As soon as the French became indifferent to the joys of chewing gum, and independent of the need for American cigarettes, whitewashed signs began to be scrawled on the walls of Paris: US GO HOME.
The story goes that one of these declarations, still to be seen near the US base at Chateauroux, was traced in a trembling hand by a nocturnal chauvinist who suddenly found himself joined by a six-foot-two air force sergeant who amiably supervised the spelling.
Now the Americans are definitely going home, after more than two score years’ residence, and the French magazines which have set out to record the influence the French and American communities have had on each other over this period have come up against the embarrassing truth that there is no trace of an influence; no impact outside casual eroticism or a fight in a bar. No two nationalities could be more perfectly equipped for unconsummated, chaste cohabitation than the Americans and the French. The Americans bring their way of life with them; the French cannot tolerate any way of life other than their own. The American idea of making a real effort to expand socially generally degenerates into the equivalent of transplanting the office party to the home; the idea of having anything but a family party in his home would make most French men shudder. Both regard speaking foreign languages as some sort of funny but grotesque and fatiguing weekend game – like rugby on roller skates.
The classic French gesture of hospitality – an invitation to a formidable family dinner– must have been particularly painful for the Americans. With all his good nature the American quickly caught on to the reality of the situation: that he was a poor foreigner summoned to admire the decor, superior culinary skill, and wine lore of his host.
But the real breakdown clearly came when the Frenchman discovered that the Americans actually preferred their PX rations; frozen steaks, petrified strawberries, and pasteurised milk. The local shopkeepers resented the PX simply because it diverted coveted dollars, but they never thought of putting up advertisements in English to attract the new customers. When Americans did try out the local store, a French journalist reminded the merchants of Chateauroux, “prices had a disastrous tendency to vary according to the physiognomy of the customer.”
Even marriage with a French girl did not improve communications. So far as the French father-in-law was concerned, “giving away” the daughter was the key phrase in the ritual. While there need not have been any intended hostility, indifference resulted in very little penetration into French circles by the American husband. The wives then tended to become as Americanised as possible, and that possible link with the country was enfeebled.
What must have puzzled the Americans at first was the eagerness with which the French appropriate American, or English, words and customs and yet despise the foreigner, they luxuriate in drug stores and smoking (jackets), they have been dressing in “pulls” (over) eating “snacks” and playing the pinball machine for years. Nowadays they also have “jobs,” and they have kidnapped the word “bus” to mean something fashionably swinging.
But once snatched from its native tongue the words become utterly French (they smile tolerantly when you pronounce “bus” the right way). It has nothing to do with appreciation of a people. It’s a kind of magpie instinct which goes with their catering techniques.
While the French must have suspected that the Americans had little prejudices of their own, they must have been hurt to see in print a clear illustration of the Americans’ idea that France is a charming, but decrepit “little” country. The Chateauroux handout to new arrivals warned urgently against the dangers of French central heating; self-preservation demanded that a draught must always be flooding through the room. (If there is anything which troubles a Frenchman more than his liver, it is imaginary draughts.)
Chateauroux also announced in no uncertain terms: “French drivers aggressive and circulate in the streets in a peculiar manner. BE READY TO BRAKE AT ANY MOMENT.”
But both sides learnt a little. When the Americans automatically requested potential employees at Chateauroux to reply to the question: “Do you belong to a political party?” a stern trade union finger was wagged at them and they gave up without fuss, mildly surprised that so many communist employees seemed to have kicked the habit of sabotage.
The Americans too left some culture behind. Twenty-five French families in Chateauroux were converted to the Baptist faith. By the Americans’ chaplain – who is French naturally. But of course he is known in the town as “The American.”