Taxi drivers the world over are a race unto themselves. The taxi drivers of London, have to acquire ‘The Knowledge,’ which involves studying London’s streets till they can find any address, and have to pass an exam to gain their taxi licence. These days they are separated from their passengers by a glass partition, so that the chances of conversation are limited. Many years ago, however, when my two sisters and I went to London to surprise our mother on her birthday (at our father’s instigation and expense), I remember the taxi driver exclaiming “Young people should never go away and leave their parents on their own!” when we told him why we were there.
In Istanbul the taxi drivers whizz around at breakneck speed, disregarding the thousands of other cars on the road that are also driving at a rapid pace. The fact that there don’t seem to be many collisions attests to their professional expertise. In many parts of Paris the taxis enjoy their own special public transport lanes, which are of great benefit to anyone trying to get from A to B without having to walk for miles in the Metro and struggle to work out which line to take.
In Buenos Aires we were warned never to hail a taxi in the street, but only to order one by phone from an accredited company. Apparently, there have been instances in which tourists were kidnapped and held for ransom, or worse. In New York, to the best of my knowledge, taxi drivers are often not native-born Americans, and it is one of the ways by which immigrants can make a living.
For a variety of reasons – partly geographical, partly economical (I share our car with my husband), and partly my own character flaws – I take taxis once or twice each week to get to various destinations. So I think I can be said to have some knowledge of the Israeli taxi experience.
Most of the taxi drivers I have encountered here are young men who have been born in Israel, come from underprivileged backgrounds, listen to the radio channel which broadcasts music from the North African countries from which their parents originated, and hold interminable conversations with family members, friends, or other drivers on their mobile phones as they drive into town from the dormitory suburb of Jerusalem in which I live. In Jerusalem one can safely hail a taxi in the street, and in some cases the driver turns out to be an Arab (as I gather from their phone conversations in Arabic). They are at least as courteous and safe as Jewish taxi drivers and their attitude to their passenger is perfectly professional.
Some drivers like to chat, whether about politics, sport, or other drivers, while others remain silent. I must say that I tend to prefer the latter. Political discussions are not always conducive to a safe journey, and I’m pretty certain my views won’t be in agreement with those of the driver.
As a classical music aficionado, I find that the strains of ‘oriental’ music jar on my ears, and invariably find myself (politely) asking the driver to either reduce the volume or turn the radio off. In most cases they oblige without demur. In some cases I’m then obliged to listen to pop or rock music of one kind or another, or the endless jabbering of the talk programmes, or even sports broadcasts, which is only a marginal improvement. As far as I’m concerned, silence is preferable to all of these, and sometimes I do even manage to pluck up my courage and ask for it (but I have to excuse this by saying that I’ve got a headache).
Yesterday, however, I had the surprise of my life. When I got into the taxi I had just hailed I heard the strains of the Schubert sonata that was being broadcast on the classical music programme. When I told the driver, a not-very-young man wearing a large skull-cap, that this was the first time this had ever happened to me, he said “That’s what everyone says,” then went on to tell me at great length how in the past he had disliked classical music but had decided that, just as he had once hated yellow cheese and avocados and now liked them, he would open his mind to classical music. “I find it very soothing,” he said, and then talked for the next twenty minutes about his philosophy of life, what he had told the mayor-elect about the traffic arrangements in Jerusalem, why he encouraged passengers to tell him what route to take and how he would always apologize and admit any mistake he may have made if this was pointed out to him in a civilized way.
Truly, a very unusual person. I nodded and smiled as he bared his soul to me though my ears were straining to catch the notes of the sonata on the radio. Still, if I ever get the chance again, I confess to preferring that kind of disturbance to the other sort. After all, anyone who enjoys classical music is a kindred soul.