In case you were unaware, French highways become parking lots during the summer. Especially in the south of France. Especially on Saturdays when people are departing from or arriving to the vacation houses they've rented. I learned that fact this summer, having spent countless hours in various traffic jams. Just sitting. Sitting, sitting, sitting and watching people pee fearlessly and without shame on the side of the road in front of 12,000 cars with families inside.
That experience coupled with my other previous visits to France make me an expert. I am an expert on France.
My hope is that the next time I appear on CNN or Fox News, I will not be slugged as "humorist" or "author" but rather "France Expert" or "Expert on France" even. As an expert, I could weigh in on a variety of topics. Hopefully better than I weighed in on celebrities when I appeared on Showbiz Tonight because in that instance, sadly for the girl who booked me on the show, I didn't know shit about the celebrities. But I do know about France. Par exemple:
Frenchmen have incredible self-esteem. Amazing, baffling, often unwarranted self-esteem rivaling that of many Los Angeleans. A gangly, cross-eyed, lisping Frenchman with razor burn and soiled pants will still have no problem trying to seduce your wife in front of your very eyes, and for that I admire Frenchmen greatly. In my youth I viewed my concave chest and poor posture as detrimental to the acquisition of female companionship. Not in France. In France I would have slouched up to the most beautiful woman in the room, whipped off my demi-glace stained t-shirt, pushed her boyfriend aside and offered her the chance to make sweet love in the nearest utility closet.
As an expert on France, I know France isn't so crazy about being at the office. Public sector employees can work no more than 35 hours a week. It's the law. It's absurd, impractical and unsustainable, but it's the law and if you dare try and change it they will come down on you with a fury like you've never seen and go on strike. And strike they do, because if there's one thing French people like more than cheese, Bordeaux and your wife, it's going on strike. In fact, they're on strike as I write this because some imbecile had the brilliant idea to change the retirement age from 60 to 62 because the system is bankrupt.
Because of my status as an expert on France I knew that when my tire valve broke on a Friday afternoon at 4:58pm I was utterly screwed. I knew at that very moment that anyone who was capable of fixing my broken tire valve was closing up his shop. Or, more likely, had already called it a day around 2:30pm. Even worse, I knew that those people would certainly not be opening their store on Saturday. And especially not on Sunday. And my problem would inevitably have to wait until Monday - unless I was willing to sit down with a phone and the PagesJeunes and start calling every tire-valve related business in a 150-mile radius. In fact, we did find one gentleman open on Saturday, which was incroyable. Or, it was incroyable until we learned that his grandfather was Polish. No doubt it was that tiny smattering of non-French DNA in him which was responsible for his working on a weekend.
Incidentally, you may be wondering how my tire valve broke. Well, I used a gonflage machine at a gas station that was supposed to put air into my tires but instead opted to break my tire valve (for the low price of 60¢). Vive les gonfleurs de France!
As an expert on France, I know why so many stores don't post their business hours on the door. It's because they just don't know. Maybe they'll be there in the morning. Maybe not. Who can say? You'll just have to stop by and see. And when you do stop by and see that they're closed you get mad and shake your head. But it doesn't matter because as an expert on France I know that absolutely no one there cares.
Having driven a lot in France I have learned that should you require some modicum of courtesy - someone letting you cut in, perhaps - you are doomed. French drivers would run over a classroom's-worth of schoolchildren rather than let you pull out in front of them. No mercy. And, as your expertise in all things francaise grows you come to realize that the only way to get from Point A to Point B is to do what they do, which is to disregard the rear and side-view mirrors and simply go where you have to go and accept the consequence which is inevitably an angry French person shaking his or her fist at you. I lost count of the number of French people who shook their fists at me but if I were to arm them all with maracas it would have been a hell of a concert.
French food and wine is spectacular. I'm an expert. I know this. Their devotion to quality is unparalleled. Fantastic food can be found in the dingiest brasseries, bistros and cafés. A simple sandwich purchased at a gas station makes a mockery of American casual dining. They care about ingredients. They care about quality and taste. They don't want you to pasteurize their cheese. There is no lo-cal version. High fructose corn syrup? Non! They use sugar. They don't give a crap about sodium, trans-fat, cholesterol or carbs. It's just better. French shrimp? Incredible. Tastes like shrimp. In comparison American shrimp tastes like packing peanuts. Their foods are fatty, salty, unhealthy... and absolutely delicious as a result. And unlike Americans they don't eat twelve pounds of it at once so French people are, by and large, not very large.
Anyone who has spent enough time in the States knows we're a service culture. We might score badly in education, foreign policy and per-capita energy consumption but we are awesome at service. And that's why Americans, spoiled by the 60-second "greet times" mandated in chain restaurants like TGI Fridays, are often flabbergasted at the French concept of service. In my opinion as an expert, the French love food so much that they want you to savor it all day- which explains why the waiter disappears for hours at a time. But that's only if you can get the food. At 12:30pm a friend of mine ordered room service from the "24 hour room service" menu at a posh Parisian hotel. An hour later they called to tell him his order had been lost. He tried to re-order but was interrupted: I'm sorry sir, the kitchen is closed. An adorable young hostess turned us away because it was "already" 1:15pm. Mind you, we were a normal-sized party of four, the restaurant was half-empty and it was lunch time. When they do seat you, acquiring a menu can take a quarter of an hour. Waiters will chat up a table for 20 minutes before taking a smoke break. Crap service is a by-product of France not being tip-oriented. The waiter's getting paid the same regardless of how quickly he brings your frites. And anyway, he assumes that you have a 2-3 hour lunch break that you're trying to milk.
As an expert on France I can tell you that the image of the obnoxious, arrogant Frenchman is unwarranted. Except in Paris. Everyone in France, including the Parisians, hates the Parisians. Fortunately car tags let you know who the Parisians are so you needn't guess. One glance at the département from which they hail and you'll know whether to immediately shake your fist at them or to wait a few seconds before doing so. In my travels throughout the country I've encountered very few of the typical stereotypes conjured up when Americans talk about the French. Most French folks outside of Paris are quite pleasant - you might even encounter one if you happen to find a store that is open. They're grateful when you speak the language, or in my case speak the language like a six-year old. In Normandy they're still appreciative that we swung by on D-Day some 66 years ago.
As an American expert on France, I know they get a lot of flak for throwing their hands up in 1940 and letting the Wehrmacht sail on in ("cheese-eating surrender monkeys" as Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons famously put it). But traveling around France has helped me put that into perspective: In every town - from the tiniest one-bakery village to the biggest metropolitan centers you'll find a World War I monument. We Americans, having strolled into that conflict at the very end, tend to forget or never knew that much of the Great War was fought on French soil and that France suffered immeasurably as a result. Actually, it is measurable if you look at the names of all the dead on the monuments. When you're in a village that's a croissant's throw in length by a baguette wide and you find a monument covered in scores of names of the young men that little place sacrificed, you start to understand the scale of their losses in World War I. So, when the Germans came goose-stepping and Heil-Hitlering 22 years later, a country that had already sacrificed generations of their able-bodied men was being asked to do it all over again. The lack of enthusiasm should be understandable, in my opinion. And my opinion is very valuable, in my opinion, because as I've established I am an expert. In my opinion.
Sure, there is plenty to criticize about France. They're not nearly as germ-phobic as I'd like them to be. They handle money and food at the same time, and will lay your baguette on the counter. The bathrooms can be frightful. Administratively, they have some pretty insane policies in dire need of fixing particularly with regard to immigration, unemployment and entitlements. Their socialized healthcare system is pretty darn good and beyond generous - you can be prescribed a lovely visit to a spa. Of course it's been running at a deficit for 25 years now despite the hefty taxes that subsidize it.
When a problem does get really bad, inevitably someone stands up and proposes fixing it. That prompts everyone else to go on strike until said person throws his or her hands up and sits down. Attempt to reform the educational system? Furious protest. Try and change the crazy 35-hour work-week law? Furious protest. Allow businesses to fire new employees who aren't working out? Furious protest. In France, there is nothing they won't protest furiously. In fact, they're in the streets today because they want to retire at 60 and not 62, damn you! I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this strike will probably be resolved by everyone deciding to kick the can down the road and deal with it another time.
I'm an expert on France because I love France. For all its flaws, they really have done the place up quite nicely. It's gorgeous. And if you like castles, they have castles up the wazoo. So don't put off a visit to France. And I'd say you should go sooner rather than later, because at some point they won't be able to kick the can down the road anymore, and the party will truly be over and I'll have to become an expert in something else. Like Yonkers.
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From New York, where English is sometimes spoken.
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