Tuesday, October 9, 2012

France? Oui, s'il vous plaît.

Travel Tuesday

Today I’m not writing about one particular trip, but my overall impressions and experiences with the people of one particular country. Having just spent a weekend in and around Colmar in the Alsace region of France, my tummy still full of escargot gratin, and my trunk full of fresh pastries (okay, maybe not full), I’ve got France on the brain.

When Chris and I first moved abroad in 2004, beginning this high travel way of life, we did not immediately venture off to Paris, perhaps the most popular European destination for Americans. We visited Croatia in the east and Ireland way up north before we ever set foot in France. It’s relevant to note here that we were living in Northern Italy at the time, the French border a mere 4 hour drive away. France was so close, but our desire to explore within its borders were heavily influenced by what other people told us about their time there. For instance, we heard nothing but negative stories about Paris. Everyone we talked to who’d been said everyone was so rude, they didn’t care to ever return. Looking back now, I’m a little ashamed that we let other people’s impressions dissuade us from going anywhere, but we were new and impressionable; call us Freshmen of the University of Travel.

It was November of 2006 when we decided we really did want to see Paris, and it would be our first Thanksgiving not spent with friends or family around a big table full of enough food to feed an army. We went prepared for over the top snobbery, pushy Parisians and endless pretension, but what we discovered had us floored: Parisians were nice, and not just nice, but helpful. Sure we inspired our share of sighs when we walked a little too slowly in front of someone who knew where they were going, but you get that in any big city. (This reminded me of being in New York for the first time and being surprised by the helpfulness of the people there, too, after being fed story after story of the horrible and rude people of that metropolis.) We attempted French whenever possible, both badly and apologetically, and I think that helped because we weren’t feeding the stereotype of the loud, entitled Americans who demand to be catered to. People were generally friendly and patient as we stumbled through their melodic language, smashing its toes with our clumsy American accents. And suddenly some of the stories of horrid rudeness we’d heard made sense, because we’d seen some of the people who'd told us these stories out and about. The difference was, we embraced the fact that we were visitors in someone else's country, and we were trying.

One night we were looking for an art gallery in a neighborhood near the Moulin Rouge. We’d been over and over the map but still couldn’t figure out what we were missing. It must’ve been around 9 o’clock at night and we were staring at our little tourist map under a streetlamp. There was a woman walking toward us leading her toddler by the hand, and I reflexively smiled at the little girl as she drew closer to us. I didn’t expect what happened next.

“Ay twa vare do? Preesh voosadi?” said the woman, or something that sounded like that to my non-French-understanding ears.

I gave her the look that meant I didn’t understand a thing she’d said, which I’ve now perfected and consists of eyebrows raised to my hairline, eyes as wide as golf balls, and a cartoon-esque smile.

To which she responded, “Oh, pardon me. Do you need some help finding something?”

Clearly a Parisian walking home with her daughter, and she was asking to help us. This was our Paris, and pretty indicative of the rest of our time there. It should be said that we did encounter one man whose rudeness had me considering walking out on the check, but he wasn’t even French.

After that trip, we happily returned to France several more times, eager to help them get through some of those butter croissants and amazing cheeses and bread and wine and crepes and foi gras on toast and fondant chocolate and wow do we love French food.

This weekend in Colmar, our experience was no difference. Granted, Colmar isn’t Paris, but it gets it share of tourism all year long, or so our waiter said today at lunch. Jordan’s actually from New Zealand, but living in Colmar because of, what else, the love of a French woman. Before we knew he wasn’t French and he took our order, he was quick to make sure I knew I’d ordered snails, and his facial expression told me he expected some show of revulsion on my part. I smiled and nodded, because I freaking love escargot. My favorite is the Alsace style of simmering the snails in garlic butter, or sometimes pesto, but today it was escargot cooked in a gratin kind of potato, cheese, and onion casserole and I’m still full. After we’d eaten Jordan asked where we were from, detecting our North American accents, and we had a nice conversation with him about our respective homes and living abroad. His fiancé is from Colmar, it turned out, so there he was, trying to learn French and making plans. As we chatted on, I noticed the rest of the (presumably) French restaurant staff standing behind the bar watching with smiles on their faces. Later we mused that perhaps they were giggling at the chatty Kiwi they worked with, for Jordan was the only waiter we had such a nice long conversation with on the trip. We even talked about service with Jordan, and he kind of rolled his eyes and commented on how rude the service usually was around Alsace, but we had to disagree – we’d had great service, friendly, even. He said we’d been lucky, and perhaps he was right, but to this day we’ve never had a terrible experience anywhere in France. Knock on wood.

Hiking back out of Verdon Gorge
Jordan is the second non-French person we’ve met living in France because of a woman, the first being artist Kamil Vojnar. We met Kamil athis gallery in St. Remy a couple of years ago. Kamil is Czech, and his wife, a French woman from St. Remy, which was one of the stops we made on our road trip through Provence in the spring of 2010. That weeklong trip has got to be one of my favorites. We took to the road and rolled through the countryside of southern France, stopping in Apt, Rousillon, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, Avignon, St. Remy, and Annecy slightly out of Provence on our way home. On that trip we learned how amazing a simple picnic of market sausage and cheese on a fresh baguette with local mustard and fresh strawberries on the side could be. We also learned how good small town French hoteliers were at charades, as this was generally how we communicated with them. We hiked to the bottom of a small canyon on that trip, and only found our way out because of some French hikers who’d come prepared with a map of the trails. We tried real aioli for the first time and never loved blanched vegetables so much. I fantasize about having a little cottage in the countryside where I can buy my produce from the farm down the road and write in a garden bursting with lavender.

I guess my point in recounting these times in various parts of France is that people are people, and just because a person happens to have been be born in a place like Paris doesn’t make them any more (or less) likely to be a jerk. People appreciate it when you attempt to speak their language while you’re visiting their country, in the same way we expect everyone in the States to speak English. People also appreciate it when you acknowledge the cultural differences with respect. Every place has its own rhythm, and you don't have to understand it or force yourself to fall in line with it, but it is my opinion that you should at least be respectful, if not give it a try. The people of any given place know its rhythm and therefor function with it; this is something visitors do not innately understand, so my advice is to try not to hurry when you're there. (Thanks, Nancy, for this thought.) Take a step back and just observe a place for a minute; you might find you understand it a little more. And yes, some people can be real douchebags, but that’s true wherever you go in the world. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while living this traveler’s dream over the past eight plus years, it’s that no matter where people come from, we are all very much the same. We all love, fear and dream. We can all be rude and obnoxious, and we can all be gracious and helpful, depending on our moods. Everyone has their moments, I think it has more to do with our attitudes than anything else, and being open to whatever comes, in my opinion, is the best way to be in a world so full of could-be spectacular moments.


  1. This is a test comment.....

  2. Because I am fed up with leaving huge comments on blogger only for it not to accept it...Anyway, I have never properly been to France. I have only done the 'booze cruise' in the 1990's. This post though, has made me think that perhaps I would like to visit, and of course, sample all of the lovely wines which I spend much of my time bottling for them...

  3. This was my experience of France - everyone was amazingly hospitable and friendly. I even was invited to stay in someone's home on that trip! I would cut off my right arm to go back...

  4. This was a GREAT post. That is exactly what I experienced in Paris. I did some research on the culture and as well as their custom. I don't speak French at all, (took Spanish in high school!) but I practiced before I went over with my husband. By trying to speak french and following their custom, we were treated SO well. We have traveled all over the place, and my husband and I both agreed that Parisians were some of the most sweetest and fabulous people we have ever come across. Not once did we encounter rude people, once they realized how much we want to follow their custom, they went above and beyond for us. I cannot wait to go back!!!

    1. Thanks - I'm so glad you liked it! And yes, even butchering the language (as long as you're trying not to) beats demanding English if it's friendliness you're after. I've gotten really good at pantomiming since living as a foreigner in someone else's country. It makes communication much more entertaining.