When I was twelve, well almost twelve, my twin brother and I, sat in the back of a family friend’s car, looking out the rear window as we drove off from our street to the airport. I vividly remember the shape of the light on a beautiful English summer day, filtering through the trees. A pretty girl from my school was lazily riding her bike without a care, and I remember smiling, excitedly expectant of the new life awaiting me in the promised land.
Although I didn’t know it, I was saying more than goodbye to my street, house and almost every aspect of my life so far, I was saying goodbye to my childhood.
Moving to a different country is a big deal; I can’t imagine someone just rolling with it.
My mother who is Israeli and my dad, who is English, always wanted to return to Israel, so after fifteen years in England, almost twelve of which my twin brother and I had been in the picture, we moved back – because even for me, it was moving back.
I had grown up with this “One day we’re moving back to Israel” epic ethos of monumental proportions that had been shaping my subconscious, giving a fervent ideology, belief system and identity, before I was old enough to be aware of these concepts.
Funny how memory works, the inconsequential things that stick and come back years later. Before we got on the flight an El-Al air hostess was telling us something which I couldn’t hear, as I was listening to Nirvana on my Sony Walkman. I was taken aback when she just pulled off my headphones and abruptly told me to listen – not the behavior I was used to, and this was still in England!
I won’t go into all the details of the flight; the ridiculously high level of gut clenching excitement during landing amidst “Hava Nagila” and clapping, coming out into hot and humid mid-August dawn in Ben Gurion airport, which was kind of disorganized back in the early nineties and smelled like sulfur, sweat and palm trees, hugging my older brother who had been in Israel for four months learning Hebrew and getting a tan and a Magen David necklace.
I’ll tell you, that for the first ten days it was great… and then it wasn’t. Everything was different, which was great… and then it wasn’t.
So, when I was eleven, I became a foreigner and things started to become really hard for the first time and for a long time.
I couldn’t speak Hebrew as for some really strange reason, although my parents had always planned to move back to Israel, and both speak Hebrew, they never really put much thought into it, and we never learned. This meant that I spent the first three months with my twin brother in a thing called an Ulpan, which is a place you go to learn Hebrew.
For some really odd reason – just about everything and anything in those days happened for really odd and forever unexplained reasons – the Ulpan was an hour’s bus drive from where we lived in Ramat-Aviv (which I later discovered is THE BEST place to live, although I thought it was a dump compared to my neighborhood in London). So, everyday me and my twin (not identical, not even close), got up early and got on a bus and travelled half way across Tel-Aviv to a really bad neighborhood in South Tel-Aviv. We could tell it was a bad neighborhood by the narrowing streets, crumbling buildings and humid smell of rotting garbage and decay in the forever high-heated humidity of down town Tel-Aviv – till this day HaAliyah street feels like the third world for me. Once we saw what looked like a cat. It was melting.
At Ulpan, every day, all day in a class of Russians and have Hebrew taught at us. Ok, so that needs a bit of explaining. In the 90’s there was a massive immigration of Russians to Israel, after the breakup of the Soviet block or something. So, my twin and I and thirty five Russian teens and one Russian teacher sat in a classroom on the top floor of a school in a crappy part of Tel-Aviv, about an hour’s drive from where we lived, and learned Hebrew, in Russian.
Three months later, we finished Ulpan with enough Hebrew to understand more or less nothing (although we could just about manage in Russain by that time), and went to our new school.
In England, I was exceptionally good at school, living in a big house, on a beautiful street, with a front and back garden, and trees I had helped plant. I had lots of friends and was liked and I was so comfortable that I didn’t even know it.
In Israel, I was basically illiterate. We lived on the eleventh floor of an apartment block, surrounded by similar lego like characterless blocks and I had no friends. I think at this time I started to sulk big time, and when I say sulk, I’d like you to imagine a face without joy, a body without energy, a mind without clarity, in an endless daily routine of dis-satisfaction…and then repeat, and repeat and repeat.
I had a childhood, which was great, and I had a youth, which started pretty shitty, and got better over time. The thing is I never had the in between bit. My childhood just stayed in England. It never got on the plane, and in this sense, I have always remained displaced.
For me, a big part of that means that there is always a part of me doesn’t belong or feel comfortable.
When thinking about displacement in a more global sense, away from my own experience, I am always struck by this.
Millions of people, whether we are talking about refugees fleeing for their lives and experiencing unimaginable hardship, or people like me, moved for other reasons, have this feeling of not belonging, detached from something fundamental. Not able to fit in.
Millions of people displaced.