It’s been a month since then. Memories are fading. So I’ll group all the rest of the days together and document some highlights.
Remembering one of my Italian friends wearing a fancy suit for the Israeli aerospace conference, who told me that’s just being European, I thought I had to bring my JK uniform – the closest thing I’ve got to formal clothing. But on the way to Hyeres I suddenly realized: I packed my skirt, knee-highs, uniform shoes and even the bow knot, but not the white shirt! I soon turned from being horrified to glad for my consistency and a possible solution of buying a substitute in a local mall. As the plane approached a small rustic airport, round bales of hay which I only saw in paintings* seemed to tell me there are no malls here. At the suggestion of the Hotel reception, I went back to land the next morning and traveled to Grand Var at the outskirt of Toulon. At the first store where I bought a boy’s white shirt, I met a very nice high school girl who was helping in the store. She led me to the next store I was looking for. And when I finished shopping and found no taxi outside the mall – Grand Var is not Grand Canyon after all – the girl came out again and walked me to the exit where the taxi that a customer in her store helped me ordered was. Pimples flourishing on her sunny cheeks and forehead, she would complain about not being good with school and stuff. How nice to behold the face of a high school girl with all these innocent little troubles, thought I – the 114-year-old… …All this while she didn’t really speak English. In the end she typed her farewell message for me on Google Translate and I really didn’t know how to fully express my gratitude.
In the mall I bought three shirts in a row because all of them were somewhat casual. I thought I would leave the difficult question of which one to choose to tomorrow when I would be speaking. In the afternoon, the conference officially started. The organizer Stephane – I still miserably remember I assumed it to be a French version of Stephanie and addressed him by “Ms.” in emails, TWICE!- opened with a welcoming note. To my amazement, he came in beach T-shirt, shorts and flipflops. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, when he needed a pointer, he grabbed a fallen tree branch taller than even me. At this point I understood that I should be glad that the difficult question was no longer relevant. And without loss of generality, let me just omit that part concerning some certain amount of Euros…
A by-product of that shopping trip was that I had a glimpse of Hyeres center, where a plethora of small-scale palaces lined up the neat boulevards. I have no idea what these eye candies are. But it was definitely nice to have walked around that place.
Before going there, we were warned that “the comfort in the conference center is limited”. But it time and again challenged my bottom line. First there was no air-conditioning in the lecture room. I managed to cool down thanks to the fresh island air. But to the bigger others, life was not easy. Second was of course the lodging. I didn’t complain about the small space which had me bump into the bed corner all the time, or the shower head – or rather the lack thereof from which the water poured down quite bluntly. The jaw-dropping fact was that there was no air-conditioning again… And no WI-FI… These definitely hit new lows. Later Julie told us this place is sort of like kids’ summer camp or military camp. Then it makes sense.
I was well aware of and prepared for sharing the space with another girl. I was confident that academia people have to be nice. This claim stands unshakable. Moreover soon it turned out my roommate was cooler than just nice. Elektra, unlike the introvert me, is an outgoing person with unrestrained bright laughter. Despite striking differences in sociability and bedtime, we both read before sleep and advocated leaving the window wide open for fresh air during the night (thus making ourselves open targets to the mosquito army).
Whenever Elektra fondly called me “μήλο my apple”, my heart stealthily turned into a sweet blossom. By the last night – the last beach time we were going to spend together – I found myself changing into bathing suit without bothering to enter the bathroom anymore. Elektra let loose her wild laugh and teased me. I rushed to explain myself ** by citing the imminent meeting time with others. But it’s undeniable that the somewhat intimate week of sharing personal space and stories, especially of witnessing Elektra’s carefree attitude with regard to changing in front of her roommate, I gradually gave up keeping that awkward distance.
One day after lunch, I rushed back to prepare for yet another afternoon trip, only to find my period started. I was startled to death as if this had never happened to me before. I found only Julie in her room and she immediately gave me three tampons. Wait, tampons! Just like condoms, it’s one of those kind of things that you hear about all the time but have no idea how it looks like until the moment you just have to “employ” it. So that afternoon I stayed in the room, wearing a tampon all the time, not exactly feeling like myself. I paced back and forth, stood up and sat down, laid on my belly and back, all done in a very cautious manner as if handling some intricate experimental apparatus. And every time I checked I was amazed that it actually worked.
But what Elektra briefly told me before she hurried off to hiking was more impressive. She said with a tampon I would be able to go hiking and swimming just normally. In the late afternoon, I went to the grocery store in penguin’s dance steps. There I met Quentin’s girlfriend for the first time and not without embarrassment, I asked her to show me where tampons were. There she also confirmed Elektra’s account from a seasoned swimmer’s perspective.
The next day, I immediately tested it out by skipping an entire day’s classes for hiking. I was still skeptical so I wore both a tampon and a pad. The consciousness about the existence of something quickly faded away. I cut through the island from the middle and reached the higher side of the island. From there I hiked along the cliff edge trail in a clockwise direction around the western part of the island. At first, I knew the sea was just steps away from me, in between was some small thicket. Inspired by the great white rock of Cap d’Arme I saw over the tree top, I was compelled to seek out the shortcuts that seemingly led seaward off the main trail. Usually a no pass would be declared at some point by the ubiquitous tree branches and I had to crawl back the way I came. That was the good scenario. The bad one was, for nearly an hour, I was lost in the thicket because many such unofficial paths were interconnected and the entangled woods looked equally dark and cunning everywhere. But as they say, this is a small island. No matter how lost you are, by a random walk you will be out of here.
Of course later on the long journey, there were enough access points and shady lookouts that allowed me to enjoy either the open water or the sweet groves from above. Among them, the most breathtaking place was Gorges du Loup. After a sharp descending, I was greeted by a stretch of clear blue water displaying kaleidoscopic hues as the summer sun met the billowy bottom through the playful surface***. But I only planned for a tampon hike, not a tampon bath. So I wasn’t prepared to go into the water. Only days later was I able to revisit here and enjoy it to my heart’s content. After I climbed up back, I saw a fox like animal some 30 meters away. I excitingly waved and meowed at it. But now I believe the meowing wasn’t exactly its type of talk – it ran away…
The next day was in fact the second last day of the conference. That night, after their regular business at the bar, my friends decided to take a night dip at a close by beach. At first the nicely-behaving girl inside of me was like: “But tomorrow morning there is the last half day of lectures. I won’t be able to function properly if I don’t go to sleep now. Plus it’s cold, dark, dangerous. Peer pressure never works on me.” But later I was alone in the bathroom. The thought of trying a tampon swim suddenly overtook me. Thus I stunned Elektra by a casual “yes” when she asked again without really thinking she could convince me. On our way, I secretly chuckled that even if something goes awry, nobody will notice it because of the night camouflage.
People hurled themselves into the water and in a blink of the eye their laughter had become distant and dreamy. I was the only one inching forward with profound uncertainty, the nervousness increasing as the water crept up. Eventually I was swallowed entirely by the sea and breathing heavily due to both fright and temperature. I stood still and closely monitored my internal sensing system. Nothing in particular. Then I tried kicking my legs once and moving forward a little. It felt alright. In the uneasiness, I was more easily scared by the nightgowned objects such as buoys, mistaking them for human heads. But gradually, the over-sensitivity receded. I looked up and there the moon gazed down at us softly; the light from the lighthouse periodically swept through the sky. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the romance and soon forgot about the inconvenience. I learnt from Ernst Jan how to swim faster by fully utilizing the thrust created by kicking before opening the arms.
As I practiced the newly learned technique, I suddenly felt a warm flow gushing out right after a forceful kicking. I panicked, thinking the blood must have come out! I mechanically waded back to the beach and wrapped myself tight in the beach towel, enduring a clearest sensation of a malfunctioning tampon while praying to go back. It’s amazing that I managed to walk back with friends and talked to them as if nothing happened, while in truth my entire self was about to freak out. But alas, I almost burst into tears of joy in the bathroom when I found out there was absolutely nothing on my lovely cherry bathing suit! Elektra reinforced the consolation by “See? I told you so!” Thus, completing all the entrance examinations, I was able to enjoy all the outdoor activities freely in the later days. Now as I look back at it with a silly smiley face, I realized this is such an unexpected but valuable life experience I have learnt from that trip.
* In Israel, I’ve only seen hay cubes.
** Clearly, being naked naturally put me in a disadvantaged position.
*** And there was only one other person beside me. It was precisely in such an occasion that people would feel like starting a conversation.