Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning to Drive in Israel

So, remember when you were 16 years old (actually, I guess we were technically 15 and 1/2...) and it was the biggest deal in the world to go through your classroom lessons in order to take your driving permit test? Then you passed the written test (or....some of us did on the first try, and some on multiple attempts), and then the real fun started. After just a few driving lessons with an instructor, we got to practice hours upon hours with our parents as we learned how to drive (or, I mean, as we steered away from multiple accidents with our shrieking parents in the background). Soon enough, the big day came and on most of our 16th birthdays, off we went to the DMV to take the infamous driving test. I might have gotten my lefts and rights confused because of nerves, but I do remember how excited I was to pass my test on the first time! The procedure was simple enough with not too many bumps and bruises along the way. And thankfully, we only have to go through it once in a lifetime.
 

Well, actually, its just once in a lifetime if you stay inside the US; but if you decide to move abroad like I did, you have to go through entire other process again, foreign style. So, what was it like learning to drive in Israel? Well, I can tell you that after reading this, you'll be thankful that you did not learn to drive in Israel!


 
Why do I say this? Well, things here in Israel work a little bit differently. For most young people, they cannot being learning to drive until they are 17 years old, at which time they are to begin the process by taking a thorough medical and eye exam, followed by a theoretical test on which they must score at least 25 questions correct out of 30. Okay, so far, not so bad. However, once those bases have been covered, it is time to find a legitimate driving instructor and sign up for 28 driving lessons (yes, you read that correctly), at 150 shekels a piece. You can do the math, it really adds up! And you can forget about permits that allow you to practice driving with your mom or dad, you are not allowed to drive here with anyone other than your instructor. Thus, the large driving instruction fees are unavoidable.  And, it does not stop there. Once you're ready for the actual test, you must then fork over another 500 shekels to take the driving test inside your instructor's car. Oh, and did I mention that you usually are accompanied by 2-3 other test takers in the car who will take their individual driving tests before or after you? Yes, it's a very original process here in Israel. And fingers crossed that you pass the first time because it's another hefty 500 shekels to take the exam a 2nd time. Fail the 2nd exam and it's back the beginning, and yes, that means redoing the 28 lessons all over again.


 


For those new drivers who were lucky enough to pass on the first time, they do finally get their temporary driver's license. However, there is a silver lining. For the first three months, these new drivers must be escorted by a passenger who is at least 24 years old and has had his or her license for at least 5 years (or someone who is 30 years old and has had his or her license for at least 3 years). Not only this, but also, the nervous new driver must go around with a black and yellow sign that reads, "New Driver" on it, in order to let the humiliation sink in a little publicly. At long last, once the three months have passed, the new driver has made it into the leagues of the official drivers on the road.




Luckily, my process wasn't as hectic because all I had to do was convert my foreign driving license. With that said, it was still no cup of tea. Here's a look at the process, more or less, that my classmates and I had to go through just to be able to drive on the streets here:


  1. Find a local, registered optician to do an eye exam - and pay about 60 shekels for the exam (even though we already have a legitimate eye exam from home...)
  2. Go to the Misrad Harishui (with a form from the optician) in order to do the paper conversion of your foreign license
  3. Schedule a minimum of one driving lesson - yes, that's right, you have to do a driving lesson even though we all know how to drive and have been driving for several years already - and pay the instructor 150 shekels for each lesson
  4. Go back to the Misrad Harishui to pay a hidden fee of 65 shekels to book your driving test
  5. Take the driving test at the "DMV" with three other people in the car and pay the instructor 500 shekels to take the test 
  6. If you pass - SUCCESS! But it's not over yet. You still have to go back to the Misrad Harishui one last time to get the paper confirming you've passed your test. And then finally go the post office (a lot of government fees here are paid at local post offices) to pay the 400 shekels to receive your temporary license in the mail.
  7. If you did not pass, you are in trouble and will have to book another driving test, and yes it will cost you 500 shekels again. If you fail a 2nd time, it's back to the drawing board: you will have to do the 28 lessons from the beginning just like the 17 year olds!
 

Whew! As you can see I was not the most eager person to take my driving test here, because there's a lot on the line. Most teenagers here will spend around $1,500-$2,000 US just to get their driver's license - something we sure take for granted back in the US. For my classmates and I, it cost only (and I say only with a grain of salt) around 1,000 NIS, or a couple hundred dollars (and a bit of public humiliation) to convert our licenses.


So, how was it? Well, to tell you the truth, it was a little scary! Israeli drivers are aggressive, the road signs are unfamiliar, the signage is in Hebrew and Arabic (and fortunately, in English as well), speed limits are posted in kilometers (not miles), the lights go from red to yellow to green when it's time to GO (this can be a little confusing to us Americans), the green light flashes repeatedly when it's time to stop (vs. a yellow light), there are no left turn yields, no turning right on red, there are tons of roundabouts (thank goodness for having time to master roundabouts in Dallas) and most importantly, as you're taking this all in, you have to drive around with a big "ל" on the top of your car, showing the world that you are a student driver. Here's a look at just a few of the signs that threw me off a bit. I may just have maybe, possibly driven the wrong way down a one way street during my driving lesson because I was unfamiliar with one of the signs below (keep in mind there are no English translations for these signs out on the street in the "real world":




Luckily, I can breathe a sigh of relief that the driving process is now complete. I think my driving instructor was the happiest person in town to have gotten a massive incoming of new students from my Hebrew class (especially given the sticker price we pay for his services). Luckily, so far we have all passed our respective exams, though not all drivers have been so lucky. On my driving test specifically, another tester in my car was an American girl from Los Angeles who didn't pass her first test on a manual car; and then, the other tester in my exam was a 20-something year old guy from Toronto who had a close call in some traffic during the exam where the instructor had to step on his set of brakes - which is never a good sign during a lesson or a test! If you are next to learn to drive in Israel, I would recommend working with my instructor Eyal, especially because he speaks great English! Here is his website: http://wheels4u.co.il/apage/36568.php


Now that it's all over, it's time to get a car, right?! Well......not so quickly. Did you know that to purchase a new car here in Israel, you have to pay a 100% VAT tax (the entire value of the car) so that a car that costs, let's say $40,000 US, ends up costing you $80,000 US here in Israel? And it doesn't stop there. There's a 16% tax on top of that $80,000 US price tag. Unreal, right? That's what we think, too. It's the same deal if you want to ship your car in from abroad. Are your jaws dropping yet? As a new immigrant, we do get a slight break, just a 50% tax instead of 100% tax, but geez, now I can understand why there are almost no SUV's here and why nearly everyone has used cars! And let's not even go into the cost of gas in this part of town. I'm really missing my Jeep Cherokee from home (which is now living in Seattle with my older sister) but am thrilled to have my Israeli driving license. I hope you've enjoyed seeing how the Israeli licensing process works and also how lucky you guys are at home to have the conveniences associated with being an American citizen!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Herzliya Marina

Herzliya, a modern city located directly on the Mediterranean coast and named after the Zionist Theodor Herzl, is a beautiful part of Israel that is just a short 15 minute drive north of Tel Aviv, making it an easy vacation destination for locals. And being the locals that we are, this is exactly where we ventured this past weekend. I had always heard wonderful things about the city of Herzliya since it is known for being upscale and modern, as well as prized for its white sand beaches and plethora of fine dining and shopping options. I was curious to see this area for myself. I am a little biased, especially having grown up in southern California; however, I must say we were pleasantly surprised with what we found. Please let me introduce you to Herzliya, the city of choice for Israeli's elite, including a plethora of high tech companies, international conventions and embassies:

 

 

 

 

 

At first glance, there is a lot here that reminds me of San Diego, which is why I love it so much. Great hiking, beautiful beaches, a grand marina, towering cliffs, stellar weather and top-notch shopping and dining. We headed to the common gathering spot which is at the Herzliya Marina (pictured above) where you can find Israeli's fanciest indoor shopping mall. The architectural plan of the outside plazas is inspired from and based on qualities found in the streets and squares of many Italian Mediterranean cities, giving it a very European and lively feel to it (which most of you know is my very favorite thing in the world).  First, here are a few images from the indoor shopping mall at Herzliya:


The mall (above) is built with glass walls and windows in order for shoppers to be able to enjoy the beautiful soothing views of the surrounding marina. Thus, even on a breezier day, you can shop or eat from indoors as you peer out into the beautiful surroundings. On one side of the mall you have the marina, and on the other side of the mall, you have the very beginning of 4 miles of beautiful stretches of Herzliya beaches. After doing some window shopping we peeked outside on the marina side of the mall to catch this view:

   

   

After taking in the beautiful views, there are dozens of delicious restaurants to choose from, many of which are pricey, but all of them compete voraciously for your wallet and for your pallet as you pass by and take in the enticing scents that make your mouth water. Herzliya, after all, has been known to attract some of the best chefs in the country and in the Middle East in general. Our meal at Lucca's Restaurant did not disappoint. We chose what we thought was a basic Italian restaurant, but my oh my, was it delicious! It is not easy for me to add a new gnocchi favorite to my list (my favorite food), but this mouth-watering home-made gnocchi topped with a Gorgonzola and blue cheese sauce not only prompted drawn-out "mmm's" from Rafi and I, but also, it easily topped my previously existing list on my very first bite (for those who are curious, my other two favorite gnocchi dishes are at San Diego's Arrivederci Ristorante - due to the melt in your mouth factor - and Encinitas's and/or Carlsbad's Vigilucci Ristorante - due to the scrumptious truffle oil sauce). As usual, Rafi opted for a pizza. Boring if you ask me, but to each his own!


After a filling meal, perhaps take a time out on one of the many swings lining the marina boardwalk. It may not have been the nicest of days when we visited, but just imagine the sky painted blue mid-summer with an ice cream cone in hand as you snuggle up with your special someone:

 

Finally, we made our way to the beginning of the 4-mile stretch of white-sand beaches which are coveted throughout Israel. Again, though it was not the most sunny of days, you still get the idea. I cannot wait to come back here when sunshine is in full swing! Growing up in San Diego has made me really dependent on sunshine. Picture now crowded beaches, warm sand, cool ocean breezes, sailboats gliding through the water,  boardwalk runners and rollerbladers whirring past, and of course, a few rounds of paddle ball going on here and there (typical Israeli beach game). 

   

 

I would be very content to move to the Herzliya area if we end up staying in Israel longer than expected. Jerusalem has been great so far and and is ideal for a year or two, but for the long term, I think I am more of a Herzliya kind of girl. A great location and a great jumping off point for other fun areas in Israel. Be sure to visit the area if you're in town long enough!