Talk of good, great, memorable and best wine is an ubiquitous foray among lovers of the vino, but there are, too, important wines. Wines that, long after having been experienced, continue to leave a formidable and profound presence on one’s constant being.
For me, these make them not only unforgettable, but important. To life.
Just under 40 years ago, I followed the sun along the Mediterranean Sea with nothing but a back-pack on my shoulders and a desire to find dreams and carve memories from every new place seen, each new foreigner met. The roads were uncharted, each route followed on whim and spontaneity, driven by impulse.
I never planned to get to Israel.
But there I was, camping out on the Tel Aviv main beach with Kevin from Sweden and a Glaswegian named Connor. Being July, the beach was not only the only place we could afford to stay – namely for free, behind the life-savers’ shed – but also the coolest. Tel Aviv summer heat hangs like a damp electric blanket set to medium-high, the salty, listless sea-air only offering slight relief.
Each day we trundled into the city, to 19 Leonardo da Vinci Avenue and the Moshav Recruitment Centre. Here youthful care-free voyagers like us would volunteer for work on one of the moshav collective farms spread around Israel, and every day we’d join the queues of fellow free-spirits from around the world in the hope of procuring a spot on one of the agri-communes.
These slots were slow in opening-up, and day-after-day we’d return to the beach with the promise of “maybe tomorrow”, spending the afternoons playing frisbee, cavorting in the slow, tepid surf and eating our daily falafel.
We would awake ahead of daybreak, lying on-top of our sleeping bags with the hollow hum of the waves in our ears and the scent of wide-open ocean offering a briefly cool “seize the day” moment. The dawn was always an incredible mauve, moving to pink before cracking-open into a fierce golden fire as the sun broke through the horizon behind the beach. The shade drew away from the sand, and the sea lay wet and oily, with that interminable endlessness I so love about it.
They came every morning. The rows of senior Tel Aviv citizens, jogging slowly along the sea-edge throwing their arms into the air in unison. Stopping for breathing exercises, splashing each other with seawater, and then continuing their jog and shuffling. Now and again we heard them chant “Israel, very good. Israel.”
There were wiry men in brief Speedos, wobbling ladies in matronly one-piece bathers. Paunchy guys wore jogging shorts, and lean, hard-looking women donned bikinis, despite their age. Between 30 and 40 of them, meeting the new day on that long Tel Aviv beach, making an effort of keeping the aging bodies sound in the company of like-spirited souls.
They were an awfully friendly bunch of folks. We three young men would straggle through them, bleary-eyed, walking into the creamy foam of the surf and plunging our heads beneath the water to flush away our sleepy fog with the life-affirming wetness of ocean.
Shouts of “Good morning!” and questions of “Did you sleep well?” were hurled our way, and we would smile and raise our hands, say “hallo”.
“Israel, very good!” they would shout laughingly, and we nodded before entering the sea.
By the third day, some of these senior gentlemen and ladies of dawn began arriving with stuff in their hands. One of the lean bikini women and her white-haired husband brought us pita-breads and a jar of hummus. An old gent with a huge beard gave us a bag of tomatoes. (Here I discovered that you have never really eaten a tomato until you’ve had an Israeli one.)
We accepted these gifts with mannered gratitude, and made small talk, which these people were keen to do. As a South African, I was the most popular of the three beach-bums. It appeared as if each one of these spirited, bare-fleshed old people knew someone or had a relative in Johannesburg or Cape Town. When I mentioned I had grown-up in Sea Point, a friendly round lady in a bright red one-piece costume and intensely blue varicose veins on broad thighs asked me if I knew the Kaplans from King’s Road? I said they used to live opposite us, and she did not even appear surprised. Just asked me how little Tracy was doing.
The band of aged dawn-breakers would head-off at about 08:00, around the same time we hoisted back-packs on shoulders and traipsed into town. Returning after another fruitless day awaiting a job on the moshav, we agreed the prospect of seeing our fellow beach-goers the next day was something to look forward to.
Mister Levi stood-out among the morning group, and not only because he was a head taller than any of the other men. He wore a black Speedo, had the shoulders of a racing swimmer and a lean waist belying his age, which must have been 60 plus. Mister Levi also stood out because he had the most handsome smile of them all, his dark eyes glowing with joy at being alive and contracting into slits of laughter making him appear truly glad to see us each morning. For the first few days, he brought us yoghurt and fleshy dates that tasted of coffee and chocolate.
It was to be our last day on Tel Aviv beach. While his fellow dawn-breakers were doing knee-bends in the sun-dappled water, I walked past Mister Levi and said that tomorrow we were sure to get on a bus to the moshav that had booked us. Up north in the high country of Israel, the Golan Heights.
Mister Levi smiled that beautiful open smile and patted my shoulder with a hand wet from the sea. “I knew your luck will come, and we’ll miss our young friends on the beach. Israel very good.”
Late afternoon, that same day, myself and Kevin and Connor were talking about the new adventure that lay ahead, wondered what the Golan Heights looked like and what work we would be doing on the farm. And who we’d meet there.
As the sun began so set, the beach emptying of joggers and dog-walkers and bathers, I noted a tall, upright figure walking to us from the direction of the Hilton Hotel complex. It was the first time any of us had seen Mister Levi wearing anything but his black Speedo. His arms appeared even more darkly tanned in the white T-shirt he had on, muscles rippled in the thighs protruding from a pair or green shorts.
We stood up to greet him, he sat down with us, me offering him my sleeping bag to sit on. He slung the bag from his shoulder. “It is your last day, so I thought we’d celebrate your new passage, and wish you well,” he said.
He smiled at me. “You, South African, will like this,” he said.
From the pack he plucked a bottle of wine, turning the label to me. La Gratitude. South African wine. A white wine I had seen in my parents’ house, back in Paarl. A lean green bottle with an expressive gothic-looking label. I think I saw the same bottle in a shop at Cape Town airport before I had stepped onto that aeroplane six months back to spread my steps through Europe and the Middle East.
Kevin eagerly rustled through our bags, appearing with four plastic cups. Connor said he’d never had wine before but was eager to try.
Mister Levi uncorked the bottle with a Swiss Army knife. “This will set you on your way, boys,” he said. “I glass of cool white wine, very civilised. And like Israel, very good.”
It was when he began to fill the cups in our hands that I saw them. On the inside of Mister Levi’s wrist, along the vivid arteries of his tanned pulse. Six numbers. Six numbers, roughly, hastily tattooed into his skin. Six purply black numbers, like the uneven scrawl of an infant.
I could not lift my cup. I just looked at those six numerical figures.
He dropped the glass neck of the bottle to tap the plastic rim of my cup. My eyes left the row of horror I was seeing on his skin. I looked up at him.
The smile had left his eyes, which were wide and soft now.
“Yes, that was Auschwitz,” he said in a remarkably clear voice. I lifted my cup and he filled it with white wine. It splashed into the cup, the wine’s sound louder than that of the Israeli ocean. “And now we have life,” said Mister Levi, “now we have life.”
I didn’t expect that wine to taste so sweet. Nor did I, then, expect that the one cup of La Gratitude would forever be the most important wine forever to pass my lips. But I know it now.
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