For weeks now, the concerned e-mails have been rolling in, between the penis-enlargement spams and the low mortgage-rate ads:
“Are you guys okay over there?”
“Just checking in. Worried about you!”
“Is it still okay to send our grandson to school?”
“Must be weird to be there now!”
Americans just can’t imagine a nation not responding vehemently and perhaps violently to the pouring of Veuve Clicquot Champagne down sewers, the Congressional renaming of French fries, the crushings of cases of Bordeaux and the creation of Web sites called Fuckfrance.com. Judging from the tone of the e-mail messages, you’d think we were in Basra or Nasiriya, instead of Paris. People in the homeland have apparently girded themselves to expect not just boycotts in kind, but real harm to those of us brave enough to remain abroad during this time of conflict.
After about half a dozen of these little missives, it dawned on me: Our friends and family really think we’re in danger from these little-dog-loving, scarf-draped, Gauloise-huffing wimps.
Just for the record: They don’t scare us at all. If anything, the opposite is true. Last week, we plunged into a long line of French people at a Paris McDonald’s. Anti-Americanism hasn’t perceptibly thinned the crowds in the greasy lunchtime haze below the golden arches.
“Mac-DOE,” as they call it affectionately over here, is still packing them in.
When we finally busted our way through the baguette-toting crowd, the counter person-an Algerian-French kid who obviously hadn’t paid close attention at burger school-messed up our order. Turns out (if you can believe this) the Quarter Pounder with Cheese is called something else over here.
The poor French Mickey D’s employees usually get flustered anyway when they have a real, live American customer in front of them. They know that the American corporation is all that stands between them and unemployment, even if the snooty French communists who speak for them have forgotten how we saved them from Germany.
I always make it worse by forgetting the instant I get inside that the lingua franca is still French, even if the olfactory hit is all-American. Instead of asking me to speak French, the kid just rang up five Big Macs and then had to restart the computer-which took forever-while the hungry French people behind me stamped and muttered angrily. The French aren’t real fast on their feet when it comes to our high technology-another reason we probably didn’t want them in our war in the first place.
The boy gave me a terrified look of incomprehension as I tried to clarify my order. “Oh, hey. Quartier-poider avec fromage ,” I said. He still didn’t get it.
I settled for cheeseburgers with fries. That’s freedom fries to you, Froggy. Supersized!
At our local bistro, I can still order a Coke without getting a hint of a sneer from the bartender. The proprietors show no inclination toward replacing the Yankee drink with this new brew here called Mecca-Cola. Mecca-Cola was created this year by a French-Tunisian entrepreneur who says his soda is an “anti-American and anti-Zionist” symbol. He claims to have sold more than a million bottles already, but I don’t know who’s buying it. The garden café of the National Mosque is one place you’d think Mecca-Cola would be on tap, but they only serve mint tea in small glasses with sweet cakes. We sit in the blue-tiled space and watch the Arab waiters scurry among the low trees and tables packed with French patrons in the warm spring air. American tourists don’t come here much, although it’s lovely this time of year. The waiters know we’re speaking English, and they talk English back at us. We don’t even get a fish eye.
Le Monde ‘s new poll says a full third of the French don’t support American troops in Iraq. Despite the outraged headlines this poll is making in the U.S., it doesn’t mean the French hope Saddam kills lots of our boys. There is nothing approaching a real desire for the demise of American hegemony going on here.
The French silent majority will never give up the American dream now, even if they hate our war. I saw a Parisian wearing an FDNY T-shirt the other day while a peace march rolled past. No one seemed to notice or care. Even the Arab kids-especially the Arab kids-adore things American. They swagger through the subways in Nike track suits, with Eminem and Tupac blasting away at their eardrums in English they don’t understand.
While Americans are pouring French national drinks down the sewers, the French silent majority votes its support for American culture, with its wallet, every day. They’re lining up to watch our Chicago ; they’re elbowing each other to eat our hamburgers, tying our Adidas onto their feet, wriggling into our Gap jeans. No one’s defaced the Disney store on the Champs Elysées. On the contrary, people waiting to pay for their stuffed Little Mermaids and Baloos and Mancubs are five or six deep at all hours.
Before the war broke out, I actually was a little anxious about how the French would treat us. Peace marchers had been clogging the streets for weeks, carrying rude effigies of our President on tall sticks with pretzels taped to his head. As if it were funny that we once nearly lost our commander in chief to a wayward snack. There was no telling what these people might do to us once Operation Iraqi Freedom started.
I needn’t have bothered worrying. The French have conducted themselves just as you’d expect. They don’t actually cringe when they see us coming down the street with our American flag stickers, “Support our troops” buttons, F.B.I. caps and duct-tape holsters. But if you look them dead in the eye, they always look away. Then you can smell the fear. Or vicarious embarrassment.
Judging by the reaction to dissent in the U.S.A. these days, I’d say Americans in France are getting much better treatment from the French than anti-war Americans receive from our countrymen on the home turf. Here in France, at least once the war started, the French have treated us more gently than they used to, almost as if they think we’re sick or insane. In the United States, the American malady is invisible. Everyone’s in it together, depressed or frothing. Nobody’s holding up a mirror.
From over here, we look in vain into our President’s eyes on TV for some sign that he understands the folly and devastation he has unleashed. On the streets of Paris, the French look warily into our eyes and wonder about the same thing.