Us and Them

Note: this is the first in what will probably be a long series about our trip to France last month. That is, if I ever finish processing all the pictures. C’est comme ca.

Quiz time: Fill in the subject of each of the following statements with “Americans” or “The French”

…are pretty sure they invented the modern democratic nation-state through their revolution.

…are perhaps a little too patriotic: flying their flag everywhere in their capital and being a little too proud of their military prowess. They also like having giant obelisks in their capitals and huge church-like monuments to their past leaders.

…don’t trust and have no idea what to do about Muslims – whether they are their own citizens or from other countries.

…are in the middle of an election cycle in which ridiculous things are being asserted by different candidates.

…know without a doubt that their culture is the envy of the world.

Invalides -- resting place of Napolean.

Americans like to complain about the French. And I’ve always heard that the French don’t like Americans. As I walked around the French capital, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between us and them. Maybe that’s the reason for all the supposed dislike: we see a little too much of ourselves in the things we don’t like.

For what it’s worth, everyone was very nice to us and our sub-literate attempts to speak their language. Every waiter was attentive. Every shop-keeper wished us a hearty “Bon jour!” and “Au revoir!”, whether we bought anything or not. Maybe there is some sort of communal group-think distrust between our peoples, but individually, I never saw anything but civility. It was remarkable how far we could get with a smattering of French and being polite.

Oddly enough, Vegas has one of these too

That of course is not to say that there aren’t notable differences between us. And since I’m a judgmental American, let’s start keeping score.

Quiet. There is a low hum in a French restaurant or metro car. It’s people talking in just-above-a-whisper voices. No one shouts. No one needs to talk over one another. It’s nice. In fact, when I was in Paris, if I could hear people yelling and understand them, they were undoubtedly American. If I could hear people yelling, but not understand them, they were always Italian. +1 Les Bleus.

Cell phones. The French are just as self-absorbed as Americans for walking and talking (or texting) on their phones. I saw folks driving and talking too. EVEN.

Odor. The American stereotype of olfactory assault by French hygiene is well known. And judging from what I encountered on a rush hour Line-11 Metro ride, still somewhat deserved. Here’s to Purell-toting germophobes. +1 USA…USA…USA

Fashion. Every Parisian we saw was always dressed well. The women wore jeans and boots, skirts and boots, or tights and boots (which was just fine with me). And scarves. Every woman wore a scarf (+1). I never saw a French person wear flip flops and/or sweatpants in public (+1). When it got warm, French men still tended to wear their scarves and then manpris came out (-1). Overall, +1 Les Bleus.

Wine. You can look at Wine Spectators ratings and know that the best American wines match up very well with the best French wines. However, the wines we picked up in the stores in France for ~$10 crush the wines that I can buy here for the same price. +1 Les Bleus.

One A Day

Business hours. It’s a little hard to get used to, but many if not most French businesses open at 10 a.m., take a couple of hours off in the afternoon and then are closed for good by 6 or 7 pm. Seriously? I believe in the instant gratification of getting what I want when I want it – 24/7. +1 USA…USA….USA

Appliances. Our French apartments were models of efficient space-usage and I was intrigued by the combo washer-dryer gizmo in each. The washer seemed to work fine, but the dryer part took about six hours to damp-dry what would normally be a half-load of laundry at The Aerie. Couple to that, that the showers were Rube Goldberg contraptions of chrome, hoses, levers and buttons that I’m sure were created only to scald me with piping hot water every morning. Easy call. +1 USA…USA….USA

Driving. There are these poles all over Parisian sidewalks that are presumably there to keep the French from parking (and I suppose driving) on them. We learned to trust the green ‘walking man’ and red ‘don’t walk man’ at busy intersections, lest we get mowed down by one of the many JLo Fiats or Smart cars that infest every street. Still, I never witnessed anyone disobey a traffic signal or do anything worse than I’m used to seeing in southern California. EVEN.

In the end, just as I expected, just about the same.

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21 thoughts on “Us and Them

  1. Welcome back! I look forward to more posts and pictures. The wine thing is amazing, isn’t it? Even $5 can get you much better wine over there than here. Hell, I shared a $1 bottle with a Canadian guy that wasn’t all that terrible. If we’d had a decanter it probably would have been actually good! Okay, okay—that was back in 1995 soooooo….yeah. The fashion thing always amazed me too. It’s easy enough for any man to dress better than American men, really but the women…damn them, they can make a potato sack look fashionable and oh so easy. With a scarf. Seriously, You could put an average French woman and myself in the same outfits and I would look like crap and she would look like a million bucks. I don’t know how they do it. Japanese women I think have the same talent. I’m glad you found everyone to be civil and courteous!

    • Thanks Cranky — it’s good to be back — I think… :) Actually, I thought that in general all the food was a bargain in terms of quality and price. In restaurants, given that taxes are already added in and that there’s no tipping, eating was pretty reasonable.

  2. Manpris? Really? I suppose I shouldn’t snicker, since in the Capitol City men often roll their pants up on hot days, making them look like extras from a bad remake of “Huckleberry Finn.” But the French really seem to have style pat. It’s not even fashion, or the excessive trendiness you sometimes see among young women in American cities. I’ve watched many a French film and sighed over how effortlessly the actresses would wear, for example, a loose sweater with a blouse, jeans, and casual slip-ons. No high-priced running shoes, no oversized designer logos, no bling.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your trip. You were missed here, and on Twitter. But now I expect more about France. Vite! Vite!

    • Hey HG!! Some of the guys looked pretty goofy when it came to matching the fashion with the season (last week of winter) with the unusually warm and sunny weather. The women didn’t seem to be having as much of a problem –well, at least to this completely objective eye… :)

  3. The idea of people speaking quietly by itself makes me want to drop everything and move there. Awesome bullet points, Steve. Loved the photos, it didn’t escape my notice that the wine photo was black and white. Artistic liberty? Subtle statement? :)

    As my mom was a French teacher and I had several French buddies, To this day I am sick of hearing Americans say how much they hate the French, when they’ve never even met one of their citizens.

    Thanks for the nice perspective. Looks like an amazing time.

    • Amelie — yeah, it’s a shame that some negative stereotypes seem to be so ingrained. I think many Americans don’t like the French, b/c the French have kept their identity and not just been subsumed into Americana.

      I’m not sure if the wine b&w is “artistic” liberty, but I liked the sort of “timeless” quality of b&w for that pic.

    • Lurker — the French claim that they were the first to OVERTURN a monarchy and establish democracy. That it technically correct as we separated, but England’s monarchy remained in place.

  4. Pingback: Musee Melee | Stevil

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