Touring In Disguise

PARIS--In eighth grade Mr. Hendershot asked our social studies class if we thought there was such a thing as an American culture. The consensus: no. Americans had jeans, Hollywood and fast food. We had image. The French, the people who have 246 different kinds of cheese and are responsible for the words laissez-faire, joie de vivre and restaurant, had culture. Now, I laugh at my innocent naivete. American culture is stronger than Microsoft stock pre anti-trust ruling. I know because I tried to get rid of it.

The Champs-Elysees, Paris's widest Grand Boulevard, capped by the Place de la Concorde (where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined) at one end and the Arc de Triomphe at the other, no longer looks French. Resembling a giant strip mall, it's not even particularly pretty. I believe it has two McDonald's. (And in the esprit d'egalite two Quicks, France's fast food counterpart.) It has a wildly popular Ben & Jerry's, Citibank, Planet Hollywood and even a Chicago Pizza Pie Factory. It's enough to make anyone cheer for Jose Bove. And I did. After all, France is Europe's first Republic and America's oldest ally. It has an entirely free educational system and a universal health care system that the World Health Organization ranked top ten in the world. In France, they eat cheese, red meat and red wine, while only working 35 hours a week with at least five weeks of paid vacation a year. Yet the French remain among the healthiest and skinniest of populations, and the French economy is the third largest in Europe. Finally, I thought, "a place that has it right."

La Francofolie seeped into my soul and I began the laborious process of cultural revisionism. I rejoiced in waiters, hotel receptionists and pharmacy clerks who refused to speak English. I scoffed at the idiots who spent an hour waiting to get into the Louvre when the alternative entrance is a few feet--I mean meters--away. I had mastered the difference between pain de campagne and pain au Levin. How much more French could you get?


But soon I discovered that everything that was "quaint," "colorful" or "romantic" could also be backwards, inconvenient and a nuisance. My inner American began to chomp her way to the surface. It turns out that Paris, the city of romance and lovers, is also a hotbed of sexual harassment.

In my office, my male co-workers regularly asked me about my sex life, told me about theirs, insinuated things when I evaded their questions. It was great that Charles was always willing to fix my computer for me but it was also vaguely condescending. Plus, who wants to work at a place where people are more interested in what you did last weekend after hours than what you're doing in the office?

The French emphasis on human contact, so pleasant when establishing your favorite boulangerie and cafe, becomes ridiculous when the woman in charge of archives refuses to let a machine replace her and insists on processing every back issue request herself. In the U.S. the phrase "the customer is always right," is gospel. In France, the client comes last. Every single store, except those in the Jewish quarter, closes on Sunday. Literally half the city goes on vacation in August. Our shower head emits water in a weak trickle, despite multiple complaints to my concierge, it will most likely never be fixed. Air conditioning and same-day delivery--forget it.

I came to Paris expecting what I saw in postcards and Robert Doisneau photographs. Yet, what I got was something better. I have gotten a taste of a real, full-blooded city, rather than a cookie-cut image. And in the process of "becoming French" I have a better understanding of what it is like to be an American.

After seeing a Sophie Marceau movie called Fanfan, I commented to my friend Maria how I wish it had come out in the U.S. "Christina," Maria began, "Americans are too narrow-minded to watch French films. They don't like things that are foreign. They can't appreciate them."

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