I’m a situationally humble person, when it comes to myself and my country (but not my kids, who are awesome, and if you’d like I can spend a few hours telling you why…) and as such one of the stereotypes I’ve fallen for over the years has been the idea of “the Ugly American abroad”–you know, the loud, boorish guy in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and Nikes grumping around Paris complaining about not getting ice in his Coke and that all the locals don’t have the courtesy to speak English. I’m not the only one. There are web sites and entire chapters of travel books dedicated to teaching Americans how to tone it down, lay low, and fit in, enough in fact that an intelligent, sensitive individual can certainly be excused for adopting a preemptive inferiority complex verging dangerously close to shame.
No longer. Not after this trip.
Now before I go further, a caveat: I have a dear friend who lives in Marseilles and who may just be the sweetest, kindest, and most considerate person I have ever met–and let’s be clear about what I’m saying: I met Mr. Rogers once, and my friend Agnès is right in that ballpark. For many years, I held her up as a representative of her nation, but lately I’ve begun to suspect she is an anomaly. Why?
Because every French person I encountered on my 24 days at large in the Wild West was an asshole–and when I got together with my friends, one of them relayed to me a traumatizing story–of being bullied by, you guessed it, the French.
In Badlands National Park, descending a precipitous portion of trail called “the 140 Steps” which is pretty much a cable ladder secured into a slope too steep to scramble and too unstable to switchback, we were in line, taking turns–my wife was about halfway down, moving slowly because, while she’s extremely athletic she’s also a little nervous about heights. Two children were on the rungs between her and the top–the kids being a primary concern, because the steps near the top are spread widest and are the most difficult. From behind us, a shrill voice breaks into our quiet patience.
“Excuse, excuse!” A middle aged couple pushes past me and the rest of my party in turn, “Make room, excuse!” and when the person up next doesn’t move, the woman says, “If you step aside we will go down much quickly and be out of your way,” then shoves herself onto the the ladder, edging past a 12 year old girl, and heads down. The husband follows. The others on the ladder make room, mostly in fear of getting knocked off, but my wife won’t budge.
“You might as well slow down because I’m a little afraid of heights and you’re not getting past me,” she says, with a hint of fake laughter to keep things light. But the woman keeps coming. My wife makes another attempt at friendly, but unyielding banter, but the French chick fires back snark. At the bottom, she cracks something sharp and in French–I couldn’t hear what from my perch above, which is a damn shame because I can speak a little French, but the tone was clear enough. We shook it off, though, appreciated having someone external to complain about, and moved on.
Several days later, in Yellowstone, at a Pay Shower concession, there were about a dozen stalls, all occupied, and six guys standing in line. This guy comes in just as there’s an opening and heads right for it. “Yo!” Someone says. The potential shower poacher flinches–he heard it–but keeps resolutely going for the shower. “Yo, man!” The guy at the front of the line is a biker on his way to Sturgis–and he doesn’t look like one of those guys who bikes two weeks a year when he’s not Vice President of Marketing back in Sandusky, Ohio. The guy looks up, we’re all glaring at him, and he slouches to the end of the line. Isolated incident? I’d think so, but TWO MORE GUYS come in the next six or seven minutes, all of them ignoring the line, and in no time at all they’re shamed to their rightful place, where they all start jabbering in French–some of it fairly unpleasant.
I briefly turned to face them, “Avez-vous des lignes en France? Je pensais que nous étions les “barbarians”?
That showed ’em–but damn, what were the odds I’d remember the word for “lines?”
So, we go on to meet up with my friends in Jackson Hole, and Karen has a story to tell that beats ours all to hell–though when she starts, we’ve no idea it fits in with our theme of the boorish French.
Karen towed a camper trailer behind her husbands truck up from Colorado to meet up with a bunch of us. It’s a big-ass truck and she hadn’t much experience with the trailer. When she gets to the first campground it is full, and they send her on to the next one that is further out and a bit more rugged. She parks to register and discovers she’s scored the last site–hooray, right! While she fills out the paper work, the campground host suggests she send one of her children to go sit in the site so if anyone else comes they won’t get all excited about finding an open site. Her 12-year old girl is dispatched to sit on the picnic table, while Karen accidentally backs her camper into a ditch–not a bad ditch, but enough to require some extrication using a jack, with the assistance of the campground host.
About this time, the daughter comes back, a little shaken, reporting that a couple pulled into the campsite, ignored her when she said her family already registered, and proceeded to unpack everything in their car and pile in on the picnic table and around the site–presumably to claim ownership, but who knows. When my friend finally frees her rig and goes to the site for some serious WTFing, the stubborn squatters want nothing to do with her or her receipt–they ignore her, they pooh pooh her and argue in–you guessed in–heavy French accents. Ultimately, the campground host must be summoned to intervene and evict the bastards, and even then they leave reluctantly. Later in the evening, they repeatedly drive and walk by Karen’s campsite, glaring and staring.
A pattern emerges.
Utah was lousy with French–in the campground in Arches we were surrounded by French families in rented RVs. Companies like CruiseAmerica must advertise like crazy in France, because everywhere we went the ubiquitous 30″ behemoths were spitting our hordes of loud, angry-looking French families who, while slamming doors and stomping around a lot, otherwise remained happily inside their hermetically sealed vehicles except for a lot of trips to the restrooms–where they could be found washing dishes in the sinks, even though NPS has added some very convenient dishwashing stations to many campground facilities. And lest I be too subtle with my warnings, consider who is driving when you’re navigating all those western switchbacks, and that they’ve spent all of their lives steering Peugeots and Citroens into virtual anarchy.
I tried being nice, even threw in some “mercis” and “saluts” when I was navigating the more crowded trails in Arches, but mostly I got grunts in response. When we were shadowed one day by a tour bus–“Le Bus” painted on the side–I reached my fill. At three different trailheads we ran into “Le Bus,” as it disgorged its herd of unruly French, elbowing each other as badly as they pushed their way through and past everyone else. They must really not have lines in France, I realized–it has to be a cultural thing–this almost Darwinist “me first” behavior. At one point, I stood with a group of Japanese–no strangers to emerging from tour buses like a rising tide–and noted their wide-eyed horror at the toddler-like ego-driven comportment of the French. “It’s entitlement,” my wife growled. “That has to be it. Cultural narcissism.”
I’m not ready to adopt that extreme position, but I was almost pushed to my limit at our last destination, in Mesa Verde park, where our neighbors were a French family with 5 seemingly feral kids who, when the father wasn’t berating them aggressively, ran roughshod through everyone else’s sites–the oldest two, boys of about 7 and 8–were running about, dualing with tree branch swords, and at one point ran out into the lane yelling “Dragon! Dragon! Tuez le dragon!” and proceeded to thwap the passing vehicle multiple times with their tree limbs, while Mama and Papa stared blandly–all the while ignoring the shrieking, screaming 2 year old, who they were still bottle feeding formula (I watched Papa mix and shake), and who would continue to wail like a banshee for the three days straight. I recalled a really patronizing article I once read in the New York Times, about how French children are taught their place–to be seen and not heard–while Americans let their kids run roughshod until they become demanding self-absorbed assholes who think they are the center of the universe. Well, this kid was certainly heard by everyone within a 4 mile radius–she sounded so dire that vultures were circling–and I instructed my kids, “when a baby cries for hours, it’s my experience that they’re usually sitting in a pile of shit or under some other sort of discomfort. You ignore a 4 year old who has tantrums–when it’s a baby, you pay attention.”
Finally, and perhaps most horribly, were the signs in the showers at Mesa Verde, which read “Please do not use shower drains for solid waste. They cannot handle it. Please use toilets in the restrooms next door.” I mean: what the fuck is that? I don’t really want to know, I think, but all I can come up with is it’s some kind of sick-ass French bidet thing….*
Because, really. Who’s ugly now?
*okay, I’ll admit it–bidets are awesome, but they freak out most of my fellow Americans, and no way to I pass up a chance at a cheap laugh.