Friday, January 25, 2013

Rahamim and the Countess

Here is another of my short stories from my book "Discovering America" (available from

Rahamim and the Countess
Returning from Israel to Europe, I decided to ship my car to Marseille and then drive to Paris. Being alone on the boat was naturally a problem, so for the first day I kept my eyes open to see if I could get into conversation with someone. Every evening people gathered in the bar, and there was a band and dancing. I watched the people as they coursed here and there, and discerned three main groups.
The youngest was made up of a Zionist youth group which had spent a summer doing volunteer work on a kibbutz in Israel and was now returning to France. The older more staid members of the voyage were the tourists, of several nationalities, most of them well-dressed, and scattered in pairs or families at different tables. The group of intermediate age consisted mostly of young Israelis who were on vacation, and who seemed to get to know each other. I decided this was the group I should try to mix with.
By the pool it was this group that was most active, swimming, sun­bathing, flirting. I heard a couple speaking English and so intro­duced myself. They were originally from South Africa. Through them I met others in the group, and the second evening I sat among them, although my inability to speak Hebrew fluently and to understand their natural rapid speech made me also feel an outsider. Sitting around the table were several other Israelis who, although part of the group, seemed to keep more to themselves.
As I began to know the group better I realized that it was far from homogeneous. The South African couple were more representative, in that most of them came from north Tel-Aviv, and the affluent suburbs, such as Savyon. These two had obviously come on vacation together, although they were not married, but the others also quickly paired off. The rest of us who sat at the table were the odd-men out.
In the middle of this group was a tall, handsome, dark Israeli who every evening sat at the same place nursing his beer. The conversation flowed around him, and every so often he would utter a remark. From the gist of what was said to, about, and by him, I understood that there was an undercurrent of dislike between him and several others of the group although I could not fathom why.
I asked my South African friends and they said it was because he came from south Tel-Aviv, the Tikva Quarter, the poor area where mostly North African Jewish immigrants lived. They seemed to genuinely regret the ill-feeling, but it appeared that the fellow, Rahamim, had a chip on his shoul­der, and the other Israelis, notably the Sabras, the native-born Israelis, had taken to joking about him.
Naturally I felt sympathy for him and wanted to help in some way, but he spoke very little English, and even if he had spoken fluently I think he would probably have ignored me, as he treated the rest of the group. Matters deteriorated, and one evening a shouting match broke out between Rahamim and one of the other more ostentatious members of the group. When Rahamim calmly stood up and displayed his full height, well over six feet, towering over the other fellow, the matter was quickly settled (it was rumored he was a paratrooper).
Notwithstanding all the ill-feeling, Rahamim returned each evening to his seat in the midst of the group, as if protecting his territory.
We stopped for a day each in Cyprus and Rhodes, and then reached Piraeus. There several people left the boat and a few others joined the cruise. One family was particularly noticeable. It consisted of an elderly couple, a younger woman in her early thirties and her two children. They exhibited all the signs of affluence, the man looked particularly distinguished in a dark blazer, gray flannels and yachtsman's cap.
That afternoon I saw the younger woman walking alone on the upper deck. She was wearing silk flowing pantaloons and a matching top in light flimsy lace. The wind was blowing her clothes against her body and her auburn hair was flaming out behind her. It was a marvelous sight.  She streamed down the deck as if oblivious to all the eyes following her.
That night this new family sat at a front table by the band, and were shown a great deal of courtesy by the Captain, who visited and sat with them at their table for a long time. The rumor went around that the older couple was a Count and Countess from Italy, and that the daughter was also a Countess. While the older couple danced occasionally, the younger woman sat most of the time survey­ing the room, hardly talking.
On the second night she danced once or twice with the Captain, but otherwise sat aloof. Then Rahamim stood up, walked across the floor, and sat down next to her.  They first chatted for awhile, and then danced. I was puzzled at first as to what language they could be speaking, but then someone said French, of course, because Rahamim came from Morocco. From the first moment, Rahamim and the Countess were the object of intense interest and speculation.
By the next evening Rahamim was sitting in their midst as if he were an established member of the family. The older Countess seemed to pay him more attention than the younger, and seemed to be having fun flirting and dancing with him. From that evening little was seen of Rahamim elsewhere on the boat, and it was rumored that he had transferred to the Countess' cabin on the upper deck, while her children had been shifted elsewhere. The other young Israelis were at first quite shocked by this turn of events, and then very subdued about it.
A few days later we docked at Marseille, and like the rest of the passengers I stood on line to have my passport stamped, and then ran down to the dock to have the papers relating to my car validated. While I was thus scurrying around I happened to see Rahamim descend from the gangplank and enter a waiting black Mercedes. As it flashed by I caught a glimpse of the young Countess animatedly talking to Rahamim while he stared resolutely ahead.
(Copyright  © Jack Cohen)


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