The struggle to make a French connection
THE people of France and the United States enjoy what must be one of the more perfectly balanced love-hate relationships in the world. Even as they lob insults across the Atlantic and tell ethnic jokes at home, Americans and French eagerly gobble up greatchunks of each other's cultures.
It's like going to a restaurant where one detests the decor and atmosphere but loves the food. Or vice versa.
Americans are infatuated with all manner of things French. We love the fineries which France is famous for, from champagne and foie gras, to perfumes and haute couture. And we are seduced by what we find lacking in our own backyard, the dense foliage ofancient history, the self-assurance that comes with deep class identity. The bubbles go to our head.
At home, we pick French-sounding words for businesses that have nothing to do with France - ''Chez California Inc,'' ''Le Shoe Store'' - and name Mid-Western towns hungry for a touch of class after European capitals, especially Paris.
BUT many Americans are Francophiles only from a distance. A Frenchman in New York speaking English with a pea-soup accent is charming. That same Frenchman in Paris shrugging and pursing his lips with indifference when asked, in broken French, how to get to the Eiffel Tower, is a pain in the derriere.
Indeed, if Americans harbour two stereotypes about the French, especially Parisians, one is that they are rude to strangers, especially from the US. The other is that they are great lovers. Americans who have never set foot on French soil are adamant onthis point. What's worse, so are Americans who have. There is an element of misunderstanding in this accusation, but also an element of truth.
During a recent trip to Paris, my first in nearly a decade, I was reminded that many Parisians are blessed with a manner that my compatriots find aloof and off-putting. They do not exclaim with joy upon meeting an American, as do people in some other countries. Nor are they particularly inclined to learn foreign languages, or help struggling tourists picking their way through a phrase book.
And even when they do speak English, they don't always let on. During a year of study in Taiwan I befriended a Parisian with whom I spoke very rudimentary and incorrect French on a daily basis. Two years later, when I met the fellow again but had trouble resuscitating my by-then moribund French, I discovered much to my amazement that he spoke a fluent, if accented, English, and always had. When asked why he had not revealed his linguistic skills - far superior to mine - in Taiwan, he simply shrugged.
To be fair, Americans assume that the world is bilingual, or that it should be, and that any attempt on their part to speak in other than their native tongue should be rewarded and praised. Even the French are not that arrogant.
The list of American affronts to the tender sensibilities of the French is very long indeed. Most Frenchmen - at least those who arrogate on to themselves the sacred duty of defending the purity of their tradition and language - rail against the onslaught of what they call American cultural imperialism. They point with horror to the hundreds of English words that have crept into daily use in France. (I saw one advertisement on television for a fast-food restaurant - the very concept is itself an Americanimport - promoting a ''super magic box'' stuffed with a hamburger and, yes, French fries.) French television is larded with third-rate American programming and imitations of US game shows, even Family Feud (rendered, in translation, as ''The Golden Family''). The Champs Elysees, that most Parisian of promenades, is now graced with an enormousMcDonald's and two Burger Kings. But the most pernicious virus in the American plague isn't carried by Ronald McDonald but by Donald Duck; EuroDisney. Located outside of Paris, EuroDisney is seen by many as the ultimate blight on the French landscape, bothphysical and cultural.
Yet, at the same time, other equally authentic products of Yankee culture are revered as icons, especially movies. The French are serious cinema buffs to begin with, but reserve a special passion for American films, both old and new. Clint Eastwood, longbefore he earned the begrudging respect of critics in the US, was hailed as a film genius in France. Other favourite American sons include Woody Allen, Mickey Rourke, Jerry Lewis.
If French and Americans are of two minds about each other, both phobic and fawning at the same time, there are good reasons as well. One has to do with differing perceptions of the art of conversation.
My wife, who is French, protested to me after living in the US for a while that Americans of casual acquaintance were constantly prying into personal affairs. Questions that we consider routine in starting a conversation, even with a stranger, she foundimpertinent: What do you do for a living? Where do you come from? etc.
I found it hard to believe that French people in social settings did things differently, but they do. Not once in a month of dinner engagements in Paris did anyone ask personal questions. At first I found it odd, and almost took offence. But I soon realised that it was far more entertaining to talk about something new.
Indeed, it was surprises like this that led me to take the advice of American folk singer Jonathan Richman, one of whose songs is titled Give Paris One More Chance.