Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why is there blood all over my homework?

Two nights a week we would trudge over to rue l‘Arbre Sec, which I came to think of Hangman’s Alley, for class. Every session would begin the same way. Mlle. G., our dynamic teacher, would start on the dot of 6:30 and immediately plunge into the grammatical thickets of the Futur Simple, the Futur Proche and the Passé Composé.

That’s what I think was going on. For the first 20 minutes or so, until my French ears kicked in, what I heard was:
“Murmur Murmur Murmur Murmur. Voila. Murmur Murmur Murmur Murmur. Voila. Murmur Murmur Murmur Murmur Murmur Murmur. Ce n’est pas grave (which sounded like one word – Cepasgrave ) . . .” I could deduce what she was talking about mostly by what she wrote on the blackboard.

Around the 40-minute mark a hazy comprehension began to seep through. I was thinking about what a friend who had lived in Paris for years once told me, “If you didn’t grow up speaking French, it’s like listening through cheesecloth.”

I had cheesecloth issues. The biggest was the Pariah Effect. Each desk accommodated two students. Every class I sat in the same spot – second row, front, left of center. Every class one of my fellow Francophiles would sit next to me - once. In one it was the girl from Cuba. In the following class it was the costume designer from Hungary. After that it was the young Australian woman working in TV, followed by the self-possessed Spanish architectural student who was replaced the following week by the intense tri-lingual young Chinese businesswoman, to be eclipsed by the male nurse from Sri Lanka.

It didn’t take long for me to see the pattern. After one session of sitting with me and trying to comprehend my frightening French, they picked a seat as far away as possible in the next class. After a few weeks the back of the room was packed, and the front, especially near where I was, looked like a tiny neutron bomb had gone off.

Somewhere around the eighth session I got a permanent deskmate. She was a Japanese woman in her 40s. I thought of her as Mlle. Butterfly because she was not married and always seemed lost in a sad memory. I realize now what I thought of as tristesse was merely bafflement at my odd pronunciation. Why she stayed, I don’t know. Weariness is my guess. She came to the evening class after work and I supposed that after a long day on the job she was simply too tired to walk to the back of the room and join the others, even after she realized her mistake.

I thought of her and the very depressed seeming Japanese woman of the first class after I read about something called the
Paris Syndrome. This afflicts Japanese tourists and ex-pats, especially women. According to a Japanese psychiatrist who lives in Paris, the syndrome is a paralyzing state of ennui that overwhelms his fellow countrymen and women who come to Paris expecting a cinematically romantic experience and instead are traumatized by the brusqueness and emotional outbursts of Parisians. It can get so bad that some have had to be flown back to Japan accompanied by a nurse . He estimated some 12 Japanese a year succumb. How it justifies a full-blown syndrome is beyond me, but Japan is not a large country so maybe 12 people is a big deal.

At any rate there were days when I wondered if Mlle. Butterfly was a victim, or at least a carrier. But after a while I decided she was more likely afflicted with something more mundane: Job Fatigue.

One of our assignments was to interview our deskmates and write up a short report on what they told us about themselves. We were not allowed to use our dictionaries, which I thought was not fair given my French vocabulary is about 12 words, but I gave it a shot.

The following week I got the paper back. Mlle. Butterfly glanced over and her eyes literally bugged out with horror. The paper was covered in blood-red inky corrections [see above]. Even so, I got a feeble "Bien!" for my effort. I was impressed by the thoroughness and professional brutality of the teacher’s work, and depressed that I didn’t even know enough French, say, to write a ransom note to a moron. [“I have dog. You give money or dog die.”] Mlle. Butterfly offered some sympathy, I think. Or maybe she suggested I join a Special Ed class. I couldn't really understand. The cheesecloth effect.

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