For Which It Stands: France


PARIS — The surrealness of it struck me the other day at the upscale Paris department store, Bon Marche.

The man at the exchange counter, usually so surly, asked me my nationality. I got ready for the usual routine: bowing my head with shame and whispering so no one could hear: “Americaine.”

Then it hit me. I no longer needed to feel ashamed! Barack Obama had liberated me and my fellow expats from humiliation.

“I’m American!” I practically shouted, loud enough for the Japanese at the next desk to look up and grin.

As for the counter assistant, he smiled and asked me about the elections: “Genial!” (great!) he said.

In the 25 years that I have lived overseas, I have gone through myriad ruses to hide my American-ness, ever since I saw my first anti-U.S. demonstration in London in 1982.

Then, I was so green I could not understand why anyone could hate the land where the buffalo roamed. But after about three years in England, I was marching too — against Ronald Reagan, against the wars in Central America, against Bush Senior and, finally, Bush Junior.

I developed elaborate excuses about my origins: Italian father, British nationality, and so on.

But after Barack, it's different. The day of the elections, I received this email from a French friend: “To my American friends, this won’t happen often, so savor it. Here is a high five to your great country from a Frenchman.”

Another French friend wrote, “You guys make huge mistakes but when you do it right, you really do it. Congratulations!”

The man in the store today called me “cherie” after he realised I was from the U.S. At my son’s school, one of the more obnoxious fathers is boldly wearing an Obama T-shirt (and he’s not even American). French mums are wearing stars-and-stripes scarves and the French designer Catherine Malandrino has designed an election dress: red, white and blue, stars- and-stripes silk.

It reminds me of another era when everyone wanted to be American in Paris.

In the Godard classic, "Breathless," the gangster, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, falls in love with the gamine Jean Seberg, an American girl who carries the International Herald Tribune in one hand and betrays him with the other. How beloved America was at that time, the era when JFK brought Jackie to Paris.

But I know it won’t last. As a French friend, Anne, warned me, “At last, we forgive you for the Bush years. You’re our friend now. But be careful: We have very short memories.”