I stared at T’s hands in fascination. It’s true that they were beautiful – strong and capable-looking with a sprinkling of dark hair on the back and long, elegant fingers, but it was not his hands themselves that mesmerised me. It was what he was doing with them.
We were sitting in one of the university refectories during our first month together and I was watching T. peel an apple. I am not a peeler — I just crunch my way through apples, pears — you name it. I also make a great deal of noise while doing it.
But there was T, carefully peeling away every last sliver of skin, then — oh my goodness — cutting the apple into perfect crescent-shaped segments, divesting them of any remaining core, and finally scoring them across the back with his knife before popping them one by one into his mouth and chewing silently.
MY mouth must have dropped open. I can perhaps be excused because I was in the first flush of love and viewed everything T. did through rose-tinted glasses. Having only been to a single-sex school, men seemed like a completely different species to me. Especially one as different as T.
I was constantly amazed by the natural grace with which he did everything; the easy physicality that probably stemmed from his judo training. As far from the awkward, tongue-tied youths in my year as you could get. And in direct contrast to me. With my legendary clumsiness, I was perfectly capable of tripping over a line chalked on the pavement.
He even slept tidily — never snoring, never dribbling — again unlike me. He would lie there perfectly still, his eyes and mouth closed, not making a sound and looking a bit like those marble effigies on medieval tombs. I, on the other hand, would thrash around in bed, changing position a hundred times a night and often waking in the morning with my mouth hanging open, my hair in tangles and my face stuck to the pillow.
But I couldn’t deny the fact that some of his other habits were rather strange. All right, the careful apple-peeling might be considered as personal fastidiousness, but what about him rubbing his eye and then dropping a kiss on his finger afterwards? I asked him why he did that and he gave me a puzzled look. Not only did he not realise he was doing it, but he had no idea why. Perhaps because an eye is such a precious thing and that anything that comes in contact with it must be acknowledged in some way? He still does it and I still don’t know the reason behind it.
Another habit that I didn’t understand was the way he would always tread down the backs of espadrilles or slippers as soon as he bought them. He would then proceed to shuffle about in them instead of walking properly. I hasten to add that he didn’t do it with any shoes that he intended to wear outside. Only later did I realise that slip-on backless shoes (babouches) had been traditional footwear in Algeria and he had probably worn them as a child. But it still annoyed me. Most Algerians do this to their shoes, almost without thinking.
Other habits were less endearing. I was woken one morning by a loud snorting noise coming from the bathroom. We had only been together a couple of months at this stage, and this was the first night I had spent in his flat. In spite of the stringent university rules in place and my mother’s probing questions, we had managed to fit in a clandestine weekend between my returning to Sheffield after the Christmas vacation and the beginning of the spring term.
I lay there in bed, thinking fuzzily that perhaps a baby warthog on the loose had shattered the peace of a Sheffield Sunday morning. Then I heard the splashing. Going into the bathroom afterwards, I found the floor awash. Not only that, but there was water dripping from the walls and bathroom mirror and a few spots of SOMETHING clinging to the sides of the washbasin.
It was only later I found out that part of his morning toilette included clearing out his nose. Not much wrong with that, you might say. He would start by filling up the washbasin with water and throwing it all over his face and head. Then he would cup some water in his hand, snort it up, and blow his nose vigorously — into the washbasin. I found out later that this was the preferred method of most Algerians, not just a personal idiosyncrasy of T’s. I think it probably has its origins in the ritual washing before prayers. T. didn’t pray, but had obviously been taught this method by his mother.
For my pains, I had been subjected to a LOOK when he found out that I had used a dirty towel to mop up the puddles. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned to his flatmate and muttered something about the differences in culture. So it was all right to leave snot in the washbasin, but not all right to use a stained towel to wipe the floor?
Once in Algeria, I soon discovered that everyone washed themselves using this method. When we had guests, I would clutch my hair in despair on entering the bathroom. I could just about manage to rinse out the washbasin after my husband, but drew the line at scraping off the crusty contents of anybody else’s nose. When I protested, T. would look at me askance and tell me that that was the only effective way to wash yourself — nose and ears and all. I was the one with slovenly habits, only using tissues and cotton buds.
Of course, this inevitably leads on to a more delicate subject – hygiene of the nether regions. Toilet paper is rarely found in Algeria. Most people use water instead, hence the omnipresent bucket of water in most Algerian toilets, sometimes accompanied by a small bowl to use as a ladle.
This posed a problem for me. Especially when the toilet in question was what is known in Algeria as a toilette turque— a squat toilet — one of those miniature torture chambers where there is no pedestal, just a hole in the middle of what looks like a shower tray, on either side of which are two small raised platforms on which to place your feet. My innate clumsiness often had indescribable consequences. I leave the rest to your imagination.
These habits resulted in even more water being slopped all over the floor in the bathroom and the toilet. I became used to wading my way through the puddles and mopping the floor at least three or four times a day.
It was even worse when my mother-in-law came to stay as, of course, she had to go through the ritual ablutions before each prayer. This sometimes resulted in her carefully lifting each leg in turn and depositing her foot in the washbasin to be washed. The bidet we acquired later when we moved to the Villa Robineau was quickly put to another use.
The fact that I continued to use toilet paper instead of water earned me the disapproval of my husband. I would cast a sideways glance at his curled lip whenever I bought the offending article at the grocer’s. He never said anything, but his involuntary look of distaste spoke volumes. He would stare at me until my ears turned pink under the scrutiny, but I would still buy the toilet paper.
Fortunately, though, we managed to achieve a happy medium, as in most things. I use water as well as toilet paper, and he is careful to rinse out the washbasin after use. We compromise, as most couples do. I still can’t bring myself to clean out my nose using water, though.