Back to My Promise Land, Two Years Later
Where we’re at: I’m recapping my trips to Israel in February and March 2022.
This is one of those posts I’ve been staring at in my drafts for months now, wondering how to write.
As I sat down this weekend, once again dreading this post in my queue, I asked myself — why is this so hard? After all, I can just breezily run down the things I did and the friends I saw and the preparations I made for my upcoming retreat; skipping from high to high (and this post will contain one of my most magical travel moments of my life) and hopping right over the lows.
But that feels so… inadequate to commemorate this important and tumultuous chapter in a place that takes up such an outsized, often uncomfortable place in my heart.
So instead, I will try honesty. And to be honest in this case is to struggle with being embarrassed, in some ways, because as a girl who has always prided herself on her joyful independence and resilience, I must admit that I struggled to connect to that confidence again after a long, drawn out, messy and multi-part dissolution of a life-changing relationship. That it’s taken me time to find peace with the bitterness and anger that lingered from a pandemic that rocked my world. That I have struggled, in general, to rediscover lightness after major loss.
And then I think… why? Why is so hard to say: I’m human? I loved? I lost? I longed? I forgot how to write grammatically correct paragraphs?
So anyway, here we go.
Many of you followed, on social media, my of-emotional journey of being unable to enter Israel for two years.
I left in late February 2020, freshly in love and leaving behind a suitcase of my things with plans to return to make a home base in Tel Aviv. One week later, Israel was one of the first countries to close their border. And they shut it hard. A lot of tears, confusion, embassy emails, translated press conferences, and rejected applications ensued. So, too, eventually did heartbreak.
When those borders finally opened, I found myself back, almost two years to the day.
The journey was not an easy one. Perhaps one of the most brutal of all my travels, over the years. Crossing land borders, in those early days of them re-opening post-COVID, was rough. Today, thirty minute flights hop between Tel Aviv and Amman once again at a normal clip. Back then, they hadn’t quite restarted.
No worries, I thought, I’m less than sixty miles away from Tel Aviv — how hard can it be to get there by land?
Turned out, the answer was very, very hard.
A few days prior to my crossing, I’d stood at the Jordan River and wept. If I’d known the journey that was ahead, I would have cried harder. Ha.
There are three normal land borders between Jordan and Israel. I knew they were on limited hours since reopening, but could find no details, so I emailed the embassies and consulates in New York, Tel Aviv and in Amman. The Israeli embassy in New York replied and was basically like “yeah, we have no info about the land borders,” which cracked me up because okay… who does then? (Honestly I spent two years emailing them what felt like constantly so even getting an unhelpful reply was a huge victory.) Well, I read on a Tripadvisor forum the only border open on the weekends was the one called Allenby, nearest to Amman. Perfect, that was the most convenient for me!
Not perfect: I found out that because of my Jordanian visa type, I would be forbidden from crossing at Allenby. And it was, of course, the weekend. There were no available solutions (such getting a new visa, using my other passport, etc) to solve this problem. I was so sad but as a friend reminded me, you waited two years, you can wait another day. So, I procured my negative COVID test and my entry permissions to Israel (not without drama of course — including my desperate SOS to every Israeli on Earth including random guys I matched with on Hinge when one of the drop down menus for my entry permission was only in Hebrew and couldn’t be copied for Google Translate, ha) and arranged a car to the border.
The next morning, I boarded a private car for the two hour drive to the Sheikh Hussain border crossing in the north, the only option as there is no public transit along this route. Pulling up, I stepped into a dusty trailer on the side of the road, shaking like a leaf at the thought of being turned away. The border guard sent photos of my passport, tests and paperwork to the border guards in Israel said “five minutes,” after which we waited one hour for their permission to cross.
Finally, I got the nod, and I dragged my luggage into a special border taxi for the ride forward to the next building where I went through security and was shuffled, confused, into a little shuttle van to the next immigration area. There, I spent a painful three more hours just waiting to exit Jordan. My Jordanian visa type was problematic and it was a major battle of wills where I was shuffled from smoke-filled office to smoke-filled office; my protest being to refuse to comply with everyone who constantly frustratedly gestured and yelled “miss sit down!,” but I firmly believe my stubbornness shaved a minimum two hours off the ordeal.
Sometimes I think I’m a little too comfortable in the Middle East now.
Finally, finally, I got a Jordanian exit stamp and was able to buy a bus ticket to cross the bridge to Israel (word to the wise when crossing any land border — try to have ample cash in the currency of both countries, as well as USD, which always tends to come in handy. I had to exchange cash in the middle of this which was yet another frustration.) I got off the bus and was shuffled into another building, this time for Israeli security and COVID testing.
And then, I walked out into Israel, saw that sign that said “Welcome to Israel” in Hebrew, English and Arabic, and I cried.
At that point I thought the drama was over. Ah, I was young then.
Everything online told me that there would be taxis waiting at the border. There was even a dusty taxi stand I clearly learned was from The Before Times. When I saw tumbleweeds blow past rather than taxis I started trying apps and calling nearby cab companies who just laughed when I told them where I was. I was in the middle of nowhere in Israel and after an hour just sat down on the side of the road to gather my thoughts and mentally prepare to walk the nearly two hours into the nearest town, or to hitchhike. Meanwhile, memories of all the times we’d gotten our hopes up for this moment, the fantasies I’d played in my mind so many times they felt like memories, played in the back of my mind.
It was bleak.
Perhaps, the universe decided I’d suffered enough and took pity on me. Because that’s when something magical happened. Two young girls lingering in a parked car near the border exit saw me, and generously started trying to help me find a taxi. When it came clear there were no options, they said insisted they were driving me to the bus station. Halos seemed to appear, glowing, over their heads. They spoke Arabic to each other and a mix of Hebrew and English to me. We waited for their sister and friend to come across the border too, and all piled tight in the car where we exchanged a few scant words of shared language.
When they dropped me off, they asked, do you have shekels? I said no, not yet, but don’t worry — I will find an ATM. The older sister shook her head, pulled 100NIS — about $30 — out of her pocket and refused my protests. They hugged me tersely and told me safe travels. Go in peace.
I was almost stunned as they pulled away, and I rushed in to find the first of two buses I had to take was leaving in moments. I sat down and again tried to wrap my head around their kindness, and what I’d have done without them. I had this deep urge to call my mom and tell her the story, I knew she’d love it and I could almost hear her saying, as she always did when I told her stories of the generosity of others on my travels, “I’m so grateful someone was looking out for my baby.”
But then I felt this strange certainty — which very well may have been the 11 hours without snacks talking — that I didn’t have to tell her, she already knew.
And wow, did those shekels come in handy when I had a five minute layover between buses and raided a vending machine for the unexpected best meal of my life.
And then, a bought of bad traffic, a chaotic meander through the maze that is the Tel Aviv bus station (a place loaded with intense memories; what a kick off) and a taxi ride later, I was starfished on the bed of my hotel for all of five seconds before I sprung up to get ready for the night. It had taken just under twelve hours, eight vehicles and a lotta paperwork and tears to make it those less-than-sixty-miles on the map.
But made it I did.
The next morning, after a celebratory dinner at Abie with Omer, my first friend ever in Israel, toasting to my return, I literally jogged with joy to the sea, energized by this city I’d missed so fiercely.
I ran past memories that could fill a book — some happy, some now achingly sad. My time in Israel is so tied up now with all these complicated chapters of my life — it’s the last place I ever traveled in what I now look back on as the end of the carefree era before my mom got sick in 2018, before the world locked down, before so many goodbyes. It’s the last place in the world I ever felt truly, breathtakingly light; and it’s a place that I logged a lot of miles flying back to trying to recapture that. But since I’d last left, it was a place that itself generated fresh new blows.
My pace slowed as I ran by windows peeking into restaurants where I had pivotal dates, by streets I thought I was going to live on, by rooftops I once danced on happy and free, and realized how tender some of those wounds still really were.
I had time to tend to them. It was an emotional few weeks reconnecting with friends, meeting with our Wander Women Retreats vendors, and confronting a lot of happy memories and hard truths.
After a few days of major Airbnb drama, another post-pandemic travel industry growing pain, I finally found a fabulous place for me. (In general, Tel Aviv has amazing hotels and the rental scene is tough, so if you’re coming for a short stay I highly recommend hotels over apartments here.)
I had wanted to maybe try a new area of Tel Aviv and have a fresh start but with limited availability I ended up right back in my comfort zone of Nahalat Binyamin, for better or for worse.
I stayed busy. This is a city where I always hit my step count; the mild weather and meandering streets always beckoning me to take the long way (that, and my previous inability to figure out how to properly pay for the bus.)
How I missed this place, where it brings me endless satisfaction just finding a cafe to sit and linger over my laptop and shakshuka for hours. (Someday, I’ll write a post about my favorite Tel Aviv cafés. Promise.)
In this old neighborhood, I discovered many new places. As much as I sometimes suspect hummus runs through my veins, so deep is my love of Israeli cuisine, it’s nice to have options. I swooned over the creative vegan sushi options at Green Roll, and scratched my Indian-craving itch at Mapau.
Further afield, I cheered on the opening of female-owned Mochikva, Tel Aviv’s first boba and mochi bar, where yellow and blue mochis were being sold to support Ukraine.
The city was covered in the two colors, and I heard protests outside the Russian consulate, and saw daily posts calling for volunteers and donations, making the fresh war feel very close — a start contrast to my return to the US, where it felt very distant and far.
In other girl-gang news, I became a rabid fan of Trang Nailz, so much so that I am loathe to post it here, for fear that appointments for my favorite global nail artist will become even more tricky to secure.
My days were filled with meetings. The two years we’d rescheduled my Wander Women Israel retreats, my longest bumped projects that I’d had to start from scratch now many times, represented a lot of the rage I felt at the world — at how close I’d come to losing my business.
And now, finally, we were moving forward. Healing.
And so I met with vendors we’d found, toured new hotels we’d use, checked out fresh studios we’d swapped to after ones we’d originally slated weren’t as lucky, and closed their doors. Email is tough in some cultures, and this is one of them — being able to meet and hug and laugh really makes all the difference when building complex trips like this from scratch.
After years of emailing and Zoom, it was so nice to just walk down the street and meet someone face to face. This time reminded me that when you book a Wander Women Retreat, you get more than just the trip, you get the years of connections I build in these destinations.
It also made me realize how important it was for me to steady out the roller coaster of my relationship with this place before my guests arrived, just a few months away.
Friends helped make that happen.
Somewhere along the way, to my surprise Tel Aviv became my biggest network after New York. If you made a heat map of all my closest friends, acquaintances, lovers, business partners, and beyond around the world, the second brightest concentration would hover over this sexy little Middle Eastern city on the Mediterranean Sea.
How lucky am I, that those survived two years apart? That I’d still nab an honored invite to hear “happy birthday” sung in Hebrew by Nim’s family for Jannah’s thirtieth? That the couple I call my Tel Aviv mom and dad would welcome me back with drinks at Herzl 16, where I now legally must have dumplings from every time I’m in Tel Aviv? That I can go out for a night with the girls, and run into even more I know along the way?
That my amazing Omer knows just the place to go dance it out when we need a laugh? That my sweet Shai can sense through the phone that I’m lonely, and invite me for brunch, and a walk through Florentin studios on a lazy Saturday? That my dear Or still greets me, every time, with a huge hug and a “welcome home, baby!”
These last years have taught me to never take a single hug for granted. Nor a single party.
When Shai invited me to a party from the Bad Vibes party line that she informed me we’d leave for at 1AM, I did my makeup, worked through dinner, then perched myself carefully on the couch for a disco nap.
And then had one of my best nights out ever in Israel.
I moved and reconnected with the home that is my body nearly every day, one of the time-honored resources I tap when I’m feeling a little lost in the world.
This is one of the best parts of my job. Checking out new studios we might rent, meeting teachers we might hire. One I loved (but ultimately, sadly, realized was too small for us) was Bali Yoga.
I was delighted to find one place that was an absolute perfect fit; which was FlyFit Studio, our partner for our High Flying Israel aerial retreat. The location had opened in the past two years, and it could not have been more fabulous.
You’ll see a lot more of this place in upcoming blog posts about our retreats. But suffice it to say, if you’re looking for an aerial community in Tel Aviv, this is a warm and welcoming one to land on.
Okay fine. Just two more shots. (Take me back!)
Speaking of our aerial retreats, I finally got to take a class with Nicolle Twerk, and aced my first ever heels class with my pole angel Niv Gradus.
I was thrilled to work with both for Wander Women — if my dream of making Tel Aviv home someday really does come true, I’d be regulars with both of these two.
I did also visit Studio Sol, a heated studio I used to frequent (which sadly has now closed its doors), just to warm up! This trip was kinda a reminder that Israel has a brief but actual winter, and it definitely has a different vibe than the Hot Girl Summers I love so dearly there.
But, winter did fit my mood at the time (which perhaps was helped along by winter… does anyone not have Seasonal Affective Disorder?)
It was perhaps some sort of immersion therapy I was attempting when I took myself, solo, to the Yayoi Kusama show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
It felt like a relationship retrospective, to me — I couldn’t help but relive a passionate date here from the early courting stages of a relationship I was still healing from, nor the meeting at Kusama’s New York Botanical Gardens the previous spring that had pressed the restart button once again in the on-again, off-again routine we’d gotten into.
I’d fought hard for those tickets — I’d accidentally bought three, because English translations of most Hebrew websites are laughable — that made me feel like I was in a kaleidoscope of memories.
There had been many critiques of the show: that the tickets were tough to get (perhaps helpless American girls were buying them in triplicate), the lines for each exhibit were insane, and it felt very Insta-ey. But for some reason, I wouldn’t have missed it.
I can’t say two weeks flew by.
It felt like at least two months did, as I cried, laughed, and felt what seemed like a near full range of the human emotional spectrum within them.
One of the things that felt good: just being in one place. Long enough to nearly master my always-mysterious Israeli laundry machine settings. Long enough to figure out which corner shop had the mango Coke Zero in stock, usually. Long enough to retell wild antics at the next girl’s nights. Long enough to finally figure out how to legally ride the dang bus.
Long enough to take one of a couple big, sometimes painful, but absolutely necessary, steps towards closure.
After absorbing a true Tel Avivian winter in every sense of the word in February, I was off to Dubai and the Maldives (which you’ll read about this coming week!). And in March, on my way back to the US, I returned for five days to Tel Aviv in what suddenly felt like spring.
It was an exhausting twenty-four hours of travel and I had an urge to just go “home” — a nebulous word for me these last few years — to New York. But on my last flight, I looked out the window and saw the Tel Aviv skyline from under the wing of the plane, and I thought — you know what? This feels like going home, too.
I had just five days, which were busy with final rounds of meetings and some loose ends to tie up before my retreats, which suddenly felt right around the corner.
I split my time in two hotels we had our eyes on, axe-ing one for a variety of reasons, and giving the other a big green light. This is the level of detail I like to put on every aspect of our trips — wherever and whenever possible, I want to put my hand-picked seal of approval on absolutely everything we touch.
And y’all know I studio hopped.
I sometimes feel almost guilty hitting old favorite studios when I could be researching new ones, but a visit to Beit Hanna proved fruitful when I heard rumors that my beloved inconveniently-northern-located studio was opening a new branch in NOGA. (If you visit this branch, prepare thy Google Translate app — even the bathroom signs are in Hebrew.)
I also prioritized visiting a new-to-me female-owned pole studio I’d heard about from Jannah, my pole queen. Funky Goddess was a little tricky to navigate getting to a class in as an English speaker, but it was so worth it — the teacher was incredible, the space was homey, and the other girls were so lovely.
I’ve said it before, but I can’t imagine a better way to make new friends if you’re moving somewhere than going to aerial classes. It’s more than just a gym or a workout, it really is a community.
And yup — we ended up using this space in our retreats!
Food is another aspect of my trips that former guests can attest, I obsess over finding the perfect fits for.
I was thrilled, personally and professionally, to find Neroli Health Food and its myriad of gorgeous fueling foods — though a later run in with a rude employee who wouldn’t serve me at the counter at 4:02PM when Google Maps had them listed as open until 4:30PM (“the counter closes thirty minutes earlier”) even though I super politely and sympathetically showed them the listing and explained I’d walked more than thirty minutes to get there kinda put me off working with them.
Still, if you are lucky enough to magically sense via extrasensory perception what their true secret hours, unlisted anywhere are, and arrive while food is being served, you are pretty much guaranteed to be delighted.
And in other truly must-know-bad-service news, I got a pedicure so tragic that when I got another in New York a few weeks later, the technician asked me if I’d done it myself, and I left vowing loyalty to Trang whenever in Tel Aviv, for as long as I live.
(Seriously, good nail connections are so weirdly hard to find in this city.)
But it wasn’t all work and wah wah customer service examples. There was also fun to be had.
Like a first date that was exactly the good time I needed, made even more memorable by my friend Faye taking one look at my outfit beforehand and insisting I come over to wear something of hers instead.
It’s hard to prioritize dating sometimes when I feel like I have so little time with my friends in various places. But, I find Tel Aviv to be one of the most dateable cities in the world, much to the surprise of the many who post on groups like Dates From Hell Aviv (which I adore). And there’s a lot I love about dating Israelis, and there’s a lot I still love about the idea of living in Tel Aviv someday. So, why not?
But, friends do come first. I had a bubbly, joyful night at a party Or was shooting at Hive, where I finally met his delightful Greek partner Ionnis, and got to dance with retreater-turned-friend Chelsea.
In Tel Aviv, Saturday night is the equivalent to an American Sunday, as everyone’s headed to work the next morning. But what always tickles me is how wild a night it is in Tel Aviv. No staying home meal prepping for the week ahead and watching Netflix, here. Why give up even a moment of your personal, social free time to prepare for work time?
That’s the Israel I love.
So, once they let me in, they couldn’t keep me away. I spent tons of time in Israel in 2022, and thinking about if Tel Aviv could be a realistic home base for me for a bit despite my changed circumstances. This is the first post of many.
The truth is since the first day I got here in 2018, something about it always made me feel at home. I don’t think the story is over just yet. And I couldn’t wait to continue telling it, next live and in person to the twenty-four guests coming to travel with me that summer.
Five days wasn’t very long. But it was long enough to feel a new chapter opening.
Yalla, thank you for turning the page with me…