August 25, 2004

Drove My Chevy To The Levy

Two incidents, remarkably spaced over time, underscore something that I just now thought of. I finally put two and two together. Indulge me for a moment.

In 1984, I spent a few weeks in Europe. Three days were spent wandering around Paris (and no, I'm not ancient - it was a family vacation). We took the hovercraft over from England, quickly dropped our bags in the hotel and went wandering up the Champs Elysees. My first memory of Paris isn't the airport or the subway or any of the landmarks you see in guidebooks. My first memory is of an ordinary Frenchman strumming an ordinary guitar, pacing across a slice of sidewalk singing Don McLean's American Pie.

Twenty years later, I returned to Paris, going so far as to stay in the same hotel. Things looked remarkably similar. Paris is an easy city to feel comfortable in. Following an aborted attempt to climb to the top of Notre Dame (I'm not great with wife soldiered on), I sat on a bench and watched the sun set and the lights around the cathedral come alive. Lost in some post-traumatic meditation, smoking a cigarette, I was immediately accosted by a drunk, scruffy homeless Frenchman. He was clearly wearing all he owned which wasn't much. Bottle of wine - cheap, syrupy and red - in hand, he sat down next to me.

Him: Whats your name?
Me: Chris. And you?
Him: Paul.
Me: Its a pleasure to meet you.
Paul: Yes. Where are you from?
Me: The United States
Paul: Fucking Bush!
Me: Yes. Fucking Bush.
Paul: You go to Washington DC and you eject him!
Me: I live in Washington DC. Hopefully we'll all eject him.
Paul: Fucking Bush. Fuck George Bush!
Me: Yep. Fuck George Bush.
Paul: I must go bother more people. Would you like a drink?
Me: No, Paul. That's okay.
Paul: You remember what wise Frenchman Paul told you, right?
Me: Fuck George Bush?
Paul: Fuck George Bush!

I won't make any excuses - I have readers on both sides of the political aisle and I appreciate that. Each and everyone of you is entitled to your opinion...and perfectly well within your rights to bash mine. But I've got to tell you, I didn't really disagree with my new friend Paul. I mean, I was right there with him. I shouted almost as loud as he did. Fists were raised. It was an anthem, a revolution! Or just a drunk homeless guy and an acrophobic American hanging out in front of Notre Dame.

What bothered me most, however, was that this was the way Americans get viewed and judged. If nothing else, we're truly a society that is judged by its leaders and the actions they take. In the span of 20 years, I went from hearing American Pie echo through the vast Champs Elysees to screams of "Fucking Bush" outside Notre Dame. Am I the only one, the only American, who feels a bit misunderstood? A bit frustrated?

Posted by Chris at August 25, 2004 12:00 PM

Cool story.

And that's just how we learn - we compartmentalize people & things. When you described Paul, I pictured a scruffy old man, wearing a beret, carrying a bottle of cheap wine encased in a paper bag. Probably not an accurate description, but that's what "Drunk Homeless Parisian" conjures for me.

And yeah, "Fucking Bush" is what the world thinks when they see Americans. Makes me wish they could vote in November!

Posted by: Princess at August 25, 2004 12:09 PM

It's sad but true. And when you think of the perception that most Americans have of the French, that's a little disheartening as well. Just a lot of misunderstoods going around.

Posted by: Hudson at August 25, 2004 12:15 PM

Yeah, I agree. I was just in Europe, and I saw lots of anti-American and anti-Bush graffiti everywhere. I knew that every time I opened my mouth and people heard my American accent, they'd associate me with Bush, the war in Iraq, and so on. Every day, I wished I was wearing some anti-Bush t-shirt or hat or something so I could tell everyone that I hate Bush and the war just as much as they do.

Posted by: Claire at August 25, 2004 12:17 PM

Great post.

Posted by: Jenny at August 25, 2004 12:18 PM

i'm a bit misunderstood; a bit frustrated. politics aside.

Posted by: type a at August 25, 2004 12:26 PM

one reason I like you, Mr. Cactus, is that you took the time to talk to Homeless French Paul. Me? I would have been squeamish, thinking he was going to murder me with some fabulous French knives or something.

but yes, I know the anti Bush hype is huge overseas. I wish it was bigger here. AND I VOTED FOR HIM IN THE LAST ELECTION. I won't this time.

great post!

Posted by: samantha at August 25, 2004 12:40 PM

Well it's any consilation I am a Canadian and we are misunderstoon ALL THE TIME.
Example: We do not live in Igloos.
Example: We do not win gold medals.


Posted by: Another Pam at August 25, 2004 12:43 PM

Well I guess hating GB is a world-wide unifier.

Posted by: Oliquig at August 25, 2004 12:47 PM

Nope, you're not the only one. I have a close family friend who was in Paris just last month and she is so obviously American as soon as she opens her mouth - she's from the deep South and couldn't hide her accent if she tried! She's also fluent in French and was still treated very poorly the entire time she was there. She was frustrated and misunderstood as well! AND she happens to be one of the sweetest people on the planet. It was an interesting time for her - she still wants to back, but her eyes will be open a little wider this time.

Posted by: Sue at August 25, 2004 12:51 PM

I think everyone in every country feels misunderstood. I don't know any French people for instance, so Ic an't say for sure how they reallly feel. But the French are not the favorite people of many. And I don't just mean within the US. I hear a lot of less than favourable things about the French here too I'm sure they feel the same way you do, about being misunderstood.

But I know what you mean. Especially living as an American abroad I get a lot of questions, accusations and so on. It is frustrating at times. But I think we misundertstand a lot of people too.

Posted by: Tjej at August 25, 2004 1:31 PM

Wow, I didn't know Pam didn't live in an igloo. Seriously, last year Laura and I went to the Dominican Republic. We were there when the war began and the Dominicans HATE Bush (and his father) and are not shy about voicing it. They kept asking us WHY would we vote someone into office like that and then his son also. I have to say, I agreed with them wholeheartedly.

Posted by: debby at August 25, 2004 1:52 PM

And thank you Sir Cactus for now I have been singing American Pie since I read this post.

Posted by: Another Pam at August 25, 2004 2:04 PM

I seriously am starting to feel joyus that I am not old enough to vote. All this crap about presidents, countries and shit makes me want to just take up residence in some unknown place with no TV or any form of communication.

Sounds like a plan.

Posted by: Maureen at August 25, 2004 2:08 PM

So true. People believe what they see and read and hear. I am sure that the average American isn't well represented in the media. Why would they care? I spent some time in Strassburg, and the people were wonderful. They were friendly. They treated my wife and I like we were one of them. Politics aside, people are people. Good and bad. We get them on both sides of the pond. I felt more alone in Germany, and they have had americans among them for nearly sixty years now.

Posted by: Strode at August 25, 2004 2:23 PM

hey i think i met him! except i was in a bar in nyc and he just said "fuck 'em all!" but he was likewise as enthusiastic about it.
also sounds like you had a much better paris experience than i had.

Posted by: andrea at August 25, 2004 2:27 PM

One of my favorite memories of Paris is of a guy playing Eric Clapton's Cocaine on the street in Montmartre. Which doesn't really have anything to do with your point, but I had to mention it anyway.

And yes, we've gone from "Nous sommes tous Americains" on the cover of Le Monde after 9/11 to everyone in Europe hating George Bush and by extension, Americans, because of his actions as president. I can't disagree with Monsieur Paul either.

Posted by: hilldery at August 25, 2004 2:34 PM

i always thought acrophobia was fear of circus acrobats.
(i'm keeping my mouth shut about my opinions of GWB and the french)

Posted by: monique at August 25, 2004 2:34 PM

Being on the cruise ship last week, with people from 52 different countries represented, I kind of wondered how things didn't feel more strained.

After all, 1,700 people on the ship were from Texas, and Texans tend to be conservative. Add that in with all of the employees from countries all over the world who have some good reasons to be upset with the US right now, and I was surprised not to find any tension.

Everyone just avoided talking about politics I suppose. I know with that many Texans around, I sure did. And heck, I'm one of them!

Posted by: Kerry at August 25, 2004 2:53 PM

It is Bush who should feel misunderstood.

I am very frustrated by many aspects of the current political climate though, on that we can agree. I do know that what frustrates me would be very different than from what frustrates you, based on this post alone.

Posted by: Bond Girl at August 25, 2004 3:47 PM

So stereotypes aren't just an American thing? Hmm.

Posted by: ben at August 25, 2004 3:56 PM

I too have American Pie stuck in my head now. Also, I hope to eventually go to France and am glad that I'm Canadian and fluent in French. Hopefully I shouldn't have too many problems.

Posted by: Heather at August 25, 2004 4:59 PM

Awesome post!

and.. do you really care about the opinions of people that judge a HUGE country like the US based on the actions of ONE idiot?

(does the JLB gets a digi brother.. FGB?)

Posted by: Sweety at August 25, 2004 5:11 PM

We often give enough ammunition to the world to fuel their misunderstandings... And the French? They don't give a F*** about what anyone thinks about them ~ they're French!

Posted by: Amber at August 25, 2004 5:26 PM

suck it up, chris... come on -- the ebb and flow of life, and all that stuff -- you were in Paris -- the la la land of the east...

but i agree with your knew friend...

where's my guitar?...

Posted by: Bob at August 25, 2004 7:12 PM

this week, during orientation, the international students were so shocked that we Americans could do things like...

1. make an intelligent argument.
2. identify their home countries on the map and their capitals.
3. speak more than two languages.

no, we don't all drink beer on our couches. for one, i don't have a couch, thank you.

Posted by: alektra at August 25, 2004 9:20 PM

Nope, you're not wrong. And it's really something only those of us who have spent any time outside the United States can truly understand. Having lived for 14 years overseas, I know exactly what you mean. It's hard to illustrate to people who've never left the comfort of home. But you did a good job. :)

Posted by: Iki at August 26, 2004 1:30 AM

Are you the only one who feels misunderstood? Frustrated? Of course not. It's just easy to feel that way when there isn't always the confirmation of others to tell you that you aren't crazy.

Well, of course, you ARE crazy, but not in the way I'm referring to right now. :)

Posted by: Zandria at August 26, 2004 5:40 AM

fuck george bush and fucking american pie is now stuck in my head for the duration.

Posted by: laura at August 26, 2004 9:24 AM