Springtime in Paris in 1989. A light gray sky. Somewhere an accordion is playing.
I walk a steep cobblestone avenue after visiting the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in all its white glory.
This is not tourist Paris. The avenue is jammed with vendors selling flowers and food. Talk is everywhere, but no one speaks English. I don’t speak French, and it’s all melodic gibberish.
A voice calls.
“Hey, you, buy a sandwich.”
Two bearded 40-something men — one wearing a deep gray shirt, the other a navy blue shirt — stand beside a cart, and they wave me over. Meat and vegetables are sizzling. The smell is inviting. This is a chance to eat French bread in France.
They make a sale.
The three of us embark on a conversation. We consider the wonders of Paris. We agree it is difficult, if not quite impossible, to find a bad meal in the City of Lights. We wonder if the strike will end that has prohibited my visit to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (It does not.)
The conversation takes a quick turn, and we consider the challenges of raising daughters. All three of us are fathers. They are veterans. I’m the relatively new dad.
I tell a story:
On the overnight flight from New York to Paris, my 2-year-old daughter refuses to slumber, talking and crying the entire 8-hour journey. Her relentless energy severely injures our popularity with fellow American passengers.
Upon arrival at our Paris hotel, mom and dad instantly go to sleep while daughter waits a few moments before departing her bed to toss mom’s and dad’s cash and credit cards out the window and into the hotel courtyard. (The cash and credit cards are recovered.)
This story inspires happy snickering from the sandwich sellers. Just wait, they warn. More daughterly mischief lurks just around the bend. (They were prophets.)
We discuss the utter magnificence of the sandwich they prepared. You will not, they say in a near shout, find a better sandwich in all of Paris.
I agree. The sandwich is filled with mysterious flavors, and memory of the smoky, exotic taste will linger for decades.
I ask where the sandwich makers are from. This is my go-to question to most everyone I meet, partially because the inquiry is nonthreatening.
They frown at the question. A fresh tension invades our conversation.
“I’m from Iran,” the man in the deep gray shirt says.
“I’m from Iraq,” the man in the navy blue shirt says.
I think of the just-completed Iraq-Iran war that raged from 1980 to 1988, a war that inspired scant attention in the United States, a war that killed between 500,000 and one million Iranians and Iraqis. And I think of the hostage crisis, when 52 of my countrymen were held in Tehran for 444 days, a devastating and lasting blow to American self-esteem.
Silence replaces laughter as both men glare at me.
“We should hate each other,” the man in the deep gray shirt says as the man in the navy blue shirt nods.
A dramatic pause.
“And we should both hate you.”
My eyes open really wide while a gentle, fragrant afternoon takes a depressing detour into recent world history and bloodshed and hatred.
Then the surprise arrives. My friends, I discover, are only kidding. On a cobblestone street in Paris, we toss away all the “shoulds,” and three unlikely comrades are laughing again.
This time, at the absurdity of hate.