I grant you it’s based on just a few visits, but I find that I like and admire the French. In general, I’ve found them to be courteous, friendly, hospitable and especially appreciative if you make an attempt to speak their language.
If you’re an American traveling in Normandy, many of the locals — especially those of an advanced age — often go out of their way to express their gratitude for the Americans who landed on their beaches and battled through their hedgerows seventy years ago.
I’ve even found Parisians to be helpful and pleasant. Besides, who are we to talk? There’s a wonderful, probably apocryphal story about an out-of-towner who stops a native New Yorker on the street and says, “Excuse me, but can you tell me how to get to Times Square, or should I just fuck off?”
The French are proud of their culture, and with good reason. After all, they’ve been at it for a while … centuries before anyone even suspected that there could be a North American continent somewhere off to the west. Last year, I spent a few days in Chartres. Construction on the cathedral there — still an architectural marvel drawing visitors from around the world — was begun in 1193. And the sublime chateau a couple of hundred yards from where I’m sitting is almost 500 years old.
OK, so what have Americans got against the French?
Our jabs at the French have always seemed misplaced and somewhat snide to me. When France opposed going to war against Saddam Hussain in 2003, the dining room in the U.S House of Representatives stopped serving French fries, and began calling them “Freedom Fries” instead. An unimaginative, petty gesture … so naturally it caught on.
When it comes to France’s relationship with America, two very different events stand out for me. First, it would behoove the small minds to consider that the French went out on a limb and took our side in the American Revolution. And if their fleet hadn’t shown up to prevent the British from evacuating their army from Yorktown … well, who knows?
And when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 — still the worst day of my entire life — France paid a very special tribute to our country at that awful time. Charles DeGaulle, then president of France, flew to Washington to attend our young president’s funeral. And, in full uniform and ramrod straight at age 73, DeGaulle marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for the entire length of the funeral procession. Now that was a gesture!