March 6, 2018
That night, I had a recurring dream. I dreamt that I was back in the village, not far from my parents’ house. I was naked, sitting in the center of a circle surrounded by my childhood friends. They were cheering enthusiastically and clapping their hands. I felt helpless, engulfed by shame. I called to my brother in my rural Arabic pleading for him to bring me some underwear.
I woke up confused and sweaty. My younger brother is getting married. It’s been two years since I’ve seen my family. I’m scheduled to fly to Israel in a week. I got up quietly; the Owl (my girlfriend) was still fast asleep by my side. While waiting for the hot water to run through the pipes, I gazed at myself in the mirror. A pale winter light fell on a pale face. My skin was scaly and peeling, my hair dry and frizzy.
Emigration, among other things, forces one to be conscious of the huge impact climate has on one’s life. My transition from the sunny Mediterranean to the endless gray of the Paris skies evoked numerous maladies. The rite de passage to French society has taken a physical toll. My body is resistant, protesting the change. Dry skin, dandruff, redness around my nose, which is constantly peeling; all ailments I had never suffered before. I took a hard, desperate look in the mirror. Absolutely not—I couldn’t appear looking like this in front of my parents.
I sat outside on the porch with my coffee, wincing at the cold wind. I ran through my mind the list of things I needed to complete before my trip. The list stressed me out, so I turned my attention to searching “solutions for scaly skin” on my phone. All of the recommendations I found required time and patience. I had neither. I was anxious to start out on the chores. I went back into the bedroom, intentionally making noise, hoping to arouse the Owl from her slumber. I knew that this kind of awakening would not go well with her, but didn’t care—I couldn’t confront this morning alone.
We went down to our neighborhood pharmacy. The pharmacie is a significant gateway into French culture. Paris is flooded with pharmacies. Initially, you wonder what’s the need of them in such abundance. But gradually they lure you in, promising relief and a better version of yourself. You start visiting them too often, religiously. Curious and almost obsessed, I found an opportunity every time I visited a French home, to peek into the medicine cabinet; I wanted in on the secret. Cumulatively, they formed a collective profile of hypochondria mixed with aggrandizement. Doused in wine and smeared with creams, the French seem to have found the solution to life’s existential questions.
After a long wait at the pharmacist’s counter my turn finally came. In hesitant French I tried to both explain my skin problems and to hide my despair. He listened absentmindedly, his eyes gazing over my shoulder, and then impatiently told me to buy more creams and shampoos. He himself didn’t seem very convinced this would help but he was willing to pretend this was good advice. I wondered whether his testy tone was in response to my accent or my appearance, or perhaps to both. I explained to the Owl what he had suggested. She had not understood the words but clearly picked up on his tone and became enraged. “Let’s get out of here,” she insisted firmly. Suddenly the pharmacist who had been following the interaction between us asked in Hebrew, “Do you speak Hebrew?” I said we did.
Both the Owl and I lowered our gaze. He responded cheerfully, in a thick French accent, his tone changed completely. We shuffled uncomfortably, unsure how much he had heard or understood from her earlier comments. For his part, the pharmacist forgot the line of patiently waiting customers. He abandoned pharmaceuticals and began telling us all about himself: he learned Hebrew in a yeshiva, he explained, and his wife was from Israel. The radical change in his attitude was confusing. I also sensed something revealing in his accent. I asked where he was from, originally. “Syria” he said, and added, “a country that no longer exists.” After a moment of hesitation, I said, in Arabic, “I also speak Arabic,” which suddenly felt strange on my tongue. Now he was confused.
I wondered whether he surmised from this that I wasn’t Jewish and whether his attitude towards me would change once again. But he asked no further questions. We stood like two old friends reunited after a long separation. All our differences melted upon the counter for dandruff shampoo and eczema cream. With a sense of sweet surrender, I bought everything he recommended for treating my condition, including products I’d tried in the past that hadn’t helped. “He’s your brother,” the Owl commented as we left the pharmacy. “I have only two brothers,” I replied.
The metro into the city was busy and noisy as usual. The proletarian line, we call it. We were headed for the center of Paris. Our first stop was the cleaner’s. The Owl had brought in three pairs of my pants a week ago. We waited in line. The heat of the steam iron thawed our bones, misting up the storefront window. Suddenly, the Owl remembered she forgot the cleaner’s ticket at home. I frowned at her. I was not at all looking forward to describing my three nondescript pairs of pants, in French. The woman ahead of us finished her business and we approached the counter. Before we opened our mouths, the cleaner turned to us with a pleasant smile and asked in Hebrew, “How can I help you? You speak Hebrew right?” We stared at him wide-eyed.
He has family in Israel, he explained, and learned Hebrew during his frequent visits. With great relief the Owl described my nondescript pants and the cleaner went to the back to search in the big pile of Parisian pants. While he neatly packed them in paper he told us about his most recent visit, how he especially loves Eilat and the Wailing Wall. A memory of a visit to the Eternal City came back to me. At the security check leading to the Wailing Wall, a soldier wouldn’t let me through. Arabs aren’t allowed. I cut short that visit to the City that had been “united” in ’67. I also couldn’t comprehend what he liked about Eilat—a backward, boring tourist town. Probably he loves the heat, I thought to myself. The Owl just nodded agreeably, and said, “Yes those are really nice places.” On our way out, I said it was pretty amazing that we had run into a second Hebrew speaker today. “It’s a funny coincidence,” she said. I felt like it was related to my upcoming trip but didn’t say anything.
We continued down the Rue de Rivoli to the huge department store BHV, our nemesis. BHV is seductive and beautiful, intimidating and almost threatening. All can come in its gates but very few succeed in cajoling the haughty courtesan. Many shoppers leave beaten and empty handed; defeated either by the plethora of options or by the prices. We visit her from time to time, wander aimlessly around her curves, losing each other and all sense of time and reality. I needed to find a suit for the wedding and presents for my family. This time I was determined to tame the mighty icon, to bend her to my needs. Instead we roamed the store for over an hour, our wagon remained empty, and we got restless and impatient. I couldn’t afford anything and suddenly it all seemed so pointless. A sense of revulsion caught in my throat. The invincible BHV spewed us from its midst out to the cold of the indifferent street, tired and empty handed.
It was already late afternoon. Chalkboards announcing happy hour were stationed in front of the countless bars around us. The Owl dragged us towards one of them determinedly. (I never understood what makes her select one place over another.) We sat around a small wooden table outside. A low setting sun pierced the sky. Behind us sat an attractive, colorful woman with a large turban on her head. We spoke about her beauty. As we often do, we started talking about her, inventing an imaginary history: where she came from, how her day has been, but also how we should go about suggesting that she spend the evening with us, possibly the night. Amused, and already into my second glass, with the lightheartedness that alcohol brings, I looked at the Owl and commented, “Today is a weird day. We should be careful.” She replied with the beautiful rolling laugh that alcohol brings out of her and got up to go to the bathroom. The woman’s cell phone rang and she began an animated conversation—in Hebrew. I was not surprised. I gulped what was left in both wine glasses and went inside to pay. The Owl found me waiting for her near the bathroom with a weird smile on my face. “Yes?” she asked.
“I’ll explain while we’re walking,” I said.
Tired and homesick, we returned to our distant neighborhood in the south of Paris. We exited the metro near our local supermarket, which was teeming with customers. We picked up olive oil and lemons, which we put on and in everything—a Mediterranean addiction. The Owl went outside to talk on the phone. Edging towards the cash register, I almost dropped the items in my hand. In front of me in line was a woman rummaging through the Mentos display while calling loudly to her husband, in Hebrew, to ask whether they give out free spoons with the ice cream, like they do in Israel. I bought my stuff and stepped out of the store, dizzy and confused. The Owl was still on the phone, but I interrupted her conversation to ask her, “Do you think I’ve already left?”