Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Fish of April

When we arrived in the classroom where we had our French lessons I always felt the presence of the children who were there before us. Apparently part of their school day was for music. There was a small drum set pushed into a corner and in the back of the room some music books. Some time between their departure and our arrival I suspect the teacher tried to erase all traces of the children - no papers, no doodles. The board was wiped clean. Even so, there would be little clues what their day was like.

On the evening of April 1 I noticed a small pile of paper fish cutouts the kids had made. They were on a table in the corner. Some were marked "Poisson d'Avril." I discovered that in France it is a tradition to pin or tape a small paper fish, like a "Kick Me" sign, on the back of someone else as an April Fool's joke. In general if you've pranked someone and they fall for it on April 1 you can yell "Poisson d'Avril!" literally Fish of April. As they say here:
bizarre. What is this all about, I wondered.

My research turned up a lot of confusing explanations as to how this all came to be. The most common one was something I found on a
French website which lays the whole thing at the feet of King Charles IX. The story goes that the calendar year used to begin on April 1 but in 1564 Charles switched it to January 1. In those days it was a tradition to exchange gifts at the beginning of the year. When the calendar changed, some jokers thought it would be funny to also exchange gifts in April as well. Wacky gifts.

Why a fish? It depends on whom you ask. One site said that April comes at the end of Lent when traditionally no one ate meat, only fish. Because of that, people used to give fishes to each other. (Hey, don't judge. They didn't have cable in those days.) Another source claimed it was because the moon in early April was in the zodiac position of Pisces. Yet another explained that the icthyological gesture was inspired by the fact that in early April it is forbidden to fish because they are breeding and are too vulnerable and dumb (when were fish smart?) and easy to catch.

Yet another - and in my opinion, the most lame ass - explanation offered by a British author who said the fish was because the baffled face of the victim of a joke has the bug-eyed look of a hooked carp.

But it all seems to circle back to Charles IX. Many citations say it sprung from his decision to adopt the Gregorian Calendar, which puts the beginning of the year at January. Except there is a little problem with that. The Gregorian Calendar was formally launched in 1582, not 1565 and by then Charles IX was dead. (He died in 1574, eight years before the Vatican rollout.) The only thing that might save this explanation, say Charles theorists, is that the idea of a January-first calendar had been around since the Council of Trent in 1545.Maybe the king decided to adopt it early, to show up the rest of Europe. It would not have been the first time the French launched a global trend.

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.