OPINION: In Israel, rudeness can come with a side-order of empathy

OPINION: In Israel, rudeness can come with a side-order of empathy

By Mia Serra14 Mia

For some people, it was the post office. For others, the Ministry of Transport was the final straw.

For me, if I leave Israel, it will be the supermarket – something I found myself articulating loudly to the lady ahead of me in the queue last Friday as she checked the prices of each item in her basket at the checkout.

Granted, in Israel many items have no indicated price, but it was getting to be a long process. “Can’t you go to customer services?” I said, aware of the absurdity of my request. No response.

“Clearly no one has ever heard the words ‘customer’ and ‘services’ strung together,” I muttered madly to a sea of non-English speakers.

The woman paused, looked me up and down, and slowly resumed her deliberation with the head-scarved cashier over the prices of the sheets she had selected.

It was then that the rage began to bubble up inside me.

“I have a child here,” I said, pointing to my toddler daughter who was standing up in the seat of the trolley, attempting to make a run for it.

A slow motion not-my-problem insouciant shrug was all I got in response. Only the ‘have patience’ upturned finger-bunching gesture provokes more wrath in me than that shrug.

I glanced at my trolley – full to the brim. I glanced over at the woman discussing the advantages and disadvantages of chintz. I glanced at my watch, lamenting the 15 minutes lost to supermarket purgatory. With nowhere else to turn, I looked behind me for back up.

“This is crazy!” I invited, throwing my arms up in the air wildly. An older woman with a sharp black bob looked back at me with sympathy. “It is Friday,” she offered. (In Israel, Friday is the first day of the weekend and prime shopping time).

“The tolerance for ineptitude here is limitless,” I sighed to myself, not expecting a response.

“I will help you,” she continued kindly, as my daughter began to wail. As soon as the sheet woman was gone the bob lady mobilised the staff (to the soundtrack of a now hysterical toddler).

Yelling orders in Hebrew, she instructed the cashier to work faster, pointing at me crossly – couldn’t she see I had a child? She recruited a packer. And in five minutes I was signing on the dotted line. Wheeling my right-veering trolley diagonally back to the car, hysterical toddler glued to hip, (my purse £200 lighter) I was slightly taken aback.

Tolerance and empathy are not the qualities most often attributed to Israelis, yet time and again self-centred behaviour and tolerance appear simultaneously.

I see this in the way my child can sit at the top of the slide for as long as she wishes, while other children wait or go round.

In the way people in the supermarket queue will sometimes demand to go in front of you (with fewer items), and other times offer to hold your child for you while you pack. In the way that drivers wait patiently for pedestrians to saunter slowly across zebra crossings in the heat. There is an understanding that everyone needs to be selfish.

To park on the pavement if there is no other parking.

To cut in front of others in traffic queues.

To answer their mobile phones, always, whether serving a customer or treating a patient. And to decide not to stop at zebra crossings after all.

It is both touching and infuriating.

People help you, not because the system requires them to (staff push past customers in the narrow aisles of a supermarket) but because they feel empathy for you. Which can be erratic.

One day, the checkout person will shout sagoor (closed) just as you’ve unpacked your shopping onto a conveyor belt. Another day, she will open a new checkout queue just for you.

This emotional roller coaster is bamboozling. And heartening. And cronyistic (it’s worth knowing the name of the pickle serving man as he might do you a favour on a busy day).

It’s a culture of taking things into your own hands.

Need cheese from the cheese counter but they’re ignoring you? Just take it (yes I did this to cries of asoor, asoor (forbidden)! It was then that I realised I was becoming a true Israeli. (And that I’d done something I’d be arrested for in Sainsbury’s).

All this is strangely calm-inducing: floor cleaning machine following you around at peak time? No problem.

Checkouts too narrow for a pushchair? I’ll go around. Until one day. You never know when. You snap. You fly home and kneel at the great white gates of Waitrose. Pushing your trolley eagerly in front of everyone as they tut you for being a pushy Israeli.

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