In the Galilee, Winter, 1964, sixteen years after what Israelis call the War of Independence, and Palestinians call the Nakba (The Catastrophe.) Four of us from our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley drove for an hour in our jeep each morning for three days to work in our commune’s large wheat field in the Galilee. We said we were driving to “Lajjun,” close to the Jordanian border; but what is left of Lajjun are remains of the former Palestinian village. There was a cluster of adobe and stone dwellings near the field, but the village, for all intents and purposes, was depopulated of Palestinians during the 1948 war.
Though my knowledge of Lajjun was limited, I was uncomfortable knowing we were working on what must have been Palestinian land before 1948. But, we had work to do, and I was one of the people who did it. Step by step, back and forth, dunam after dunam of the wheat field, we walked, four abreast, in the cold and damp Galilee winter. Each of us in the foursome carried a gallon tin can filled with kernels of wheat, not for human consumption. Each kernel had been coated in poison, a beautiful shade of fuscia. As my co-workers did, I stopped every few steps, dipped a little spoon into my own gallon can, removed a few of the kernels of wheat, bent from my knees and waist, and dropped the colorful and tasty snacks into the tiny entrances and exits of field mouse tunnels. After only two hours of the first day of this repetitive and boring work, I craved relief from the ache in my knees, back, and what was left of my brain. My initial feelings of compassion toward the little field mice, had transitioned to, “Kill the little shits if they insist on decimating our wheat field.”
Cup, the first. During our last day, an elderly Palestinian from one of the nearby dwellings walked to the field and invited us to share coffee with him at the end of our work. Early in the afternoon, we entered our host’s humble dwelling of several rooms. It was cold inside and we did not remove our jackets. He led us to a small room with a clean concrete floor and no furniture. The only light came from the one window and the flame of a small kerosene burner that sat on the floor, a Primus large enough to hold only the pot our host had placed on it before we arrived.
In the circle of warmth and light from the hissing kerosene burner, the five of us squatted in the Arab custom so often seen in settings like this, or at rural bus stops and other places where squatting might have been the only comfortable way to rest and wait. We shared Israeli-made cigarettes with our host. Two of my co-workers were recent Jewish immigrants from North Africa and knew Arabic, but didn’t use it with our host. Our conversation with him was almost entirely in Hebrew (with some Arabic phrases from time to time,) yet one more way he had adapted to the current realities.
The well-used coffee pot with a graceful, curved spout seemed as old as Palestine itself– dented and scarred. When the water began to boil, our host spooned and stirred into the pot the traditional coffee, ground to powder. The harsh aroma of our coarse tobacco mingled with the softer, richer aroma of fresh coffee spiced with what I believed was cardamom. After the coffee had steeped to its desired strength, our host spooned and stirred into the pot a generous amount of sugar, as he must have done thousands of times, though not often with Israeli Jews. He poured the coffee into traditional porcelain cups, sized to hold only a few ounces each. Five rough and calloused hands held the cups with a light, finger-touch their small size required.
While sipping the sweet, thick coffee, and watching the smoke from my cigarette drift to the ceiling, I drifted from the conversation. Squatting on the cold concrete floor, I experienced an unexpected tranquility. Deep within me, in some fundamental way, I felt an identification with our Palestinian host that was as strong as, and perhaps stronger, than the one I felt with those I had worked with in the bare wheat field.
Our host had welcomed us through the time-honored ritual of preparing coffee in the peace and safety of his home, where he is obliged by tradition to be the protector of his guests. Though I understood the strength of this tradition, I could not ignore an unwelcome thought. Does this man, with whom I feel such a strong, even mystical bond, regard us as we regard the four-legged intruders that occupy our land, devour our crops, and must be eliminated?
Early summer, 1964. Having lived in Israel for the past year, my one-and-twenty heart told me it was time to move on, time to meet Margaret, my American girlfriend, in Florence where she was about to complete a semester abroad. These were the days when people still wrote to each other. With pens and pencils. On real paper. And sent the paper by land, sea, and air. Over the course of several months, she and I had planned the date of my arrival in Florence. But, as it has been said, “Man plans, God laughs.” The joke this time was the postal service in Israel had been on strike for several weeks prior to my departure.
With great expectations, I booked passage on a Greek freighter that would sail from Haifa to Venice. Two of my friends from the kibbutz took me by jeep to the port, and helped carry aboard my backpack and an orange crate they had packed with bread, cheese, oranges, grapefruits, bananas, and pomegranates, all from our orchards and fields.
I don’t recall what I had expected, but I was surprised that all of the other passengers were people my age from Europe and Asia. During the four day voyage, we lived on the aft, upper deck with a canopied area for escaping the sun or inclement weather. Some of us slept wrapped in blankets rented from the crew for a dime a day.
Cup, the second. A few minutes after we had set sail, I took the stairs to a lower level where some basic food and drinks, like bread, cheese, fruit, soft drinks and coffee could be purchased at a kiosk managed by the crew to supplement their pay. The coffee they served had a slight aroma of something I could not identify, a spice perhaps. But, the brew was cheap, hot, and very strong. It would be enough for deck passengers who expected little more.
I carried my cup of freighter coffee to the upper deck and leaned against the railing, looking to the east, from where we had departed. My thoughts returned to what I had been unable to resolve before I left Israel. Why was I leaving the only place where I ever felt I truly belonged? For what purpose? To return to a life, to a country that had strong attractions, but where I could not escape the feeling that I was something of an outsider?
But I, one-and-twenty, stood on the deck of a freighter sailing to the west, even as my eyes remained fixed on the east. Minute by inexorable minute, the coastline of Israel faded into the distance and the haze that hung over the warm water of the Mediterranean. I did not move from the railing until what was left of my coffee had turned cold, and the coast of Israel had disappeared beyond the curve of the Earth.
For all but the one day we experienced non-stop swells generated by a distant storm, the Mediterranean was Ancient Mariner calm. In the brilliant light of a full moon, only our wake parted the silver surface of the sea, now a garment of fine silk, and our old freighter now the pull of a near-silent zipper. On the last morning of our voyage, we sailed through the narrow passage between two long peninsulas, the Italian to port, the Balkans to starboard, and into the Adriatic, sunlight dancing on its surface. With mounting anticipation, I stood at the side railing. The vague line between water and sky thickened and acquired irregularities that continued to grow until they were Venice herself, rising from the sea to receive us. We glided into her port and docked.
Cup, the third. After spending the day exploring the city and eating pasta, I went to the station to board the late train to Florence. One other person, about twice my age, was sitting at the coffee bar sipping an espresso. I sat near him and ordered the same. This, my first espresso, had an intense aroma and flavor that I did not want to alter by adding sugar. It was extraordinary. As we sipped, we conversed in English, seasoned with his Italian (most of which I didn’t understand,) and more than a few hand and arm gestures (all of which had pretty obvious meanings.)
“You been in Italia before, si?”
“No, this is my first visit.”
“You gonna love it. Where you coming from?”
“Israel. I lived there for the past year.”
After a while, the conversation became more interesting.
“You’re a nice guy,” he said. “You wanna have a good…I don’t know… experience?”
“I invite you to our party in the villa. Portofino. You know it?”
“Sure. I heard it’s beautiful.”
He removed a piece of paper and a pen from his shirt pocket, wrote a few lines, and slid the paper down the counter. I read his name, address, and the Portofino villa phone number.
“You can stay there. A few days. Longer. Frank and some of the boys will be there. I’ll introduce you.”
“Frank? You mean, Frank? That ‘Frank’? Sinatra?”
“Yeah. Frank. You know.”
I told my new capo that I just might show up at the Portofino villa. A few minutes later, we bid each other bouna fortuna.
The sun had just risen when the train arrived in Florence. Using a rudimentary tourist map from the train station, I wandered in the direction of the piazza where my girlfriend’s school was located. A street vendor was setting up his stall. He sold me sweet, red cherries, which I ate as I walked, careful to put the pits in the bag. The city was awakening. Store owners used buckets and brooms to wash sidewalks. More food and souvenir vendors began to appear on the streets and lanes, setting up racks and rolling carts.
I wandered until I found the small piazza. Students had already begun to arrive at the school, so I followed them inside. An employee sat at a desk near the entrance, so I asked if Margaret was there. The employee looked at me with misgiving, and all she said was, “No.”
“Would you be able to call her?” I said.
After an amazing performance, consisting of simultaneously rolling her eyes, sighing, and shrugging her shoulders, she said she’d call the host family where Margaret lived.
“Someone named Myles is here. Do you know him?” she said, in English. Then, to me, she added, “She’ll be here soon.”
I waited outside without being ordered. When my girlfriend arrived a half hour later, we greeted each other, but her hug felt more obligatory than enthusiastic. We sat on the bench in the piazza and had “a talk.”
“What are you doing here?” Margaret said.
“Didn’t you get my letter?”
Cup, the fourth. She suggested we go to a caffè. At the counter, we selected breakfast, consisting of two oval, nondescript rolls, one for each of us. After a year of eating Israeli breakfasts of dark bread, eggs, cheeses, fish, fruits, vegetables, hot porridge in winter, and cold fruit soup in summer, this so-called breakfast was a joke, not unlike the one that had resulted in my presence in Florence.
“Dué cappuccini, per favore,” she said to the barista.
We carried our rolls and cups of cappuccino to a window table. This was my initiation to this beverage, with its creamy foamed milk and smooth taste, milder than the straight espresso at the Venice train station. Interrupting my momentary pleasure, Margaret began to explain her earlier, “What are you doing here?” It seemed she wanted to remain in Florence, at least for the summer, as she had fallen in love with Rafael. Even in my distraught condition, I understood she was not referring to the Renaissance artist.
My reaction? I am not having a good coffee experience. Maybe another cappuccino will fix that. Maybe I will sip the magic elixir, and this nightmare will evaporate. I want to think about nothing more than the comfort provided by each sip of coffee, milk, and foam, even though it persists in decorating the tip of my nose. Maybe I can find the energy to get up from this chair, where I sit exhausted and hurt…and feel every bit of one-and-twenty. What to do? Return to Israel? Go see Frank and some of the boys in Portofino, where I could have another great espresso along with “an experience?” Sit on a Florentine curb and cry?
I rented a tiny garret in a pensione, and spent the rest of that day and night walking the streets of Florence. Rafael’s girlfriend and I spent part of the next day visiting museums and other sites. When she told me I had been invited to join her host family the next afternoon for their main meal, I considered jumping off the Ponte Vecchio, but it wasn’t high enough from the water to be effective. Forlorn and dependent, I accepted the invitation.
A short while later, concerned as ever about my well-being, she considered my attire in the same manner she might have considered a minor painting that had no business hanging in the Uffizi. Later, as we admired the statue of an unclothed David, she asked if I had anything nicer to wear, other than my khakis and sandals. Her relief was palpable when I said that, in fact, I do.
After wearing work clothes and other casual shirts, pants, shorts, and sandals for a year, I was uncomfortable in my laced shoes, and coat and tie that I had carried in my backpack. My feet were now encased in what felt like the concrete that helps people “swim with the fishes.” That might have been more comfortable than what I was experiencing in the dining room of a spacious apartment home in an affluent Florentine neighborhood. I was able to follow a few words, here and there, of the dinner conversation, which was ninety-nine percent in Italian. But it wasn’t too difficult to understand something particular that the host mother said to my former girlfriend. After a sentence that contained “Rafael,” she said, in English, what I had been saying to myself for two days: “Not good.”
What happened next is a long and complex story for another time. It involves a train to Geneva and an uneventful overnight there with Rafael’s girlfriend, another train to Paris where she and I stayed for a couple of days, her return to her Florentine non-artist, my taking another late night train to Luxembourg City, staying overnight on a couch in the small lobby of a cheap hotel–thanks to a kind night manager–then awakening at dawn and walking to the outskirts of the city, where I came upon the unforgettable sight of a WWII American military cemetery with its crosses and stars in perfect alignment from any angle, flying later in the day to Reykjavík, Iceland, if I remember correctly, and on to LaGuardia, where, before flying home to St. Louis, I sat in a café and ordered a cup of coffee insipid enough for the white bottom of the cup to be seen when it was more than half full–thereby, not standing the proverbial chance in hell of becoming Cup, the fifth.