Balagan, the British version

By Nadav Shemer, May 9, 2014
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When David Cameron opened his recent speech to the Knesset with a quip about the new word he had just learnt, balagan, Israelis instantly empathised. Translated officially as a “mess” but more accurately meaning “bedlam”, balagan sums up Israel in a nutshell, describing everything from its politics to the queue at the local supermarket.
Israelis decry this state of balagan when they are at home, yet it is the first thing they miss when they go abroad. But as I have discovered each time I have felt homesick since arriving in Britain, the balagan is not as far away as I had thought.

Last week’s Tube workers’ strike provided the latest reminder of home. In Israel, just off the top of my head, the following groups have gone on strike during the past three years: doctors, train drivers, port workers, garbage collectors, university lecturers, university students, school teachers, Foreign Ministry employees, Opposition MKs (to whom Cameron was alluding) and for four days in February 2012 the entire public sector. Postal workers are on strike as I write this.

So forgive me for confessing that while last week, millions of London commuters were frantically jostling for spots on overcrowded buses and national rail services, I permitted myself a smile. But I must clarify that this act had nothing at all to do with schadenfreude; it was purely sentimental. And although Londoners like to complain about the Tube, I regard it as world-class; it certainly is in comparison to Tel Aviv’s, which has not progressed beyond paper since being commissioned in the 1960s.

As a cyclist I can afford to be apathetic towards Tube strikes, even though my chosen mode of transport makes me the victim of another balagan – the London pedestrian. I have lost count of the number of times I have ridden down Shoreditch High Street only to brake suddenly as I have come face-to-face with a pedestrian crossing through traffic. Or rather, I have been face to face with the pedestrian, they have been face-to-iPhone.

Israelis like to joke that laws are only recommendations, and this mentality goes a long way to explaining the balagan on the roads there. It was with great shock I discovered that here in Britain the crossing laws actually are recommendations; pedestrians can cross where and whenever they like with impunity, even if they knock down half a dozen cyclists in the process.

The great irony of Britain’s laissez-faire pedestrian laws is that this country is so over-regulated when it comes to other things — like personal finance. Those of you who read my previous column will know I recently became engaged. Naturally Ms Expat and I wanted to open a joint account, so we booked what we expected would be a straightforward appointment at the bank.

We were certainly not prepared to be told we had failed our credit check. It felt like I was back at the Bank Leumi on the corner of Gordon and Ben Yehuda streets, but with more apologising and less shouting and hand-waving.
This rejection set in motion the sort of Catch-22 with which anybody who has ever had to deal with Israeli bureaucracy would be intimately familiar; a paradox in which we would have to take certain financial actions to build a credit history while not being permitted to take said actions because we didn’t have a credit history.
Three months later we were back at the bank. After another hour of the sort of interrogation I last experienced in my IDF security clearance interview (“so tell us again what that previous address was?”), we were approved.

And just as we suspected – but the bank and credit agencies had not agreed to tell us – the problem had been the electoral roll, which had finally updated to include us.

“You see,” Ms Expat said, pronouncing the three words Israelis use to express optimism amidst the balagan, “just as we believed: hakol yihyeh beseder” (everything will turn out alright).

Nadav Shemer is an Australian-Israeli journalist living in London

Last updated: 12:06pm, May 9 2014