An expat experiences the power of stereotypes on a visit to Paris.
Mention France and what invariably comes up is the glory of the food and wine, the stylish clothes, l’amour and, of course, the rudeness.
In the US, people often talk about the nasty French behavior toward foreigners, especially those who mangle their illustrious language. Living in Berlin these days, I hear the same from Germans, too.
While traveling, I have never been afraid to use the few words or phrases I know in a foreign tongue, even though I know I risk a giggle or a blank stare in response – I think people appreciate the effort.
But on a recent visit to Paris, I admit, I was intimidated by that old cliché and afraid to open my mouth and speak rusty French – even though I have never experienced the legendary haughtiness the half-dozen times I have been there.
I am happy to report that this time was no exception.
After working up the courage to open my mouth, I received a few answers with repressed smiles, responses too rapid to understand but were patiently repeated and often, an answer in English.
In fact, my boyfriend and I encountered many who spoke English very well, even when we wanted to be addressed in French. That included waiters, shop people, metro passengers and so on.
And once again, I encountered people who were funny, helpful and kind. Imagine that.
What is sad is that it is even necessary to mention this. After all, who talks about how nice people were on a visit to Italy, Germany or England, as if it were something unusual.
The French get a bum rap, if they even care. I would suppose they don’t.
Stereotypes and clichés
Still, stereotypes and clichés come from somewhere and are not always a bad thing.
Living in Berlin, I can get a bit tired of the grunge clothing that goes for haute couture in this city. In fact, while it is funny to see how far people go to assemble an outfit that would fit in at any ‘bad taste’ party, (for example, one recent concoction I spotted in Kreuzberg included a red silk tank dress over purple jean shorts with green and black striped tights and combat boots), I sometimes just miss the elegant or the frilly that is normal everyday wear in France, Spain and the US, just for variety’s sake.
So it was wonderful to sit in a sidewalk café in France and watch people pass buy in clothes that scream Paris such as black polka dot dresses with lacy frills worn with beautiful matching pumps and jackets with puffy sleeves most couldn’t get away with elsewhere.
One saleswoman, helping me pick out a fru-fru (my word) jacket that I would only be inspired to purchase in this city and will sit in my closet in Berlin neglected, made me laugh as she breathed life into a stereotype and turned it around: “Ah Berlin, the women there do not like to dress like women the way we French do, eh? Here, we here enjoy being women and are proud of it.”
Also, the glorious affair the French have with food and wine is endlessly elucidated by foreigner and French alike. I suspect the French are happy when foreigners take part enthusiastically.
In one very busy neighborhood restaurant in Oberkampf, I was dying for the scallops (often hard to get in Berlin) and the waiter beamed at my choice. Soon after, he came back and told me that they were sold out. I must have looked extremely disappointed but ordered the salmon anyway. When our main courses arrived, however, he whispered to me: “No salmon for you” and presented the scallops.
And then, there is l’amour, which is reputed to always be on the French mind.
We giggled when we saw couples on a bench or by a railing locked in a passionate embrace. How many photos have we all seen with such depictions?
Ordering this miracle of chocolate called a Moelleux after our main course in a nice restaurant, I asked for two spoons.
“Ah,” the waiter smirked knowingly. “A dessert for love.”