I’ve moved to Paris with hopes of learning the language. My school is an easy ten-minute walk from my apartment, and on the first day of class I arrived early, watching as the returning students greeted one another in the school lobby. Vacations were recounted, and questions were raised concerning mutual friends with names like Kang and Vlatnya. Regardless of their nationalities, everyone spoke what sounded to me like excellent French. Some accents were better than others, but the students exhibited an ease and confidence that I found intimidating.
As an added discomfort, they were all young, attractive, and well-dressed, causing me to feel not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show. The first day of class was nerve-racking because I knew I’d be expected to perform. That’s the way they do it here – it’s everybody into the language pool, sink or swim. The teacher marched in, deeply tanned from a recent vacation, and proceeded to rattle off a series of administrative announcements. I’ve spent quite a few summers in Normandy, and I took a monthlong French class before leaving New York.
I’m not completely in the dark, yet I understood only half of what this woman was saying. “If you have not meimslsxp or lgpdmurct by this time, then you should not be in this room. Has everyone apzkiubjxow? Everyone? Good, we shall begin. ” She spread out her lesson plan and sighed, saying, “All right, then, who knows the alphabet? ” It was startling because (a) I hadn’t been asked that question in a while and (b) I realized, while laughing, that I myself did not know the alphabet. They’re the same letters, but in France they’re pronounced differently.
I know the shape of the alphabet but had no idea what it actually sounded like. “Ahh. ” The teacher went to the board and sketched the letter a. “Do we have anyone in the room whose first name commences with an ahh? ”12 Two Polish Annas raised their hands, and the teachers instructed them to present themselves by stating their names, nationalities, occupations, and a brief list of things they liked and disliked in this world. The first Anna hailed from an industrial town outside of Warsaw and had front teeth the size of tombstones. She worked as a seamstress, enjoyed quiet times with friends, and hated the mosquito.
Oh, really,” the teacher said. “How very interesting. I thought that everyone loved the mosquito, but here, in front of all the world, you claim to detest him. How is it that we’ve been blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please. ” The seamstress did not understand what was being said but knew that this was an occasion for shame. Her rabbity mouth huffed for breath, and she stared down at her lap as though the appropriate comeback were stitched somewhere alongside the zipper of her slacks. The second Anna learned from the first and claimed to love sunshine and detest lies.
It sounded like a translation of one of those Playmate of the Month data sheets, the answers always written in the same loopy handwriting: “Turn-ons: Mom’s famous fivealarm chili! Turn offs: insecurity and guys who come on too strong!!!! ” The two Polish Annas surely had clear notions of what they loved and hated, but like the rest of us, they were limited in terms of vocabulary, and this made them appear less than sophisticated. The teacher forged on, and we learned that Carlos, the Argentine bandonion player, loved wine, music, and, in his words, “making sex with the womans of the world. Next came a beautiful young Yugoslav who identified herself as an optimist, saying that she loved everything that life had to offer. The teacher licked her lips, revealing a hint of the saucebox we would later come to know. She crouched low for her attack, placed her hands on the young woman’s desk, and leaned close, saying, “Oh yeah? And do you love your little war? ” While the optimist struggled to defend herself, I scrambled to think of an answer to what had obviously become a trick question. How often is one asked what he loves in this world? More to the point, how often is one asked and then publicly ridiculed for his answer?
I recalled my mother, flushed with wine, pounding the table top one night, saying, “Love? I love a good steak cooked rare. I love my cat, and I love …” My sisters and I leaned forward, waiting to hear out names. “Tums,” our mother said. “I love Tums. ”13 The teacher killed some time accusing the Yugoslavian girl of masterminding a program of genocide, and I jotted frantic notes in the margins of my pad. While I can honestly say that I love leafing through medical textbooks devoted to severe dermatological conditions, the hobby is beyond the reach of my French vocabulary, and acting it out would only have invited controversy.
When called upon, I delivered an effortless list of things that I detest: blood sausage, intestinal pates, brain pudding. I’d learned these words the hard way. Having given it some thought, I then declared my love for IBM typewriters, the French word for bruise, and my electric floor waxer. It was a short list, but still I managed to mispronounce IBM and assign the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter. The teacher’s reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France. “Were you always this palicmkrexis? she asked. “Even a fiuscrzsa ticiwelmun knows that a typewriter is feminine. ” I absorbed as much of her abuse as I could understand, thinking – but not saying – that I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object which is incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied? The teacher proceeded to belittle everyone from German Eva, who hated laziness, to Japanese Yukari, who loved paintbrushes and soap.
Italian, Thai, Dutch, Korean, and Chinese – we all left class foolishly believing that the worst over. She’d shaken us up a little, but surely that was just an act designed to weed out the deadweight. We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it was like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal, something completely unpredictable. Her temperament was not based on a series of good and bad days but, rather, good and bad moments. We soon learned to dodge chalk and protect our heads and stomachs whenever she approached us with a question.
She hadn’t yet punched anyone, but it seemed wise to protect ourselves against the inevitable. Though we were forbidden to speak anything but French, the teacher would occasionally use us to practice any of her five fluent languages. “I hate you,” she said to me one afternoon. Her English was flawless. “I really, really hate you. ” Call me sensitive, but I couldn’t help but take it personally. 14 After being singled out as a lazy kfdtinvfm, I took to spending four hours a night on my homework, putting in even more time whenever we were assigned an essay.
I suppose I could have gotten by with less, but I was determined to create some sort of identity for myself: David, the hardworker, David the cut-up. We’d have one of those “complete this sentence” exercises, and I’d fool with the thing for hours, invariably settling on something like, “A quick run around the lake? I’d love to! Just give me a moment while I strap on my wooden leg. ” The teacher, through word and action, conveyed the message that if this was my idea of an identity, she wanted nothing to do with it. My fear and discomfort crept beyond the borders of the classroom and accompanied me out onto the wide boulevards.
Stopping for a coffee, asking directions, depositing money in my bank account: these things were out of the question, as they involved having to speak. Before beginning school, there’d been no shutting me up, but now I was convinced that everything I said was wrong. When the phone rang, I ignored it. If someone asked me a question, I pretended to be deaf. I knew my fear was getting the best of me when I started wondering why they don’t sell cuts of meat in vending machines. My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone.
Huddled in the hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overhead in refugee camps. “Sometimes me cry alone at night. ” “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay. ” Unlike the French class I had taken in New York, here there was no sense of competition. When the teacher poked a shy Korean in the eyelid with a freshly sharpened pencil, we took no comfort in the fact that, unlike Hyeyoon Cho, we all know the irregular past tense of the verb to defeat.
In all fairness, the teacher hadn’t meant to stab the girl, but neither did she spend much time apologizing, saying only, “Well, you should have been vkkdyo more kdeynfulh. ” Over time it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. Fall arrived and it rained every day, meaning we would now be scolded for the water dripping from our coats and umbrellas. It was mid-October when the teacher singled me15 out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section. ” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.
Understanding doesn’t mean that you can suddenly speak the language. Far from it. It’s a small step, nothing more, yet its rewards are intoxicating and deceptive. The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult. “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me? " The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus. ”