It’s Monday afternoon, the second day of August, and I find myself once again in London, the capital of what has been designated by the Government of Israel as a “red country”, a high-risk country, although true-blue conservatives and Conservatives might balk at that description.
The fact that the Israeli government designated the United Kingdom as a “high risk” destination upset whatever fragmentary plans I had for the second half of this summer. All of a sudden, 10 days ago, I had to decide whether I should travel a fortnight earlier than I’d planned (if indeed I was able to change my booking) or wait until Israel looked upon the UK more favourably. I consulted with the person who has acted as my travel agent for the past three and a half decades and with another person familiar with the travel business and decided that there was no real alternative. In fact, changing the booking was the easiest part of the whole process.
The thought of escaping the heat and humidity of Tel Aviv (34ºC, 80% humidity today) and swapping it for the rain and wind of London really didn’t bother me in the slightest although I imagine that after a week of rain, etc., I might be wanting a bit of warmth!
Having completed Stage I (i.e., changing the booking), I then had to put the apartment in Tel Aviv in something resembling order in the space of five days rather than the two and a half weeks I had originally contemplated as I had rented it to an old friend for the duration of my stay away from Tel Aviv. Given that I am not the most organised person on the planet, what was never going to be an easy task turned out to be nightmarish but I think that by the end of the fifth day, it was sufficiently acceptable to accommodate a guest.
I was due to travel on the Thursday morning but it was only on the Monday that I started to deal with the bureaucracy of travel during the Corona era. First off, I had to book a Covid test in order to exit Israel. Although it had been difficult enough to find a time and date, I had already booked an appointment at the airport the day before I was originally due to travel but, of course, that had now become passé. And as the test results had to be printed in English, that meant that getting a new appointment meant either travelling to somewhere in South Tel Aviv and waiting or, alternatively, paying a little extra and have someone come to the flat to do it. I chose the latter and was given a time slot by the organisation carrying out the tests—Tuesday 27 July between 10.00 and 14.00. At about 10.30, I had a call from a woman who introduced her self as Poll, who spoke English with a Manchester accent and told me she’d be with me within the hour to administer the Covid test but no sooner had that conversation ended when the doorbell rang and I was informed by a man called Rami from the same organisation that he had arrived to stick a swab down my throat and then up my nose. What ensued was an argument between Polly and Rami lasting over five minutes — on my cellphone — as to who would do the job. It ended when he came up to the apartment and did what he said he had to do. The conclusion that cynical me arrived at was that the swab deliverers work on commission and while this whole business of Covid testing may well be a necessary precaution, it is also a racket, a conclusion which was confirmed over succeeding days!
By evening I had received a negative result signed by a senior physician at Tel Aviv’s main hospital that I was “fit for international travel” and I sighed a sigh relief — but, boy, was I naïve! I had also received notification from El Al, the Israeli airline with which I was due to travel, that my flight had been changed from the reasonable hour of 10.10 to 08.10, which meant a 4 a.m. rise and shine. On the morrow, I filled in a form to satisfy the authorities in the United Kingdom that I was “fit to stay”. I provided them details of my flight number, my seat number on the plane, where I was going to stay, how many people were travelling with me, how many other people were going to be in the place I was going to live, etc. and I received confirmation once more that I was “kosher”. Relief — again.
However, there was one more hurdle to cross and that came on the Thursday, the day before I was due to travel. Just as in England, where they want to know who is entering, the Israelis want to know who is leaving; so 24 hours before the flight time, I filled in the appropriate form and sent it online to the Israeli Ministry of Health and received a response within 30 seconds that given the data that I had supplied, I was forbidden to travel and that I should contact the airline! I tried again — same response. I tried a third time, this time in English — and guess what? So I rang my travel agent of 36 years and asked what might be wrong and she told me that she had entered my Irish passport number on the booking but that she would correct it. I waited an hour and then tried again — but got the same response.
So I called El Al and got on to someone who tried to be helpful, and asked him if there was an Israeli or Irish passport number on the booking. “Israeli” was the response, so I tried a fifth time. No good. At this stage, it seemed as if the only sensible thing to do was to call the Ministry of Health. Logical? Perhaps. Sensible? Hardly. I dialled the number and after 10 minutes of constant ringtone, it hung up on me — which is what I expected. I was beginning to visualise having an argument with some petty bureaucrat at the airport at 4 a.m. the following morning, something which didn’t really appeal to me. So what did I do? I called the airline again, as instructed, where I had an altercation with the rudest woman I have ever spoken to (it wasn’t really a conversation but a monologue uttered fff) who ended up screaming at me that the only thing to do was to call the Ministry of Health and that she, an El Al employee, was not responsible for my problem.
Given my experience with the Ministry a few minutes earlier, I didn’t expect anything much to happen but with little alternative, I called “Customer Services” (or whatever it’s officially called) again — and lo and behold, a woman’s voice answered within 30 seconds. I explained my predicament and she responded with “I understand”. I was flabbergasted. Then she asked me to wait for a couple of minutes, returned and went through the process of filling in the form, while I plied her with responses over the phone. She repeated each response [in English, with an Israeli accent, something that had never happened before] and when we got the question that related to travel to a “high risk” country, she informed that this was my mistake, because Britain would only become a high risk country in the eyes of the Government of Israel on Thursday night at midnight! We finished the exercise and she then informed me that everything was OK. I asked for confirmation and I spelled out my email address and waited — and I’m still waiting. So I reckoned that if it had been OK’d, I would try again myself and so it was.
Armed with a bagful of paper certificates, permissions and whatnot, I turned up at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv at 05.00 the following morning and a couple of hours later, I had completed Stage II of the journey and was on the plane waiting the arrival of the other passengers.
Several hours later, and after a total of 11 hours masked up, I had arrived at my destination.
I was a zombie for two days, a result I suppose, of 10 days of stress and tension but I finally woke up yesterday morning and was almost functioning normally. Today, (Monday), it was cloudy but I decided to go for a walk and dressed reasonably warmly, only to discover as I was on my way, that the sun had decided to emerge and I discovered that I was overdressed. Notwithstanding, I made for Primrose Hill, which is usually my first stop when I arrive in London and when I can see the London skyline from the summit, I know that I’m here for sure. I’d been there a couple of days ago but the sky was a bit overcast but the skyline was there and that eased things.
It was certainly different from what I’d become used to photographing recently in the park in Tel Aviv.
In London, the only disappointment at Primrose Hill was when I walked around the park to view the five trees that I have been photographing at different seasons and at different times of the day and in different lighting and their curvature which I regarded as mimicking the curvature of the hill itself was the discovery that the southernmost tree had been “decapitated” …
… part of the general “pruning” process that has been going on in the park.
On Saturday morning, as I walked up to the top of the hill, there were two park employees clearing up the litter that had been strewn about by the previous evening’s revellers. Talking to the older one of the two and remarking that one can view similar scenes in parks everywhere, he drew my attention to the shards of broken glass that were scattered all over the place, with the comment that “It seems like they can’t have a drink without smashing the bottles before they leave!” This was as simple case of understatement …
… and then I noticed something that had never been there before and had never needed to be.
It seems as if being cooped up in Covid lockdowns has had its repercussions.
And now that “Freedom Day” in the UK has come and gone, it was interesting to observe what happens when the government leaves it to the individual as to whether or not masks should be worn. As an example, I travelled from Belsize Park to Edgware, a 20-minute ride in the London Underground, seven stations altogether. Supposedly, the public is not given the option to choose or not to choose to wear a mask but on public transport as it’s obligatory. There were no more than a dozen people in the carriage in which I was travelling at any one time and a rough estimate is that about half of the passengers were wearing masks and the other half were not. However, by my rough estimate, all of those not wearing masks were under 30 years of age! Obligatory it may be but it seems as if it’s impossible to implement.
Still, NW London provides interesting opportunities for photographs.
And the BBC Promenades season has opened and just as I was walking home, I came across this Blue Plaque on the house at 4 Elsworthy Road, in Belsize Park, in which the founder of the Proms once lived!
And here I am, at the computer, writing this blog post and looking at a familiar photograph that a good friend gave us many moons ago.
And I might just as well write as there’s nothing much to watch live on television at the moment save for reports from the Tokyo Olympics or reports on the numbers of people ill or dying from Covid-19, accompanied by a few items here and there about destruction due to forest fires or floods and global warming — as well as the odd murder here and there thrown in in order to make us feel thats we’re living in a normal world, I suppose.
Still, there are things called “books” to read and that is what I am going to do until next week, folks.
Have a great week!