We Americans abroad, as late U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman often said in her plummy British voice to us Americans in Paris, are ambassadors for our country.
You are a walking, talking Uncle Sam, whether you like it or not. Even if you don't even notice.
(Didn't she live the good life till the very end, dying as she climbed out of the pool at the Paris Ritz as American ambassador to France? The U.S. embassy residence here never looked so beautiful as when she ran it, with fresh flowers everywhere and paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, Rousseau, Cézanne on the walls.)
Which is why it annoys me when I see American children rolling around on the floor of Charles de Gaulle Airport, or when two loud American voices are the only ones you can hear on a crowded bus, or when a fat person in a purple nylon jacket waddles up to a stranger with a huge smile and you just know what accent you are going to hear. I have become too French!
One of the odd and rather endearing consequences of the American stereotype is that French people who scarcely nod to their own neighbors will pour out their hearts to Americans they have just met. They will also shamelessly inquire about Americans' ages, jobs and even salaries (it is a well-known "fact" in France that Americans tell everyone their salary, although in real life my own mother never dreamed of asking, and no one but French people ever has) and confidently state that in America, "Life revolves around money," "American friendliness is hypocrisy," "There is no culture," whereas in France, "We like black people! We are not racists like Americans."
Tonight I had to go to the area near Beaubourg and on the way home I bought some books, in fact way too many books on a very nerdy subject. They were heavy, and I took a taxi to get home. The guy did an illegal U-turn on one of the busiest streets in Paris. Someone had just parked and left his car in the middle of the intersection for a delivery, much like the van (right) which I saw earlier today. (Je travaille, moi!)
"Where are you from in America?"
I hate it when they can tell right away. I like at least to be a mysterious foreigner.
"I have an American girlfriend."
"I might go live over there."
Next thing I know, the guy is telling me about his sex life. "She is a beautiful ex-fashion model, divorced from this very rich older guy, have you heard of X X?" (I had.) "I showed her around Paris, all the most beautiful places. I didn't touch her. After two hours, she said to me, 'You are the man of my life!' Then we talked every day on the phone for months. She came back to Paris last summer. She came for a few days and she stayed with me for two months. I treated her like a queen! Now I am going to the U.S. for Christmas. I am learning a lot of English. I love the words I am learning. She says she likes my too shee."
I burst out laughing. He meant "tushy."
"Teu!" I said. "Eu, comme Europe!"
"Ah oui? Alors, qu'elle aime mon teu-shee."
But it went on. A blow-by-blow account of their first night together (it was her period, so they just cuddled: "I had already waited for months, so what was another few days?"), and her money problems, and his big house in Paris, and her jealous rich ex-husband: "He told her, 'That French guy is a-soul!'"
That mystified me. Then I realized the ex must have said "Asshole"!
"Qu'est-ce que cela veut dire, a-soul?"
"It means con," I said. (Technically incorrect!)
And his trip to the States at Christmas-- she hadn't answered the phone for three days, was she trying to tell him something? "I already bought the ticket, what will I do if she doesn't come and get me at the airport? I'm screwed," he said laughing, "I've never been to the U.S. before. The immigration agents are correct, though, n'est-ce pas? They are not corrupt? I will have my papers in order, there won't be any problems?"
I tried hard to be sympathetic and not too personal, smiling as I held the door open, waiting to get out. This was not a conversation he would be having with a French woman. He was in love and my accent reminded him of her. I couldn't help wondering how much she was in love with him, and how much just with Paris.
Little did the handsome taxi driver know that, far from being the friendly, open American he talked to, I am a judgmental European woman inside. An ambassador for my country.
I was volunteer-teaching a class of French 8-year-olds and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The boys wanted to be firemen and sailors and stunt men in the movies. The girls all wanted to be pharmacists-- probably because the prettiest class maman was one. Only Alexandre said, "I want to be an ambassador when I grow up!"
"The motorcycle escort!" said Alexandre.