A Trip to Paris
A Trip to Paris: American and Ashamed
Published May 2016
Paris is a fairytale. The whole city looks as if it were frozen from the time of Louis XIV, its beauty and sensual allure locked in an eternal glimmer. The picturesque 18th century architecture, the quaint cafes that flank the Seine, the beautiful people in their striped shirts and cute hats – everything is more magnificent in person.
My girlfriend and I stayed in a quaint studio in the Jussieu area. The host and the apartment were an eclectic Italian duo. He showed us how to use the espresso machine shaped like a giant Moka pot: “pressa’ the button when the machina stoppa,” invited us to try the ten pound block of Parmiggiano Reggiano in the fridge: “dis ‘a from homa, so use, don't abuse,” and played us jazz through his hi-fi stereo.
I never thought I wanted to travel to Paris. I had heard rumors of the snobbish-attitude, pretentious Parisians and xenophobic Frenchmen. However, these characterizations are merely half the story. They explain a reaction, not a consistent attitude. Americans, by nature, are rude. We inhabit an entire continent. Our world spans nine million square kilometers, almost the size of all of Europe. We’re ignorant of other cultures, confused by other languages, and impatient with other people. All in all, the majority of us are assholes.
When I travel, I try to be patient. I make sure to use customary greetings and salutations: “bonjour” in the morning, “bonsoir” at night, and the gracious “merci” in the middle. I try my best to keep my English to a minimum when in public and avoid idioms when speaking to non-Native speakers. However, most Americans are ignorant of the idiosyncratic differences between them and foreign cultures.
Perhaps, this explains Paris’s snobbish reputation. Perhaps, it’s actually a response to American rudeness rather than a xenophobic assault on foreigners. The Paris I saw was gracious, patient, and friendly. The Paris I saw was one of over-friendly restaurant owners, metro attendants who went out of their way to get me around safely, and locals who were enthralled to show me the local hangouts.
Furthermore, Paris is the gastronomical capital of the modern world. The French claim ownership of some of the world’s finest cuisine. We Americans throw their name on some of our favorites: French fries (originally from Belgium) and French toast (here, my grandma claims ownership). However, I boast a pretty selective diet. I’m not interested in escargot, frog legs, or duck. I’m a good hearted, plain-ole’ chicken eating American, and I’m happy with my poultry-centric diet. Chicken is not French. French food is not conservative; rather, it risks pulling me from my comfort zone into a world of the fearsome unknown. Thus, my endless search for chicken led me to a Lebanese restaurant, Savannah Café, on my first night in Paris.
The menu had middle-eastern specialties, such as hummus, babaganoush, goat cheese, and my favorite: chicken! It was a small restaurant decorated with funky Americana, and old-time jazz and blues played through the speakers. Aretha Franklin followed Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and others. The owner was friendly, perhaps a little too friendly. I politely informed him that I wasn’t a big fan of eggplant and babaganoush, to which he replied, "you just haven’t tried the right babaganoush." He was right; his babaganoush was smoky and sweet. Its creamy texture spread a complexity of flavors around my palate, za’atar, garlic, and some unknown ‘secret’ spices. As I was filling my talking hole with hummus and pita, an American walked into the restaurant and the owner’s eyes lit up and rapidly spewed a polyglottic soup of greetings to the man. After adjusting his black-plastic framed glasses, the man emphatically shook the owner’s hand and said, “Always happy to see you, Richard.” Richard immediately sat the man, whose name I later learned was Joe, into a table by the bar so he would be nearby for a chat. Joe brought a thick book titled, “Paris,” into the restaurant and planted it on the table. He removed his tweed jacket, exposing an argyle sweater and button-down shirt underneath.
In Joe’s conversation with Richard, he was articulate and fact-oriented, speaking of his travels around Europe with the air of a man who contemplates every syllable. He had to be a professor. After at least a half an hour of my not-so-subtle eavesdropping, I finally mustered the courage to talk to Joe.
“So are you a regular here?” I nervously asked.
“Well I’m only here for a few weeks a year,” Joe responded, his probing eyes questioning my motives. “Don’t know if I could really be considered a regular but I make sure to stop in everytime I’m in Paris.”
“You come to Paris for a few weeks every year?”
“Yes, I’m actually a visiting professor. I have a friend at the law school here and he invites me to run a two week seminar each year.” He sighed, took a sip from his Lebanese beer. “They pay me just enough to travel, eat and stay.”
As the night continued and my half-liter of wine became emptier and emptier, our conversation deepened. Joe was a law professor at Indiana. He’s traveled the world, spending months in Asia, traversing Europe, and driving through the United States. Joe was a relic of a lost time: the well-traveled, open-minded American. He’s a resident of the world, not just the landmass that spans the Atlantic to the Pacific. Seeing how he interacts with the locals, how he can form a lasting connection with a Lebanese restaurant owner in Paris, gave me hope.
However, the reputation of Americans in the rest of the world is quickly deteriorating. We’re no longer the country of streets lined with gold, no longer the land of endless opportunity, no longer the glimmering light of democracy to the world. Now, we’re sheltered, ignorant and isolated from the rest of mankind.
On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I saw a sweet, simple Midwestern couple struggling with the subway ticket machine. The instructions were in English, because, of course, the rest of the world conforms to our language and we refuse to learn any of theirs. However, this couple had no credit card, no debit card, and no foreign currency. They were tapping furiously at the screen and when a local Dane offered to help them, their only question was, “This machine doesn’t take American money?”
It’s truly, madly depressing to think of the future of the once great United States. We’re growing ever more ignorant, ever more sheltered, ever more afraid to leave the comfort of our escalator and car-filled American bubble.
And who’s to blame us? We’ve lived for years in the blind belief that we’re always right, that the American way is the only way.
Force-fed McDonald’s, Burger King, and Five Guys, we’re suffocated by our own ever-increasing paunch, led to believe the bullshit spewed by ignorant political juggernauts like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly. We think only of ourselves, forgetting that we’re a nation, a people, the collective members of humankind. So as I sit enjoying my Shish Taouk in one of Europe’s most fairytale cities, I couldn’t help but feel bad for my own people, for those who will never experience this bliss, for those who never want to experience this, for those who feel content in their insulated ignorance.
Travel is as much about experiencing another culture as it is about reflecting on my own. I know I can’t change the way Americans act abroad, and I can’t change the way foreigners view us, but I can be cognizant of my own behavior and the way I portray my own people.
If ignorance is bliss, I’d rather be well traveled and miserable.