Yes, yes, yes, I know… the French are “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” in the memorable phrase of Jonah Goldberg (I think).
However, they’re also America-loving, gratitude-filled, hospitable, friendly, warm Yankophiles, in the memorable phrase of … me.
I lived there for a year back in the ’80’s, and traveled all around the country. I could have dined in a different family’s house every day I was there if I’d so chosen. The French, outside of the cities, were eager to speak with me, to question me, to be questioned and, especially, to feed me.
I found them boundlessly grateful for all the American effort required to win World War II — a subject still fresh in their minds in the ’80’s. They treat the American cemeteries found around France with awe-struck reverence. They treated me as a son of the country that had liberated their own, and interacted with me almost as if I had done it myself.
I traveled extensively in France, and outside of the cities. The anti-Americanism so famous over here exists only in the cities, and then only in public. Get even the city folk behind closed doors, in their apartments and houses, and they gushed over me — and fed me — just the same as in the countryside. And they were effusive in their expressions of love for America and Americans. Oh, they had their criticisms, but they always, always, always followed any critique with nearly awe-struck assertions of their love for America.
The French are a small people, physically. Yes, yes — generalizations are dangerous, but it struck me. The general culture, eating and exercise habits have produced short, slight people. Some of us Americans look like giants next to them. I was 6’4″ and well-muscled, and the French spotted me for an American a mile away.
I was all they imagined. And none of what they’d heard about. I was a blond-haired cowboy as far as they were concerned. But I spoke fluent, accent-less French. When I told them I was a professional athlete, they nodded knowingly. Of course! Just look at him, they’d say! But, how is it that you speak French like that? I learned it in the university, I told them. No, no, they’d reply, shaking their heads, you’ve lived here.
I have a talent: I can imitate just about any accent, and I pick up languages very quickly. Parachute me into Italy, and inside of a month I’d be fluent. In two weeks, I’d be comfortable.
When I told them I played baseball, their faces went blank. Huh? What in the world is baseball? They’d heard of it, but it baffled them completely. It baffled me to try to explain it!
In every region of the country they took to me, inviting me into their homes, eagerly demanding that I tell them all about myself, and asking me to listen to their stories of their love for America and Americans. And they asked me to explain baseball. Countless times. Until I’d finally figured out a way to condense it into a few short descriptive phrases that summed it all up.
In every region of the country, I received offers of free lodging, food, refreshments, snacks. When I sat down in cafés, waiters and waitresses brought complimentary hors d’oeuvres in addition to what I ordered. Numerous times the café proprietor offered to give me my food gratis.
I stayed in one motel/hotel where after a delightful evening spent with his family, the proprietor announced that lodging was on the house. I left an envelope with a “tip” in it, that equaled the amount of the evening’s rental.
I had exactly one disagreeable experience in France. I exited my subway car into a nearly deserted station, to find a large young man beating up a much smaller, much older man. Without thinking, I stepped in and broke it up. The mugger ran in one direction, shouting imprecations at me, and the mugging victim — a guy easily in his sixties — actually scampered in the other direction, not stopping to thank me or anything. I didn’t care for the thanks, but I did want to know what I’d just broken up. To this day, I don’t know which of the two was the bad guy.
I have a personal check from the President of France. Therein lies a tale that I’ve told in these pages. How many people can say that?
Here are some of the things that I’ve experienced in this wonderful country, France:
- I’ve talked my way out of a traffic ticket in the west of France
- Played guitar with gypsies in the south, where I’ve also walked through fields of thyme and lavender, through olive groves and vineyards.
- I found a tiny brook/river in the south, whose banks were covered with silver dollar-sized stones, with rounded edges — perfect skimming stones. I spent hours at that little brook skimming stones. I rarely got fewer than a dozen skips out of any one stone.
- I played guitar with the great Philip Catherine in Paris.
- I briefly coached the Paris National baseball team. Yes, there is, or at least there was, such a thing.
- Toured the castles of the Loire valley.
- I also toured the famous “Sleeping Beauty” castle.
- I stopped into many small family wineries to chat, and each time, the proprietor insisted that I take a free bottle for my trip back home. I was offered more free bottles of wine in France than I can count. Not being a big wine drinker, I took them, but generally gave them away.
- I had numerous love affairs in France.
- One night in a bar in France, in a city called, Beaune (pr.: “Bone”) I encountered the very tipsy French moto-cross champion who, after several hours of laughter and bonhomie, insisted that I take his championship trophy. It hangs on my wall to this day. Therein lie the bones of a tale to be given more flesh at a later time.
- For nine months or so, I was an underwear model (for lack of a better term) and my image is still on the internet. I appeared, scantily clad, in the local equivalent of the Sears catalog.
- I played my guitar in all the corners of Europe, as well as in Amsterdam, Brussels and Geneva.
- I became (unofficially) engaged, and then un-engaged in France.
In all those places and at all those times, to say that the French were delightful would be woefully to understate the thing.
Happy Birthday, France! I still love you. I always will.
Get rid of the lousy Socialists, would you, please?