Tag: Conversation classes in Paris

Notes on a Conversation, Paris, June 3, 2015

Today I sat beside my friend Assan, the Turkish sociologist, doing research in France on a grant of some kind. To his left, a Kurd, who speaks Kurdish and Turkish, while Assan only speaks Turkish, and of course French. This was one more moment where I knew how much I didn’t know, like, weren’t they in conflict with each other? It didn’t seem that way. But their obvious respect for each other just seems like it’s part of the complexity. They are both about late Thirties.

To the Kurd’s left, a Brazilian woman of about thirty-five, married to a Frenchman who was not present. She is looking for a job in the pharmaceutical world, I believe. Sometimes I don’t hear things because I am distracted by other details. The sixteen-year old in me was stupefied by the woman’s beauty, her olive skin, her languor, her moodiness, her privilege. As she talked, I saw her quick understanding of the philology we’re discussing, the Indian languages of Brazil, the origins of all the languages at the table. All my silly judgements and beautiful woman games fell away, perhaps too slowly.

I keep mentioning skin color because it says something about class and privilege, sometimes. Assan and the Kurd are dark-skinned, especially the Kurd. The other beauty at the table comments openly about it. She is white, tall, blond, a professor of English in Argentina, an Argentine and diligent about her French, taking notes. Later, I saw her at an open street market, taking notes on the vegetable labels. Again, all of the participants are people I would never have met without being in these two-hour sessions. Most of this class consisted of a discussion on the origin of languages and words. It seems like everyone was a philologist—a way I had always thought of myself. But I found my attention and energy begin to sink. I thrive on conversation, back and forth, questions and answers, cultural comparisons. It didn’t happen. That’s okay. I enjoyed the leader very much. Man in his seventies, a former professor of engineering, but whose first love seems to be words and languages, and comparisons between them. He was very sweet and dedicated, infinitely patient, but he didn’t seem to want to have a conversation. He talked about the origins of Turkish, a language related to Finnish, it seems. Assan explained the breadth of the Ottoman Empire that came up to and “knocked” on the gates of Vienna, covered most of North Africa, the western part of what is now Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Iraq, skirting the Black Sea and holding the Balkans and the Southeast European countries—for something like six hundred years.

We discussed how one of the Popes separated Spanish from Portuguese conquests by drawing the division along the 40th Meridian. We talked about Paris’s “bonne société,” the good society, and I wondered if the lovely Brazilian had married into that, leaving her own for its. Our leader, at my request, listed the topics one did not bring up in Good Society: sex, politics, religion, any sort of conflict, but food, cars, vacations, operas, plays, exhibitions were okay. I asked whether the very topic of the Good Society could be a topic. He didn’t seem to understand. I could answer the question myself: Of course not. But these are all stereotypes, but still fun to listen to him smile as he described them. A sweet man who found humor in everything.

Aaah, so many questions I don’t have answers for.

I was the last one out of the room. I saw our leader had left his notes behind—the ones he had made during the class, in order to show us things in writing—so I stole them.

Conversations, Paris June 2, 2015

Conversation class in Paris. A sixty-year old man from Costa Rica with grown out short hair flat on top. Maybe ex-military. He described himself ironically as un Flâneur (one who strolls through life?). A smart, compassionate woman of forty something from Brasil, white skin. I didn’t catch her job or project. I thought I caught a slightly slavic accent. A young man, dark skin, of thirty-five or so from Cape Verde, an island nation off East Africa, quite a way off shore. Another white-skinned Brazilian woman, late twenties or early thirties, very white skin, writing a doctoral dissertation on Sartre. I asked her if she could say what existentialism was in one sentence. She responded, saying, We are condemned to a life of freedom. That’s as far as she got before the men jumped in. Her French was very good. The best among us. Then there was me (Pete). I walked my usual thin line between irony and serious contribution, and survived once more! Javi, to my left, from Spain, a face always a little on the red side. I keep forgetting what he does, some kind of research. I think sociology. He has a dim view of what will become of Spain. Then Ross, a Scotsman, who is learning to detect and track laundered money. That brought up a discussion of what kind of money was being laundered: drugs, arms, child-adult sexual slavery and traffic. Then came a Turk, who is writing a book on the Turkish general Cherif Pacha, exiled to Paris, where he survived an attack on his life in January, 1914 because he had opposed the Young Turks (Ottoman Empire) and won their wrath. Each day, the discussion leader is an older French person, with great variety, always a puzzle at first because of accent, clarity of voice, and political views and other presumptions. This man today, seventy-maybe, one pack a day, never once addressed the very decent black man from Cape Verde (or I think even looked at him), one of the smallest countries in the world, perfectly placed for the slave trade, later a Portuguese colony. The leader treated him as if he didn’t exist. I kept thinking his turn was coming up, but it didn’t. Our leader also gave a short discourse on the benefits French colonialism brought to Southest Asia. The older Brazilian woman exchanged a look with me over that. I love these classes. I get to communicate with people from the rest of the world in a third language. It makes me very happy.