One of the reasons I’ve been lagging with updates is because I just finished corrections on my PhD thesis, and, as celebration, my husband whisked me off to Paris for a week! So, since I’m currently saturated, why not blog about it?
Paris is one of those places that is over-the-top cliché, not only in Romance, but just in general. However, it’s cliché for a reason. Paris is also way more convoluted that the pop culture clichés, and I don’t mean that in just a “no shit” way. I will also admit that when Romance-related stuff happens in Paris, I can get eye-rolly. It’s often used as one of those sloppy-shorthand things, where a FMC longs to go to Paris and be kissed by a dashing Frenchman at the top of the Eiffel Tower because she’s such a romantic at heart, or an MMC does business in Paris and stays at the Georges V and takes the FMC out for fancy French dinners and to couture showings because he’s so rich and sophisticated. And then there are the newly-single-girl-on-her-own-in-Paris (along with other European and Asian cities) memoir-adventures, where a plucky heroine navigates rude French people, accidentally orders something weird at a restaurant, and has a big revelation while staring at the Seine or a Monet painting. There’s the male version, too, usually involving a self-absorbed twat who goes to Paris to be a writer and “find himself,” the full-on masculine romance of self-discovery. (I sent that up a bit in A Scandalous Reputation.)
It seems that people want to connect with Paris’s authenticity because it makes us feel authentic ourselves.
But I was afraid of Paris when I was younger. I never had the same romantic urges that I heard other people express about longing to go to The City of Love or The City of Lights or The Most Romantic City in the World. First, I’ve never been enamoured of French literature, of most French pop-culture. I hated The Red Balloon whenever we had to watch it in elementary school, and still think it’s creepy as an adult. I hated The Little Prince, and couldn’t get through Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Colette, Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud… I tried, but just never clicked with them. I still hate the French Structuralists and Post-Structuralists, even if I use their theories. I don’t dig Dada and Surrealism. I never went all “OMG French fashion!” because I’m fat, and French fashion is not ever for fat people. I once tried to be sophisticated when I was a teen and took a French class, and after the first one, was just completely baffled by the pronunciations, and dropped it. I couldn’t do that! I didn’t get any of it. None of it felt accessible.
Second, I grew up hearing from adults around me about how much the French hated Americans and how rude people were in Paris. I grew up with people who believed that going to Paris was stupid and a waste of money, because why would you go to Paris, where everything was so dirty and awful and dangerous, when you could go to the Paris Casino in Las Vegas and see the same things? They smoke everywhere in Paris, too, and yell, and eat gross food, and the men treat women like crap. What if you got lost or sick and no one understood you because they don’t speak English and think Americans are stupid-
So Paris was not only not a thing for me, it was also a big, scary no-no.
But several things happened in my mid-twenties that suddenly made me connect with Paris, made it penetrable, desireable, intriguing. I started reading, and reading about, the American Jazz Age expatriates, which became one of my main areas of academic interest. While French literature was oblique to me, American literature contextualized via Paris was something I could get at. I grew increasingly obsessed with post-Great War Paris, with Gertrude Stein’s salon, with Hemingway’s wives, with Sara and Gerald Murphy and Villa America, with Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet and Bricktop and James Reese Europe, the African-American migration to Paris, the transplanting of American jazz overseas. As an American Modernist, America filtered through Paris, Paris framed in American ideology, the blend of influences all were essential to my critical work
I also discovered French cooking, real French cooking. It turned out that it wasn’t all about brains and snails in complicated, too-rich sauces, but rather, good, plain, hearty cooking with quality ingredients. I started with a few bistro and “Parisian home cooking” cookbooks, moved on to the predictable but genius Julia Child, and soon mastered Fricassee De Poulet A L’Ancienne, the perfect vinaigrette moutardée for escarole salad, Oeufs Pochés à la Crème d’Estragon, and my holiday favorite, Gâteau aux Foies de Volailles with beurre Madère. (See, aren’t you drooling at the thought, too?) I ate at French restaurants, and discovered they didn’t all have to be super-expensive and fancy, either.
And, oh yes, I discovered Parisian-style hot chocolate, which really is the beginning, end, and all the bits in between.
There were a few other tidbits that filtered in and made Paris and French culture feel less intimidating, too. A teacher explained physical differences in where language originates from and is pronounced, and that French comes from the upper lip and nose, English from the tongue and throat, and Italian from the chest. With that, suddenly, everything clicked, and I tackled learning some French again. This time, the pronunciations didn’t feel baffling or incomprehensible, just different.
Even more importantly, one friend, after studying in Paris, told me about the secret to why Americans think the French are rude and mean, and French think American tourists are rude and stupid, and it can come down to one word that encapsulates all the cultural differences in our interactions: “bonjour.”
French people always, always greet the sales staff or restaurant servers first with “bonjour” before asking questions or making demands. Moreover, service jobs are respected, especially restaurant service, and generations of a family will work at a restaurant for a lifetime. Americans, on the other hand, tend to think service jobs are for teens, or people who are “lesser” or dumb, and treat staff accordingly. And rather than greet a salesperson or return their greeting when you walk into a shop, Americans will usually jump right in with a “Do you have…?” or “Table for two.” To the French, this is unspeakably ill-mannered, not to mention dehumanizing. So often when Americans do this, they respond by being what we’d see as “rude,” because they perceive that they have been treated rudely already. This simple cultural exchange has caused decades of misunderstanding.
I always say “bonjour” first, and, in four trips and hundreds of conversations, I have never, ever had a Parisian treat me with anything but kindness, warmth, patience, and even generosity. I can count two servers at popular cafes who were not even “rude,” but just not overly warm-and-fuzzy, over the last ten years, and that was just because they were busy. On the other hand, I’ve had countless delightful conversations, gotten free soup and wine and desserts and restaurant recommendations and local suggestions, had pictures taken, learned new words and phrases, joked and laughed, and just had nothing but wonderful experiences. French people aren’t rude at all!
So if a French person insults you or is overtly rude to you? Chances are, it was probably because of something you did.
Another cultural difference is European attitudes towards dining, in general. In America, meals are quicker, and restaurant servers stop by your table every five minutes to see if you want something else or to refill your glasses. (It’s part of our American customer service model that servers and cashiers are chatty, ask questions, and become like your best friend in three minutes. I know when I was working customer service, it was a core part of our training, whether it was food service or retail.) But in Europe, dining out is an all-night experience, and you are meant to relax and take your time, spend hours over a meal. You also have to ask for your bill, since it would be seen as presumptive and like the restaurant was trying to push you out if the server brought your check to your table unprompted. So an American-style service in Europe is perceived as over-the-top and rude; after five years living abroad, I now find myself taken aback by American restaurants, thinking “God, just stop coming over to ask me questions all the time and let me eat!” But this can be why Americans perceive the French as “rude”: because they don’t do the same “BFFs!” customer service that we’re used to. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The language barrier, too, is a common thing I’ve heard people complain about on both sides. My friends who are non-Americans and/or who live in non-American cities often express annoyance when tourists don’t even make an effort to say anything in their own language, but start talking to them in English. (This is another reason why “bonjour” is important.) The assumption that you should go to a foreign city and just expect everyone else to speak your language is incredibly egocentric, so hackles go up with tourist who do this, contributing to the “rude” stereotypes. It is ironic, I might add, that most of the people I’ve seen who go abroad and expect everyone to speak English are the same assholes who, in America and in the UK, complain about immigrants and tourists and scream “SPEAK ENGLISH” every time they hear another language. It’s become a twisted national value to some that not speaking English = stupidity, and speaking another language is wrong, immoral, offensive… and those people often take that idea to other countries, which is asinine. Let me tell you about the British group I encountered in Prague who were complaining that “these signs really should be in English for the tourists!” Wow, no, you self-centered assholes.
On the other hand, when you are someplace like Paris, the people there know and understand that you probably aren’t fluent in their language. They won’t look down on you for not knowing all the slang or nuances of a native speaker. Once I started spending time in Paris (and other European cities), another obvious fact stood out: these are vast, international communities, with lots of tourists and expats from all over, and so your lack of language skills or struggles to understand are perfectly normal. You’re going to have awkward conversations with a lot of gesturing and facial expressions to communicate. It’s okay, really. Moreover, yes, in major international cities, lots of people will have some English. The key is to make an effort first, even if only to say “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [your language] very well.” Don’t assume that they should have to speak English in their country. That’s where a lot of the “rude American tourists” stereotypes come from.
Another misunderstanding is “I tried to speak French to them, but they just started speaking English to me! How rude!” But to the French, that is not meant as an insult. It’s both pragmatic, as well as a display of their skills, when they do that. It does not mean that you were wrong or bad for speaking French; it means that, just like you are showing them you are trying to speak their language, they are showing you they will try to speak yours. (There is a similar attitude in German: they are very proud of being able to speak English/multiple languages, and are showing you respect, as well as showing off a bit, when they speak English to you.) Another interesting thing that a French friend explained to me regarding the speaking French and English is even more subtle: French people will often say “I don’t speak English well,” even when they have been speaking wonderful English. That, too, is meant to be a sign of respect and consideration. But English-speakers, because of the aforementioned displaced sense that everyone should speak English, often respond with “You speak great English!” or “You speak English just fine!” In a backhanded way, that reinforces the idea that French should be speaking English, or that English is superior. It is more respectful to respond with something that demonstrates that the world does not revolve around English, like “You speak English better than I speak French!” or “I don’t speak French well.” That’s seen as more equalizing.
It’s a fine balance of not assuming everyone speaks English, but not being terrified because you don’t speak French. However, in most non-English-speaking cities, people are thrilled if you make an effort in their language, even if you do it badly. Yes, even the French. They may correct you, but that is to your benefit, and, again, it’s meant as a compliment, because they assume you want to know how to pronounce ___ correctly. (One of the other common complaints I’ve heard was that “French people are rude because they always correct you when you say something in French!” First off, that’s not true, but secondly, when someone learning English mispronounces something or says it wrong, we sure as hell correct them, don’t we? It’s not meant as a personal insult.) You can manage in Paris with a dozen key phrases, and following everything with “s’il vous plait” and/or “merci” (which is NOT pronounced “mercy”). Make an effort, and know the most important things, like how to ask for the bill at a restaurant. Not only are there scads of site for this online, they often include audio clips you can play, or YouTube videos to help you with pronunciation.
I have gotten a lot of mileage out of several phrases in French:
“Je sui stupide” (“I’m stupid”) or “Je sui très stupide” (“I’m very stupid”): this gets me out of not understanding most things. Not only will they reassure me that I’m not stupid, but I’ve let them know that I don’t have that egocentric American attitude. It’s an equalizing, even deferential, repositioning which demonstrates mutual respect and consideration. Sometimes I’ll vary with “Je sui stupide américain,” which also garners sympathy. Especially now. Oi.
“Je parle-pas francais comme une vache espagnole” (“I speak French like a Spanish cow”): One of my French friends taught me this one. This phrase not only excuses your abysmal French, but shows you have some insider knowledge to cultural dynamics and French perspective. If you’re concerned, you can drop the “espagnole” part, as I usually do, and it’s just as effective.
“Comment on dit… en francais?” (“How do you say… in French?”): If you aren’t sure how to say something, ask. If you’ve had to say something in English, it is a huge sign of respect to ask a Parisian to teach you how to say it in French, to show that you are making an effort to learn. Sometimes you’ve forgotten how to say something, or are getting it mixed up with another language. That’s all okay. No restaurant server or hotel employee is going to play tricks by teaching you the wrong thing. They’re going to be happy you care enough to ask.
Just keep making an effort in French, and have a rousing multilingual conversation!
Finally, I learned that just as many Americans are fascinated by Paris and France and all things French, America and American culture can be just as fascinating to the French. As long as you don’t go swaggering around like you’re better than them because you’re American or anything, the French LOVE Americans. We are actually very similar, and even interdependent. This is why the Jazz Age and expat community was so huge. This is why American democracy is structured on the French Revolution. This is why there is so much back-and-forth with American and French filmmakers. This is why a half-century of literary theory grew out of France. And so on, and so on.
(Just please don’t make Jerry Lewis jokes. That shit is as tired as your stereotypes about mimes and berets.)
But don’t go too far into the other direction of “ugly American.” Don’t declare that you want to be French, or are really French deep down, or have a French soul. You don’t. You aren’t. Wearing red lipstick and a striped shirt won’t make you French. You could spend twenty years in France, you could speak the language well, you could be able to negotiate the most complicated of exchanges, like a visit to the doctor or renting/buying an apartment, you could listen to French music and watch French television and know French slang, but you will never magically become French.
However, that is actually a valuable thing. For decades, even centuries, millions of people have come from all over, and simultaneously been Parisian and something else. This is what Stein meant when she said “America is my country, and Paris is my home town.” And, not but. You get to occupy multiple spaces without sacrificing who you are or where you came from in Paris.
C’est tout pour le moment! I’ll follow up soon with favorite French places and things.
But now, more chocolate.