I have long since imagined Bethlehem as a little mountain village with perhaps one main street, an inn, and a manger. I had a romantic notion that it would be devoid of traffic, its sanctity disturbed by nothing more than the sound of birds singing and the soft gurgling of running streams. Was I ever wrong.
Think Blackpool and add some religion. Hotels flaunting unimaginative names like the Manger Hotel Square or the Holy Family Hotel compete with stylized versions of American stalwarts. Souvenir shops offer all three grades of Olivewood – A (dried for at least a year), B (just dried – time not stated), C (not dried at all). Nativity sets are ten a penny, and as for the Baby Jesus… well, rabbits come to mind.
But what Bethlehem lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in friendliness. Everyone is in a good mood. Even the pairs of eyes peering out from the myriad black burkas seem to be smiling. The chap in the shop we visited gave us coffee (all 27 of us!) and a rundown on what to look out for when making our purchases. Stallholders had that ubiquitous enthusiasm about their wares yet there was never pressure to buy. A car pulled up. The driver got out. He asked where we were all from. He then went on a good-natured rant for five minutes in which he showed how well versed he was in European politics, the religious beliefs of various American presidents, and the state of the universe in general. It seems that no one wants for an opinion. And he didn’t seem too bothered that we didn’t buy anything from the boot of his car.
It’s people-watching heaven. With so many tour groups from all over the world mingling with locals from all sorts of cultures and creeds, it’s in stark contrast with the monochrome palette I’d witnessed on the drive into Jerusalem from the airport. And while the hustle and bustle would be welcome in other cities, it seems strangely out of place here. Perhaps my mother was right when she first introduced me to the ninth beatitude – blessed is she who expects nothing for she shall never be disappointed.
As I write I’m trying to decide whether I’m glad I’ve seen it for what it is or whether, given the chance, I’d turn back the clock and keep the vision intact. But, given the week of revelations that I’ve had, I’m grateful that this is all that’s on my mind right now.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52