Face it! Americans love France.
I think I was a Frenchman in a previous life. I disembark in France and feel like I’ve always lived there – Shirley MacLaine and I have been amis for centuries.
France is the world’s most popular travel destination.
And even though Americans spitefully reduced travel to France and introduced the short-lived “Freedom Fries” when the French (justifiably, as time would prove) refused to support the invasion of Iraq, the planes to Paris and the cruise liners to Nice or Le Havre are full again.
Americans call the French rude. We typically love their confit de canard and cheap pichet de vin rouge but not their version of American cocktails (Why would you order a Manhattan in France anyway when you can enjoy a kir royale at half the price?). We don’t understand the disgusting pooch, Fifi, having a seat next to her master who is dining in a chic brasserie on the Champs Elysées. We sneer at the dog’s owner as we devour our “well done” steak frites with sauce américaine (catsup) instead of la moutarde de Dijon.
We have been seduced by the French.
Why do we keep going back? At home, we don’t take vacations with neighbors we do not like.
We remain seduced by the French people, their various regional cultures, the extraordinary history and the picture-perfect landscapes everywhere. And that’s the key – séduire (to seduce).
Like a great lover, the French are masters of seduction. It’s not (always) a sexual thing. Seduction for the French is a game; it’s the art form that the aloof, white-aproned waiter uses to persuade you to accept the last, too small table crammed into his popular sidewalk café – the table which really does have the crappiest view of the passers-by. That, my friends, is French séduction.
Seduction appears everywhere in French life. The essence of French seduction is to discuss ad infinitum any topic at hand, never overtly disagreeing with your colleagues or friends, but constantly refining the precise vocabulary in your presentation to convince them that you are right and they are wrong. For that, the French way of analyzing an issue and the French language were respected and accepted as the superior method of diplomacy for centuries. (Today, we all want instant ideas and solutions. We no longer have time in our day-planners to thoughtfully, and even extremely playfully, discuss one lone topic thoroughly.)
Fortunately, in my opinion, the polite and incessant discussions that occur around the French dinner table have preserved this art form from extinction, though studies are showing that the average amount of time that the French devote to the evening meal is becoming Americanized – the length of a meal, and ultimately the conversation, has dropped significantly. However, do not feel uncomfortable if you spend two or three hours at the dinner table with French friends. C’est normal! (And French waiters are not ignoring you when you want to pay your bill after 45 minutes. They expect you to be at your table, to relax, to talk and talk for hours.)
So what does this mean to the vacationer, the tourist who wants to fully experience life in France and gain a deeper understanding of French culture? For example, are the French really rude?
How to better enjoy your next trip to France.
You’ve purchased every France travel guide book known to man. Your living room floor is carpeted with various maps pinpointing the street corners of all you want to see. But how will the French react to you? How should you feel when you encounter a French baker that never smiles at you while you buy your ”three cressents see vouze platt”? By not saying ”bonjour, monsieur (or madame)” when you entered the shop has already pegged you as “the ugly American”.
I do speak French. I did my year abroad – after graduation from my American university. Ten years later I spent a year setting up a French office for my company’s European expansion. I’ve been overwhelmed by ways of life I did not understand. Yet, I often asked myself why we can’t do something “their way” back in America. I’ve been graciously hosted at family dinners in French homes. I’ve come to appreciate these endless, dueling dinner conversations (which I can play in quite well).
And I always wrote off the “rude” as being part of big city hustle-and-bustle-I’ll-never-see-that-stranger-again culture. (I was wrong; but not for the reason you may be thinking.) What I’ve learned about traveling in my life is that it’s not enough to have all the guidebooks and maps. Travelers should get to know something about how the people they are visiting think and exist within their own social circles.
A recent book in English by an American living in Paris, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, is a fun read and a real eye-opener for those of us peering into France from our safe and familiar vantage point of what can be a Puritan America. Elaine Sciolino’s work is commendable. Her research is remarkably extensive. Her observations come from the experience of a professional reporter for Newsweek and the New York Times. Her global reputation gained her access to the perspective of French seduction in every social stratum from her taxi driver Jean Louis Dessaint to the house of ‘Coco’ Chanel to the Elysée Palace and Presidents of the French Republic.
And though “a kiss on the hand can be quite continental,” Sciolino’s dissection of the various ways that that baisemain is delivered and received opens the pages to seductive chapters about the innumerable French methods of exquisitely executed seduction.
This book is a “must-read” for the traveler who may wonder why they get such a rude look (le regarde) when they accidentally bump into a Frenchman on a narrow, medieval sidewalk.
Sciolino obviously loves France and the French. After all, she and her husband and children continue to live there. Towards the end of the book, before her Epilogue, I sensed that she got a little preachy about why history is passing France by. And, I said to myself, “I understand. But in spite of America’s leadership and success, does that make the United States method right?”
And that closing comment of mine could itself become the topic of tonight’s seductive dinner conversation, as all your friends spend hours with word games, discussing why I am right or why I am definitely wrong.