Saturday, November 29, 2008

Small World by Chris Beck

This morning, we were surprised by the door bell. We didn't have any packages coming, so didn't know why someone had rang up. I (Chris) went down the stairs to check it out and was met by a man from the gas company.

The man asked me if I was "Anglais" (which is the first thing French people ask us...which means are we English). I said no, American, and the guy lit up at the sound of that. He asked me where, and I told him NYC. In slightly broken English, although still pretty good, he said "I live for 2 months in NYC! I live in Boston for 2 years. It was nice, but not as nice as NYC. I loved it!"

He then started to tell me, in both French and English simultaneously about how he marveled at the buildings the first time he saw Manhattan and that it was so interesting that the city was different in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. I said that I felt the same way, and had marveled in the same fashion myself at the tall skylines (and the tall price of food, although I didn't say this). Like every French person who has been to New York, he had a brother or cousin who owned a restaurant (I guess in Boston) and had been there to help with that. I told him we had lived near Yankee stadium, and his eyes looked joyful.

Then came the awkward moment where he, like all French people, asked how we liked Marseille. I said that we enjoyed being here and that we found the city to be very similar to NYC. At first, he looked disappointed, I guess he either wanted to defend his city to me or commiserate in his hatred of a "lesser" city than New York, but he then pensively agreed that the "melange" of people here was very similar to NYC and that the people in NYC were very "Mediterranean" in their passions, tastes, and tempers. He himself would have fit in well in NYC, he had the look of a Little Italy or Lower Eastside slum... er... landlord, wearing a white track suit for some sports team, a beaming toothy grin, and slicked back dark hair above eyes that clearly showed his emotions.

He then proceeded to tell me where his latest journeys had taken him. "Dubai!" He beamed proudly, "Dubai est comme NYC, mais with newer buildings, tres beautiful, very comfortable." I showed my admiration for how well traveled he was, trying to get my brain to focus on one of the two languages he was using. I showed that I knew where Dubai was and knew about the new building projects (although one shouldn't fool around on the beaches there, as two recent British tourists found out), something that he probably did not expect from an American. Then he produced a card from his pocket, "Mon ami, he travail, works, for the Sultan . If you want, you go to Dubai, I will appelle my friend and you will have a great time!" He wrote his cell number on the paper. "You call, when you go to Dubai, I will let my friend know!" At that, he said his Bonne Journee, and walked out smiling (incidentally, he thought Kat, as my wife, was French just by looking at her, and began to speak French to her very quickly when he saw her).

Overall, I would say this is the typical attitude of the French people we meet towards Americans. The idea that Americans are "odious" in some way is relatively mythical, and more people here in Provence enjoy talking about whatever knowledge they have about America. This is especially true since we come from New York City, a place where nearly all of these people have been or want to go, but at least they know about it and typically want to display this. Another question immediately asked when the word "Americain" or 'Etas-Unis' (United States) crosses my lips is "So, how do you feel about Barrack Obama winning?" After I answer, they are MORE than happy to let me know how THEY feel about Barrack Obama winning, and it is probably no surprise that the French are typically "Very happy" with the outcome.

I once got in a very heated (at least on his end) discussion with a cab driver of Algerian descent about Obama, racism (in France and America), and the pitfalls Obama would face (he was not optimistic). This was the day of the election, and the man felt that an African-American president in the U.S. was as unlikely as an Algerian or Muslim president of France. He is probably pleasantly surprised now, at least as pleasantly as the perpetually pessimistic French can be surprised...


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