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May 08, 2020

“Ernest, the French aren't like you and me...”

“Yes, they have more class.”

--With apologies to the famous Fitzgerald-Hemingway exchange.


Like their natural enemy the English, the French are of course wonderful--but neither nation's citizens are openly "friendly." When the English and French encounter Yanks abroad, they can't get why Americans are so outgoing, or why they would even want to be. Many Americans (I am one of them) are openly curious, warm and effusive everywhere they go. It can be mildly disruptive. We Yanks do like to chatter a bit and ask questions. Most Northern Europeans, on the other hand, would rather choke to death than ask a question about anything, and routinely bristle at at the overly-familiar tone they associate with American tourists and businessmen.

This is especially true of Brits and the French. Sure, the English, who are more more relaxed and self-deprecating than the French, are getting better at chit-chat and we've been seeing this for years in customer service at the retail level in England's biggest cities (even in London) and villages. But a Parisian shop, store or hotel employee is still likely to treat basic customer service as horribly degrading to his or her person-hood. I.e., "I know it's my job, madame, but I will keep my distance still." Despite my own English roots--I've got smaller bits of German, Welsh, Irish and French, and dabs of any of the four can make you hopelessly eccentric and irritating in completely different ways--the French are my still favorite. They are flirtatious and serious, volatile and sturdy, civilized and feral, logical and irrational. But they do want their children of all social classes steeped in the best of Western culture.

Art, the Humanities and the Great Ideas is a necessity, not a luxury. The French, British Francophile Julian Barnes writes, are “designed by God to seem as provokingly dissimilar from the British as possible. Catholic, Cartesian, Mediterranean; Machiavellian in politics, Jesuitical in argument, Casanovan in sex; relaxed about pleasure, and treating the arts as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels.”

So the humanities, ideas and old verities from great men and women now gone are essential for living and enjoying life as a Whole Person. Art isn't just for the rich, the elite or the intellectual. Moreover, the French are not runners and cowards--don't make the mistake of buying into the notion that they shrink from adversity. Throughout most of their history, they've been calculating, competitive, courageous and war-like. They are intelligently patriotic. And they'll beat you with argument, and arms, if they have to. But their real gods are Reason and Art. My sense is that, in the next few decades, the French will manage to save us all from ourselves, as they can be counted on to remind humans of what's important--and who we all really are.

Watch them.

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Original Post: March 6, 2009

Posted by JD Hull at May 8, 2020 10:00 AM

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