Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Early Evening Anecdotes

I'm actually home at a reasonable hour this evening, my husband has a dinner, I have filled a glass of wine, and before I get too drunk to write I thought I'd regale my legions of faithful readers with this:

Once upon a time I was a housewife in a French public housing project. That is absolutely true. My boyfriend/fiance at the time (we were planning to get married, but engagements weren't as sort of formal there) worked for the state train company, the SNCF, and as a perk to offset his paltry salary we were offered cheap state housing. What we got was a three bedroom apartment with paper walls in a public housing unit outside the city limits for about $200/month. Not bad. We also got free first class tickets on any train anywhere, but that's another story. Nico worked long hours and although I supplemented our income as best I could with private lessons and a part-time job teaching English in a vocational high school, I only worked about 20 hours a week. I was also doing a master's degree at the local university, but that required little class time and a lot of independent study. I would eventually depart for a research trip to Senegal which would change everything. I'm telling you about the months before Senegal, though; when I spent inordinate amounts of time alone in that crappy apartment, with two semi-feral cats, teaching myself the best ways to cook horse meat or skate. I am not exaggerating for effect. This was my life.

I had no car and the public transport in Nantes was dependable but slow. Nico had got me a dirtbike for Christmas one year- with huge tires and a funky frame it was completely ill-suited to suburban streets, but still I rode it all over that damn town giving English lessons. I would advertise in the local newspaper: "American Student offers private lessons at $15/hour." Don't forget that French is an inherently sexist (or sex-filled? both, really) language. In English you could print the above phrase and noone would know whether you were male or female. In French, though, your sex is obvious. "EtudiantE americainE donne cours particuliers d'Anglais a 100F/l'heure." As a result we received hundreds of obscene phone calls. "I want to fuck me a little American student." "You can give my cock English lessons, American bitch." Eventually I stopped answering the phone completely and let Nico sort the good apples from the bad. Usually he could tell a dangerous call right off- male, over 20, no address, no reason for wanting to learn English, just wanted lessons from "la petite americainE." And so it went.

One evening we got a call from an older woman, who explained that she wanted a refresher course in English before travel to America. She lived in a working-class area where I had several clients, and seemed eloquent and nice. Normally I would insist on meeting any future student for the first time on neutral ground, in a cafe or restaurant, before agreeing to meet them at their home. This particular woman seemed so innocuous I was willing to bend my rules. We made a date and I biked the 40min ride to her apartment complex. Like mine, it was state housing; prettier, though, with hedges and flowers and cut grass. I buzzed her apartment and she let me in.

The first thing I noticed on exiting the elevator and entering her apartment was the darkness; then the smell. Both were startling. The woman was already seated at a long table in the family/dining room. Someone else was rustling in the kitchen. The woman gestured to me and I sat down. "I've hurt my leg," she explained, "I can't stand up." I pulled my materials from my bag; a workbook, a tape recorder, some copied articles from Newsweek. "Oh no, I have my own methode." She produced a book from 1960 or thereabouts, no doubt her high school workbook, it emphasized the old French way of learning English- direct translation and grammar, no conversation. Whatever- I never insisted on following a curriculum if the client had their own ideas on things- whatever kept them happy.

For ten minutes we played a boring game of language ping-pong: I read her a phrase in French; she translated it; I corrected her. She stopped, then; "I've actually prepared something in anticipation of your visit. Would you read it and tell me if it's accurate?" Sure. She handed me a piece of paper. The words written on it were in French. I was puzzled.

"Mademoiselle: I am being held hostage by the French government. Do not react visibly to this letter as my apartment is bugged and they watch everything I do. The French government wants to keep me quiet. They broke my leg and have since kept me too drugged to leave the apartment. I am so drugged as I am writing this that I can barely keep my eyes on the paper and my hand steady. I contacted you because you are an American citizen. I want you to take a letter to the American Embassy in Paris. The letter explains how I am being held hostage in this apartment and how my human rights are being violated. I know the American government will help me, and I need you, a citizen, to deliver my plea. Please help me- you are my only hope."

I dropped the piece of paper to the table; I looked at her, completely stunned. I glanced around the apartment- it was a typical state apartment, bare, decent- no bugs or security cameras. I looked into the woman's eyes. She was crazy. I listened for the person I'd heard in the kitchen. Where was he/she? Did they know about this?

"Madame... I don't understand. You called me and hired me to give you an English lesson."
"That was a pretext. I need you to carry my plea to your embassy in Paris. Is it a money issue? I will pay your way." She took a checkbook out of a bag.
"NO- no, madame. It's not a problem of money..." I was desperately confused. "I understand that you're in trouble- but I don't think my government can help you."
"Yes, they can. The American government helps those in need. Please, you must understand."
"But, Madame, there's no way I can help. The embassy and consulate are there for official state business and to help American expatriates. They will never interfere in a French domestic situation. Please... I don't understand what you want me to do." I felt myself becoming frantic. I felt faint and I checked the hallway for a quick way out of the apartment. What the FUCK was going on?
"PLEASE. Just take the letter. Deliver the letter. I'll pay your way." I was panicked. I quickly thought through everything I knew. This was completely beyond my realm of familiarity.

The woman swayed in her seat. "Don't you SEE? They are drugging me!" The person in the kitchen came around the corner, slowly, alarmed by the noise. I looked to her and tried to gesture- HELP! She disappeared again.
"Madame, madame, I'm sorry. I can tell you are in distress and I want to help. But don't you see that I can't? I wouldn't even know whom to give the letter to! I can't accept your money when I know I can't do what you want!"
"Please help me, mademoiselle."
"Madame, this is absolutely crazy! I don't understand what you are asking me to do! The French government isn't keeping you hostage! This apartment isn't bugged! Please stop!!" I yelled. She grew quiet.
"You won't help me, then." I felt terrible. This woman was obviously insane- her leg was in some sort of splint and whatever drugs she'd been given must have addled her brain. There was no other explanation. I thought of yelling for the (caretaker?) in the kitchen. I didn't dare, though; the woman's twitchy nature in the dark apartment made me sure that she'd jump at me if I yelled for assistance.

She was Miss Havisham in a French working class apartment. She was evidently desperately unhappy- she had determined that her injuries and her confusion were a government plot, and that America was her only salvation. She had seen my ad for English lessons and grasped at it as her only hope. I felt awful for her, and very frightened.
"I am sorry, Madame." She didn't respond. Her head fell to her chest. I waited.

She snapped up. Her attitude had shifted- she was smiling. "Ok, mademoiselle. Shall we continue with the lesson?"
Are you fucking kidding me? But she opened her workbook and gestured to me. Slowly, haltingly, I read a sentence in French. She translated it. I corrected her.
15 minutes went by. She looked up from her workbook. "Thank you. May I call you to schedule another lesson?"
I got out of there as quickly as I could. I raced home on my awkward dirt bike, conscious only of the fact that I had just lived the strangest hour of my life.

A few months later I would leave for Senegal and not come back, not really. In the meantime I would give countless lessons to Nantais convinced that my American-ness meant that I'd make a good English teacher. The woman never called again for another lesson; obviously I'd never have come near her again. Five years later I'm still completely amazed that that happened to me, and I wonder what became of that poor woman. Was she eventually committed? Did she ever sober up from the drugs that were making her paranoid? Did anyone ever manage to convince her that America was not her salvation?


At 10:35 PM, Blogger wunelle said...

Like Kafka. Do you wonder later if you hallucinated or something? It all sounds so surreal.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Noisette said...

Nope. I've wondered that too- but it TOTALLY happened.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Narf said...

Gosh, I had forgotten that story. I do remember the obscene phone calls though. It was my first introduction to the expression "je veux m'enfiler une americaine" or "I want to thread an American." Excellent dramatic recounting!

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Noisette said...

I know- the French are so poetic in their sexually derogatory phrases.

At 5:48 AM, Blogger St. Dickeybird said...

Wow, that's a fantastic story!
Thank you.

At 3:05 AM, Blogger Unsane said...

Oh but America is the salvation of us all -- isn't it? ....Isn't it....?


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