Three Hundred Twenty Americans Can be Wrong

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 10. Books (2), Paris, Places by Zoya1 Comment

In Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, the two authors discusses their time in France and its culture. They use observations in the French language, customs, laws, history to speculate about what it means to be French, make conclusions how these characteristics affect the relationship and perceptions between the Americans and the French.

I certainly enjoyed the book, some of the anecdotes and personal observations were ones that I had experienced and noticed myself while many others were ones I had not encountered but greatly appreciated the opportunity to now notice.

For instance, the authors wrote a chapter discussing the hostility many of the French had towards globalization and how that related to the ancient practices of cheese and wine making in the country. They discuss the idea of AOC, a label placed on certain cheeses and wines and other French foods that obligate the product to have been made in a certain way in the very specific region for which the product is named for. Example: Bordeaux must be made in Bordeaux and the example the authors discuss in the book is Roquefort being made in Roquefort. At the time I read that chapter, I had just finished a presentation about French cheeses and the importance of AOCs in French cuisine. Reading the story of following José Bové and carefully detailing the processes of creating the cheese, allowed me to put an image in my mind of how particular and careful the production process is. For many Americans, myself included, the idea that a food must be made in that specific region using that very specific method in order to be labeled as itself seems so absurd and yet traditionally admirable. To us, it is absurd because of how inconvenient it is to subscribe to such an archaic method of production, especially with the thought of additional shipping and importing costs. The cheese would be much more accessible to all without these additional hindrances of AOC regulations. Yet, this production process is also admirable to us because the French create these cheeses not for the mass market, but simply for the existence of the cheese itself. Here in lies the inherent differentiation between French and American mindsets. Whereas Americans would want Roquefort to be accessible to all, an equalizer concept from what this country’s economy was built on, the French adhere to its traditions as a country of ancient culture. And this is the biggest point of the book that I was most intrigued by, the differences between who the French actually were versus how Americans perceived them.

This is the highlight of the book that I enjoyed and learned from the most. Because I do not understand the French as intimately as a couple who lived in France for two years, and because a couple of two years residency cannot understand the French as well as native citizens who have lived in their country their entire lives, I cannot say with certainty that the book is an accurate analysis of the country and its culture. However, by noting simple fundamental realizations about the French culture that Americans tend to not realize, the book highlights our previous impressions and spotlights our ignorance. One quote from the book notes that “The typical traveller to Japan, China, or Africa is more open-minded than the typical traveller to France” which is pretty astute of an observation. We are less forgiving to the French for their differences because of a perceived similarities when in fact we are quite different from each other.

While the book is an amusing dissection of France and its culture from small acute observations, the conclusions fall short of reliability due to how most were being drawn from presumptions rather than cold, hard facts. I enjoyed the book, but I would by no means use it as an all knowing guide to the French people.

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  1. Zoya,

    I agree that while the particularities of French culture seem absurd to us, they are the cornerstone of what it means to be French in France. In one of my French classes a few semesters ago, we talked about what makes the French hold on so tightly to their culture, language, and traditions. It is quite interesting to examine these things in relation to a country like the US, where a defined culture does not exist nationally, but does exist regionally. For example, in the Northeast, there is much associated with being a “Real New Yorker,” such as avoiding cliché tourist zones and wearing whatever outfit you want as long as you have seen someone famous wear it first. It is interesting then to look at how this applies even more strongly to French culture and that there are real cultural insecurities due to immigration and cultural integration. I think your post was very insightful and a great way to sum up these concepts even though there are no hard facts to back up what the book was saying!



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