Notes on a Conversation, Paris, June 15, 2015

There is an old desert saying. If there were three camels, it is enough to say there were only two. That is to say, when recounting events, it is all right to limit and shorten, as long as the essential truth of the matter remains. I made that up, but I think it makes an important point. I have left out several days of notes on my French conversations, and so I will only mention two. The first one, horrible in all respects from which I came away feeling stupid, incompetent, as if I were in the wrong country. The woman, perfectly decent I suppose, when a few words had left my mouth, said she could hear my American accent and that she hears it in other students. I said merci as ironically as I could. She had great difficulty looking at me from then on, perhaps sensing a rebel. I should mention that all of us students in these ARC conversations expend massive amounts of energy trying to understand each other, often with great difficulty. You would never say to a, say, Vietnamese woman, obviously very intelligent, that you can’t understand a word she’s saying.

Our animator, unfazed, launched into a long discussion of French meat dishes. She brushed off comment or questions, as if they were bothersome and interrupted her monologue. I could see eyelids sagging, the drop in energy. She mentioned rôti boeuf, rump steak, perhaps into minute forty-five of her discussion. My handsome Turkish friend sat across from me. He seems endlessly composed and good-willed. He also seems to like to talk about meat. A little petulantly, I mentioned I was a vegetarian. I’m not entirely. I eat fish and chicken. Assan smiled at me, not giving away the reason why. She turned to me and said she ate vegetables, in such a way that indcated that further discussion was not needed. Assan mentioned a good Turkish restaurant, Gemlik, 49 rue d’Enghien, 75010. The 10 at the end means that’s the arrondissement. Gemlik is rated 4.5 of 5 and #5977 of 13585 on TripAdvisor. She mentioned boeuf bourguignon. With nothing else to do, I wrote down the word bourguinon. Trying to make the best of it and knowing I would not be getting the kind of conversation I wanted, I asked her what magret meant as in magret de canard. She said she didn’t know. I looked it up on my iPhone: borrowed or derived from maigre, containing little fat. The opposite of what I think of duck meat in France.

A soft-spoken young Iranian woman with a green headscarf that showed the round of her face began to talk. She was a medical student, her father worked at the Iranian embassy. She spoke softly. Her French was like the light here in our kitchen. In about a minute or two it is very bright, although it starts out a weak. Her French was very good. Her father speaks it and taught her since childhood. She wore expensive rimless glasses. She had been watching me closely since my remark about being a vegetarian. I mentioned that D. and I had seen the movie “Taxi Teheran” the night before. The leader said she had seen it. The young woman had not. The leader held forth on the repression in Iran. The young woman’s glances toward me seemed to coincide with the leader’s statements about how oppressed Iranian women were. After a while, I found myself rolling my eyes a little, looking for co-conspirators, I supposed, or just from being rebellious. Both the young woman and Assan were exchanging looks with me. I was not sure to what extent they were with me. The leader actually corrected me in a decent way. Réalisateur du film, film director, in this case, Jafar Panahi, a kind, creative man whom his government likes to imprison. This is a film you should definitely see before you agree to bomb the people there, especially this young woman.

I mentioned that D. and I had eaten at an Iranian restaurant in rue Mouffetard after the movie, one called Colbeh. The leader said there were no Iranian restaurants there. I said we had just eaten in one. I believe she said no two more times. Finally she permitted a correction in what she had believed to be real. I noticed that she had written in her notes for us “Théhéran,” with an initial extra h. Having just looked up the word myself, I reached across—her notes lay in front of her—as she was speaking—and crossed out the extra h in her spelling. I did this in good faith, being helpful. She thanked me.

I have gone on for a long time. I had meant to tell you about two camels. The other one will have to wait.

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