You can read about the conversation sessions I’ve been attending by Googling “Cercle International de l’ARC, Une porte d’amitié ouverte aux étrangers.” The cost is nominal: ten euros for the year. You have to be something like 16 –65, but that is negotiable, if you press them. This is a way to visit France (Paris) in a deeper way. It is also like standing at the borders of many other different countries and getting to know the people on the other side of the demarcation. Today, I realized how I got to do what people say is impossible: get to know a French person intensively for two hours. And that can be a great treat.
I was heartened today to be able to sit next to another attractive young Brazilian woman, maybe thirty, whom my inner sixteen-year delighted in without getting all twisted up in a sexist knot. Her husband is getting a doctorate in history here in Paris, a degree in something that has to do with what other cultures call their patrimoine, or patrimony, the cultural heritage of a country. It involved the context of the military dictatorship during the years (1969) 1974 – 1983. She has a five-year old son. The séance leader and I thought she was the one getting the degree. No, it was her husband. I asked her whether it was problem free researching records about the dictatorship. i.e., was it dangerous. She did not seem to think so. The others at the table were not familiar with the Dirty War of that period, also known as the Process of National Reorganization, a lovely Orwellian term. She was a bright, likeable, funny person, and fun to interact with.
To my right sat the second of my Turkish friends. He has a Ph.D. from Germany, he is a professor of history at a university in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. I have mentioned him before. His field is Iraqi and Iranian history. He’s writing a book on Cherif Pacha, 1865 – 1953, the Turkish general exiled to Paris. He knew about the attempt on the general’s life in 1914. He is researching police and other archival records on Pacha and Charles de Gaulle, 1885 – 1970. I wanted to ask him whether there were French police records on the attempt on Cherif Pacha’s life. But the conversation moved on to other things.
The young man to the Turk’s right was from Brazil, a sociologist, getting a Ph.D. of some kind. I’m not sure he got to say what in. A likeable fellow, who did not jump into the conversation a great deal. To his right was a young woman from Vietnam, married to a French man. She talked about the Vietnamese language, especially about the accent marks over letters that change the meaning of the word. She doesn’t speak much. I noticed lines around her eyes and on her hands, indicating she was, I thought, older than the others. Next to her sat the man from Cape Verde, Francisco, who has a wife and three children. Early- or mid-thirties. He’s working in construction, placing insulation, isolation, between walls, ceilings and floors. A long discussion of that followed. The leader mentioned fiberglass, laine de verre, glass wool. He may have been confused. WordReference calls it fibre de verre. I took the opportunity to claim that the substance was bad for the lungs. He said, no, I was thinking of asbestos. I repeated one of the phrases I had prepared: Je ne suis pas sûr, and gave a grimaced look of doubt. He liked that but stood his ground. The word for wool made him think of lin, linen. My Turkish friend said it meant flax. I thought he was wrong but didn’t say anything. Maybe you make linen from flax. Someone will have to tell me. The leader brought up other kinds of cloth: polyester. Everything is made of oil, I said, and oil was going to be the death of us, meaning that burned gas fumes are heating the earth. The leader didn’t think that seemed to be a problem and began talking about the benefits of nuclear energy, which is what supplies 70% of France’s energy. We talked about ethanol. When I got the chance, I said it was more polluting than gas. I tried a word: venimeux. He corrected me and said that was an adjective for snakes. The Turk got in on the implied criticism of France’s nuclear generators. The leader admitted that les déchets radioactifs, nuclear wastes, were a problem, but said he had confidence in the waste containers. I kept trying to bring up the counter-argument by referring to Fukushima. He said people were inventing energy-producing ocean technologies, turbines that turned first with the incoming marée haute, then by the outgoing marée basse, high and low tide. His eyes twinkled. He wanted to know from me what made the sea rise and fall. The moon, I said, like a bright four-year old. The cycle lunaire, he said. After a bit, I said there was a French conspiracy against us foreigners, and it had to do with the French u, constructed to impede foreign students of French. He thought that was a grand accusation. Everyone asked him how to say it right, and he delighted in exaggerating his mouth positions for all the vowels. Then people complained about English. I said I didn’t know why, it had the same grammar as Latin, on which Spanish, German and French were based. They corrected me. I said they were talking about language origins, and that I was talking about grammatical structure. They said I was still wrong, that English was a mystery through and through. And I left it at that.
Before we left, I asked out facilitator whether he could counsel me on how to enter into Paris’s bonne société. This was ammunition I had from another class. He asked me why I wanted to know about this. I said I wanted to be part of the elite. (Earlier he had talked about a pending French educational reform, based on a widely held criticism that the system was too elite.) After he described a few important steps, I said I thought I also needed to know how to hold and eat a baguette. I was thinking how it was hard for a gringo to hold a tortilla so the insides didn’t fall out.
When I think about it, I should have asked Francisco why he was taking the French conversation classes. It think it was a clue that he was more than a construction worker. I should have asked him about his training and education. It would not surprise me if a black man in Paris, who had higher degrees, could only find employment as a construction worker. Such are the reigning prejudices in Paris, with a whole culture of people of color being at the bottom of the economy.