Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The French Explained

You know the stereotype.  The one that persists that the French are rude, snooty and cannot stand "zeeee Ugly Americans in zeir fanny bags and tennees shoezz" (said in a thick French accent).

That label is almost as pervasive as the misperception that all Texans drive convertible Cadillacs with longhorns attached the hood, sporting cowboys hats and boots with oil wells and mustangs in the back yards.  

Granted, you could find someone to fit each of the aforementioned stereotypes but both are wildly off the mark.  When I was recently in Paris, I didn't encounter one rude Parisian,  not a snooty waiter or anyone who was beaten down with my attempts to recall and actually speak my high school French that would have Madame McBride exclaim "Quelle horreur!"

My crash course in French culture came to life in, of all places, Harry's American Bar.  Cliche spot to drink, I know, but we stumbled across it and were thirsty.  It was dead empty save for the bartender, a Frenchmen named Gerard, and a British man who now lives in Paris.  We gave our customary "Bonjour" to both men and went to the bar.  We waited for Gerard, who was sharing a glass of champagne with the expat Brit, to come to us at the bar to ask for our order.  We ordered our champagne and thanked him.

A couple of glasses later, the expat Brit left for his family's Sunday dinner and Gerard was deep in conversation with us.  About this time, an American couple walks in wearing jeans, tennis shoes and, yes, dual fanny bags worn tightly around their waists.  Already fitting the stereotype the gentleman barks "two Bloody Mary's!".

"You can always tell the Americans," Gerard whispers to me.  "They never say hello, please or thank you."

That was incredibly telling!  The French aren't rude or snooty.  What they want is politeness.  They are overly polite.  Think about it: any time you read a French guidebook or watch a travel show on Paris, authors and hosts always advise you to say "bonjour", "s'il vous plait" and "merci" when going into a store or restaurant because the shopkeepers and owners feel as if you are entering their homes.

The French just want us to make the effort: dress properly and offer a simple hello while enjoying and respecting the beauty, history and culture their country offers.  It's sort of a throwback to earlier era in the U.S. which is something I kind of like.

Post-Script with a post card from Barcelona:
The Ugly American thing hit me like a cinder block in the face in Barcelona.  I happened to run into someone I sort of knew from North Texas at a hotel in Spain (crazy!!!!).  This person fit every stereotype: wearing a Fox News Channel hat, sporting a LiveStrong t-shirt,  stark-white jogging shoes on the feet and, yes, the ubiquitous fanny pack.

Can you get the mental picture?  It was worse in person.  

I'm all for U.S. pride and wearing it proudly but forget American patriotism, this was just bad taste all around.  Unfortunately, it lent credence to every narrow-minded individual who buys into that Ugly American stereotype.

Bonus Hint:
Fanny bags are never good thing to wear.  NEVER.