Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of loneliness and bananas

Making Aliyah really is a rollercoaster ride. When you’re up, you’re up really high… it takes you a while to get there and the journey is thrilling and exciting with high anticipation. Once you’re there, it’s euphoric and you’re on top of the world. Then you come down, which is rapid, sudden, dramatic and scary. However, you know that the next trip up is not far away.

I’m not much of a fan of bananas. Never have been. Would choose almost any other fruit before a banana. And if I’m going to eat them, they must be hard and almost green. For some reason, about a month or so ago, I bought a few bananas. After I’d finished them, I couldn’t stop thinking about them for a few days… so I bought some more. Then, after having scoffed down at least two, with another in my hand, I started wondering about my sudden, inexplicable craving for bananas. (No, I’m not pregnant!)

And then I realized… I associate bananas with my mother. She loves her bananas, even when they’re soft and mushy and only fit for baby food!! And I’d been missing her and my Dad and the rest of my family terribly towards the end of last year and beginning of this one (not that I wasn’t missing them before). Funny thing happened during this revelation… as I was standing there contemplating the bananas and my mother, my Skype phone rang and there she was, as if she’d “ESP’d” me!

Not long after, I was doing my usual laps in the pool and I noticed a young girl swim up to her father and place her arms around his neck. He immediately folded her into his arms as if to protect her. That brought tears to my eyes as I remembered the many times my father would wrap his arms around me, protecting me, loving me, just being there for me…

And the question I keep asking myself is: “How is it possible to be so happy in a place and yet so unhappy at the same time?” I love Israel and being here; knowing I’ve chosen to make it my home fills me with excitement and wonder – constantly. But while I feel this way, I’m also wishing I was back in South Africa with my family and close friends. I’m single and have been all my life. Never had a serious relationship worth talking about. This has never bothered me, believe it or not. I’ve never been lonely, even though I’ve lived alone for so many years, probably because I’ve had the people who know me and love me close by – there to share the good times and to support me through the bad.

Not so, here in Israel – especially when living in the desert, isolated and far from friends. Even though I’ve made a few friends on the kibbutz, it’s not the same. They don’t have the history, the background, the knowledge, the ability to know what you need… It’s hard to confide in someone you’ve known for only a few months, and the language difference with some of them acts as a huge barrier. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some warm and wonderful people on the kibbutz – even if it took about six months for most of them to open up to me and for me to get to know them. And I know they’ll always be there, but when you’re new to a place and feeling emotional and vulnerable, the people you want around you are your family and familiar, old friends.

I know this will change as time passes and I meet more people and get to know the language better, but in the meantime, I’m giving myself the right, the option, the time to feel these feelings because I know they’ll change. Although missing family and long-standing friends will never disappear, I know new ones will come into my life to fill the gaps.

My stumbling block

Before I arrived in Israel, I was determined to make the most of my six-month ulpan and learn Hebrew “come hell or high water”, as the saying goes. I had every intention to focus on the language as I knew my success in this country depended on it. However, I didn’t plan for my house not to be sold and my need to find work urgently. The stress that went with worrying about making my monthly bond payments and trying to sort out problems from half way around the world, as well as job hunting and emailing my CV around the country on a daily basis – and the fact that I find it hard to focus at the best of times – meant that my Hebrew suffered.

Working on the Maccabiah (Maccabi Games) so soon after I arrived was an amazing experience, one I could not turn down, but it meant I missed many classes right at the beginning. Taking photos and writing articles for the Jewish Agency were fun and exciting, but in my travelling to and from the kibbutz, Hebrew took a back seat. And in between work and attempting to catch up on Hebrew homework, there was the job hunting and trying to adjust to a new country, new people, loneliness and the desert.

Forget work for a moment… the result is that I miss out on every day, basic conversations in daily life and in social situations. I think if I had to do it all over, I’d find work on the Kibbutz in the gan (crèche) and let the children teach me what I need to know. Sadly, my circumstances at the time didn’t allow for me to do volunteer work. But hindsight, as they say, is 20-20 vision! I just have to take the bull by the horns and start again.

Holding up a mirror

Looking back on the past ten months, I feel dizzy from the rollercoaster ride. The hardest times of all were not the stresses of what was happening with my house and my financial concerns. What really threw me was they way I was feeling – the emotional ups and downs I was experiencing. Emotions I couldn’t remember feeling – ever – loneliness, vulnerability, sadness, and the most surprising for me, tears!!! I learned so much about myself during this period… so much I’d never expected. I thought I was stronger and more easygoing than I turned out to be when faced with adversity. And it all started around the time I began to slow down.

Towards the end of October, after all the Jewish holidays, I decided to stop travelling to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem almost every weekend. I was absolutely exhausted from packing and unpacking, taking buses, staying in people’s houses, on couches and floors… As amazing and welcoming as my friends had been, I just wanted my own place, my own space.

I spent a lot of time walking around the kibbutz and in the desert, and had taken up swimming a few times a week, both of which kept me sane and fit- “ish”. But, many times over the three or four months following, I found myself in tears or close to tears, desperate for a hug (I’ve always been big on hugs) or some comfort from someone close to me. I wanted to be able to pick up the phone to a friend and say, hey, let’s meet for dinner or a movie.

But I couldn’t do that on the kibbutz. The one olah (immigrant) with whom I had become friendly had left the kibbutz after three months, the friends I do have in Israel live at least two hours away, and I didn’t feel comfortable just “popping in” to the ‘kibbutzniks’ I’d met, no matter how many times they suggested it. The few who had made me feel welcome had their families and their lives and it was still early days in the friendships.

The one consolation was that I had found “substitutes” for my sister’s twins, who I miss terribly and constantly. There is a set of twins (a twin?) on the kibbutz, a boy and a girl, who are the same age as Jenna and Megan. Matan and Shai – both names mean “a gift” – have become like surrogates. Whenever I’m missing my twins, I seek out my “gifts”. The pleasure on their faces when they see me and run into my arms is enough to make the sun shine on a cloudy day (oooohhh… how corny J). And that’s what they do for me in my darkest hours. Their older brother, Nitai, has also taken a liking to me and he even understands a little English, having an Australian father. There are also a few other toddlers who don’t mind my hanging around…

Funnily enough, the most frustrating part of my not being able to speak Hebrew is not being able to communicate with the children. It’s not a major problem when they’re under two, know as little as I do, and just need a hug and a smile, but there are children who have become familiar in the past nine months and I’d love to be able to have a conversation with them...

Back to myself

Things started changing some time in January/February. Firstly, I started commuting into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem more often for work (by this time, I had a fair amount of regular freelance work), and secondly, I’d become more friendly and more relaxed with some of the kibbutzniks. Popping in is easier now, although I still prefer to phone first.

The feeling of intense loneliness has abated, the tears have subsided and I’m back to my normal, old self, feeling positive and happy. I still miss what I had in South Africa (family and friends), but that will never go away as I’ve come to know from having family in the States. I’m sure, once I move from the kibbutz and settle in the city – probably Tel Aviv area although Jerusalem is still an option – it’ll be easier for work (no more five hours travelling a day), my social life will encompass more than a fleeting visit, and I’ll get down to “normal” living in Israel!

Many people say that if you start your Aliyah on a kibbutz, when you move, it’s like making Aliyah again – it’s that different. I may not be starting from scratch, but I’ll have to get used to a new way of life again! That, in itself, is an exciting prospect, if a little daunting. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to join an evening ulpan (Hebrew class) and finally beat my struggle with the language.

I must admit though, I’ve really become accustomed to kibbutz life. I love the open spaces, the fresh air, the freedom from cars and petrol fumes and crowds and traffic, the walking and the swimming. Having everything close by – shop, laundry, dining room (although the food isn’t exactly gourmet), the pub (when it’s open and I’m in the mood) and friends – is a major bonus. Often, when I’ve been in the city for a few days and can’t wait to leave, I’ll get off the bus on the kibbutz and think: “What a pleasure! Home at last!” Talk about a conflict of emotions!! I’m going to miss kibbutz life, and the friends I’ve made here. I do sometimes think that if the kibbutz was closer to the centre, I would seriously consider staying.

Lessons learned

I learned an important lesson not so long ago, one I hope and pray that I’ve internalised and will not forget. I chose to come to a kibbutz as my first step into Israel (or my “first home in the homeland”, as the programme is called), a choice I made based on my idea of a kibbutz as a community with people who were warm and welcoming and only too happy to help olim (immigrants) integrate and absorb into the society.

Although I wasn’t on the kibbutz much in the first four months, I was surprised to find that the community wasn’t as welcoming as I’d expected and hoped. I figured, ok, I haven’t been on the kibbutz much because of my travelling, so there hasn’t been much opportunity. But once I decided to stick around more, and things didn’t change, I couldn’t understand why. Only a few people invited me into their homes – and only one couple invited me for Shabbat dinners. Yes, the kibbutzniks were slowly becoming friendlier, and many of them were getting to know me because I was forever taking photos of the kibbutz events, but still no invitations for Shabbat or for a cuppa tea outside the few...

All I could do was complain to friends about how disinterested they were. I’m usually a very social and sociable person, and I’ve never had a problem fitting in anywhere… but on the Kibbutz, I felt like nothing I did was going to get them to warm to me. And then I decided to stay an extra six months. People started asking for my phone number and making conversation. Some struggled through their poor English, and I battled through with the little Hebrew I knew, but more and more, people tried to talk to me. I still didn’t make it into many homes, but the feeling was different… more open and friendly.

And then I discovered my arrogance! A few months ago, I had the opportunity to discuss the situation – past and present – with someone on the kibbutz. She helped me see things very differently.

Firstly, the arrogance of expecting people to bend over backwards to welcome you! People have their own lives – family, friends, work – and having new olim coming onto the kibbutz and “into their lives” every six months must be exhausting. Just as they get friendly, the olim move on… and the next batch move in. Enough to make you dizzy… And besides, expecting them to have time to make 10 or so olim feel at home and part of the family once a week or a fortnight…

Secondly, the arrogance of expecting everyone to speak your language! Yes, when most olim land in Israel, they don’t speak Hebrew. But English is not the only other language spoken in the country. Besides Russian, French and Spanish are common languages on the Kibbutz, so it isn’t a precondition that they all know English or know English well enough to have a conversation. And when you’re tired after a long day at work, or after a hectic week, the last thing you want to do is entertain people and struggle through a conversation.

My expectations were way too high. I was judging this Kibbutz by my first Kibbutz experience 20 years ago when I was a volunteer and here for the fun and excitement, and I didn’t need the “comfort of home” then as I was spending it with other volunteers. And besides, you can’t expect others to do things the way you want them to…

So, I’d like to apologize to the kibbutzniks – even if none of them reads this – for my arrogance, my impatience, my criticism…

There is one thing I find very funny about my 10 months on the Kibbutz – an integral part of the rollercoaster ride I mentioned… In the beginning, I didn’t want to be here and could happily have left after a month or two. This feeling changed regularly during my time here – wanting to stay, wanting to move to the centre and wanting to be with my family and friends in SA.

But now, if I could – if the kibbutz was closer to the centre where the rest of my friends live – I would happily continue to live here. Time really does make things look different, and patience really does bring change. And now that I’ve given the kibbutz ample time, I’ve developed a relationship with it, with the desert, with the people, with the spaces, places and faces that have become familiar and loved. Who knows what will happen next?! But the adventure continues!!

PS: The photos were taken at my birthday celebration in February. This made me realize how many friends I'd actually made on the kibbutz. And if I knew how to add captions under each photo, I would, but... in order of appearance... The first two are obviously me. As you can see on my birthday cake, one of my brilliant friends decided to use matches as we didn't have candles. Then we have the twins, Shai on the left and Matan. Meshulam and Margalit welcomed me into their homes from early on in my stay on the kibbutz. One of my new family of friends, Gilad and Noga (Meshulam and Margolit's daughter) with Hila (Matan is not part of this family, obviously, but he refused to let me put him down). Their boys, Shachar and Chen, wouldn't pose for photos. The twins' parents, Yoel and Yaara with their brother, Nitai. Shai and Aliza, who have had me over for Shabbat dinner numerous times. Amit, my friend from Be'er Sheva. Marcia and Miriam, friends from Ecuador, with Oded, who lives on the kibbutz when he's not living in Denmark. And the last photo was taken at my birthday celebration in Jerusalem. Thomas is standing next to me and Asya, Brian and Shaul (Paul) are seated.

No comments:

Post a Comment