Michel Ribet: "The Americans came, and they saved my family, and they went to Germany and they brought back my father."
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.
André Bordes: "It's better, if you're French and you want to come to the United States, to do it when you're young. That way you are not too shocked by the differences."
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.
Bernard Streiff: "Americans in general look at France like France is a woman. You know, like the United States is a man, and they treat France like a wife."
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."
Michel Malécot: "We had some people who saw the French Gourmet truck and were not nice to our driver."
"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.
"I've lived all over the world," Ribet said. "Many, many places. For a while I was in Tahiti, in French Polynesia. I stayed over there for nearly eight years. Most of my life I sold real estate, which is how I made most of my money, not that I have a lot of it. But I sold real estate in France for a time, until Mr. Mitterrand came into France and brought the socialist system. And then a lot of my clients, who were living all over the world, didn't want to put any more of their money into France, because, you know, the socialist system is always a mess for people with money who want to invest. So I was encouraged to go look around the world for a country where my clients could switch their investments."
Ribet went on, the globe a familiar map to him, "So I went to China for three months, back in the early '80s, but it was too soon in China. It was just a mess, you know. So I came to the U.S. in 1984, in Houston, because my son was a student at the University of Houston at that time. And my wife had a sister in Houston as well. So we checked the real estate there and in Texas, but it was not so good. And then somebody told us we had to go to California, because that's the best place, and so we arrived in San Diego and we started to do real estate here. We sold everything in Paris, and we brought all the money here, and my clients did very well.
"I didn't speak any English at first," Ribet sang, and then, with characteristic self-deprecation he (inaccurately!) added, "and I still do not speak it very well." Then he went on. "But I spent six months in Houston with my son and learned to speak there.
I interrupted Ribet to ask him more about his family. I needed some clarity. He'd told me earlier that his daughter, who is 43, lives in Nice. And his son, who is 10, lives with his wife and him in La Jolla. But then who was this other son, the one from Houston?
Apparently, Ribet's other son died 13 years ago, in a plane crash. A tragedy. "He was doing some skydiving in Riverside County, near Hemet. It wasn't a skydiving accident. The plane he was in took off and then went down about two minutes later."
I extended condolences. But still, some of the details of Ribet's family life were rather unclear. He'd had three kids, but he'd mentioned having been divorced, and now he was married, and...?
Just as quickly as Ribet had grown emotional twice before, remembering World War II and his dead son, so he became suddenly gleeful and sheepish. He hugged himself and rolled on his couch once, sat up, and laughed. There was no embarrassment in those impish blue eyes as he looked at me, but I somehow understood that perhaps there should be some embarrassment. He shrugged and said, "It is complicated. But I am French!" And I made him explain.
"I was married," he said, "and we had a daughter. And during this time I was traveling a lot, and, you know, a girlfriend calls me to tell me that we've had a son. So I say, okay, let me talk to my wife and my daughter to explain. So I went over there and I said, here it is, the situation is like that. So my wife said, okay, I want to divorce. And I said, okay, if you want to divorce, let's do it. So we divorced. And then three years later she came back and said, do you want to remarry me? And I said okay. So, you see, I have had only one wife."
So all that stuff about the crazy love lives of the French, about mistresses and such, must be true... Anyway... Personal information aside, I asked Ribet to tell me his impressions of the United States.
"America is a country of a lot of opportunities," he said. "It is really a free country. You know, everybody asks me why I came to America, and I say, 'Because I like to work.' And you know, that's the point. I don't care about having a lot of free time. I like to work. I like to do things and be active. But it's impossible in France. They have that socialist system, everything is free, so it doesn't do a lot of good to work. Yes, it is free, but if you work, it's very difficult. People complain about taxes in the United States, but you have no idea. The taxes in France start at 65 percent. You give away 65 percent of what you make to the socialist system. So it is not good to work over there."
(According to the French embassy, France's highest tax rate is 48.09 percent.)
I asked Ribet about the French community here. "There isn't so much of a French community in San Diego," he said. "The groups of French people are very, very distant. We try to bring people together in a big social group, but it is difficult. The French are too independent. Everybody wants to be an individual.
"But," he went on, "we have the French-American Chamber of Commerce, which started ten years ago, and it's working pretty well." Ribet is on the board.
I asked Ribet who the pillars of the local French community might be. He emitted the typical French sigh, a kind of pffft! with his lips, and said, "There are so many. You know, with the French, everybody wants to be president!" And then he laughed and added, "But not me. I don't want! Everybody's trying to push me to be president of the chamber of commerce, but I say no, no. I don't like that. And I'm traveling a lot, so it's impossible for me."
I was curious about Ribet's take on the American immigration system.
"American immigration is tough," he said. "It took me about ten years to get my green card. It's unbelievable. And it's really very difficult to understand. I mean, I like the rules. In America, there are always rules to go through, and I like that. I like to go straight and do the right things; that's my way of life; I have no problem with that. But, but, but... Sometimes, you know, you don't understand what's going on. Because I would be here, but then I would have to leave every three months or every six months, depending on the humor of the immigration officer, you know. It never made any sense. You know, they'd look at me and say, 'Okay, you have to leave in three months,' or they'd look and say, 'Okay, it's six months,' always different. And I helped run two American companies, I paid taxes, I owned a home, and it was always the same story for almost ten years. I would have to leave and come back, and I couldn't stay here as a resident. Of course, it wasn't a big deal for me, because I was always traveling all over the world, but still. My lawyer told me that my son would be turning 21 soon, and he was American, and he would be able to start a visa for me. But, unfortunately, one year before that, my son passed away, so we had to start over."
I asked Ribet about the backlash against the French following the Iraq invasion and whether he or his family had experienced any animosity or discrimination of any kind.
"Never!" he said. "Never any racism in San Diego. One person, once, asked me why the French people don't like Americans. And I said, 'Don't worry, sir. The French people don't like Americans. But they don't like the English, they don't like the Germans, and, believe me, they don't like themselves."
And then he added, "But I love them all!"
What about freedom fries? What about the fact that many Americans stopped drinking French wine and visiting the Eiffel Tower?
"There was no real problem between the French people and the American people, I don't think," Ribet said, wisely. "There was a problem between Mr. Bush and Mr. Chirac, that's all. The French are still the same, and the Americans are still the same. But Mr. Bush is not America. Mr. Bush will pass, and America will go on."
Then he alleged, "I always say California is less American than the other states, because it is very cosmopolitan. Everybody wants to come to California. There are more immigrants here than in other places in the U.S."
Then Ribet grew philosophical about his old homeland. "The French are not very well in their skin," he said. "It's really a mess now in France. France was a great country, a big country, but today, the economy is bad and the socialist system is not working. But our big problem in France is that we don't look ahead, we look back. We don't act, we just react. We don't vote for somebody, we vote against somebody else. And that's the problem. But I think you have to be French to really understand that."
André Bordes is 54 years old. He is founder and director of the San Diego International School, and he is the French honorary consul in San Diego. As honorary consul, he helps members of the French community with administrative issues, such as renewing passports and voting for the European Constitution, and he serves as the local contact for French VIPs and as the French political representative for the area. Married with two children, aged 18 and 7, Bordes first came to the United States in 1981 and has lived in San Diego continuously since 1987.
Bordes spoke to me from his office at the school, where his younger child is currently a student. (His older child graduated from there and currently attends the Sorbonne in Paris.)
"The San Diego International School began in 1988," Bordes said. "I started this school for two reasons. One was to allow any student, American or not, to learn a foreign language at an early age, and also, as there is a big network of French accredited schools across the world, I wanted to make a way for the children of French expatriates to enjoy a French school curriculum. We are one of 34 French accredited schools in the United States. We take students from preschool, aged two, all the way up to eighth grade. We have 180 students in 2005, going up to over 200 for 2006. There are 18 teachers who work here and 7 administrative officials."
I asked Bordes about the classes at his school. "We offer a thoroughly bilingual curriculum," he told me, "meaning that we want our students to be able to function in a French school or in an American school when they leave here. We teach roughly two-thirds in French and one-third in English; it's mostly in French because we need to reinforce the language that is not present outside the school."
This point of saving the French language outside of France was something that French people kept coming back to as I talked to them. One woman told me that she was alarmed because her children were learning French with an American accent.
"In our school we try to bring the best of both worlds," Bordes said. "The American people are very dynamic, and they don't rely on their government to give them subsidies and money and social stuff. They are very creative people and they work hard."
It wasn't until I pressed him that Bordes would say anything negative. It struck me that he would make a good politician. "The Americans are sometimes arrogant," he said, but then quickly added, "but that comes maybe with their self-confidence."
And the French? I asked him. "The French," he said thoughtfully, "the French are complicated people. They like nice things and are geared more toward talking about intellectual and philosophical issues, whereas the Americans are more practical, I guess. The two cultures are difficult to harmonize, especially when it comes to their educations. For example, when I have students who have both French parents and American parents, very often they do not agree on certain crucial issues, such as discipline. The French are very much more into discipline. Americans take their children too much as adults sometimes. A child has to be a child and has to be told, sometimes, what to do. This is a very simple example, but the French very much put their children more in their place than Americans seem to do."
In that book I have, Au Contraire! Figuring Out the French, which was written by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron, there are six full pages dedicated to the differences in child-rearing practices between France and the United States. In general, it seems that the French think Americans are badly behaved, and this is a reflection of the poor rearing practices of American parents. And Americans think the French are too formal and conservative, a by-product of raising their children to respect their elders and "be seen and not heard."
André Bordes offered this piece of advice. "It's better, if you're French and you want to come to the United States, to do it when you're young," he said. "That way you are not too shocked by the differences." And there were purely practical reasons, too. Bordes said, "If you wait too long to come here, you can become used to the good social life in France, whereas here you will have to struggle. To make it here in the United States, you can make it big. But you have to realize that you're mostly alone and you have to just go out and go for it."
One of the biggest issues for anyone who wants to live in a different country is immigration. As a hirer of teachers, Bordes has had more experience with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) than most people.
"Because I have to hire teachers from France," he said, "we have sometimes some difficulties about the H1B visa, for example, which depends upon the Senate to allow a certain quota of French teachers in this country. It's a professional visa given to a person with a certain amount of education and certain kinds of diplomas. I also have teachers come here with J1 visas, which is more of a simple exchange visa. Regarding the USCIS, which used to be the INS, I guess, I've become very proficient in dealing with them, although it's very complicated, because I've gotten many visas over the years for my staff. As you can guess, I've spent a lot of time in the office at the USCIS."
As for himself, Bordes became a naturalized citizen only four or five years ago. "I waited about ten years to get it," he said. "It has become more difficult recently to deal with immigration. I always advise people to get an attorney to help with the process. It's time-consuming, at the very least."
I was curious if Bordes had experienced any backlash since the Iraq War started, any discrimination or protests directed at him or his family or his school.
"We have gone through a difficult time since the Iraq situation," he said, "not so much here in San Diego, but elsewhere in the country, definitely. I know that in Denver there was a demonstration at a French school, for instance. But I think America acted in a very primary way, whereas France wanted to wait and see what it was best to do. I think a lot of Americans appreciate both positions. I think the French people and American people have always had a kind of love and hate relationship anyway, over the years."
"To understand the French immigrants in the United States, you really have to divide them in two," Bernard Streiff explained to me over the telephone recently. Streiff is president of the San Diego French-American Chamber of Commerce and marketing director for Rancho San Diego Travel, a job that has him taking care of special-interest groups who want to travel to France.
"You have the pre-1980 French, and then the post-1980 French," Streiff said. "Before 1980, and especially in the decades after World War II, you find a lot of French women who married American soldiers. So they established a tradition of being nostalgic about their country, and although their husbands often speak French, I have met very few children of these marriages who also speak French. Back in the '60s, it wasn't really proper to teach your children another language."
Listening to Streiff speak -- the clarity of his ideas, his wide-ranging vocabulary, the easily understood accent -- I was not surprised to learn that he hosts a French radio show every Tuesday evening on the Internet. He went on, "Then in 1980, François Mitterrand got elected, and that created a socialist society in France. And what happened then is you have this new set of immigrants who couldn't find jobs in France, and so they came here and decided to work in technology. And there were also many who were hiding money from the French government and who wanted to start businesses over here and avoid the heavy socialist taxes in France."
Streiff himself came to San Diego in 1966. He's traveled extensively in the United States, including driving all the way across the country and back in a Ford Mustang in 1968. His wife of 32 years is an American woman, and they have two kids.
"When the French come here," Streiff said, "they are very surprised how friendly everyone is. You know, in France, you don't smile and say hello to someone you don't know."
What other differences had Streiff noticed between the United States and France?
He said, "There was an excellent article recently in the Herald Tribune that mentioned how the Americans in general look at France like France is a woman. You know, like the United States is a man, and they treat France like a wife, saying things like, 'How come you are constantly opening your mouth?' and 'I like you, but just shut up!' You know, that kind of attitude. There's also the feminine stereotype that France is all about high fashion, romantic movies, and they read lots of books, the way a woman might. Now of course, there is some truth to this, but if you look more closely at France, you'll see instead a history that is really a bloody mess. Napoleon was a dictator who wanted to take over the world. You know, France fought for years in Vietnam before the United States ever went there. And there are other examples in history that show how France really has a history of war but America maybe doesn't want to see that. Without the French Navy, for example, it would have been very difficult for the U.S. to beat the British in their war for independence. But instead, America wants to think of France like a loud, annoying wife."
Streiff sees deeper into the matter. "The truth is this," he said, philosophically. "Both of these nations suffer from narcissism complexes. They both look at the water, and the reflection of their own face is so good that they both want to kiss the water. And then they fall in, and they don't know how to swim, and they are very surprised that they are drowning, and they want someone to help them. This is typical of the Americans, being so proud of what they were doing in Iraq, and then suddenly, 'Oh, we don't know what to do now, can you help us?' And the French are the same way. We have all the food, the culture, the history, but, 'Oh, can you come and put businesses in our poor country, because we don't know what to do?' Unfortunately, both of our nations are like that, and we have conflict because everyone is so proud of their own value."
And then, characteristic of his own insightful introspection, Streiff said, "The French are more introspective than the Americans, which makes the Americans fearful, although, at the same time, they are somewhat fascinated by it. And a big part of this has to do with the president now. Kennedy and Nixon, and especially Bill Clinton, these were introspective men. But the dummy we have now as president is a more practical person who says, 'Let's do something, and then later, maybe we'll think about it.' And of course the French are exactly the opposite. We would rather conceptualize problems, and imagine different solutions, and then, after we find an answer, we want to make sure that it's the right one, and so we compare it with other possible answers. So right there, between our two nations, we have two different ideas about how to act."
Of course! The old Cartesian "process of rational thinking," as it was laid out by the famous French philosopher René Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." And here was Bernard Streiff, describing the French way, where intellectual mastery of an issue is the most important thing, as opposed to our American method, where results are what matter.
Every Tuesday, Streiff wrestles with achieving intellectual mastery over specific problems on his radio show, Qu'est Ce Qui Se Passe? It airs from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. on worldtalkradio.com. "We talk about the news," he said, "and specifically, how we view the news from a French point of view in San Diego. We are distinctly Francophile. We have correspondents in France, and we discuss wine, cuisine, books, movies, and the French press from our French point of view. The show has been on for almost one year."
But Streiff, as president of a large organization, is also practical minded, like the good American he has been since becoming a citizen in 1980. "We created the French-American Chamber of Commerce ten years ago," he said. "And I am currently the president. It's basically a mixer, where we have a chance for American and French businesspeople to interact and exchange business cards and network."
And then Streiff told me an alarming tale about American discrimination. "Just yesterday," he said, "one of our members of the French-American Chamber of Commerce received an anonymous piece of mail containing a bumper sticker. On the bumper sticker there was a French flag with a line through it, and on the sticker it said, 'Boycott France. The spin stops here.' Can you believe this is still going on?"
I asked Streiff if he'd had other troubles since the Iraq War began. "I've had people refuse to do business with my travel agency," he said, "just because they find out that I'm French. Also, right after Iraq, we had lots of people canceling their trips to France. Fortunately, this has mostly passed, and we are very busy again booking trips to France. It seems that people are finding out that the French were not that wrong."
Michel Malécot, 53 years old, owns and operates the French Gourmet Restaurant and Catering in Pacific Beach. He is also the president of the local chapter of Union des Français de L'Etranger (which, loosely translated, means "Union of French Abroad"), a nonprofit public organization designed to help French people who are strangers in strange countries. He is married with four children. In the United States since 1972, and San Diego since 1976, Malécot has been a citizen since 1985. His wife is American.
"There's quite a few French people in San Diego, more than you'd think," Malécot told me over the telephone recently. "Last Sunday I was in Henry's supermarket, and I dropped something, and I said a bad French word. And someone laughed at me, and I found out the guy was French."
I wanted Malécot to tell me a few things about the Union des Français de L'Etranger. "UFE used to be a relatively vibrant organization," he said. "From the 1980s well into the mid-'90s, it was run by a very nice couple, the Augers, who received many awards and commendations for their work since the war. At that time the UFE was made up of mostly older people, retired teachers and so on, and as those people got older, the association was slowly dying. Recently, though, some members of the former UFE have contacted me to revive that organization. So we have done a few meetings so far, and we have about 15 to 20 members."
Malécot went on, "The key of the UFE is that it's a worldwide organization of public interest. It's a support group that has legal representation in France. Let's say, for example, that one of our members becomes sick, and he needs help paying doctor bills, and he wants to go back to France. Then the UFE will help him with all that and give him a place to go once he's back in France. Here in San Diego, we give out a regular newsletter, and we meet once a month or so. The UFE is designed to insure that French people who are not in France are given the same rights as the people in France. Let's say that there's a researcher working for Scripps, for example, and he wants his children to go to college back in France; then we can help him get scholarships for his children, for example. Or if someone worked in France for 10 years, and then they've come to the United States for 20 years, and they're ready to retire, then we'll help them look into their French retirement benefit. Things like that. Or if you want a bank account that works in France and in America, for example. We can deal with legal issues as well, lawyers and immigration and such, although that's kind of rare. Of course, we have a website as well, www.ufe.asso.fr, which helps us keep people posted with what's happening. What we're trying to do by reviving this organization is to be a resource for French people. We'd like to work together with other organizations, like the chamber of commerce and L'Alliance Française, instead of being in competition with them."
Malécot is also involved with a new association called French Twist, which has a cultural calendar of mixed-media events (exhibitions, music, lectures, and so on) found at the website frenchtwist.org. French Twist recently organized a business mixer for gastronomes and wine lovers interested in learning more about the renaissance of UFE. French Twist is also responsible for the largest gathering of French people in San Diego each year, playfully dubbed "Francopholies." This year's version attracted close to 300 French people and Francophiles to a family-oriented picnic/potluck in a grassy park overlooking Mission Bay, where folks enjoyed pétanque, volleyball, soccer, wine, cheese, Coke, and rillettes.
Before we finished our conversation, I wanted to know if Malécot, too, had had to deal with any acts of discrimination after the war started. He called the situation "a mixed bag."
"We had, for example, a note posted on our door that said, you know, 'F* the French,' " he said. "And we had some people who saw the French Gourmet truck and were not nice to our driver, but then we also had people come into the restaurant who showed their support and who told us they couldn't understand how anyone would want to boycott France. So it went both ways. And people know who we are; we've been here 25 years, and we support the community. But we did have a couple of instances where people didn't want their catering done by the French Gourmet, and so we did it under a shell name, Contemporary Catering. But all that has passed now."
When I met Marc Duflos, 25, at a Yahoo! Meetup Group for French speakers at a café in Old Town, he had been a resident of the United States of America for exactly 20 days. Yet, although his accent was still thickly French, he spoke a very polished and grammatically correct English. "I've had many years of English in school," he told me. "But now I must practice speaking American English. It's quite different from what we learn in school. The accent and, what do you call it, the slang, can be very difficult to understand."
Duflos's wife Alejandra sat next to him and chatted in French to some of her friends at the meetup. Mrs. Duflos was born in Mexico and became a U.S. citizen in 1993, but her French sounded pretty polished to me. Eventually I would learn that Alejandra and Marc can converse fluently in Spanish as well.
"When we met," Marc Duflos told me, "the deal, at the beginning, was for me to speak French with her and for her to speak English with me. Actually, it didn't work a lot. We ended up speaking mostly French because my wife found it more romantic." The two made each other's acquaintances when Alejandra was an exchange student in Angers, France, in 2001. They married in July 2004.
"Since I've come to this country a few weeks ago," Duflos said, "I have been to Los Angeles, and we've visited the beaches, but mostly what I'm doing now is job hunting. I'm looking for a sales and marketing position. I graduated from a business school in France. I've had a few interviews so far. I'm quite happy, actually, because I was fearing that maybe the people here, as they don't know about my school and the French companies I've been working for, might be afraid of interviewing me and hiring me, but everyone is quite open-minded, and they are willing to listen to me. So that's good."
Duflos was able to avoid one of the more difficult aspects of the transition to this country by dealing with his immigration issues back home on French soil.
"I took care of everything in Paris," he said. "It took something like seven months, but I had an agent here in the U.S. who was helping me with the information I had to provide. And then, at the end of the process, I had an interview at the U.S. Consulate in Paris, and it was very easy, very normal. The only problem I've had is they didn't give me a social security number, for some reason. And I did not know the importance of this number, but it is something I must have to work here, apparently. So now I am trying to get this, and it is not easy."
Despite this notion, Duflos has been able to remain equivocal.
"I was really excited about coming here," he said. "I've always been interested about the U.S. I was very enthusiastic. Now, I think I'm getting used to the environment. I'm still happy to be here, but I'm not really as enthusiastic as I was at the beginning. I thought it would be easier to move here, get a job, find a house, and so forth. But now I realize that it takes longer and it is very difficult. As a student in my country, I could receive help for my housing and for my studies, and I would have more support to look for a job. But here, I'm realizing I have to rely more on myself. And I'm seeing that it takes longer before you can afford to rent an apartment and buy a car. Right now, we live with my wife's parents, and we share a car. As soon as we will be able, we'll rent something for us."
Any prejudice or discrimination because he is French?
"Before I came here," said Duflos, "I was worried about being French and if people would say things to me because of that. You know, with my accent, I cannot hide my country of origin. But since I've come here, everyone has been very nice, and I haven't heard anything bad because of that."
Michele Magnin, 56, is chair of the French section of the languages and literature department at the University of San Diego. She's lived in San Diego since 1978 and became a U.S. citizen in 1995. Married with two sons, Magnin served for five years as local chapter president of L'Alliance Française.
"The French community in San Diego really depends on the age group," Magnin said to me over the telephone recently. "You talk to French people who have been here for 50 years, and they're very conservative, very nostalgic, and they're very hungry for anything regarding French culture. But then, if you look at the younger community, the French people who arrive here now are very hungry to discover the West. And they will go all over the place, they'll travel, they'll visit the national parks, and they won't really look for other French people. So it's harder to know them unless you work in an area where there are a lot of them. Now, they may hang out in groups at times, you know, to go skiing and go on excursions and so forth, but they'll definitely try to blend in, more or less, with the American culture. And then, after a few years, when they've decided that maybe they won't be going back to France, then they'll join L'Alliance Française, and they'll want to start staying in touch with their roots and so forth."
Of L'Alliance Française, Magnin said, "This organization has been in San Diego for something like 60 years. It's a worldwide nonprofit cultural association, nonpolitical, and the idea is to spread French culture and language. The Alliance organizes conferences centering around French culture, art, literature, food, and things like that. There are hundreds of members, but I'm not sure about current accurate numbers. I was president of the organization for 5 years back in the '90s, and I'm still a member, but I do less on the administrative side of it now."
Magnin's accent -- a much finer, silkier version of Francofied English than I'd been hearing -- caused me to drift a bit as I listened to her. The touches in her voice were mere tremors and glimmers of Frenchness; her rs were delivered in a kind of verbal caress, instead of the wrestling match rs inspire in most French mouths. It occurred to me that English heard through a French filter, whether it's thick and strenuous or subtle and studied, always brings out interesting musical angles: in men, it's rough and thoughtful, like the words of some philosophical cowboy, and in women, well, it's downright sexy.
I asked Magnin to characterize some of the common misunderstandings the French will experience as they begin to speak American English. One of my personal favorites is the French word préservatif, which means "condom." As Magnin said, "When Americans say they like French foods because they contain no preservatives, you can just imagine the image that comes to a French person's mind." Also, the French will often declare things like "I am very interesting" instead of "I am very interested." They will also commonly use the same word (ça) to mean both "this" and "that," so obvious translational confusions are likely to arise.
Finally, I asked Magnin if she had experienced any troubles relating to the Iraq War. "Well," she said, "I heard some really horrible stories after Iraq, but I also heard about many Americans who thought the whole thing was ridiculous. So I heard things on both sides. It seems that a lot of people, younger people and students especially, had kind of lumped everything together, and they associated politics and government and citizens all in one group. And this was the fault of the American press mostly, I think. So that I would have people ask me why the French hate the Americans, but I would have to help them differentiate between being against the war and being against the people in a certain country." And then she summed this view nicely. "The French call this concept faire l'amalgame, like the material [amalgam] we stuff into cavities to fill them. Meaning, you can't just clump ideas together in a heap and judge an entire people because of a decision made by one man."