As I’ve written before, there are many stereotypes about Americans. Some people know us from living in or visiting the United States; others think they know us from the myriad of good quality, but often unrealistic American television shows and movies that make their way around the globe to a theater far from you. But, of course, in the same vein, we hear many misconceptions and stereotypes about other cultures, possibly none more so than the French.
We seem to dream and fantasize about Paris, but are supposed to hate the French. We love French fries, French kissing, and French films, but are told the French are rude and unfriendly. Just as so many foreigners believe untrue things about Americans as a whole without ever having visited the United States, many Americans (and others around the world) have cultivated a not-so-nice view of the French without ever having set foot in France. Well, I am here to tell you that in my unscientific and simple personal experiences – ten years ago during my first trip to France and now – nearly all of the French people I have met have been nothing but cordial, friendly, and sweet. We all know that what you put ‘out there’ is a big determinant of what you get in return, and whether you’re in Chicago or Paris, a sincere smile and a ‘thank you’ or ‘merci’ goes a long way.
Here are just a few examples of the encounters I had with virtual strangers I met during my time in the home of “Marianne.”
My first day in Paris I was staying with Herbert, a friendly, hospitable couchsurfing host (who even picked me up at the airport… a rare treat) in the working class neighborhood around Montmartre. I left his apartment to go for a morning jog and bumped into a neighbor in the courtyard. “Bonjour!” he said with that lovely French ‘sing-songy’ lilt. He spoke some Spanish which was easier for both of us and we proceeded to walk together out of the courtyard to the street corner. Then he directed me to a canal which was a good place to go running – a run I was now more energized to do after this nice exchange.
Another fine afternoon in Paris I was at a supermarket buying some yummy fromage and charcuterie (ham, salami, etc.) with my new friend Audrey, for a nice picnic style dinner. The bubbly, rotund French woman who worked at the deli counter literally couldn’t stop saying how much she liked the United States. She goes on a trip there nearly every year and said she wished she was wearing one of her many American souvenir t-shirts (‘I Love NY’, etc.). She said this year she would be going on a trip to Chicago. The funny thing is she barely spoke any English (all this was translated to me by Audrey) and yet she still has a great time in the U.S., a fact that I find interesting considering the lack of French-speaking Americans I know – none. For a bit longer than we would have liked, she regaled us with tales of her former visits while continuing to stuff us full of free samples of rillettes du porc, saucisson, et fromage.
In the cute city of Nantes, another couchsurfing host, Maela invited me to join her at a friend’s birthday party. I was a total stranger who didn’t speak much French and yet her friends went out of their way to make me feel at home and were all open, friendly, and fun. They spoke their best English with me and by the end of the night I felt like one of the gang.
For nearly a week, I had the good fortune to leave my bag on the floor and relax in the tiny middle of nowhere town of Bias (it’s an hour and a half south of Bordeaux and hour and a half north of the Spanish border). My British friend Caroline was staying here pet sitting for her cousin who was off on holiday. We rode our bikes to the beach, cooked yummy meals, and relaxed in their cabin-like home in front of a toasty roaring fire – just 2 girls living the quiet countryside life. For me, it was great to relax, leave my bag unpacked, and stay stationary for a bit.
My first night there, we met the neighbors over the fence, with whom moments later, I was playing lawn tennis. Then they proceeded to invite us over for wine and nibbles. Keep in mind – they spoke zero English and yet we spent three nights out of six drinking, nibbling, and laughing with them. I will never forget their wonderful hospitality for the two ‘out of their element’ English girls next door.