Sanctimony and Self-Loathing in Paris
By Grant Rosenberg

On the day that the U.S. retaliations for the September 11 th attacks began, I was visiting a German friend in Hamburg. We watched CNN as information scrolled across the bottom of the screen, telling Americans abroad to be on alert, limit movement and stay in contact with American embassies. This State Department-issued travel advisory also warned travelers not to attract attention on the streets by ‘‘acting or dressing overtly American,’’ or words to that effect. At the time, in the hysteria of world events, it seemed like prudent advice, if a bit unwarranted in hindsight, at least over the course of the last two months.

Since returning to Paris a few days after that day, I have often thought about exactly what that phrase means. If someone is quintessentially American, my mind’s eye conjures up two images, at least for males:

  • A loud, buff young man with a logo’d t-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap covering short sandy brown hair—a description of most guys in the MTV Spring Break crowd.
  • A tall man in a suit with a formal, inauthentic voice, a deep guffaw reserved for jokes of a ribald nature when he is not being serious, with a perfectly bland but pleasant face and short, non-descript hair. In other words, any caucasian local news anchorman.

Not by a longshot are these descriptions accurate as to who comprises the 140 million male population in the United States. But, tellingly, it does represent a large portion of those who backpack through Europe and work at American companies setting up shop on this continent. Essentially, it breaks down to the fact that these are our cultural emissaries. Most Europeans see these types of people in restaurants and on the streets of European cities; they do not see the people who make up the majority of the American populace, those who cannot afford to travel outside the country, who give the country most of its character and history—the very ones whose stories are told in our best novels, art and music and art in general. No, instead the Americans most often here are those of broad Americana, shouting "Hey Brian, we’ll be waiting outside, ‘kay dude?" across the Internet cafe. I blanch even as I type those words, remembering the way I slithered down in my seat, lest I be confused with Brian. But why? What is wrong with being confused with Brian ? What is inherently wrong with speaking in the same volume as the French 20-somethings around us? Where is this shame coming from ?

For starters , it is the mere fact of being monoglots. And if the American educational system would make some changes such as teaching mandatory Spanish beginning in 1st grade, then our stock would probably rise in the eyes of the rest of the citizens of the planet. But alas, we are only taught a foreign language in high school, and most see it simply as another class with homework to blow off. This is the problem with natively speaking the de facto language of international communication. If Madonna’s songs and the Star Wars movies were in another tongue that would undoubtedly change our attitude as youngsters in a foreign language course. We would jump for that key that unlocks the hippest of pop culture.

Secondly, we often have a certain way of speaking. Most people do not have a New York or Chicago accent anymore, but, given the urban sprawl of the last thirty years, a rather geographically non-specific suburban cadence can be heard as a sing-songy lilt or a bit of stoner-speak. And on top of all this, our own brand of friendliness, marked by an informality with strangers and particularly store and restaurant staff, appears insolent in a culture where there are two different forms for every verb, depending on how well one knows the person with whom you are speaking.

Johnny Depp, a part-time Paris resident, appeared on the Tonight Show a few years back. Responding to Leno’s question of whether the French really disliked Americans, he rhetorically stated that if you were spoken to boisterously by a gregarious fellow with Euro-Disney Mickey Mouse ears on his head, how much respect would you have for him.

So okay, there is sometimes a lack of interest in the intellectual passions of a grad student bookworm or sublety in a well-meaning, excited tourist family. Why is it such an issue? Why not revel in the joie de vivre of my countrymen, and not care a fig for what these others think? Why do I try to keep English conversations in low tones? Why, when in the sudden presence of Americans in public do I instruct my friends to speak to me in French only, even if I am lost in the conversation? Are these tourists a mirror that I don’t want to look at?

David Sedaris nails these thoughts succintly in his essay, ‘‘Picka Pocketoni’’ in Me Talk Pretty One Day. He recounts an American couple on the Metro with him, where the man ingnorantly pontificates about French culture, and insults Sedaris to his face under the impression that he was a Frenchman who spoke no English. Sedaris writes,

‘ American in Paris will find no harsher critic than another American. France isn’t even my country, but there I was deciding that these people needed to be sent back home, preferably in chains. In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.’’


In coming here, particularly those who want to stay awhile, it is a reverse of the pride we feel in not assimilating in the U.S. It seems rather interesting; we frown on the immigrants who left Europe a century ago for North America, changing their names and leaving behind languages and customs. But when that journey is reversed, generations later, assimilation is the goal, and one that we are proud of attempting, no hint of irony present.

And like a good guest, we sometimes want to prove our worth to our hosts. This is a polite gesture, but one that should have its own Congressional Hearings, lest it go too far into the realm of boot-licking. A combination of kow-towing and redress, atoning for the sins of our countrymen who land on this continent armed with phrases like, "You think we can do Paris in two days?" and the assumption that everyone speaks English, and if they don’t they are being rude.

At parties I find I tire myself trying to prove that I am a bit less ‘Americentric’ than other Americans until a point in the evening comes when I am tired of feeling I have to prove anything. In a different essay in Me Talk Pretty One Day, called ‘‘I Pledge Allegiance To the Bag,’’ Sedaris writes,

‘‘like me, my American friends are often called upon to defend their country, usually at dinner parties where everyone’s had too much to drink. The United States will have done something the French don’t like, and people will behave as though it’s all my fault. I’m always taken off guard when a hostess accuses me of unfairly taxing her beef. Wait a minute, I think. Did I do that?

Eventually, I unwittingly enter conversations that quickly become about American policy or my country’s ridiculous number of laws on the books. Not a few times has someone passive-aggressively said, ‘‘Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this because I don’t want to offend you, but.…’’ Which in turn brings about the smug desire to prove that this person can take off the kid gloves because surely they don’t realize it is I, not him or her, who is the larger critic of the United States government’s historical and corporate practices. And the sanctimonious checklist ensues: voted for Nader, reads Howard Zinn, Adbusters and Guerrilla News mailing lists, hates Starbucks, Coca Cola, McDonalds, et al. Inevitably, the conversation turns, and I get fired up and angry at hasty generalizations about my country, and try to think of something bad to say about France aside from the tiresome complaint of dogshit smackdab in the middle of the sidewalk. Colonization accusations, charges of benefitting from U.S. Hegemony while badmouthing it to free oneself of the guilt, topped off with a vague but pointed zinger about the Vichy government. I hate myself at this point, and it is evident that we are headed toward mutually-assured destruction, the only thing that keeps these battles in check. And sometimes I am not so lucky, as when I am informed of some part of my own history or government policy of which I was heretofore unaware or had forgotten (‘‘wait a minute, which amendment is that?’’).

Of course, these evenings end in laughs and back-pats and more alcohol, as if some rite of passage has just transpired. But it should not obscure the fact that one travels to other continents for the simple reason of seeing other places. And for us, unlike other citizens of the world, there is the culture shock of actually experiencing the non-U.S. world. The lack of general foreign news coverage in American journalism only aggravates this problem and contributes to ignorance and even an innocently isolationist view, whereas many other countries devote a portion of their broadcast to what the White House did that day. And how can the people of these other countries not be irked when they read the statistics of the single digit percent of Americans who can find Japan or Equador on a map?


There is no doubt that these issues of one’s place here is a stew of personal goals, respect for the host culture, and a touch or more of insecurity and guilt—personal, perhaps—but also as members of a nation oft-maligned. At the height of my French-speaking two years ago, a taxi driver asked, after a discussion of Chicago, how long I had been living in the U.S. I assumed I didn’t understand the question and he asked again. ‘‘All my life,’’ I responded. He replied, ‘‘oh, I didnt realize you were actually American.’’ He didn’t think I was French, but possibly German. I could not have been more flattered if I was Zelig himself. But rather than want to be someone else, I was bent on being exactly who I was, a multi-lingual (if a bit deluded on account of my being barely two months into the language) positive role model and representative of my nation. This snowballed into a self-aggrandizing, erzatz version of Superman’s first day after leaving the Fortress of Solitude. Within a few hours, I found myself on an overcrowded train, in the foyer, sitting next to a senior citizen couple in the fold-out seats. A young french girl lit a cigarette and an old lady asked the girl to kindly put it out, as it was bothersome to her husband’s lung condition. The girl pointed up to the sign that indicated that the foyer was a smoking area. The lady was of course incensed, and eventually the girl left in a huff. I looked over sympathetically to this old French couple. ‘‘The youth,’’ I (all of 24 at the time) said, shaking my head in disapproval. I wanted to follow it up with something like, ‘‘such insolence! The young ones these days have no respect for their elders, nor common sense or compassion,’’ but this was all well beyond my vocabulary skills. Still, I was the old woman’s best friend now, and our ensuing two-minute basic conversation was so inspiring that I actually became Superman, helping people across the street, aiding travelers in the train station who had heavy bags, being certain to speak French to them and deliberately showcasing my Americanness through my accent—yet with just the right amount of proper pronunciation that they should be impressed. I even gave street directions, which surely proved to be inaccurate, but they couldn’t fault me for trying. No, not Superman; I was ‘‘,’’ U.S. Public Relations spokesman, dedicated to destroying all the stereotypes of Americans in a single bound, and ready to lead a discussion about French political theory to boot—although some late minute cramming would be necessary for that, of course.

One American friend living in Paris for half a decade, who speaks French fluently, recently told me that he doesn’t want to lose his slight middle America accent. He feels it preserves his identity, and I think he has the right idea about all this. When he walks down the street in a pea coat, baggy khakis and a baseball cap, he is an American, dammit, and his French dog that is crapping in the middle of the sidewalk makes us proud.