A Mad Dog in Bretagne

Part IV
Hey!  Who Put That "I'm An American" Sticker on My Back?

by Mad Dog


 

Yes, I made yet another big faux pas (literally: fake fathers). The French, you see, have formalized friendliness to the point that it’s not user friendly.

     I’m starting to worry that if I stay here too long I’m going to return to the states a fat alcoholic with lung cancer, which is especially sad since I don’t smoke. See, this isn’t like most of my trips, where I run around a lot, driving through hundreds of miles of countryside in a day or hiking 10 miles through the city (EPA estimates, actual mileage may vary). I’m pretty much staying in one small town trying to become a part of it. Find the rhythm of life. Eat the good food, drink the wonderful wine. If I’m really lucky, enjoy the French women. I want to think, feel, and act like a Frenchman.

     The French take life much slower than we do in America. They take long walks for the sake of getting out in the fresh air. They close most businesses between noon and 2:30 to go home and eat a long leisurely lunch. Many shops close on Mondays. Thursday afternoons as well. In other words, while I’m here I’m going to try not to work much either.

     I try to blend in. I say "Bonjour Monsieur", always putting the monsieur, madame, and mademoiselle after it as I’m told. I try to remember to change it to bon soir in the evening, though I’m not exactly sure when the dividing line is. Perhaps there are Bon Soir Tables, like tide charts, which are published in the newspaper every day, but since I don’t read them I’m in the dark.

     I spend hours in front of the mirror teaching myself to say "Merci, au revoir" like it’s one word just like they do. I actually got so in the swing of things that I greeted Vincent’s mother one day by kissing each cheek, though it was obvious I’m a rank amateur at this. Yes, I made yet another big faux pas (literally: fake fathers) by actually touching her cheek with my lips when I’m supposed to be pulling a Michael Jordan and grabbing air. The French, you see, have formalized friendliness to the point that it’s not user friendly.



Further along in the newspaper was an article written by simply D.J.M. (if you have to ask you shouldn’t be reading it) entitled "Nature notes". It begins "The first woodlarks are back over the heaths and commons...."
     So I wake up each morning, make some tea, and check my email. I can’t start my day by reading the newspaper like I usually do since, well, they’re in French and my brain isn’t. I don’t have a television (which wouldn’t help unless I had a satellite dish) and the French radio stations aren’t any more comprehensible than the newspapers. At night I can pick up the BBC station from Jersey on the radio and get my fill of local Jersey news, gardening tips, and obscure word games, but somehow that doesn’t fill the void either.

     After a week I’m dying to read more in depth news than the two-sentence synopses I get emailed to me everyday. I tracked down a couple of English language newspapers at the train station. The International Herald Tribune is a small, but very well written, newspaper with good world news coverage. I learn that the stock market reached a new high, peace looks shaky but possible in Kosovo (depending on who you ask, the hour of the day, and the phase of the moon), and the Sherman Oaks Galleria—the Fertile Crescent of Valley Girls—is being gagged with a spoon and closing. You have to admire a newspaper that knows news when it prints it.

     Then I read the London Times, a newspaper that didn’t put the word London in the title for nothing. The worst photograph of Monica Lewinsky their money could buy fills the top half of the front page. With it is an article written by an obviously giggling writer about how Monica broke down in tears at her book signing in Harrod’s, yet still outsold the Queen. The bottom of the page is pretty much filled with a big story about how ramblers are in an uproar over some land that’s being closed to them. Or opened to them. Or something. It’s a little unclear, except it took me four paragraphs to figure out that they weren’t referring to the old cars, they meant hikers.

     Further along in the newspaper was an article written by simply D.J.M. (if you have to ask you shouldn’t be reading it) entitled "Nature notes". It begins "The first woodlarks are back over the heaths and commons where they will nest, and their song pours down from the sky. It is a more melodious song than the skylark’s, with a recurrent nightingale-like phrase, blah blah blah." I feel very lucky that I got today’s newspaper, since there’s a note at the end of the article that says, "An earlier Nature notes was published in error yesterday." Whew! That was close.



I find the same aloofness everywhere, even in bars and cafes. I quickly learn that "Hi, I’m an American" isn’t the International Date Line.
     So I try hard to get into that French rhythm. When I first got here I would work through the morning, then go for a walk on the digue, the seawall promenade, before lunch. By myself. After a few days I realized that when noon hits everyone vanishes to eats lunch. Or at least goes home and stares out the window to see if any stupid Americans are walking around. After lunch, they all come out for a walk.

     So I adapt. I start walking after lunch like a Frenchman. Take today, for example. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is out, it’s about 60F degrees (or 15C), and the sea is a gorgeous green. It’s Sunday, so the digue is filled with people, each one of whom has eaten a lunch which puts most American dinners to shame—if there’s nothing else here there’s an abundance of good food, and everyone eats it. So how come no one’s smiling?

     No one even looks at me as I stroll down the digue. Those few who do quickly look away. I smile if I actually catch someone making eye contact, which makes them turn away faster. I would love to mutter "Bonjour, Madame" except no madames will give me the heure of day. People walk, talking quietly, but no one’s smiling. It reminds me of casinos where everyone is "having fun" yet no one’s smiling or laughing

     The children are different. They say bonjour to me. I make a mental note to call the Nobel Prize committee to tell them I’ve discovered that French unfriendliness isn’t a genetic thing embedded in their DNA since the days of the Druids and Celts, it’s learned behavior. Well, either that or it’s like original sin: they’re born with manners, they just lose them as they grow older.

     As I pass people on the digue I can see out of the corner of my eye that they’re checking me out! Is it that obvious that I’m an American? I know the French have a reputation for being cold to Americans—and all of Europe is in an uproar over the acquittal of the U.S. pilot in Italy—so one day last week I wore a Canada-Niagara Falls sweatshirt a friend gave as an experiment. It didn’t help.

     Does my appearance give me away? They can’t really know where I’m from by looking at me, can they? For one thing, I have this handlebar moustache. In England they thought it meant I was French. Here they seem to think it means I’m English. Then there’s the United States, where most people just assume I came back on the Mars probe. I’m resigned to the fact that I have a moustache without a country.

     I find the same aloofness everywhere, even in bars and cafes. I quickly learn that "Hi, I’m an American" isn’t the International Date Line. So I come up with a new ice breaker. I smile, and using the sweetest tone of voice I can, say, "Hi. If it wasn’t for us you’d be speaking German." Luckily, very few people around here speak English.


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