Becoming a Small Part of French History
If you’ve been reading recent Parler Paris Nouvellettres®, then you know that yesterday I went to the “Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires Etrangères” on the Quay d’Orsay to deliver a presentation on suggestions to the “Audition de la Mission Sport et Tourisme” on their “Mission de la Promotion du Tourisme” on how to make Americans feel welcome during the 2024 Olympics.
I prepared a five-page document, copied to hand out to the six principal players and then really didn’t know what to expect. Like any government building, protocol included a security check and an exchange of my passport for a visitor badge. The waiting room filled up with the others who were attending and on-the-dot of the time scheduled, the organizer of the meeting greeted us and asked us to follow her.
Down the long halls, up the grand staircase and through the elaborate Versailles-like rooms we followed in total silence. I dared not take photos along the way, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is as grand a French government building as one might imagine. I was the first to follow and the first to enter the conference room at the very far end of the building. Our trek took a good five minutes before we arrived. We shook hands “bonjour” with every person there, and took a seat around a long oval table with the usual gilded Napoleon III chairs.
I thought about what it must be like living in that world of French government and feeling French history by being a part of it. Then, I realized I WAS part of it, even in a very minuscule way. We were presented to a host of important players, such as the Minister of Sports, the Secretary of State to the Minister of Europe and Foreign affairs, the Director of Pierre et Vacances Loisirs, the Deputy of the 1st Constituency of Saône et Loire, the Vice President of the tourist office of Le Touquet and my friend and contact, the Director of the Welcome City Lab, Laurent Queige.
Each of the invitees made a presentation after being called on by one of the heads of the meeting. There was no order to whom was called or why. I listened intently, but caught only glimpses of what was said because each person spoke very quietly and very quickly, in French of course. No one projected their voices so all could hear. No one interrupted anyone else. No one moderated to say their time was up. They just let them speak as long as they each liked. A few questions were asked by the panel of each. I was wondering when I might be called. The scheduled ending time of the meet was long past and I was the last to be called upon. Why, I don’t know, but it seemed to be planned as I noticed that Laurent and the leader were motioning to a photo of one of the invitees on their printed agenda and it looked like it might have been me.
All this time, as I was listening to the others, I was thinking that my presentation wasn’t going to sound at all like anyone else’s and neither was my style of presentation. I broke into a little sweat. What should I do? Chuck it and wing it? I decided, no — Laurent had given a thumbs up to my presentation in advance and that’s what he expected to hear, so that’s what I was going to give.
I started out in French by apologizing for the fact that my presentation was in English, and that it was very different from the others. It would focused on the cultural differences and it targeted North Americans. I handed out my six copies so they could follow along and thought, “What the hell. What have I got to lose? If I make a fool of myself…so what?” And I was off and running.
First, I gave them a little background on who I was and why I was asked there to represent American tourists. That was already a big change from what they would have expected since none of the other invitees made any mention at all about themselves. I explained a bit about how I had survived in France by being entrepreneurial and how many hundreds of people I have helped move here or purchase property, which equated to many millions of euros in foreign investment. (Did they care? Maybe not!) And how I have owned four properties in France myself. It was “so American” of me to boast about my life in France and accomplishments; something the French would rarely do. I spoke loudly and clearly as if presenting before a much larger group and looked each person in the eye as I caught their gazes. Either they were going to like me or hate me. It was hard to tell.
They broke into smiles when I smiled and said, “I can honestly say that Americans love France. It is said that the Number One American dream is TO LIVE IN FRANCE!” That was a clue that maybe it was going to be just fine.
When I explained the difference between English Law and Napoleonic Code, they became more attentive and started to nod their heads. In the previous presentations, they talked a lot about improving customer service, so when I explained that “American customer service and sales people have a high sense of self-worth because making money is revered, while the sales personnel in France have exactly the opposite sense of self-worth because what they do is not revered, it might have struck home that they need to make people who are responsible for sales feel good about what they do and that it will translate and filter down to the customer.
I brought the book “The Bonjour Effect” with me to show them and when I explained that if I approach someone and say “Excusez-moi de vous déranger,” without having first said “Bonjour,” inevitably that person will stop me and say “Bonjour Madame,” and then wait for me to say it before answering my question. That’s when I got a big laugh. They knew it to be true!
I went on to say, “For them, formalities like this are a waste of time. It doesn’t mean Americans are rude. In fact, it means they are doing you a favor!” Another chuckle ensued.
I expected a much bigger laugh when I talked about Americans being honest people, using George Washington, Honest Abe Lincoln and Ex-President Bill Clinton, who was impeached on perjury charges, as examples. Maybe they didn’t quite understand the word “perjury,” but that led me perfectly into a diatribe on how Americans don’t want to break any rules by renting unregistered apartments, or renting out their own Paris apartments against current city regulations, and how Americans want to have a deeper experience by staying in apartments rather than hotels. “Yes,” I said, “that needs to change if you want to welcome Americans to France. Why should the owners allow these apartments to remain vacant when they will need the accommodations?”
The whole demeanor in the room changed as I went through my presentation and that pleased me. The once very solemn, sober affair had turned lighter and I could see them smiling and nodding their heads in agreement. I suggested they try to remove overt police presence because Americans feel safer carrying guns, than facing the threat of terrorism — that the armed police on the streets reminds them of terrorist threats and plain clothes cops should replace them.
One of the leaders asked in jest, “Do you mean they will come with their guns to France?!”
“Bien sûr que non!” I exclaimed.
I talked about cleaning up the city and that got a good outburst. I rattled off ways of doing that: reduce littering…not throw cigarette butts on the streets…pick up after their pets…deter pissing on the streets…clean up public restrooms – add toilet seat covers…reduce the number of homeless…spruce up their windows with flowers…to which they agreed.
One of the other invitees had spoken about making it easy for tourists to maneuver the transportation systems, so I reiterated his sentiments for better signage, helpers at the stations who speak English, making buying tickets easier, providing maps and guidance…A free flow of information, I said, was a great way of making Americans feel more welcoming. Don’t just answer the question that was asked! Americans don’t always know the right questions to ask, so, please provide the maximum answers and solutions to the problem. I’m not sure they even realize that they do this. How about providing a Welcome Center with volunteers who are there to answer questions and assist in any way possible.
I smiled really big when I told them that Americans are taught to smile from birth. That smiling is not silly – it is friendly and for them to smile even if they think it’s false. Smiling makes the visitor think you’re happy he’s there!, I explained.
And nothing ruins a visit to a city more than being “violated” by a pickpocketer. Find ways to reduce it. Have more signage in English. It is the universal language after all. And teach the visitors some French in the process, I suggested.
The biggest laugh of all was when I claimed that we have been studying the cultural differences between us for decades. That there are hundreds of books written for Americans about the subject, and even though I’ve read most of them, after living here more than 23 years, I am still baffled by our cultural clashes.
In conclusion, the point was that if they could understand and accept the cultural differences on a broad scale, that it would bring us all closer together and they could solve their quest of how to welcome Americans to France.
And there it was. I had done what I had set out to do and remained relatively unscathed. Yep, it was a very different presentation than the others had made, who didn’t have anything formally prepared like I had. The whole style was as different as the two cultures.
The committee asked me a few very good questions. One wanted to understand a bit better my notion of the difference in our organizational structures and how the pyramidal form vs the star form allows the power to filter down so that the people at the bottom are empowered to make a difference. This way, the people on the points of the star don’t have to revert back to the “résponsable” to get a decision. They asked if Americans travel in groups or independently and if they have money with which to travel.
“No, they are very independent,” I said. “They go online and book everything themselves.”
To answer their question about money, I said, “Yes, they have lots of money. Americans work very hard. They work 50 weeks a year to pay for their children’s college education and high cost of health care. They don’t have the safety net you have, but they make money and like to travel well.”
They wanted to know if Americans came for the Olympic games, would they want to see more of France?
“Mais, oui!” I exclaimed. They will have spent a lot on air fare and taken lots of time, so will want to make most of their trip.
“And what areas of the country do they love most?” they wanted to know.
“Top of the list is Paris. Then, Normandy for the history of World War II, Provence for Provence, Bordeaux for the wine, and Champagne and Burgundy, too. The Côte d’Azur, of course.
“The meeting ran 30 minutes overtime and I was those last 30 minutes. I hope they thought it was worth it. I thanked them and left the meeting first shaking a few hands as I said good-byes and gave Laurent a kiss on both cheeks.
“I hope it was well received, Laurent.”
He texted me later, “Are you kidding? Your presentation was perfect! It is exactly what I expected from you: another point of view from someone who knows what our American visitors need when they stay in Paris. You can be proud of your presentation. THANK YOU!”
“Laurent, I was worried about how they would take it, too. But in the end, I saw them smiling, laughing and nodding their heads in agreement with me on some points.”
“Yes, indeed,” he wrote. “That was a good sign. Now the challenge for me is to get your suggestions integrated in our report!”
Wow, I thought gleaming with pride! I became a small part of French history yesterday, even in a very minuscule way.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
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