Monday, February 27, 2006

Swimming, Revisited

Maureen and I went back to the pool last night. We've been going once or twice a week since our first visit, and can now finally make it through the front doors and back out again without being corrected for any glaring social blunders. On every visit, we've noticed a skeleton of a woman working out in the pool and soaking in the hottub. Maureen is careful not to talk about her publicly, even in English.

"You never know who might understand what you're saying here," she cautions me.

Still, we're intrigued by this woman. What has made the flesh on her limbs shrivel back to the bone? What drives her to come to the pool? Is the exercise painful? Can she see any improvements? She has a story, and we'd love to know it.

Last night, I was standing beside her in one end of the pool while we both rested between laps. She turned and started talking to me in Japanese. I was in the process of trying to tell her that I didn't speak much Japanese when she switched to English.

I can't emphasize enough just how common that is here. We can struggling mightily to get directions in Japanese from someone, and just when all hope seems lost, they switch gears and try again in English. And it doesn't take very much English abilitiy at all to be orders of magnitude better than my Japanese. But most people here wouldn't try that first.

In fact, most people here wouldn't try anything first. This was our fourth or fifth visit to the pool, where we've seen many of the same faces each time, and this woman was only the second other swimmer who has spoken to us. The big guy in the walking lanes gives us a wide berth and the woman who cuts the water like a knife with her perfect strokes avoids our glance altogether. It's the bone-thin woman who must be used to people's stares who finally gets up the nerve to make the first move.

She studied at New York University and reads the NY TIMES in English every day, but her English speaking opportunities are very limited. She wants more, though. She'd like to go back to New York, and see lower Manhatten without the Twin Towers. As she struggles to find the right verb ending, I can see the frustration and embarrassment on her face. I smile and nod and encourage her to keep trying.

"You come here often, don't you?" I ask.

"Almost every day." After a pause, she adds, "Is it okay if I speak English to you when I see you here?"

"Of course! Of course it is."

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