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France Me

September 27, 2008

by Sara Roberson

At one point during my blissful summer, I found myself in the middle seat of the back row of a Boeing 737, destination: Houston, Texas.  Seated in the row in front of me were two men, respectively around twenty and thirty.  Perhaps their natural kinship arose from the fact that, though strangers, they both looked like they had a common interest in cheap beer and prostitutes.  As I was engaged in reading one of the greatest works of literature of all time (East of Eden, by Steinbeck), I only caught tidbits of their conversation, which, it seemed, revolved mostly around alcohol and "having the time of your life," usually in combination.  The younger of the two men captured my attention however, when he mentioned a recent trip to France. "Yeah, I was in Paris," Dude #1 said in a tone more appropriate to that of an embittered Vietnam Vet. "Good food, I guess, but the people are rude.I'm never goin' back."

Dude #2 was of accord. Key words in his agreement included "World War II," and "French culture," the latter pronounced in such a way as to show its inferiority to the former.

I have several problems with statements like these. First and foremost, Paris cannot be equated with the whole of France. It's like going to San Diego and saying that you've been to California. Yes, in a sense you have, but would you feel comfortable saying that California is lousy just because Shamu wouldn't give you the time of day?

Paris is like Sea World: most of the residents prefer their native tongue and have many more pressing issues than deciphering your hollering. Certainly the average Sea World inhabitant is more interested in jumping through hoops for you than, say, a French businessman, but it's all with the expectation of getting some raw fish in the end, anyway.The only analogous French treat that comes to mind is a cigarette, but I feel that such an offer would be viewed as inappropriate. The point is that Paris isn’t everything. Go to a smaller town, however, and your reception will be wildly different and likely more endearing.

Accordingly, I feel called to discuss manners. Politeness is a two-way street and travelers should acknowledge some cultural idiosyncrasies when abroad. I’m not saying it has to get complicated, but at least learn some pleasantries. France is quite similar to the USA in that its inhabitants are stereotypically renowned for only wanting to speak their native tongue.On the opposite end of the spectrum, a young German once went through five languages to tell me that we should have sex. I was so impressed, I almost did it. Moral of the story? A little bit of effort goes a long way. I’m not actually suggesting that you spend inordinate amounts of time upon memorization of unsubtle pick-up lines; however, a well-placed please and thank you puts everybody in the mood for some cross-cultural lovin’.

I always feel tired, world-weary, and French after listening to anti-French tirades. The two dudes had justbonded in their anti-French Americanism. One row behind them, I would have smoked a cigarette or gone on strike to show cultural unity, but I was on an airplane, and also, I don’t smoke. Inconveniently, I had forgotten to pack my beret, too. But as I symbolically light up and grab a picketing sign, I’ll leave you with one last thought: there is no such thing as a freedom fry.

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