Fry the French


We Americans have had a long, ambiguous relationship with the French.

We fought them in the French and Indian Wars. They fought the British during the American Revolution. Then they had their own revolution, became a democracy, and practiced the worst kind of mob rule, trying to get a head up on the nobility, so to speak. They gave us an object lesson in how not to act as free people. Merci beaucoup (literally, "a pretty coop full of mercy").

The French gave us the Statue of Liberty. Nice gesture. It's still standing although most of us have forgotten what it means. It was actually an attempt to smuggle several thousand French into this country without having to go through customs,[1] because, as we know, they don't like American customs. But we opened the Statue up, found them inside, and sent them home.

They lost their country in two World Wars. We didn't help them protect it to begin with, but got it back for them and immediately billed them for the service: "One Country, Saved Twice: Cost - Eternal gratitude and butt-kissing."

We entered the wars long after their commencement. Truth is, we were stilled ticked off at the French for the French and Indian Wars. In WWII (The Big One), we waited for Pearl Harbor as a reason. Japan attacked us; we invaded North Africa.[2]

Then the French stuck us with Vietnam. Shame on them. Some would say, "Well, we didn't have to go into Vietnam." Well, we certainly did have to. After all, we went to a lot of trouble to fake up the Tonkin Gulf incident[3] and what would be the point if we didn't get to bomb someone? We were hopelessly mired in Korea'still are'and we needed a win for our side, not having had one since WWII, The Big One.

Now, when the U.S. government wants to wage war on Iraq, the French government does not support us. Double shame.

This has led to calls for nuking France, economically speaking. Restaurant owners are changing French fries to "freedom fries" and French toast to "Patriot toast." Storekeepers are pouring out stocks of French wine. Woman are boycotting Chanel products. Serious writers are calling the French "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys"'which if not inspired by the Simpsons, should have been.

Get over it!

No, I didn't mean to say that. What I meant to say is that as a flag waving, patriotic, red, white, and blue American hound of war, "Nuke the caf'-au-lait sipping pastry eaters right in their cheese factories." But let's find a real reason to do it, not this Iraqi war excuse. As Clara Peller might have said, "O' est le boeuf" (literally, "Who is the barf?").

Just as the U.S. government does what it perceives to be in the best interest of the U.S., the French government will do what it perceives to be in the best interest of France. How dare they put their interests first!

Obviously, it's in our interest to wage an unprovoked war that will result in a lot of "collateral damage," a euphemism that doesn't change the fact that a dead civilian lying in the sun for three days will stink just as badly as a dead soldier lying in the sun for three days. The French, for some vague and undefined reason, don't think the same, preferring to sit in a caf' and order another cup of espresso (literally, "speed").

The French government may not be portraying the viewpoint of many of its citizens. Just like ours isn't. Of course, I'm not talking about me. I really want this war on Iraq; it will be rerun season soon and I need something to watch on television. I turn off the lights and the green glow of missile strikes and anti-aircraft fire seen through night glasses on CNN warms the cockles of my heart.

But I happen to like the French people'not on purpose mind you, but I do. My wife and I visited France for two weeks in 1998 to hear a pianist friend in concert and the trip was unexpectedly delightful, darn it. We spent most of our time in southern France, between Bordeaux and Montpelier, mostly in small cities and towns. The people were openly friendly, and even more friendly'How dare they!'when I used what little remained of my high school French bolstered by a phrase book. I was disappointed. I fully expected to be the hated American (literally, "l'Am'ricain despicable") and I had memorized a bunch of phrases for quick and biting responses when faced with French disdain. How disappointing to not be able to say, "La plume de ma tante!" (literally, "I throw taunts at your plumage").

Then they had to go and feed us. The food was good at worst, delicious on average, and superlatives fail me for the best meals. The wines . . . well, they were French''nuff said. And cheese for dessert? Having cheese instead of some goopy, sugary mound of carbohydrate death on a plate was a great way to end a meal.

I almost got to use my nastiest phrases once. One day in a four-star hotel, we had a three hour long meal in company with a Frenchman, his German wife, their daughter, our married pianist friends (a Chinese from Singapore and a Chinese from Malaysia), and an English couple (a judge and his wife). When the cheese waiter brought out the cart loaded down with 22 varieties, I, in all my American innocence, asked, "Do you have any brie?"

The room went quiet. A cloud passed over the sun. The wine waiter ducked down behind a table. My companions held their breaths. The waiter haughtily sniffed and said, "Non, Monsieur (literally, "my old sewer"), we do not have the (sniff) brie." Sniff.

I groped for an appropriate put down. This was my chance to put France in its place, to un-cement French-American relations, perhaps forever. To put the beret-wearing bread-bakers in their place. Eight pairs of eyes stared at me . . . nine, counting the waiter. My mind went blank. I couldn't think of a single insult. Instead, I asked the cheese waiter for his recommendations. Furthermore, I asked in passable French. I eternally won the friendship of the French people. The word spread. They came out of their hotels and restaurants and patisseries and charcuteries. They danced in the streets. They shouted, "Vive l'Am'ricain!" They awarded me the Croix de Fromage (literally, "Big Cheese Medal"), France's highest award for non-French. Against my better judgment, I began to like the French.

Maybe the French owe us something back for the McDonald's arches beginning to litter the larger French cities. So, one day the French Parliament sat down and said, "Okay, how do we get back at the l'Am'ricains for this atrocit' de cuisine (literally, "Double Beef Whopper")? These arches d'or? We have two options: 1) Don't support them in Iraq, or 2) Go over there and start building Escargot Kings, fast snail outlets roofed with a golden shell."

They chose the first option as the more humane choice. Vive la France! But, I digress. Back to the reason.

We stayed over two weekends in the picture-postcard town of Saint 'milion (pop. 600) in the heart of the Bordeaux wine country. The small hotel had an equally small elevator, just for luggage. People had to actually walk up and down two flights of stairs. The town itself was built on a hill and many streets around the center of town were closed to vehicles, again forcing us to walk.

The hotel gave us a light breakfast of juice, muesli (literally "mucilage"), bread, fresh fruit, and yogurt (literally "yogurt"). After walking all morning through the hilly town and the surrounding vineyards, we were hungry. We soon (on the first day, actually) acquired the habit of wandering into the town square around noon, taking a table relegated to one of the three restaurants on the square, and enjoying a wonderful, leisurely, delicious dinner, accompanied by a bottle of cider (four percent alcohol), and capped off by espresso. That's how we ate there: a light breakfast, a large dinner at the noon "hour," which ran to about 2 and-a-half hours, and a small supper around seven or eight o'clock in the evening, which, if friends were there, turned into another two-hour social event. Of course, we thought, this is how things are done in rural France. How quaint. It will be different in the cities.

On a road trip to visit some friends, we entered the city of Castres and headed for the Goya museum . . . or maybe it was Goya to see the Castres museum. Arriving at the museum at the stroke of twelve, we were confronted with a counter person placing a "Ferm'" (literally, "be firm") sign on the ticket window and wishing us a "bon app'tit" (literally, "go eat some bones"). He explained that it was dinner time; the museum was closed until 2 PM. Or later. "Quelle dommage (literally, your cello is damaged)."

We wandered the streets of the city, marveling at a downtown lined with businesses' and no people. It was a ghost business district. Everything was closed. Except hotels and restaurants and caf's. Everything else. It was dinner time. So we had dinner.

We followed this enforced pattern as long as we were in France and learned the following lesson: It is much more civilized to take a leisurely two hours or so for dinner at midday than it is to dash around running "errands" with a Big Mac in one hand, a cell phone in the other, and a steering wheel in the other. Quiet. Relaxing. Enjoyable. Civilized.

That's really why we're upset with the French. They know how to be civilized. And that civilization, if it spreads to our shores, may just subvert our American values. For example, I was forever ruined for the American lunch hour experience. I found after I returned that my employers didn't really cotton to my two-and-a-half hour lunch breaks. Not even when I stayed until seven PM to make up. I blame the French. Up your civilization! We don't need it.

I will give up French fries, French wine, French toast, French roast, French dip, French dressing, Michelin tires, and French kissing. Or maybe I should just rename it "patriot kissing."

Since the Mexicans disagree with us, I will give up fajitas, Margueritas, burritos, and chorizo. And agree to send all the Mexican laborers home so that good, patriotic Americans can get those desirable jobs doing stoop labor in the fields.

If the Germans don't go along, I will give up German chocolate cake, knockwurst, and my Volkswagen, which is now sitting in the garage on its tireless rims. And I will sign a petition to have Bismarck, ND renamed.

If the Spanish change their minds, I will give up Spanish omelets, Spanish olives, tear the Spanish moss out of the live oaks, and stop listening to "Spanish Eyes."

But these are only half measures. What we need to do is to give up everything French, even the language. No more sitting in a caf'. Now it's a coffee shop. No more filet mignon (literally "flayed minion"); good old American burgers instead. No more croissants; we'll eat Wonder Bread with red, white and blue wrapping. I will burn my Edith Piaf CDs and only listen to singers that espouse American values, like Backstreet Boyz in the Sink.

I just hope the Italians stay on our side. The prospect of giving up pizza[4], Italian sausage, spaghetti and meatballs, and fava beans with a fine Chianti is just too much. I might break down under the strain and disagree with the President. And what flag-waving, patriotic, red, white and blue American hound of war would want to do that?

[1] Much like the Greeks did with the Trojan horse.

[2] We still follow this policy: Russia threatens us; we attack North Vietnam. Lewinsky attacks the Oval Office; we bomb Sudan. Saudi Arabian terrorist groups attack us; we attack Iraq. At least we're in the right region this time. It must be that the "Send maps to Washington" program is working.

[3] There are some who still believe it was an accident, that the "Maine" actually sunk in Havana harbor due to a boiler explosion and the North Vietnamese had nothing to do with it.

[4] If it doesn't have anchovies on it, it's not pizza. ["Oh yeah?" says my wife.]

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Joseph S. Bommarito's picture
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Joseph Bommarito was a freelance writer who lived in Georgia.  He passed away on January 3, 2005.  Comments can be sent to his wife Sally.