'What Do We Know About Policemen in America? That They Shoot. So We Played the Dumb Tourists'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: One Israeli goes on adventures on the American road, and another's long-distance relationship endures during the coronavirus pandemic

Yael Benaya
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Itay Levy.
Itay Levy.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Itay Levy, 23; lives in Modi’in, arriving from New York

Hi, where are you coming from?

New York. Two months ago, we flew to Los Angeles and did a coast-to-coast trip in a van. Friends of ours bought it last year, refurbished it, used it and then left it with a relative. He was just waiting for someone to come and take it.

Where did you get the idea?

A friend suggested we make the trip. It was during exam period, there was the coronavirus, I had no money, so I told him it wasn’t going to happen. A quarter of an hour later, we agreed that we’d go for it.

What happened in that quarter of an hour?

First of all, I realized that it would be relatively cheap, because the van was already there. We didn’t slum it; we lived well but we always cooked in the van and hardly ever ate out. There weren’t many attractions to pay for. Almost all we did was hike in parks. We flew out three days deciding, and returned at the last possible moment. Overall, we were guided by the parks, wherever there were beautiful things to see. And also what Luke wanted to do.

Who’s Luke?

The van! We knew it would cost us around $2,000 to fix it completely and we worked that into the expenses. When we got there, though, we discovered that we could save that money if we traveled across the whole United States by sticking to 60 kilometers an hour [37 miles an hour].

Coast to coast, in a motorized wheelchair.

Yes, we did 10,000 kilometers all told, and I think we passed about 10 cars the whole time, including on the highways. I’m not exaggerating.

Tell us about a special experience you had.

We have a sort of ugly Israeli story. Or maybe not really so ugly...

We can handle it.

We were in Nevada and there was a really lovely spring in the middle of the desert, 300 kilometers from nowhere, that it took two days to get to. Google said the place was temporarily closed, but a lot of things are listed as temporarily closed these days, so we said: Yalla, let’s go for it. We got there, and it really did say, “Closed, entry for local residents only.” We said we’d see; maybe we’d stay outside or just make food there. We saw a few local folks there who said great, we should go in. We went in and took a dip and it was amazing. We went back out and sat there a little longer, and then someone arrived in a car. After about 10 minutes of looking at us, he said: “If you don’t leave now, I’m calling the police.” So we said, no problem, we’re going. We get into our van and start it up. Then a big pickup pulls up and a policeman in civilian clothes with a vest, holding his Taser, gets out.

Oh, no.

Now, what do we know about policemen in America? That they shoot. Even though I have the right skin color. We open the window. In this situation what we need to do is play the tourist to the hilt, someone who’s clueless. The guy comes over and we see that he’s prepared a line in advance: “Show me your licenses, and yes, you’re under arrest.” We look at each other, not believing that this is happening. Our English is all right, but we start to say, “Licenses? Passports? We don’t know...” We say we’re sorry and that we don’t understand English all that well. He saw that we were tourists, and he said, “All right, no problem, just take note that in America, when it says ‘Closed,’ that means it’s closed.” In the end he let us go.

You got off easy. So what America did you see on your trip?

In California and New York they really experience the coronavirus pandemic much better than here, and in country’s center, they look at you strangely if you wear a face mask. It’s totally political. It was my first time in America, and I was always sure that the movies and the TV series exaggerate the situation there, but it was spot on.

In what way, for example?

When we got to Los Angeles, we took the Metro. You see one kind of L.A. there, the people who travel by subway, and that was stressful. And then we took Luke, and within 20 minutes we’re in Beverly Hills. The poverty is such real poverty there and the wealth is such real wealth that it’s crazy. And the lines. There aren’t any lines like that in Israel. We were at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and people stood in line there for six hours. Did you ever see a line a whole block long? Like in the movies; people put up a tent. So we slept in the van there and we got up at 6 A.M. to be first in line, and even so, we were still 20 meters back. Maybe it’s just me, but I think Israel is a lot better in lots of things. That’s my feeling.

Kostiantyn Prysihzhuniuk.
Kostiantyn Prysihzhuniuk.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kostiantyn Prysihzhuniuk, 27; lives in Eilat, flying to Sofia, Bulgaria

Hi, what awaits you in Sofia?

My girlfriend – she came from Ukraine to meet me there. We’ve been together almost two years. I met her in Ukraine when I was in the army. Before the coronavirus we would meet once every few months, and since the pandemic started I haven’t seen her. Bulgaria is about the only country you can fly to both from Israel and from Ukraine without being quarantined.

Is it hard to maintain a relationship by remote control?

Yes, but I’ve been far away from almost all the girlfriends I’ve had. Somehow I’m used to it. But we talk a few hours a day on video. So that helps. She still tells me that it’s not enough, and I understand. We need to be together physically. But there are couples who live in the same city and see each other only once every few days.

Do you want to change that situation?

Just before the coronavirus started, I planned to buy a plane ticket to bring her to Israel for the first time. We thought that maybe she would come for a longer period. Now we’re thinking about that again. She’s doing a master’s in law in Ukraine, so until she’s done she won’t be able to come for a long visit.

What are you doing in the meantime?

I live in Eilat and work in a hotel; I’m shift manager for room service. I made aliyah from Ukraine five years ago, and since then I completed my army service.

Why did you immigrate to Israel?

Mostly because of the economic situation in Ukraine. I made aliyah with my brother, who’s four years older than I am, and it really helped to do it together. If I’d been alone, I’m not sure I would have succeeded. We worked together, we went to ulpan [Hebrew language course], we did the whole route together. My parents stayed in Ukraine, and I live with my brother, his wife and a niece.

Are your parents also considering moving here?

The truth is they’re not. They’re divorced. Our father is not Jewish, so he can’t come. Our mother is Jewish, but she thinks that she’s too old to move to Israel and that she wouldn’t be able to learn the language. So she prefers to stay there, where everything is familiar. I’m not sure what to tell her. We used to help her in whatever way we could, but even we haven’t been able to manage here completely. Every day you learn something new.

Why did you choose Eilat, of all places?

The first time we visited Israel, we really loved Eilat and decided to go straight there. I loved the landscape, the sea, the fact that everything is close by. But the truth is that in the past two years I’ve been at the beach maybe five times. Whenever I’m on a break, I’m so tired that I don’t want to leave the house. I also got burned; we went to Timna a month ago and I got a sunburn. You can still see the stripes on my hand, and I prefer to stay home.

How do Israel and Ukraine differ?

People are a little calmer in Ukraine, and here it was hard for me to get used to everyone shouting all the time, in every line, in every shop you enter. I can’t say that they are angry or anything, but they’re always shouting. And nothing is orderly.

Such as what?

The way I was drafted. I live in Eilat and the recruiting office is in Be’er Sheva. I had a medical problem, with blood pressure, and the doctor gave me a few months to complete all the tests, and then to report. After two weeks I get another letter from the office to come and finish filling in forms, so I took time off from work, went to Be’er Sheva, went there, and then they ask, ‘Why are you here?” That happened to me maybe five times. I didn’t finish with the forms, I didn’t receive a proper army profile, but I was still drafted.

Did you want to serve?

Not really. At the age of 24, I didn’t take the army all that seriously. If I’d been 18, I might have wanted to enlist in a combat unit, but at 24 you’re thinking about other things, about how to organize your life. And they’re all kids there. In the end it worked out all right, because I also worked and received ‘lone-soldier’ conditions. But if I’d made aliyah half a year later, I wouldn’t have needed to serve.

What’s the story with the beard?

I had a beard before the army, too, and I made the mistake of shaving it off before being drafted, because they said it was forbidden. I thought: If it’s forbidden, it’s forbidden. And then I got to the army and I saw that everyone had a beard. By the time we were discharged, everyone had a beard, but I only managed to get a beard permit in the last month before my discharge.

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