food / travel

Mossad Aside, Israel Is No Land Of Secrets

A Tel Aviv Tale Of Manners

Windows on the world
Windows on the world
Michael Borgstede


TEL AVIV - When we lived in central Tel Aviv we were able to hold on to something of a private sphere. During the summer months, we'd hermetically close all the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Not only was it nice and cool, but we couldn’t hear the noise of the city – or our neighbors.

But now we live in the suburbs where we don’t have air conditioning and so we have to leave the windows open wide. Even in August you do get the occasional fresh breeze wafting through. The problem is, our neighbors live with their windows wide open too.

So since moving here we’ve learned things like what homework their daughter has the most trouble with. We recognize when the man across the way sinks into his TV-viewing chair earlier than usual. We also know the cooking habits of everybody on our street, who is sleeping with whom -- and how much noise they make when they do.

We seem to be the only ones who think this is strange. Our neighbors approach what seems to us like shocking propinquity with a warm-hearted sense of familiarity.

Recently, a man across the way was standing on his balcony -- shirtless, drinking a cup of peppermint tea -- when he called over to a man in our building: "What? Home already? Is that pretty blonde coming over again? That’s the babysitter? Yeah, sure …"

The not-so secret lives of Israelis

It’s not easy to have secrets in Israel, which can make it quite hard to settle here. Israelis bother with good manners only in dire situations.

On the whole, though, despite a regular supply of petty spats, it must be said that neighborly co-existence is marked by empathy and solidarity, albeit a rough and ready kind. For example, an Israeli will never apologize for being late – something that happens with clockwork regularity.

Also, wherever they are -- the supermarket, the train, the waiting room at the dentist -- Israelis talk on their cell phones (if statistics are anything to go by, they all have more than one), and usually at the top of their lungs. They are also quick to form judgments, and those judgments are not exactly compassionate -- and rarely left unsaid. They bicker with each other uninhibitedly and hate standing in line.

In fact, anybody who wants to live here would do well to practice saying the Hebrew phrase "Ani haiti kodem po" with a certain amount of aggressiveness in their voice. It means "I was here first" and it’s absolutely indispensable for use at the supermarket, the bank, the post office, anywhere you may be buying tickets, and many other places too.

Blame it on the Socialists

Israelis are not big believers in hierarchy. There is something fundamentally egalitarian about them, which is sometimes sympathetic but other times very hard to stand. Maybe it’s because so many of the country’s founding fathers were Socialists.

The Israeli sense of egalitarianism is so extreme that in the early days of color TV, films were shown in black and white so that the privileged minority with a color set wouldn’t be the only ones able to see the movie in color.

Perhaps some of the problematic national characteristics can be traced back to the raw, rough days of the pioneers who were too busy settling the land and building homes to have any time for the usual niceties.

Another possibility is that Israeli Jews, in wanting to set themselves apart from Diaspora Jews, dropped traditionally polite ways of behaving and then somehow never found their way back to them.

The woman next door just left to bring her child to kindergarten. She’s 20 minutes late. The kid wouldn’t eat his honey and bread this morning; in fact he started howling at the top of his lungs right after he woke up at 6:15. Then his dad started screaming, too, saying he was going to move out.

If he does, we neighbors will be the first to know.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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