As a little girl in Haifa, the height of adventure for me was the train ride to Tel Aviv. All kids love trains. Instead of being stuck in your seat for the whole trip, in the train you can walk around and even test your courage by passing from one car to another across the wobbly floor. The distance from Haifa to Tel Aviv hasn’t changed since my childhood, but I remember those train rides as being very long − long enough for me to easily imagine I was traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railroad or the Orient Express, even though the trip took no more than an hour and a half.
But once upon a time, a gastronomic experience was also a part of train travel. Instead of the fancy dining cars with rows of tables covered in white linen cloths one would find on the Orient Express, Israeli trains had a snack bar car where you could sit at gray Formica tables and eat light meals that were cooked right there on the train, so the passengers could quell the mighty hunger pangs that would arise on such a long journey. And if you weren’t able to get a place in the dining car, you could always wait in your seat for one of the train workers to come around with the food cart.
And there amid the inventory on the food cart, beckoning in all its mouth-watering glory, was the ultimate creation: the schnitzel sandwich. The hot, crispy schnitzel, fresh out of the skillet (the microwave hadn’t been invented yet), sat inside a large roll spread with mustard and mayonnaise (ketchup wasn’t yet in use around here either). It wasn’t all that delicious, actually, and it probably wouldn’t have tempted me − and every other Israeli kid − if it had been on offer in some kiosk on the street. But as travel provisions there was nothing better. It was the journey that gave it that special taste, part of what turned the trip into a great adventure that at the very least, rivaled the one taken by Emil in Erich Kastner’s “Emil and the Detectives” when he travels by train to the big city, all alone.
The schnitzel sandwich and the snack bar car are long gone. These days, at most I might sip a diet cola while I ride the train. But a train ride nonetheless maintains a little of that aura of adventure, something you find no trace of in other modes of transportation, such as the bus. On the bus I make every effort to shrink myself, to minimize the physical proximity to the other passengers. On the train I can happily gaze out the window or even observe the other passengers without trepidation. I’ve ridden the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa hundreds of times, and each time I have to stop myself from shouting aloud at that moment when the sea first comes into view. For me, that view means I’m coming home. For even though Jerusalem was my home for 30 years and Tel Aviv has been my home for nearly 10 years, the way home for me always remains the way to Haifa, and even though Tel Aviv is on the sea and it’s the same sea, for me the sea is always the Haifa sea, because you always come into Haifa by the sea.
Until I was about 20, I had this notion that the names of the stations announced by the ticket taker, also known as the conductor, were nothing more than that. The thought that these names also referred to places close to the train station where people actually lived never occurred to me. Somehow I didn’t really believe that people lived in places with names like Atlit or Beit Yehoshua or Binyamina. They were just names, to which the conductor would always add, “Who just boarded?” − as in, “Binyamina, who just boarded?”
The first time I ever went to Binyamina, almost 30 years ago, I drove there from Pardes Hanna to buy honey from the Milman Bee Farm, where they sold a wonderful variety of honeys from citrus, avocado and eucalyptus blossoms. My second visit to Binyamina took place two weeks ago. I remembered Binyamina as a tiny little place, and I was sure that if I just got off the train and asked the first local I saw, he would immediately direct me to the Milman farm. But no one at the station had ever heard of Milman, maybe because the new residents of Binyamina, mostly refugees from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have switched from honey to silan. Like nearby and larger Pardes Hanna, Binyamina has become a preferred destination for former yuppies with spiritual leanings and a great fondness for detached houses. By the time I reached the Palogi restaurant (run by a well-known Jerusalem family that was once part of that city’s bohemia), I’d passed numerous signs advertising all sorts of esoteric therapists, various arts and crafts fairs, an antiques fair, a winery, a farmer’s market, a solar garden and just about anything else you could imagine. Except for one thing: No one could tell me where I could buy some of Milman’s eucalyptus honey.
The feeling that came over me was akin to the stunned regret that hit me when I went back a few years ago to the kibbutz where I spent some of the most beautiful moments of my childhood − only to discover that it had become just another one of those places where the scenic walking paths have become busy roads and the laid-back communal dining hall is now rented out as a gaudy banquet hall. Perhaps the former kibbutzniks, like the inhabitants of Binyamina, enjoy a better quality of life now than in the past, but to me it’s like another schnitzel sandwich that’s vanished from the menu and been replaced by a diet cola.