I was just a few kilometres away from the airport when the first doubts assailed me. The ticket I kept fiddling with read Bologna-Istanbul, but that was not what was worrying me. Once landed in the Turkish city, in a few breaths’ time I would leave again, heading for Tel Aviv and the umpteenth military campaign it was involved in. This time, they called it Operation Protective Edge.
Tel Aviv… good God, I barely knew where that was.
I was sleeping in my car when the call came; the sea was good and we were staying in the back of a minivan more or less equipped for living, waiting for the right moment to surf. With a 6 feet swell and a period between 10 and 11 seconds, work was really the last of my thoughts. But my phone rang, and the next second everything started speeding up around me.
Archaeological excavations at the Church of the Nativity, A few rockets from Hamas and Anyway you have nothing to be worried about were the only three sentences I could metabolize before replying with a laid back “All right”.
I talked about it with the guy from Livorno at the counter of the surf shop, but his way of repeating a stunned “Woha!” every other word only sharpened the feeling of unreality I was sinking in.
And there I was, one week later, sitting on the worn out seat of an equally worn out van, struggling with anxiety. I was together with Angelo, a guy I’d met one hour before in the headquarters. He was new, just like me, he seemed to be in his fifties and had a white beard reaching down to his chest; he restored wood, and he was a hippy. Not a freaky one, a real hippy, one who had started on it about thirty years back and had lived through a history of house occupations, sheds and meditation that would have made any South Bay Californian junkie jealous.
Being suspended in mid-air was not as awful as I remembered. The voice of paranoia, that usually starts whispering in my ears the moment the plane reaches 10.000 feet, was barely there this time. Maybe thanks to the unrestrained enthusiasm of my travel companion, or maybe thanks to the two glasses of red I had forced myself to gulp down before boarding.
Thirty minutes away from Israel I even started relaxing, thinking that, after all, reality is often less terrible than one paints, and that yeah, fine, there was war there, but we were no soldiers, we were not in it. And with all those skyscrapers it looked like we were landing in Miami, and you don’t die because of bombs in Miami.
Of course, I was wrong. I don’t know how wrong I was about Miami, but I surely was wrong about Tel Aviv. A few seconds before the landing gear touched the runway, the pilot steered the aircraft, with a manoeuvre that made my whole bowels and gastric juices come up to my mouth, and we were back in the air. There were rockets too close to the airport, they explained us later, so we were going back.
As we flew back towards the Sea of Marmara, in a surreal atmosphere, I took a look at the passengers, most of whom were Israeli citizens: almost all of them were in tears. Not a face around me had a less then sorrowful expression. Apart from that of Angelo.
“Chill out”, he told me, with the brightest of smiles on his face, “these things happen, we’ll try again tomorrow”. That man, over the years, had probably seen things that nobody on the plane had ever dreamed of, not even that group of ultra orthodox Jews, with their forearms wrapped in their leather straps, who kept chanting two rows behind us.
The next day, though, we were not able to leave, nor the days after, for that matter. The airspace was closed, and we stayed blocked in Istanbul waiting for instructions. Not that I was sad about it: a few days vacation on the Bosphorus seemed just the right compensation for the scare I had got the first day. But the Turkish government used the air blockade as a political pressure instrument, and our enjoyable stay soon turned into an annoying set back.
Our little hotel right behind Taksim Square, with its Marxist owner, helped us pass the ten days of electoral campaign we had fallen right into. We were not given a moment’s rest; every minute, on every channel, Erdogan kept reminding us how the people of Gaza were dying in a horrible way. Quite reassuring. Also a group of Syrians thought it well to lecture us about how it was definitely not the right time to go to Palestine. But what else could we do? In for a penny, in for a pound, at least that is how we justified our not so comprehensible stubbornness. A stubbornness that led us, as soon as flights to Tel Aviv were open again, to jump on the first plane available and head for that Ben Gurion Airport we had endlessly heard about in the previous days.
On my mobile i had three fantastic photos of a wave; three solid feet, no wind and no one on the line up. I’d had them from a guy at the airport, one of those stoned French guys with a large backpack who are a bit everywhere around the world.
I kept looking at the pictures, but they had no effect.
“You absolutely have to go, the spot is in the north of the country, near the Lebanese border” he said.
Lebanon, of course … as if i didn’t have enough problems …