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General Observations on France and the French

The French Don’t Like Foreigners?

It is a commonplace in America to expect the French to be unwelcoming to foreigners, and even downright rude, especially in Paris. Our experience has been entirely contrary to this prejudice. As we rode on the train from Paris to Strasbourg after flying seemingly forever, Linda was sitting opposite a young couple from Strasbourg, who struck up a conversation. They gave her advice about neighborhoods to avoid and neighborhoods to pursue when looking for an apartment, and suggested we buy a car so that we could take weekend trips in the region. When we needed two large taxis to handle all the bags we were lugging around, and the next cab in line was not large enough to be useful, he called another two, which arrived promptly. Indeed, everywhere we have met very warm and helpful folks, so we are a bit mystified about the stereotype.

Yesterday we were hunting for gifts for our brief return trip to the States next week and were looking in particular for a kind of a artistic combined oil and vinegar container we had seen at Hans and Larissa’s, which we thought was really cool. Anyway, we went to what seemed to be a reasonable place to look for such an item, and couldn’t find it. We spoke with a clerk, who suggested another store. This store didn’t have one, although they understood exactly what we were trying to find, and suggested another. Now, to be fair, after seven stores we still didn’t find what we were looking for. But we’re pretty convinced that it isn’t to be found in Strasbourg, and the final shopkeeper probably had the right explanation: it sounds like something that comes from glassblowers in the Czech Republic. Once again, though, we find that folks are extremely helpful and friendly.

2008 Summer Olympics

Early in our stay the decision on where the 2008 Summer Olympic Games (Jeux Olympiques, in French) would be hosted. The leading contenders appeared to be Beijing, Toronto, and Paris, and you can guess who the French were pulling for. The broadcasters seemed to suspect that no matter how splendid the French proposal, the politics of the day would dictate that Beijing would get the nod. The poster shown here, taken in a train station (sorry about the blur; hand-held in the dark station) lays out one French view on the Chinese bid. I’ve heard a few comparisons with Berlin in 1936. The bottom caption reads: « La Chine: Médaille d’or des violations des droits de l’homme », which means “China: gold medal in human rights violations”. You all know how the decision came out. Maybe Paris in 2012? The site would be fabulous, at least for the visitors. I have no idea about the athletic facilities, though.

Sex and Politics

The boys certainly appreciate their father’s interest in the female torso. France in general, and Paris in particular, is much more willing to put the human breast on display, as well as the female ass. Many ads feature bare butts, including a wonderful ad for some sort of peach-flavored drink. On the left was a beautiful, tanned bare butt of an undoubtedly lovely female facing left in a semi-crouch. On the right appeared to be a nearly mirror-image butt, albeit a bit larger. Or so we thought for a couple of days as we admired the ad going to and from the Métro. Eventually, I realized that the “butt” on the right was really a close-up of a shapely peach, and was eventually able to persuade the boys of this interpretation. We were all pretty bummed when this ad was pulled in favor of one for a dumb-looking American movie, “Tomcat,” which is due out in August. Even more tragic, I didn’t get around to taking a photo before it was too late.

At the news kiosks and tabacs there seem to be more skin mags with topless or fully nude models on the cover, in plain view of all who enter, not to mention gay porn on display (my impression is that there is less of this in Strasbourg). Of course, much of the statuary around town is unashamedly nude and topless beaches are de rigueur sur la Côte d’azur. [Apparently, German swimming pools are entirely nude, and the children of a French friend found this quite engaging when they stayed at a Holiday Inn in Munich.] One magazine being advertised everywhere has a topless sunbather whose breasts are partly (and strategically) covered by the bold headline « bronzage seins nus »... risks and medical advice. Since we are studying the French language with the boys, we used this cover to make a point about the gender of sein and the number agreement of the adjective.

All in all, the attitude seems much more wholesome than chez nous and it does not appear to lead to much public immodesty, at least not that I have been privileged to enjoy. At the moment, the French President, Jacques Chirac, is enjoying heightened scrutiny in a scandal regarding his extravagant vacations, financed at the public’s expense. The tab his risen a couple of times during the past month, and according to friends the scandal has not yet run its course, but it appears that he is not in serious hot water. On the other hand, says Geneviève, if he were liberal, the conservatives would be screaming bloody murder.

« Did François Mitterrand do the same sort of thing ? »

« No, not at all. There was a small scandal involving his son, but Mitterrand had a reputation on the up and up. »

« What about Valéry Giscard d’Estaing ? »

« Like Chirac. One of the first things he did was to buy an estate, which he had declared an historical monument, so that the public coffers could be occupied with fixing it up. »

So it appears that conservatives behave in large measure the same on this side of the pond. It goes without saying, however, that the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is laughable over here, on both sides of the aisle. What has that to do with his job? Besides, his accusers were just as guilty of sexual improprieties as he was. Better to find some financial improprieties, or a significant violation of a law concerning the office of the presidency.

I saw a tee shirt yesterday on the left bank near Notre Dame that displayed an array of cartoons of cats from various countries. The tail of the French cat looked like the Eiffel Tower; that of the Italian cat was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. What, pray, did the American cat’s tail look like? A gun barrel. Voilà l’impression que fait l’Amérique.

Smoking

If they are more civilized on matters sexual, they are behind America on the tobacco front. It seems that everyone smokes, including the young, and there doesn’t appear to be a public health campaign to do anything about it. It reminds me of the early 70’s in the States before the ads were pulled off television, before the Surgeon General’s report sank in, and smoking lost some of its cinematic glamour. I haven’t seen cigarette ads, but the overall industry market penetration seems pretty darned high. I have spoken with a few natives about the trends and it seems that the percentage of young people who take up smoking is at least 50%, maybe higher, and there is really not much effort to get people either to quit or not to start in the first place. On the other hand, we have noticed lots of adds for Nicorette and other products to help those who want to quit.

Showers

While we’re off the subject, it’s time to complain about the showers. On our tour of Chambord we were reminded that the French did not used to bathe much—Louis XIV took maybe 6 or 7 baths in his lifetime, which as we know was quite long (he was succeeded by his great grandson, Louis XV, as he outlived both his son Louis and his grandson Louis!). Put this tradition—which was probably no different from the British—together with some pungent body odor in the Métro and the annoying showers in which you have to sit down because there is no curtain, no door, and no place to hang the shower head—and it is all too tempting to conclude that the French have never really learned how to wash.

I wonder if Michèle and Patrick felt as awkward in our showers as I do in Michèle’s. Hard to imagine, but I suppose it’s possible. [Apparently, some prefer our style. Our friend Geneviève put in a shower stall when she remodeled her apartment.] Fortunately, the violently odiferous seem to be rare. Perhaps if we were city dwellers in the States we would be able to report as many offenders. Still, the awkward facilities in Michèle’s apartment building, built in the 1910s without indoor plumbing in mind, only reinforce the stereotype.

Homeopathy

All the pharmacies display the same green cross symbol, making them very easy to find. All of them also describe their principal services, including homeopathy. For those not in the know, homeopathy is a kind of treatment that originated some time ago in France and was based, in a way, on the same sort of thinking embodied in vaccines and antivenoms. Namely, a little dose of the thing that ails you will actually cure you. In the case of vaccines, of course, the dose is given ahead of infection and consists in a weakened or disabled form of the virus that causes the disease. This permits the body’s immune system to develop antibodies to the genetic material of the virus so that when an infection begins, the immune system can suppress it. At least, that’s the way we now understand how vaccinations work.

Anyway, homeopathy is not based on the same understanding of how the body fights infections. Let’s say you have a sour stomach. This is clearly from having too much “sour” in the body. So, the homeopath finds a very sour substance, such as lemon juice, from which to concoct the cure. Now, giving lemon juice as is will more than likely make the problem worse. So, from a very concentrated lemon extract, the homeopath prepares a dilution. A dilution involves mixing one part solution with 9 parts water, so that the concentration of the solution is reduced by a factor of 10. Of course, the juice is still too concentrated, so the new solution is diluted in the same way again, and again, and again... Most homeopathic remedies involve 10 to 30 dilutions. Now, let’s consider a cubic-centimeter dose of a remedy prepared with 30 dilutions. The total number of water molecules in the dose is about 3.3 * 1022. Furthermore, water is one of the lightest molecules. So, the odds that you will have even one molecule of the medicine in the dose are less than one in a billion. It’s not easy to see how this “medicine” will provide more cure than a drink of water.

In an era when the molecular basis of chemistry was not understood, it is possible to imagine some benefit deriving from homeopathic remedies. However, thanks to Dalton, Lavoisier, Avogadro, Loschmidt, and other European scientists, this basis has been clear for over a century. Why in the new millennium they are still marketing homeopathic cures is beyond me. I caught a recent article in Le Monde explaining that although a medical panel had recommended that over 1000 medicines currently being reimbursed by the government under the social security system be removed from the list because they have been shown to be ineffective, the government did not accept the recommendation and so these “medicines” will continue to be reimbursed.

To be fair, I have just run across a flyer from Magellan’s, a U.S. company that sells all sorts of items for travellers. The flyer peddles No-Jet-Lag™, a homeopathic marvel that allows athletes, businessmen, and vacationers to arrive at their destination rested and ready to go. “An important advantage of No-Jet-Lag is that it contains only homeopathic remedies. Because of the small dilutions used, these remedies do not produce side-effects...” No more than a drink of water!



This page was last modified on Sun, Aug 19, 2001.