Just One of Thousands…
Francophilia is not a disease, but it IS contagious. If you haven’t caught it, it may seem darkly mysterious, but it’s really not. And if you’re wondering what it is, here’s a quick definition: A francophile is one who is fond of or greatly admires France and/or the French.
Strangely, many Americans seem to be “francophobes” – those who despise or are greatly offended by France and/or the French. This is particularly odd since the French played a vital role in America’s struggle for independence, provided us with a gift that has become a treasured national symbol (you know – that big statue in New York), was an ally in both world wars, continues to be a major trading partner, NATO ally, and the progenitors of such notable American staples as French fries, croissants, and faux pas.
More than that, tens of millions of us have French ancestry, and the contributions that the French have made to American culture are enormous. For example, fully one quarter of the four most American things (baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet) are of French origin. If you don’t know which quarter is French, here’s a clue: it’s Chevrolet. While the automaker is lately a government debacle, it was originally the brilliant product of one Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss-born Frenchman. Now, if the French had given us hotdogs, I can understand a little hostility. But they gave us the Corvette, and that should have earned them our undying gratitude.
With all of that said, you may be wondering whether a francophobe can become a francophile, which is a very good question because it’s the exact one that I’m about to answer: Mais naturellement! But of course! And I speak from personal experience, so you can rest assured that the answer is quite reliable.
My evolution was a step-wise affair, and really began with my first visit to Paris in my mid-twenties. I was single, a very proud English-speaker, and a bit of a xenophobe, although I’d spent some time in Germany and found it quite appealing. I had studied German in college, but discovered during my time in Deutchland that most Germans speak English far better than I spoke German. I wasn’t particularly troubled by this, having concluded that it was unassailable evidence of my cultural and linguistic superiority. I was too thick to see it at the time, but this brutish arrogance was kindly overlooked by the German people of my acquaintance (as far as I know). I’m humiliated by it now, but only when I think about it.
And speaking of humiliation, I was deservedly treated to a generous helping when I carried this attitude with me on my first visit to Paris. It started at the train station, where I had debarked with a good friend who was relying on my travel know-how and linguistic skill to guide us on a Eurail Pass trip through Europe. Unable to find a train to Cherbourg on the huge reader boards at the Gare du Nord, I boldly approached an information booth and asked the attendant there, in my best English, when the next train left and where to catch it. To my amazement, he glared at me with disdain, shrugged dismissively, and turned away. He the refused to say a word, or to look at me, simply kept his face turned away, even though I repeated my question more loudly, and demanded his attention. I finally stomped off, infuriated by his French impudence. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I became a committed francophobe.
When my European travel ended, and I settled down to pursue my career and family goals, I managed to retain and even nurture my phobia of things French by sharing stories of my experience there, and cultivating friendships with like-minded people, of which I found no shortage.
They say that hindsight’s 20/20, but the clarity of hindsight really depends on one’s willingness to look in the rear-view mirror of life with objectivity. If done correctly, hindsight should not only be 20/20, it should be at least a little uncomfortable, and often downright painful. From my current vantage point, looking back at my petty, immature 20-something self is more painful than uncomfortable. Downright embarrassing, in fact. If you haven’t guessed, my arrogant anti-Frenchness isn’t the only issue in my rear-view mirror of which I’m ashamed, but those other things are for a different article. Or not.
A friend once pointed out that he was much more likely to like a song if a friend or relative liked it first. In other words, music to which he had previously been indifferent, or didn’t like at all, sometimes would become much more appealing after he’d heard a friend’s positive opinion of it. Once he told me this, I began to notice the principal at work in my own life, and that it applied to many things besides music. I found that I was more prone to like or dislike foods, sports teams, hobbies, really anything about which you can formulate an opinion based on subjective criteria, solely because of the opinions of close friends, relatives, or people I otherwise admire. I further observed that the depth of relationship with the person voicing their opinion, the degree to which I liked or admired them, were factors in determining how influential they could be in shaping my own likes and dislikes. You probably recognize all of this as just an aspect of peer pressure, which it undoubtedly is, but since I’m a bit thick, it was something I’d never noticed or really thought about. I’d just assumed that my opinions were strictly constructs of my own unique tastes, experiences, and refined sensibilities.
By now, you may have formed the opinion that I’m shallow, petty, and easily influenced. So at least we agree on something. What I can say in my defense that not even my best friend’s good opinion of rap music, sagging pants, or rocky mountain oysters could dissuade me from reviling these despicable items, anymore than my own mother’s disparaging remarks about a well-prepared lobster could change my opinion that it’s nature’s most perfect food.
And at last we reach the point where I can tell you how I emerged from my pupal state of francophobia into the brilliant papillon of a francophile that I am today. My wife, you see, was born a francophile. Yes, that can happen, even though neither of us was aware of her latent love for all things French until she’d managed to spend a few minutes there. Because she is in all respects a lovely person, and because her passion for French cuisine, Paris, escargots, lavender fields, Claude Monet, and beurre blanc was so contagious, my transformation was surprisingly rapid. Not instantaneous, but très rapidement.
When she and I visited France together, many years after my Parisian encounter, I not only held a higher opinion of the French, I held myself in a rather lower one. And so I took the time to familiarize myself with as much of the French language as my feeble brain could manage, and to learn a little of their culture and customs. What I found was that the French take both pride and pleasure in their country, it’s food, traditions, language, and culture. They tend not to be haughty, but protective of the things they hold dear. I also learned that when greeted in their own language, in accordance with their own customs, they respond warmly. I must tell you at this point that I am a serial abuser of the French language, and could probably be fined or imprisoned for the degree to which I’ve assaulted it, but I’ve never had a French person hold me accountable for my ineptitude. Instead, they’ve nearly always accommodated my linguistic incompetence by either speaking to me in English, or by speaking at a level and pace that I can comprehend.
Before I leave you to make your own way into francophilia, I should say that the French are people, just like any other. They have their own cultural idiosyncrasies, regional distinctions, and individual personalities. You may have heard or experienced the rudeness of Parisian waiters. So have all Parisians. They’ve earned their reputations in the same way that New York taxi drivers and southern California valley girls have. It’s no more a reflection on the country and it’s culture than a cranky bureaucrat at a US Department of Motor Vehicles reflects on America.
The lens through which you observe France will determine how you define your experiences with the French, just like my myopic and narrow little lens prevented me from seeing how offensive my approach to the Gare du Nord information booth was. I’m a lot older now, the very tiniest bit wiser, and every inch a francophile eagerly looking forward to my next visit to France.