I’ve sat next to Joonatan, at the back of the class, at the the ulpan, for the last few days. He arrived in Israel from Helsinki a couple of weeks ago. He’s often late, his roommate keeps him awake playing poker, so he’s tired in the morning. He fidgets with his phone constantly during the lessons, and often asks me to repeat what has just been said, like I know. He writes neatly, in tiny letters, with a propelling pencil, frequently rubbing out the things he’s put down wrongly. He won’t write in his textbook in case he makes a mistake and has to spoil it.
He has grey, animal eyes, a broad face, bushy eyebrows and a beard that he grew so he would look older. The hair on his head is thick as a broom. He reminds me, somehow, in looks, at least, of a huskie. He shows me a photo of himself from a year ago. He is sitting on a snowy bench and is, well, chunkier than he is now. He tells me he’s lost a lot of weight since then. He has.
He is twenty-one and here to enlist. He carries, at all times, a beautiful modern edition of The Art of War, which he reads during the break. He wants to find himself, it’s the expression my mother would have used, says he wants to test his limits. He hopes to be a pilot, then study business at university. I ask why he didn’t just join the Finnish army. He’d considered that, thought about becoming a scuba diver, but hoped there’d be more action in the Israeli army. I’m sure he’s right and wish he weren’t.
At least the weather has turned springlike again. There was a chilly week when winds from Siberia blew across Tel Aviv. How does that work? How do they come all this way? (How have any of us?) After the class we walk along Diezengoff. He talks to me nicely, openly, not like I’m nearly forty years older than him. Like all young people, he’s happy to tell me about himself, he asks me nothing about me or my life, but that’s fine, really. His English is flawless.
He wants to stop smoking, and to help with this he pulls from his rucksack a plastic canister, the size and shape of a tin of shoe polish. Inside are two muslin sachets of tobacco. He holds one to his nose and inhales. It’s a Swedish thing, he tells me, not well known, even there. I ask to smell it. It’s ok, nothing like acrid cigarette smoke, just a mild, menthol tobacco scent. In a chic menswear shop in the Marais I once thought about buying a tincture that you added to the water you wash your face in. It left a pleasant, masculine – masculine to fashionable Parisian men, anyway – tobacco fragrance, a sort of memory of a cigarette. It reminds me of that.
Joonatan tells me he has serious conversations with Israelis, which he enjoys. Life, death, I don’t know what. Finns just want to joke around, he says. He wants to find a girlfriend. He tells me that in Helsinki it’s easy to meet a girl to sleep with, harder to find anyone more long term, but it’s the opposite here. Israeli girls want boyfriends. He’s been out every night since he arrived and spoken to many young women, but, so far, no luck. Maybe they want a serious boyfriend, not a boyfriend who is serious.
I meet Megan later, who is going to marry an Israeli tennis coach in the summer. She tells me that none of his friends’ girlfriends are nice to her. They said hello when they first met her, but quickly lost even that little interest. She says, with feeling, Israeli girls are bitches.
And the boys are pussies? I ask. She thinks for a second, and nods.
Today’s word: chu-yull – soldier – חייל