This is a longer-than-usual post, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining
I’m obsessed by Ludmilla, who sits in front of me at the ulpan. She’s 34, slim, too thin, really, and Romanian. She has the sort of looks that, I’m sure, get her a lot of attention. She paints each of her fingernails a different metallic pink and has straight blond hair, almost to her waist, shiny as embroidery thread, that must take more grooming than a pair of afghan hounds. She flicks it, constantly, to everyone’s annoyance.
I guess she’s clever, she says Hebrew is her fifth or sixth language, and she was a lawyer at home. Nathan has doubts, and imagines she was a pole dancer.
As it happens, she did tell Rufina that she’d once been a dancer. She only narrowed it down by specifying “professional”, so who knows. It must be where Nathan got the idea from, anyway. She also said that her father was very demanding, very strict with her, and that she has to, not just succeed, but excel. It’s not enough to pass, she must be top of the class, which she usually is.
She sat, on the first day, in the middle of the front row, right in front of Shlomit, our teacher, who fawns over her, and has sat there every day since. She pulls her jewel-coloured pashmina tighter and asks for the windows to be closed. Thin people are always cold, even in Tel Aviv. She answers questions put to other students, then looks behind her, as if to remind everyone of something, and flicks her hair, like a pony flicks its mane.
I’ve been sitting behind her for a few days, next to Megan, with Esther, from Rome, on the other side. I moved places to get away from Olivia, who chews gum noisily and could use a shower, and Anaelle, who uses the class to text pictures of her baby all morning, which is distracting.
Esther keeps to herself, and still writes Hebrew words using the Roman alphabet, but, during a conversation exercise when, naughtily, we spoke English to each other, I learned that she has a PhD in particle physics, whatever that is. She’s fed up with the world of particle physics, however, and wants to make money from blogging. She shows me her Instagram account, which is half pictures of her in a black cape and scarlet lipstick looking gothic, half pictures of hummus. I admire them and say I think it’s difficult to earn money this way. She doesn’t come to the class again and her Instagram account is deleted by the next day. A few weeks later Alberto told me he’d spotted her on the beach, on a cool, rainy day, being photographed wearing a cape, and twirling.
Anyway, from my new seat I can watch Ludmilla fill in her verb forms that are Shlomit’s own, overcomplicated system. Ludmilla uses a different colour pen for the verb group, the sub group, the infinitive, the root, the prepositions to use with that verb, then one colour for the present tense, another for the past. It’s a beautiful grammar rainbow. We haven’t yet learned the future tense, and I can’t wait to see what colour that will be assigned, but there’s only a fluorescent, illegible yellow left in her pencil case.
Shlomit over-complicates everything. I understand things until she explains them in a different way and confuses me. Don’t worry, she says, I will explain it a thousand times. Megan and I look at each other and, silently, despair. Shlomit spent two hours the other week repeating the difference between im with an א, if, and im with an ע, with. It was excruciating.
Anyway, the big excitement today was that Alexi had a love bite on his neck. His wife, Milena, who isn’t as pretty as him, was wearing a scarf wound around and around, covering herself from chest to ears, so her neck must have been purple. I told Megan and Saarit at the coffee stand during break. Later Alexi went to the front of the class for something and Megan nudged me, Saarit tried to get my attention, too, gleeful to see the marks.
After class, I talk to Milena about the love bites. Hate bites, she corrects me. Alexi gives them to her when he doesn’t want her to go to work.
Big ulpan day out. We went to, oh, I don’t know, a shopping mall, a historic village, a botanic garden and an early Seder for all the students, several hundred, from the whole building.
In the creepiest gesture of the day, even creepier than not speaking to or looking at me, except to tell me I was wrong three times, Saarit smoothed Megan’s hair. Megan, I think, is not a lesbian. Saarit, I think, is going to be disappointed.
Alvin talked to me a lot. He’s from Palm Springs, sixty-seven, and genial, I suppose. He turned his ulpan baseball cap back to front, the peak covering his neck, rap-style or ghetto-style or I don’t know what. I’m not yet au fait with the fashion choices of the elderly. His motto, I’ve heard him say it maybe a thousand times, is, I’m old, not dead.
He gets his wife’s name, Claudine, into almost every sentence, whatever it is we’re talking about. She is French and a real estate agent here. I don’t know if he considers himself henpecked, but you hear a whip being cracked every time he enters a room.
In an attempt, I think, to impress me, he told me that when he was in the navy, during the Vietnam war, he saw a lot of interesting places, ate a lot of good food, and fucked a lot of women. As if this wasn’t enough, he told me that he and his wife hope Marine LePen wins the French presidency because it will mean lots of French Jews will move here and Claudine will make lots of money.
I was taking pictures of everyone. I turned my camera to Ludmilla. She tied the tails of her denim shirt into a knot, flicked her hair and struck poses like Veruschka.
Rufina told me that Ludmilla has left her Israeli husband. She has hinted that he was cruel, but she has left him for another man and is pretending to be staying at Rufina’s. Ludmilla has left seven large suitcases there. Her husband carried them up five flights of stairs for her. Rufina’s apartment, an unmodernised Bauhaus, doesn’t have a lift or room for seven large suitcases. Every day Ludmilla says she’ll collect them, but doesn’t.
A legal document arrived for her yesterday. Rufina signed for it and and photographed each of its twenty pages to text to Ludmilla, who promised, again, that she’d collect her luggage.
I went to the beach, did my usual walk along the shoreline, shirt off. I heard my name being called, it was Rufina. She looked spectacular in her bikini, her figure is beautiful. She always says, I’m so fat, and, I have such small boobies, but I don’t know if I agree with her. She hugged me. Of course, I felt fat and English and self-conscious, and there’s no convincing argument I’m not. She introduced me to her mother and brother, who are visiting for a week from Uzbekistan. Her sister, too, who enjoys talking, my word she never stops to draw breath, who lives in Cheshire.
I waved goodbye and a hundred metres later there was Ludmilla, who was as closed as Rufina was open. She was wearing a baseball cap and had covered her whole body with a sarong, tied around her neck. She went to shake my hand, but I made her kiss me on the cheek. Maybe I’m not a total uptight English.
I said I’d just seen Rufina and she wanted to know where. I wondered if she wanted to know where to avoid. I looked to see if she was with the man she left her husband for, but I don’t think I’m supposed to know anything about that. Anyway, the next time I saw Rufina she said she didn’t see Ludmilla on the beach that day. She has, however, taken her luggage away. Her new boyfriend carried all seven suitcases down all five flights of stairs.
I dragged myself to the ulpan today. The class has thinned out considerably since before the Pesach break. Shlomit handed me a thick wad of verb sheets to fill in. Blimey, I said, you must really want me to stay. She gave me another handful.
Saarit was extra-sour and demanding of attention. She explained that, not that she was menstruating, or had her period, not, even, that her Auntie Flo was visiting, but said, economically, I guess, I’m bleeding.
During the break I felt a blond presence at my side. Ludmilla wanted to talk to me. She enjoys hearing my English accent, and she’s moved to Bograshov, a hundred metres from my apartment.
It turns out to be my last day at the ulpan. I’ve decided I won’t stay in Israel forever, so there seems no point in continuing. I made the decision at five am after a sleepless night, and that was that.
Ludmilla news! As she’s left her husband she may be deported. She isn’t Jewish and her visa depends on being his wife. She asked him not to divorce her until after she finishes at the ulpan. He chose not to wait. She is, I should say, an excellent student.
Rufina, who doesn’t like Ludmilla one bit, receives Ludmilla’s mail at her address, which is how she discovers these things. She whispers them all to Nathan in secret, makes him promise not to tell anyone, which he keeps, until there’s the smallest lull in our conversation.
Megan recounts a discussion Ludmilla had with Shlomit in front of the class. Shlomit, who calls her lublitsch, said how pretty she is. Ludmilla said she knows. They agreed that some people won’t like her because she is so pretty.
Ludmilla said she’s working in a designer’s clothes shop, but the other women who work there didn’t like her until she told them she’s friends with the designer, and then they did. Shlomit nodded and stroked Ludmilla’s cheek.
I ask Megan why she doesn’t like Ludmilla. Because she’s a fucking bitch, she says, with feeling.
I am, as ever, drinking rosé with ice at the Olive Korner early in the evening. I look up from my iPad to see Ludmilla standing in front of me. I don’t instantly recognise her, she is wearing a hat with a very floppy brim that covers her face like an op-art hijab. She holds it up with the back of her hand and I see who it is. She holds her other hand out to shake mine, but I stand up and kiss her on each cheek.
She won’t join me for a drink as she wants to go home to eat, but we catch up, anyway. I say I don’t think I’ll stay here, I’d like to go to Rome for a while. You can do that? she says, meaning Brexit. For another couple of years, anyway.
I can go anywhere in the EU, she reminds me, helpfully.
She tells me, if not everything, the bare bones of everything. She left her husband and is living with another man and will probably have her visa revoked, but has a small chance of returning in November.
I say I’m sorry for her troubles. What a shame not to be able to finish at the ulpan, there’s only a few weeks of it left and she has worked very hard. And what a shame she’ll have to leave her new boyfriend. She waves all of this off with a smile. I’ve had ten boyfriends, I’ll find another.
Today’s word: lehishtadel – to do your best – להשתדל