People In Our Travels

If a traveler has an unpleasant experience on a street or in a restaurant or wherever with a local in Ireland, or Italy, or Australia, or China, or pretty much anywhere, very few draw a wider conclusion about an entire people from that encounter. Not many would think the people are unfriendly on the whole because of a single poor experience with one individual. However, when it comes to France a single bad experience all too often leaves a new visitor – particularly an American – feeling… “The French. Everyone said they are not very nice.”

[A post-dinner creme brule. Photo by me, 2019.]

We flew home to England on Saturday afternoon. That creme brule above was my dessert on Thursday night in a La Clusaz, France restaurant we have been to several times over the years. That evening we took our Irish friends there for dinner.

The staff have always been pleasant and even fun; the service is good; and the food is wonderful. That sort of experience in France is one that I have found over the years is actually not uncommon. Yet in 2016, having just returned from a trip to the US, a French twenty-something blogger wrote that she liked Americans and America – and so did all of her friends in France – and she just did not understand why she had kept hearing from Americans in the States… that French people dislike Americans. (Her blog is now gone; but she is on Instagram here.)

After seeing that, I wrote a longish post explaining (the former academic coming out of me somewhat, I admit) how the French national reputation for “unfriendliness” towards especially Americans is primarily a result of World War II:

The idea that the French “hate Americans” stems primarily from the Second World War and its aftermath, and is rooted in America’s difficult post-war relationship with the French government under President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s.

For if you search pre-1940 news and literature for it, that stereotype is absent. In Henry James’s The American, an 1877 novel about an American man visiting France, James makes not single reference to it. And why didn’t he? Because it did NOT yet exist.

After the US and Great Britain, I have spent more time in France than in any other country. “Isabelle” is a fictionalization of a French girlfriend of mine from back in university. (When I first met her I knew only some broad generalizations and, uh, stereotypes then too.) She did not get that stereotype either; but she had once also told me this and as you see I never forgot it:

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995, on Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

Naturally every new visitor experiences France afresh. Approaching the French while also possessing the mental baggage of their post-WWII reputation for “unfriendliness” and since personal clashes and even simple misunderstandings are inevitable in life between any people on occasion, that “unfriendiness” stereotype will probably unfortunately long persist: for every personal interaction is measured up against the stereotype in a way quite no other people are ever judged. Indeed it has become, in a way, part of what a visitor – especially an American – almost expects to encounter in France.

As we know also, Hollywood has poked fun at it for decades:

[Photo of a scene from To Catch A Thief (1955) by me, 2018. The first sentence meme words are slightly compressed and altered from the film script; but the last two sentences – including a bit of sarcasm from Grace Kelly there – are direct quotes.]

Our airport driver in France last week was certainly another argument against that stereotype. On our way to Geneva returning home on Saturday, he revealed – he spoke fairly good English – what he had not told us the week before: he had worked as a maintenance manager for Air France around the world (“On 747s and 777s, big planes…” he said), including in the US for nearly 15 years, and was recently retired. He was doing winter airport runs this year to make some extra money. (“[President] Macron, I don’t like him. He takes and takes from older people. It is so wrong. Oh, no, I’m talking politics like a taxi driver!”)

His two children – a daughter age 25 and a son age 22 – had even been born in the US (so were US citizens by birth). He was also divorced twice; his children’s mother had been an Air France flight attendant. (“Eh, yes, I married with a flight attendant. Ooh, la…” he joked.) He had been born in La Clusaz and his ex-wife and adult children lived in nearby Annecy. (He didn’t talk about the other ex-wife.)

[La Clusaz, France. Photo by me, 2019.]

He was disappointed our Irish friends had had to take a bus to get to Geneva Airport. Their Belfast-bound flight left much earlier than ours to London Luton. Remembering her from collecting us all together at Geneva the previous weekend, he was curious how the 14 year old liked skiing.

“She loved it,” my wife declared.

[Atop Beauregard Mountain, La Clusaz, France. Photo by me, 2019.]

He also explained: “I lived in many places in the US. I worked at Newark in New Jersey…”

“We land there often when we visit the US,” incredulous, my wife acknowledged. “It is such a small world sometimes.”

“Once I rent a U haul to drive days to move all of my things,” he recalled. “And I lived in New York City and in Philadelphia, and even in Fairbanks, in Alaska…”

“I lived in Fairbanks for a time,” I laughed.

“Oh, it’s soooo cold there in winter,” he looked at me in the rearview mirror briefly. “Plugging in the cars so they start in the cold… brrrrrrh.”

And he was often hilarious. Making his way down the mountain roads, at one point he observed: “In San Francisco, the first place I work in USA, I meet an American woman who loved my French accent. I learned after that to speak it with women in America more. ‘I love your accent,’ they always say that,” he chuckled.

At that, my wife sitting next to me in the back seat gave me a smile as she told him: “The French women’s accent works on American men too…”

“Yes, we know that well too… eh, and what flight attendants do, uh, traveling all the time?” he guffawed knowingly, clearly lightheartedly insinuating extramarital behavior on his ex-wife’s part.

He had driven across the US on I-80, seeing much of the country from coast to coast. The national parks astounded him, and he loved the outdoors. “I paraglided in a place I was not supposed to. The ranger said to me, ‘Uh, don’t do that again or I will take you to jail!’ Oh, it was so great. I am taking my son and my daughter to New York for a holiday in May.”

[Departing Geneva Airport. Photo by me, 2019.]

At Geneva Airport’s drop off, we wished him well for his May holiday.

After having helped us put our bags on the sidewalk, as he got back into his car he replied: “Say ‘Hello’ to the Queen.”

Have a good Monday, wherever you are. 🙂

2 replies »

  1. Oh Robert, how fun! I know it sounds condescending to say how much I love “local color” but that’s not how I mean it at all. I love meeting people like this and chatting. When we travel as a family, we do a lot of private tours as there are eight of us. I know that tour companies seek out gregarious folk to drive and guide, but we so appreciate these people. The conversations we have and stories we hear from them have made for some amazing memories.

    I’ve been to France several times and have never met anyone unpleasant. A few years back, when we docked in Le Havre we all went our separate ways, Dad and my husband to Normandy, my brother and his family to Paris, and my mother, daughter and I to Honfleur. We had a wonderful young cab driver who dutifully returned at the agreed time to pick us up. So grateful was I that he didn’t leave us stranded and that I didn’t need to worry about getting my disabled mother back to the ship, that I over tipped him. He tried to refuse it! His English wasn’t quite good enough for me to convey my gratitude, but hopefully, he got the picture. Glad you enjoyed your vacation and have an amazing day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s so more of what I notice there.🇫🇷😊

      They don’t tip like we do. And they don’t expect it. They get ACTUAL SALARIES in restaurants and other services and don’t have to live off tips as in the US.🇺🇸

      And Normandy. I don’t know what to say. I will never forget in the 1990s meeting a D-Day veteran at a museum who said he had retired to the area. He adored it there and the people. I would say it may be even more worth Americans visiting than even Paris.