My first day at the ulpan

It is my first day at the ulpan, and the first time I spend with people in a common cause since I arrived in November, three months earlier, unless you count queuing at the Ministry of the Interior, that is. There are around thirty students, and room for twenty to be comfortable. I am almost the oldest person in the room.

The class is pretty evenly split between male and female, although the women, mostly, sit closer to the front, while the men stay towards the back. A crucial difference between boys and girls seems to be that girls have pencil cases, boys pull pens from their pockets or the bottom of their bags. There are people under thirty and over fifty, but not many inbetween.

Shlomit, our teacher, is wearing a fluffy, pale pink cap with a large diamanté brooch pinned to the peak, and a black sweater with brightly coloured pom poms attached to it. She has a wall eye that needs to be operated on, but she’s nervous of the procedure. She makes jokes and might be over-devoted to lip liner. I dare say she’s thought of as a ‘character’.

I’m the only Anglit in the room. There are French and Spanish, South Americans, Italians and Russians. One of the three or four Americans, thin, nervous, grey, Alvin, actually the oldest student, tells us he’s a high tech salesman. He’s sixty-seven, and won’t think about retirement. I’m old, not dead, he tells everyone, more than once.

Mostly, Shlomit relies on national archetypes. To the two Dutch boys she says, You have good stuff, eh? and we learn the word for drugs. She quickly appears to have a crush on Alberto, from Rome, he is always Romeo, and she strokes his cheek. She calls some people ‘dear’, but not me.

As the morning progresses we learn easy questions in Hebrew. What’s your name? Where are you from?, that sort of thing, finding out a little about the students. She gets to me. From London? Ah, she says, Birmingham Palace, Princess Diana. Why does Charles prefer Camilla? It’s a mystery, no? It’s a twenty or thirty year old mystery, anyway, and one I’ve wondered about less than Shlomit. I’m sure she means Buckingham Palace, but I don’t correct her.

I sit next to Aaron, eighteen, from New York. He’s here to join the army. After the break at ten he starts to fidget. He clicks his pen on and off and runs it along the spiral spine of his notebook. I, gently, ask him to stop, which he does for two minutes, before shaking his knee against the table leg and playing drums on his chest. He apologises quickly, and stops, but soon forgets again.

I start talking to a Turk, an Italian and a Frenchman when I’m washing my hands in the bathroom. The Turk, Yehuda, has a homosexual panic and we go down two flights to the courtyard, where they can all smoke. We talk about why we’re here, Israelis always ask me, but no one really has much of an answer. I think we’re brave, though. I hadn’t realised how brave until recently. It is a difficult thing to leave everything you’ve ever known for somewhere new. 

Before the morning is over Shlomit has learned all our names. She remembers them the next day, too. It is an impressive trick.

I’m exhausted by the end of the five-hour lesson. I don’t know that I’ve taken anything in, I think I’m too old for this. Maybe some will seep in through osmosis. I’ll osmote the language. 

Today’s word: oleh chadash – new immigrant – עולהחדש

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