We have all heard it a thousand times: The French are rude. The French hate Americans.
As for the rude thing, I’m guessing anyone who ever said that never got out of Paris if they ever visited France at all. Most of the French don’t think all that much of Paris or Parisians. And I’d guess a Frenchman would think the same of all Americans if he encountered a Bronx cab driver on his first and only trip to the USA.
And as for hating Americans, well we can say with absolute certainty that we have never, ever caught a hint of that. Au contraire. If an American wants to feel loved, they should go to Normandy. The French in Normandy still remember and wear their appreciation on their sleeves.
The truth is, wherever we have gone in France we have seemed to cause a little ripple of excitement when it was discovered we were Americans. The first assumption is often that we’re Brits. When we tell them we’re not Brits, but Americans, people light up and smile, often tell us they love the US, and then start to regale us about their trip to the US. Oddly, after they all tell us they’ve been to New York, a startling number tell us they’ve been to Florida, of all places.
Here in the Sarthe that is exactly what has happened. At the local boulangerie I’ve become so familiar to Madame that when I enter she pulls out the kind of baguette I always order before I say the word. One day she asked if I was British, and when I told her no, American, she erupted in a broad smile, proclaimed her love of the US, and I got the story of her long-ago trip to New York.
Same thing at the local café. Not a Brit. American. Big smiles and tale of how the patronne longed to visit.
Generally speaking, Americans don’t know very much about what goes on in France, or Europe. The news in the US is focused on the US, with marginal interest on what goes on over there, except for major events like terrorist attacks or weather disasters. Brexit, of course, got a lot of play, as do the occasional riots that occur in major cities. Strikes, being the national pastime of France, get periodic coverage when they begin, but they fade out of the news after a while because of the short attention span of most media. To be fair, the same is true in most countries, bar the sensational or a negative response to a perceived US threat.
In France and the rest of Europe, though, the average person is interested in what goes on in the US, but it is superficial knowledge, largely derived from the highly politicized US main stream media or the sewer of social media. So, you often find individuals’ opinions about the US wax and wane with the opinion of the US President held by the US media. We’ve been visiting France through the administrations of four US Presidents, and it has been interesting to watch French people-on-the-street.
In the final days of the Clinton presidency the French attitude towards Bill was kind of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and a knowing smile. The French love a good sex scandal, and our shock seemed to surprise them. After 9-11, Bush was grand, but as the US media resumed their turn against him, so did the typical street viewpoint.
When Obama was in the White House, if someone saw we were Americans they would give us thumbs up, and chant, “Obama! Obama!” Now, not surprisingly, you hear a lot of “I love America and Americans. I just hate Trump.”
In fact, politics–American politics, is rarely mentioned among our acquaintances. It is most often mentioned in encounters with strangers, for whom American politics is the only thing they can hang their hat on in a conversation with a strange American. Among those we know, no one ever talks about US politics, and in fact they rarely discuss French politics with us except to explain the current strike and what it will mean for us as we go about our day-to- day existence. On the rare occasion when a friend or acquaintance is in a conversation about French politics we just sit back and listen.
We had one interesting moment on a blustery, miserable, rainy afternoon in Brittany in November of 2000. We had sheltered from the weather in a quayside bar, where the local denizens were sipping their wine, transfixed by live TV coverage of the US Presidential election that would not go away, and the dangling chads in Florida. We unobtrusively sat at a table and watched, talking quietly. Not quietly enough, as the fellows at the bar quickly realized we were Americans. They said nothing, and we said nothing. And we all, in unison, shook our heads and laughed.
Recently I have occasionally heard someone share an opinion about the current administration in the US with great certainty. My response is always, “I am not French. I have not grown up in France, I do not know the intricacies and nuances of French life and government well enough to have an informed and intelligent opinion about French politics. All I know is what I see in the media, and that isn’t enough for me to have an intelligent opinion.” It usually shuts down that thread of conversation, and we can return to arguing about which boulangerie in town makes the best baguette.
Not long ago we had to visit a French government office in Nantes, with some paperwork required for our long-stay status. All government buildings have security guards stationed at the door, allowing people in one at a time after careful scrutiny. When we got to the head of the line the guard glanced at our paperwork, and with a curious look, asked, “Vous etes American? ”
Yes, we responded, and with a genuinely quizzical look on his face asked us, “You want to live in France?” Of course we said yes. “Why?” he asked. We told him we love France, we love his country. His response was a broad smile that radiated surprise but also a pride that was something to see, as he opened the door for us and waved us in.
A short time later, on our way out, we had to stop at a counter and present our papers, which had been approved and moved us one step closer to residence approval. It was clear we had been approved. When the young lady at the counter saw the paperwork she asked, in English, if we were Americans. When I said yes, she broke out in a big smile, and I jokingly asked, is that a good thing or a bad thing? She smiled, and said “That’s a very good thing. I love America and Americans.”
On the way out the door I caught the eye of the security guard–he gave me a conspiratorial grin, and made a thumbs up sign to us. It is not the kind of behavior one expects from a French security guard.
One of our favorite encounters happened somewhere along the eastern border of France, in Alsace. It is a region with a distinctly German atmosphere, largely because it has alternately been German and French over hundreds of years of wars. The regional dialect has a distinctly German quality, and Alsaciens who speak English often sound like Germans speaking English.
We had come upon a castle that looked interesting, had parked our car, and were walking towards the gate when a rather jolly, gray-haired fellow approached and in Alsacien French asked if we knew the time. We apologized and told him we didn’t speak good French, could he repeat? But when he discovered we were American, his interest in the time disappeared and he launched into an animated and passionate tale of his recent visit to America, and what was apparently an Alsacien group bus trip across the country.
“Ja!, Ja!, ve vas on a buuus, und ve had a vunderful time, but ze driver voodent let us haff bier on ze buuus und zat vas bad.”
And then he said, “Ja, ve vas in Hollyvood, und ve saw ze Goose Town und it vas amazing!”
Uh, “Did you say Goose Town?” “Ja, Ja, it vas ze Goose Town!”
Goose town? Goose Town? Karen and I wracked our brains trying to think of a town with geese.
“In California?” “Ja! Zayr vas nobody zayr.”
A town with just geese? We wondered. Then the light came on. “Do you mean a ghost town?”
“Ja! Ja! A Goose Town. It vas Amazing!
Lest I offend, Karen insists I acknowlege that our French is equally impenetrable to most native French-speakers.