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/


  1. Bonjour Jamie!

    Ahhh... Si les américains nous aimaient autant que nous les aimons...

    Ceci dit, soyons juste sur le plan historique...En ce qui concerne la deuxième guerre mondiale, il faut se rappeler que les américains étaient retissant à rentrer dans un nouveau conflit ici en Europe (et pour cause, ils avaient perdu tellement d'hommes lors de la première).
    C'est un petit peu Winston Churchill et beaucoup Pearl Harbor qui ont fait que les états-unis décident de déclarer la guerre et ils l'ont déclaré au Japon. Hitler étant allié avec ce pays, c'est donc lui qui a déclaré la guerre aux états-unis (sans grand enthousiasme).

    Les américains ne sont pas venus se battre pour nos beaux yeux certes mais il ne faut pas oublier qu'aujourd'hui, les nations peuvent avoir éventuellement une motivation "humanitaire" pour rentrer dans un conflit mais qu'à l'époque les nations étaient très égoïstes et la France ne faisait pas exception...

    Nous les amoureux des états-unis, on ne supporte pas quand ce pays fait des choses que nous considérons immorales car nous sommes trop imprégné(e)s du mythe. Nous sommes bouleversés tout autant lorsqu'il s'agit d'une exaction causée par la France...Le mythe prend un coup...On oublie de penser que rien est parfait et que tout est complexe, et qu'il faut toujours analyser l'histoire avec beaucoup de discernement si non cela devient vite "x-files" (ou n'importe quoi).

    Enfin, on a une expression ici..."Qui châtie bien, aime bien..." j'ajouterai aussi "Quand on est con, on est con..."
    "C'est vrai qu'en France vous mettez du vin dans les biberons??" question qui pourrait être posée par l'équivalent américain de celui qui te parle du 11 Septembre ici chez nous...

    N'hésite pas Jamie à nous critiquer avec virulence! Tu nous a prouvé ton amour, tu peux te le permettre autant qu'une vraie française!

    Attention...hummm...Un papy français....cela reste un french lover! "Je t'aime, je t'aime"... c'est pas forcement de l'amour universel ça!!...

    1. hahaha! Merci Claude, pour ton commentaire. C'est toujours un plaisir de te lire. C'est tout à fait vrai que les 'cons' connaissent pas de pays, pas de nationalité. Je serais la première à critiquer mon propre pays (mais je t'assure que j'ai jamais cru que vous mettiez du vin dans les biberons) :)

      Je suis normalement pas quelqu'un qui aime critiquer les autres, mais au bout d'un moment, je dois soit m'exprimer, soit péter un plomb... Mon blog me sauve la vie... :)

      Et Monsieur Xavier est très correct avec moi... Il à toujours sa petite copine qui surveille... :)

      Gros bisous!

  2. Oh man, this post brings back some bad memories of the five years I spent in Bretagne. I've been in Paris for five years now too and had completely forgotten about that side of provincial living. It's yet another thing I love about living in Paris - I can be me and not just "the foreigner" at the party, and I am never get caught in those kinds of frustrating conversations anymore. They used to make me so angry, especially since I knew that nothing I said would ever change their minds.

    PS. When I was living in Bretagne, going to Normandy was always a breath of fresh air for me too - it's the one place I've found in France where they truly do remember the war and love the Americans for it.

    1. Haha! So I guess it's not a coincidence that I write this on the heels of a trip to Bretagne? (I loved Normandy too... It really touched me to see the french and american flags together)

      I imagine life in Paris must be infinitely more international, and you feel less singled out. Kind of like New York, where everyone is from somewhere else.

      Here in Toulouse, the people are mostly fantastic... but I still experience this type of ignorance more often than I would like... It literally makes me see red, because I would never approach a person from another country and proceed to trash his or her homeland... I guess I just see the good in people, and don't dwell on the bad. In france, however, it often seems (to me, an expat trying my best to get by) to be that the good is never enough, and the bad is blown out of proportion...

      Ah well... I'm sure glad to know there are other people going through the same thing... That means I'm not a total freak after all!

      Good luck to you in Paris, and in your future abroad.

  3. It's just the same being English in France, Jamie! I have to defend the royal family, English food etc It gets on your nerves after a while, that's for certain. Melanie x

    1. haha! Nice to hear from you Melanie! Hope you are well!

  4. "The good is never enough, and the bad is blown out of proportion..."

    There is a good reason for this... Mainly two things to look at... our "gaulois" side... never happy, always looking for perfection, always arguing, etc... and there is our "latin" side... we have a lot of "drama queens".... mama mia!!! we're heading for disaster! Put these two elements together and it becomes.... "Il faut absolument parler de ce problème, le ciel va nous tomber sur la tête!..."

    My brother who lives in the states tells me that i'm a lot like that myself...bien sûr il ne faut pas généraliser non plus...

    In the US all together, it's hard to find some kind of typical attitude like this, (à cause de la grande diversité culturelle).
    There is a big difference between California and Arkansas...


  5. A wonderful post! There should be some sort of expat newspaper and you can be the columnist!
    Love, Dad

  6. Hi Jamie. Wonderful insightful article. You should be a columnist. Have we met the same people in France? of late, me -- do you have any brothers or sisters or are you an only child? him-- excuse me, is that real English or just American dialect? My teacher said "I'm unique in my family" :) I too love hearing those old stories from WWII. It's also true those guys who stare at you and say they aren't interested in ever going to American tend to the first ones to adopt eating habits, clothing styles, music, games, and watch all those tv series from the US. There's a lot of "je t'aime, moi non plus" going around. Take care!

  7. This Monsieur Xavier sounds like a wonderful old-timer. Glad you have such a grandfatherly figure looking out for you in your building. Keep up the good writing.

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