There’s a mother in my daughter’s school and her name is Fragola, oh yes, it is. Her name means ‘strawberry’, in Italian.
Of course, Fragola is not even of Italian origin: she’s a half-Oriental-half-Welsh-total-Londoner. Real Italians used to give decent names, like Maria-Grazia or Antonella, to the daughters of Fragola’s generation.
But this Fragola wants to lure me into becoming her exotic new-best-friend. Why me; why bother at all?
Now I think that Fragola’s perseverance in befriending a foreigner comes as a side-product of Holy Recession – double-dip, soft in the middle – due to which certain circles of women here have found it more appealing to present themselves as freelancers with quirky friends and hobbies, than as – now so-last-decade – barracudas with WASP connections and own offices in the City.
So now is the time for us, the shadowy immigrants, the exotic mothers, to shine, to be befriended and shown around.
It wasn’t the case seven years ago, when I had just arrived in London.
Back then, people of this town seemed either already rich or well on the way of becoming it. School-mothers were special species: self-regarding creatures that ‘worked full-time on certain days’ and managed the bulk of investment strategies by typing fast on their phones; typing fast and chatting quietly among themselves, the tough Anglo-Saxon women, with mouths almost shut, while I shouted and roared at my children not to run towards street curbs or a vehicle with a driver with clogged arteries would jump on the pavement and kill them.
There’s no middle ground, you see, in the country where I grew up; you are either alive or dead from any small disturbance in the atmosphere. There’s routine and there’s change, A.K.A. – tragedy.
On account of my roars, but also because of my children’s names, the school-mothers decided I was Italian. They approached me in elegant, silent steps. ‘Are you Italian?’ they asked.
‘No, I come from Montenegro,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ they said, covering their mouth in astonishment. ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘Why are you sorry?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ their lips quivered, ‘that was clumsy, wasn’t it? But, thank you.’
‘Why are you thanking me?’
They never answered the second question.
Sometimes, day after this small talk, they would greet me with sweetness, and they’d ask some questions, rather complicated questions for 8:30 a.m.
‘Yours is a very small country, right? So what is the percentage of immigrants there? Any endemic hunting spots? Challenging kinds of birds? Sustainable golf courses?’
Or was it sustainable birds and challenging golf courses? Hip words buzzed around my head, and I was hypnotised into believing these women loved me.
So I would arrive for the pick-up, armed with additional info, wearing a wide smile on my face. My plan was to talk even more, and more deeply, with my new friends.
But there would be the cellophane wall, there would, I swear, right at the school gates, and through that wall I could see the Anglo-Saxon mothers typing fast on their Blackberries, raising their busy eyes towards me from time to time, towards my smile. I’d wave and they would look through me, they would not notice the loud person of non-Italian origin.
‘What’s wrong with these English women?’ I asked Lada, the Estonian (Old Estonian, she says) maintenance manager (kleener, she says) in the building where I live. Lada takes frequent smoking-breaks in front of the building, so she’s the person I see most during a day.
‘What is their game? In the morning they love me, they’re all over me, and in the afternoon they don’t know me. What is it?’
‘Dej drink,’ Lada answered, jerking back her head, thrusting her thumb into her mouth. ‘No worries,’ she added. ‘English people also locally krasy.’
It was comforting for her, this thought that it was not only her people back home that were ‘locally’ crazy; that anyone native, even of London, UK, obviously had mental issues; that we, who were foreign here, actually seemed the sanest, because we had to be, we had to prove something, and so she offered the comforting thought to me, to put it in my head and live my immigrant years with it.
Yes, and now, seven years later – crazy local people don’t seem that rich anymore. But we, the exotic mothers, we are still around. Hmm. Strong is the material we’re made of, as Lada would say. Other women smile at us now.
Sometimes, I catch myself being too busy to smile back. At least I correct it, as soon as possible, and, again, with too much loud laughter and talk. Doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t have to be Italian anymore.
But, back to Fragola. She is very popular among school mothers. She used to write for Vogue. Now she recycles everything and makes it into collage-furniture: tables, shelves and chairs with a twist. Fragola is modest about it. ‘Just my hobby,’ she says and spreads her soft, un-lipsticked mouth into a wholesome smile, full of large, white teeth, beautifully too big for her small, pretty head. Her boyish hips are loosely dressed in a short, denim skirt, and her toned legs are stuffed into a pair of tiny cowboy boots. Among other things, she’s also a Yogi. Next to her, I look like an ex-basketball player from USSR. But she wants to befriend me.
She invites me to yoga class she volunteers to teach once a month, once a fortnight, whenever she feels like it, really. Another hobby, she says. I say yes, I’ll go with her. I say YES. Why?
So far, only once in my lifetime have I done yoga, unsuccessfully, in the Balkans, a one-on-one with an ex-warrior from my region, who saw combat material in me and made me do push-ups and sit-ups for one hour, while charging a yoga session.
Fragola is driving me to her yoga class in her very small electric car. She doesn’t turn the heating on, in order to save car-battery. I’m too huge just sitting next to Fragola, but that hugeness doesn’t warm me up, so I don’t take my puffed-up jacket off, and am an unadjusted, caged mutant that breathes noisily and makes fog on the windshield. Some pedestrians overtake us.
‘So you had some yoga lessons before, you said?’
‘Only once,’ I don’t mention the Balkans, sit-ups, PTSD-ing -ex-warriors.
‘Doesn’t matter. Follow your own rhythm today. My group is advanced level.’
She teaches her class in one of the rooms of a Methodist Church. She does it for the local crazies, it seems to me. I mean: they are all desperately throwing themselves at Fragola like she’s their saviour; their outfits are washed-out, their hairs unwashed, leg-hairs unshaven (there’s a completely hairless man, though), toenails uncut and as hard and ochre-coloured as the skin of their soles. There’s a proper granny in size zero cycling shorts, with a glittery piercing in her bellybutton. I am the only one wearing socks and trainers. Fragola tells me to take them off, to do the class barefoot. I leave the socks on. It’s cold in there.
Everyone has their yoga mats rolled out. They lie down on them, close their eyes and, like, fall asleep. I’m freezing, my intestines are freezing, why is there air-condition in a church, why? The granny is not cold; her legs are spread apart and she’s visibly breathing deeply from her stomach; I see her piercing lift and fall.
‘Ha, I can do this advanced level,’ I’m thinking, ‘this is such a farce.’
At that moment, Fragola starts giving instructions:
‘Put your palms together in a small prayer, put the prayer on your heart, lift it to your third eye, give the third eye to the Sun, kiss it, bring the kiss back to your heart, plant it into the ground, plant the heels into the ground, plant the palms deep into our mother-earth, stretch your chi, give it to the sky, breath in your aura, greet the sky with your left elbow while your blades connect to your third eye, the more advanced ones should curl their solar centres, the less advanced ones – curl into a foetus, don’t let the hurting in, spread into the cobra, five breathe-in-and-outs, quick salutations and – other side now…’
And on to the other side, even faster, the rhythm ever-accelerating, until everything becomes one word, one body, one love.
The granny keeps her eyes closed, she swirls her solar belly, she’s truly advanced, that cycling Nympho-witch; the hairless man is grinning spiritually, mighty toenails are swish-swooshing through the cool air.
I am sweating like a Balkan horse. I can’t find my own rhythm to follow, although I am trying, I am trying hard, until I feel a long-forgotten muscle under some rib jump then tighten, and a previously un-noticed nerve next to right hucklebone tremble. In fear, I lie on my back and through the church’s glass roof I see blue skies and sparrow-like clouds. Finally, it’s a bright, lovely day outside, but I’m spending it on this dirty floor. And my daughter is spending it at home with a baby-sitter we don’t know, who charges 10 pounds per hour. The cramped muscle pushes a rib to poke me straight into heart.
‘Fragola’, I whisper, ‘I have to get out of here.’
‘Wait,’ Fragola says. ‘Don’t get up before I stretch you. You must never stop abruptly.’
She stretches me right there, in the Methodist Church. I’m a lying crucifix. Hallelujah.
‘You’re a good person,’ she says. ‘Your heart is in the right place.’ I hope she means it metaphorically. I hope she doesn’t think I was anatomically different as well. ‘Have a cup of tea in the cafe next door. I’ll see you after class.’
In the cafe, my under-rib cramp is untangling, causing my heart to grow. Relax, woman.
I like crisis; all kinds of crisis: identity, emotional, physical; I even like economic crisis. They teach you things. Spoken like a true Yogi already.
And these female friendships: who cares about the motive? Who cares if tomorrow Fragola looks through me? We are all krasy, yeah, life makes us crazy and it also un-crazes us. And we, the shadowy immigrants, the exotic mothers, we have been given another chance to reset, grow and learn – learn as in retrain or just move on from the mistakes past; good for us!
My third eye has definitely been activated.
I see my exotic new-best-friend waving at me from behind the cafe’s windows.