I’ll call them Jack and Jill. We met in one of those marinas. I was cleaning my fenders on the dock, and with my brushes and bucket, I was blocking the way to their boat. I could have paid more attention, being a guest in a marina where they had a permanent slip. I said I was sorry, I pushed my mess aside, and they immediately said nice things about cleaning and maintaining boats, nearly excusing themselves to bother me! Jill very kindly offered to drive us to the next shopping center, in case we wanted to provision.
That started us into a nice conversation, nothing profound, but very pleasant and relaxed. We talked about boats, houses, children. They came to visit Magic. We were due to leave shortly, and I regretted the missed opportunity to get to know them better.
I was getting ready to cast off our lines when Jill came over. We had talked about their home in Arizona, up in the mountains. She wanted to show us some pictures. Indeed a beautifully wooden house, with great hand-carved furniture and a garden full of blooming plants. Visiting Arizona was very tempting, and we nearly promised.
It was then Jack’s turn to come over. And we had this strange and moving dialogue:
Jack: I hesitated but as I won’t see you again, I wanted to tell you a story about my son, and I have a question to ask you. My son was selected for a scholarship to go to college because he was a good football player. The selection was not based only on physical achievements: the kids had to be endorsed by their coaches as good, well-behaved kids. And a group of them had the opportunity to go on a 6-week tour of Europe, visiting a lot of countries and their capitals.
– Did they enjoy it?
– They had a fabulous time. In England it was so easy, as they spoke the language. In Italy they visited a number of beautiful, historic places. In Germany they were huge celebrations because there was some kind of international soccer competition, and everybody was drinking beer and singing in unison, without anyone looking for trouble.
– Did they go to France?
– Yes they did. But as much as they were welcome everywhere else, in France they felt unwelcome, despised, even ostrasized. These kids were shocked. Why is that? We’re supposed to be friends! Didn’t we come over to help you during the war? Don’t they remember that? So my question to you is: Do they hate us?
I felt so embarrassed. I wanted to offer my apologies, however too late, in the name of those stupid, unknown French people. I was all the more sorry than while we visited the USA doing our Loop, we have always been well received. People have been interested and kind and helpful, always wishing us a happy visit and safe travels.
I told Jack how I felt and how sorry I was. But I also tried to imagine why these incidents had taken place. I could envision the sum of misuderstandings and misplaced expectations they represented. I wanted to explain why such reactions, and maybe give second chance to another encounter. This is how I tried:
– First, among the younger generations, most have forgotten about WWII. Probably so much the better, as in Germany: if they remembered the millions of tons of bombs that fell on their parents’heads, they might not be singing and drinking beer with young Americans.
– Also, there’s a French tradition to not align with the American interventions in other countries’ affairs. Jealousy, conflict of interest, feelings of being lied to, of being spied? More recently, America’s position on climate change, for example, generated disappointment and resentment.
– Besides, the French are generally rather reserved, particularly in public. In Germany, in the after-match parties of an international soccer match, a group of healthy, outgoing young Americans will be part of the crowd. In the streets or the metro in Paris, they may behave – with the best of intentions – in a way that might be considered bordering on incivility. They may appear as rude and making no effort to adapt.
– Fortunately, we also heard different stories: American people being heartily welcomed in France. Thay would say they paid attention to being modest and showing respect. While shopping, they would say a few words like “Bonjour” or “Merci”. In a restaurant, they would not speak louder than the persons at the table next to theirs. Consequently, most of the time, they would find somebody speaking at least a few words of English, and happy to give them directions or recommend the little restaurant not mentioned in the guidebooks.
– So be assured, Jack: no, the French people don’t hate you. They may not be used to some of your habits and behaviors, they may resent some of your ideas or attitudes, but most of them love their country like you love yours, and many of them would be happy to show it to Americans like you.
We finally cast off our lines, and waved goodbyes, and they waved in return. All our thanks to Jack and Jill for their honesty and frankness. A pity we had to go too soon, instead of going further and offsetting, if we could, the bad experience they reported. We gave them our boat card, in case they happen to come to France: we would have the great pleasure to help them discover the nice side of France.