Bayonne, France August 20, 2009
Some of you have asked me questions similar to this: How do you stand those ingrates who are so insulting to Americans after having saved them from German barbarism twice?
Well, cheres amis, I so infrequently encounter any hostility or insults that it hardly comes into my consciousness. Of course I have a demeanor and a standard statement. I adopt a very sheepish grin, shoulders slightly forward, palms upturned and utter in French, “sorry my French is very bad” before attempting to ask for whatever it is that I want. I have a somewhat different body posture with beggars and pickpockets.
The French have a large variety of incomprehensible noises and body language expressions. They cluck like a hen, blow air out rapidly, puff up their cheeks and blow slowly, quickly inhale through their mouth (gasp) and rapid-fire words through clenched teeth. I recommend running in the opposite direction as a response to the last. Puffing up their cheeks with wide-open eyes and blowing air out slowly through a small round mouth is reserved exclusively for my response to their question, “What do you do in France?”
In addition to these body language expressions, I get one of the following; English spoken with a sheepish grin, French spoken as if speaking to a deaf Chinese baby, or very rarely the insulte. Yes, I have been insulted recently. I went to a drug store a few days ago to purchase a box of French Tums for the princely sum of $7.50. I was waiting in the que (line) behind a kindly looking older woman with a shawl and grey hair neatly spun into a tight bun. She was having a nice and rather long conversation with the counter clerk. I waited patiently for her to finish for what seemed to be to be gossip. After a few minutes she stopped talking and went over to another place in the pharmacy. Sensing that she was finished with her transaction, I stepped forward and placed my diamond encrusted French Tums on the counter. Just then the older woman turned more quickly than I would have thought she was capable of instantly appearing in front of me. Vampire speed. Fans of the H.B.O. series, True Blood, are familiar with this velocity. I quickly retrieved my golden Tums and apologized stepping backwards a few steps. The old woman now, again facing the clerk, clenched her teeth, hissed an expletive (merde), and called me an asshole American. The clerk behind the counter shot me a wide-eyed-worried-that-I-might-understand-look. I paused for just a second for the old woman’s words to sink in but the unmistakable clenched-teeth-staccato-hissing sound would be understandable in an extinct Tibetan language. I winked and smiled at the clerk, who instantly relaxed and continued her conversation with the old woman who was oblivious to the exchange. After the old woman left the counter, the clerk looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and blew out her breath through a small round mouth.
Later I visited Omaha, the bloodiest beach of June 6, 1944. Nearby is an American graveyard where 9,000 of our 25,000 young men who died in the battle for Normandy are buried. Every American and every French person should be required to visit this place. As I strolled among the graves lost in thought about what these young men’s lives and ambitions might have been had they survived, I was suddenly overcome with a desire to take the old woman gently by the hand and silently walk her past each of the 9,000 graves.