Showing posts with label Tel-Aviv. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tel-Aviv. Show all posts

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Hamas Launches Surprise War on Israel from Gaza

It is very difficult to write anything today but I think it is important to provide some kind of update from my perspective, here in Israel.  There is still a great deal of uncertainty - about everything that happened yesterday, about what is happening today and what is going to happen in the coming days, weeks and even months.  I am not going to be able to address much of that uncertainty but here are a few of my comments.  Whatever I am writing now is based on information as of Sunday morning, October 8, 2023 at  noon - or 5 a.m. EST.  Information is likely to updated throughout the coming days and beyond.

The Hamas Surprise Attack

As you have probably heard, Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the Gaza trip, launched a major surprise attack against Israel yesterday morning.   It was Simchat Torah in Israel - the day of "Rejoicing of  the Torah" - one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, when observant Jews are in synagogue - singing, dancing and marking the end of the fall Holy Day period (which runs from Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot).

From available information, the Hamas attack was carried out in several different ways.  One part of the attack was to launch thousands of missiles directed at civilian areas across the country.  Secondly, waves of Hamas fighters broke down border fences and crossed into Israel and drove towards 22 different Israeli towns and small cities surrounding or nearby Gaza. Other Hamas groups used paragliders and landed in different locations from the air.  Still others arrived from the sea.

The goal of these attacks was to target civilians primarily and to kill or take hostage as many people as possible.

Some groups of  these Hamas terrorists arrived at a "Nature Party" where hundreds of young Israelis were our partying.  Mostly  teenagers and others in their early 20s.  The terrorists opened fire on these unarmed kids and killed many of them.  Several were injured, many severely.  Some were taken captive by Hamas and apparently brought back to Gaza.  There is video footage of some of the murders, some of the hostage taking - posted by Hamas personnel.  We don't yet know exactly how many people were killed at this gathering, how many were taken hostage and how many are still in the hospital. Many are missing - and their parents, family members and friends are doing everything possible to try and find them. (Since the time I started writing this, a group of these people was found hiding - more than 30 - who were thought to have been killed or taken hostage - they seem to be fine, physically.  Most of them are apparently foreign workers from Thailand).

Other  Hamas groups went to most of the 22 different towns and cities and began going from door to door, breaking in to homes and killing civilians.  In some of these towns, police and reserve soldiers grabbed their weapons fought back. In one case, a father grabbed his weapon (he was a reserve duty soldier) and killed two terrorists in his living room).  Many police officers were killed in these exchanges. Some people went and locked themselves in their bomb shelters - which have extremely thick,  inside-locking  doors.  Many civilians were killed as well as some soldiers and police officers.  A large number were also taken hostage, again, apparently brought to Gaza.

Some Hamas groups attacked certain military bases - including, in particular, one training base, where several military personnel were killed including at least one new recruit.   

Other terrorists may have hidden themselves somewhere.  We still don't know exactly how many entered Israel,  how many are still here, or what else they have planned.  Israeli official reports indicate that more than 250 terrorists have been killed and many more captured.

As of now, Israeli reports indicate that between 400 and 450 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority civilians. More than 2000 people have been injured, many of whom are still in serious or critical condition. At least 100 Israelis have been taken hostage and brought back to Gaza.

There were three different hostage situations within Israel that took all day to resolve - including one where more then 50 people were being held in a Kibbutz  dining hall.  In another situation, terrorists had occupied and were holding the Sderot police station.  According to reports this morning, all three of those situations were resolved and the hostages were released.

For Israel, this was one of the harshest days Israel has had to deal with in its history.  Some 50 years ago, Israel faced a surprise attack on Yom Kippur.  It was devastating and it was an existential fight for the country.  At the time, Israelis were genuinely worried about being  overrun completely.  The fighting, however, in that war, primarily involved Israeli soldiers fighting against  Syrian and Egyptian soldiers.  Ultimately, in that war, the army prevented large scale attacks against civilians.

In 1948, Israeli also grappled with  an  extremely harsh and difficult situation,  which was also genuinely  existential  - and included attacks on and massacres of civilians.

Yesterday's attack was quite different from those situations.  For one thing, so far, the primary target, initially, has been civilians.  The attack was intended to show Israelis that the army cannot protect them from Hamas terrorists.  Although Hamas  "declared war" on Israel yesterday in an "official statement" - it has no illusions that it can pose an existential threat to Israel.  However, it can and did cause severe damage to civilians, to morale and to Israel's military "deterrence."  

Hamas leaders, over the past few months, apparently met with Hezbollah and Iranian leaders. It may be that Hamas is hoping that this war will be expanded and that Hezbollah and Lebanon from the north will get involved - and perhaps even Iran.  So far that is not the case, but Hezbollah has a vast array of sophisticated missiles waiting in Lebanon and if Hezbollah becomes involved, with the backing of Iran, Israel will face an unprecedented type of war.

How Did this Happen?

Hamas carried out a well planned surprise attack.  However, it would seem that Israeli forces are generally geared up to prevent exactly this type of attack.  There are drone and  satellite patrols along the border fence with Gaza.  There are constant marine patrols in the water aided by satellite and drones. And there is constant monitoring of the airspace.

Moreover, there are countless military bases nearby with soldiers ready to spring into  action. 

One rumour making the rounds alleges that Iran launched a cyber attack and shut down our military intelligence systems at the time of the attack yesterday morning.  I have seen  nothing to corroborate these claims.  In any case, cell phones and other communication systems were apparently still working.

I still do not understand how the army was not able to deploy large numbers of troops, immediately, to the cities and towns that were being attacked. For hours, residents of many of these cities were making calls on their  phones, trying to get military help while hiding and trying to protect themselves from the terrorists. It took several hours for help to arrive. I am sure that this will be the subject of examination and inquiry in coming weeks, months and years.

What Next?

Israel is facing many severe  challenges. There are more than 100 captured Israelis who have been brought to Gaza - and it must be at the highest order of priorities to rescue as many of these people as possible.  They are likely to be dispersed in different places in Gaza and this will be no easy task.  

Israel is still working to ensure that all of the 22 cities that were attacked are cleared of terrorists. From reports this morning, there are still some terrorists hiding in these cities - and some who have travelled elsewhere. Finding and neutralizing all of these terrorists is another one of the highest priorities. 

A third priority is securing the land, water and air  borders with Gaza to ensure that more terrorists cannot continue to enter Israel. The security fence is being rebuilt and large numbers of troops are bolstering the  border.

Beyond  these immediate steps, Israel is dealing with a "declaration of  war" from Hamas and will need to launch a full scale offensive to defeat  Hamas. This may take some time to plan and execute, but we would have to anticipate one of the largest scale operations that Israel has ever seen - likely to be launched in the coming days or weeks, if not in the coming hours.

Loss and Tragedy

TV, radio and social media are filled with footage, photos, videos and stories of loved ones who were murdered, injured and taken prisoner.  More than 350 people have been killed  - including at least one high ranking military commander, a mayor, more than 25 police officers and many sons, daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents, and children. The grief is incalculable - as is the anger, frustration, upset and disappointment from so many Israelis. The hospitals are working around the clock to deal with overwhelming numbers of injured.  People are frantically trying to find out what has happened to loved ones who are missing - and to figure out if they have been hospitalized, taken hostage, or  murdered - or maybe they are still hiding somewhere and their phone batteries have died.


I would like to say that we have heard or seen reassuring messages from the current Israeli leadership but generally, members of the government have gone AWOL.  There was a brief statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday - but otherwise nothing. The government will need to pull itself together and show resolve and determination very quickly. Opposition leaders, including Ganz and Lapid, have offered to join a temporary "War Cabinet" with Netanyahu - however, so far nothing has come of it. There is quite a bit of concern that Netanyahu is running a government with a range of inexperienced and incapable ministers - from his own Likud party (from which many of the most experienced and capable leaders have left over the past few years) as well as  from two ultra-religious parties (with no military experience) and one ultra-nationalist party (with limited military experience).

Benny Gantz's party (sitting in opposition) includes several experienced military personnel as well as  other experienced former Likud members.  Lapid's party (also sitting in opposition) also includes several experienced personnel. For the sake of the country, it seems that it would make quite a bit of sense for Netanyahu to try and work with these experienced personnel rather put the country at the mercy of his current incompetent and extremist team, who do not seem to have the capacity or capability to manage this properly.


We were planning to go to shul yesterday for Simchat Torah.  At 6:30 a.m., we were woken up by sirens and had to go to the bomb shelter.  We don't usually open the TV on Shabbat or Holy Days but decided to do so and see what was going on.  We soon began to see the scale of the attack. The government asked people to refrain from gathering in large groups. The mayor of Ra'anana went from shul to shul, early in the  morning, letting people know about the situation. I think it is one of the only times that I have missed going to synagogue on Simchat Torah other than  due to the Covid outbreak.

A missile landed on the street where one of our family members lives. She was in a shelter and is fine but others were seriously injured and a building was destroyed. Another missile hit and destroyed an apartment where a cousin of ours used to live. The current tenant was in a shelter and is fine - but the place has been destroyed. Another family member updated us - to let us know that one of her good friends - just married last year - was killed in battle yesterday.  

Unfortunately, we are likely to hear many of these stories in the coming days.

Many airlines have announced suspension of flights to and from Israel, including Air Canada. So my status at this time is a bit up in the air. I was supposed to fly to Toronto this week but I will have to see how things develop and what if any flights are available - and whether it makes sense to go. I have some specific occasions that I am hoping to attend as well as some work that would best be done in person. But in the circumstances, my plans may have to change.

I have to add that I saw a completely obscene message from the current Mayor of Toronto, who above all referenced "Palestinian Pain and severe loss of life" in her statement about the attack yesterday. This is the type of statement she puts out on a day on which hundreds of civilians were massacred, many at point blank range, by terrorists?  By way of contrast, President Biden offered his complete support for Israel to take whatever measures necessary to deal with the situation. Prime Minister Trudeau offered a much more "lukewarm" statement condemning the attacks. Israel received more helpful messages of support from France, Germany and several other countries.

Despite Biden's reassuring words, there is quite a bit of concern that the ongoing  arrangements between the U.S. and Iran, including the recent release of large amounts of money, have emboldened Iran to ramp up its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.  We may hear more about this down the road but a policy of isolating Iran and boycotting it  would  be much better for the worldwide fight against terrorism than a policy which in any way bolsters and emboldens this extremist Iranian regime.

I'm not going to add comments about other events and stories at this time as it just wouldn't be fitting. Instead I am simply going to add that we are hoping  and praying for the safety of our soldiers, our security forces - and everyone else - as we head into a very uncertain and challenging period that we have now entered.   

Monday, November 14, 2016

Turkish Airlines: Toronto to Tel-Aviv Review

I am writing this post on a plane on the way back from Israel.  I'm on Turkish Airlines, which is one of the few international carriers to offer trans-continental wi-fi for the whole flight.  It's not free - it's 9.99 Euros for two hours or 14.99 for 24 hours.  But it's great to have - especially if you are on a day flight and people are awake.
Over my 7 years of going back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Ra'anana, Israel, this was my first time flying Turkish Airlines  I had avoided it partially due to security reasons and partially for political reasons.  The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been strained over the past few years to say the least.

But I have to say that Turkish compares very favourably to almost anything else I have flown on this route.  I would put Air Canada at the top, since it is direct. Swiss and Lufthansa are also quite nice, despite the changeovers.  But I think I would prefer Turkish over Lot, Austrian, KLM or any of the different U.S. airlines.

Part of the reason I took the flight was timing.  It left at 10:30 pm from Toronto, which meant I was able to work all day in Toronto before leaving.  I will also say that price was a consideration as Turkish was much cheaper than other options for the days I was flying.

The aircraft from Toronto to Istanbul was decent -a 3-3-3 configuration.  The seats felt wide enough.  Each person has a large personal screen and an electrical outlet (that handles all types of plugs).  There are also USB ports for charging USB devices.  The entertainment system includes a range of movies, games, music and other items.

The flight attendants were very attentive.  They came around often and were friendly and helpful.

I ordered an Asian (Hindu) vegetarian meal, which was great.  There were also a few wine choices and lots of other drinks.  Like Air Canada and all of the European airlines, there is wine and bar service at no charge throughout the flight.

On arrival in Turkey, we had to take a shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal.  We then had to pass through personal security.  This was similar to other airports and nothing particularly eventful or problematic.

The airport terminal itself is huge and very nice.  Lots of shops - many very fancy, recognizable name brands. I only bought one item - a bottle of whiskey - and I was able to do so at a reasonable price.  There was a fairly wide selection.  On the way to Israel I also picked up some "Turkish Delight" at the request of a friend of mine.  There was quite a selection of different types all over the airport.

Inside the Turkish Lounge
A highlight of my stopover in Istanbul and a highlight of this flight was the Turkish Airlines lounge, which I was able to access as a Star Alliance member.  That's some lounge!  Spanning two stories, it features a range of different types of seating in a variety of areas, most of which are very comfortable.  Overstuffed couches, leather sectionals, dining table type seating to name just a few.

Turkish Lounge
There are food stations all over the lounge - like a buffet restaurant.  A coffee/espresso station, salad bar, fruit bar, crepe station, grill area, pizza bar and many others.  No shortage of food here....(though I'm not sure if they have many kosher options).

There is a golf swing area with a range of practice area with Sony PlayStations, showers, available Macs for use, a massage area, and a sleeping area with reclining chairs.  In case you are wondering, I did not wind up getting the Turkish massage...maybe next time.

I could probably go on and on but it is fair to say that I don't remember anything comparable from any of my other lounge visits in different airports.  As nice as the lounges are in Frankfurt and Toronto - or Zurich - this is a whole different league.

In case you are curious, I did see many Orthodox Jews on the flight and they did not seem to have any kind of problem flying with Turkish.  Certainly the Turkish planes did not seem to be as filled with Israelis or North American Jews as one might find on an El Al or Air Canada flight.  But the security seemed reasonably sophisticated and I felt safe.

My flight to Israel had a connection time of about 2 hours which worked out fine.  On the way back I wound up with an 8 hour layover because I was late in booking the flight, but I think that is generally avoidable.  There are several flights a day between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul.

All in all - thumbs up and I might do this more often....

A final note is that you must carefully look at the class code if collecting Aeroplan points is important.  Some classes of economy travel on Turkish Airlines do not allow for accumulation of any points.  For example, "U" class, as of June 2016, is in that category. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto to Tel-Aviv: Air Canada - Business Class Dreamliner

Business Class Seat View 1
I have previously written about the various changes that Air Canada has made to its "Altitude" program - which have made it harder and harder to earn a high level status.  Up until two years ago, I was earning one mile for each flight, regardless of the cost of the air fare.  This also applied for flights on United Airlines and a number of other Star Alliance partners.  Now, Air Canada is only providing half the air miles for most of the lower end fares.  Some fares don't earn any points.  As a result, to qualify for "altitude 100k" (formerly "super-elite") status, you would need to fly 8 1/2 times between Israel and Toronto, at the much higher priced "flex" fares.  These fares can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 more on a round trip flight than a discounted "Tango" fare.  Same seats, same food, same plane.  Just a lower air miles reward (only about 2,850 each way instead of 5700).  So it is probably quite unlikely that I will qualify for "Super 100k" status again.  But I still have the status until February 28, 2015. So I decided to try and use it before it expires.

I booked a flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on an Air Canada flex fare.  This meant that I would be eligible for a free upgrade to business class, if the space was available.  If not, I could be upgraded to premium economy.  Since I had the upgrade points and I still had the status, I decided that it would be worthwhile (especially during low season) to take my chances.

I arrived at the airport and inquired about the likelihood of an upgrade.  I was told that there were three other people ahead of me and only two spots.  Oh well, I figured, at least I can probably fly "premium economy" which would get me a bit more leg room.

About an hour before the flight, I checked with very helpful lounge staff.  They told me that I had been upgraded and was seated in I was all set.

Air Canada is now using 787 "Dreamliners" on its flights between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  These are very new planes.  Apparently, they fly at a cruising speed of about 60 km/h faster, so the flight time is reduced by about half hour to forty-five minutes.  I have to say that the planes are also quite smooth and much less noisy than many other planes.  Beyond that, the seats in the economy class seem to be as crowded, if not more so, than other planes.

But for this flight, I was quite fortunate.

Business Class Seat View 2
I was seated in an aisle seat in business class.  Unlike the previous planes that Air Canada used for flights to Israel, this plane has a separate entrance into the business class section.  Economy class passengers cannot pass through and gawk at the personal cabin-type seats.

Business class seats include a fully reclining, extra-wide seat and a large sized personal screen.  They also include a side table, a storage compartment and a handy electronic remote control that controls the seat, the TV, the entertainment and can even call for flight attendants.  The seat was very comfortable though I did  not use the down comforter that was also provided.

At the start of the flight, the attendants come around and offered a choice of orange juice (freshly squeezed) or sparkling wine.  Since I had already been in the lounge for a couple of hours, I declined these drinks.

Air Canada Vegetable Platter
I found it interesting that in such a fancy new plane, there were no overhead compartments for the aisle seats in the middle in rows 4, 5 and 6.  There was plenty of overhead storage room elsewhere, but it seems bizarre that they built the plane without overhead compartments for some of the business class rows.

Our flight left on time and the attendants came around with the menu.  I had pre-ordered an Asian vegetarian meal but was still given the choice of one of the business class options.  I went with a cod dish, which was served with wild rice and vegetables.

Fruit Platter
The appetizer was a plate of grilled vegetables, including asparagus, zucchini, artichoke and red pepper.  It was quite tasty and the plate was quite attractive.  Shortly afterwards, the attendants delivered a fresh fruit plate including pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.  Sublime.

The main course was reasonably tasty - cod served with wild rice, fennel and carrots.  Not particularly memorable but edible and served with a reasonably artistic flair.

Main Course

Meanwhile, I managed to sample some of the different wines that were being offered.  A California Meritage, a Spanish wine and a French wine.  None of the wines were particularly enticing but I preferred the California selection.  The flight attendants were quite eager to help me find a wine that was most suitable to my palate.  They insisted that I try each of the wines until I find one that I really liked....

Cheese Platter

After the meal, a cheese platter was delivered.  I was getting a bit worried about the caloric size of this meal, so I passed on the chocolate mousse which was also offered.  Instead I opted for some Courvoisier VSOP Cognac to accompany the cheese platter.

During the meal, I watched the movie Transcendence, which started off as an interesting concept but fizzled.  I also watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

By the time the movie ended and the dishes were cleared, I enjoyed one last drink - a decaf coffee.  I then reclined the seat-bed fully - and tried to go to sleep.  Next thing I knew, I was hearing an announcement that we were less than two hours away from Tel-Aviv and that a hot breakfast would soon be served.  I really wasn't that hungry at this point.  The flight attendants came around with a choice of pancakes or quiche, both served with chicken sausages.  I would not have eaten either dish and would have had my Asian vegetarian breakfast.  But instead, I had a yogurt and a coffee and I was fine.

Overall, this was certainly one of the more enjoyable flights that I have had between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  I really don't think I would spend the $5,000 to buy a regular priced business class ticket - and I am not even sure I would pay the $500 cost to upgrade from "flex" class to business class that Air Canada is now charging its passengers (other than Altitude 100K passengers).  But I took advantage of this rare opportunity and enjoyed the free upgrade knowing that it is probably unlikely that I will have too many similar chances in the near future.

On hearing about my flight, a number of people, here in Israel, told me that I probably didn't want to get off the plane...

Well, as nice as the flight was, I can't really go that far.  After all, I arrived to a sunny 22C day, having left the -3C temperature of Toronto.  Winter? In Israel?  Maybe for a few days - but even the roughest winter days here would be like early fall in Canada, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem or way up north, in which case you might get a few odd days of snow.  Of course, it might feel like winter inside the homes since most homes are built without insulation.  But you can always step outside and enjoy the sun.

And now that January has almost come to an end, there are likely to be very few "wintry"days left in Israel - and even fewer when measured by Canadian standards.  Of course, that all makes sense, since the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of the Trees" is quickly approaching and the weather should be nice enough to allow us to plant some new trees.

Hopefully, on my return to Toronto I will hear that the groundhog has delivered some good news about the Toronto forecast.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam on KLM - Part 2 With Whisky Tasting Notes

For the sake of completeness, I thought I'd add a note about my flight on KLM from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam.  The blog for the route the other way is here.

Like most other European flights, KLM leaves Tel-Aviv for Amsterdam at about 5:20 a.m.  This means getting to the airport at about 2:30 a.m.  It's a nasty start to any trip.  I suppose it works well for Israelis with short term business in Europe who would like to arrive in the morning.  But for travellers back to North America, it is quite painful and tiring.

The lines can be long at Ben Gurion Airport (particularly for these early morning flights to Europe) but they move along reasonably quickly.  Although the line-up looked quite daunting when I arrived at the airport at about 2:45 a.m., I moved through it in less than 15 minutes. 
The flight from Tel-Aviv to Amsterdam is between 4 1/2 and 5 hours, depending on tail winds.  The KLM planes are quite cramped with no video or other entertainment.  A breakfast of sorts was served.  I opted for the vegetarian meal and received something that vaguely resembled an omelet.  The seats were very tight.  However, I was extremely lucky and wound up with a vacant seat beside me.  This was pretty incredible given that the flight was otherwise completely packed.  Even with the extra room, the seat was still cramped but it was much more endurable.  The flight attendants were quite friendly, helpful and accommodating.  They came around often offering drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  They were cheerful and polite.  They spoke English well though I don't think I heard any of them speaking Hebrew (even Air Canada has some Hebrew speaking flight attendants for flights to Israel).  I wound up assisting with some translation services for some Haredim whose language skills were limited to Hebrew, Yiddish and perhaps Aramaic.

We arrived in Amsterdam ahead of schedule, just before 9:30 a.m.  I then had a four hour wait until the flight to Toronto.  That scheduling is not nearly as convenient for flying to Toronto as some other European cities, but, then again, Schipol airport is huge and has lots to do.  There are some great places to eat, many different shops and lots of places to relax.  

I wandered around for a while in the different duty free shops including a chocolate shop, a cheese shop and a book store.  Then I found the perfect place - "The Exquisite Whisky Shop" located near lounge 2.   It features a huge tasting menu and many whiskies for sale.  I had a few hours, so I figured I might as well do some sampling.  

I sat down and thumbed through the menu booklet which included various whisky "flights" - groups of three that had been put together as suggested combinations - as well as single options.  The prices ranged wildly.  You could sample something fairly common for as little as 5 Euros.  Or you could try the Louis XIII Cognac for 100 Euros a shot. 

I settled on a "flight tasting" of three peated whiskies that looked interesting.  The cost was 15 Euros (about $21 Cdn). These are the single malts that I sampled:

1.  Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 11 - I was told that it was not widely available but that it was very popular and sells out quickly.  Only 12000 bottles were released.  It was about 120 Euros a bottle.  It was smoky - yet it had a very interesting range of tastes to it.  Overall, I quite liked it even though I generally tend to prefer smoother whiskies.  It was a cask strength Scotch - 59.5% alcohol.  I enjoyed it straight up as well as with a bit of water. 

2.  Talisker "Dark Storm" - This was somewhat more smoky - supposedly aged in "charred barrels" - yet still with a fairly interesting taste to it.  It is apparently the smokiest whisky that Talisker has every sold. I enjoyed it but not as much as the first glass that I had tasted.

3.  Bruichladdich Octomore - This was super smoky, described as "super heavily peated."  It was too much smoke for me - a peat rating of 167, which is apparently off the charts....

All of that was 15 Euros - (for a "flight) but my server was generous with the servings. I guess she liked me (or hoped I would spend a lot of money) so she offered me some Cragganmore 19 (on the house) - a special edition carried exclusively by duty free shops.  It was okay but nothing too exciting.  It was not very smoky but had some interesting fruity tastes.

The generous attendant suggested that I try the Old Pulteney 21 for another 7 Euros.  Apparently this one was rated as the best whisky in Jim Murray's 2012 Whisky Bible.  I had a look at my watch.  Lots of time until the next flight.  I looked around a bit at the other offerings.  Ultimately, I said "what the heck" and plunked down another 7.5 Euros.  Since I was wavering, she provided me with a very generous serving.  This offering was fruity and interesting - not smoky at all.  It was apparently aged in both a bourbon cask and an oloroso cask.  So it had a very sweet finish.

At this point, I thought I was pretty much done (in more ways than one).  But the very helpful Scotch pro decided to really spoil me.  She brought out a glass of Laphroaig 25 year - that she explained costs 400 Euros a bottle.  She quietly told me "not to tell the manager" - and hid the bottle quickly....(though I am quite sure this is all part of the promotion and sales in the place). I have to say that this one was quite nice, even sublime.  It was not nearly as smoky as some of the less expensive Laphroaigs that I have had.  It had a range of interesting tastes and only a relatively mild peaty taste.  It is a cask strength whisky with an alcohol content of 59.5%. 

So I guess that adds up to about 6 healthy shots...Finishing the tasting with that last dram was somewhat like the encore at a good concert.  It brought everything to a nice conclusion and left me with lots of time to make my way over to the gate for the next flight.  Overall, I can't say that the prices at this shop were amazing - but the selection was nice - and the people at the tasting shop were quite friendly, helpful and generous....For whisky lovers, it is a great way to spend some time at the Amsterdam airport without necessarily spending a huge amount of money.

I made my way over to the gate and I still had about two hours to go.  So I found a comfortable chair and rested for a while.  There is free internet at the airport with a sign-in, for 1/2 an hour.  

Each gate has its own security machines, including full body X-ray machines.  I didn't pay too much attention to the gate lineup until about an hour and twenty minutes before the flight.  At that point, I went to wait in line - and it was painful.  It was an incredibly long and slow moving line-up.  They were processing one or two people at a time.  With a line-up of more than 200 people, all winding around through the gate, this meant standing in line for close to an hour and moving along at a creeping speed.  Ouch.  It was probably about the worst security line up I have been in, other than the line-up at JFK (or maybe the Boston airport).  

Nothing new to report on the seating once I was in the plane.  It was still extremely cramped and the video system was still ancient, low resolution and poor sound.  That being said, I managed to watch a few enjoyable movies.  I didn't sleep much between Amsterdam and Toronto since it was a daytime flight.  Miracle of miracles, I wound up with an empty seat next to me for the second straight flight.  That was very fortunate given the width of the seats. 

But once again, the flight attendants were cheerful, helpful and constantly available.  The Asian vegetarian meal that I had ordered was fine (some curried chic peas and tofu).  The house wine was decent.  It was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  The cabin crew were also offering VSOP Cognac.  I grudgingly accepted, several times.   

Overall, it is a brutally uncomfortable way to fly but the flight attendants do their best to take your mind off the physical discomfort. The flight itself was uneventful and we arrived about 15 minutes early, despite a 1/2 hour delay in leaving.

When I arrived in Toronto I couldn't resist taking this picture of two planes, side by side...

One of the airlines is El Al.  And right next to it....I believe that is Pakistan Airlines.  I wonder if the respective crews had the chance to mingle and get to know each other a bit.  Since Israel and Pakistan do not have diplomatic relations, there are probably few opportunities for this type of exchange.

In any event, that side bit has nothing to do with flying KLM between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  Once again, as I have said before, it is worth considering if the price is right.  You can spend a day in Amsterdam from Toronto to Tel-Aviv and spend a few hours in the whisky shop from Tel-Aviv to Toronto.  If you have no interest in whisky or Amsterdam, well, you might need to consider another airline or bring along several books.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Israelis Rejoice - Tel-Aviv's Maccabi Electra Wins European Basketball Championship

Maccabi Tel-Aviv Wins European Basketball Championship
The big news in Israel this week is unquestionably basketball.  Tel-Aviv's Maccabi Electra won the European Basketball Championship for the sixth time in its history on Sunday night, May 18, 2014, defeating Real Madrid in overtime 98-86.  Maccabi has played in the European Championship 15 times since 1958 and has been the dominant team in Israeli basketball for much of its history.

For a small country like Israel, this type of sports accomplishment is simply huge.  By some estimates, close to 10,000 Israelis travelled to Milan, Italy to attend the game.  Haaretz reports that approximately one third of Israelis actually watched the game, including my family members, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres.  (Not in the same location...)

Jubilant Israeli fans celebrated at Rabin square in Tel-Aviv and reporters crowded the Tel-Aviv airport awaiting the return home of the victorious team.  The Maccabi basketball team, like many of the European basketball clubs, features several American players.  Maccabi has seven American players on its roster who played at U.S. colleges including Tyrese Rice, Ricky Hickman and Devin Smith, all of whom featured prominently in the Maccabi win.  There are also a number of Israeli born players on the roster, including Ben Altit, Yogev Ohayun and Guy Pnini.

Basketball is quite popular in Israel, though probably second fiddle to soccer (football).  Nevertheless, a testament to the success of Israeli basketball is the fact that two Israeli basketball players currently play in the NBA.  The first Israeli to make the NBA, Omri Casspi, plays on the Houston Rockets.  He spent a few years of his early career in a starring role on Maccabi Tel-Aviv.  The other Israeli NBA player is Gal Mekel, who currently plays for the Dallas Mavericks.

Many Toronto basketball fans are well aware of the Maccabi basketball team.  Retired NBA star Anthony Parker played several seasons for Maccabi Tel-Aviv before joining the Toronto Raptors.  While with Maccabi, Parker was instrumental in helping the team rack up championship victories.  He joined the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and helped the team to its first playoff berth and first division title.  In fact, Maccabi beat the Raptors in an exhibition match at the Air Canada Centre on October 16, 2005, 105-103.  The Raptors took revenge a year later, beating Maccabi 118-84 on October 19, 2006.  The Maccabi 2005 victory was reportedly the first time that a European basketball team beat an NBA team in North American.

Sadly, amid all of the hoopla, the Maccabi victory was not without its detractors.  Israeli news service Haaretz reported that more than 18,000 offensive, anti-Semitic tweets were posted on Twitter, mostly in the Spanish language, following the victory by the Israeli team.  The content was obscene and outrageous and I am not about to dignify these tweets by publicizing the words used.   This type of racist deluge is similar to the flood of obscene tweets that PK Subban, a Montreal Canadiens' hockey player faced a couple of weeks ago after the Canadiens beat the Boston Bruins in an NHL playoff hockey game(In Subban's case, the tweeters attacked the colour of his skin rather than his religion). 

The barrage of anti-Semitic tweets apparently emanated, primarily from Spain.  But it may have been indicative of a broader problem of widespread European anti-Semitism.  These tweets came only a week or so after the ADL published its global anti-Semitism survey, in which Greece captured the ignominious title of "most anti-Semitic country in Europe" with some 69% of Greeks described as espousing anti-Semitic views.  Moving to another part of Europe, the Jerusalem Post, this week, reported that some 75% of French Jews are considering leaving France, with a significant number citing concerns about anti-Semitism as a key factor. There have been numerous reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine as current events have progressed in that country.  So taking everything into account, it is perhaps unsurprising that an Israeli basketball team has elicited an anti-Semitic response from some Europeans.  Hopefully these are only the actions of a small minority.

Overall, this Maccabi victory injected a huge dose of pride into Israeli society, which is always happy to celebrate national accomplishments.  Now if only the Israeli national soccer team could return to the World Cup, the country would really celebrate.  As it stands, Israel was only able to qualify for the World Cup of Football in 1969.  It has faced an enormous qualifying battle since Israel is forced to compete against the best European teams rather than its neighbours.  (For my April Fool's column about this issue, click here)

As this year's World Cup gets underway in June, 2014, much of Israeli society is likely to grind to a standstill during some of the key matches, particularly the later rounds of the playoffs.  One could only imagine what would happen if Israel were to make it to the later rounds of the World Cup.  Hopefully one day we'll find out.  For now, Israelis will have to revel in sports accomplishments on the court floor rather than the football pitch. 

Congratulations to Maccabi - or, as they say in Israel, "Kol HaKavod!"



Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Stay at Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv

We recently had the unfortunate opportunity of having to get to know the Israeli medical system much closer than we might have liked.  I don't say "unfortunate" with any negativity towards the system - we had no complaints about the care that was provided - simply that we would have, of course, preferred not to have faced this type of occurrence.

I'm not going to write about the details of the medical situation that our family member faced.  But I thought I would provide a few points that you might find interesting.

Ichilov Hospital - Dana Children's Center
We spent 8 days getting to know the workings of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv - at the Dana Children's Hospital.  Ichilov is Israel's 3rd largest hospital complex.  It incorporates three hospitals with a total area of more than 150,000 square metres.  It also houses a bomb-proof emergency facility, that can supposedly withstand convenential, chemical or biological attacks.  Fortunately, the hospital was not put to a test of these features while we were there.

Certainly, from our experience on this occasion, the care was top notch.  The physicians were knowledgeable and experienced and made use of current technology to provide efficient and professional care. The nurses and attendants were attentive and diligent. We are thankful for this.

I found it interesting that the hospital complex includes a full shopping mall that is connected to the hospital - and located on hospital grounds.  It is also connected to a large outdoor complex.  This means that patients who are able to do so can leave their rooms  and take a stroll through (or be pushed on a wheelchair through) the connected mall or the other grounds.  The mall includes an Aroma Coffee Bar, among other places.  So you see a number of patients, in their hospital gowns, sitting in the Aroma (inside or outside, depending on the weather) with their visitors or wandering around in other parts of the mall.  While many patients would obviously not be well enough to take advantage of this, for others, this can be quite the breath of fresh air.

Ichilov Hospital Complex
A drawback for visitors (and immediate family members of patients) is that the hospital is located right in the middle of Tel-Aviv. The hospital therefore charges full downtown Tel-Aviv parking rates, which can get up to the full $30 daily maximum in no time at all.  Although we live in Ra'anana, we decided to go to Ichilov Hospital in Tel-Aviv, rather than the nearest hospital - which is Meir Hospital in K'far Saba.  This was based on recommendations from first line physicians and others who were reluctant to recommend Meir. 

Our family member was required to stay over a Friday night.  So we had to decide what to do for a Friday night dinner.  Fortunately, two families of close friends insisted on preparing a full Friday night meal for us. They thought of everything - from the grape juice and wine to the Challah, soup, chicken and dessert.  So we took the meal and went to the deserted food court in the mall that adjoins the hospital.  We sat around some food court tables with our ready-to-eat Friday night dinner - and made Kiddush and enjoyed our meal.  It was a strange experience - eating in an empty mall on a Friday night -but we lucky to have such wonderful and considerate friends. 

Things are almost back to normal and everything seems to have gone well.  It is certainly comforting to know that there is very high level medical care near by and that we can count on such supportive and helpful friends and family members. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Air Canada "E-Upgrades"...More Costs For Non-Super Elite Travellers

Well the "free ride" is just about over...or at least the free upgrade ride.  In a warm and fuzzy email earlier this week - Air Canada announced that starting on March 1, 2014, it will charge "e-upgrade add-ons" for passengers looking to upgrade into the executive cabin from economy class on all flights other than those within North America.  For this year, at least, Super Elite members (now called "Altitude 100k") will be exempt from these charges.  But for all other travellers, it will cost $500 plus a pile of e-upgrade points to move up into the executive cabin.

The deterioration of benefits for non-super elite passengers over the past couple of years has been significant.  Last year, Air Canada introduced its "Altitude" program and effectively reduced the status of benefits for most Aeroplan members, other than previously named "Super Elite."  These changes made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for non-super elite passengers to be upgraded into executive first.

Now with the latest change, passengers hoping to upgrade from a cheap fare into executive first will have to pay $500 unless they are Superelite 100K.  That's $500 in addition to the exorbitant number of e-upgrade points that they will need- which have become harder and harder to collect.

There is now a greater and greater discrepancy between the value of Air Canada's highest level status, Altitude 100K and all other levels.

For those travelling back and forth between Israel and Canada, this will reduce the benefit of flying Air Canada for anyone travelling less than 8 1/2 times a year. Air Canada still offers a direct flight, with AC power outlets, personal entertainment screens and complementary alcohol (to name a few of the benefits).  But the loss of the ability to get a free upgrade, even once in a while, is a major change and it is certainly not a positive one.

The flip side is that anyone who is close to Altitude 100K status by the end of December will need to consider the value of taking an extra flight just to meet the required threshold.  The value of having 100K status will now include free upgrades (with e-upgrade points), double Aeroplan miles on Air Canada and United flights, and the ability to use Aeroplan points for priority bookings, even when most reward seats are no longer available.

For passengers on the Tel-Aviv-Toronto route, this will affect, most significantly, those passengers who might be flying 4 to 7 times a year.  Only two or three years ago, passengers in that category would have enjoyed regular upgrades to executive first at no additional charge.  Now they will be lucky to be eligible and when they are, it may cost more than half of the price of the ticket (during low season).

So if you are an Altitude member, but not 100K, the time to enjoy the free upgrades is now - or between now and March 1, 2014.  After that, well, luxury will have its price...

Here is the link to the Air Canada announcement:  Air Canada Add Ons

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lot Polish Airlines Review - Tel-Aviv - Toronto

I was expecting  that this would be one of my harshest reviews of airline service.  Given the high season airfares between Israel and North America in the summer, I booked my August trip from Tel Aviv to Toronto on Lot Polish Airlines. ("Lot")  The fare was close to $1,000 less than the available Air Canada fare and I could still get full Aeroplan points.  I could also get the other benefits of flying on a Star Alliance partner - including lounge access, extra baggage allowance and priority boarding.  Of course, it would also mean several hours of layover time in Warsaw which was less than enticing.  Nevertheless I decided to try it, despite the many stories that I had heard about Lot. 

Like the other Star Alliance flights out of Tel Aviv, Lot leaves Israel at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m.  This means check- in at 3 a.m. and of course no sleep.  Check-in at Ben Gurion Airport was a zoo, though I suppose that is always the case leaving Israel unless you are flying Air Canada which seems to have the 1 p.m. time slot all to itself.

The plane itself, for this first leg of the trip, was a base version of a Boeing 737.  The seats looked like they were the original seats. There were no TV screens or music devices - no entertainment of any kind.  As we were making our way towards the runway, the plane was making some awfully peculiar noises.  For the first time in quite a number of flights, I began to appreciate the need that some feel to recite "tefillat haderech" the traveller's prayer... This was reinforced for me by the high level of exuberence shown by the cabin crew as they demonstrated the safety equipment and procedures.  Perhaps this all explained why the passengers clapped so enthusiastically when we eventually arrived in Warsaw.

I did not have to worry about Kosher food as there was no meal service at all.  At one point, the flight attendants distributed chocolate bars...and they came a few times with water.  But no other beverages, were served on this flight.  They did not even serve coffee.  Although the flight was just under 4 hours, there was no meal service at all.  That was surprising.  Even Austrian Airlines serves food, however disgusting it might be.

On arrival in Warsaw, we had to take a bus to the terminal.  At the terminal, we were required to pass through full personal security, even though the bus stayed behind security at all times.  There was one security station for the whole plane.  It was tediously slow and poorly organized, especially compared to arrival in other European cities.  I was in that line for close to an hour and I was only somewhere in the middle.

To this point in my trip, it would be fair to say that Lot had met my original expectations. 

Chopin Airport in Warsaw is a modest airport.  There were  a couple of duty free stores and the prices were reasonable (if you know the exchange rates for a zloty..).  The Star Alliance lounge was quite decent.  It had coffee, alcoholic beverages, fresh juices and even stale kosher sandwhiches (dairy and meat versions, separately packaged of course.). The staff members were friendly and there was free unlimited WiFi.   They even lent me an adaptor plug piece.  The lounge had some nice showers as well, though I did not use these facilities.  Nevertheless, I had more than five hours to check out the lounge and the airport before my connecting flight.

Then it came time to check in to Toronto.  Check-in was a zoo, just like israel, although although unlike El-Al, there was still some semblance of boarding order.  

But here is where it gets unfair...I was pulled aside and upgraded to business "premium" class.  Was it because they knew my grandfather z"l had faced horrible anti-semitism in Poland and had been forced to flee the Polish army in 1917?  Or in consideration of my many family members killed in Poland during the Holocaust?  I don't think so.  I was simply the nearest Star Alliance Gold I suppose that counts for something sometimes.

So I found myself placed in 6f, a window seat, in a new 787 Dreamliner.  I"ll have to review economy on my way back.   I was seated in the "Premium Business Class" section, which is one step below the business first section.  I can only really compare this to Air Canada's business class service, since I don't generally fly business class.

On this Lot plane, in the premium business section, the seats were nice and wide but did not have cubicles like Air Canada.  There were USB plugs, dual europe-north america outlets and personal screens. at every seat.

But unlike many other airlines, even at the economy class level, the Lot screens were showing a choice of about 12 movies (not hundreds like on United or US Air economy service).  For music, there were also a very small number of choices.

As well, as far as business seats go, these were quite crowded.  You cannot easily get out the seat if you are seated in the window seat.  You have to ask the other person to get up and move aside. And even then, you actually have to climb over the seat.

Also, suprisingly, there are no washrooms in the premium business class section so you have to leave the "protected area" and venture back to the middle if the plane...

Overall, I'm not complaining too much.  I"m thankful to have been upgraded.  I"ll have to add a note about economy on my way back.  However, they did announce at the beginning of the flight that for economy class, personal entertainment systems were available for rent.  So that didn't sound good.

The meals were fairly small.  The first meal was served an hour or so after the flight.  My vegetarian "meal" looked like about 4 or 5 fettuccini noodles cut in half and served with three mushrooms....needless to say, I was still hungry.  

Nevertheless, if Lot was hoping that I would say better things about this airline if it upgraded me, it worked...
Even for economy, these 787s seemed to be much better than the planes used by Austrian, or El Al...but I will have to reserve some of my assessment and add more after my return leg.  This may work out well for myself and for Lot ...maybe they"ll even upgrade me again to ensure a positive review...

But I also wanted to add a word or two, in general, about the 787 Dreamliner.

This huge new plane is impressive, despite the well-publicized difficulties in getting it off the ground (or back onto the ground).  It was very quiet and remarkably smooth.  The windows are described as one of the special new features.  They do not have pull down plastic shades. Instead there are five shading controls that work like increasingly strong sunglasses. 

But for all of the planning that must have gone into these planes, the plane does not have enough washrooms, causing congestion in the middle and at the back.  Most planes have a set of washrooms at the front of the business section and a set just after the business section.  This one does not.

I was in "premium" class which was not full-scale first class.  But "dinner" was a few pieces of lox, some kiwi, orange and cheese slices.  Like the lunch, it was minimalist.  And this was the enhanced meal..!  So i was fairly hungry on this 8 hour plus flight, even after being upgraded. 

Overall, this whole trip turned out much better than I had feared.  Flying in a Dreamliner (787) between Warsaw and Toronto was a neat experience.  This type of itinerary (Tel-Aviv to Toronto on Lot), in my view, would be at least as good as flying on Austrian, Lufthansa, Brussels Air or El Al.   Still not nearly as good as flying Air Canada direct, United or US Air (with a stopover).  But overall, if the price is right, I might even try this again, especially when compared to other options.