I’ve wrapped up a Rick Steves’ Paris and the Heart of France tour as an assistant guide, and I feel blessed to have been on tour with Julie. As an American ex-pat raising her children in the Burgundy region of France, she has so much insight into the French psyche, customs and history. And having grown up in the States, she uses her understanding of the American psyche to bridge the two cultures for our tour members. I find that, with rare exception, most people who travel are open to learning something new and that those who refuse to have their own beliefs challenged are often content to never cross the comfort of their own cultural and national borders.
What can be frustrating as a teacher or tour guide is when people manage to pack, along with their too-full suitcase, their negative assumptions about another culture. I know I’ve been guilty of it in my youth, but traveling has helped me shatter those preconceived notions. It’s refreshing is to encounter someone who actively seeks ways to learn the truth and to question why they have been clinging to those preconceptions, and it’s a wonderful challenge to help navigate a path to finding the real answers.
Such is the case with a woman I met on tour. Early in the trip, she explained that she had traveled to France years ago and had had a supremely positive experience. But, she explained, over the last ten years or so, she often heard from people she knew, certain politicians and from some media that the French hate Americans. She asked in earnest, “What went wrong?”
The quick answer is, “Nothing. The French don’t hate Americans.”
Now this woman is a thinking, successful and independent-minded person. Yet somehow, she had been convinced that an entire country hated (and hate is a strong word) her country. Why? We explored lots of reasons in our discussion but we had to clarify the misconception first. No, the French do not hate Americans. There are many individuals who disagree strongly with American foreign policy — and its (sometimes) negative effects on so many other countries — or those who perhaps resent the domination of U.S.-based multinational companies who have “invaded” France, but they do not hate America or Americans.
France and America have a long history together that dates back to our colonial era and continues to the present-day with political, social and economic links. It hasn’t always been chummy, but we remain intertwined because we respect and depend on each other. Some of our Founding Fathers spent quality time in France. The French Revolution and les Droits de l’Homme or the Rights of Man share common influences with the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. France bestowed a grand gift to the U.S. that has become one of our national icons – The Statue of Liberty. Both countries were allies in WWII, and to this day, the French people are deeply grateful for the U.S. effort in liberating France from the Nazis. Yet people ignorantly mistake France’s choice to not support certain recent international political and military actions by the U.S. as being against the U.S. Just because they don’t agree with some of our policies does not suddenly make them an enemy.
In fact, if you speak with most visitors to France, you’ll find that they have had wonderful and memorable one-on-one experiences with the French people. Despite all their cultural formalities, the French are a charming people with a fascination for (almost) all things American. On occasion you may encounter a French person whom you may consider rude, but does that mean all of them are? Of course not. If you met a Californian who treated you poorly, would you think all Californians hate you? No, because that’s just ridiculous. It’s important to keep in mind that anyone can have a bad day. Sometimes we’re the recipients of it. Sometimes we inflict it on others. But at heart, most people are good people. It’s when people start believing the negative and misinformed talk from closed-minded individuals or biased media outlets that wrong impressions spread. Don’t believe the hype. Better yet, find out the truth for yourself and go experience the real thing.
Our tour group had the chance to have real experiences with locals in every town we visited. They learned about the depth of gratitude and respect that the French have for America. On one of our last days, a British guide named Dale (a specialist in WWII history and the D-day Beaches) led us through Normandy. He is a vibrant and knowledgeable storyteller and had us wrapped around his finger from the get-go. He explained to us how villages throughout France, and in Normandy in particular, commonly have a memorial erected in gratitude to the U.S. troops who helped liberate them. They don’t merely exist. They’re lovingly cared for day after day by the descendants of the people who perished in that war and of the people who managed to survive because of our help. It’s those villagers who keep those memories alive, who cherish the precious liberty they enjoy (due in part to the help of the Allied Forces), who raise the funds to create and sustain those memorials, and who pass on their respect and gratitude for the U.S. onto their children.
Dale took us to meet the mayor of village in Normandy, who showed us the village church that was used as an infirmary by two brave American soldiers to tend to their gravely wounded fellow soldiers, villagers, and (despite the order to “take no prisoners” – meaning, shoot to kill), injured German soldiers. Stained glass windows were specially made to commemorate their selfless efforts. When Dale explained how young these two soldiers were, how little medical training they had had, how they managed to save all but one of the 80 or so wounded, and their bravery and compassion – even for the enemy – all of us had to wipe away our tears.
Throughout the day we learned about the tactical strategies surrounding D-day, the numerous ways that things did not go according to plan, and the determination of all the Allied Troops to find a way to succeed despite the setbacks. We visited the beaches and countryside where our ancestors fought to ensure and protect the freedoms of others. And we paid our respects at the American Cemetery to the fallen American soldiers who succumbed to the onslaught of the German forces. The father of one of our tour members was a soldier during the D-Day invasions. In his honor, we were able to have the tour member participate in the flag lowering ceremony. Having taken the time to learn about the sacrifices made by so many – American, British, Canadian and French alike, to have learned about how grateful the French were and continue to be to this day, and to have a link to a very real past through our own tour member was enough to bring us all, once again, to tears.
It’s hard for most of us (with the exception of the 1% of our population whose families are involved in the military) to understand the power, destruction, devastation, loss, and suffering of real war. The people of France know it well. In WWI (1914-1918), more than 1.5 million of their countrymen died and more than 4.5 million were wounded. In WWII (1939-1945), upwards of 560,000 died. Compare that with the number of U.S. deaths and injured in recent wars – Gulf War (1990-91): 1,231; Iraq (2003-2011): 36,395; Afghanistan (2001-present): ~13,000. France is criticized for not wanting to engage in U.S.-led wars and all that goes along with it, but we have to remember that it’s not because they are against freedom or democracy or American interests. It’s because they know, better than most, what the effects of war really are.
Our tour has gone to different areas around France, tasting regional wine and food specialties, seeing cultural, historic, religious and artistic sites and icons, and admiring the natural wonders that this country has to offer. This country, that is roughly the size of Texas, is diverse and varied in so many ways because of influences from centuries of war, allegiances, and commerce with the Romans, the Vikings, the British, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Germans, the Italians, and its former colonies. The French are proud of their history and cherish what they have become because of it. We started in Paris, which combines the very best of France’s history and traditions with its modern aspirations for the future. We traveled to central France, the Loire Valley, Brittany, and Normandy – not just physically, but also through time, seeing Roman, Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Classical, Neo-classical and Belle Époque structures. We discovered links we never realized from Clovis I to Napoleon III. And we experienced real interactions with the people of France that help both sides come to a better appreciation for one another. More than any trinket or photo, this will be our best souvenir. The 27 members of this tour are going back home with a better understanding of the French, and hopefully, they’ll share what they’ve learned with others to help dispel false impressions.
By the way, the woman I mentioned earlier – she’s now planning her next visit to France and wants to start taking classes to learn to speak French so she can connect even better with the people she meets here. And that is the power of travel.