It’s high time we sent this myth into retirement, right alongside “surrender monkey” jokes and “freedom fries.”
You get some interesting reactions when you talk to folks about traveling in France, especially from those who’ve never been there:
“The French are arrogant…they’re rude…they smell bad.”
And my personal favorite: “They hate Americans over there.”
Such statements are usually preceded by the words “I hear” or “I heard.” For me, those words are like the flashing red lights and clanging bell at a railroad crossing, a warning that, like an oncoming train, a load of misinformation is coming.
I’ve been to France about a half-dozen times over the last decade — in Paris, in Lyon in the Provence region to the south and Strasbourg in the Alsace to the east. I’m still waiting for compelling evidence that any of the above three statements — especially that last one about the French hating Americans, is true.
WHERE’S THE HATE?
And no, you will not be treated like an attacking Martian if you don’t speak French.
In the hundreds of interactions that I and my deplorable “francais” have had with the French people over the past ten years, there has been exactly one rude episode. One. That was with a woman running a candy shop in Strasbourg during the Christmas market season. Even her own daughter seemed appalled by her mother’s behavior.
And when we mentioned the incident in passing to a Christmas market vendor setting up his stall the next morning, he gave us a pretzel the size of a catcher’s mitt to make up for it.
I’m not that crazy about pretzels, anyway, but that’s not the point. He didn’t have to do that.
All over Paris, and everywhere else in France that we’ve been so far, we have been met with smiles, kindness, patience.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Like the hotel clerk in Lyon who found us a room in her totally booked hotel after Expedia had botched our reservations — and then bought us a box of the most incredible liqueur-filled chocolate to thank us for our patience.
Like the crepe vendor outside the St. Germain de Pres church who gave us a verbal guided tour of the 6th arrondissement in the three minutes it took him to make two crepes.
Like the cafe owner in the 11th arr. who turned us on to the most incredible wine from, of all places, Algeria.
So where are all these American-hating French I keep hearing about? Hiding under the glass pyramid at the Louvre?
Given the number of Americans, black Americans in particular, who have left the United States to live and work in Paris alone, they couldn’t hate us all that much.
SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES
Indeed, Paris has been something of a magnet for American expatriates since the end of World War 1, to the point that an entire American community has taken root there, much of it scattered through the city’s western suburbs. That community may number as many as 50,000 people.
The only consistent negative I’ve ever encountered in France, other than Paris traffic, is the French tendency to smoke. At times, they seem to smoke like chimneys.
When the French government banned smoking in most public places, the smokers simply moved to the outdoor tables of their favorite bistros and cafes. There, they continue to generate clouds of cigarette smoke thick enough to hide an elephant.
Not just any old tobacco smoke, either, but the acrid, penetrating smoke of French cigarettes like Gaulloise, which could easily substitute for tear gas. Perhaps the reason the French so objected to our invasion of Iraq was because they knew where the weapons of mass destruction really were.
In their pockets.
MYTHS AND OTHER BAGGAGE
But wading through the occasional smokescreen is a small price to pay to see one of the most physically and culturally diverse — and most beautiful — countries in the world. Especially one that holds such a place in our own history, literally from its founding.
There’s a reason why France is the most visited country on Earth. Actually, there’s a long list of reasons — gorgeous, varied countryside, one of the world’s great capitals, food, fashion, music, history, thriving cultures from around the world.
Any one of those reasons might well resonate with you. You might even discover one of your own.
Once you get past all the urban mythology, that is.
In travel, as in life, you pretty much find what you’re looking for. If you go looking for the negative, looking for the worst in people, you can find it. Actually, if you carry negativity, stereotypes and “attitude” with you when you travel, “it” may well find you first.
Leaving that “baggage” at home is the first key to enjoying a visit to France — or anywhere else.
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