Israel: Ruined Roman Toilets

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Don’t mind me.

Having never been outside the New World, I had never seen actual ancient ruins before in person.  What constitutes a “ruin” in my neck of the woods, is usually half a mud hut from 150 years ago or something (yes, I know there are ancient ruins in the Americas, but not on nearly the same scale as the Old World).  In Israel, it seems you can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting some ancient, crumbling stone building with real archaeological significance, and the rock you threw is probably an ancient relic too.  But, so long as it doesn’t have an inscription on it, you can still take it home.

We saw some new (to us) ruin pretty much everyday, each one more impressive than the last.  That might not sound exciting to everyone, and after a week or so even us history buffs can get a little ruin fatigue.  But for the most part, each one was fascinating in its own right, made more so by our guide Roman’s extensive knowledge and knack for storytelling.  These weren’t just piles of old rocks or windswept foundations.  They were palaces and fortresses.  Vibrant villages and houses of worship.  Biblical people walked along some of these very roads, looked upon some of these very walls, entered through these very gates.  Not to mention how incredible it was that these structures and tunnels were built almost entirely with only the most ancient technology: human muscle.

Our first official stop on our Holy Land tour were the ruins of Caeseria Maritima.  Built by Herod the Great, the same Herod who built the Second Temple and ordered the infants of Judea killed after the birth of Jesus.  He was the Roman appointed ruler of Judea but was not actually a big fan of the Judeans (Israelites).  So he built himself a nice little seaside palace, harbor, and city to rule them from afar.  It was a Roman town for the most part, not a lot of Israelites hanging around.  It was extremely prosperous and was the largest city in Israel in the time of Jesus.  It’s also the place where Herod’s grandson, Herod Agripa, would be struck down by worms after accepting adulation from his subjects when they declared him a god.  Whoops.

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Caesaria Maritima

Of archeological significance, Caesaeria Maritima is where the Pilate Stone was located.  The Pilate Stone, unearthed in 1961, is a limestone block inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilate (yes, that, Pontius Pilate), and hails him as a Roman governor in those parts.  This is significant because prior to its discovery there was no archeological evidence for Pilate’s existence, only the written words of the Bible and ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

aqueduct1It wasn’t hard to see why Herod picked the spot, with its beautiful views of the Mediterranean.  He even had an aqueduct built to bring water to the city from a spring at the foot of Mt. Carmel, 20 miles away.  We saw what was left of the aqueduct.  Pretty impressive stuff.  But perhaps most impressive were the ancient Roman…toilets.  Ok, that’s a joke.  The toilets themselves weren’t that impressive, it was their location.  Right along the entryway to the hippodrome (stadium)!  Imagine walking into AT&T Park and locking eyes with someone in full grimace doing their dirty business.  I think that would hurt season ticket sales.

From Caesaeria it was on to Mt. Carmel and the possible site of Elijah’s battle against the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament.  From atop the mountain, which is really a very long ridge, we had a fantastic view of the Jezreel Valley below.  The Jezreel Valley is a wide flat valley, used primarily for agricultural purposes these days.  But over the centuries, it has been a battlefield fought on by Biblical warriors, Egyptian pharaohs, Napoleon (who called it the perfect battlefield), and, as recently as 1918, the British and the Ottoman Turks.  It’s no surprise then that this will be the location of the Battle of Armageddon spoken of in the book of Revelation.  The word Armageddon is derived from the nearby ancient town of Megiddo, incidentally our next stop on the tour.

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Jezreel Valley from Nazareth
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Down the shaft to the water tunnel

Megiddo nowadays is an archeological mound, or a “tel.”  A tel is a mound or hill which is not naturally occurring, but built up of layer upon layer of human civilization.  One city built on the remains of another over the course of centuries, forming a little mountain.  The really cool thing about Tel Megiddo is the water system.  Built by King Ahab (I think) to allow the citizens to gather water from the nearby spring without leaving the city’s fortified walls, it’s a shaft and tunnel system still intact today.  And we got to explore it!

Our last major stop of the day was Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus.  We went to a high point near there which overlooked the Jezreel Valley from the other side for another stunning view.  Then it was on to Galilee where we would spend our next few nights.  You know, on the Sea of Galilee.  Unreal.

Next up:  Mount Arbel, the Jordan River, St. Peter’s fish, and sailing the Sea of Galilee

Other observations:

  • You can buy  wedding wine in the First Miracle Souvenir Store in Cana, the town where Jesus turned water into wine.  No, seriously.
  • Traffic in Nazareth is terrible. Maybe worse than in Jesus’ time.
  • I saw a mongoose!
  • Falafels are the Israeli fast food equivalent of cheeseburgers.  And they are amazing.

Checkpoints:  0

Israel: Land of Cats?

Snapchat-265181827About nine months ago, my dad announced he would be leading a group to Israel for a tour of the Holy Land.  He had lead a few such tours before, most recently in 2010, and I always hoped one day to join him.  But, as you can imagine, a 12 day tour of the land of the Israelites doesn’t come cheap.  So when he made the announcement I thought, “That would be a great trip, but I just don’t think I can afford it right now.  Maybe someday.”

Not long after the announcement, dad came to me and said as the leader of the tour, he was able to bring along one person, free of charge.  Would I like to go?  I’m pretty sure I asked Jen first if I could leave her alone with two kids and two crazy dogs for 12 days, but I may not have before answering a resounding “YES!”  It’s not too often you can walk where Jesus walked for the price of lunches and souvenirs.  Jen, because she is the World’s Most Amazing Woman, of course agreed to let me go on what I thought at the time, but hopefully won’t be, was a once in a lifetime journey.

Before continuing, let me make this disclaimer.  While this certainly was a pilgrimage of sorts, no one in our group of 19, all from the same church, was expecting to curry any sort of special favor with God for having made the trek.  While visiting sites significant to our faith and walking along some of the very streets Jesus walked was certainly inspirational, there was no expectation of special blessing or revelation for having done so.  In a way perhaps equally shallow and significant, being in those places did makes the Bible come alive, and yet we know that the importance is the what, not the where.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, we weren’t there to worship the relics and ruins.  But being in that place, you can’t help but feel your faith strengthen and deepen.

Our group of 19, ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-seventies, launched from San Francisco International Airport at approximately 8 PM on a Tuesday evening.  Our Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down at David Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel at approximately 8 PM on Wednesday evening.  No, it’s not a 24 hour flight.  It was a solid 13, plus the 10 hours ahead time difference.  Plenty of time in the air to watch three movies (Anthropoid, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, and Young Frankenstein) and several TV episodes and still have time to spare.

After making our way through customs–an easier task than expected–and collecting our luggage, we  were met by our tour guide for the duration, Roman Tyutnev.  We had an hour long bus ride ahead of us to our hotel in the resort town of Netanya, which is right on the Mediterranean Sea.  Right from the get-go, Roman was on, pointing out this and that as we drove through Tel Aviv in the dark toward our destination.

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Josh looking a little beat at the hotel

We arrived at our hotel, the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, a tired and bedraggled mob.  It may not have been a 24 flight, but between leaving for San Francisco six hours before our flight departed and then the hour bus ride after our arrival, we were pushing a 24 hour travel day.  Roman distributed our room keys and we all went to crash, anticipating our first glimpse of the Holy Land in the next day’s sunshine.

I think most of us woke up before that sunshine would appear, as our bodies tried to adjust to our new timezone.  With plenty of time to spare before breakfast and our early touring start, several of us made our way out of the hotel and down to the Mediterranean Sea, which was literally across the street.  There wasn’t time for a proper swim, but I put my hands in it just to say I did.

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Mediterranean Sea beach

I haven’t traveled much internationally.  The only two other countries I’ve visited are Ecuador (once) and Mexico (several times).  Both to Ecuador and once to Mexico I was with my brother-from-another-mother Josh, who made the trip to Israel as well and was my roommate.  That brought the total number of international trips with Josh to three, and total number of international trips with my wife to….zero.  Should probably fix that soon.  One of the first things we did was head up to the roof of our hotel and take a bromantic selfie with the Med in the background.  If Jen could not be with me on this trip, it wasn’t too much of a step down to experience the Holy Land with Josh and my dad.

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The freshest honey
We made our way to breakfast in the hotel and were treated to a pretty extensive buffet.  This would be par for the course on the trip.  A few interesting things about the food in Israel, specifically breakfast.  Since most places we went were Kosher, there was rarely any meat at breakfast.  Not only is pork not on the OK list, but milk and meat are not to be served together.  So at breakfast there may be cream for the coffee and milk for your cereal, but that meant no bacon (pork or otherwise) for your eggs.  There was plenty of other good stuff though.  Eggs, pastries, cheeses, fruit, yogurt, and at least at the Leonardo, honey dripping from an actual honeycomb.

After breakfast we loaded up the bus and began our touring in earnest.  Our destinations that first day were the ruins of Caeseria Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, Mt. Carmel, Tel Meggido, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

Other observations:

  • Israel has a TON of feral cats.  They’re everywhere.
  • Almost every building in Israel is off white.
  • There are rocks EVERYWHERE.  So many in fact, you are allowed to take them from national parks and ancient ruins.  Unless they have an inscription on them.
  • There is an IKEA in Tel Aviv.

Checkpoints:  3 (all in airports)

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Netanya. Our hotel on the right.
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Our rooftop selfie.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #2: White Christmas

white-christmas-movie-poster-1954-1020143863I’ve written about White Christmas in this space a couple of times, and truth be told, could probably fill a substantial volume writing about all it’s awesome sauce.  It’s one of those movies I’ve seen so many times I don’t even really pay attention to the plot anymore.  I spend my time looking in the background for all the little things I missed on the previous 100 viewings.  And boy is there some great stuff in the background.  Whether you’ve seen it dozens of times like I have or if this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it, do yourself a favor and watch the backup dancers during the Mandy routine.  It’s solid gold.

For the ones that somehow aren’t familiar with this Christmas gem, White Christmas is the story of army buddies Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who team up after WWII to become a “boffo” song and dance act.  Doing a favor for an old pal from the Army, they meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), another song and dance duo.  Phil, scheming to get Bob a wife and kids, and therefore some time away from the show biz grind for himself, conspires with Judy, looking for some freedom from Betty, to get Bob and Betty together.  The four travel to Vermont for a little R&R, where they run into Bob and Phil’s old commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who now runs an inn.  Times are tough for the General (who prefers not to be called general, but everyone calls him that anyway).  The lack of snow has been bad for business and the inn housekeeper Emma (Mary Wickes) let’s Bob and Phil in on the secret that the General is in over his head.  Bob and Phil, look to their show business sway to find a way to save the inn and show the General he hasn’t been forgotten.

Song and dance hijinx ensue.  Also, occasional cross-dressing.

Like Holiday InnWhite Christmas has tremendous music penned by Irving Berlin, including of course the eponymous title track.  In a similar fashion, it centers around show biz folks, so most of the song and dance numbers appear like natural performances or rehearsals, not just people randomly bursting into elaborate musical numbers on the street.  There are exceptions, most notably The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing number.  The silliness in which that particular routine ends and abruptly returns to reality only adds to the movie’s charm.  Oh, and this chestnut.

Lovely as it is corny.  I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys musicals, then you will love White Christmas.  If you’re not that person, you will probably still enjoy it.  It’s a good story on it’s own and Bing and company are impossible not to love.  It’s a funny and sweet movie, and you might just get a little misty at the ending.

If you’re a White Christmas veteran but have never taken the time to appreciate all that’s happening on the margins, do yourself a favor this year and keep an eye on the scenery.  It’s more than just spotting the miscues and continuity mistakes.  There is actually a lot going on outside the main action that  will enhance your viewing experience.

A few clues to help you out:

  • Watch modest Bing in the dressing room after Blue Skies
  • The aforementioned backup dancers during Mandy
  • Watch the coffee pot in the Haynes sister’s dressing room
  • Bing’s wardrobe in the Army hospital tent

There’s just a few to get you started.

Not only is White Christmas one of my favorite Christmas movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #3: A Christmas Story

a-christmas-story-movie-poster-1983-1010423185Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #3, A Christmas Story.

Do you remember that one Christmas gift you wanted more than any other? Maybe it was a bike or a Cabbage Patch Kid. Depending on when you grew up it might have been a video game system (Atari, Nintendo, Playstation…) or an Erector Set.  The specific gifts may differ from person to person and time to time but the dream is the same. We all went to bed on Christmas Eve hoping the morning would bring us joy tied up with ribbon.

A Christmas Story taps into this universal longing with protagonist Ralphie’s quest to get a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model BB gun for Christmas. He seems to be thwarted at every turn. Whether it’s his mother, his teacher or even Santa Claus himself he always hears the same refrain, “You’ll shoot your eye out”. Sprinkled throughout his pursuit are views into his everyday life.  We get to watch as Ralphie and his friends try to survive encounters with the school bully. We meet his parents (in particular The Old Man). We even get a glimpse into his childhood fantasies. These looks provide some classic moments: Flick and the frozen flag pole, the major award, The Santa Slide, the bunny suit just to name just a few.

All of this leads to Christmas morning. After all the gifts appear to be opened and the Red Ryder is nowhere to be found, Ralphie has one last surprise.

This is my favorite scene in the entire movie. Darren McGavin (The Old Man) deserved an Oscar nomination for this scene alone. He captures perfectly that as great as it is to finally get that gift you have been wishing for it’s even better as a parent to be able to give your child exactly what they wanted for Christmas.

A Christmas Story is set in Hammond, Indiana during  the post WWII 1940’s, It is a period piece that perfectly presents its era yet it ties into themes that audiences from any generation can relate to. The result is that whether you are a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y, or even a dreaded Millennial you walk away from this movie with a sense of nostalgia.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #4: Home Alone

mv5bmtuzmzg4mtg2m15bml5banbnxkftztywndm4otk4-_v1_sx640_sy720_As a 13-year old, I saw Home Alone in the theater when it was released in 1990.  For reasons explained elsewhere, I did not go to the movies much as a kid, and persuading my mother to let me see the hottest new movie amongst my demographic in the theater was something of a coup.

Some time later, a family member informed my mother, who still had not seen Home Alone, about the bad attitude Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) has toward his family and how disrespectfully he speaks to his mother (Catherine O’Hara).  Mom pointed this out to me, as if I had been keeping it a secret from her.  I assured her I knew Kevin’s attitude was not acceptable, as I probably rolled my eyes while she wasn’t looking.

A parent myself now, I can of course understand a little better Mom’s concerns about how a Hollywood movie might influence her child.  But, Kevin’s terrible attitude is of course central to the plot of Home Alone (and I’m happy to say Mom has since seen it and, by appearances, seemed to enjoy it).

When the movie opens, we find the McCallister house a-bustle with activity, as the family and extended family prepare to leave for France the next morning.  Eight year-old Kevin is fed up with all the relatives and the lack of enough plain cheese pizza.  In his defense, his siblings and cousins do treat him cruelly, insulting him in French, calling him a disease, and eating all the aforementioned cheese pizza on purpose.  This last offense breaks the camels back and Kevin flips out, causing a scene in the crowded kitchen which results in some misplaced travel documents.  Only adding to his disdain for his own family, Uncle Frank spews a sneering invective in one of the greatest insults in movie history ever leveled at an eight year-old:

Somewhat understandably, yet completely inappropriately, Kevin declares he wishes he didn’t have a family.  Hurt, his mother hopes he doesn’t mean it and sends him off to bed in the attic.

When he awakes the next morning to find the family gone he thinks his wish made his family disappear (in their rush to leave for France, they just forgot him).  At first, it’s a dream come true and he revels in it.  Enter the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), a couple of burglars who have had their eyes set on the McCallister house, the “silver tuna”, since they started working the neighborhood.  As the days go by and Christmas Day draws nearer, Kevin defends his house from the criminals, conquers his fears, and realizes he misses his family and loves them after all.

The final John Hughes movie on our list, in Home Alone Hughes again reminds us that while family can drive us nuts, when it comes down to it, it’s what really matters.  There are great performances by Culkin, Pesci, and O’hara.  The late, great John Candy has a fairly minor, but scene stealing role as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest, who helps O’hara get home to Kevin.

For us 90’s kids, Home Alone is a Christmas classic, but I wonder if today’s kids have realized that the whole madcap scenario could have been solved rather easily since the advent of cell phones.  My kids haven’t clued in on that yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.  For it’s time, the movie does a pretty good job of realistically thwarting all of the family’s attempts to contact Kevin from France, though I would not give their communities police department high marks for diligence.  One unanswered knock on the door and the officer assumes the abandoned eight year-old is fine?  Okay.

Of course, you can’t talk about Home Alone without bringing up the funhouse of horrors Kevin transform his house into when the Wet Bandits make their final assault.  Irons to the face, blowtorches to the head, and broken glass to the feet are just a few of the booby traps Kevin sadistically dreams up and employs.  I recently read an article that documented all the injuries Pesci and Stern’s characters would have suffered in real life.  It’s a Christmas miracle they survived.

Home Alone is a full of slapstick fun and a lot of heart.  Good performances, a great–and Oscar nominated–soundtrack from John Williams, a ton of quotable lines and memorable scenes also help to make it #4 on our list.  Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.

 

Top 10 Christmas Movies #5: Elf

Note:  Here’s Jeff’s take on #5, Elf.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a human, raised by elves at the North Pole, traveled to New York City to meet his long lost father? I know I have. Luckily the next movie on our list lets us know.

Elf (starring Will Ferrell in the title role) tells the story of Buddy. He was a baby living in an orphanage when one Christmas Eve he crawled unseen into Santa’s (Ed Asner) sack and ended up stowing away to the North Pole. There he was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and grew up believing that he was an elf himself. The elves loved and accepted Buddy as one of their own but eventually his 6’3″ frame and lack of toy making skills lead to his discovery that he is actually human.  On top of this shocking revelation he also finds out that his real father (James Caan) is on the Naughty List.

Having learned his true identity Buddy heads to New York to meet his father and find his place in the world. What ensues is what one might expect when a large elf-man armed with nothing but an over abundance of Christmas spirit and childlike optimism confronts the harsh realities of the modern world and a cynical father who is not exactly overjoyed to find out he has one of Santa’s helpers for a son. He even has a less than friendly experience with one who he thinks is his own kind (Peter Dinklage.)

Eventually Buddy is able to make peace with his father, fall in love, and even save Christmas. Happy endings all around.

This is a movie that could have been terrible. It is an admittedly silly story and uses a lot of slapstick humor to get its laughs. In different hands it could have been nothing but a corny schlockfest. But, what makes it work is Will Ferrell’s absolute commitment to the role. He is completely without inhibitions but never stoops to mugging for the camera. He has a real sense of innocence and heart. The movie doubles down on the fish out of water theme: first with Buddy’s humanness conflicting with his life at the North Pole and then with his elfness in New York creating mayhem for himself and pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. All of it results in plenty of genuine laughs.

This is the most recent of the movies on our list. It was released in 2004 but it has already claimed its place as a classic must see holiday favorite. I took my family to see it when our kids were still kids. I watched it with them just the other day and we laughed and loved it just as much.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Pmpw-38615oor Clark Griswold.  All he wanted was the perfect good time, old fashioned family Christmas.  The lights, the tree, the carols, sledding, the perfect Christmas dinner, and of course that big Christmas bonus.

What he got was frustration, a squirrel infested Christmas tree, Cousin Eddie, a cat food jello mold, a SWAT team invasion, and the Jelly of the Month club.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation takes all of the elements folks come to dread about the Christmas season and puts them on steroids.  Chevy Chase’s well-intentioned family man Clark Griswold does his best to give his family a Christmas to remember.  It certainly will be, but for all the wrong reasons.  His wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids, Rusty (Johnny Galecki) and Audrey (Juliette Lewis) do their best to stay encouraging as the wheels start to come off the closer the big day gets and the house fills up with more cantankerous family members than it was made to handle.  Coupled with the realization that big Christmas bonus may not be coming, and thus leaving him unable to pay for the big gift he had planned and paid for, by Christmas Eve, Clark is pushed to the brink of holiday insanity.  The arrival of the chronically uncouth Cousin Eddie (chronically tax-evading Randy Quaid) didn’t help.

Another Chicago-based holiday movie with John Hughes’ fingerprints on it (he wrote this one), Christmas Vacation is the holiday nightmare that seems far fetched, and yet all too real.  Fortunately for me, my good time, old fashioned family Christmas’ all turned out pretty well.  But it isn’t hard to see how bringing so much family under one roof at one time during what should be a festive but is often stressful season, can go horribly awry.

As is usually the case in Hughes’ movies, despite the chaos endured, when it gets down to it, with your family by your side, things have a way of working out.  Even if you do have to live in constant fear of being accosted by a Mississippi leg hound.