Today I found out Polly Platt, the American-born writer, consultant, and tireless champion of cross-cultural understanding, passed away on December 26, 2008 in Vienna. It’s a very sad moment for me, because Polly Platt gave me my first real introduction to France when I first arrived over 13 years ago with her book “French or Foe?” in my suitcase. I had never been out of the US before, except to Mexico, and since I grew up in Arizona, I don’t think that counts. I arrived in 1995, during a stressful time in Parisian history marked by metro bombings and one of the longest transportation strikes since May 1968. I was placed with a French family for the school year who spoke no English, and even though I had over eight years of school French under my belt, I could hardly communicate. I didn’t think it was culture shock at the time. But Polly’s book — which explained why I shouldn’t smile at strangers in public, what to expect in terms of customer service, and how to avoid making a complete idiot of myself at a French dinner party, among other things — was like a life raft of information in what seemed to be a bewildering place at the time.
Perhaps her help is even what guided me to my current career of helping Americans and other visitors understand the French the way I now do, to enjoy Paris like the locals, to overcome the myths and stereotypes that cause so much misunderstanding on both sides. Like most expatriates living outside our home country, I’m like a mini ambassador of goodwill between the French and the Americans. But Polly paved the way, and continued to do so throughout her life in France. I was finally lucky enough to meet her about five years ago, when I wrote an article about her seminars on cross-cultural understanding. She was so full of fascinating anecdotes and great advice.
Polly left a lasting impression on my life, and I know I am not the only Francophile in the world who won’t forget her. Read a lovely tribute to Polly by a close friend and colleague — and also a Polly — on the blog Polly-vous Français?