At last, the fashion of French-bashing fades, and now kisses, fries, poodles, horns, bread, dressing, curls, maids, braids, ticklers, manicures, twists, and toast might drop the mock-corrective mark of "freedom." Even our most patriotic consciences can again drink the best wine in the world and eat the best cheese and watch the best weird independent films. Just think of the thousands of words in our language that derive from the French, words that are both utilitaire and more than chic to speak: café, patron, agent, souvenir, matinee, blonde, panache, brunette, critique, cuisine, encore, employ, petite, perfume, risqué, rendezvous, soiree, sauté, déjà vu. Frenchness is here to stay, remercions Dieu, whatever Bush capitalism has had to say.
And the French are very much here in San Diego, tant mieux! According to the French consulate in Los Angeles, 600 to 700 French citizens are registered in this county. According to the San Diego French-American Chamber of Commerce, the number of French citizens and former French citizens climbs to over 6000.
Technically, I'm not one of the French in San Diego. My surname is Bouvier ("cowherder" en français), I work at a French restaurant (Tapenade, in La Jolla), I'm from Connecticut (which is nearly halfway closer to France), I lived in Provence for three months (at an American school), I can speak the language (actually, I speak French at about the level of a preschool student, at best), and I was married to a Frenchwoman once, actually a Corsican, which is almost French, so I guess you could say that I as well am "almost French."
"An Almost-Frenchman in San Diego" doesn't carry the ring (or connotations) of "An American in Paris," but what the heck. You know what the French say about subtle differences, "The more things change, plus c'est la même chose." The 2000 U.S. Census indicates that over 30,000 San Diego residents descend from French ancestry. Which makes me at least an honorary member of an honorable and sizable local French-enough community.
The French national bird is the rooster. Le coq. (Incidentally, even roosters speak different languages, apparently. In French, "cock-a-doodle-doo" translates cocorico.) Roosters wake everybody up, invite attention to themselves, and never waver from a bossy and defiant self-reliance. And if you can't handle that, then the French, unlike real roosters, might just apologize. Sarcastically, of course.
As a culture, the French are veritable walking contradictions. A book I own called Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French generalizes that they are "fiercely independent yet seductively romantic, deeply conservative yet avant-garde, dispassionately rational yet dramatically emotional." And oh, those accents!
It is commonly understood that the French do not form clubs and groups the way Italians, the Irish, and the English do. One local Frenchman told me, "Imagine! A club allowing no women! Leave that to the English. The French would never form a club with no women!" (Incidentally, the genders get equal time in the French language, where the very words they speak are either masculine [le] or feminine [la], a fact that has always fascinated moi.)
Another French person I talked to said there is not so much a French community in San Diego as a French network, which is perhaps true. There are, however, a few of the hallmarks of community. There's the French-American Chamber of Commerce, L'Alliance Française, and the Union des Français de l'Etranger. And there's even a local club devoted to the popular French game of pétanque, which is a close relative of the Italian lawn sport boccie.
To get in touch with these folk, our Franco-friends, our district's "Rooster Party" representatives, I went out looking for the pillars of the local community, as well as for some Gallic newcomers to San Diego. I wanted to know what these gens français might do in America, both to blend in and to maintain their essential Frenchness.
"On the 6th of June, 1944, I was living in a small village in Normandy called Ste. Marie-du-Mont. The Americans call this village Utah Beach." I've heard Michel Ribet relate some version of his story on three occasions. And every time this deeply passionate man tells his tale, his eyes tear up and his voice trembles a little. "So I was living there with my sister and my mother in my grandmother's place," he recounted, "because my father was a POW in Germany, and he spent 5 years over there. So I saw the Americans come in 1944, and at the time I was very impressed. We had no food; we had no water; we had nothing; and it was a very difficult time in France in '44, although it was the same story for everybody. But then, the Americans came, and they saved my family, and they went to Germany and they brought back my father. And starting that day, I said, 'One day, I will be an American citizen!' You know, because I had to pay back what the Americans did for me and my family. So it took me about, what, over 50 years to do that. But finally here I am!"
If he was so moved by this experience, then why did he wait so long to come to America?
"Life is not easy, you know. And when you are a kid, you can say that you want to do something. But then, of course, you have to do it!" And his laugh comes as frankly as his tears.
Ribet has just turned 68, although he looks maybe 40, 45 tops. He ran his 15th and 16th marathons last year. He's raced at high altitude and on the continent of Antarctica. He's logged a few ultra-marathons as well. And before Ribet took up long-distance running, at 54, he was a long-distance sailor, one of the best in the history of France, racing small sailboats around the globe. And no matter which French people in San Diego you ask, if they know Michel Ribet, then they like Michel Ribet. He's a pillar of the local French community if there ever was one.