The next cable brought less welcome news. I was to continue my current work in Port au Prince four months more before a successor could take over. This meant that I would be allowed no more than a month to learn a new language, Nepali, in the diplomats’ school in Washington before I proceeded to Kathmandu. One month to learn a ‘hard’ language! An impossible endeavor, I mulled sullenly.
I took two quick steps.
First, I called the librarian in the State Department, a charming woman who shared my love of books. Could she send me a couple of books on the Nepali language and any tapes she might have? She could and she would.
Next, I drove over to the camp of the UN Multinational Force, of which I was a coordinator. I went to the tent of the commandant of the Nepalese contingent and explained that I would shortly go to his country to work and wanted to learn the language. In ten minutes he had his orderly round up all the army officers of Nepal in his tent.
“Thanks to the UN, we get a huge number of books, magazines and posters from Nepal. Starting this week, you will collect by Sunday all the stuff you have read, and deliver it to Mr. Nandy’s office on Monday. I want him to learn our wonderful language.”
The next Monday my office staff was terrified when a Humvee appeared at our entrance and six well-armed soldiers emerged with their officer. They carried three massive cartons to my third-floor chamber, saluted me smartly and indicated that all the “Nepali stuff” was at my disposal. While I thanked them profusely, two soldiers went to the back of my desk while a third brought along a stool, a hammer and some nails. As I stood confused and silent, they unfurled a gigantic poster and nailed it to the wall.
In the following weeks the cartons kept coming, and I progressed haltingly with the language, with the occasional assistance from the Nepalese officers. There was an unexpected development in the office. The Haitians, brought up in the French tradition, tend to be formal and polite, and every Haitian visitor I had invariably paused to take a good look at the poster and proceeded to compliment me on the beauty of my wife. I did not contradict them for fear of seeming disloyal, but it made me take another look at the poster. The woman was indeed beautiful.
But she was certainly not the Queen. I found in the literature the General had provided some pictures of the royal family, and the woman in the portrait had not the slightest resemblance to the Queen. Who then was she? I had no idea. I hesitated to ask General Rana or any of his officers for fear of seeming tactless. Sitting in Haiti, I had limited resources to research the image, and I never found the answer. I left Haiti without the mystery resolved.
Eight months later I was settled in Kathmandu, busy with my new assignment as a political and economic officer. The US Embassy sponsored, along with some companies, a technology expo, and on the opening day I came to make sure it was going well. As I walked an aisle with an assistant, inspecting the wares, two of the organizers crossed me alongside a woman.
I passed her and only a minute or two later something stirred within me. I retraced my steps and glanced at her as she stopped at a booth. I felt certain: she was the woman in the poster. She was spectacularly beautiful.
I walked up to her. Briefly I told her my experience. She listened patiently and smiled when I said that, after an eight-month quest, I deserved to know who she was – in the view of so many Haitians, “my wife.”
I was fortunate. The organizers invited us both for dinner and I got to sit next to her and know her better.
I owed the Nepalese soldiers another debt. I easily passed the language test in the diplomats’ school. In fact, I received a medal for outstanding performance.