Miss Lily Keeps Them Talking in Paris In the Luxembourg Gardens, the most beautiful park in Paris, a small white-haired woman sits in the sun inviting conversation. She holds a sign in her lap that reads "Hello! Let's talk."
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Miss Lily Keeps Them Talking in Paris

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Miss Lily Keeps Them Talking in Paris

Miss Lily Keeps Them Talking in Paris

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Back in the 16th century, Shakespeare described a gentleman that loves to hear himself talk. More recently, your mother may have told you never to talk to strangers. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg found a woman in Paris who ignores all those observations.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

France is a nation of talkers, everywhere and all the time, intense one-on-one conversations that to a foreign ear sound like pigeons cooing. In Paris' most beautiful park, the Luxembourg Gardens, a small white-haired woman sits in the sun inviting conversations with a two-sided sign on her lap.

Miss LILLY SANASHI(ph): My sign says: Hello. Let's talk. In French, I say (French spoken).

STAMBERG: The first time I came upon her I'd gotten off the number 85 bus and was walking to a friend's place through the park. `Would you like to know about my signs?' `Of course.' She explained her goal: getting strangers to talk with one another. `In America, I talk to strangers, too, on the radio.' Her lively eyes smiled. `Don't you want to interview me?'

The next day, over my tape recorder, Miss Lilly Sanashi, age 81, told her story.

Miss SANASHI: My idea is that it should be possible to talk to each other. And in public places, there should be places designed for the conversation. The same way as there are places for smokers, there should be places for talkers; so there is no misunderstanding, without money, without name, without any obligations. And I think it would give a lot of pleasure for many people.

STAMBERG: Three men were chatting with Miss Lilly when I arrived. One, a young African, misses his homeland.

Unidentified Man #1: Need I have in my heart to return in (unintelligible).

STAMBERG: So mostly, do people come tell you their problems...

Miss SANASHI: No.

STAMBERG: ...Miss Lilly?

Miss SANASHI: No. I cannot and I want not to replace a psychiatrist. Dear, I try to speak about general things.

STAMBERG: About the world or about life or politics?

Miss SANASHI: No politics and no religion, because there come the (unintelligible) and that's something I want to avoid. And I assure you that if you avoid these two subjects, then we understand each other.

STAMBERG: So they talk about their lives, their interests. Some come to see Miss Lilly more than once.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken) ...second time. I see this paper.

STAMBERG: He spotted Miss Lilly and her signs last year but didn't approach her then. His life was going badly. He had no job, was depressed. But now here he is again.

Unidentified Man #2: I have a job. So I am not alone.

STAMBERG: And he's ready to join Miss Lilly to talk. She speaks with him in French, but she has many languages: English, German, Dutch, a bit of Spanish and Hungarian, her native language. She worked as an interpreter for decades. She lives in Brussels but visits Paris several times a year to sit each sunny afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens with her signs. It's a perfect crossroads. Everybody comes here--young, old, visitors, residents--and Miss Lilly finds they all have something in common.

Miss SANASHI: If you speak here with the people, they tell you how lonely they feel. It's because of television, because the family relationship, many, many reasons. The result is that they are lonely and they enjoy to meet somebody new.

STAMBERG: This dear 81-year-old in her porkpie hat, navy slacks, sturdy tan walking shoes and her `Let's Talk' sign says she herself is never lonely. Lilly Sanashi has lots of friends and relatives, but encouraging talk amongst strangers makes her feel she's doing something useful. She wishes others would carry signs but understands it's not that easy.

Miss SANASHI: This cannot be done by anybody. I mean, a young girl cannot do it. A man, young or old, cannot do it. It must be an elderly woman to do it.

STAMBERG: Because an older woman is safe, non-threatening. Still, Lilly Sanashi knows she may appear odd sitting in the park with her signs.

Miss SANASHI: People look at poor me as a little bit crazy. So it doesn't bother me. I think the world is crazy enough. To be crazy among them is more a compliment than a shame.

STAMBERG: What are you doing? Are you packing up your sign, Miss Lilly?

Miss SANASHI: Yes, I close my office.

STAMBERG: It's getting late, almost 7 in the evening. She's been in the park since 3. She looks a bit tired.

Miss SANASHI: (Foreign language spoken)

STAMBERG: But her mission's not over yet. A young woman comes up to thank Miss Lilly.

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken) Meet by the skies.

STAMBERG: Sent by the heavens.

KATRINE: Sent by the heavens. Oh, sent by the heavens.

STAMBERG: Katrine(ph) is about to take a literature exam which requires some facility with English. Yesterday, here in Miss Lilly's circle she met a fellow French woman with very good English. They plan to meet regularly before Katrine's exam.

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken)

STAMBERG: Katrine has pulled out Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road" and is getting help translating it into French for an assignment.

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: Oui. Oui. Oui. Oui. Oui.

STAMBERG: The young African, an American man and I wrestle with Kerouac's idiosyncratic American beats.

We wield to the sultry old light of Algiers.

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: Algiers.

KATRINE: (Foreign language spoken)

STAMBERG: As the glorious light of Paris beings to fade, Lilly Sanashi lingers, enjoying this exchange, a circle of help that wouldn't have formed without her sign. Finally, she stands and picks up her cane. `Can I walk you to the bus, the Metro?' `No, no. Don't disturb yourself.' Gathering her things, Miss Lilly heads for a flight of stairs and climbs slowly up and out of the park, until tomorrow, if it's a nice day.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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