Monday, July 16, 2007

Idiots Without Borders

For those of you wondering if France has a military, the answer is bien sûr. And last weekend it was out in full force to celebrate La Fête Nationale. Don't let the wimpy equipment fool you; these photos were shot in the 14th arrondissement long after the ceremonies had broken up. There was a ton of action on the Champs Élysées. We watched a bit of it in on T.V. It was bizarre to see the beauty of the Arc de Triomphe and all the crowds and realize that it was just a short metro ride away. Although I’ve fallen into a routine (which we’re trying to shake-up), when I take the time to appreciate my surroundings, I’m still awe struck.

Seeing the French soldiers reminded me of two encounters Fred and I have experienced with American tourists in Paris over the past year.

Most recently at Legrande Filles et Fils, a quaint wine bar tucked away in the Galerie Vivienne, a lovely consortium of restaurants and boutiques. It was early evening and Fred and I were the first customers. We grabbed two seats at the corner and ordered our wine. Shortly thereafter, two middle-aged American women walked in and plopped themselves and tons of shopping bags down on the stools next to ours. They picked up the wine list and made a big production about not knowing where the different regions were and whether Saint Emilion was in Bordeaux. I finally told them yes, mainly to shut them up, and then Fred politely explained the different regions to them.

This small conversation quickly led to an interview about who we were, how we met, etc. Fred explained that he was in the U.S. doing his military service (a requirement for all Frenchmen at the time), but before he could even finish the more obnoxious of the two facetiously blurted out: “Oh, does France have a military?” I haven’t met someone this funny since Kathy Bates made a cameo in my French class. She went on to reveal her stupidity with comments like: “Well, if it does, it must be small because I’ve never heard of it.” Fred kindly, without any sarcasm, explained that relative to the U.S., the French army is small because France has a much smaller population and geographically is smaller than the State of Texas. She continued to taunt him. Her friend, embarrassed, finally said: “I’m sorry you don’t know her; she’s really nice and is just trying to be funny.” Exactly. We didn’t know her and she didn’t know us. Before she laid down her “zingers” on Fred, she might have wanted to establish that connection, or at least learn how to say it in French. And reading an atlas on the plane flight over wouldn’t have hurt either.

The other encounter happened at La Fontaine de Mars. While waiting for our table in a cramped space, we started talking with an American couple who was on vacation. Again, the conversation quickly turned to how we met. Fred explained that he was at Berkeley National Lab in Northern California completing his mandatory military service. The woman quipped: “What do they teach you in the French military? Surrender Lessons?” Just prior to this, she was telling us about her 19 year old son who was studying abroad at a prestigious private school and who was fluent in three languages. She’s hardly the type of person that should be throwing around jokes about “surrender lessons” when her pampered son was studying languages in a foreign county; unless, of course, he planned on using those languages to be a windtalker. (Oh, and she was asking Fred how to say things in French, and to recommend touristy things for her!). Her husband was far too sweet for her, he hushed her and looked very apologetic. She was a doctor, he was a school teacher. I suppose he viewed her as a retirement plan, as there’s no other explanation as to why he was still with her.

As for the wine bar and the restaurant? The wine bar is mostly looks. It’s a beautiful dark wood bar in an arcade. The service is mediocre. If you plan on going, don’t order the cheese plate. The woman, who I suspect is the mother of the Filles et Fils, leaned down behind the bar and picked at her toenails, and then rubbed her eye, all in plain view. Disgusting!) As for the restaurant, La Fontaine de Mars, it’s a nice restaurant with good French food in a beautiful area of Paris (near the Eiffel Tower). It’s a good call for when your parents, or their friends, are in town. However, they stick the nonsmokers upstairs in a small room without a whole lot of charm, but that should end in February 2008 if the nonsmoking ban takes effect. Don't hold your breath!

For all the moaning I do about annoying French people, I have to say that the rudest encounters I've ever experienced in Paris involved Americans. Ironically, Fred was treated much better by the Americans he met in the U.S. during the 5 years that he spent there than he has been by tourists in France that he's been trying to help!


Anonymous said...

I love your blog! You have a great sense of humour and are a wonderful raconteuse.

Jennifer said...

Some Americans' lack of cultural sensitivity and knowledge shocks (and embarrasses) me.

Karen said...

Those tourists make me embarrassed to be american. It only serves to reinforce the negative stereotype of Americans abroad. It's such a shame that they're allowed to travel out of the country, they should be put in cages. And, thanks for the tip about the cheese plate! I try to stay away from (toe) jam.

The Late Bloomer said...

This was a really intriguing post, Amy! I have a vivid memory of my first year in Paris as a student, over 12 years ago, when my parents came to visit. One of the most embarrassing, horrible run-ins I ever had with American tourists (or observed, I guess really in this case) was in the Musée d'Orsay, where some woman in the gift shop loudly said in English that she wanted her poster rolled and put into a tube. When the salesperson didn't immediately understand her, she pushed her way behind the counter and went to do it herself! I was gobsmacked!

So I totally agree with you -- there have been so many instances where I have been embarrassed by U.S. tourists here, and although I will always be American and certainly don't deny it or try to hide my roots, I tend to try to avoid other Americans in crowded restaurants! My boyfriend doesn't understand why and often asks me why I don't "chat" with my compatriots -- but these examples are just some of the reasons why I don't!

In any case, I agree that it's hilarious how you shared your stories here!

Anonymous said...

It is a shame when people are not in their county they think they can say and do things, that they probably would dream of doing at home. I am reminded of Rosina and my trip to the Louvre, where it was posted all over do not take picutes, and there were tourist, one with an American Flag on his shirt snapping away. I wanted to go up to him and tell him no wonder people refer to us at ugly Americans, it is people like him to which they are referring. But I didn't want to make a scene and fall into that category also., Mom

Marine Wife said...

Sadly, it does seem like those are the most visible Americans abroad. It's a bit like the news, only the bad stuff gets reported/noticed.

I'm amazed at the nerve of some people.

Neil said...

Tourists in general can be tiresome, whether they're Americans in Paris or Germans in San Francisco. (Trust me, that was just a random selection.) And as I'm sure you can recall from your days in the city by the bay, American tourists don't have to leave the country to be obnoxious.

Mary said...

I actually had the opposite experience while I was a tourist in Europe. It was in 1989 and I was 22 Years old. I found myself having to defend my country and things that had happened before I was even born. My Dutch friend and I were not invited to his good friends' party because their cousin did not like Americans (she had never met me). Most of the ignorant people I met lived in the Netherlands. The only rude person I met in France was a cab driver and he was an immigrant. I am very sad and embarrassed that some Americans behave so badly. Unfortunately, there are too many ignorant people all over the world. It was the first time I had experienced prejudice and was a very sobering experience. If everyone would treat others the way they would like to be treated...what a wonderful world this would be for everyone

ColourMeCrazy said...

It's not just the American tourists. I've run into French tourists in Malaysia who've made incredibly stupid remarks as well - the only problem is when you can understand them!

fred said...

Stupidity definitively doesn't have a citizenship.

I would say that when you are an expat it is easier to remark tourists from your own country since they usually stick out from the crowd (French people in the US easy to recognize: tight clothes, smoking and complaining about something) so you tend to remember them more if they do something embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

I recall these stories and they still make me cringe that people would say that to Fred.
If it gives you any comfort:
I had dinner with a mix of American/British people last week. One of the English guys there proceeded to get "pissed" and launched into a rather obnoxious tirade about how much he dislikes Americans and the U.S. Those of us who were American there just let him ramble on; sticks and stones. However, the other English people at the table defended the U.S. and Americans and essentially put him in his place.
He then switched gears and shifted his anger to nos chers amis en France. I then proceeded to open up a can of whoop ass that rendered his arguments useless. Don't mess with France, at least not around me!

Anonymous said...

I went back and read your Kathy Bates entry how funny! (and what a bitch!).

Christophe in true Christophe fashion decided to be a conscientious objector when it came time for his service so he spent two years working for the government with NO PAY!

I had some shocking experiences with American tourists in Paris. There were even a few times when hearing them confused in English I would help them (I was a tourist too but had really done a lot of research before I fronted up) and they never ever said thankyou. I also met two awful Americans at Versailles and they were bitching about "there's so many black faces here now" and "oh back home we have a lot of hispanics (makes face)". Unbelieveable.

That said, I've heard Australian tourists (along with the English) can be hideous, drunk and hideous. That awful horror movie 'Hostel' gives a good portrayal of odious American tourists.

Aralena said...

What a smart and funny rendition of a recurring nightmare! It's unbelievable how offensive people can be when taken out of their safety zone. I honestly can't remember running into similar French dunces in S.F., though...
Like The Late Bloomer, I too find myself ignoring a certain type of American in Paris - the one wearing 5 fanny packs and a t-shirt with 'ole red, white, and blue emblazoned across it, yelling at some non-English speaking French person in English (because EVERYONE speaks English, right?). I just feel like these folks need to be left to their own devices.

There's a funny scene in "2 Days in Paris" where Adam Goldberg misdirects some Da Vinci Code enthusiasts - I have yet to go that far, but the thought has occurred to me.

The Late Bloomer said...

Ah, yes Aralena -- that scene was hilarious! I cringed and yet almost had to laugh to myself, thinking, "How come I don't have the guts to do that?!"

David said...

Until I read your post, I had no idea that Fred had come to the U.S. as part of his military service. Good thing I never made fun of him, or he would have kicked my ass with his little pinky finger!