Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why stereotypes are made to be broken. (Or not).

I went on a date with Emmanuel on Saturday night, and we lingered over our three glasses of wine long enough for the table next to us to change over twice. Two out of the three groups of people were Americans. And now I will tell you perhaps a little-known fact about me: no matter how interesting the conversation, and no matter how devilish and distracting are my date's eyes, I find it impossible to concentrate completely on a conversation in French when there is English being spoken in the near vicinity. And while out of my left ear I was listening to Emmanuel's glowing and hilarious description of the classic American film Ricky Bobby, out of my right ear I was hearing this: (spoken loudly and condescendingly, as if to a three year-old, or an imbecile) "CAN I TAKE THIS HOME WITH ME?" I cringed. By home, I assumed she meant her hotel suite, because she was clearly not a native here. In France, if you ask to take your food home with you, you may as well be asking if you might take a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom with you, for later. It is just not done. The waiter (dubbed Gilles, by my date; "He just looks exactly like a Gilles," he said) then replied, in perfect English, "I do not have a doggie bag, but..." and then he retreated to the kitchen and returned with a modestly-sized sheet of aluminum foil. Trying as I was to follow the conversation at my own table, I didn't get a chance to see what it was exactly that the woman was trying to take "home." I could only hope it was a piece of beef, for example, and not mashed potatoes, any kind of loose grains, soup, or a custardy dessert. (Though I wouldn't put it past an American to try. I can't even begin to tell you the kind of leftover food items I've seen my grandmother secret into plastic baggies and deposit in her purse over the years). However, the fact that her cultural gaffe had been kindly accommodated by the restaurant staff seemed to appease this woman not at all. In fact, she commenced to complain loudly to her dinner companion (who I suddenly felt quite sorry for). "Was he being snobby with me?" she demanded. "I think he was being snobby with me!" It was here that I lost track of the the conversation thread and only caught bits here and there, and it sounded like, "I just saw him with...and he had a plate...could easily have helped..." It was at this point that the couple finally left and were replaced by a group of French speakers. I breathed a sigh of relief and tuned out the French conversation to my right to focus on the French conversation going on in front of me.

"So," I said. "What is it you like about Ricky Bobby?"

"Well," he said, "there's a character in it who's French, played by...you know, the guy who played Borat? And so he drives a race car, and while he's driving he's smoking a cigarette, and he's drinking an espresso, and he's reading Camus, all at once. C'est trop bien!" I admitted it sounded pretty funny. "But, you know," he said, "it's funny because it's true."

And so we continued to talk, and we ordered more wine, and at some point the group of completely unremarkable French people next to us left, and were replaced by yet another table of Americans. Four this time. Young. And drunk. Oh boy. As we were talking it became progressively harder and harder to hear each other as the decibel level at the next table continued to rise. We raised our eyebrows at each other, and then we smirked a little, and then we rolled our eyes, just as the French do. "But honestly!" I complained, exasperated, unable to concentrate on my own conversation at all. The conversation next door had risen to screaming level, led by one particularly drunk guy who seemed to have very strong opinions on something, or everything. Possibly the economy. What's more, he had a voice only an American can have, the kind of voice that is distractingly annoying in timbre, pitch, and nasality, the kind of voice, I'm going to say (and no offense to anyone out there), that can probably only come from New Jersey, or perhaps certain burroughs of New York. The kind of voice that, unlike the dulcet tones of French, grates on your ear drums and your nerves until you start searching for a blackboard to scrape your nails across, anything to drown out that sound. "Gah!" I exclaimed to my date, exasperated. "Americans!" He smiled. "And did you hear that woman before," I asked, "asking for a doggie bag?"

"Yes, but she didn't know," he said. "It's like when French people go to restaurants in America and don't leave a tip. It's the same thing."

"Yes," I said. "I suppose so. But at least they don't talk so loud!"

He smiled again. "I was afraid you would be like that," he said.

"What?" I said. "You thought I would talk loudly?"

"Yeah, well, I thought I was going to meet this loud American girl."

"Really?" I exclaimed delightedly. "That's so funny! Wait...I mean, I'm not, am I? Am I talking really loudly now and I just don't know it?"

"No, no," he assured me.

"Well, maybe I thought I was going to meet a guy who smokes cigarettes while drinking coffee and reading Camus."

"Well..." he said.

"Oh, right," I said.

And then, because we were in France, we left the bar and bought a crêpe on the street, and then made our way to another café (empty this time) for one final glass of wine before saying goodnight. Because there are some stereotypes, after all, that are worth keeping.


  1. woah... i missed a couple of days and a years worth of life has happened! miss you!

  2. Yeah, but the French never invented big-screen TVs or triple cheeseburgers or baseball or anything really important. They do like Jerry Lewis, however, which remains the one enduring cultural mystery of the 20th century.


  3. I don't know why we have the reputation of liking Jerry Lewis, because this is completely false!!!
    He was invited on French TV more than 20 years ago for our first Telethon (because he was hosting an American Telethon himself as far as I understand). And that's it!
    Voilà encore une idée reçue qui a la dent dure lol

  4. Eavesdropping on English-language conversations never goes away. After seven years of living in Switzerland I still cannot tune out English even if it's four tables away.

    And after long observation I've decided that one of the reasons Americans are so loud is that we sit so far away from eachother. If you see six Americans at a coffee shop and six Swiss at a coffee shop, the Americans will take up twice as much space because culturally we have bigger personal space zones. And then we have to talk louder to cross all that space.

  5. Another reason that Americans seem loud is that they don't speak on the same frequency than the French (it's been scientifically proven).
    They are on a higher frequency than we are, thus the feeling that they "shout" and don't talk!!

  6. Ha! Interesting reasons, all around.

    I think I've heard this frequency theory before, but it seems strange, because to me it always seems that French women speak in a much higher-pitched, sometimes almost "squeaky" voice than American women. But then, perhaps pitch is different than frequency? (And here it becomes obvious that I never had a gift for the sciences). :)