The French-American Connection

When people back home find out about my career, they often ask me if the French hate us. I usually explain that you can never find 100% agreement on anything, anywhere, anytime. And there are always some grumpy individuals around who are either prejudiced or simply ill-tempered. But I would say that, as a rule, our citizens are pretty well-liked in France. At times we come across locals who seem to be delighted to meet us and share stories of experiences they or their family members have had in the U.S.

Besides that, there is certainly lots of evidence of French fascination with our culture. Their clothes, for example. At the marché, in cafés, or at tourist attractions you see people wearing sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts—the latter with English words of all kinds, including cities like Chicago, Miami, or Los Angeles in big, highly visible letters. On this trip in particular we’ve been struck by how many New York Yankees’ caps there are around. Every single day; many times a day. Some appear to be genuine Yankee memorabilia; others just kind of sad imitations. Our music, too, from a variety of genres is played in restaurants and featured in concerts. Just the other night we heard songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Simon, and Roy Orbison at a small performance on the lawn of the museum. American TV shows have their imitators here as well. The Voice (subtitled “La Plus Belle Voix”) comes on Saturday nights and many contestants sing American tunes in the original.

The other thing that strikes us every time we come here is the number of English words and expressions that have been adopted into their language. Le plan B, pronounced in French, is used quite often as is un start-up and so we are quite used to hearing them. I forget the context, but the other night a presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, talked about le burn-out--which, fittingly, is exactly how we feel about the current campaign for president of France! Some words are slightly changed from the American version but still mostly understandable: many superstores have le drive available for outside pickup; young people might enjoy the challenge of breaking the codes in an escape box; more athletic types can rent a stand up paddle for splashing around in the Mediterranean with an oar and a board. Although they’re not new, I still get a kick out of hearing our popular exclamations and seeing them spelled Waouh! and Oups!

So, there! Just put on your favorite team cap and t-shirt. Then, with these “new words” under your belt, you have hit le jackpot and will be conversing in French in no time. C'est very exciting!


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Easter Traditions

Representing the resurrection of Jesus and coming as it does in the spring, Easter is mainly associated with symbols of life and rebirth; flowers, food, bunnies, and eggs, for instance. In France as well as in the U.S. this weekend, kids will enjoy hunting for eggs as part of the annual celebration. Interestingly, the long-held French custom dictates that les Cloches de Pâques (“Easter Bells”), which are silent from Good Friday until Easter Sunday, find themselves without much to do. So, the Bells fly off to Rome during those days and bring back treats for the children. The influence of American television, however, has introduced the Easter bunny who now plays a prominent part in the festivities.

In Catalonia another Easter practice focuses instead on Good Friday and the suffering and death of Christ: Processó de la Sanch [pronounced sahnk] or the Procession of Blood. Origins date from 1416, when a Dominican priest from Spain named Vincent Ferrier began giving impassioned sermons about sinners preparing for judgement and punishment. Huge crowds would follow him around, at times even crying at his descriptions of the Passion of Christ on Calvary. From there, as I understand it, this developed into a reenactment of the Way of the Cross. Somehow or other this march then merged with the idea of penitents giving solace to prisoners on their way to be hanged or beheaded. In the six centuries of its existence, la Sanch has been outlawed several times by the Catholic Church. But in 1950 it came back with the Church’s blessing in cities like Perpignan, Canet, and Collioure.

Last night we were able to observe la Sanch which began at nine p.m. at the church Notre-Dame-des-Anges and processed through parts of the old town. The number of participants is quite impressive; there must have been at least a hundred or so. It is somewhat unsettling for those of us familiar with the Ku Klux Klan, though, to see people in the red and black caperutxas costumes with their conical hoods, long robes, and glowing torches. Apparently the original idea of concealing faces was to protect the identity of the prisoners and executioner. A red-clothed regidor ringing an iron bell leads the procession, followed by groups of people carrying heavy, flowered scenes of the crucifixion called misteris. Statues depicting the Virgin Mary were added in the eighteenth century.We were lucky to be here for this age-old custom.

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Catalan Country

France is very diverse, both in terms of its geography and the history of the people who have created it. Over time, various groups blended together into what is now referred to as the Hexagon including the Bretons, Alsatians, and Basques, to name but three. As current residents of Collioure, we have seen several vestiges of the Catalan heritage which made me curious to learn more about the area’s past. 

The founder of Catalunya, as it is called in Catalan, was granted the inglorious moniker of Wilfred the Hairy, Guifré el Pelós. Although this 9th century count apparently truly merited his furry nickname right down to the bottom of his feet, he was also quite the clever guy. To build his empire, he was somehow able to seize land from noblemen along the Mediterranean coast without angering the French king. And besides, ole Wilfred had the brilliant idea of giving financial support to local monks who chronicled his bravery in written accounts and in songs, forever preserving his name. Even his death entered into the history books in a powerful way. While defending his capital at Barcelona, Wilfred was killed and his four bloody fingers were streaked across his gold shield, creating the striking image prevalent on many area flags of today.

As in many other regions of France, the native language is quickly disappearing. Street signs in our town are nearly all in both French and Catalan. And there is, somewhat surprisingly, a short newscast in the language on TV every Saturday evening. Otherwise, traces of the past are primarily cultural. One afternoon we saw a performance of the sardana, a typical traditional dance with a live band. To begin with, a single person raises his hands and begins dancing to the music; gradually others, many wearing espadrilles, join in, forming large circles of men and women holding hands. It all seemed kind of mystifying to us outsiders about when the different parts of the dance change. I have since learned that the original person is counting the steps and directs the others…kind of like a caller in square dancing, I suppose.


Probably the main link to the culture is in the cuisine. Many Catalan dishes are highly prized and can be found on restaurant menus. Inland areas use a lot of pork and beans such as in the salpiquet or the ouillade. Along the coast, of course, fish is the principal ingredient with Collioure being the anchovy capital. We are here for the Easter season when local folks prepare a fried dough dessert spelled in many different ways but called bugnette. We went to the cultural center the other day where elementary school kids were frying and eating the sweet treat. And we were even given a sample.

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