'The Serbs Stared at Us, So We Stared Back. They Have No Awareness of Fat People'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Two young Israelis have an unpleasant experience in Belgrade and an Italian expat for whom the coronavirus lockdown posed an opportunity for growth

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Dgania Alfassi and Kineret Goldstein.
Dgania Alfassi and Kineret Goldstein.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yael Benaya

Dgania Alfassi, 20, and Kineret Goldstein, 22; live in Karnei Shomron, arriving from Belgrade

Hi, what were you doing in Belgrade?

Kineret: We looked for a “green” country that doesn’t require a coronavirus test and where you can fly without having to quarantine on return. I’m a telephone receptionist for a security company. There are only six of us on the phones, so it’s a problem for me to go into quarantine.

What do you do, Dgania?

I’m not working at the moment, because of the coronavirus. I was in the middle of a course on eyebrow makeup – I’m more into cosmetics, it’s relaxing and I like the precision.

How was it for you both in Belgrade?

Kineret: The trip was 50-50, half nice things. I like to see landscapes, but it was less good from the viewpoint of people and shopping. It’s not a destination I’ll return to.

Why not, actually?

Dgania and Kineret in Belgrade.

Kineret: The Serbs are not nice at all. We are, let’s say, fat, full-figured – call it what you want – and they have no awareness at all of fat people. We’re like UFOs there. They give you looks, give you an unpleasant feeling. When it comes to shopping, they have a very specific model: thin and very well built. There are no clothes there for fat people. I found one store and it was all clothes for old people, really. It was a real bummer.

Do you find clothes more easily in Israel?

Kineret: Here, too, in most of the stores, there’s no awareness of it at all. It’s frustrating to enter a store, to try on things and it doesn’t work. And there’s no getting around the fact that there are a lot of fat people.

Sounds unpleasant.

Kineret: Yes, we went into a store on Sunday and the salesgirls just looked at us and started to giggle.

Dgania: Like it doesn’t exist in their community.

Kineret: It was just a revolting feeling. No fun at all. They just stared at us.

How did you cope with it?

Dgania: I stared back at them. Like, “What’s the problem here?”

Kineret: A girlfriend who was traveling with us told us simply to look right back at them. The way they stare, just stare at them. I am not ashamed of who I am, this is the person I am and I’ve been like this since childhood. It used to be that if people looked at me like that, I would be very hurt. But today I know it doesn’t mean that I’m any less good.

How was it for you in childhood?

Kineret: I’m young, but I remember that it used to be very difficult for others to accept that there are fat people; people thought a fat woman was a curse, and there was laughing and humiliation. Today there’s more awareness, but even if you’re a model or the most beautiful person, they never stop with the shaming or mean comments.

What does your tattoo say?

Kineret: “Don’t dream your life, live your dream.” That’s a thought that stays with me, it was in my head and at that moment I said I need to have it tattooed, so I went and had it done.

Is it common to have tattoos in Karnei Shomron [in the West Bank]?

Kineret: It’s very much divided there. There are religious people, also secular, it’s mixed. There are even non-Jews. Our family is religious and my husband is also religious, but I’m not. I left religion, I don’t observe Shabbat, but I do keep kosher and I’m very much a believer.

Have you been this way a long time?

Kineret: It’s off and on. At the age of 16, when we came to the settlement, most of our [age] group was secular, and as secular folks, you start to smoke and so on. And then I went back to it, I observed Shabbat for two years – and then I left it again. I haven’t been into it for two-and-a-half years already, but I very much believe and there are things I am very strict about. But Shabbat is hard for me, because I work then too. I also watch television and movies.

When did you get married?

Kineret: We’ve been together four years and we were married eight months ago. It took a long time, but I’m still a girl. There’s a difference between marrying at 18 and at 22, and I recommend not getting married after two seconds. In childhood we experienced things with our parents, we want to get to know the person, see who he is. I lived with him and we saw that it worked out.

You seem to be very close to each other, like your names are, geographically. [Kinneret and Degania are both names of communities on the shores of Lake Kinneret.]

Kineret: Our parents gave us those names because they really love the north. We are true friends. It wasn’t always like that, but in the past few years, absolutely.

Dgania: There used to be a lot of quarrels, but when you mature you realize that you only have one sister.

Alexandra Shalem.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Alexandra Shalem, 22; lives in Tel Aviv, flying to Milan

Hi, why are you traveling to Milan?

My mother lives there, I haven’t seen her for a year. I lived there from the age of 13 to 19. But up to 13 I was here, so I’m totally an Israeli.

Why did you move to Milan?

My mother is Italian. My parents divorced and my sisters lived abroad, so Mom said there was nothing for us to do here and she took me with her.

What was it like moving to a different country at the age of 13?

I had a hard time until about 17. I learned the language in a second, school was great, there were just a lot of pressures. My mother and I fought all the time. She didn’t react the way she should have when I was in my adolescence, she shut me in. And that’s also why I am here in Israel, because I am like a free bird. I need to be alone, far from people telling me what to do.

What kind of teenager were you?

Disturbed. I did things a 13-year-old girl isn’t even supposed to know about, like cigarettes, drugs, alcohol. I think that if I’d grown up in Israel, adolescence would have been different. I would have gone out drinking with friends in a healthy way, and I would have learned different things. There, it was self-destruction. It was being alone.

So you finished school and came back to Israel?

Yes. I told my mother straight off that I was leaving, that there was nothing for me there. So I came back here at 19 and now I’ve completed a degree in psychology.

Why did you choose psychology?

Because of all the difficulties I went through. I felt misunderstood most of the time, that there was no one to talk to. My mother sent me to psychologists, but I wouldn’t talk to them. I had a girlfriend whom I met in a camp for at-risk youth, who died of a heroin overdose. It was awful, and that’s when I realized that I wanted to study psychology and help other people like her, like me. And then I did it – it wasn’t something I’d planned all my life.

How did you get to that camp?

Through a teacher who saw that I needed something like that. It was called an extreme camp, it was in Minnesota, and all the activities were extreme, such as horse riding and climbing walls. There were very few girls there. You would go there if there was a reason you needed to be there. Let’s say, girls in rehab go there. It was a wild experience. At first, all I wanted was to escape from the camp, because they give you a counselor who’s with you all the time and you can’t go anywhere alone, not even to the bathroom. Because they’re worried about you. At first I hated it, and I only wanted to escape. And then they told me, “If you go to one more place by yourself, or try to escape, we’ll have to fly you back.” So I said I would stay and I hooked up with that girl who later died. It was a kind of craziness. I felt that I could help her and speak to her or do something, and I didn’t know what to do, and then she died.

And now you have the tools to help?

I believe so. Even to help myself – it all starts with you. I think that every person who engages in psychology does it because something in him was also once broken. And he sees that in other people.

Did it change your attitude toward your mother?

Yes. It took a lot of time, but I am succeeding in understanding her better, which also makes us argue less. I believe she is terribly anxious and a worrier. It’s not her fault that I was a little disturbed in adolescence and that she reacted the way she did.

How did you fare in the coronavirus pandemic here?

It very much affected me. I grew up, matured, thanks to it. I lived with my boyfriend in the first lockdown and it was horrible – terrible, terrible, terrible. Thanks to that, I realized that we didn’t get along and shouldn’t be together. And then we broke up and I lived alone for a few months. It was hard for me, but I came out of the crisis a thousand times stronger.

Why was it so hard to live with him?

There was a problem of communication. I felt I was going crazy, that I was talking to someone who didn’t understand me. I cried all day. And then the penny dropped: It’s better to cry because I’m alone, than to suffer with someone.

What’s it like living alone?

I live with roommates and it’s amazing. I’m independent, I’m doing things I never thought I would do – fixing electrical problems and air conditioners. It’s terrific to be alone.

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