The Apricot Picker

MONTPELLIER, France—I'd been to the park a handful of times before noticing the apricot tree. The apricots were mostly near the top, so we had to climb and jump to shake them down. We gathered as many as we wanted and left the rest scattered around on the ground.

A little later, an old Arab woman approached the tree from the other direction. She wore a full length dress with a purple blue and black floral pattern and a black headscarf. She circled the tree, picking the fruits that she could reach. When she got to where we sat she stared down at us and the wasted fruit. I could see tattoos on the forehead and chin of her wrinkled face. She muttered something unintelligibly and gestured with dismay to the apricots on the ground. We stared back in confusion. Then she walked away and sat on a bench, looking out at the park. An Iraqi girl from the language school I've been studying at explained that, in Iraq at least, those face tattoos are an indication that a woman is from the very lowest rung of society.

I watched the old woman as she soon got up and relocated to another bench. Later she moved to another bench, and then another, alone and staring blankly in front of her. I wondered what the tattoos meant for her now in France, and why she was spending her Wednesday afternoon migrating from bench to bench at this little park.

Eventually an old man, nicely dressed with a full head of white hair, came up and sat beside her. They shook hands and she offered him an apricot. Eventually other elderly women came and joined them, some in the manner of dress common to Middle Eastern women here, others clad in a more European style. They all sat and gazed out at the park together, but I couldn't see if she gave out any more apricots.