Thursday, April 16, 2009

Meet Mr. Alphabet

“Ooooh,” Mlle. Butterfly groaned and dropped her head onto the desk. “I'm exhausted.”

In the months we had been desk buddies this was the most demonstrative she had ever been. Usually class began with a nod, a perfunctory “Ça va?” and we’d open our notebooks in silence. She did not encourage questions. I did not ask any. Our relationship was like that of two polite strangers sitting next to each other in coach on a long, long flight, each doing their best not to invade the other’s armrest space and minimize personal interaction. For her to even share the small fact she was fatiguée was unprecedented.

“Why?” I asked.

“I spent all day Sunday at

“My god,” I gasped. “WHY?” I completely forgot that place existed.

“Visitors. With children,” she muttered into her folded arms.

It turned out that even exhausted, she loved every minute. She was a fan and often went to the Disney World in her hometown, Tokyo.

“Have you been?” she asked.

“To the one in the United States,” I said. “I saw Tokyo Disney on the way to the airport.”

“You’ve been to Japan?” She looked up.

“For a few weeks. On business. I know five Japanese words:
Hai [yes], Arigato [thank you], Domo Arigato [thank you very much], Ohayo [Good morning] and Konichiwa [Good afternoon]. No, seven: sushi and saki. No nine: Toyota and Honda.

No smile. “Did you go to Kyoto?”

I could not figure out a way to say in French, “I did want to go, but It was a working trip and I was scheduled from nine in the morning to late at night every day so I didn’t have any free time except for one Sunday, and by then I was so fatigué all I wanted to do was sleep in, even though Kyoto was only a three hour train ride away so I did, but I feel guilty about missing it.”

So I said, “No.”

“You should have gone.” She frowned.

“Yeah, well I should have done a lot of things.”

“Coucou! Coucou!” Mlle. G. our teacher was calling out, trying to get everyone to quiet down. Our band of French grammar explorers was shrinking by the week.

The very sad Japanese woman I noticed the first class abruptly disappeared after just a couple of sessions. A few weeks later it was the young woman from Cuba. I missed her droll sense of humor. (When I told her I knew some people who had gone kayaking in Cuba and asked if she ever tried it, she shook her head. “My family is descended from slaves. We don’t get into boats.”)

Then the Hungarian costume designer who had an amazing wardrobe of silk scarves disappeared. Perhaps he ran out of class scarves. And then there was Maria, the animated Italian with the beautiful smile and delightfully accented French. She followed her husband back to Rome.

But Mlle. Butterfly remained, doggedly coming to every class. She had been a bit of a mystery, not so much aloof as wistful. Gradually I learned that she had come to Paris ten years ago, stayed to marry a Frenchman, stayed on after the divorce. She was in her 40s. She used to work for an insurance company. But now she worked in a shop on the Champ d'Elysees as a
vendeuse, a saleswoman, handling expensive handbags. She told me the name of the boutique and was horrified I did not recognize the brand.

“I'm not a handbag shopper,” I apologized.

“But the bags are famous,” she said.

“No doubt,” I said in broken French, “but the World of the Handbag is not the World of Doug.”

In spite of my ignorance of bags, we had become a team. She was able to explain things to me in baby French. In return, I had a talent I had underestimated. I knew the alphabet.

Early on, I noticed that she took notes in Japanese script. She had an electronic French-Japanese dictionary which showed on its screen French words in Japanese script. One week after I missed a class and asked to copy down the homework assignment. She showed me her notebook, pages of Japanese writing. That was when I realized why those impromptu essays we had to write were so difficult for her. She hadn’t mastered the Western alphabet. She struggled to craft one sentence, while I would crank out paragraphs of bad French on the most absurd topics.

One typical assignment: What does a baby dream? I was thinking of an old
Jack Handey Deep Thought: “A boy wants to grow up to be a fireman, but a man wants to grow up to be a giant, monster fireman.”

So I wrote: “I will be a fireman or perhaps a soldier, but not the president because I hate politics. I will live in the country and would like to have two or three chickens, and some cows. I will stay in a little house in the Perigord.” This, from a grown man. (Don’t laugh. I got a “Tres bien.”)

Whenever someone from the two-student teams had to go the blackboard for an exercise, Mlle. Butterfly commanded, “You go. That’s not my métier.” So I would stand there meekly as she called out grammatical corrections for me to make or sometimes send me back to the board to fix an error. It's fair to say that if I made a list of 10,000 possible scenarios of my life in Paris, standing at a blackboard being ordered around at by an ex-pat Japanese
vendeuse would not be on the list.

That night as we were leaving class, I overheard someone say to Mlle. Butterfly, "Are you not feeling well?"

"I'm just tired. I was at Euro Disney all day yesterday."

"My god," I heard. "WHY?"

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