نوئل شاد

کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 21

نوئل شاد

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Joyeuse Noëlle

One Saturday morning during my junior year of high school, I showed up at the University of California at Irvine to compete in an impromptu speech contest sponsored by the Alliance Française, a French language school. I, along with a few dozen college and high school students, was given one hour to prepare a speech in French entitled “Responsibility Toward Technology.” The first prize was two months at the Alliance Française in Paris.

I had been taking French since seventh grade, and under the tutelage of my high school teacher, Mr. Polkingharn, affectionately known as Le Polk, I had become quite fluent. My fellow high school students often asked me how I had managed to learn the language so quickly. I always told them that it had something to do with my inability to do a cartwheel, shoot a basket, or roller-skate. God had to compensate somehow.

To qualify for the contest, all participants had to sign a statement saying that they had never spent more than two weeks in a French-speaking country and that neither parent was a native speaker. My parents’ French was limited to a handful of words that had crept into Persian, including minijupe (miniskirt), bigoudi (hair roller), abat-jour (lampshade), and coup d’état. The French word most commonly used in Iran was chic, a word that accurately described what we were not.

The only language heard in our house besides Persian was Shushtari, a version of Old Persian spoken by my father and his family, whose ancestors came from the historic city of Shushtar, in southern Iran. About 1,750 years ago, King Shapur I led the Persians in a fight against the Roman emperor Valerian. After winning the battle, the Persians brought the captured Roman engineers to Shushtar to design dams, water mills, artificial canals, and an irrigation system, many of which still work today. If Walt Disney had ever seen Shushtar, he would have created Ancientland to be nestled alongside Frontierland and Fantasy-land.

The language of Shushtari, with its abundance of animal and plant imagery, reflects the simple agricultural life of its residents. Many words exist in Shushtari that do not exist in Persian. For instance, the word peshkel means animal droppings that are round, like a goat’s or sheep’s. When two people look alike, my aunt Sedigeh describes them as being “like two halves of a peshkel.” And to reveal what is truly valuable in life, my aunt Fatimeh always uses the Shushtari proverb “Any gift from a true friend is valuable, even if it’s a hollow walnut shell.” It’s fair to say that the Shushtari floating in my house did not give me any edge in the French language. It did, however, teach me that people sometimes talk louder and laugh harder in their native tongue, as evidenced by my father and his siblings. It also trained my ear for accents and thus eventually got me into trouble.

Even though I was the youngest contestant in the impromptu-speech contest, I placed first. Unbeknownst to me, this was met with suspicion. Apparently, some people thought that my Parisian accent was too authentic for a foreigner. Perhaps taking their cue from Detective Clouseau, a couple of the judges decided to do a little investigative work.

After the contest, my parents started receiving phone calls in French. They became a somewhat regular, though inexplicable, part of our lives; the phone would ring, and then my father or mother would say, “Vait, vait, pehleeze … Firoozeh.” I would pick up the receiver to find somebody from the Alliance Française with a piddling question or comment.

“I would like to verify the spelling of your last name.”

“I would like to congratulate you personally.”

“Have you read anything by Camus? He’s quite good.”

These French phone calls made my already nervous parents even more anxious. “Why do they keep speaking French with us if they know we don’t speak the language?” they always asked me. I had no clue. I just assumed they were forgetful. My mother finally reached her own conclusion. “Nobody understands their English,” concluded my mother. “And they know that.” Two weeks after my seventeenth birthday, I was on an airplane bound for Paris. I was scheduled to arrive two days before the national celebration of the French Revolution, Bastille Day. I had never been so excited in my entire life. I couldn’t wait to meet my host family. I couldn’t wait to eat an authentic baguette. I couldn’t wait to make French friends. This was going to be the best summer of my entire life, the kind of summer that somebody would want to make a movie out of. And as soon as I set foot in the Paris airport, I was whisked away by two gendarmes.

I had no idea that traveling with an Iranian passport would qualify me for special treatment. These men found it odd that three years after the revolution, a seventeen-year-old Iranian should be traveling by herself and staying in Paris for two months. In a small, windowless room, I explained to them in French, but with a perky Southern California demeanor, all about the contest and how I had won and how much I was looking forward to seeing the Louvre and going to cafés and eating a crepe on a street corner.

“You don’t know anybody in Paris?” they asked me.

“Did anyone give you any materials to distribute?”

“How is it that you speak French so well if you are only a student of French?”

“Do you plan on returning to America afterward?”

These people clearly thought my life was a lot more exciting that it was. After answering all their questions, I had to endure the luggage search. My suitcase, roughly the size of a coffin, was on loan from Aunt Sedigeh. It had previously been used to transport two large Persian rugs and an entire samovar set from Iran.

The gendarmes started sifting through the clothes and the myriad of gifts I had brought for my host family. When they reached the stuffed Minnie Mouse, they decided they had had enough. They zipped up my suitcase and politely wished me a nice stay.

After my rendezvous with the welcoming committee, I searched the airport for someone carrying a sign with my name on it. Once I found her, I was greeted with “Where have you been?” I explained to her that I was a VIP, a Very Iranian Person, and things just take longer for us.

Before coming to Paris, I had corresponded once with my host family, mainly to find out what kinds of gifts to bring. Michel and Christiane were journalists working for Libération, a left-leaning newspaper. They also had a six-month-old daughter. I had envisioned myself spending evenings having enlightening discussions over home-cooked French meals. “Pass the béarnaise sauce, please—and tell me again, Michel, what you really think of the ramifications of industrialism in nineteenth-century France.” Upon arriving, I gave them the gifts: the coffee-table book on California, the signed limited-edition print of the Ferris wheel on Balboa Island, the T-shirts from Newport Beach, the homemade chocolate chip cookies, the homemade baklava, and the large Minnie Mouse. Once my hosts had opened all the presents, Christiane blithely informed me that the next morning they would be leaving for the countryside, where they would be staying for the entire summer, but here were the keys to the apartment. She also told me the location of the nearest twenty-four-hour market. I then did what any self-respecting person would do: I asked to go with them. “Non,” replied Christiane.

It became painfully obvious to me that there was to be no cultural exchange with these people. The only exchange they were interested in was the exchange of currency between them and the rental office.

Michel and Christiane’s small apartment on the rue de Turbigo was filled with books and magazines. Bookshelves lined every room. From Japanese art to Russian literature to the works of Dante and Joyce, every topic was covered—except of course, hospitality. Had I not met Michel and Christiane but simply stayed in their apartment, I probably would have liked them.

The tiny bathroom came with a three-year stack of Zoom, a photography magazine that prominently featured breasts in every pictorial, but in an intellectual way. For a spread on the disappearing tribes of Africa, the locals were featured alongside a lineup of topless Caucasian models wearing African masks. What better way to showcase the wildflowers of Provence than by painting a few topless models purple and placing them among the flowers? Even the ads followed the same theme. In a coffee ad, a dark-skinned model was featured sitting on a hill of beans. Both the beans and the model were naked.

During my years as a French student, every textbook I had ever read had elaborated upon the unforgettable jubilance known as Bastille Day, the parade down the Champs-Elysées, the fireworks, the general merriment, and the cherished memories born only of this event. Sitting alone in the apartment the day after my arrival, I realized that I was going to be spending this momentous holiday by myself in a tiny apartment far away from the festivities. Since I knew nobody in Paris, I decided to go talk to the concierge to see if she had any ideas.

According to my books on French culture, concierges were usually old ladies living alone on the ground floor of apartment buildings. They were usually pictured peeking from behind their lace curtains to see the comings and goings of the apartment dwellers. One is supposed to consult the concierge about the mail or a lost key, never for social advice. But I was desperate.

I knocked on the door and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by Noëlle, a plump, jovial woman in her early forties. I explained to her that I had just arrived in Paris from California and was looking for something to do on Bastille Day. The minute she heard the word “California,” she perked up even more. “Une californienne!” she exclaimed. I didn’t really want to disappoint her by pointing out that I was actually une iranienne, so I just smiled. She wanted to know whether I lived near Hollywood and whether I knew any famous people. I explained to her that I lived an hour away from Hollywood; as for famous people, I thought of telling her that my father is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad, but I knew that wasn’t the kind of famous person she was inquiring about.

Noëlle told me to meet her the following night so we could go to the Champs-Elysées together. She said she couldn’t wait. Neither could I.

The next evening, I put on a Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and the spanking-new Adidas sneakers I had bought for my trip. I knocked on Noëlle’s door, but the woman who answered bore no resemblance to the concierge I had met the night before.

Noëlle was clad in a body-hugging red knit dress that accentuated her ample curves. The plunging neckline barely covered her enormous chest. With each breath she took, I expected her bosom to just break free and come out to watch the parade with us.

We started walking the three blocks to the Métro station, catching the attention of every creepy male in the City of Lights. As Noëlle jiggled and wiggled down the street, I thought of just skipping the parade since we had managed to start our own.

During the long Métro ride, we sat surrounded by the kind of men I always associate with windowless vans bearing bumper stickers that say if this van’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’. Unlike me, Noëlle was completely enamored of the attention, although, to her credit, she never talked to any of the men. She was too busy inquiring about California and specifically, California men. In search of a husband, she told me, she had recently moved to Paris from the countryside, but she was hugely disappointed with the men: according to her, they were all married. I was surprised that she had any minimum standards, since her dress and high heels gave the impression that anyone in possession of a simple set of one X and one Y chromosome would suffice.

We reached the Champs-Elysées approximately ten minutes after the rest of the population of Western Europe. Noëlle and I moved around trying to find a good spot, but no matter where we went, all we could see was the backs of people’s heads. I didn’t think anything could be worse than the after-Christmas sale at Nordstrom, but I was clearly wrong.

The parade started and ended. I saw nothing.

Once the festivities were over, Noëlle and I made our way to the Métro station, only to find that the same fourteen rows of people who had been ahead of us at the parade were now ahead of us in line for the train. “Pas de problème,” chirped Noëlle. “Nous chercherons un taxi.” The idea of looking for a taxi was a fine one, except that apparently all the drivers had taken the night off—they had probably been standing in front of us at the parade. After walking half a dozen blocks, Noëlle suggested that we just walk the rest of the way home. It was one a.m.

Normally, I cannot stay awake past ten o’clock. My goal throughout high school was to stay up long enough to watch Saturday Night Live. I never made it. In college, my parents had no need to worry about my getting involved with drugs and alcohol, since by the time most parties started, I was in my third cycle of REM sleep.

I am also legendary among my friends for my complete lack of a sense of direction, making me the perfect kidnap victim, no blindfold necessary. Drive me anywhere and I will be unable to find my way back. It was therefore a great irony that I found myself in a foreign city trying to make my way home way past my bedtime.

I spent the entire walk home making deals with God: “If you just get me home, I will never ask for anything again.” Between conversations with the Almighty, I listened for the click-click of Noëlle’s heels, a Morse code of sorts, to guide me back to the rue de Turbigo. By then, we had run out of conversation, or rather, Noëlle had nothing more to say about men. Much to her disappointment, I didn’t have much to contribute on the topic since I was, to put it kindly, a late bloomer.

School started a few days later. The classes, like the Bastille Day parade, were a huge disappointment. All my teachers were in their early twenties and none seemed very interested in teaching. Perhaps they resented being stuck in Paris during the summer, a season when the French normally evacuate the capital. One teacher spent the whole time flirting with the men in class while completely ignoring the women. Another made us translate the lyrics of the works of Jacques Brel, a famous performer whose songs would have been appropriate for Suicide: The Musical. We spent hours plodding through the songs, while our teacher sat with a far-off look in her eyes. My English versions did not do them justice, but then again, the teacher had a certain hands-off style of teaching, a style that translated into her sitting in the corner recalling, perhaps, a summer spent elsewhere. She helped us only reluctantly, as when none of our dictionaries had the word putain, slang for “prostitute.” With apologies to Monsieur Brel, the song “Jef”: No Jef, you’re not alone

Stop crying like that in front of everyone

Because a fake blonde dumped you yet again

No Jef, you’re not alone

But I’m ashamed to see you cry shamelessly in front of everybody

Because a three-quarter whore popped out of your life

Then we moved on to “Fernand,” a funerary march.

To think that Fernand is dead

To think that Fernand has died

To think that I’m the only one behind

To think that he’s the only one in front

Him in his last beer

Me in my fog

Him in his hearse

Me in my desert

By the end of that song, we were able to conjugate the verb “to die” in every tense.

Had I made some friends during my melancholic French lessons, I would have at least been a few degrees happier than Jef or Fernand. Unfortunately, the students in my classes were quite a bit older than I was and most were newly arrived immigrants struggling to learn French. These were not people hoping to find Gertrude Stein’s favorite haunt; they were hoping to find a job. The few interesting people I did meet were leaving in three days to go somewhere else. No one, except for the people selling key chains under the Eiffel Tower, actually stayed in Paris during the summer.

The upside of my lonely two months was that I became completely fluent in French. Having loads of free time, I also managed to see just about every museum in the city. Whatever culture I lacked after having spent six years in Southern California, I more than made up for.

The downside of my summer was realizing that maybe the joys of being seventeen, even in Paris, were highly exaggerated. I wondered if the summer somehow foreshadowed the rest of my life. Maybe I was doomed to a really lonely existence where the only pleasure came not from human company but from croissants. Maybe someday I would end up thinking Jacques Brel’s lyrics were uplifting.

A few months after my return to California, I received a letter from Noëlle letting me know that she had moved to New Caledonia, where, according to her, the ratio of men to women was five to one. I remembered her kindness in taking me to the Champs-Elysées on Bastille Day to fulfill one of my dreams. Granted, she had mistaken me for a real Californian, someone who perhaps knew Paul Newman or Cher. But in exchange for making one of my dreams come true, I sincerely hoped that she would find Monsieur Merveilleux waiting for her on that little island in the Pacific.

If someone were to make a movie of my summer in Paris, it would not be the touching coming-of-age film I had hoped for, but rather a black-and-white filled with close-ups of furrowed brows and croissant crumbs. There would be no theme song, just the sound of the Métro doors opening and closing and opening and closing. Against this backdrop of teenage angst, there would have to be a symbol, a representation of the confidence that comes with eventual intellectual and spiritual growth. This would, bien sûr, be most effectively depicted by a judicious scattering of topless models in the background.

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