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Israel

"I dig my heels into the dirt
  'Cause this one's gonna hurt.."

-- Charlotte Martin, On your shore, from the album Veins

I worked for a small Israeli start-up in 2000 for about 9 months.

This was going to be a rather short blog post with "I found some old photos from my time in Israel" and a few words about each picture, but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like I had opened a Pandora's box.

It's been almost a decade since my trip (or three trips, if you want to see it that way) to Israel, working for 3Dion ltd. I'll be honest: overall, I did not have a good time. I've used to say that if you want to hear negative things about Israel, ask me, but after a decade, most of the bad things have faded, apart from some anecdotes. Much of what I'll write here I've never told anyone, or at least any one person.

I was in a career dead-end in Finland; I had been doing web monkey stuff for over a year, and having nothing else in my resume, everyone just wanted to hire me as a web designer. I wanted a real programming job. In retrospect, I probably should have tailored my job applications better. Anyway, after a few fruitless interviews I got a question from my demoscene contacts asking if I'd like to go to Israel.

I can't remember if I thought about it for long, but I pretty much jumped at the opportunity to do something "real". A few rounds of contract edits later - they had sent me a normal US-style work contract which basically says that if you think of something while sleeping, it's company property - we had a contract I was relatively OK with. My 3Dion boss said that their lawyer would have wanted to marry me, should I had been a woman, as apparently pretty much nobody read those contracts, much less argued about them.

Before leaving, when I bought the airplane tickets there we inquired about the possibility of a one-way return ticket with an open return date, in case I had to get out of there. Apparently those do exist, but they're very, very expensive. What I should have taken instead was a credit card with big enough credit limit, like Diner's, or something.

Dan - a Canadian, and hired the same way as I was - was going to be my roommate. He arrived some time before I did, and joked in IRC that he had to bribe his way through the customs. I was scared out of my skull. Despite my fears, I had no trouble at the customs. I do remember them checking things and when they heard I was a Finn, they considered me harmless enough to let me in. Don't remember what the hassle was..

On the first day I apologised if my English was bad, as I had - honestly - never spoken English full-time. I had been using it in written communication daily for most of my life, but never really spoken it. We dropped by our flat (which I felt, in the dim evening, was a horrible dump) to drop off my luggage. I was asked if the flat was OK, and I said it would do (what else would you do in such a situation?) and left for some hamburgers.

Dizengoff street view near our flat

The hamburgers - restaurant variety, not the fast food ones - were great. The others were surprised that I used knife and fork for eating, including the fries. The local habit was to eat everything with your fingers. My boss asked how much money I had with me, and I said, some. He insisted on the sum, and I told that I had a few thousand of the local currency. He explained that he wanted to know because Dan had arrived with some pocket change, and had needed some advance.

So, the 'flat'. We're talking about a large two-story apartment on Dizengoff street - tourist area of Tel-Aviv. Rent was about 1000 USD a month. Plus electricity, water and.. elevator maintenance bills(?!).

Panorama of the downstairs - Click for a bigger picture

Downstairs, there's a living room area with some sofas (with an odd smell), TV, kitchen, fully equipped bathroom with a shower and everything, and a separate bedroom. And of course, spiral staircase upstairs. All of the windows in the place had steel plated, motor-controlled "blinds". I don't know how strong the "blinds" really were, and I'm happy I did not have to test them out =)

The kitchen was relatively well stocked, apart from cutlery; I bought some cheap knives, spoons and forks and we managed to cook some passable meals. Most of the time we ate outside, in the plentiful restaurants in the area. One of these places was just across the street, so we ate plenty of chicken sandwiches there. One memorable time it took a long time for our food to arrive.. then the police arrived and went to the kitchen.. and the waitress came back to us and said that unfortunately we wouldn't be getting our food. We never found out what exactly had happened. The restaurant was open normally the next day.

Our local restaurant. Pretty much a bar, really. The tables had both ashtrays and no-smoking signs.

Another nice restaurant that we frequented was a couple streets away, and they had pretty good restaurant hamburgers which you could assemble yourself, as well as some vegetarian soups during the cold season.

I also stocked some "emergency food", as I put it, in a form of instant just-add-hot-water food rations. This happened after a couple surprise holidays, when all restaurants, stores, etc are closed. You see, the Israeli live by the Jewish calendar, which is a lunar one, and thus out of sync with the solar calendar that's in use with most of the world, so the holidays move around the year. Anyway, there were some rather good Knorr instant food thingies which, when augmented with a chopped sausage, were rather good. It's too bad they don't sell them here.

Outside view of our nearest restaurant

Speaking of food, the Israelis have this concept of Kosher. There's many rules, but the main rule is that you're not meant to mix milk (or milk products) with meat. In practise they've solved this by granting two kinds of restaurant licenses: you either are a "milk" restaurant or a "meat" restaurant. Pizza hut, for example, pretty much requires cheese and is thus completely vegetarian in Israel, while Chinese places are "meat" restaurants. McDonald's is breaking the rules and you are asked if you want cheese (so it's theoretically possible to have kosher hamburgers..). Some McDonald's restaurants have gotten into trouble because of this.

Since pork is considered a filthy animal ("treif"), getting your hands on some ham is tricky. There's very little fish too, which is odd considering that the country is located on a sea shore. Chicken, however.. there's plenty of chicken. I probably ate more chicken on my stay there than in my whole life until then. The best local food in my opinion (not that I tried absolutely everything that was available) was humus and falafel balls. And I don't mean the mushy Turkish variety but the Israeli oil-broiled, relatively tough falafel balls. My other favorite dish was shwarmas, which was humus, french fries, and meat rolled inside some kind of bread.

There were no queues anywhere that I can remember, except maybe the airport. It's possible to starve to death two meters from the counter in a restaurant, unless you elbow yourself forward. Everyone else will do the same, so if you just stay put, you won't be eating any time soon.

Panorama of upstairs, click for a bigger picture

Dan slept downstairs. Upstairs was my domain. The panorama is taken from atop the bed. There's another fully-equipped bathroom (with a separate hot water source), some cupboards, doors to the roof, stairs downstairs, and last but very much definitely not least, a computer which was a loaner from work. (I sat down with the boss and demanded a computer. After some calculations he agreed). When I left, the computer was re-purposed as a demo server. The demo "Stuff I whacked together while I was bored" was written here. We had no Internet.

We went to the movies at some point, and found that the theatre we went to was pretty crappy. They also stopped the reel when the end credits started, which was rather odd. After that, we started renting DVDs and watching them at home on the computer, which probably gave a better movie experience, believe it or not.

A hot water thingy on the roof. Heated with solar power.

I also frequented some bookstores. Most of the books were in Hebrew (well duh!), but lots and lots of books were also in Russian. Apparently about a million Russian Jews had moved to Israel not so long ago, so that was almost like a second language there. Luckily for me, a small section of English books was also available.

We cleaned all the windows on the first week there, to make the place feel nicer. When we mentioned about this at work next week, everyone was like, why did you bother cleaning the windows? When it rained the next time, the water brought lots of dust and sand on the windows and they looked the same again.

I learned a lot about explaining about the Finnish culture, and the nature of jokes. Some situation would remind me of a joke - but if you tell a joke that has some cultural bindings to someone, you'll have to explain the joke, and it won't be fun. So, instead, if you explain the cultural background first (which may well take half an hour) and then tell the joke, it'll be fun. The trick being, you have to remember the joke after the explanation.

Panorama from the roof, click for a bigger picture

Outside the doors (pardon about the non-looping panorama, I was still learning the camera) was a rooftop area where you could.. I don't know, get a tan or something. We mostly used it for exercising, like push-ups and stuff. There used to be a table and chairs there, but the landlord took them away one day without asking. We just noticed that they were gone at one point.

The rules with a rental apartment were such that the landlord can come in if there's nobody inside. To know this, he knocks on the door. If there's no answer, he can come in. In practise this means that he could insert the key, knock and promptly step in. This he actually did several times.

There were cockroaches. I freaked out. Dan asked about the roaches from the landlord, who laughed and said that of course there were. So we lived with them.

The spiral staircase

Some of the white paint was peeling from the walls, so we figured it would be nice to fix it. We talked to the landlord, who brought in a couple buckets of paint and, during that trip, mentioned that he wants to sell the apartment so he'll be showing it to people. For some reason we never did the painting.

I wanted a different kind of shower head - one that showers mostly in a single direction. The landlord said he doesn't like this, but installed it still (I had bought the shower head earlier). I also had a mirror installed (again, bought by me, installed by the landlord - he cracked a tile) in the upstairs bathroom. The slight claustrophobia I had felt in that room disappeared immediately. It's surprising how large a difference a small mirror can make.

I remember once sitting in the staircase, feeling sad, and the landlord asked Dan what's wrong with me. I answered that it's just a case of being a stranger in a strange land.

Random street view on the way to work

About the camera.. my parents wanted some pictures of Israel, and I wasn't about to buy a film camera. First few decent digital cameras had arrived to the market, so I opted for one of those instead. I visited practically every single camera store in Tel-Aviv, looking for Canon PowerShot A10. The response in all (but one) was that no, they don't have those. Do they know who would? No. Do they know of any other camera stores? No. One place, which only had Olympus cameras, which, at the time at least, were clearly inferior, said that they don't have what I want, as they only stock quality cameras.

One store (which I don't recall) had a salesperson who actually knew how to serve, and explained that it's just not too common there - being helpful, that is. He didn't have the camera I longed for either, but after getting my camera on my next trip to Finland, I went straight back to his store and bought a tripod.

One of the things we naturally had was a bank account. We had ATM cards with so low withdraw limit that (I calculated) if we took the maximum out every day, we just might have enough cash to pay the rent each month. So, after every payday, I'd go into the bank and withdraw half of my pay. On the last time I was there, to close the account, the desk clerk recognized me and asked if I planned to do the half-pay withdrawal every month so they could do some kind of arrangement for me.. whatever that would have been.

Speaking of banks, I remember that the name of one bank was "discount bank", which I found hilarious. The fact is that "savings" and "discount" are the same word in Finnish, so it's probably the same in some other language too, and thus the name of this rather large chain of banks was a translation error.

Anyway, I was there to work. So, let's talk about work.

Panorama from inside the 3Dion offices. click for a bigger picture.

3Dion's "temporary" offices (they apparently moved to real ones some time after I left, just before calling it quits) were located in a rich part of Tel-Aviv, in some millionaire's house. The house owner had bought it because he liked the location, and planned to demolish the house and build something nicer to its place. For the time being he was happy to rent it to this technology start-up to be used as offices. The house had one large living room kind of area, small kitchen, toilet and a couple smaller rooms.

The coders were mostly located in the living room area (in the panorama). See if you can spot my seat; my backpack is sitting on my chair. Dan used to sit on my left side, between my table and the whiteboard that was almost constantly used. I can't remember who was on my right (or what they did), but on the table next to the air conditioner (and the chairs closest to the camera in the picture) sat a couple of guys who were my underlings.

My task was to coordinate the "scripting" of the product.. okay, so what was 3Dion doing? I don't really know what the real answer to that question is. I guess the broad term of "MMORPG technology" covers it, but looking back I think lots of it was a pipe dream.

On the first days of work, before we moved to the temporary office (we were in some random rooms of our bosses' old company in the meantime) I asked if there's some design documents I could go through. The answer was that there are some, but they're outdated, and the design is in our heads. Now, if I knew everything I do know, this would have been a huge warning bell, but in my situation there - in a strange country, a new job that I had desired, well.. you just don't quit.

Another hilarious little detail was the coding convention.. which was basically that, in order to save time, we don't comment code. Later on our boss agreed that this probably wasn't one of the wisest decisions ever.

Technology-wise, the product was a C/C++ core with java - or Microsoft's idea of it anyway - as the scripting engine. The scripting engine took care of lots of things, including the whole UI, as well as world behaviors.

So my job was to sit on top of the "J" thing, to coordinate things that were done with it. I made things and also made sure my two underlings had stuff to do. It's the closest to a classical lead programmer role I've ever had - I would design something and let other people fill in the blanks. The official company language was English, but the two Russian Israeli that were my underlings weren't too good with it, so lots of the time we communicated using telepathy. Meaning, they'd show what they've tried to do, and I'd show what they should have done, helped along with drawings and the more or less broken English that they had. I think they got better in the language while I was there. Things worked out better than this description would let you believe, though.

We also used sourcesafe, most likely because it was available and not because of any specific preference. I don't think anybody should use sourcesafe. The work flow with sourcesafe is such that if you want to edit something, you lock the file. Only one person at a time can lock a file. When you're done, the changes get submitted. No need for merging, as only one person is changing one file at a time. One morning I came to work and found that the changes I had been working hard on the previous couple days had disappeared. I asked the head programmer as to why, and he simply said "you did it wrong" without any further explanation. I threw a fit and the boss had to talk with both of us to calm things down. I don't remember if I ever found out what exactly I was doing wrong, and more likely worked on some other thing from then on.

Panorama of the 3Dion offices garden. click for a bigger picture

The building had a pretty yard. There's a few panoramas of it here. Sorry about being washed out, but the sunlight was pretty bright.

We took a bus to work every morning. On the way to the bus stop I used to buy some sandwiches as a breakfast. The buses didn't have a timetable that I could know of, but ran more or less randomly. I remember one rather nicely designed cafe that I saw on the way to work in the bus.. and I remember seeing, a year later, that someone had blown it up. The bus route also passed a circus which had the slogan "indimensionable", which I think was pretty smart.

A sandwich kiosk in Tel-Aviv

Our work contracts said that overtime is included in the pay, and we worked 10 hour days.. in order to finish the product earlier. If you've followed the things I've preached, you'd know how I feel about such things now. Working us 10 hours a day probably meant that we were all more tired and less productive in the long run. Most of the time we'd arrive as the sun was rising and left as the sun had set, spending the whole hot day indoors, except for the lunch, of course.

The person I befriended the most at work (apart from Dan) was the graphics lead, who told me once at lunch that everyone's afraid of me at work. Apparently I had never smiled at the office. This is partially a common Finnish thing, we frown a lot, but I really did not know how to show much emotions at the time (my wife has taught me a lot in this area).

The work morale, as I remember it, was never very high. There were even some meetings where the management applied some kind of "beatings will continue until morale improves"-kind of speeches, which surprisingly seemed to work for some people, at least some of the time. At times people were caught browsing job boards during work time. Some people were fired, others hired, some left.

In the beginning I tried to keep a blog about my experiences, but found myself writing negative things, so I stopped. One new hire said that he'd searched the web about the company beforehand and found that I hated Israel. I.. don't hate Israel, even though my overall experience there wasn't positive.

Panorama of the 3Dion offices garden. click for a bigger picture

What's not shown in these pictures is a small, separate hut which was used for conferences. There were some design meetings where things were argued, as well as face-to-face meetings when some privacy was needed. Sometimes, when in a design meeting someone would bring up some thing that was already decided upon a couple meetings ago, I would lose my temper, stand up with enough force to make my chair fall down, and walk out. I'd walk around the building and return to the hut, and the thing would have been resolved. In my "letter of recommendation" my boss said that I was a calming team member.

I mentioned that the official company language was English, because of us foreigners. When two people discuss something, it's very easy, no, natural to fall into your native language. However, since many of the terms in programming are in English, I could sometimes follow some conversation without understanding the language, figure out what kind of problem they were talking about, and join in the conversation fluidly. This also freaked them out, but I felt it was very funny.

As language goes, there were times where I had to work as translator from one person to another - even though all three of us spoke the same language. I've done than in Finnish with Finns as well. It's rather easy for people to talk with the same terms but meaning different things.. and it helps if there's a third person who realizes this.

Every time I was in a store or something, people would automatically start speaking Hebrew, to which I'd answer 'Engleet..?'. Most of the time people would speak English to me after that. One store clerk suggested that maybe I should get some very tourist-like Jerusalem t-shirt and a hat or something. I asked some people to guess my nationality, and most guessed that I was German.

Panorama of the 3Dion offices garden. click for a bigger picture

Sometimes we would have lunch at the office, sitting in the garden. One time Dan insisted that since we're eating Chinese, we should use chopsticks. I had used sticks as a kid, but didn't really have the habit.. while in Israel, we ended up eating so much Chinese I developed a habit of using them. So much even that if there's a long pause between eating something with chopsticks, I get a craving for it.

I once spotted a turtle under a bush in the garden.

My brother said that I had clearly aged physically during my time there. So what made me feel bad while there? There's several factors that I can name. First being the long working days; we were probably all rather tired after a few months.

Second is the nature of the land - half of the year is blazing hot during the day (remember to drink!) and cool to cold during the night. It's pretty much an irrigated desert, after all. The rest of the year is damp coldness that goes through whatever clothing you wear, making you feel antsy. Oh, and the buildings are made with the hot weather in mind, so you can't escape that coldness indoors either.

Third: During the hot period everyone, and I mean everyone wears sunglasses. It's funny, but not seeing anyone's eyes for half a year gets to you.

Fourth thing was the language thing. While I have - or at least had - an excellent command of the English language, it's still a completely different matter to hear Finnish. I remember noticing that, when at the Copenhagen airport on my way home I heard someone speaking in Finnish, it felt like a fresh blow of air after feeling like running out of air for ages.

Fifth is.. you see, the Israeli are rather argumentative. So, if I went to a bar (yes, I know it's hard to believe) and tried to start some small talk, this generic frowning Finn would start the discussion from the point where the other party thinks that I a) hate them, b) hate the country, and c) hate the situation, the discussion can't really get anywhere.

I had a few Israeli friends through ICQ. None of them agreed to meet me when I asked, but when I was leaving they panicked and tried to hook up with me on like my last day there. As if my schedule would have worked out at that point.

One such friend, a girl actually, once asked my opinion on something, and when I told my opinion, she started arguing that that could not possibly be my opinion. The opinion didn't matter; she didn't argue the opinion, but the fact that I had it. She also said that it would be completely crazy that we never met (after refusing my several queries). I never answered to her last message.

Panorama of the street outside the 3Dion offices. click for a bigger picture

I originally planned to be there for a year. I was there for three times three months - I really don't know what exactly was going on, but either the company lawyer was lying to the company, or the company lied to me, but I never got a real work permit.

After Assembly that year, I was contacted by Mr. Samuli Syvähuoko regarding what became Fathammer. He even shipped me the first mobile device we started playing with - a Psion handheld with the Epoc operating system.

Getting the device was another fun thing. First off, in Finland such a box would have arrived on my doorstop. Not there. Instead, I had to find my way to the main postal office, which was in the middle of nowhere. I took a taxi there, and the taxi was the most friendly person I probably met on my time there. He adviced me that I would have no way of getting a taxi back, so he'd better wait. I agreed, and went in. Knowing that the meter was running, I asked for my package, and saw how the postal worker opened the package with agonizing slowness, checked what's inside, and then started on the paperwork.

He calculated that the customs would be huge, as he took the finnmark value and used that as a dollar value. I didn't have such money with me, so I went to the taxi driver and asked if he possibly could lend me the funds - and, get this: he did. Back indoors the clerk had realized his mistake (well, he never admitted it) and the customs were much lower. With the device happily under my arm I returned to the taxi, and returned his money. When we got back to our apartment, I gave him a huge tip; he refused, but I insisted that he'd consider it interest for the money he lent.

In the following weeks I managed to trick the device to render some rotating 3d objects in the grayscale screen. Mobile programming seemed fun, even though Epoc was rather braindead. For those who don't know, Epoc was renamed to Symbian later on.

Another photo of the 3Dion office garden

I talked with the graphics lead that I might be leaving to work on that project back in Finland, but felt that 3Dion needed me. I jokingly said that I'd need a convenient war or something as an excuse. The trouble - that's still going on - started the following week.

Apparently some Palestinian high-school kids thought it would be cool to go and throw some slingshots at fully-armed Israeli troops, with the expected results. And it only got worse from there. I could sense that people in the busses were more tense, even though nothing really bad happened in Tel-Aviv for almost a year.

As I handed in my two-week notice, I told that my parents were scared and wanted me out of there, which was true and a very valid reason, even if it wasn't the reason. Boss asked if I could continue working from Finland if he started a daughter company there, but I said I don't think so.

Nearing the end of my time there I could see that large components were coming together and we would actually have a product soon, even if I wasn't going to be around to see it. The web bubble had burst some time earlier which made finding further funding very difficult, so the company future was unclear. A few months later it became clear that it wasn't going to work out, and people were told to use work time and resources to look for new jobs.

Preparing for my trip back I realized that I had way too much stuff to bring with me on the airplane, so I bought some postal boxes and shipped my accumulated books and stuff by mail. Another funny little thing - if you want to mail something abroad from Israel, you need your passport. I think I sent two or three large boxes of stuff back home. The last time I went to the post office I forgot my passport, and had to ask Dan to mail the box for me, as I was leaving the next day.

Sunset from our rooftop - always very pretty

On my last day, one of my underlings took me by both hands and thanked me for everything I had taught him. I almost burst to tears there and then. An artist gave me, as a present, a small painting. He had seen me look at it in a coffee shop at lunch at some point, and had bought it for me. It's still hanging on my wall.

On the way to the airport the taxi broke down, so I was a bit late. I was run through the security (which, if you know, is still the strictest in the world). I'm little surprised they let me leave the country, when I think about my answers. Is there anything in my luggage that could look like a gun? Well, I'm not sure what my tripod looks like, x-rayed. Did I get a gift just before leaving? Uhm, there's the painting. It's kind of hollow. Do I have a bank card from the bank I used in Israel? No, they wanted it back when I closed the account a couple days earlier..

Still, I made it back safe and sound, and off to start Fathammer. Which is a story for another time.

Even though, like I've iterated several times, I did not exactly have a blast during my stay, there were plenty of positive hilights here and there, and most importantly I learned a lot about lots of things. If I was in the situation I was, I'd definitely do it again, and if someone asks, I recommend getting a job abroad if you can, even if it's only for a year, or less. I still keep in touch with some of my colleagues from 3Dion, and I wish I had the contact information for more of them.

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