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It’s expensive

June 25, 2011

In Israel, at least in the more affluent parts of the central area where I hang out all day, the phrase “it’s expensive” comes up in conversation a lot more often than you’d think it would need to be mentioned. Granted, as I’ve written about in detail before, things really are expensive here. But in my mind, stating that something is expensive is only necessary when its price is relevant to the topic at hand — “It’s expensive, so I don’t think we should eat here,” or “It’s expensive, but I really recommend taking a trip there if you can,” or used as a response to a direct question about the price of something.

But this phrase seems to have more nuance here and can be used at almost any time in any conversation as a stand-alone sentence without elaboration. For example, “How was your trip overseas?” I ask a coworker.

“I stayed with my brother. His apartment is really expensive,” he replies. But what does that mean, I secretly wonder. Does it mean it’s really elegant, really pretty, really fancy, really big? Does it mean his brother’s having a hard time making ends meet because his rent is so high? All of the above, perhaps?

I take a guess and say: “It’s tough living in a big city. Things do tend to be pretty expensive. Did you have a good time?”

“No no no,” he answered. “He can afford it. He’s smart, so he has a great job and makes a lot of money. He wears a suit to work every day. A really expensive suit.”

Now things are becoming clear. He’s asking for me to verbally acknowledge his brother’s, and thereby his, status. “Wow, that’s amazing,” I say. He smiles happily, satisfied that I’ve been sufficiently impressed, and the conversation goes on.

At lunch an acquaintance is wearing an obviously new pair of boots. “Those are cute,” I say, pointing at them.

“They were really expensive,” she replies. Here we go again.

“I love the color. Where did you get them?”

“They cost 800 shekels,” she continues expectantly.

To move things along, I gave her the response she as seeking: “Wow, that’s amazing.” She nodded.

From discussing this prevalence of the word “expensive” popping up in conversations seemingly unprovoked and out of context, my sources say it’s not an Israeli thing, but rather a thing some Israelis — especially in this area — say to affect the impression they want to make on a listener. The subtext of “this cost money, but I can afford it; please be impressed,” while not subtle, is significantly more subtle than the usual direct conversation that is so common here. After learning to accept that people can bluntly call each other pains in the ass(es?) all day in Israel without taking offense, I had been taking the “it’s expensive” at face value rather than reading into it. Though I didn’t have to read very far to get the point, it’s still a refreshing change of pace to wonder what people mean from time to time instead of having it unceremoniously and unapologetically spelled out from the start.

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