I first met Tal and Tzika in Pai. I was sitting at a the main restaurant in town, reading my book. The restaurant is filled with long wooden benches, like a German ale house, and though it was dinner time, most of the tables were still empty. I had just walked in several minutes earlier, and noticed that the three long tables behind me were unoccupied. I picked the one closest to the fan and sat down.
Minutes later, I became aware of two young kids making a bit of scene near my table. They were shouting about their orders, laughing, and jostling each other. They seemed like good kids, just the kind that make a lot of noise anywhere they go. I rearranged myself, opened my book a little wider, and kept reading. But instinctively, I knew what was coming. Sure enough, moments later, they sat down at my side. I wasn’t even able to finish the sentence I was reading before they jumped in enthusiastically, plying me with questions.
“Hey, do you mind if we sit here?” (I didn’t bother glancing over my shoulder to assure myself that all those tables were still empty- I knew they were.) “What are you reading?” “We’re not bothering you, are we?” I put down my book, laid my hands flat on the table, and looked at them with a smile. “Hi, guys,” I said, resigned to conversing with my new-found dinner companions.
The next half hour is a blur of one-sided conversation. They told me everything they could about themselves. They had to shout over one another to be heard, and my head was continually whipping back and forth between the two, trying to politely follow the conversation, but unable to keep up with two chattering dialogues at once. They didn’t even stop talking when their food arrived- they just talked with their mouths full, in between huge bites of mushroom pasta and fried rice.
When they finally took their leave, my head was spinning a bit. I endured several “goodbyes!!!”, eager waves, smiles, and (not so) covert winks. Once they had disappeared down the street, the restaurant suddenly seemed much quieter. You could hear the music again, the dog under my table made himself known by scratching at his neck and ringing the little bell on his collar, and a fly buzzed around my plate, landing briefly on my fork before flying off again. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, and dug into my phad thai.
I arrived back in Chiang Mai yesterday. Last night I was walking down the street, looking for a payphone, when I saw a suspiciously familiar afro bobbing my way, as well as a bare-footed, newly tattooed ruffian walking alongside. I saw them before they saw me and braced myself. As they came closer, they caught sight of me, and recognition spread across their faces, followed by huge smiles and a sudden gushing of excited verbiage.
“Hey! We know you!” “Pai, right?” “Ahhh… what are you doing here?” “We just got in yesterday!” “Pai was too boring for us… we want to par-tay, you know?!” “We’re going to Laos tomorrow, do you know any spots we should check out?” “What are you doing right now?” “Come with us!!!”
I was swept away on a wave of Israeli enthusiasm, and before I knew what had hit me, they had whisked me off to 7-11 and were alternately teaching me Hebrew, showing off more tattoos, shouting and cursing at the payphone, telling absurd jokes, bashing the phone against the wall, turning me around and using my back as a solid pad against which to write said Hebrew words down on a scrap of paper, flinging the cursed phone card at the ground when it wouldn’t work, quizzing me urgently on the words I had just learned, and generally causing quite a bit of chaos in front of 7-11. All I could do was laugh and try to respond quickly enough to one question so that I could turn and field the next before it began all over again.
Once Tal had cursed the phone and the poor 7-11 employee into submission, and somehow gotten his call to go through, we listened to him shouting forcefully at the person on the other end of the line for several minutes, while Tzika had me admire the new black and red lizard tattoo on his foot, which glimmered with Vaseline in the light of the 7-11. He turned his bare foot this way and that, looking up at me eagerly to see if I shared his enthusiasm. I just smiled and laughed at the whole situation, and that seemed to satisfy him, because he threw his head back and hooted too, before remembering himself and firing another test at me. “How do you say ‘bag’?” he asked quickly, pointing one finger at me like a cowboy on the draw. “Uhhh…. teek?” I said, bracing myself. “Yeahhhh!” he shouted, waving a fist in the air, and then slapping me appreciatively on the arm.
The next thing I knew, we were in the brightly lit lobby of their hotel several blocks away. Israelis tend to run in packs, so we were quickly surrounded by a gang of dark-eyed, dark-skinned young people, talking rapidly, sipping coffees, and chain-smoking cigarettes as they shouted and laughed. I continued to be quizzed on my newly acquired Hebrew, and Tal and Tzika made me write down the new words and expressions I had learned, and promise never to lose them.
My neck was beginning to feel the strain of whipping back and forth to listen to the two boys as they spoke rapid-fire at me. Tal had just begun to school me on the climate and geography of Israel when I saw my chance to break in. “In the North, it is very cold,” he was saying, flashing me what was meant to be a flirtatious smile, but which just looked silly on such a small man with such huge hair. “While in the middle it is more lush, and in the south it is like desert. So you see, Israel is very small, but it has a lot of climates.” I jumped in. “Well Washington state, where I’m from, has something like five different eco-systems in it,” I began, hoping to waylay a response, and thus give my neck a rest. But my dreams were not to be realized, as both Tal and Tzika leaped on this chance to shout out gleefully that in the summers, they went to the desert, and in the winters, they loved to ski, and did I know how to ski, because if I ever went to Israel, it was integral that I knew how to ski… I just sat back in my chair, gave up, and sipped on my water as they bombarded me with facts, stories, and jokes.
A bit later, the group decided that it was time to go dancing. I wanted to get back to my room and read my new book, and didn’t really have it in me to embark on a festive Israeli dance-a-thon, so I pleaded my case and wasn’t given too much grief. As we walked out into the warm night, the girls on our heels were chattering amongst themselves in Hebrew. Tal and I were a bit ahead of the crowd when he stopped talking for a brief moment to take a drag on his cigarette. In that moment, the voices of the girls floated up to us. Tal looked over his shoulder at the giggling girls, exhaled, and spat on the sidewalk. “Girls,” he said, a look of genuine disgust on his face. “They never stop talking.” He looked me straight in the eye, and emphasized his point by jabbing his cigarette in the air. “They talk and talk and talk, and you know what? All I ever hear is ‘blah, blah, blah.’” He dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and ground it out with his heel. “Seriously. Don’t they ever shut up!?!”