09 August 2012

What the French think of Americans

Like many expats abroad, I'm no stranger unprovoked verbal assaults on my nationality.  As much as I love my life in France and French people in general, there are the inevitable few that excel at verbal lashings of expats, and specifically of Americans. I manage to remain optimistic and positive most of the time, but I'd be lying if I said they didn't get to me sometimes.

Let's face it, as much as the French diffuse our music, TV series and films, being an American expat in France is not always à la mode. At dinner parties, I am often cornered and expected to answer the most unbearable questions.  No matter how hard I study up to give the most politically factual or diplomatic responses, I know there is nothing I can do to convince them, because they have no interest in -gasp- broadening their minds!

"Oh you're American? You're certainly lucky to be here in France. Coming from Detroit and after eating McDonalds your entire life, it's a wonder you're not gunshot-riddled and overweight!  You know, 99% of you are morbidly obese, right? How many guns does your family have? Is it true you can't locate Iraq on a map? If your schools spent less time praying and teaching you to love America and more time teaching geography, you probably never would have elected George W. Bush... Twice. Speaking of which, you know 9/11 was an inside job, right? I mean, you wouldn't really have me believe that a plane hit the Pentagon? Watch the YouTube videos!  I have a friend who went to Las Vegas once, and he told me you are all extremely prudish and patriotic... oh, and you put ketchup on everything! I must say I have no interest in visiting the States... And besides, Americans don't travel at all. I read somewhere that most of you don't even have passports. Oh, excuse me, I forgot to offer you something to drink. Coca-Cola, I presume?"

These attacks very in length and intensity, but are always accompanied by a sweet (if not a bit smug) smile. If I'm lucky, I'm serenaded with their impression of American English, which usually sounds like "blahh blaahh blaahh waawaa" and resembles to what I imagine the Neanderthals might have sounded like. Now, to be fair, I have met a lot of French who love the American accent, but they are not always there to defend me.

Now, most social gatherings out with friends in France are wonderful... but every so often I am forced to spend an evening in fruitless discussion, and sleepless nights imagining how to come out on top of these debates. I now have accepted that I never will, and it is best to either diffuse the situation with humor or just indulge in wine and hope it will end quickly.

 This morning, I was still left with the foul aftertaste of some recent nasty experiences when a most unexpected encounter really put things in perspective.

Monsieur Xavier is the darling octogenarian who inhabits the tiny ground floor apartment in my building. A grandfatherly soul, he often invites me for lunch, calls me ma chérie and is always asking for news when I come and go. Today he inquired about my recent trip to Normandy. I told him it was fantastic and so rich in history.

His eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he told me he had lived in Normandy as a child, and that on D-Day (The Normandy beach landing operations of allied forces on June 6th, 1944) he and his parents sought refuge in a trench as the sounds of battle surrounded them. The terror had been unimaginable.

"It's the Americans I love the most in this world, because they saved us. I remember walking the beaches after the invasion. I saw with my own eyes Americans lying dead on the ground, no more than 20 years old. They came and fought and died.  For us.  I cannot tolerate those who speak badly of Americans, because their memory is so short. I will not allow it!"

He walked toward me, overwhelmed by emotion and choking back sobs. I blinked back tears of my own as he took me into his arms and hugged me tightly. "Oh chérie, je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime!"

68 years after the fact, you'd think it was only yesterday. I didn't know how to comfort this man, who had seen more horror than I could ever dream of. Somewhere, he was still a 12 year old boy who needed protection. All I could do was hold him in my arms and search for something to say.

"Thank you," I finally manged to speak. "You have no idea how much it means to hear that. I love you too."

I then retreated to my apartment, where I spent some time drying my eyes and reflecting. I was greatly impacted by this brief but charged exchange.

I marveled at the power of words. How easy it is sometimes to be cut down by backhanded compliments and downright intolerance... how snide remarks have a way of lingering with us years after they were spoken, and how the positive is so quickly forgotten.

My 5-minute exchange with Monsieur Xavier should hold infinitely more power than every snotty comment I've ever received in France. It's up to me to keep it that way. While I know it's easier said than done, for my own preservation, I must choose which words have power over me, and which should be discarded like a piece of merde.

The next time (and there will be a next time) I am subjected to verbal flagellation for daring to be born a Yank, I have only to breathe in deeply, and reread this entry.

PS: Monsieur Xavier is only one of the countless wonderful French people who have touched my life in a positive way. Whether a chance five-minute encounter or a long term friendship, I've met enough lovely French people to give me a generally good impression of this country. I wouldn't be living here if that wasn't the case.

PPS: Special thanks to Master T and his fabulous blog Floating in France, for giving me the inspiration and courage to rant, and for letting me know I'm not alone! Check out his blog: http://frenchiflyable.blogspot.fr/
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