Monday, 25 February 2008

Spare Me The Change

No one in my family likes change. As in spending, not alteration.

While they do okay with pound coins, fifty-pence pieces, and, in a pinch, twenty-pence pieces, anything below that -- namely ten-, five-, two- and one-pence coins -- does not interest them. They receive change when they buy things, of course. They bring it home, pluck out the pounds and fifty-pence pieces, and leave the small stuff lying there.

In time, it builds up.

Now, please bear in mind that I hate waste. I can't stand throwing out pieces of string, elastic bands, decent cardboard boxes, or used aluminum foil, so how in the world am I going to cope with growing mounds of change?

Everywhere I look, there is change. On top of the chest-of-drawers in our room is a huge, glistening pile of coppers; on top of the washing machine, next to the kitchen sink, on the shelves of book cases, the bathroom hamper -- change, change, change.

I find myself frustrated by this wanton accumulation. On my own, I don't collect change. I keep bits of it on me, and whenever I make a purchase, I am one of those insufferable people in the check-out line who watches the cash register display anxiously then fumbles madly through her purse while muttering: "£3.48? Hang on -- I've got three pounds here and..I'll just find...yes, I've got fifty, let's see, here's twenty pence and another ten, plus eight! -- here's the exact change!"

My husband and children cringe while this happens. "For God's sake," they fume, "just give her the damn five pound note!" In vain, I explain to them the principle behind my exact change ritual. If you get rid of your change on a regular basis, you don't end up with so much of it that your purse finally develops cracks.

But as I've said, they have no use for change, and they cannot do this.

I have jam jars, piggy banks, old vitamin bottles, pockets, and a wallet stuffed with change. When the kids decided that they wanted to eat in the cafeteria, I told myself that at least this way we could use up some of our surplus change. Silly me. The first time I tried to hand them two pounds in twenty-, ten-, five-, two- and one-pence pieces, they threw a fit. "Muuuum! We can't use that!" The money should preferably be in pound pieces; though they will grudgingly accept fifty-pence pieces, this is not ideal, and twenty-pence pieces are actively scorned.

Whenever I take the bus, I try to use up as many coppers as possible, but the bus driver frowns when he sees me take out my purse; he doesn't like small change either. All the check-out clerks narrow their eyes when they see me coming now, and the lady at the post office recently made a big point about giving me little plastic envelopes marked with small denominations. "For your change," she said frostily. "Mind you don't mix up the one- and two-pence pieces."

In March, I'm hosting a coffee morning for charity. We had a meeting recently, and one of the friends who is helping me organize this mentioned stalls. "One of us will have to remember to bring change," she reminded the rest of us.

I got excited. "Change? I've got a lot of change," I said hopefully. "And I'll definitely remember to bring --"

"Fine," she interrupted crisply, "just make sure it isn't coppers."

Spare change, anyone?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Kid Karma

I was given to tantrums, as a child. To this day I can remember them: the awful feeling of not having what I wanted -- the outrage and indignity of an adult standing implacably between me and certain happiness. My parents dealt with it as best they could. That is to say, my father got out while the getting was good, leaving my mother to cope with my rage.

She sang hymns. While I fit and fumed on the floor, screaming my willful head off, she would go about her chores, quietly washing dishes, preparing our dinner, and singing Abide With Me. Naturally, this enraged me all the more, but I have no recollection of her losing control. Not even when, at the embarrassingly mature age of seven, I threw a fit in the toy section of T G & Y.

When I became a mother, for a while there I thought that I had somehow managed to elude karma. Our eldest daughter was a colicky baby, but a remarkably biddable toddler. In her nursery school, she was a sweet, almost angelic paragon of a child, a heartbreakingly pretty, golden-curled charmer with a ready smile and engaging ways. "Let's share this together!" I remember her saying to the children of friends, right before they bashed her over the head with whatever toy was the subject of dispute.

We watched other parents with their toddlers and wondered what in the world they were doing wrong.

Other people's children threw fits on the train and in supermarkets. They struggled and screamed and cried and raised hell. Ours almost never threw tantrums. In fact, I can recall only one occasion when she did: we were buying her shoes and she insisted on wearing them before we had paid for them. At the time, I thought her tantrum was unsettling. But then our youngest came along.

Our youngest was a placid baby, seldom crying unless hungry or in pain. I have a picture of her as a newborn in the baby line-up at the hospital. She stands out not only because she is the only Caucasian infant there, but because every other child is screaming its head off while she alone seems lost in thought, her face as serene and contemplative as a Buddha's. But children constantly evolve: well before she entered the Terrible Twos, she had established herself as someone with a mind of her own.

It is funny now. I can write about how our youngest, at the age of nine months, would flop onto her back when crossed, face and fists clenched in rage, and work her way, worm-like, across a room, tears flying, screams enough to wake the dead. How she bit the wall of her pediatrician's office once, gouging out plaster and drawing blood from her own lip. How, out of over one hundred children, she was the only one in her nursery school to refuse to cooperate during a fire drill. Not a week went by without a major temper tantrum of some sort, and quite often there were several. It was an endless struggle to get her to put on her shoes, keep on a hat, allow me to apply sunscreen or give her medicine. Once, when she was very ill, we even had to force-feed her -- a horrible experience that even to this day it is hard to joke about.

We watched other parents with their toddlers and wondered what in the world we were doing wrong.

"Don't be afraid to punish her!" well-meaning friends would advise, not realizing that they were preaching to the converted. We drew the line at beating her, but emergency swats, time-outs, and acted-on threats and sanctions did not stop her from throwing spectacular tantrums. On one occasion, she actually slipped out of my hands in a doctor's office: she had worked up such a sweat that I could no longer hold onto her. Her reason for the rage? I had refused to let her pull ornaments off the Christmas tree. We began to collect books on managing difficult children; many we bought ourselves, many we received from those who had witnessed our youngest in action. All of it helped to some degree, but the tantrums still continued unabated.

One morning after a particularly exhausting -- and public -- conflict of wills, a kind neighbor took me aside. "I've been there," she confided. "My eldest daughter was just like yours, and now she's the gentlest, most reasonable fifteen-year-old you've ever met." This neighbor went on to tell me her theory: "All kids have to rebel. Either they do it when they're toddlers or they do it when they're teens." She sighed and smiled grimly. "Our youngest daughter was the most well-behaved two-year-old in the neighborhood, but you ought to see her now."

I clung to these words of wisdom like a shipwrecked sailor might cling to a piece of driftwood. Our youngest continued to throw tantrums and through them I tried to hum Abide With Me and concentrate on my neighbor's reassurances. And to make a long story short, our youngest child is now a sweet-natured, gentle, thoughtful teenager. Only rarely do we see a flash of that wild, scary temper that worried us so when she was younger, and when that does happen, there is always a good reason for it -- and she always apologizes.

Our neighbor was right, so I am now offering her words of wisdom to any parents of toddlers who are troubled by temper tantrums.

So if your children throw tantrums, take heart: I myself haven't had a proper tantrum for decades, and our youngest has now become a reasonable human being and is a joy to be around. Our eldest, on the other hand...

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Record Of Embarrassment

A while back I read Daniel Tammet's interesting memoir Born on a Blue Day, about his experiences as an Aspergian. Having grown up with someone like Tammet, I was especially interested in what he had to say about Asperger's and I was not disappointed by this book. Much of what he wrote hit home with me, and I found myself thinking that if enough people read books like this and John Elder Robison's Look Me in The Eye, perhaps people will stop marginalizing Aspergians and recognize them for the interesting, often uniquely talented people they are.

But what I want to write about today is something that came to me as I read an astonishing admission on Tammet's part: His favorite band is the Carpenters.

Now I'm not teasing Daniel Tammet. Like I said, I loved his book; I was fascinated by his insights, his account of his extraordinary childhood and remarkable achievements. I felt like weeping with envy reading about his mathematical genius, the ease with which he acquires language. But more than anything, I marveled at his honesty. And let's face it, anyone who publically states that his favorite band is the Carpenters must be honest. And brave.

One of the reasons I'm bringing this up is that I have a theory. No matter how musically sophisticated you think you are, I'm betting that you've got a musical secret that embarrasses you to death. I certainly do, but I'm not telling you mine until you tell me yours.

This is a test of courage, you understand. It is also a test of your honesty. I tried this out on my husband two decades ago, just after we'd met. I suspected him of musical snobbery just after I told him that my favorite reggae album happened to be The Harder They Come. He smiled a little disparagingly and told me that he'd been to reggae music shops in London where you'd be laughed to scorn if you were daft enough to mention Jimmy Cliff; that he went for far more obscure reggae musicians. I found this snobbery worrying and I knew that it was not the sort of thing I wanted to build a relationship on. So I tested my theory on him. Watching him closely, I asked him point blank what his favorite Carpenters' song was -- just like that! Bless him, he blushed and I know that he considered lying that he didn't have one, but he passed the test with flying colors. Looking around furtively, he whispered. "The one about the birds on the telephone line." In fact, he won double with this admission: that happens to be my favorite Carpenters' song too.

I'm not a big Carpenters' fan. I gave birth to my second baby in Tokyo, and the hospital we were in had a communal feeding room. All of us new mothers waddled in periodically to feed our infants, and we were allowed to choose from a number of CDs of soothing music that would supposedly aid our lactation. One woman, obviously going through a terrible depression, chose The Carpenters' Greatest Hits time after time. She would sit there nursing her infant, tears streaming down her face as we listened to We've Only Just Begun for the umpteenth time. I could have cried too, but for different reasons. By the time we finally got out of the hospital, even the merest mention of the Carpenters made me froth at the mouth. But it took its toll: it penetrated my subconscious. To this day, I have to cross my arms over my chest when Desperado comes on.

But I digress. Go on and tell me -- what band do you like that you wish to God you didn't? What record album do you have quietly moldering away in the basement that you shiver to think of anyone finding but cannot bear to throw away? What is your deepest, darkest, most embarrassing musical secret? You tell me yours and I will tell you mine. And I'm betting mine's worse.

The only person who is excused from playing along is Daniel Tammet, who has already fessed up with a beguiling lack of shame. If he writes to me, I'll e-mail him with the goods straight away.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

After Midnight in Kawasaki

Long ago in what seems like another lifetime, a friend and I ended up missing the last train from Tokyo to Yokohama. Missing the last train to Yokohama was a specialty of mine; having done this twice in one year, I'd spent much of the evening fussing over the likelihood of doing it again. Now, I was beside myself.

We'd tied one on but good, she and I, but I sobered up fast as I watched her study the train schedule.

"Oh no!" wailed Toyoda-san, confirming my worst fears, "we’ve just missed the last train!"

This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to say I told you so! Because I had.

Toyoda-san stood there for a few moments, her brow knitted, then nodded. "Right. No problem. I know what we’ll do, come on. We’ll have to walk a ways to the next station, but you’re okay with walking, aren’t you?"

I did my best not to sulk. I reasoned that a brisk walk in the night air would take over where the strong coffee had left off: it would sober us up.

When we got to the next station, there was a train already waiting there. "Come on," yelled Toyoda-san, "we’ve got a minute or two before it leaves but I don’t want to take any chances!"

Neither did I. I broke into a clumsy run, cursing my stupid high heels. Once we were on the train, still panting from the run, I commented that I'd never realized the line we were on went all the way to Yokohama.

Toyoda-san looked guilty. "It doesn’t. Not at this hour anyway."

I turned to stare at her. "What?"

"It only goes as far as Kawasaki at this hour."

Kawasaki is closer to Yokohama than Tokyo, but it is a good, long train trip away. It was all I could do not to shout. "So what are we going to do?"

"Relax! You worry too much, Mary! We’ll be fine. We’re staying with someone I know."


"Somebody perfectly nice – don’t worry!"

"Who? Come on, tell me!"

She smiled. "My obaachan, Mary. My grandma."

"You're kidding!"

Toyoda-san gave me a look. "I'm not."

"Please tell me you're kidding!"

"Relax! It’ll be fine."

I could not believe her. I tried – and failed – to picture showing up on my own grandmother’s doorstep unexpected, unannounced, at midnight, drunk, and hoping to spend the night. With a friend. Someone she’d never met before. Who was a foreigner!

"Toyoda-san, I’ve got just enough money for a taxi back to Yokohama. Why don’t you go to your grandmother’s and I’ll – "

"Forget it, Mary – a taxi’ll cost you a bundle!"

She was right, but even parting with a bundle seemed preferable to showing up at a strange grandmother’s house at midnight, still drunk enough that running in a straight line and staying vertical had been a challenge.

As we walked along the street toward her grandmother’s house, I just knew what was going to happen. We would be met at the door by a grumpy, indignant eighty-year-old in a hairnet and pajamas. Who almost certainly remembered her house being fire-bombed by the Allies during the war -- as it had; I'd heard Toyoda-san's stories. She’d be madder than hell to be dragged out of her bed and find us on her doorstep – of course she would. She’d give us a good bawling out then and there. Toyoda-san would be embarrassed, I would be mortified, and the whole situation would be just horrible.

Toyoda-san acted like it was all a real hoot. "She’ll still be up!" she said breezily. "Just you wait and see. She never sleeps, I swear."

I shivered and tried to make myself look as innocent, respectable and contrite as possible. The door opened a crack. I heard an elderly voice. "Hai, donata dessho ka?" Polite language for Who is that? A good start.

Toyoda-san grinned. "It’s me, obaachan! Akiko! And I’ve got a friend with me. We need to crash!"

The door opened wide, letting out a blast of kerosene-scented heat. "Akiko! And a friend! Lovely!" She looked at me with curious eyes.

"She speaks Japanese, Granny. She’s American – her name’s Mary! We work for the same company."

"Well, don’t stand there, then, come on in, the two of you! You’ll be freezing out there! An American, eh? Ha-ha-ha!"

She held the door open for us, and looked me up and down as though I was the most interesting thing she’d seen in ages. "Nice to meet you," she said rather shyly, given that her dentures were probably in a glass next to her bed. I mumbled the same back.

Toyoda-san’s grandmother was easily eighty. Maybe older. But she moved with the grace and energy of a thirty-year-old. "So come on through! Have you eaten? Are you hungry? Wait – I’ll go and put on some tea."

Toyoda-san elbowed me as we were ushered into the warm, well-lit sitting room. "See? What did I tell you?"

I couldn’t answer her. I could have tripped over my jaw, it had dropped that far.

After a few cups of hot tea, Toyoda-san and I climbed into the warm, fluffy futons that her grandmother had put out for us. We slept a good eight hours each and woke up to the smell of roasted fish, miso shiru and rice. After a decent breakfast and a friendly chat – and many expressions of thanks from me – we left.

On the train back to Yokohoma, Toyoda-san yawned and stretched. "See, Mary, what did I tell you? My granny loves having visitors -- even late at night!"

"You really did tell me. But I couldn’t believe you until I’d seen it with my own eyes."

She laughed. "Not all grandmas are like that!" she agreed. "Especially not in Japan! But my granny’s special."

She was absolutely right.

Decades have past since that late-night visit to Toyoda-san's grandmother. I’ve got my own family now, including a couple of teenagers, and although I try, I often feel that I can never live up to her incredible example of hospitality.

Recently we had a post-midnight visit ourselves from a couple of teenagers, friends of our eldest. They'd been to the local festival and foolishly managed to get locked out of their respective houses. Neither of them dared to wake up their own parents, my daughter told me sheepishly; could they please stay at our house overnight?

Bear in mind, I'm not like Toyoda-san's grandma. I'm grumpy and grouchy and even though I may be an insomniac, I still prize what little sleep I can get around here. But such was the power of Grandma Toyoda's kindness and generosity that even after all these years, I could picture her welcoming face, hear her telling us to come on in and get out of the cold.

"Tell them to come on in," I told my daughter, stifling a yawn. "And ask them if they're hungry."

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A Little Weirdness

My blogging pal Carolie has tagged me for a meme. She had every right to do this: I made her post her bogus blogging rules a while back and she was a great sport, exceeding even my highest expectations. It has taken me some time to getting around to this meme, though. I'll tell you what it's about right now: posting weird things about yourself. My mind has been spinning ever since; I got tagged for a similar meme a month ago and I never managed to play along. It wasn't as though I had nothing to write that held me back; my problem was that I didn't know where to start.


* Link to the person that tagged you (done that) and post the rules on your blog (doing that)

* Share five random and/or weird facts about yourself on your blog (this is where it gets tricky: five? only five?)

Share the five top places on your “want to see or want to see again” list.

* Tag a minimum of five random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs. Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment in their blog. (I'm warning you right now that I may not do this. In fact, I probably won't. What can I say? One of the weird and random things about me is that I'm a rugged individualist, a rule-breaking libertarian with a mind of her own. Besides, you can't make me. God, I love not being in high school any more! Decades after graduating, and the thrill still hasn't worn off!)


1) Twenty years ago, I was dragged by my hair across the tatami floor of a pub in Kagurazaka, near Iidabashi Station, in Tokyo. I wasn't very drunk and the time, and it didn't really hurt. I'd just been bragging to a small group of colleagues about my great-grandfather, a short red-head with a fiery temper and a thick, tough thatch of hair. His party piece was being lifted off the floor by his hair, and I told everyone I was sure you could do the same with me. One of my colleagues, convinced I was exaggerating, challenged me. I let him drag me from one corner of the room to another by my hair, which at that time reached past my waist. There were many witnesses, including a waitress with a full load of drinks who gasped and blushed and looked the other way. Two years later, I married this colleague and we've been together ever since.

2) I can recite Spartacus's Ode to the Gladiators, The Owl and the Pussycat, Longfellow's Skeleton in Armor, Poe's Annabel Lee, and many, many more. Both of my parents were keen on oratory and graded us for delivery, projection, and the ability to recite without stumbling. Sadly, no one has ever asked me to recite even one of these. All that hard work -- wasted!

3) I am still (sort of) able to stand on my head, do the splits, and touch my tongue to my nose. Not all at once, of course, but individually. I might be able to do these all at once, but I'd need a lot of practice.

4) My cat imitations are so good that I can fool both cats and people with them. I've had this unique ability since I was five. I once convinced my parents that we had a cat locked somewhere in the house; before they actually started prying off floorboards, I finally confessed. It was so much fun that it was almost a pity to give myself up.

5) I once worked as a dish-washer at Japanese restaurant in Amsterdam. I was backpacking around Europe and found an advertisement for waiting staff at the Youth Hostel I was staying at in the Red Light District. (I didn't realize it was the Red Light District until one of the other dish-washers clued me in later.) The advertisement was in Japanese, and when I called and told them that I had worked as a waitress and could speak Japanese but was in fact Caucasian, they hired me as a dish-washer there. The owner of the restaurant turned out to have gone to the same university where I was a graduate student; he took pity on me and let me sleep in the room where the waitresses changed into their kimonos. I worked there for two months and had a blast. To this day, I can really get wineglasses clean -- fast.


1) My old high school. I haven't been back in ages, but whenever I pass it, I get a rush just remembering that I don't have to go there anymore.

2) China. But I wish I could have seen it before they started industrializing it.

3) India and all of Indochina. I know, I know: it's sneaky lumping a country and one entire region together like that, and a little insensitive too. But I'm doing it anyway: I'm greedy.

4) The U.S.A. From one end to the other, including Hawaii and Alaska. It's so beautiful and there is so much variation. And I've been gone so long that I almost feel like I'm in a foreign country when I go back. And I hate that.

5) All of Central and South America. And while I'm at it, I'll throw in Mexico too, which is a wonderful country. I can't believe I've gotten to my age without having been to Peru or Brazil; there's just no excuse for it.

6) (Wait! It's supposed to be only five! Yes, I know: I can count. But this is my blog and I'm a rugged individualist who bucks the rules, etc., etc. Besides, I don't really want to see my old high school, but I couldn't resist putting that in.) Africa. From one end to the other, and please don't forget Madagasgar.

And since I've come this far, what the hell: Europe too -- all of it. And Australia. and New Zealand and Canada and both poles. All the islands. All of Asia. It sometimes makes me feel like crying to know that there are parts of the world that I will never see.

That's it, folks! I had so much fun doing this that I'm tempted to tag myself and do it all over again. But I won't.

If anyone else wants to do this, please let me know and I will happily tag you, posting your link right here. If not -- well, I'm a rugged individualist and I'm bucking the rules and all that. And besides, I'm feeling lazy right now thinking of all that traveling...

Saturday, 2 February 2008

The Complete Beginner

The young woman waiting for me in the hallway looked up fearfully as I approached. The clipboard I was carrying with the interview sheet on it obviously made her nervous: she could not take her eyes off it. Sitting down across from her, I smiled, and she tried to smile back, but it was a vain effort. She was far too nervous. A good-looking man approached us and said something to the woman in rapid Italian. She looked up at him and nodded, her lips compressed, her hands clenched in her lap -- but she made no answer. The man gave her an exasperated look, turned on his well-shod heel, and went to wait in the adjoining lobby.

"Let's see, you're Alessia, is that right?"

She stared at me in horrified confusion. I tried again.

"I'm probably saying it wrong," I ventured, pronouncing her name again as best I could. She suddenly realized what I was saying and nodded vigorously.

"Alessia," she breathed, turning her name into poetry.

"That's a pretty name," I told her. Again, she looked up at me in complete ignorance.

"Have you been in Japan long?" I asked her, as gently and slowly as I could. I knew that I must sound patronizing, but I had to speak slowly: Alessia's English obviously wasn't up to much.

"Japan," she whispered, nodding.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

Alessia stared at me helplessly, dismay written all over her face. I could see her nose and eyes beginning to redden ever so slightly. She shook her head and bit her bottom lip.

"Where are you from?" I asked slowly.

"Italy," she managed to say. I decided not to attempt to find out where in Italy; Alessia could probably speak some English, but she was in such a state of nerves that there was no way she would be able to manage this until she relaxed.

The good-looking man had been watching our interview from the lobby with growing impatience. I quickly wrote Complete beginner on Alessia's file -- she had already failed the most basic preliminary written test -- and the man got up to join us.

"How did she do?" he asked me in fluent English, frowning at Alessia, who would not meet his eyes.

"She'll need to start in our complete beginners' class," I told him.

Letting out a strangled sound, the man made an exasperated gesture, his face incredulous. He turned in fury toward Alessia, but he didn't need to say anything: she was already crying. Staring resolutely down at her lap, she sat huddled and wretched, the tears dropping heavily onto her still-clenched hands.

I steered the man away from her. "Everyone has to start somewhere," I said.

"But this is ridiculous! Complete beginner -- pah!" The man threw his hands up in irritation.

"She was nervous. It's hard to speak a foreign language when you're nervous," I pointed out, wishing I could add And the fact that you're an asshole isn't helping a bit.

The man rolled his eyes and gave me a dark look. "Nervous!" he spat out. "She has had English classes before! She should not be a complete beginner!"

I pitied Alessia from the bottom of my heart. Newly married to this awful man, she had been in Japan for almost two weeks and did not know a soul.

"When is the complete beginners' class?" the man snarled, glancing at his wife in exasperation.

"I'm teaching one this afternoon," I said, "and there are others if that one isn't convenient."

I watched as Alessia and her husband went to sign her up for the complete beginners' class. My class had already met once and they seemed like a nice bunch, but I had real misgivings about Alessia joining them. Italian students often did not blend in with our largely Japanese student body. In one class, I'd had a lively, sophisticated 40-something bank employee from Rome with five timid high school students and two deadly boring businessmen, and in another I'd had a jokey, quirky gay lad from Brindisi with a handful of over-worked engineering students. The Italian students had never really felt comfortable, and I failed to establish a relaxed atmosphere condusive to learning in either class. Although a few teachers with Italian-Japanese mixes reported good experiences, this had not been the norm. And poor Alessia was already doubly an outsider: she couldn't speak English or Japanese. I could picture Alessia as a permanent onlooker in my complete beginners class, watching wistfully as the mainly middle-aged ladies bonded, trading amusing asides in Japanese to cover their embarrassment and insecurity -- and completely ignoring her.

Sure enough, Alessia ended up in my class that very afternoon. As I took roll, I watched the ladies sizing her up. They took in her rather gauche clothes, her stiffened posture and red, swollen face. I saw two women trading surreptitious looks, their eyes flickering in her direction.

Then something amazing happened.

Every woman in that room took to Alessia. It was as if an injured baby animal had landed in their midst, and they, as mother hens, made an unspoken pact to protect and nurture her. They took turns sitting at her table, gently and adroitly drew her out of her shell, and clearly delighted in being able to understand the few things she finally managed to say. In no time this tearful, miserable young woman had been transformed into a happy, giggling girl.

Mrs Fujita found out that Alessia was from a small town in Northern Italy. Keiko Tanaka reported that Alessia had gotten married in a church that was five hundred years old and had promised to bring her wedding pictures to the class to show them. Tiny Mrs Sakamoto invited her to lunch with them before the next class met, in a week's time.

When she left the classroom, Alessia was speaking in English. Short little sentences, but English, nevertheless.

"Buy this in Roma!" I heard her telling Mrs Fujita, holding up her leather handbag.

"Ooh, shopping in Roma! Lucky, lucky!" chirped Mrs Fujita. "Very nice, pretty bag! Expensive?"

"Not much money!" Alessia confided laughingly.

Her husband, waiting for her, looked at her in amazement.

"She was just nervous," I told him. "Her English will pick up in no time."

And wonderfully enough, it did.