Tag Archives: america

Getting Frenchified

So, you’ve been in France for a few years and pride yourself on being a self-proclaimed Francophile. You know exactly how baguettes are made, the entire route of the Tour de France, Edith Piaf’s birthday (down to the minute) and that there are precisely 32 bridges on the River Seine. But being a mere Francophile is one verre de vin short of being completely and totally French. How do you know when you’ve made it?

Perhaps you have a little mental checklist going for yourself already. Knowledge of the difference between “mûr” and “mur”? Check. French husband or wife? Got it. A black- and red-checkered caddy with which you bring home your market vegetables? Of course!

But you need to downsize. Think smaller. Much like what counts in love, being French is in the little things.

Take your kitchen, for example. A plethora of evidence lies here. You know you’re French when:

–       You actually use your knife while eating, instead of leaving it abandoned by the side of your plate (or worse, still sitting in the kitchen drawer). Bonus points if you’ve picked up your non-dominant hand off your lap and placed your wrists on the table in between bites.

–       You set the table with a mini spoon above your plate. You use this mini-spoon to eat anything from yogurt – always at the end of the meal, of course – to kiwi to cake. A fork at dessert? Blasphemy!

–       When eating fruit, you imperatively peel it first, using a small and graying paring knife circa 1943 to pull the skin off towards you in one fell swoop, while miraculously sparing your thumb from amputation.

–       You are able to talk about wine, Camembert and/or melon for hours upon hours.

Of course, the kitchen is just one aspect of French life and thus, just one indicator of true Frenchness. Let’s step out of the house and onto the streets to see how far you’ve come. Do you do the following things? If not, step to it!

–       Argue to the death for anything from getting the Post Office to stay open an extra two minutes while you mail your rent check, to receiving the five euros your boss still owes you from last month.

–       Say “Bonjour” upon entering any establishment and “Au revoir” when leaving, even when no one is around and/or it is quite clear that no one gives too hoots about your presence.

–       Pronounce “Le P’tit Wrap Cheese & Sauce Ranch” with a French accent at McDonald’s without even flinching.

–       Go coin scavenging. When your friend pays you back with a 10€ bill for that 6€75 Vogue magazine you bought her, you politely ask if she has 75 cents. When she gives you the look of crazy, you ask her if she perhaps has 5 cents. No? 70 cents, at least? Just like the many small businesses here, you just don’t have the change!

Of course, work is also a great place to become more French. Check this list to see if you’re almost there:

–       You can’t start your day without one of those teeny 70-centime coffees from the office vending machine.

–       For lunch, you obligingly bring a Tupperware container filled with last night’s meal. You learned the hard way that one time you brought a peanut butter sandwich and watched your co-workers look onward with disgust.

–       Once you’ve said “hello” to someone one time, you’re done for the day. No more courtesy smile, no more “Salut”. Unless there’s a necessary interaction, you walk by your co-workers with a breezy aloofness.

If you’re still in the dark about any or (heaven forbid) all the above rules, I suggest you invite yourself over to your French neighbor’s house for dinner immediately to get a real taste of life à la française. Or at least rent the latest Jean Reno film. Even Gerard Depardieu will do. But please do something. Your friends won’t tolerate your two-hour discussions about how the Notre Dame was built much longer. It’s not too late to save yourself and become really and truly French. Allez, on y go!

Originally published in Brit’mag.

Jesus in France: Le Figaro ventures into the Bible Belt

As I sat on the faux lawn of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, trying to get through a very mediocre and slightly off-tune performance by R&B group “Bams,” I was reading and furiously circling sections of an old July article from Le Figaro. The place? The United States. The topic? Those crazy Christians and their fight for the fetus.

As if it isn’t bad enough that we Americans are already ashamed of these hyper-religious, gun-toting, anti-abortion walking contradictions, now we have the Frogs taking a crack at us.

Yet, I do agree with writer François Hauter, who made no outside comments and let the content speak for itself in the following passage:

“In 35 years, the anti-abortion, pro-life advocates have killed four medical specialists in the United States.”

Hell, I’d laugh at us too.

Later in the piece, pro-life organizer and the article’s token “decent guy” Troy Newman, says that his group, Operation Rescue, is diametrically opposed to such violence. “We have always defended our cause in a peaceful manner. The act of killing is against everything we stand for – the sacrifice of life!”

Well, duh.

Yet, it still didn’t help save Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor who often performed late-term abortions for women in special circumstances in Wichita, Kansas, from being shot in the head by 51-year-old Scott Roeder while praying in his local Lutheren church.

Christian Defense Coalition Rallies In Washington

A sign during a rally and prayer vigil against abortion, held by the Christian Defense Council, outside Trinity University January 3, 2007 in Washington, DC.

Just when I think Obama has saved our international reputation, Le Figaro busts us on, as my friend Will used to say, “The Christ-ees.” I think it’s safe to assume that Roeder’s killing streak was not a one-shot deal but was instead astutely planned and morally backed (in his head, at least) by What Jesus Would Do.

It doesn’t help that Hauter goes on in the article to pronounce all but the very few Americans who have turned to ancient Asian practicies as unstoppably church-bound:

“For the most part, people [in the U.S.] are actively engaged in their religion. Certain cities, like Seattle, are more detached from traditional Christianity and have turned slowly to Oriental practices. But only 16% of Americans say they are Atheist. Among the 8% of citizens who were raised ‘without religion’, half subsequently found a church that worked for them. Religious practice, in the United States, is a part of daily life.”

Where to start. First of all, those “few” Americans who have discovered eastern religions are not only located in patchouli-scented hippie communities on the West Coast. And I would guess that 16% is low, considering how many Asians are actually living in America. Did Hauter interview them too, or only the rich, white people who had decided to convert as part of their mid-life crises?

Then there is the issue of percentages. I find it very hard to believe, in an enormous country such as the U.S., with a beautiful blend of nationalities in all four corners and in between, that only 8% of people can say that they grew up with no religion. I think that in my friend group alone I can push that number to at least 20%.

And from personal experience – I mean, as a life-long American and not a one-stop shopping French journalist – I can say that religion does not enter into the daily lives of most, if any, of the people I know or have known growing up, regardless of age.

But maybe it’s just because when you’ve got nothing, something seems like a lot. For the French, religion has become a sort of gros mot and not something they easily associate themselves with. Hauter says that in France’s secularized country, only one in ten people practice a religion regularly. Traditional faith in France has been replaced by a set of non-religious morals that don’t include God. The space between social ethics and faith has grown so wide that most French people feel sufficiently separated from the religion debate going on in America today.

On this one, Hauter got it right. I’ve been living in France for several years and I can safely say that I know approximately one French person who attends church or believes in Jesus. I’m sure there are more, but they must be hiding.

France’s churches are mostly empty and religious life has all but vanished, unless you count the nationwide calls for the construction of Islamic Mosques to accommodate the increasing population of religious Arabs immigrating here.

Near the end of the article, Hauter says that he will soon be visiting ghost towns on the outskirts of Wichita, in the infamous Bible Belt region of the United States. He says he can’t possibly imagine what awaits him.

I’d say, he’d better find himself some religion if he expects to make it out alive.

America’s image problem. Is the press to blame?

Last night I met Jacques. He was a jovial character, in his 60’s, drank bourbon with no ice and cracked jokes the minute you met him. I didn’t like him. Anyone who has to try that hard to make me laugh can’t be trusted.

But by the time the aperitif was finished, I had warmed up to Jacques and realized that he was the most interesting person at our table of friends, opinionated almost to a fault and a genuine thinker. Never one to leave a comment open-ended, he sparked conversations I had yet to have in France.

One of Jacques’ most particularly interesting comments was about America.

“I hate the U.S.” he said after a few minutes into the conversation.

Now normally, this sort of sentence makes me want to throttle a Frenchie, but I could see that Jacques was the sort of guy who liked to incite controversy.

“Have you ever been there?” I asked him semi-calmly.

“No…” he said, before launching into his justification.

Jacques, like many French people, explained that he hates “L’Amerique profond,” which in English terms loosely means, “typical America.” Since he’s never been to the country, he can’t fully comprehend what he’s saying, and he knows it.

The image of America that he sees – on TV, in movies, in the newspaper – is, in fact, the reason so many people hate America. Just like Americans have an image of the French as baguette-carrying, beret-wearing, mustache-sporting cheese and wine lovers, the French consider the Americans a gun-toting, violent, ignorant, obese people.

Florida International Panthers v Miami Hurricanes

What's more American than cops and football?

And many of us Americans are. But many of us are not. As Jacques and I discovered in our animated debate, there’s the image of a country from outside its border and its image within. There is truth in the former based on the latter because, obviously, prejudices and stereotypes are based somewhat in reality.

However, once inside a country, it becomes impossible to define its culture. An American from afar can easily imagine the “average French person.” But a French person has tantamount trouble describing his own country and culture.

After all, there is the North – with its potato-at-every-meal culture, warm-hearted citizens with a Belgian touch and cloudy weather. And in the East, where France meets Strasbourg, the typical French person becomes at once German and “universally European.” In the Southeast, there’s the macho attitude, olive oil and fish dishes, lavender fields and a false-friendly people. Go over to the Southwest and you’ll find great wine, rainy skies, shy folks and beautiful pastures. And let’s not forget the enormous Arab population in France these days, or the number of West Africans and Vietnamese.

Of course, four years ago while I was sitting at home in Minneapolis and dreaming about France, I never could have imagined all of that. So, to hear Jacques tell me he hated America, part of me wasn’t shocked.

How could I be, when the only TV shows played here from America are “Cops,” “The Nanny,” “Seventh Heaven” and “Desperate Housewives?” The only news about America is about which country we’re blowing up next, our hypocritical stance on human rights, our gun laws, and our massive (and negative) influence on President Sarkozy? French kids are getting fatter on American fast food, zoning out on Miley Cyrus TV shows and watching Texan cops handcuff every Hispanic man in range. Why wouldn’t the French hate America?

The easy answer is to say that the media is to blame. But is it? It’s hard to know whether it’s the chicken or the egg who started it. After all, there are but a few free presses that exist today and they are not usually the loudest voices. Mass media is largely supported by government funding, so the majority of images we see of America and France (and other countries, for that matter) are based on what each government chooses to produce. And this, in countries where the press claims to be free.

So I’m not angry with Jacques. I know he means well. And when other French people tell me to my face that they hate my country, I will try not to get upset. But, I trust that I am allowed to make a few jokes about the complaining, afraid-of-change, adulterous French person in return.

Within reason, of course. I am on their turf, in the end.

Fight for your right to… work?

Blame it on the churros. Or the pumping early 90’s American dance beats. Or the sky high CGT blimps. Whatever the reason, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in France’s national strike on Thursday, January 29. As I stuffed my face with sugary fried dough, I realized the irony of how I had spent the entire day frantically searching for a job in Paris while the rest of France played hooky from work.

The Communists, the Socialists, the teachers, the retirees, the unemployed – even those who weren’t sure why they were there (clearly marked by their “grève générale” stickers) had conglomerated at Metro Bastille to protest teacher cuts, reduced purchasing power, fewer unemployment benefits, less medical coverage and general discontent with French life.

French students, teachers, trade unions and parents demonstrate in Paris

As an American, I couldn’t understand it. Much of France’s je ne sais quoi appeal involves not just great coffee, pastries and fashion, but tangible benefits: a 35-hour work week, paid medical and dental insurance, 25 days paid vacation, and 16 weeks maternity leave with the option of taking three years off (unpaid) from work while retaining total job security.

And what if you should lose your job in this feeble economy? Getting laid off in France means receiving up to 75% of your salary for months, even years, (often receiving more than you would gaining the minimum wage), free job training and advice, and the ability to keep your health insurance. Being a chomeur is so great, in fact, that many young people purposely quit their jobs, take up the benefits and go traveling for a few months.

So as President Sarkozy fights to the death to keep jobs for French citizens, many of those same citizens are abusing the unemployment system in order to avoid working altogether. And that laissez-faire attitude is taking its toll. While France is still one of Europe’s economic darlings (ranked fifth in the world according to its nominal GDP) it has one of the lowest percentages of hours worked compared to other developed countries. And as of October 2008, France had 4 million people on chomage and an 8% unemployment rate – one of the highest in Europe.

Mass nationwide strike in France

Yet here I sat, work permit in hand, and I could not get a job. Call it that old French mistrust of immigration where “stranger equals danger,” but it seemed to most employers that my situation was just too “complicated.”

While France has advanced in many ways over the years, its immigration policies have not: in order for Americans to work here, we need a permit from the government. But we cannot get the permit without getting the job first. And voilà, instant conundrum. Apart from marrying a French citizen, becoming a lifelong student or going through the painstaking process of starting your own business, Americans are left in a catch-22 that even MacGyver wouldn’t be able to work himself out of.

Luckily, Americans seem to be born with eternal optimism and an inner drive to work hard that is somewhat lost on the European “work to live, not live to work” mentality. Not that reducing our self-worth to a job timetable is necessarily a positive thing, but it certainly prepares us for a good fight.

So if your American dream involves a healthy serving of croissants and blue cheese, prepare for a Hercules-sized battle against those notorious French bureaucratic sticks and spears – but don’t throw down your shield just yet. If Americans can elect a black president only 50 years after employing racially separated drinking fountains and bus seats, we can surely figure out how to do a simple thing like working in France, right?

This article was originally published in the April 2009 edition of Brit’mag.

Help! I’d like to start a business in France.

A friend and I were talking tonight, over a couple of artsy films, about starting a website aimed at the American community in France. Not another “How to…” blah blah crap pot that everyone’s already read a million times, but real news, real opinions, real issues affecting Americans in France. Commentary on French news and how it relates to America, commentary on American news and how it relates to France. The good stuff, ya know? But then the real question came… how do we do it?

Looking on a few websites, the options are there but depressing. Oh, the thousands of euros we would have to shell out to get this thing going. And then, how do you register a business in France that consists of only a website, with no tangible creation to speak of? I suppose websites are the way of the world these days and many of us can work from anywhere on the planet thanks to our virtual businesses, but surely these websites must be registered somewhere?

I come to you, dear readers (okay fine, “friends and family”) for advice. Do you know anything about this or where to turn? The internet is a goldmine, for sure, but to believe everything I read would be turning my back on what I do for a living…

U.S. Homeland Security tightens rules for travel – but are passengers informed?

Today marks the beginning of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new system of registering travelers flying to America. Now, instead of the green I-94 card usually filled out on the plane, non-U.S. travelers are required to go online and enter their details into the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before flying out. While the measure is supposed to tighten security and minimize the amount of potential terrorists into the country, it is also bound to limit another rather important group – tourists.

While in Paris last week, I stayed with a French friend who lived in America for almost 20 years. She has a son living there, who is an American citizen, and mountains of friends. She also rents out an apartment in Boston to earn a little spending money. Thus, she goes back to the U.S. every couple months. She is planning to fly to Florida tomorrow. With all these American connections, I assumed she knew about the new flying requirements.

Not so. This regular traveler was not au courant and, worse, her airline company – American Airlines – did not notify her about the need to register before boarding. Her only knowledge of the new rule came from me, a journalist who had written about the story myself a few months ago. Luckily, we just happened to be in touch mere days before her flight.

gates [waiting to fly] 1

How is the average citizen supposed to know about yet another one of America’s entry regulations if no one informs them? If airlines aren’t telling customers, travelers are left to their own devices – be that the random newspaper article, radio news bite or hearsay. But even the hearsay doesn’t seem credible. My friend didn’t believe me when I told her the news, as she (like me) found the new rule to be ludicrous and truly over-the-top.

I’ve already written about how ineffective the ESTA process will most likely turn out to be. Last minute travelers, those on business, people flying out for emergencies or those without internet access will find themselves stopped at the gate with no promise of a flight out of town. The DHS says they have a plan for those leaving at the last minute, but this is assuming travelers don’t have problems with the background name checks, which have a history of being inaccurate.

And what about those just thinking about a trip to the States? Perhaps many potential tourists will consider this latest inconvenience just too annoying to deal with and will scrap their trips altogether.

Yes, America faced and faces terrorism. Yes, we were sabotaged by murderous airplanes. But America is taking the “once bitten, twice shy” slogan much too far, hindering life for the average tourist. And while the U.S. needs to take precautions at the airport, it can’t forget that most terrorists will drop the bomb where no one is looking. All this focus on 3 ounce liquids and name checks leaves even more room for an unexpected attack on a location none of us have even thought of yet.

This week will be a test of the ESTA system, a chance for the U.S. government to see if the pain equals the gain. It will also be a time for tourists to speak out about the efficiency of the system and whether traveling to America is still worth it. And to all those travelers who get turned away at the gate for not registering online beforehand? Well, who could blame them? After all, no one has told them what the heck is going on.

Will Obama win or will France sink or swim?

Over the past week, I have been engaged in numerous conversations about the U.S. presidential election, almost more than I can count. And every time, the French person on the other side of the table says something to the nature of, “You’re voting for Obama, right?” or “You’re making the right choice, aren’t you?” I always laugh a hearty “yes,” for I would be a fool to do otherwise (and have the absentee ballot to prove it), but what I can’t seem to grasp is that all of these people follow up the conversation with, “but he’s not going to win.”

Why, you ask? Because he’s black.

Yup, it’s true. In a country where no black person holds a significantly high office, the French simply cannot fathom a black man becoming our next president. In America, we make side jabs about the fact that maybe our racist minority will swing the vote towards McCain, but never such a resounding, surefire “no” like the one echoing inside France.

I’d like to think France is out of the loop. Like many other things, the French are ten years behind. Last week for the first time, they discovered that their teens had a binge drinking problem and thought that perhaps the all-you-can-drink bar tickets for high school and university students might need to be reconsidered. A few weeks before that, the government decided to put a stop to selling candy cigarettes that tempted children to mimic smoking. And last I checked, the post office still had one of those Apple computers from the 1990’s with the gray screen and Pacman block letters.

But not electing a black man to become president? I’m slightly shocked. While the French have a way to go in terms of technology or bureaucratic efficiency, they have one of the largest populations of Africans in Europe. And despite their rather stingy approach to immigration, France has not faced a major racial cleansing crisis seen in America or other European nations in recent history.

Then again, perhaps France is getting its comeuppance, only just now facing real and true immigration questions – ones they must face imminently. As it ships its immigrants out to the furthest suburban corners of the nation into degraded public housing, they put the questions of race and cultural integration into a hermetically sealed space where no decision has to be made for another ten years. So, I suppose there too, France is several years behind.

For the French, electing a black man is like a distant dream, something people dare to imagine but dare not deem reality. “He will be assassinated!” they say. Or simply, “It will never happen.” But when questioned why, they can’t come up with a response. It just is what it is.

France has lived stuck in its ways for centuries and we’ve loved them for it. The image of the baguette carrying, beret wearing, coffee drinking Frenchman still has relevance and most of the world’s citizens would like to hold onto that alluring picture for another century to come. But France’s cultural, technological and political growth is stagnating. As other European and Asian countries are sprinting to catch up, France has the choice to sink or swim.

I say, the French ought to kick start into a lightening speed freestyle and take their country’s old school ideals for all their worth.

And while they’re at it, put in a good word for Obama.