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.