Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.2.5: The French Connection

Hey, all those signs saying “Bush Go Home!” “Bush the Butcher,” “Get out of Iraq,” and such that we have been seeing in TV the past couple of days – – they’re in English! Not in French, but English. Aside from the fact that they are not the desired result from the $20 million or so that was spent on this elaborate photo-op and reciting of the tedious mantra of Bush-Blair lies and self delusions on the Iraq fiasco, it must have been seen with some amusement by the much vilified French. Especially, in that at least one British commentator observed that Bush’s arrive in the UK was the least welcome visit since William the Conquerer in 1066. Perhaps he should stick to staged triumphal landings on aircraft carriers.

Most Americans munching up their waistlines on “Freedom Fries” have never been to France, or would care to go there when they can have a hokey version of Paris in Las Vegas and, best of all, without having to encounter any of those pesky Frenchmen. Those perks were unavailable to me when I was a visiting Professor Associe at the University of Paris in 1989, the year of the Bicentennaire of the French Revolution. I found my own frustrations with those obstreperous Gauls during my tenure there and wrote the following piece for KPBS-FM (and my travel archives) in my cramped studio in a little street in the 13th Arrondisment called Villa des Gobelins.



American in Paris

Did you ever have the feeling that you are in one of those science fiction movies where you come into a town that you think you know, but something isn’t right about it? This is just a rhetorical question, but I think you know what I mean. Charlie, the gas station attendant who played on the high school basketball team with you, doesn’t even acknowledge you when you pull in his station to fill up. Your old aunt Maude seems to look right through you, and says things completely out of character. Even your old girlfriend treats you like a perfect stranger. Something funny is going on, like in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Well, I’ve got that feeling. I’ve been in Paris for four months now, a city I have visited several times before; but this time something weird is going on. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, but now I think I’m onto it. It’s the Parisians, there is something very curious about them this time. They seem different, not themselves.

You probably know what I mean, because Parisians have a reputation. They are supposed to be arrogant, surly, and aloof. They are supposed to look down their aquiline noses at foreigners, particularly Americans. Even French people who are not Parisians come in for this treatment. And as the reputation goes Parisians are even supposed to be mean-spirited with one another, sort of the New Yorkers of Europe.

Ask any Midwestern American who has been to Paris for a few days on a package tour; they will tell you that they are never going back to Paris and be treated that way again. They will recall how they asked a Parisian how to get to Notre Dame and they ended up closer to the one with the football team. Or how they tried to order a simple ham and cheese sandwich and they waiter brought them a plate of the innards of some strange animal that he all but threw at them. They might also say how they attempted to use their best high school French at the hotel desk and the concierge snickered and said he didn’t understand Swahili. That’s the reputation I’m talking about.

Now either some strange virus has attacked the Parisians, or somebody has spiked their wine, because these Parisians today just aren’t living up to their reputation. Au contraire! Maybe they are just setting me up for the big one, but the Parisians I have encountered thusfar have been coming across like Southern Californians. The lady I buy my Herald Tribune from smiles and thanks me warmly in her sing-song “Merci bien, Monsieur”. My bank clerk told me to “have a nice day” on my second visit. And the man at the fruit stand actually let me choose my own apple rather than trying to slip me a bruised one. If this keeps up one of those notorious Parisian waiters is going to say: “Hi, I’m Jean-Paul, and I’ll be your waiter today”.

See what I mean? Something weird is going on here. Unless I’m stuck in some French sci-fi film there has to be some non-supernatural explanation for all this Gallic amity. One possibility is that, for some unknown reason, all the Parisians have taken a Dale Carnegie course; but I don’t find that very likely. More plausible is that I’m not on a package tour that disgorges dozens of weary and, yes, sometimes ugly Americans into Paris hotels and restaurants, complaining about the rooms and asking directions to the nearest McDonald’s. But that seems too logical. Something else is going on here, I just know it.

Now it occurs to me that this is the bicentennial year of the French Revolution, that major historical event in which the Parisians knocked down the Bastille, and after knocking off the heads of their king and queen, turned to lopping of one another’s heads. It was a long and bloody revolution and the Parisians, apparently enjoying that sort of thing, decided to have another in 1830 and a couple more in 1848 and 1870. Revolting people, these Parisians, or at least they used to be.

So maybe word had gotten out to them that tourists are going to be a little nervous about coming to Paris for the bicentennial because the Parisians might just haul out the old guillotine and start lopping off some tourist heads for old-times’ sake. Maybe they are working on their “Mr. Nice Guy” image (or is that Mr. Nice “Gee”?), or there won’t be any American tourists around for the big party they have planned for this Summer.

I’m just guessing, but the only other reason I can come up with for all the current Parisian goodwill is that maybe the Parisians are afraid of us Americans. Consider the fact that we Americans are about as violent today as the Parisians were during the French Revolution. It could be that a lot of Parisians have since been to America and have discovered that an American might smile and say: “Welcome to America and have a nice day.” But then these days Americans seem just as likely to pull out a .357 Magnum, or an AK-47 assault rifle and snarl: “Go ahead, Froggie, make my day!”

©1989, ©2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.21.2003)

Radio Essay No.39, Aired KPBS-FM, Public Radio, May 5, 1989