The French connection
Have French bashers ever visited the land of liberté, beef stew, and consummate hospitality?
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE — Those exaggerated, egocentric French. We'll humor them perhaps. As long as we can abuse them as the butt of our humor.
Or as Boston Globe Washington bureau chief Peter Canellos put it recently in a tongue-in-cheek column: "Those fussy, arrogant, cheese-eating, wine-drinking snobs."
"Lampooning France has become such a staple of late-night comedy [in the United States]," he continues, "that it is hard to remember that it was once motivated by serious issues."
Too bad, as Canellos notes, that those issues have long ago passed into history. Or, that the stereotype, from what I have found after three months in this warm and gracious city, is just plain wrong. Even among my friends I can count a few who were curious about the choice of my wife, Kathy, and I to spend a semester-long sabbatical in France. "But the French can be so rude," I heard more than once.
After living in the midst of random acts of kindness, I can only wonder what the source of such misperceptions might be.
Have Americans spent too many evenings listening to those late-night comics? Spent their five days in Paris strolling down no street but the chichi Champs-Élysées? Spoken loudly in English rather than trying to manage a few words of this country's musical language? Or are Americans simply jealous of the style and grace of life in a country where cooking a beef stew, knotting a scarf, or greeting a friend are as much a form of art as daily routine?
Where's the snobbery?
Next to nothing in our experience in France jibes with the stereotype of vaguely amusing, largely annoying, mirror-absorbed Frenchmen. OK, we had to deal once with a surly cab driver who tried to jack up the price of a ride to our apartment. But I've faced worse in Boston. Other than that, Kathy and I have encountered no arrogance, no fussiness, no snobbery.
Instead, everywhere we turn, people greet us with a smile and a "Bonjour, monsieur et madame." Goodbyes are more elaborate – "Merci beaucoup; au revoir," and then, "bonne journée" or "bon weekend." People wait patiently while we mangle their language. Often, in a most cordial way, they'll then correct our mistakes in French. It's the best way to learn.
We've seen the warmth and kindness of the Provençal French in the old-timer who stopped my cousin Jim outside a bakery to tell him that his shoe was untied, the bartender who ran after us to give us free postcards, the desk clerk in Villefranche-sur-Mer who drew us a color-coded map of the area's beach-front trails.
We've seen their humor in the waitress in the sleepy Mediterranean village of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer who served us an ample and divine meal of fish soup and daub (a Provençal stew of sorts) after joking about the small but critical distinction between le poisson (fish), pronounced with an "s" sound, and le poison (poison), pronounced with a "z."
"If I served you poison, sir," she said with a twinkle, "you would be dead."
A taste of generosity
We've seen their generosity, too.
The ruddy-faced, no-nonsense manager of Joseph's bakery wrapped two petit apple turnovers in a bag for me, no charge, when Kathy returned to the States for two weeks, leaving me to fend for myself.
And the rugged cashier in the Provençal Alps allowed me to walk out of his ski rental shop with skis, boots, and poles and no paper trail other than my name. He'd taken no credit card imprint, requested no e-mail or phone number.
When I returned three days later and handed him ¤75 – the posted rate for the rental was ¤22 (almost $30) a day – he handed back ¤20. He had asked for just ¤59. But when I, confused, gave him too much, he decided to settle for ¤55 instead. Can you imagine similar treatment at a US resort?
In the end, my only frustration in France is in the severe limits of my own linguistic skills, not at all in the attitude of its people.
So to the French bashers and French skeptics, let me offer a modest suggestion. Plan a visit to this land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Wander beyond Paris – would you measure the courtesy of America solely by the cab drivers of New York City? Linger awhile.
Given an opportunity, the French surely will delight you and delight in laughing with you, not at you. Don't they deserve the same?
• Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.