Nearly every time I mention the French to people, I get a negative reaction. I’ve been to France twice and I can’t understand why this is the case.
I guess the French have been getting some bad press from the Americans, because the French want to maintain political independence and don’t just want to be lickspittle, sycophants like us Australians. It really gets my back up, when people (particularly in the American mass media that influences so much of the rest of the world) automatically bad mouth, the French with comments like “cheese eating surrender the monkeys”. It would seem that some people have forgotten the help the French gave the Americas during the war of independence, and the statue of liberty.
Australia sucks up to America in gratitude, because of what happened to us during the Second World War, when the British cut us loose, after the fall of Singapore and the Americans saved our bacon in the Pacific. Here in Australia, we feel vulnerable, because we are an under populated country with densely populated countries to our north who have demonstrated a certain amount of antipathy towards us. Our Prime Minister John Howard, who seems hellbent on strutting on the world stage, rattling his tiny little sabre, doesn’t help this situation.
The French much to their credit, have taken responsibility to a large extent for their own security after WWII and have tried to distance themselves from the current debacle in Iraq. With hindsight, the French decision to remain aloof from the American oil grab disguised as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction and the toppling of a tyrant seems quite prescient and wise.
Sure enough, the French, the British and us Australians for that matter, owe a deep debt of gratitude for the sacrifices made by Americans on our behalf. Having said this, I still feel that our countries shouldn’t just jump into bed with the Americans when they are led by such a deluded and dangerous idiot as George Bush, who insists on doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
It’s true that if Paris is the only place in France that someone visits, they will see the busy and uncaring side of the French personality, just as one would see the same behaviour in any other world-famous large city, crawling with tourists. I think that what many people don’t realise when they are travelling is that they tend to only meet people who they engage in commerce with and not with local people they may have met on another basis. I’ve found that most people in the many places of the world that I have visited, who deal with the public are sick and tired of the public and can be quite jaded and offhand because of it.
The two occasions that I visited France were back in 1982. On both occasions, I travelled by hitchhiking. I’ve done a lot of hitchhiking, and one of the things that I really like about hitchhiking is that one gets to meet the generous and gregarious section of the population of the area one is travelling through.
What really struck me about hitchhiking in France, was how a genuinely hospitable, generous and warm the French are. Whilst in France, I came across the concept of the “bon homme” (good man). I constantly met French people, who automatically went out of their way to do more tham the right thing by me.
To illustrate what I mean about the French I will describe to you in a few hitchhiking anecdotes, my experiences with them and how good they were to me.
The first time I went to France was by “The Magic Bus” from London and it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. The Magic Bus Company was a budget bus company aimed at younger travellers, and I was under the impression that it would be a very friendly party type of experience. Actually it was just a cheap bus company, and of course, as with cheap bus companies all over the world, the bus broke down. It was about two o’clock in the morning, not long after we had left the ferry, when the Magic Bus “failed to proceed”.
Most of the people got out of the bus and started hitchhiking in the night to Paris. I guess they had jobs to get to. I wasn’t too worried because I thought that at least I’d save a night’s accommodation costs by sleeping on the bus. The same thought occurred to about five other young people, and we all introduced ourselves to each other and got stuck into some duty-free alcohol. So there we were, a small group in the back of the bus, power drinking straight from the bottle, alternating between Scotch whisky and Pernod. It was a quick succession of one swig of Scotch whisky and then a swig of Pernod.
The last thing I remember was trying to take a picture of the sunrise in the morning. When I woke up I was lying sprawled upside down in a very deep farm ditch, with my camera complete with attached tripod, still around my neck, attached by the camera strap. I had a killer hangover, and I was covered in my own vomit and splashes of mud. To add insult to injury, my backpack had been thrown off the bus and the bus was nowhere in sight.
Yep, I’m a class act.
It was a Sunday morning and it was stinking hot, as I gathered up my strewn belongings and walked about 5 km to the next village. It was a very small town, and luckily it had a fountain in the main square, where I could clean myself up a little. Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, no banks or businesses were open, and I was unable to change money anywhere, and I had no local currency. At the time my French language skills were nonexistent, and strangely enough, I couldn’t make myself understood.
The only thing left was to hitch hike to Paris with my hangover and stench. After a short time by the side of the road I got a lift with a French truck driver. Like many French people, he didn’t speak English, and of course my French was nonexistent so we weren’t able to communicate and I wasn’t able to explain why I stank. In the afternoon, he stopped for lunch, and we went into a cafe. When he saw that I only had travellers cheques and I couldn’t cash them he bought me lunch complete with a beer. After lunch he took me all the way into the centre of Paris and dropped me off at a youth hostel.
After a few days in Paris, I caught a train out of the city, south to Chateaudun to avoid having to hitch hike through the city. It wasn’t very long before an old Renault 4CV stopped, and a door releasing Indian music was flung open and a French hippy with long hair and granny glasses, invited me in. Once again communication was difficult but with some effort, I found out that my ride had just come back from Pakistan that day and was driving back home to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. I was heading south to Spain via Bayonne so I was happy to get a ride part of the way.
As we travelled on, the fellow who picked me up suggested that I should stay with his friends in La Rochelle. I explained to him as best I could that it would take me about 200 km out of my way. Plus, what was he doing offering me a place to stay with his friends when he hadn’t even spoken to them first? His answer to me is typical of why I love the French. With a withering look of pity, that the French are masters of, he said to me that they were his friends and he felt free to offer to their hospitality and also what was my rush? Didn’t I know how to relax and live a little?
So I took a chance and accepted his invitation. I’m so glad I did. I was taken to a very nice house, built so that its backyard, complete with a few wind surfer boards, opened onto the beach. My new hosts had the good manners to treat me as though they had known me all my life. I was told I could stay as long as I liked.
They were a very interesting group of people, who made their living by buying old Peugeot, 404s and driving them through the Sahara desert down to Benin, where they sold them for more than 4 or 5 times more what they paid for them. I was given my own room, fed, and shown around the local area. I am absolutely certain that I saw a side of French life that most people who visit France would never get to see.
In the mornings, one of my hosts would go out to buy fresh warm croissants. We would all have a French style breakfast, dipping our fresh croissants into a large bowls of coffee. One of their friends owned a bar that was inside the walls that made up the fortifications built by Cardinal Richelieu back in the 17th century. We spent an afternoon there drinking, and nobody would take my money. Again communication was very difficult, but my hosts didn’t seem to mind, and I found their lifestyle and attitudes a revelation. As a matter of fact they took me to dinner at various other friends places as well and I was treated like one of the family each time.
After about four days, I was starting to feel a bit guilty, so I borrowed an English to French dictionary to ask them what they were getting out of having me staying with them. After all, we couldn’t communicate very well and I was eating their food, plus they wouldn’t let me help pay for anything. Not to mention the fact that overstaying one’s welcome is the height of bad manners.
Once again, I was exposed to the Gallic withering look of pity, as they questioned me about why I was unable to just accept their hospitality. They just didn’t seem to be able to understand why I couldn’t just relax and enjoy what they had to give. I tried to explain that I should eventually get going on my travels. To which they replied, that they were planning on heading 250 km south along the coast to buy another Peugeot in another three days, and that if I liked, I could stay until then and they would give me a lift. I have to admit I was enjoying my time with those wonderful people, and they didn’t have to argue their case with any great force to convince me that their logic was sound. So I spent another three days, lounging around the La Rochelle beach house, dividing my days between socialising and windsurfing. It was all very idyllic.
Finally, a week after my arrival, five of us squeezed into a car and headed south. When we came to where they had to turn off the main highway, and I was getting out of the car, I was presented with six beers and given a big hug by everybody, slapped on the back and wished “bonne chance” (good luck)!
Within half an hour, another car with two French punks playing revolutionary Nigerian separatist music by Fela Kuti, stopped and I was given a ride to Biarritz, which is a beautiful old resort town just north of the Spanish border on the Atlantic coast. Once again, I was asked if I wanted to stay with the couple who had picked me up. They were going to stay at the woman’s parent’s vacant holiday house. I was expecting a small, modest little house, but much to my surprise the two punks I was riding with took me to a huge and luxurious mansion, tastefully decorated with 19th-century furniture. We had a very entertaining night drinking, eating merguez sausages and listening to punk music. As they both spoke a fair bit of English the communication was much easier and we all had a good laugh telling each other funny stories.
In the morning, after a fantastic breakfast of more merguez sausages, they drove me to the nearest bus stop to catch a bus to the Spanish border. Once again, I was given hugs as my new friends left. I was finding the French to be very warm and sincere in their hospitality.
I continued down through Spain and I spent a couple of months in Morocco where I met more amazing French people. I’ll be writing some stories about my experiences in Morocco, at a later date.
When I was in Tarrazout in the south of Morocco, I met a French couple, who invited me to come and stay with them in Rouen, Normandy, when I was passing through France again on my way back home. So on my way back, whilst I was hitchhiking in Spain, a Frenchman in a Volkswagon picked me up.
Once again my lack of French made it difficult for me to communicate. Another problem I had, was with French pronunciation and when I was asked where I was going, I said in my mangled French (which I had been picking up since I been in France in Morocco) that I wanted to go to Rouen. The Frenchman’s face lit up as he explained to me that that’s where he was heading. By nightfall, we had reached what I thought was my destination, only to find out that I had ended up in Rennes in Brittany, which was about 200 km southwest of Rouen.
It just goes to show how bad my French pronunciation is. I’ve even had a guy in Paris say “no, no don’t speak French, we’ll speak English”. Usually the French encourage foreigners to speak French but I must’ve been hurting his refined sensibilities. Quelle horreur! (What a horror!)
Once again, I was invited back to stay with my lift. It turned out that the guy who picked me up in Spain was a mathematics professor at a nearby university, and he invited me to stay with him a few days if I wanted to. Since I wasn’t in a hurry, I thought why not? I was starting to get the hang of going with the flow. So I hung out with the maths professor for three days in the beautiful and very quaint town of Rennes and had a great time. When it came time for me to leave, the maths professor drove me to the edge of town and dropped me off by the side of the road with the now obligatory hug and pat on the back, complete with “bonne chance”. I was beginning to think that the French really took the “fraternity” part of their national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”, seriously.
When I got to Rouen, I met up with my friends from Morocco who I stayed with for three days. Once again, I was shown great hospitality, and I had a very social time as they shared their friends and good times with me.
I found that most people I’ve come across, in the many places of the world that I have been to, are nice people. There seems to be a commonality of decent behaviour around the world. Most people I’ve met have tried to be good people, but the French I found to be the most decent of them all.
And that’s saying something, considering that I’ve been to Japan several times and the Japanese are amazing.