Our ulpan teacher, Shlomit, tells us soos means horse, which leads her to, No, I’m not a bitch, and then asks me about Camilla and Charles, like I know anything. I liked Diana, she says, not understanding, twenty five years after their divorce, how Charles could have choosen the woman he did. Aaron, next to me, eighteen and from New York, handsome and strapping, oh, charming, too, turns to me, and says, What?
She plays with words; ulpanation is what she calls learning Hebrew, hasfacation is break time, when a few of us, my gang, go to the kiosk on the corner of Ben Gurion and Ben Yehuda for coffee. Today Shlomit asked, with a sceptical look on her face, if people in England really drink tea with cold milk. I said we do. She looked disgusted, like I’d admitted to a taste for rat, or beetroot, or something.
Shlomit sees herself, I think, as some sort of free-thinking eccentric, spreading the truth wherever she goes, like apple blossom in spring. But her views are conventional; she believes in god but not worship, she likes Arabs but not their hatred. She isn’t supposed to talk politics in the classroom but says that Israel is the only place in the world Jews can feel safe. Really, Shlomit says a lot of things, she rarely pauses all morning, all five hours of the lesson. She says, It’s the wet dream of every teacher to have choonim (nerds) for students.
Alex, who sits quietly at the back, told the class he’s a chef, so he’s Michelin for the rest of the morning. When Nathan said he used to work for Lufthansa, she calls him Stewardess for an hour. Another time she went too far, called him Fascisti, because he’s German. He fumed for days.
Shlomit likes having her picture taken. When a camera is pointed at her she vogues; she looks coy and pulls her hair under her chin and pouts, like an actress in silent films. If someone else is in the picture she pulls their head until it touches hers, and holds it there until the photo has been taken and nits have jumped from one head to the other.
One day Aaron outed me as a writer. Ooh, Shlomit’s eyebrows lifted to the ceiling, you will write about me? That’s just what I’m doing, I guess, but I felt a bit fraudulent even nodding yes, I’ve only had one thing published. I’m trying it on for size, mostly, seeing if it suits.
When there is more than one student with the same name Shlomit numbers them. Jéremie 1 is a sort of comedy Frenchman, plain and skinny, who will stop talking to you mid-sentence to chase a girl. He reminds me of Pepé LePew, if you remember that comedy Frenchskunk. He is thirty-five, and has enlisted Alberto, over a decade younger, as his wing man. He calls at odd hours of the night wanting to go out looking for girls. Alberto works hard in Ernesto, also on Ben Yehuda, and is usually exhausted, but goes, anyway. Shortly before Alberto returned to Rome he mutinied, told Jéremie 1 to stop telling him what to do and never to phone him again. I don’t think they ever found any interested women, anyway.
Jéremie 2, however, is a big, sweet, young Parisian, with not enough English, who talks to me during the break. He always looks amused, like he enjoys your company. I tell him I need two glasses of wine before I can speak understandable French, but we find a way. He asks where I stay in Paris and I answer the Marais. The gay part? I all but wink. Of course, I reply. I find his face beautiful.
Of course, on Friday, a non-ulpan day, I wake up at the same time as the rest of the week, 7am, without the alarm. It is beautiful out. I will wear shorts and skip along the beach.
Tel Aviv is a small town and I meet four people from class on the boardwalk. Ludmilla is walking her husband’s huge dog, Nathan and Rufina are on their way to Florentin Market, and Jéremie 2 says he won €3000 on a football match on Wednesday night. I want to help him celebrate.
Today’s word: hafsakah – break – חפסקה