I just got back from a week in Paris. Yes, Paris. I know, I know.
Before I left, my father warned me to “pack my suit of armor.” A coworker told me to stay away from “suspicious looking men in berets,” and my liberal friends mocked me with glee. “What? No boycott? You’re going to visit ‘Freedom’? Be sure to have some ‘Freedom’ wine with your ‘Freedom’ cheese!”
I did, I admit, feel guilty about breaking the boycott. But as I was visiting old friends, I swallowed my shame, packed my bags, and hopped a plane to the land of unending cigarette smoke. And, after a week, I’m happy to report that we have nothing to fear from the French — and certainly not from their protester fans here at home.
After months of bombardment by the media, I went to Paris braced for confrontation. If anyone wanted to argue with me, I was more than ready. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance. Paris was sunny, clear, quiet, and wimpy. In fact, I got the distinct impression that I could have marched down the Champs-Elysees, planted American flags every ten feet, done an interpretive dance to “Stars and Stripes Forever” in the middle of the street, and not elicited a word of protest.
Instead of anti-American graffiti, I found a spray-painted homage to Snoop Doggy Dogg. Instead of anti-Bush fliers, I saw posters for American movies. In fact, the only graffiti dissent I witnessed was a hastily scrawled “Yankee Go Home” on a Pizza Hut ad — and, to be fair, the ad was for an absolutely terrifying-looking “Grand Canyon Pizza” with tortilla chips glommed on enough cheese to choke a horse. Even a French, cheese-loving horse, and that says something.
I ate in restaurants, visited museums, bars, and cafes, all while speaking English, and, at times, speaking about the war — and after a week in enemy territory, I was harassed exactly twice.
The first episode happened in a Moroccan restaurant in a hip Parisian neighborhood. My two American friends and I waltzed in, ordered some Tunisian wine (ahem), and before I knew it, a fifty-something Frenchman was whispering sweet French nothings in my friend Mary’s ear. That is, I thought they were sweet French nothings, until I heard one word: “Boosh! President Boosh!” I looked at his face. He wasn’t flirting. I asked Mary what he was saying.
Always tactful, Mary hesitated. “Well,” she said, “He wants to know what we think of the war.” She paused again. “Um, and he wonders what we Americans are doing in this Moroccan restaurant, considering that we hate Arabs so much.”
I stared at him. He stared back. Then I leaned forward, speaking very slowly. “I. Love. Boooosh!” His face twitched, and for a moment it looked like he was about to fall off of his chair. Then he turned around and left us alone.
The French, it seems, are not so big on confrontation, or, in this man’s case, logical argument. As a Grand Canyon Pizza eater might say, he was all hat, and no cattle.
My experiences in Paris reminded me of the American anti-war protesters I know, who, as the war moves on, shout a message that is increasingly incoherent and continues to lose steam. I recently had lunch with a wildly enthusiastic Rockefeller Center “die-in” participant, and to my surprise, she kept agreeing with me. She agreed that most protester signs were meaningless. She agreed that “No Blood for Oil” wasn’t an effective or sophisticated antiwar message. When I suggested that she could do a better job of making her point, she blandly nodded her head.
“When you protest,” I suggested, “why don’t you get a real message out there? I think you should start demanding that Bush will keep his promises after we win the war in Iraq. I mean, aren’t you for the rights of the Iraqi people? Don’t you want to see justice applied? Why don’t you adjust your protests to current events?”
My friend took a bite of her hamburger, chewed, and shook her head. “Nah,” she said. “I don’t think we could get anybody out on the street for that one. It’s too confusing.” She paused. “But the die-in was really cool.”
Did the French ever really mean the obnoxious things they said? Based on my week in Paris, maybe, maybe not — but if they did, it doesn’t matter, because they’re not going to back their statements with action. It’s amazing what a few falling statues and cheering crowds will do. As fast as lightning, Chirac has thrown away his Prophet of Doom costume. He’s making speeches, praising the fall of Saddam’s Iraq. It will be fascinating to see how his friends, the protesters, will respond in turn.
On the last day of my Paris trip, I faced my second episode of French harassment. My friends and I boarded the Metro for the Eiffel Tower, chatting and laughing, and a short, unshaven man sidled up to us. “Americans…Americans,” he muttered. Then he lifted up his shirt to proudly reveal his lack of pants — or underwear. “Vive la France! Ha ha ha!”
We shrieked and scuttled away, and when we reached a safe distance, I turned around for a good look at our offender. As he boarded the train, grinning, I saw that the Anti-American Vive La France Flasher was decked out brand new Nikes and a Chicago Bulls jersey.
Vive la France, indeed.
— Heather Wilhelm is a writer in New York.