After two years of avoiding travel to the US, I finally returned this month for two weeks to visit family and friends. Aside from the absolutely freezing weather (below zero, snow, ice, etc.), I actually had a very nice time. Why would an American living abroad NOT want to come to the US? Well, here were a few thoughts that almost made me cancel at the last minute:
Orange Terrorism Alerts
More worried about friendly-fire mishaps than terrorists on-board, I wasn’t looking forward to the possibility of over-zealous fighter jet pilots accompanying my flight in Philadelphia. Luckily, not only did my flight go smoothly, the only extra security delay at the airport (I flew through Frankfurt) involved a complete pat-down and hand-held metal detector check. Maybe it’s because I flew with Lufthansa and not a US company. Even when I arrived in the US, the customs officials didn’t go through my bags (like they usually do), or ask questions about the large number of French visa stamps in my passport.
Pro-war, pro-Bush Fanaticism
From Europe, it looks like every American is pro-Bush and pro-war. Of course I know Americans who aren’t, but their voices seemed censored. So I was actually happily surprised to read a lot of balanced media coverage on the war and on Bush’s policies during my stay. Of course, there’s still very little open, intelligently moderated debates where each side defends his or her views with facts and examples (most televised debate still seems to be of the “attack and belittle and change the subject” variety, but then again I wasn’t looking outside the mainstream media).
Mad Cow Outbreak
After living through the first outbreak over here in Europe 8 years ago, I wasn’t too keen on trying any burgers. I like to be vegetarian while in the US, especially after reading Fast Food Nation…although I did make exceptions for a Philly Cheese Steak (mmmmm), the all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet in Gettysburg (probably cleverly-disguised tofu anyway), a very fine roast beef sandwich at a family party (with horseradish sauce, yum!), and my cousin’s venison lasagna and sausage (that’s deer, folks; even as a former vegetarian, I’m pretty impressed with anyone who has the guts to sit in a tree all day and shoot his own dinner with a bow and arrow; and at least I know it probably wasn’t eating anything unnatural).
Pre-Election Absurdity in the Media
The obsessive hype over Dean’s “yell” reminds me of all the flak Gore received for kissing his own wife in public (is this illegal in certain states or something?). After just one caucus ballot, people are sending candidates to the grave. I read in one mainstream international newspaper (the NY Times-owned International Herald Tribune) that many people were influenced by the ads that were circulating in Iowa in the last week. “Dean’s ad was too negative” said one voter. People are making decisions on who should be the most powerful leader in the world based on an advertisement. This is why Europeans fear the US. They know that the US Presidency is important to the whole world, and yet Americans don’t seem to take the business of choosing them very seriously (it’s more like entertainment and talk show fodder), with less than half even bothering to vote at all.
Rabidly unfair potshots at the French people (instead of at their government, which makes the decisions) make it hard for me to convince the French that some Americans are intelligent people. For example: Freedom Fries. The joke’s on the US, because fries come from Belgium, not France (French dressing, French toast and French Vanilla Coffee are three other things you will never find in France). On a sadder note, one French student I met had just returned from studying in the US, and told me how at the school she attended there was a student play that made fun of the French surrendering during WWII. She said it felt like a slap in the face. There are still many people alive in France who lost their entire families — brothers, fathers, sons, husbands. As many of the survivors of the World Trade Center disaster have said, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about any war, no matter how just, after witnessing so much death.
But do the Americans really hate the French?
During my trip I enjoyed the weak Euro to shop. I stocked up on some stuff like vitamins (a woman working at the shop asked me if France and Italy were free countries), cinnamon gum (which is either stronger than it used to be or my taste buds are more sensitive) and random pharmaceuticals. I also had some donuts, Oreos, cinnabun’s, soft prezels, and a box of TasteyKakes. A trip to the huge King of Prussia Mall revealed that Americans can now get almost everything you can get in France (except the food), only for much, much more. The price of French wine, decent olive oil, French clothing and cosmetics are at least twice as much in the US, sometimes more (the average bottle of drinkable wine in France is about $5, very good bottles can be as little as $15).
A strange phenomenon I noticed is the plethora of things that are advertised as French, but aren’t really French at all: flavored coffees (the only acceptable additions to French coffee are milk, cream, sugar or chocolate), soaps in scents that the French would never use (they hate the smell of cloves, for example), and over-cutesy home décor objects described as French Country. I have to admit, the French do the same thing (giving French products an American “look” to sell them). If Americans are willing to pay through the nose for authentic French imports, and even pretend things are French in order to sell them, then they can’t possibly hate the French as much as many are led to believe, right? Or is it just a case of liking the products but not the people? Of course, some of you may have noticed I criticized stereotypical Americans in this article while going on and on about yummy, American foods (including carbs, which I can still enjoy because I haven’t been brainwashed yet). My, what a strange world we live in…
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.