(This was an email I sent to my friends and family when I lived in Japan teaching English as a Second Language.)
Monday, December 17th, 2001
As you know, I live in a small apartment in the small city of Gifu, Japan. I live in an apartment building that consists of five apartments – a two-storey apartment below me and then four one-storey apartments. And, as it is everywhere in Japan, the neighbours’ apartment buildings are very close by. In fact, if I go out onto my balcony, the next building is only about a metre and a half away, close enough to talk to your neighbours without raising your voice but the buildings aren’t actually touching.
Today is my day off and my usual routine on my day off is to hang the futons over the balcony into the fleeting direct sunlight for their weekly airing.
Japanese futons are only a few inches thick, unlike their North American counterparts, and are aired for several hours every three days and then beaten to help remove any dust or mite infestations. They are really more like what we would call a duvet. Since I work every during the day and I don’t have one of those fancy clamps that are specially made to hold futons onto the balcony for futon-airing, I don’t put my futons out when I’m not home lest they blow away. I usually reserve the airing and the beating of the futons for my Monday or Tuesday mornings at home.
So, as is my ritual, after getting up I drape the futons over the balcony railing and leave the curtains open to keep a watchful eye on them. I strategically place the heavier ones slightly over the lighter one for added protection against airborne futons. Then I usually relax with a cup of coffee and a book and read or write the morning away in the peace and quiet of my wee apartment. And today was no different. Ahhh…
But as I was eating breakfast and peacefully enjoying my book, the racket of construction started. There is a new building being built right next door. So close that if I lean over my balcony, I can touch the scaffolding. The drills and the hammering can be quite loud and annoying, especially since they are so close. So after 20 minutes with my regular morning ritual successfully ruined and my attitude quickly going downhill, I angrily put everything away and decide that I must leave the house or the noise will drive me to start yelling at anyone and anything. Which would do absolutely no good since I wouldn’t be understood and even if I were, raising your voice is simply not done here. Under any circumstances. So I head to the balcony to bring in the futons since they are just getting dustier with all the construction and…
Oh my god.
There is only one out of three out there. With a quickening heartbeat, I scan the length of the balcony and I notice one in the corner of the balcony. The third one? Completely gone. Panic. I run to the edge of the balcony, look down below and there it is. Wedged between my building and the neighbour’s apartment building. About a floor and a half down.
“Okay, this is okay. I can get it back. Just let me think,” I mumble to myself. I could go to the downstairs neighbour and maybe climb from her second floor balcony to the top of the shed and then I could probably reach it from there. Or I could go outside, around the corner and get it from the other neighbour’s back balcony which faces the side of my building that the futon fell from.
Ok. I quickly get dressed into real clothes and head down. First I try the neighbour that lives below me but nobody is home. I head around the corner. I knock and a wrinkled old man, who looks more like a dried apple, opens the door. Since my Japanese is virtually non-existent, I can’t make myself understood and the only thing he does is wave his hand in front of his face and repeat in a worried voice, “No Engrish, no Engrish”. I didn’t expect him to speak English but I was acting out putting my futon over the balcony and making sounds like the wind blowing with big arm gestures like my futon blowing off the balcony, frantically pointing behind him. All he needed was a little imagination. Alas, he didn’t get it.
I head back upstairs, once again trying the downstairs neighbour with no luck. I resign myself to the fact that I will have to wait until the neighbours notice my lonely little futon stuck between their balcony and the concrete wall and hopefully they will simply look up, realize that it probably fell from the crazy foreigner’s balcony and bring it back to me. I went back out on the balcony to take another look at my futon, oh so far away, when I notice that there are construction workers directly across from me in the new building. Yes, the very same ones that I had earlier cursed for making so much noise.
Then I had a brilliant idea. I lean over the balcony and loudly say, through the glassless window, “Sumimasen!” (“Excuse me!”). They stop their hammering and drilling and look over. They stare at me for several seconds wondering why a foreigner would be talking to them. I smile my sweetest smile and point down towards my futon. The gruffest looking one of them slowly comes over to the window, dusty and confused. He’s still looking at me as if he can’t decide if I’m real or not. Then he bends out the window and notices my futon.
And then he starts laughing. Laughing so hard his has to hold his hard hat on. And then he calls over all the other construction workers to show them and they all start laughing like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. Then there is some chatter with periodic glances in the futon’s direction and more laughs. The first worker comes back to the window, and tells me (well, motions to me) that one of his guys is going to go to the apartment and retrieve my futon for me, bring it back upstairs and then pass it to me through the glassless window.
A few minutes later, my futon was carefully passed to me from one apartment building to the other and was safe at home again.
And that’s the end of my story.
Yes, I invested in some of those clamps.