The best people to practice a secondary language are children. They’re always patient and willing to correct you on your mistakes. One of my best language partners is the ten-year-old neighborhood girl.
Word had spread, probably through my young language partner, that I didn’t know how to cook. This wasn’t quite true. I knew how to cook, but I didn’t know how to winnow rice. The Malagasy winnow rice with such speed and fluidity, but I’m when I do it, I’m more awkward than a pubescent shaving for the first time. It also doesn’t help that my arena for winnowing rice is my front yard where people will inevitably watch the foreigner’s slapstick and gossip about it throughout half the country. I’ve been taking the easy way out by going to hotelys almost every day and eating a lot of pasta, fruit, and peanuts.
One afternoon someone knocked on my door. It was the neighborhood girl’s friend’s mother. I’ll call her Mrs. Robinson. “I heard you don’t know how to cook,” Mrs. Robinson said. “I can teach you.”
The next day I followed my cooking teacher’s instructions and bought potatoes, milk, bread, and butter. In the afternoon Mrs. Robinson came to my home, took out some dishes, and made mashed potatoes while I watched. She laughed an awful lot at my Sakalava small talk like “Does cutting onions make you cry?” or “English is a hard language to learn.” Sometimes her daughter or the neighborhood girl poked their heads through my front door and Mrs. Robinson would shoo them away and tell them to go play.
When the mashed potatoes were done, she cut the bread into halves and told me to eat. She sat down next to me and watched me eat. After I ate my lunch, I cleaned my dishes. She watched me. Then I swept the floor clean of crumbs and such. Still, Mrs. Robinson did not leave.
As I put my broom away, she finally stood up and said, “Can you come with me?” “Where?” I said. “To my house.” “Why would I come to your house?” She quickly shrugged. “I don’t know. You could watch me cook or something.”
I understood what she wanted. I told the 30-year-old, already-married Mrs. Robinson that I’d visit her home on another day. “No problem,” she said. “See you later.”
Was I being presumptuous that Mrs. Robinson insisted on cooking me a meal with the hope that she’d get dessert afterwards? I heard that people in the north were pretty lax about sleeping with others even when they had spouses, but Lord, I hadn’t even lived in town a week yet.
Later on I asked my Malagasy friend who spoke English about this encounter. I figured I’d ask someone who knew the Malagasy culture better than I did.
“Oh!” my friend exclaimed with a huge grin. “Yes, she wanted to make sex with you. Did you go to her house?”
“No,” I said. “She’s married, and I already have a girlfriend.”
He blinked, dumbfounded.