On France and Stereotypes
Before my first trip to France, a colleague said that the easiest way to survive is by making it clear you think the French have the best food, the best wine, the best culture, the coolest castles… etc.
It was a funny joke, and technically it works, but the truth is more complex.
After nearly three weeks in France, I found the French to be as friendly and inviting as the people from any place I’ve visited.
So much for stereotypes.
I started my trip with a single night in Paris, after traversing the English Channel in French-built 300 kph electric wonder of engineering, and before heading to Cherbourg at the tip of Normandy. The first part of my Gallic adventure was to be on the beaches for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. From there I spent a few days in Mont Saint-Michel (bonkers amazing) and a few more in Nantes, before continuing on to Le Mans (btw, the article I wrote about Le Mans for CNET is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written).
Nantes was cool, but didn’t grab me. After Le Mans I was planning on spending one night (to drop off the car) then heading somewhere else. That one night turned into two as I couldn’t decide where to go. Two turned into four as I started to just enjoy being in Cherbourg, four became six with little thought. I had found a spot where I felt at ease, comfortable, relaxed.
The port town of Cherbourg was probably a busy place at many times in its history, but now it is a fairly sleepy place where some ships are built, some fishing happens, and not a lot else. Stores close early. Restaurants have bizarre hours with little logic or consistency.
Yet it has all the good things about being a small town. People seem to know each other, people are friendly, you can walk easily around the center of town. But because it’s French, the buildings don’t look the same as home, the food is fantastic, and dammit, dammit, dammit, it’s expensive. Cheap accommodations: $68 a night. Decent dinner: $30-50pp, no wine. Oh well, no place is perfect.
No, wait, that’s a lie. There was an Asian buffet in the mall next to the harbor. For 11 euros 80, you could get all you can eat sushi (mostly salmon nagri, and various rolls). It was actually quite good, better than I’ve had at some “real” sushi places. And for desert? Unlimited coffee ice cream. You were right Belinda, heaven is a place on earth. Turns out it’s at the mall in Cherbourg.
After the leaving my beloved Cherbourg, I didn’t hold much hope for enjoying Lyon. It’s the second largest city in France, and it feels it. There’s a lot of the hustle and bustle of Paris. Timing, as it so often does, turned out to be everything.
I worked through the morning, as I usually do, then got ready to head out and forage for food. As I was at the door, the owner of the hostel turned from talking to another guest and said “Here’s someone else from California.”
Rachel is from Fresno, and we conquered the town together for two days. She is certainly the only D&D-playing former cheerleader (and current roller derbier) I’ve ever met. She even got all my movie references, no small feat, that.
On our way back to the hostel on the first night we stumbled into a bit of a different kind of excitement. Algeria had won a game in the World Foot-to-Ball Championship, and the city exploded with shouting, honking horns, and a traffic jam of LA proportions.
The local gendarms looked on with amused faces.
As we turned down the main street near the hostel, the sidewalks crowded with revelers, we heard “pop-pop-pop” and in the distance I could see white smoke. Suddenly everyone in front of us turned and started running back the way we came.
This seemed a pretty obvious cue to gtfo so we beat a retreat and found another way back to the hostel. We agreed, as we put distance between us and the crowd, that the faces we saw weren’t panicked so much as mischievous. As in, it was less “OMG WTF RUN” and more “Yo, the po-po’s breaking up the kegger, lets bolt.”
The hostel fell asleep to the sound of horns and sirens.
Rachel was headed the way I had arrived, back through Paris and on to Caen (about 90 minutes from Cherbourg). Hopefully we’ll meet again in a different riot-prone city.
Expectations and Stereotypes
I’ve never experienced the French rudeness stereotype, at least not that I can specifically say was culture based and not just some twit having a bad day.
In this day and age, with people from all cultures travelling, and with English being the lingua franca (bit of irony in that name here), I think the rude French stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you expect people to be rude to you, either 1) they are because you’ve already copped an attitude, or 2) you see rudeness and assign it a cultural basis.
Which is to say, if you encounter two rude English people, no one thinks the English are rude, but if you encounter two rude French people, then that goes to proving in one’s mind that French people are rude.
But Geoff, you say, you speak the language so they’re going to treat you better. Honestly, I don’t think this is it. While my French was impressive by my expectations, it certainly wouldn’t be by anyone else’s. It rarely did more than amuse the locals as they switched to English.
I think more what it is, is that I started each conversation either saying my French was bad, or asking if they spoke English (or both), and I did so with a HUGE IMPORTANT WEAPON: A Big Dopey Smile. Do not underestimate how much a BDS can help you in all world travels. It puts people at ease. They want to help you. They’re not sure you’re not retarded. They know you’re trying, and so many other benefits. This more than “speaking the language” is what I think makes travelling in any country easier. People, on a whole, want to communicate. Language is a tool of communication, but only that.
Try the BDS foreign policy next time you travel, I guarantee it will work.
Not goodbye, but a bientot.
I adored France. Cherbourg is one of the slowly growing list of cities I could easily see myself living in. Since that eclectic list also includes places like Hong Kong and Byron Bay, I couldn’t tell you what future destination might make it on the list. So for now, a bientot.
Up next: Austria
Can I read the signs: Surprisingly well, thank you.
Do I have a funny accent: Certainement