Tuesday, June 12, 2012

112 Gripes About the French

A few years ago when visiting the US, my wife (then fiancée) and I were staying with my best friend, Sean. Since he is a veteran, as a gift I brought him a copy of Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942. This was published by the US military and handed out to US soldiers stationed in Britain during WWII. It cautioned US soldiers against flaunting their (relatively) high income. It warned them not to take "seconds" in meals when visiting someone's home as the British were likely to use an entire week's worth of food rations to provide a pleasant meal for their guest. In short, it gave a bunch of US GIs information about an unusual situation that they might not ordinarily be aware of.

There are similar guidebooks for France and Germany, but I've not yet had the pleasure of reading them. However, there was one curious little book I didn't know about and it's free online to read: 112 Gripes About the French, published in Paris in 1945. This handbook is a lovely explanation of a different culture, aimed at American audiences. Apparently many US servicemen were unhappy with the French and this guidebook was produced to give a very frank (ha!) breakdown of what was really going on. Even today it's well worth reading to get a better understanding of how other cultures many not be better or worse, but simply different.

I particularly liked "Gripe #35":
35. "The French do things different than we do. That's what I don't like."

It is always something of a shock when you run into different ways of talking, eating, doing things. But what is different is not always inferior: "different" does not mean "worse". There is more than one way of skinning a cat.

The story is told of an American soldier who saw some Chinese putting rice on the graves in a Chungking cemetery. "That doesn't make sense", said the American with a smile. "When do you expect the dead to eat the rice?"

"When your dead return to smell your flowers", was the answer.
Gripe #109 was about the French political system, a system many Americans didn't (and don't) appreciate. Part of the explanation of it was thus:
The French political system is a democracy. It is like ours in its basic principles: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of the vote, minority rights, protection under the law, trial by jury, etc.

The system differs from ours as far as parties are concerned: we have a "two-party" form of administration; the French have many parties.

The French have a political party for almost every conceivable political position. They don't believe that "there are two ways of looking at things"; the French think there are dozens of ways, and that if enough people hold to any one way they have a right to be represented in the government.
Even today, I think that's a message that many could stand to hear.

Go and read 112 Gripes About the French (in particular, Gripe 48). It's a fascinating look at another culture, in a time of great stress.
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