October 15, 2012
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – In spite of the raspy, crackly cell phone transmission, Mother’s happiness shines through the transatlantic connection. She and a friend are touring southward from Paris to Nice and apparently having a wonderful time. The first day of driving, after they picked up a car in Limoges, was exciting because they gave her a stick-shift transmission, and it’s been a long time since her last Beetle. The second day, they encountered cliffside roads without guard rails, but the phone calls prove they’ve survived so far. The friend will fly home in a few days, and I’ll take her place for a week or so as we visit the hill villages of Haute-Provence.
She’ll have a hundred experiences to share, which I’ll listen to with all the enthusiasm I can muster. But what I really want to hear is what the French are thinking of us at the moment. They are particularly astute observers of the American political scene.
You remember the French, eh? – those people whose popular revolution followed ours by 13 years? Who gave us the Napoleonic Code, the civil code that in 1804 prohibited privileges based on birth or social class, permitted the free exercise of religion, and established qualifying exams for would-be civil servants? Who have three times in the last 150 years wrestled with Teutonic armies from the north, and survived? Who made the term [it] Maquisard [it] an international honorific of the highest degree during the World War II German occupation?
I’m a bit of a provincial bumpkin, and haven’t quite gotten over how people who don’t even speak English as a native language have leaped so far ahead of the United States in (for example) national health care, commercial design, highway design and infrastructure, and mass transit. Their kitchen counters rise and fall at the touch of a switch; roundabouts at almost every intersection are marked so well that even an American klutz like me can’t go wrong; and the high-speed electric trains rocket people around the country at up to 200 miles an hour.
Mark Twain, who often assumed the persona of a bumpkin himself, was famously anti-Gallic. Huck Finn’s friend Jim, for example, can’t figure out why, if a Frenchman is a man, he doesn’t talk like one. And I perceive that American patriots have always (since the Revolution, anyway, when the French saved our bacon at Yorktown) denigrated the French as effete, dandified Continentals. You recall, no doubt, that when the Bush-Cheney Administration began beating the war drums over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and seeking allies to join us, the French respectfully declined the invitation. In response, a pair of Republican congressmen, from Ohio and North Carolina, changed the menus in the House cafeterias from French Fries to Freedom Fries. The action expressed our unhappiness with France’s “continued refusal to stand with their U.S. allies...strong displeasure...with our so-called ally, France.” Harrumph. Several restaurant chains in the American South followed suit, with “American Fries.” But the French were right, which – if you’ll excuse an awful pun – seems to gall many Americans.
Halloween is our wedding anniversary, so Mother and I try to get away each year just before November. There’s nowhere else I want to go as badly as she wants to go to France (she’s fairly certain she was a persecuted Huguenot there in a former life, and has even found her family name on a school in Cannes); so we go there. About a week is all I can take, so I join her near the end of her trip. For the last few months, every time we’ve ridden somewhere in her car, the radio’s been playing one of her language CDs: [it] Bon jour, Mademoiselle. [it] It drives me nuts, so I repeat it in German – [it] Guten Tag, Fräulein. [it] – which drives her nuts.
But we’ll have a lovely time. Along with the scenery, the ambiance, the hiking, and the cuisine, we enjoy falling into conversation with people we meet; and we always just happen to fall into conversation about our current political campaigns. It’s illuminating to get outsiders’ points of view – especially after reading some of the idiotic opinions in the blogosphere here in America.
A man I spoke with in the locker room at the gym the other day told me that when his daughter was going to school in Paris during the 2008 election, all her schoolmates knew the vote totals and electoral count the morning after the election. Clearly, they have an eye on us, and they care. Would that we were watching them as closely. We might learn a thing or two.
We happened to be in France during the Clinton impeachment trial, when Congress (several of whose members should have been wearing scarlet letters themselves) were in the process of spending $40 million to uncover the details of the President’s dalliance. The bemused smile of the French we spoke to said it all. After all, their president at the time had two families.
We were there again in 2010, about a year after President Obama’s election. A burly street vendor in Aix-en-Provence with a short, cold cigar in the corner of his gap-toothed mouth was selling crepes from his cart. He could tell we were Americans. “How you like Obama, eh?” he asked. We told him we liked him fine. “Obama, good!” he almost shouted. “Bush!” – here he grabbed his crotch. We thanked him for his thoughtful opinion, and strolled quickly away.
Americans are targets for conversation from other travelers, as well. Brits in particular are quick to ask us what’s going on with Mr. Romney, whose ham-handed comments during his recent European tour still have them shaking their heads. I’ll collect as many European opinions as i can get. I doubt it’ll change either Mother’s or my vote, but you never know.