Caption: The nightly KidzBop variety show. Proof that this essay is not hyperbole.
You should come join my archaeology excavation in Israel. We get to stay in a hotel on the Mediterranean coast! Doesn’t that sound posh (and slightly British Colonial)?
It is not. The Hotel excels at precisely two forms of customer service: crushing spirits and inducing insanity. You can try to ignore or deflect all of The Hotel’s torments; you can try to be impervious, but ultimately you will break. A renegade child will dump a milkshake on your laptop while the lobby loudspeaker blasts “Who Let the Dogs Out” in Hebrew and you will break.
The Hotel is located about 8 miles from Gaza in a city that is the Jersey Shore of Israel. This means it is a hot, loud, shithole infested by idiot tan guys in tank tops. And that it is periodically the target of neighborly rocket attack.
The nicest place in town to go for a meal is the Marina, which has two restaurants named with equally impotent puns: ScuBar and Fish N Zone. The restaurants offer identical dining experiences—mediocre food and hostile service—but everyone goes to ScuBar and no one goes to Fish N Zone. The Marina’s ambiance approximates Paradise as the sun plunges into the Mediterranean, smearing the sky with azure, periwinkle, and other rich-sounding colors. The breeze is ambient room temperature. Just ignore the smell of rotting fish and the gang of one-eyed stray cats corralling your table, plotting an ambush.
The beach is right there, but you should avoid it. On the rare occasions when it’s free of jellyfish and riptides, you’ll be engulfed by the bobbing surface horizon of plastic bottles and candy wrappers. My colleague once dived under a wave and emerged with a used diaper on his head.
Fortunately, you don’t have enough free time to go to the beach during this excavation. You have enough free time to sleep, shower, and do one special, personal activity per day, such as cutting your toenails or buying a soda at the Russian Market. The day is otherwise full.
We get up at 4 am, which is a disgusting time, no matter how many hours of sleep precede it. Humans should not be awake in the 4 o’clock hour. It’s the only hour that is inappropriate from either side: if you’re still up or if you’re getting up. At 4:30 am we gather in the Hotel lobby for a mini-breakfast of instant coffee and cookies that are soggy from defrosting. The incandescent lights reflect off the linoleum floor creating an eerie, tangible glow, which will dissolve when sunlight enters the scene, hours before the rest of humanity rises. The excavation team ranges from world-class academics to hopeless, hungover 19-year-olds who clunk down the stairs with their shoes on the wrong feet. We cope with the ungodly hour differently: gruffness, numbness, serial killer silence, imbecilic chatter—but no one handles it well. Except that batty Australian woman who seems to have been raised on a unicorn farm.
We return from the dig each day at 1 pm for lunch, served in a dank dining room. A track of easy listening covers plays so barely audibly that you’re not sure if you’re hearing acoustic “I Want it That Way” or going insane, or going insane because you’re hearing acoustic “I Want it That Way” 4-7 times a day for six weeks.
One time we returned to find that The Hotel had begun significant renovations on our rooms. A flapping plastic sheet sealed our former hallway, now an apocalyptic tunnel of unhinged doors, drywall fragments, and wires, in a cloud of dust and plaster (and I’m sure asbestos). The construction workers wore gas masks. We stumbled through, coughing into our shirts, because we had to gather all our possessions from the rooms The Hotel did not warn us to vacate.
For such reasons, you’ll have to change rooms once or twice per summer. The other time that year was when we got locked in our room. Yes in our room.
I phoned the front desk, “Hi. We’re in room 304 and can’t get the door open. We’re locked in.”
They were not surprised. They sent someone who battering-rammed the door down and then walked away, leaving us with no door.
I phoned the front desk, “Hi. We’re in room 304 and have no door.”
They were not surprised. They told us to move to room 204; the key would work for that room too. How convenient that guest keys open multiple rooms!
The Hotel has a pool that is quite inviting after a sweltering, dusty morning of excavating Iron Age mudbrick. However, no matter what you try to do in the pool, The Hotel will ensure that you don’t do that. You try to sit on the edge of the pool. Children start a cannonball contest in your proximity. You move to the other side of the pool. They follow. You move a third time before realizing that relocating is futile because the object of this game is to splash you. Next you try to swim laps in the lane roped off for swimming laps, but a group of Israelis has decided that this lane is the best place to hold a convention of chatting, smoking, and loitering. You try to swim laps outside the lane and immediately instigate a fury of whistle-blowing and finger-waving from the lifeguard: swimming laps is prohibited outside of the swimming lane. You abandon the pool and slink into an empty lounge chair; at least you can nap and tan. Within seconds a quarreling Israeli couple settles into the chairs to your left and right—even though there are dozens of free, isolated chairs available. They prefer to argue across you, and to pass food items across you, and to ignore their child poking you through the back of your chair with a Pez dispenser.
One of my duties as TA for the field school was to set up nightly archaeology lectures. The Hotel has several meeting rooms that could hold the lectures, but refused to inform us in which room it would be until 30 minutes before.
Every evening I would march up the front desk, carrying a projector: “Where is the archaeology lecture tonight?”
Every evening one of three front desk clerks would stare back blankly: “The what? What is this lecture?”
They would call someone on the desk line; they would call someone on a cell phone. They would say, “one moment” and disappear in the back room for 10-15 minutes. They would emerge to inform that it is impossible to have a room because the only man with keys is on his dinner break.
When I would get to the room there was always a problem. No electricity. No air conditioning. Stray cats that I have to chase out with a broom. Cockroaches. A dance troop having a dress rehearsal. A sweaty, shirtless Russian man passed out across three folding lecture chairs. Six unattended watermelons. It was always something. Every night, 6 pm.
The worst event of the day begins at 9 pm: the variety show. The Hotel hired a dance troop (the same one practicing in our lecture hall!) to perform a nightly rendition of Samson and Delilah KidzBop Remix with Disney characters, lasers, and a fog machine. Every night from 9- midnight, no matter how measly the audience. The pool is on the hotel’s north side—the safe side that is not threatened by rockets from Gaza to the south. By the third week you’ll request a room on the south side; you’d rather be hit by a rocket than hear the variety show one more goddam time.
These are just the trials of the workweek. The weekend is far more harrowing.
On the weekend Israeli families came to the Hotel to observe Shabbat. The families have an impossible number of feral children, the yeladim. We return to the Hotel on Thursdays and see the parking lot full of cars: harbinger of the yeladim. Inside, the front desk is surrounded by a clusterfuck of luggage and parents draped in kid stuff—swim noodles, diaper bags, kickballs. As the adults try to check in, the yeladim commence havoc.
Some do gymnastics on a handrail. Some play soccer in the dining hall. One child is standing on the grand piano in screaming tears as she rips open sugar packets. A toddler pees in a potted plant. About 20% of the yeladim are indecently exposed. It is a plague of Gremlins and the parents will not regain control until they pack them back into their cars on Saturday night.
You evade through the lobby, jumping when the yeladim kick a ball, ducking when they throw nectarines, thinking “words will never hurt me” when they call you “HAMBURGER!”. You scamper up to your room and slam the door. Stay there until Sunday evening with a bottle of whiskey and a best-of Timbaland MTV countdown.