Finding Love in Paris, France
VIP in Paris
by Dean VanDruff, 1991I have been to Paris something like 20 times, but one trip stands out as unique. It started out at the airport. The normal French curtness and disdain for Americans was not only absent, but seemed reversed. I was smiled at in customs, and the French generally regard smiling as a symptom of idiocy. When I went to get a taxi, the driver gushed all over me, insisted on taking my bags (he was old and was I young, so this seemed inappropriate) patted me on the back, was so effusive I felt like I must have a "be nice to me" sign on my back. When he dropped me off, it was the same strange, inappropriate affection.
For several days I got this all around town. For one particularly unusual example, a taxi driver stopped at an intersection, rolled his window down, and yelled at me: "American! American!" and a bunch of stuff in French which I did not understand, but he was smiling and it seemed like he was cheering me in some way. What, was I Superman all of a sudden? Normally, as an American, even hailing a cab can be difficult, and here is a guy cheering me from his cab as I study a Printemps map on the corner. Twilight zone sort of stuff.
About three days into this, I had dinner with a friend living in Paris and a French newspaper reporter. I described the strange things happening to me, and how different people were treating me this trip than ever before. The reporter, a lady in her mid 30's, found this intriguing and offered her opinion of what was going on.
I had come to Paris just a few weeks after Kuwait was invaded; just before the Gulf war. If you remember, the US-led forces were conspicuously "building up" in Saudi Arabia, which dominated the news. This, she said, was the explanation.
"Look around this restaurant", she said. "Likely half of the people here were alive when the Germans invaded our country. Likely half of the eyes in this room saw German tanks on the Champs Elysees. Many here present lived under Nazi occupation. So there is something deeply resonant in French emotions for what it is like to be invaded and occupied, and the Kuwait situation brings these memories to the surface for those who lived through it. They remember... it is not just 'news' for them. What is happening stirs deep and strong emotions that have been long suppressed."
She further opined: "We French have a love-hate relationship towards Americans. We think you are crude. You don't know how to live well. You eat too quick, like barbarians. In general we are dismayed that your culture is invading the world, as we think you are crass and know little about what makes for good living. But, for all of our distaste, French people--deep down--love Americans. While we may think you are unsophisticated, you are the ones who came to our rescue when our country was taken over by the Nazis. This was not that long ago, so that the present crisis in Kuwait stirs deeply-felt emotions in the older people. They were here, and they remember. Then they see you, an American, and they just start gushing. A barbarian might not impress you with his table manners, but comes in handy when you need to be rescued. While the younger generation might not think about it much, the older people have seen swastikas flying on the streets of Paris, and know it might still be so if it weren't for the Americans and the Allies. During a time like this, then, Americans are remembered as heroes who saved us in our time of need."
Of course, the original explanation was in heavily accented English, and what is written above is from memory and paraphrased, but the gist was a fascinating explanation. Throughout the rest of the trip, I noted that the people who would give me the VIP treatment were all about my parent's age or older, true to her insight. It still felt a little odd--as I have never served in the military--to be the recipient of such; but it was nice while it lasted and has forever shaped my understanding of normal French rudeness. I now see this in balance, having seen the other side of it.
The next trip to Paris was well after the war. A taxi driver slows, sizes me up as an American, breaks eye contact and speeds away. A hostess sniffs in disdain when I requests a dinner table at a restaurant at 6pm. When I fail to order wine with my meal the waiter mutters something in French that I don't understand, and probably don't want to. A motorist honks at me for no good reason in a crosswalk. Back to normal French behavior. They hate us. And they love us.