Monday, June 10, 2013

Back in the USA: French lessons, talking parakeets, and a stroll through Washington Heights


West 181st Street in Washington Heights.
Years ago, my employer paid for me to study French at the Alliance Française in New York City. I proposed the arrangement because I wanted to be able to carry on intelligent dinner conversation with my French in-laws. My employer was interested in developing well-rounded employees; I had convinced the company's human resources division that French lessons would make me a better copy editor, or maybe just a better person in general.
            My French teacher was a native of Brittany, a tall redhead with blue eyes and porcelain skin. Every Wednesday afternoon, we met in the Frank Gehry–designed cafeteria of the Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. We sat on curving caramel-colored faux-leather banquettes, drank coffee, and chatted in advanced-intermediate-level French, Caroline correcting my grammar and supplying the vocabulary that I lacked. Caroline is about my age (I was in my late forties at the time), and we had no trouble finding topics of mutual interest. My tutorials lasted for about four years, and during that time, we became friends.
            On the first weekend in June, I met Caroline in front of her apartment building in northern Manhattan. She lives a block from my Washington Heights pied-a-terre (how I happen to have a New York pied-a-terre is a story for another time). For the past six months, I have been trying hard to improve my fluency in French, with modest success. We spoke in English.
            Caroline’s rent had shot up and she was moving to Florida. We spoke about life transitions. She mentioned a parakeet. At first, I thought the parakeet belonged to her brother, with whom she will be sharing a house in Fort Lauderdale. But no, the parakeet was living in Caroline’s tiny and very expensive Washington Heights apartment and would be moving to Florida with her, making the trip in a cage stowed under the seat of a passenger jet. Caroline was worried that the parakeet, whom she called Teetee, would go into a panic, have a heart attack, and die. “They’re very delicate,” she said.
            Moving is never easy, but until recently, Caroline was not a pet owner, and she had not foreseen this particular brand of complication. Then one day Teetee flew in her window. She freaked (Caroline is afraid of birds) and called the super. The super came and shooed the bird out. A few minutes later, Teetee was back. This time, the bird landed on Caroline’s head. Caroline screamed and called a neighbor. Again Teetee was made to leave.
            On the third try, Caroline relented. She went out and bought a cage. It came in a kit; she assembled it as Teetee hopped around the living room. When the cage was put together, it looked very small. Teetee showed little interest in it. Caroline thought about buying a bigger one.
            She was in a bookstore one day when a book fell off an upper shelf and landed at her feet. She picked it up and read the title. The book was Irene Pepperberg’s Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Secret World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Caroline decided that she was supposed to keep the bird.
            She bought a bigger cage. When it was ready for occupancy, she asked herself how she would convince her free-roaming housemate to move in. She went in the kitchen to think about it and to make spaghetti, and when she returned, the parakeet was in the cage. They have been compatibly sharing the Washington Heights apartment ever since—“ever since” being, at the time of my New York visit, a matter of weeks.
            The sequel to Alex & Me is entitled The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots. Teetee is not a grey parrot, but that small detail did not prevent Caroline from trying. (She really is a very good teacher.) She went on YouTube and found many talking parakeets, most of whom had picked up human language without any formal instruction, just by listening to their owners talk to each other or to them. Their repertoire is heavy on endearments, things like "I love you, you're so cute, come here, you're so pretty"—the kinds of things women love to hear.
            The video below features a parakeet named Buttery. It was uploaded by Ken Krantz, who says "We've heard that letting him out of the cage helps because it makes him feel like one of the family." Caroline picked out a similar video and showed it to Teetee on her smartphone. Teetee sidled nervously back and forth on her perch. Weeks later, she was still cheeping and chirping without distinction, and Caroline said she had given up.
            Caroline and I walked in the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park (the park, by the way, is a favorite place for Washington Heights residents to release their unwanted pets—rabbits, dogs, cats, birds, and so on). We drank chardonnay (me) and pomegranate lemonade (Caroline) at the New Leaf Café. Then we walked back down Fort Washington Avenue and said good-night. On the way back to my Washington Heights apartment, which I share with my ex-husband, I thought about the many twists and turns my own life has taken, and the many times I’ve moved in and out of New York. I had no idea when I met Caroline that I would ever live in France, which is what I've been doing for the past six months. And she had no idea she would ever meet Teetee.
            Next: Caroline and I have drinks with a neighborhood friend, an actor who plays a space alien on TV.

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