Afghanistan but my LA friends would choke on their tongues if they saw the way I interact with my boyfriend. And also give their eyeteeth to have such a man. I think many American women secretly crave a man's man, some relief from having to be strong and independent at all times. The push and pull, the American cultural assignation that women should both bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan is what leaves many American women serial singletons, weary and world worn, trying to be it all and do it all. I don't miss that. I like the assuredness of more defined gender roles.

Every exterior condition that one can face has to be faced anew for me. Culture, environment (read: withering heat and humidity), language and relationship status. I jumped into the deep end and I was burnished in the fire of total reinvention. A once adept, single, independent, articulate, multi-tasking American woman overnight became an inept, mute observer who does everything wrong at every turn. To begin to overcome that, even in small steps, is exhilarating. I am adapting on a cellular level.

And then I went home for the holidays. I was nervous about visiting the U.S. after what felt like a lifetime abroad. Would it feel like home? Would I be tempted to stay? Would things be different? Or the same? Would anybody notice how changed I am? Would they care?

After a grueling 17-hour flight, I landed in LA with very mixed feelings. The second the plane full of exhausted travelers prepared for landing, my glasses broke, symbolism I find ironic but mostly deeply annoying. Was I not meant to see my homeland clearly?

There was the familiar (but sans glasses, blurry) Hollywood sign, nestled in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. There was the observatory and Beverly Hills and downtown LA. There was the graffiti and the shoes dangling from power lines. It felt familiar and yet totally foreign. The city streets were sprawling and confusing. I had forgotten all of my secret bypasses and shortcuts. I was a stranger in a familiar land.

So much anticipation and expectation was bound to be a let down. It didn't take more than a day for disillusionment to set in. My friends were at the same jobs, with the same complaints, writing about the same things -- or were they? My vision was blurred, after all. American foods that I had been dying for didn't satisfy. It was not the sweet relief to speak and read English all day every day that I hoped for. Turns out I like the strange peace of living in a linguistic bubble. Nobody and no thing was different. Worse, nobody seemed to notice the seismic changes within me. What hubris to think that anyone would when they are as immersed in their own lives as I am in mine. We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us crave recognition, especially when we've done something quite odd.

Despite what friends, colleagues and family did or did not notice about me, I on the other hand, noticed a lot. During my visit, I was asked with incredulity how I manage without a microwave, a television or a washer and a dryer. I watched from what seemed like a great distance as friends tapped away incessantly at their iPads and iPhones while we spoke. Ever the polite Americans, they apologized over and over, but they just had to return this text or that call. In these situations, I recognized my old self.

I often felt, when I was an Angeleno, as if I was on some kind of tinsel-strewn hamster wheel, running and running with no end in sight. The stress of that colored my daily life with a pervasive existential angst. Time was my enemy and the multitude of time saving conveniences at my fingertips just gave me more time to chase and to fill, never endingly. Time seemed to recede from my grasp no matter what I did. I became a world-class multi-tasker and connoisseur of time management. And yet I skated along the surface, like so many of my fellow Angelenos, in a hurry all of the time. Too busy to really connect with anyone or anything on more than a cursory level. I remember, in that life of mine, feeling rather empty at the end of the day.

Some friends, I discovered, are distance-resistant. I felt the same connection and intimacy after having not seen them in the flesh for many months. Other friends I realized with no small amount of chagrin, I had very little in common with at all. I could no longer relate to their reality of LA traffic, online dating woes and career frustrations, ever failing sideways, with high but increasingly fading hopes. Hollywood, as Dorothy Parker once said, is the only place where one can die of encouragement. Los Angeles is often maligned as being "fake." I counter that it's not so much a fake place as a place largely but not dominantly populated by people with an enormous straining to be someone more beautiful, successful or cool. In that respect, it's exhausting to be an Angeleno. Or really, I should say to be a denizen of the Hollywood/entertainment microcosm, established and wannabe alike. There is such a pervasive, ceaseless paddling toward the green light at the end of the dock. Of a time I found it exhilarating. Now it just drains me to contemplate.

In Israel, one is not defined by one's job or career to the same degree. It is enough to earn money and to live well. Living well is defined differently here. Less by stuff and more by time with family and the obtaining, cooking and enjoying of food, which is eaten with gusto. Multiply, during my holiday visit, I heard friends and family apologize for their perceived gluttony during the holidays. They would start a diet right after the holiday, they said. They "hated" themselves for having this treat or that, effectively turning the treat into a kind of self-flagellating ordeal rather than a sensual delight. Israelis are very passionate about food and totally unapologetic about same.

Ideals of beauty, success and happiness are more grounded here, more sensual and present. In Los Angeles, I was not young or thin enough to be considered attractive. In Israel, I am beautiful. Israelis like a woman with meat on her bones. Age is not a discriminating factor. Americans, I observe with my new eyes, have a very conflicted relationship with sex, violence and food. Our collective values of course informed my own. How good it is to step away from my old beliefs and to discover that they were geographic in nature and not necessarily true.

At the time that I left the U.S. and during my visit, my friends and family expressed bafflement if not a whiff of betrayal at my decision to live in Israel. Why on earth would one leave the U.S., with its modernity, conveniences and sanity? Yet days before I returned, the Connecticut school massacre had occurred, leaving me as heartbroken as any other American and with as many questions. Sanity, it seems, is a moveable definition.

I can tell you for sure that I love and appreciate America much more now than when I lived there. I also see it more clearly, in the same way one sees the past with clarity impossible to have in the moment. I have learned, living abroad, that I am American to the marrow of my bones and I feel no compunction about that. I often find myself an unwitting American Ambassador, explaining our collective roots and impulses. I can also see our downsides but as a humanist and lover of perspective, I am quick to point out that every country has up and downsides and a unique history that has shaped it.

I love American music, and staggering diversity of food, our open roads and our humor, irony, fuck yeah rebellion and openness. I love our debate, our imperfection and our flaws. But I am glad I do not live in the U.S. right now. I do not like where we are going or what we are becoming. That said, I don't think there is a place on this planet where one could avoid the pervasive and corrosive consumerism and materialism that has spread like kudzu, fostering greedy corporate giants and a thirst that cannot be slaked.

Have I escaped all that in Israel? Certainly not. But it's of a different tenor here, consumerism. It's present, mind you, just not nearly as dominant. Yet. No, I'm just a new immigrant with few friends and no microwave. But I would be disingenuous if I didn't say that the Having and Achieving of Stuff is definitely not as much a cultural value in Israel. I guess you could say we have more pressing things going on.

I have all the necessities where I live now, but almost none of the conveniences. I feel happier, more relaxed, and more centered. My life is much, much quieter. Mostly because I am new here, so I don't have the number of friends that I had in Los Angeles. Ironically though, in LA, I had very close friends that I only saw every few weeks because LA is so big, the freeways are a nightmare and we were always "too busy". I also had friends that I now realize were not friends at all but simply people with one or two things in common, mostly living in Los Angeles. Welcome to the Thunderdome, I used to tell newbies to LA, only half joking. By the time I left, I had battle scars that were bloody and deep, yet hidden within.

I have the luxury of being a 21st century expat. I have Facebook, email and a Visa with which to buy a ticket back home. But it isn't home anymore. During my visit, that uncomfortable realization led me to feel both totally adrift and oddly energized; when the whole world is your possibility, the whole world is your home. Human values and vagaries, both good and bad are therefore universal and inescapable. Apples and oranges, pears and plums, the fruit of humanity is just various shades of emphases. I like the emphasis where I live. I liked it in LA too, of a time. But I have changed.

The New Me finds the environment in Los Angeles an existence of thinly veiled aggression and an orange hunting vest hue of competitiveness, fueled by ephemeral, sometimes desperate dreams, materialism and a strenuous cultivation of one's image.

From the frying pan to the fire, I used to joke about moving to Israel. From one kind of war zone to another. Israelis are pragmatists and are infamously blunt. In Los Angeles aggression is cloaked with a smile, but in Israel, assertion is the thing. The smallest argument goes to DEFCON 5 and as quickly dissipates. I think that often, when Americans see what looks like a very alarming shouting match in the Middle East on TV, they are probably watching an argument over a parking space. They are aghast at what, to the uninitiated looks and feels so intense but are not privy to the way the air is cleared as quickly. Israelis do not mince words. You must take a stand or be run over and that's the way it is. For a good girl and serial pleaser, my time here has been one long hazing, forcing me to stand up for myself in ways that I never dreamt possible. I like it.

I like the newness of life where I am. The warm, fresh falafel, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, the mild, nutty taste of tahini which is drizzled over everything, the tall, bracing glasses of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. I like swimming in the Mediterranean, languishing in the azure warmth and looking at the lights of Tel Aviv and Yaffo at night. I like hearing the alte zachen man and his horse clip clop by every morning and the warmth and directness of Israelis. I am very aware of and grateful for the fact that my consulting work is online and that I am therefore able to live overseas. I do not know how long I will live here and I do see some costs. Coming "home" and not feeling home at all being chief among them. Of course a washer and dryer would be awfully nice. I could get so much more done.

Back in Tel Aviv, after an absence of two weeks that felt like Persephone's journey from darkness to Spring, I sit on Allenby Street outside a Laundromat. My vacation laundry tumbles in a dryer that costs five shekels for fifteen minutes -- an exorbitant price. I look to my right and I can see the indescribably blue Mediterranean Sea, just two blocks away. The beach is quiet today since the weather is a chilly 65F compared to the usual summer temps. The grocery store owner who runs the adjoining laundromat plays Arab pop music loud enough for all passersby to enjoy and the street is littered with cigarette butts. I sit and wait as the laundry tumbles dry. Nobody texts me, I have nowhere else to be right now. I marvel at the irony of the fact that I live in one of the most conflict-torn regions of the world and yet I feel so at peace.

Reluctantly, I also realize that it is the not so deeply buried, childish part of me that wants others to affirm or approve of my life choice. To notice how fundamentally I have changed. But isn't that why I moved? To let go of my old values and perspectives? To change?

I am glad I went home for the holidays but Thomas Wolfe was right, you can't go home again. The old trope "home is where the heart is" seems about right though.

Sitting here in the warm January sun with the holidays behind me, it is enough simply to be here and to luxuriate in the opportunity that I created for myself, to reinvent, recreate and restore who I am and who I will be. I don't know how long I will live here. When I have had enough of this fishbowl, I suppose.