My first significant impression of The French I had received as a tartan-clad child in Protestant school. I had been freshly diagnosed with ADHD, and Valley Christian had recently implemented for all Kindergarteners the “Good Morning Song,” during which we should praise the Lord by concocting a tune that consisted of singing “good morning” in various languages.
Well, I was rather a scholar with the first bit, which was English. Then there came “Guten Morgen,” which I correctly deduced as some kind of Muppets variant. “Buenos Dias” was next, which perplexed me greatly. Then, “Bonjour.” Well, this was obviously nonsense.
My ability to spell correctly French-derived English words has not changed much since this day. And my spoken-French, I believe, has decreased.
It is, in fact, possible to live a full American life without meeting one French person. We are all aware that they bathe in cheese, have hats that melt on one side, and tend to take the easy way out, but we have never actually seen one.
My second impression of The French came over twenty years later, when I was living in a West Philadelphia ghetto, where I observed an absurdly tall, absurdly thin gentleman, who possessed the uncanny ability to drink to farfetched excess, roll his own cigarettes with the accuracy and speed of a convict, perform great feats of mathematics with his brain alone, and speak through only his nose a curious dialect that consisted mostly of “fucking American bastards.”
Well, now, here was a friend.
18 months later and that same man, my good friend Paul, was driving us and various camping materials in his Volkswagen Golf along the northern coast of his native France.
It was in this charming river-town where I learned my first important cultural difference in France: there are no male bathrooms. Or, at least that’s the only logical conclusion available to us. All the men are piddling outside.
Karl Pilkington once said that “if you’re not happy looking a knob in the face, there’s something wrong.”
Full Pilkington investigation on knobs below:
And, whilst I agree with Mr. Pilkington, he does not specify anything as regards urination. Trusted friends have told me that I whinge in surplus, have too many a moan; but, I had been in France for fewer than ninety minutes and had in my time there taken more knobs to the face than I had during all of my American locker-room experiences combined. Yours truly also had his first experience with a Turkish bathroom, which, for those unaware, is, I am sure, a version of practical joke in France. I, for one, left laughing and nodding to my travel-companion in the negative.
Then, I learned another French curiosity, which ended up being similar in Germany: they still smoke here. And you can even do it at the restaurant table. I inquired amazedly with my companion if it were perhaps a lapse in decorum to assault the lungs of other restaurant patrons, whereupon he gave me that classic French look depicted above. To describe it physically would be redundant, but you are certain, whenever looking at it, that you are the dumbest person on Earth.
I and my guide were obliged to spend one afternoon in Paris. The Eiffel Tower, for those in doubt, is indeed real. But, more interestingly, deodorant is optional, whilst kissing strangers is mandatory. In fact, Paris is something of an introvert’s nightmare. Moreover, you are expected to contribute to the chaos, which does not stop, and people are touching you. French trains also trains rival American trains in the Nightmare-Factor.
It was in Paris where I first saw an interesting soporific that is taken liberally throughout France. In The States, it is called Bocce Ball. Everyone in France is playing the game, though it’s certainly a stretch of the definition of the word. I am told that there is even a professional circuit.
Setting out for our journey along the northern coastline, I noticed something along the road that I really could not believe. I asked again and again of my friend if there were really baguette machines everywhere. Perhaps it were my accent, but he couldn’t understand my laughter.
The coastline of France, I imagine, is one to rival coastlines across the globe. Take Étretat:
A true beauty to behold is that of Le Mont Saint Michel. My being utterly confounded with the most basic of construction methods, indeed feeling great accomplishment to the point of mania at connecting two Legos together with my own hands, the mind baffles at how this feat of architecture was possible in the fifth century. It is my understanding it be general discourse that, if a civilization were to exist in the past, then it were less advanced. I challenge you to visit Le Mont Saint Michel and then your local parking garage, and we may then again clash intellects.
In general, France feels old, which is something I really like, as I’ve always preferred the friendship of the elderly to those of my age-bracket.
It must be said that I tend to make it my habit to render most of my experiences into a kind of understated, ironic, some might say, humorous bite to the neck. I’ve heard the term “take no prisoners” of my writing style. I should describe my French companion as of a similar ilk. International relations, however, took a turn for the sincere in Normandy.
Show me a man or a woman who can cast his or her eyes upon the over 9,000 Christian crosses and over 150 Stars of David on Normandy Beach without holding back tears, and I’ll show you someone in need of medical examination, if not of the eye, then of the heart. I’m here to report that my companion and I are apparently medically sound.
I recall a young French girl momentarily locking eyes with the writer. She waved at me, slowly.
Moreover, the French hold a flag-folding ceremony and 21-gun salute (albeit gun-less) every day for the American lives lost in Normandy in the defense of a world ever in pursuit of Liberty. If that’s not love, then I’ve never felt love in my life.
When all matter crumbles, it is the upholding of the sacred contracts that we make to other human souls that stand, survive the hand of time.
My companion and I did not speak for 45 minutes, which, barring times of sleep, was the longest time that we kept silent from each other, although his English vocabulary be not 1000 words, “fuck” consisting of 990 of them, my French being that of speaking English. It was here that I understood something immemorial.
France is beautiful country—the French a beautiful people.
I met a delightful French woman in England who said to me that “you could put The French in a box.” Whilst I imagine that you could fit anyone in a box, given the right box, they do feel like old friends, the French. I trust them. And that’s more than I can say of most.