Compiled during seven weeks in France during the summer of 2000. I attack all manner of topics from the vantage point of an American in Paris, a status made obvious by my white tennis shoes, lack of a poodle, and inability to keep from showering once a day. The resulting treatise is both required reading for doctorate level Franco-American political science students and the reason France pulled out of NATO.
Okay, item number one: Parisians drive around their town like there’s a pregnant woman about to give birth in the back seat of the car and it’s their sworn duty to get her to the hospital on time. I’m sure that’s not why they drive like maniacs but only because their cars are so small that frequently there is no back seat.
Nonetheless, the result of all this automotive hot-rodding is a noisy, buzz of little cars swarming like gnats through the winding streets. God save the pedestrian, especially at the uncontrolled traffic circles. Since there are no lines on the street, French traffic law must hold that whoever goes fastest around the circle wins, sort of a civilian version of the Grand Prix. It’s terrifying enough just watching the mass of metal accelerate in a seemingly random fashion around one of those things; if you’re ever a passenger in a car that’s doing that, make sure you trust the driver with your life because you are. For what it’s worth, every French driver I asked about this claimed as part of their defense that Italian drivers are far worse.
This understanding established I was nonetheless unable to come to terms with the rapidity of the acceleration and braking even after weeks of experiencing them. I could not stop thinking that, given the speed, in the event of an accident the dinky nature of the cars would turn them into miniature accordion factories for all persons involved. Motorcycles, as near as I can tell, are exempt from all traffic law, and you’ll find them not only zooming between cars on the roads but occasionally dodging pedestrians on the sidewalk.
In Paris, these pedestrians are as likely as not to have a poodle or some other small dog tethered to them as they walk the streets, and it’s a rather nice experience to encounter another species in the midst of all the concrete, brick, and mortar of the city. Still, dogs seem to have a constitutional right to poop wherever they wish and the owners appear to have a constitutional right not to pick it up. Despite employing a veritable army of green-clad sanitation engineers, the streets in virtually every French city are littered with little doggy deposits. Having canines in the city inevitably loses some of its appeal when you have to watch every step you make as if you were walking a cow pasture.
But that doesn’t mean one need to look as if he or she is walking in a cow pasture. A strong emphasis has always been placed on fashion, and nobody knows it like the French. (I won’t go into my belief that much of what passes for high fasion frequently misses the elusive goal of being stylish.) In terms of fashion, tight jeans and bell bottoms are in. The spaghetti strap shoulder thing for women is also huge, and I dare say I’ve seen more cleavage than in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. And trust me when I say I’m not glancing that way on purpose. Really, they’re making it hard to miss. Not that I mind.
Of course, if female nudity is your thing (and in my case it is), there’s nothing better than European media and advertising. Any TV commercial for bath soap or shampoo or the like is real must-see TV. None of the prudish cropping that you get on American television. Breasts from a variety of angles, too. What a deal. Still, I can’t name even one of the products, so admittedly these ads are failing on some very fundamental level.
Nonetheless, one hardly need be a TVaholic to get all the bare skin one might want. While the topless Euro beaches are full of peaks and valleys, I’ve yet to meet a single man who’s complaining. If there were an RDA requirement to fulfill a breast fetish, you could take a trip to the French Riviera and overdose your life away.
All of which may be the reason why there is a marvelous male chivalry in France. Actually, I’ve yet to decide if this is simply good breeding, good training or good courtship. Perhaps all three. Maybe it’s leftover guilt from the time when they lit Joan of Arc up like a Baked Alaska then said “sorry” 20 years too late. Whatever the cause, chivalry is alive and well in France, with the exception of the Paris Metro where there’s neither time nor space to be any kind of gentleman.
Speaking of the Metro, despite rush hour inconveniences (an image of sardines in a can comes to mind), major kudos to the French for their Paris-wide and country-wide rail systems. Trains are clean, comfortable, and run on time, except for the TGV where cleanliness was the only thing we got during our travels. But Amtrak should be half as lucky. The US obviously has a lot more land to cover, but the benefits of a better rail system are obvious.
French food is, as one would expect, delicious. There’s a subtlety and variety in flavor and texture that, comparatively, make American cuisine taste like multiple hand grenades lobbed into one’s mouth. We stopped at a McDonald’s in France just to make sure, and yes, it’s true: The burger and fries are crap. Admittedly, there are some French delicacies that are unsuitable to my palette, and I confess to being unable to come to grips psychologically with the idea of eating any part of a snail or a frog. I have no doubt, however, that had I summoned the courage, it would’ve been the best snail or frog I’d ever had.
There is a peculiar French sandwich called, inappropriately enough, an “American” which consists of a hamburger and fries stuffed in a baguette. This is, as far as I can tell, a French invention aimed at tourists and based on a misunderstood notion of American fast food. Either that or it’s an “artistic” twist on American fast food. Regardless, it’s pretty yummy.
That quirky meal aside, there’s no question that the French, generally speaking, have a much more nutritious food diet than Americans. Not only do you get all the food groups (which is now a rarity in the US), you also get a variety within those food groups that’s truly remarkable.
Nonetheless, expectations of a resulting longer lifespan are probably dashed on the sharp twin rocks of smoking and drinking. I don’t have statistics, but casual conversation reveals that the French consider Americans to be basically anti-smoking Nazis when it comes to the current US war on tobacco. Sure, tobacco kills 400,000 Americans a year—I don’t have worldwide or French-specific statistics on hand—our efforts to curb smoking strike the French as draconian anyway. Also, don’t expect the French to pay any attention whatsoever to “No Smoking” signs. Yes, the country—except for the museums, where the rule is strictly enforced—is an asthmatic’s worst nightmare.
What to say that hasn’t already been said about the French custom of drinking wine and/or alcohol at virtually every meal? Well, how about that if our wines were this good, we’d be drinking at every meal too? First night out I had some $4 table wine that was better than any red wine I’d ever had. Surely I must have been drinking the wrong stuff in the States for there to be this big a difference. Of course, I also think that European lagers are pretty good while American brews rank up there with bad-tasting mouthwash. What do I know?
The French triumvirate of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity makes for a vastly different business climate. Here, employees are guaranteed at least 5 weeks of vacation per year (in some cases they get 10), and the legally mandated work-week is 35 hours. While that sounds like a workers’ paradise, I can’t fathom it allowing France to compete on a worldwide stage, and indeed a lot of what I’ve read over here decries the trend toward globalization.
If you figure 2 weeks of vacation and a 40-hour work week in the States, US workers are putting in almost 9 weeks more work per year than their French counterparts. I refuse to believe that French education and technology is equal to the challenge of making up for that built-in productivity deficit, no matter that you still can’t get a good croissant in the States. As much as US workers would love comparable time off, I’m fairly certain that the people would stage a revolt if given the correspondingly lower standard of living and the dramatically higher taxes that would inevitably result.
The obvious solution to this problem—starting your own small business—is rendered impractical by French tax law. The small business owner starts his fiscal year by paying US$1000 in taxes, money he’ll never see again whether he generates enough income to reach that level of taxation or not. In addition, small business owners are required to have the equivalent of US$10,000 in the bank just to open a business checking account. On top of this, the corporate tax rate in France is 40 percent (which, at least, is better than the top individual tax rate of 55 percent).
Now if I’ve come down rather harshly on French socialism—and frankly, I’ve not even told you what I really think—believe me the favor is returned when it comes to American capitalism. As near as I can determine the French have even less respect for American capitalism and individualism, especially as it has led our culture to be less a thing of beauty and refinement and more a sales event.
Politically speaking, the French think we’re led by a bunch of right-wing religious nuts, which is comparatively true. Organized religion, as far as I can tell, is dead or dying in France if not compared to the US then certainly compared to historic Church attendance levels. In that context, the motivations of any nation whose very coinage proclaims “In God We Trust” are likely to be eyed with a degree of suspicion.
Nonetheless, at least our government is stable. It’s not uncommon for Americans to think that ours is a young country in the scheme of things, but we’ve got 225 years under the same democratic form of government, and that’s a heckuva a lot more impressive than what some nations, notably France, have going. France’s Fifth Republic is 40 years old, and at least one commentator believes that an upcoming vote on changing the presidential term of office from seven years to five years could lead to the start of the Sixth. (It wouldn’t surprise me; historically speaking, new French governments seem to pop up like the critters in a game of Whack-A-Mole.) Truth is that the European Union is for France, as it is for many nations, their first experiment with American-style government, and the EU is just getting off the ground.
But if we’re talking about not having things, the US surely has no equivalent to the cathedrals, abbeys, Roman ruins, and castles that dot the French landscape. Architecturally intriguing and historically fascinating, these structures are in many cases a wonder just to behold. Many times a visit is history come alive. So much of the last 1000 to 1500 years of Western Civilization is tied up in France that it’s almost true to say that you can walk into a town, visit the tourist office, and receive a history lesson.
If history is your bag, you gotta dig France, and that’s especially true for 20th Century history. The French have had a profound influence on art, philosophy, music, literature, etc. during the last 100 years, and that’s not including the fact that much of World War I and World War II were fought here.
Given all this, I can hardly do less than issue a very strong recommendation that people visit France. Like any country, you will find differences that may prove unappealing (smoking, driving, socialism, dog poop, etc.), but unlike many nations, the bounty France offers is more than adequate compensation for any temporary inconvenience. To go to France is to step into the history of a wide variety of disciplines including history itself. Though I’ll return home with a mantra of “God Bless America,” I’m thrilled to have visited. As the French have it, “Vive la différence!”