“What do Americans think of French people?” Considering the reputation of Americans, I was always surprised that French people are so concerned about what we think.
The short answer could be: they’re all fashionable but smell awful, they eat baguettes and drink wine while wearing a striped shirt and a beret, and they’re kind of snobby. In reality, I spent the last year discovering how welcoming French people can be (behind a slightly frosted façade), even in the bitter north.
When I arrived in Lorraine last September, the only people I knew were two Irish teaching assistants who happened to be arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport at the same time as me. I spent the first two nights sleeping on the floor of a hotel room using space bags full of clothing as a makeshift bed and my backpack for a pillow. Bienvenue!
By comparison, Tuesday morning a French teacher and friend got up at 6 a.m. (on a holiday) to drive me to the train station for my hopefully-not-final departure from Epinal. My temporary housemates, an Italian and a Spanish assistant who welcomed me for the weekend, not only helped carry my bags and made me toast, but came all the way to the station to see me off. Not one, but three separate people are housing my massive amount of sweaters, boots and sporting equipment over summer. I also know I have at least one bedroom all set up for me in September. I’m going to go ahead and be sappy: I have a lot to thank the French for.
It’s true that many French people will not hesitate to give their opinion, even if it’s on your weight gain or your baldness. Yet in Lorraine many locals were thrilled to meet an American and exchange ideas. And of course show me the rolling countryside, black-and-white cows, and general obsession with fatty pork products they grew up with. An exercise in how far genuine curiosity, modesty, honesty and a dusting of bravery will get you with almost anyone, in almost any place.
Around the Vosges mountains, it can land you laughing on your butt in the snow on the border of a frozen lake, a week before Christmas, as the flakes slash by you.
It can get you to a living room sofa covered with babies who can’t crawl, but eat Roquefort on crackers, or to a breakfast table with 10 kinds of bread.
It can get you into a 100-year-old iron forge run by three generations of smiths, and occupied during the Germans during WW2. Direct quote: “They ate a lot of potatoes.”
But most importantly, it can make a hell of change for you. Answering the questions of how Americans see French people, or how French people see Americans, is only going to get more complicated.