March 17, 2009

An American back from Paris

My wife and I just returned from France.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone native. I’m not going to lecture you on the superiority of French culture. True, they serve a cup of coffee strong enough to clean a garage floor (though in thimbles rather than mugs), and I’m still a little bound up from eating hogsheads of irresistible cheese. Paris actually has several restaurants—I know this because I checked the phone book—and some offer a glass of not undrinkable wine.

The city also has some decent museums. But the complex iconography of many paintings in the Louvre—winged lions, or the little FTD florist guy shooting arrows into the ears of an 11th-century pope—made the visit for us something of an extended trip through “Highlights for Children.” They moved the Venus de Milo, and I’m thinking someone must’ve gotten into a boatload of trouble for dropping her, because her arms were broken off. We managed to spot the Mona Lisa from the rear of a mosh pit.

I was prepared to shake my head sadly at American cultural dominance, but while we spotted one McDonald’s and one Subway (“le soob-WAY,” one presumes), I’m reasonably confident that French culture endures—though rather than Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” to the plaintive accompaniment of an accordion, we heard mostly French rap, which to my ears made about as much musical sense as, say, Hassidic hip-hop. The French really do say oo-la-la and carry baguettes under their arms.

On the other hand.

The pillows are square, so one doesn’t know which way to turn them, and with no bidet in the bathroom, we had nowhere to do laundry. My inquiries to the hotel lady about these matters met with blank stares. The toilet paper is made from recycled egg cartons. My toaster oven is bigger than some of the cars. They have a soft drink called Pschitt, which can’t be ordered with a straight face. Try it. "Garcon, I'll take a . . ."

Then there’s the matter of finding your way around. On several occasions, I asked for directions. But another Frenchman within earshot would invariably join the discussion, and the two would argue and point in opposite directions—a living tableau of French road signage, with its unnerving habit of pointing you in “All Directions” (or, if that’s not unhelpful enough, “Other Directions”). The hellish Charles De Gaulle airport is based on plans from Dante’s Inferno, where, one hopes, its designer drives for eternity in an agonized quest for car rental return signs.

Paris is slow to awaken of a morning. At 6:00, the streets are populated with jet-lagged, bleary-eyed Americans and green-clad workmen washing the sleep out of the city’s eyes. Only later do the French emerge—aging men in berets and frayed-at-the-cuffs Versace jackets, women who 30 years ago managed to look like Coco Chanel but today look like aged persimmons, younger women in scarves the size of topsails, kids with Batman book bags, teens in Twisted Sister T-shirts. On three occasions we were pretty sure we spotted Jerry Garcia.

Americans are told that these days people the world over hate us, so I steeled myself to encounter prickly rudeness, perhaps having to pose as a Canadian, though I don’t speak Canadian, not even when I'm oot and aboot. I was disappointed, for we met with nothing but kindness and goodwill (except for one hotel owner, a woman with all the charm of a rectal probe). My wife and I have a smattering of copybook French—all nouns, it turns out—so we got by in a kind of French haiku that seemed to be appreciated. Of course, we weren’t frequenting murky bistros with disaffected French intellectuals chain-smoking unfiltered Gauloises, drinking hearty peasant wine, and denouncing American imperialism. We were tempted to take a plunge into the Salon des Artistes, a disreputable-looking hookah bar two doors down from the hotel, where we likely would have stood out like hookers at High Mass.

Instead, we made the pilgrimage to the American cemetery at Normandy, where, remarkably, every voice we heard was French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, or Japanese. So maybe they don’t hate us after all.

They’ve tricked us into thinking andouille sausage is fancy French cuisine. It’s chitlins. That’s OK, though.

They still think the Big Mac is made with beef.

Michael J. O'Neal is the author of Crazy Bett, a novel about (or aboot) Civil War espionage. The book is available at www.crazybett.com, or from Amazon.

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