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 its not user friendly.
|| Im starting
to worry that if I stay here too long Im going to return to the states a fat
alcoholic with lung cancer, which is especially sad since I dont smoke. See, this
isnt 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). Im 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 Im
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 Im here Im 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
Im told. I try to remember to change it to bon soir in the evening, though
Im 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
dont read them Im in the dark.
I spend hours in front of the mirror teaching myself to say
"Merci, au revoir" like its one word just like they do. I actually
got so in the swing of things that I greeted Vincents mother one day by kissing each
cheek, though it was obvious Im 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
Im supposed to be pulling a Michael Jordan and grabbing air. The French, you see,
have formalized friendliness to the point that its not user friendly.
Further along in the newspaper was an article
written by simply D.J.M. (if you have to ask you shouldnt be reading it) entitled
"Nature notes". It begins "The first woodlarks are back over the heaths and
|| So I wake up each
morning, make some tea, and check my email. I cant start my day by reading the
newspaper like I usually do since, well, theyre in French and my brain isnt. I
dont have a television (which wouldnt help unless I had a satellite dish) and
the French radio stations arent 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 doesnt fill
the void either.
After a week
Im 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 Galleriathe Fertile Crescent of Valley Girlsis
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 didnt 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
Harrods, 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 thats being
closed to them. Or opened to them. Or something. Its a little unclear, except it
took me four paragraphs to figure out that they werent 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 shouldnt 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 skylarks, with a recurrent nightingale-like phrase, blah blah blah." I
feel very lucky that I got todays newspaper, since theres 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, Im an American" isnt 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. Its a beautiful day. The sun is out, its about 60F degrees
(or 15C), and the sea is a gorgeous green. Its Sunday, so the digue is filled
with people, each one of whom has eaten a lunch which puts most American dinners to
shameif theres nothing else here theres an abundance of good food, and
everyone eats it. So how come no ones 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 ones smiling. It reminds me of casinos where everyone is
"having fun" yet no ones 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 Ive discovered
that French unfriendliness isnt a genetic thing embedded in their DNA since the days
of the Druids and Celts, its learned behavior. Well, either that or its like
original sin: theyre 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 theyre checking me out! Is it that obvious that Im an
American? I know the French have a reputation for being cold to Americansand all of
Europe is in an uproar over the acquittal of the U.S. pilot in Italyso one day last
week I wore a Canada-Niagara Falls sweatshirt a friend gave as an experiment. It
Does my appearance give me away? They cant really know
where Im 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
Im English. Then theres the United States, where most people just assume I
came back on the Mars probe. Im resigned to the fact that I have a moustache without
I find the same aloofness everywhere, even in bars and cafes.
I quickly learn that "Hi, Im an American" isnt 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 wasnt for us youd be speaking German."
Luckily, very few people around here speak English.
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