I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.
In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.
Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?
We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.
My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:
Un café s’il vous plaît
Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.
But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.
Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.
That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.
To quote Churchill:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
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