Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Vive la Francaise

I owe the French an apology. Yes, the French have a reputation for snootiness. But individually, the French are extremely polite – even if you speak English, which sounds to them like tin cans tied to the bumper of a honeymooner’s car.

French cultural identityPerhaps more than any other European country, the French guard their cultural identity. They resist intrusions, even though they have relented and let in McDonald’s, Starbucks, the Ellen Show and Disneyland. Guarding your culture can appear pretentious to the rest of the world that seems to disdain culture, especially in America where people feel the need to re-invent culture every six months.

Spending a few days in Paris, listening to the hum of French spoken at cafés and on the Metro, reinforces why French people – not just the government or the word police – cling to the language. It has a unique beauty. It helps define what it means to be French.

Our Apartment

Our Paris apartment for a week

For an American, much of the French language that describes food and drink is very understandable. We’ve embraced so many French words and their antecedents in our culture – and are the better for it, even if our croissants aren’t quite as perfect as the real thing in France.

While French waiters and taxicab drivers aren’t tickled when you speak to them in English, they are polite enough. Some even go more than halfway in verbal exchanges, replacing their enchanting “bonjour” with our “have a good day.”

If a French person accidentally bumps into you in an elevator or on a stairway, they immediately will say “pardon.” That’s not something you hear often in the bustle of American streets and staircases.

The French have succumbed, like just about everyone else on earth, to constant contact with their smartphone. But on buses and subways, you are just as likely to see French people reading real books not electronic readers.

In Paris, you see far fewer tattoos and almost no one with artificially blue or orange hair. Young girls regrettably wear the same awful pre-torn jeans, but don’t seem to pierce their ears. Smoking is more prevalent. People recycle beverage containers in large public receptacles. No one is very tall. Everyone seems to prefer black clothing.

The French, of course, have their problems. There is a pickpocket epidemic in Paris. Warnings are everywhere. You feel as if you need to padlock your valuables to your waist.

Word on the street is that crime on the street is a lot worse because of the French minister of justice’s decision to skip sending people to prison if their crimes warrant less than a 5-year sentence. The Paris police staged a massive protest of the policy the day we arrived. One officer described how he had arrested the same pickpocket multiple times, only to see him out on the street after a day or two, laughing at him.

The French also give living testament that good luck is often better than great strategy. Take the Louvre, for example. It served for centuries as the royal residence until Louis XIV, the Sun King, decided to move to Versailles. That left a choice piece of riverside real estate and a huge palace sitting empty. It wasn’t until the French Revolution that someone came up with the idea of making the Louvre a public place – because, after all, it already had a bunch of pictures and sculptures. And that was before Napoleon’s exploits sharply expanded the portfolio.

Eiffel Tower at Night

Eiffel Tower from our apartment window

Then there is the iconic Eiffel Tower. Its design won the competition for serving as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris (it beat out some offbeat ideas, including a proposed 300-meter-tall guillotine).

However, French authorities failed to set aside no money to construct Gustave Eiffel’s gigantic metal contraption, which in today’s currency would have cost $18 million to build. Eiffel was undeterred and proposed to self-finance the tower in return for an exclusive 20-year right to collect all proceeds the tower generated. He paid off the construction loans in six months and made a fortune in the next 19 1/2 years on what at the time was the tallest structure in the world, eclipsing the just completed Washington Monument.

When Eiffel’s contract expired, Frenchmen were in a quandary over what to do with the huge tower, which originally was supposed to be taken down after the world’s fair. The government dawdled until World War I dawned. Eiffel, who apparently was fascinated with technology, had turned his creation into an antenna tower. When the French military saw the value of using the tower to track German troop movements, they claimed control of the Tower and it was saved.

The rest is history. Seven million people scale the Tower by elevator or stairs every year. And they call it the Eiffel Tower, even though the Tower was never was given a formal name. After all, it was supposed to be deconstructed.

Closeup of Carole at Tower

Carole Hebert Conkling

So, excusez-moi for all the snarky things I’ve said over the years about the French. Who could think ill of people who procrastinated on tearing down an icon or figured why waste a bunch of royal treasures in a bonfire?

And merci beaucoup for my beautiful French wife. I’m guessing we’ll be back to Paris, so keep a baguette warm for our return, s’il vous plait.

 

 

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