I Met a French Nobel Laureate the Last Time I Was in Paris

The last time I was in Paris, I met a French Nobel laureate. We had a long discussion about how language influences the way we think. One question we pondered was whether English is more rational than French. The Nobel laureate said that languages are closer to animals than to physical phenomena; as animals, they are ruled in part by logic and optimization procedures and in part by history. Our conversation was long and involved. I actually did not understand some of his ideas so I will not try to summarize them. But let me tell you what happened immediately afterward.

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PJ Taylor courtesy of Getty Images

After talking with this Nobel laureate I was in a splendorous bliss. My spirits were flying high. We were not discussing anything close to what got him the prize, but the fact that he was not bored by speaking about philosophical matters with me made me feel proud. A few streets away from where we met I entered an old store of antiques. Most of the items in the store were clocks from the early twentieth century or even before. The store was like a labyrinth taken from Alice in Wonderland. Everything around me was ticking—ticktock, ticktock. I started talking to the shopkeeper. He inquired about my time in Paris, and I said I was having a great time. I had spent the previous two months in New York, and I planned to go back for another month before going back to Switzerland.

I mentioned that people seemed much more open and willing to interact in Paris than in New York. His gaze changed as his eyes met mine. “Girls?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “They seem so willing to talk to me.”

“Yes, they want to get out of Paris. Have you been talking to them in English or French?”

“Sometimes English, sometimes French,” I answered.

“Well you should stick to English. You are better at it. And say you are going back to New York. French girls like that.”

I was a bit offended by the comment. He was questioning my attractiveness and saying that French women would prefer my English, insulting both them and me. I mentioned that it was not only young women that were willing to talk to me but also Nobel laureates. I meant to impress him by throwing in that fact. I elaborated by musing that both the shopkeeper and the Nobel laureate liked to discuss the intricacies of languages in rather different ways.

Here comes the amazing part of the story. It turned out that the shopkeeper’s brother-in-law was a computational physicist working in Lyon. The brother-in-law happened to be friends with the same Nobel laureate, and—of all the shopkeepers in the world, and of all the people in the neighborhood—this shopkeeper had met and had dinner with (or had gone to the opera, I don’t remember) the Nobel laureate just the week before. We couldn’t believe the coincidence. The subject of our conversation switched, and we talked about how charismatic the Nobel laureate is from then on.

When I left the shop, I wandered around the streets of Paris and got lost. I eventually asked a girl for directions—in English.

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