Originally emailed August 2001
Company has kept me very busy. I love sharing Paris with friends and relatives. However, I just cannot visit the Eiffel Tower one more time. I sit and wait on a bench while the company takes the ride up. Not me. I live in fear of few things, one being open elevators. I gaze up longingly as my guests enjoy the view of Paris.
The museums I could do forever. And I love the night cruise on the Bateaux Mouches. I always enjoy visiting Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle, Sacre Coeur and St. Sulpice over and over – hoping some good might rub off on me!
French classes have also been time consuming between the two hour classes, two hour commutes, and HOMEWORK. But I have loved every minute. I have been the oldest in the classes and usually the only American except in this last session where there were four Americans.
My last session was a lively group of young kids from all over the world. One of the students, Mohsen, had a party at his apartment. He requested that we all bring food from our native country. He was an Iranian who was forced to fight in the war when he was a child. It was chilling to hear that he was recruited and forced to learn to kill. He fled his country on foot. He later was married to a lovely Dutch woman who worked in tforeign service and was stationed in Paris.
I thought about what type of food to bring for a long time. Apple pie? No, I can’t bake. How could I compete with the French apple tart? Hot dogs? No, they have them in Paris tucked in baguettes covered with cheese. What other food was truly American? I decided to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. I found the ingredients in a tiny shop called The Real McCoy specializing in foods that ex-pats can’t find in France – Jello, Campbell soup, Jiffy popcorn, Hellman’s mayo and breakfast cereals. In addition, they prepare turkey dinners to go for Thanksgiving.
The guests loved the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I cut into fours and piled up on a platter. Mohsen placed it on the coffee table in the living room. I think he thought it was an appetizer. Once the guests tasted them, they knelt around the coffee table and dug in. Most had never tasted these sandwiches and were licking their fingers. Who would have thought that French wine would go with PB and J? The four Americans found it hard to believe that such an American staple would be the hit of the party.
Otther students brought exotic dishes – Dutch pickled herring, Korean kimchi, Iranian jujeh kabab, Turkish curry chicken, Chinese satays on skewers, South African yams and coconut dessert morsels, Chilean fish cakes, Thai drunken noodles, Argentina chimichuri and French champagne. All those fabulous dishes and the only empty platter at the end of the party was the American one.
What a hoot it was to sit down and share these foods with people whose only common language was the French we were learning in class. Food was the glue that held the party together. Everyone knew how to say yummy.
Towards the end of the party when we were all replete and stretched out on the furniture and floor, we quietly listened to the young man from Korea describe as best he could in broken French and some English his life there and how his father who spoke out against the regime over what he thought made bad government decisions was killed. A Turkish man told us that his sister was sold into a marriage for money and jewelry. He feared for his other sister so he and his mother helped her escape out of the country. From the time he got them out of Turkey, he had not seen them again and had no idea where they were or if they were safe. Since they left their home, there was no way to stay in touch. A young woman from Vietnam described the history of her family’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Generations had lived through the war. Her family was pro-American and aided the US soldiers when needed, such as, medical help and a place to rest and recuperate.
Others had stories but none so stirring as our host, Mohsen, who told us that he would have rather died than take someone else’s life. As a very young man, he escaped Iran on foot with little money, a few pieces of his mother’s jewelry and a sack of food The food did not last and he feared he would be killed scavenging for more. He had tears in his eyes as he told us that he left his family and belongings behind but the armed conflict and militant Islamic movements gave him no choice. He said that he looked presentable and fit in the landscape in most countries. He attributed his safety to remaining unnoticed as best he could. Once out of Iran, the trek across other countries began. He did odd jobs and kept moving. He landed in the Netherlands when he felt safe enough to stop running where he later met his wife. He had to stop talking because it was too painful to remember.
I had no story to tell because I came from a country where freedom lived. I had never seen war on our soil. I never experienced communism or oppression or hunger or poverty. The others had many questions about America. What they knew of America was mostly from movies, magazines and newspapers. They all talked about going to America some day. One young girl said, “I am very beautiful and will go to Hollywood to be in movies and eat ice cream every day.” The other guests cheered