Coming in on the Athens-Rhodes-Limassol-Haifa ferry, it always looked like a promise. The promised land happens to grow vertically out of the sea and sport two chubby skyscrapers.
I once stood on the deck by a middle-aged Englishman who one day got up and left his home in london, walked on foot to Portsmouth, sailed to La Havre, then walked on foot all the way to Rome. There he could no longer stand the leg pains, took a train to Brindisi, a boat to Patras, another train to Athens and hopped on our boat. Jerusalem was his destination, and Haifa was on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
"It looks so clean," he said.
"It isn't," I warned him.
Arriving to Haifa by sea is like waking up. Anything can happen on this day and everything will: all the magic - Persian gardens with fresh water flawing twixt marble staircases and impeccable lawns, and all the shit - forests of distillary smokestacks appearing between a Georgian sandwich joint and a moldy shop for knitting goods on Hahalutz street.
Last night I attended a concert of Haifa's symphony orchestra. I took Israel's only subway line (really a subterranean funicular) to the top of Mt. Carmel. There's something about emerging from a subway station that defines the urban experience. Haifa lets you out nicely: city lights glow, hotel revolving doors revolve, the park looks serene in the dark. It's a city, it's beautiful, and while the orchestra isn't exactly top notch, I had the pleasure of venturing backstage during the intermission to interview the conductor. the musicians were standing there in tuxes and dark gowns, smoking and chatting before a window open to the gentle night.
Then today I get a phone call from Alon the photographer. He's in Haifa and by his depressed tone I knew exactly at what end of its spectrum. "Where are you?"
"On the street in Haddar. there's this junky lady here, sitting on the sidewalk playing the flute. She's just playing the same note incessently."
"Dude, I know how that feels."
There's one territory, though, where Haifa's grit and grace meet and mix beautifully, and that is its port taverns. I have a rule of frequernting the Habanera bar on Ha'azmaut Blvd. whenever I hit town and having a pint with its silent, pipe smoking propriator Cha'im, who has a confederate flag hanging behind the bar (he used to sail to New Orleans). The place is located in a dump of a neighborhood as part of a defunct gas station, it's named after an Antwerp bordello, it's full of aging ship mechanics, ex-prostiututes and scary, tattooed seafaring hulks. It's heaven if you ask me, which means that Haifa, in a way, is too and that heaven is more diverse than previously assumed.