The French have a reputation for being rude. Especially the Parisians. Especially to tourists. Especially to American tourists. But when I was there in 1993, they didn’t live up to that reputation at all.
In fact, they seemed to go out of their way to be friendly. Maybe it was traveling in October when they weren’t as inundated with camera-toting, guidebook-flipping tourists asking for the “champ da lazy.” Maybe my friend Phyllis and I didn’t fit their image of American tourists. (We were trying not to talk overly loud in public places, a typical tourist trait.) Maybe the French just foster the reputation of rudeness to keep crowds from coming to France in summer when they’re all on vacation themselves.
Because we encountered friendliness wherever we went. As soon as she heard our English, a woman in the Paris metro immediately pointed out an historical exhibit on the original Paris subway, proud to show us a bit of her city’s history.
When Phyllis asked a few questions, trying to expand on her decades-old high school French vocabulary, the hotel desk clerk in Chartres warmed up to us so much we almost couldn’t get away from her to go to our room. She embarked on an impromptu French lesson over the hotel check-in counter for us.
Châteauneuf du Pape
But our best experience was the little man in Châteauneuf du Pape. I wanted to go wine tasting (Châteauneuf du Pape is a famous wine region). Phyllis wanted to see the ruins of the castle on the hill. We compromised with a short ruins visit, then planned to go into town before all the wine tasting shops closed for the evening.
Slightly stout, wearing a black beret and carrying a basket over his arm, he was exactly the sort of person you’d expect to meet in a French village. I don’t remember exactly how our conversation started. I think we bumped into him as we were climbing the stairs to the ruins. I think Phyllis murmured “excusez-moi.” This opened up a flood of French that we could only stutter at. “Uh, we don’t understand.” We pantomimed that we were visiting, we’d come to see the ruins, that we were Americans.
“Américains!” His face lit up. He told us he’d been a child in World War II and how happy they’d been when the American forces had liberated France from the Nazis, giving chocolate to the children. Phyllis told him her father had been in the American army, part of the liberation forces.
At that point, we became his best friends. He took us under his wing and proceeded to give us a tour of the castle ruins, which was more ruins than castle. One had to use a lot of imagination to see the dining hall or stairway up to where the bedchambers had been. He explained that while the papal seat was in Avignon (1309-1378), the popes regularly came to Châteauneuf du Pape to relax for the summer and drink wine.
He spoke no English. I spoke no French and Phyllis remembered only a few words from her high school classes and the quick lesson from the Chartres hotel desk clerk. But with energy and a perpetual smile, he pantomimed and gestured and explained everything about three different ways until he hit on something we could understand.
As we finished our tour, he tucked his basket and pruning shears back under his arm, then escorted us down the stairs back toward the village. His work day was done. He and his wife were going out that night to dance and sing (and probably drink wine!). He pantomimed a quick dance step at the top of the stone stairway. With a cheery wave, he left us to our touristing as he headed home.
I never got his name. We didn’t speak each other’s language. But that cheery French man heading off to go dancing and singing with his wife, who worked so hard to make the ruins come alive for us, is the image I have of the typical French person.