Three cheers for le bleu, blanc et rouge

Published 1:08 pm Saturday, July 13, 2013

Liberté, égalité, fraternité
—French national motto

Thirty years ago, my brother, Michael, and I were trekking through Europe, courtesy of our parents (Thanks, Dad! Thanks, Mom!). The next-to-last leg of our journey found us in France on July 14, better known to them as Bastille Day.

To an American way of thinking, it’s their Independence Day. On that date in 1789, many people attacked the Bastille, an infamous prison, for its supply of weaponry. Putting it mildly, this would be used to settle some scores with the ruling class. Ultimately, it set into motion what would become their revolution.

One hundred ninety-four years later, said brother and I celebrated with the Parisians by respectively enjoying two of their major gifts to the world: chocolat mousse and crepes (drizzled with Grand Marnier). We sat outside a corner café in front of the Gare du Nord watching the city go by. I knew then enough of the natives’ language from high school and college to get the pair of us through the country without incident. Now I can only follow subtitles in French movies, their greatest contribution.

As we waited for the train that would get us to the boat for the English Channel, occasionally we could hear cheers and laughter as the people celebrated. There were even a couple of Frenchmen at the bar inside joking with us, and they weren’t in the least mean-spirited in their humor.

No one then was ever deliberately rude to Michael and me. Perhaps because it was a holiday, or maybe because we didn’t behave as ugly Americans. Or possibly because the reputation of arrogance is more of an American prejudice.

Although, the day before in southern France I talked on a fast-moving train with a woman from that part of the country, and she confirmed there’s indeed a North-versus-South mindset in that nation. She assured me her fellow countrymen in the latter section were more open and relaxed. The fact that she was willing to speak English with me was evidence enough for me.

See, there’s just something superior about the South, no matter where you go. We’re just better bred, n’est-ce pas?

I think one of the reasons that Americans and the French in general seem to clash is because we are much more alike than either side would ever care to admit.

Both sides can be breathtakingly arrogant when it comes to language and culture. But there’s also an increasing fear of people outside our respective circles who won’t make the effort to learn and adopt to either trait. You know who I mean.

Then when the occasion arises, you might read or hear of Americans reminding the French of how we saved their butts in World War I and Part Deux. How quickly such people forget that they wouldn’t be Americans had the French not backed the Colonists in their revolution. Ingratitude is never pretty.

The cultural divide has been further widened because Edward Snowden — that name again — reportedly pointed how certain nosy Americans have been spying not only on their fellow countrymen, but also on our supposed allies. He wasn’t really saying anything that wasn’t already known. It’s just that everyone else had the sense to keep quiet about it.

Bad taste leads to crime, as the French will say, and Snowden is living proof.

How then to build bridges? Let’s remember and put into practice the beliefs and traits we have in common.

Liberty! Equality! Fraternity (Brotherhood)! That was one of the rallying cries of the French Revolution, and now each corresponds to the colors of the French national flag. Our banner has the same colors, just in a different order, that’s all.

STEPHEN H. COWLES is a staff writer at The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either 562-3187 or