(While I'm still in vacation mode I thought I'd pass on this entirely true and not at all made-up story of our vacation in France)
I have to give vent to an un-American thought.
I like the French.
There was a time when I didn't but, at that time, I only knew Paris and the people of Paris can be, well, not hostile exactly but standoffish. There was the high prices thing of course but that was my own fault. If you're not morally and psychologically prepared to pay 8 euro for a cup of tea then you don't belong in Paris in the first place. Once I discovered the local McDonald's things became better.
The people of France outside Paris are a completely different kettle of fish, if that's the image I want.
And I know that I was to blame for that regrettable incident in Carpentras when I was yelled at by a French hooker. I had innocently wandered into the local Hall of Justice carrying a large tourist-type camera under the impression that it was a visitor's information office. There were all these well-dressed young ladies standing around waiting to have their legal affairs tended to and it looked like I was pushing to the head of the line. The confusion was soon straightened out but not before one of them shouted at me, in what I thought was an unfortunately strident manner: 'Hey Pops, this isn't the office of tourist affairs!' (Mon vieux! Ce n'est pas le Bureau des Informations Touristiques!!) .
Mon vieux, indeed!
Aside from that one incident, though, all the people that we met in France were like people you'd meet anywhere in the Mediterranean. They were understanding, polite, helpful, and very hospitable. We might have been in Spain .. or even Greece.
At first I refused to believe it. I told S. that these nice people weren't French at all. 'They just can't be. It's well-known', I said, 'that the French government imports Romanians during the high season to work with tourists.'
S. said that she hadn't heard that. 'Romanians?'
'Well, maybe not Romanians. It could have been Lithuanians. The point is that these people that we've been encountering are not really French. The government cannot entrust the multi-billion dollar tourist industry to the French people; there would be too many risks.'
'What sorts of risks?' she asked warily.
'Think about it. Everyone knows that the French go on vacation for eight weeks during the summer. What would happen if the hotel you were staying in just suddenly closed so that the proprietor could go running off to St. Tropez with his girlfriend (sa petite amie)?' And they strike (la grève) at the drop of a hat. What if you were stuck on top of the Eiffel tower while the lift operators went on strike? You wouldn't like that, would you?'
'N..no', said S., a trifle uncertainly.
'Well then. And you know how bureaucratic they are. Would you want to have to buy a safe-swimming certification and license (and with a three-day wait) every time you wanted to use the hotel pool? No! That's why the government treats the tourist industry like the agriculture industry. They bring in foreign workers.'
'I think you're crazy', said S., 'these people are as French as Brie and Champagne (Appellation d'origine contrôlée)!'
I shook my head sadly at her naiveté and our conversation passed on to other topics.
Later, though, I found out the shocking truth.
We were in Vaison-la-Romaine where we had reservations for three nights. 'I'll show you that I'm right', I said to S. I had purchased a Romanian phrase-book in Arles just the day before.
When our hotel door was opened by the Landlady I said in my most polite Romanian, 'Salut! (Hello.)'
'Bonjour', she replied slowly with a puzzled air.
'They have to stay in character', I whispered to S. 'They're sort of like historical re-enactors.'
'I will get my husband (J'appellerai mon mari.)', she said in excellent re-enactor French.
Soon our host appeared drying his hands on a dish towel and welcoming us to Vaison-la-Romaine. But it soon appeared that there had been a mix-up. They were expecting us the following week. A check of e-mails followed and he said to his wife 'They're right (Ils ont raison)'. A flurry of apologies followed. We were assured that we would have the accommodations that we wished but they would be in different rooms from those we had reserved.
'You have been inconvenienced', said our host, '.. and the reputation of our hotel is paramount; your stay will be free!'
Free? This was a saving of more than 300 euro. I was triumphant. It was a perfect example of the Romanian hospitality that I'd been talking about. I couldn't resist the opportunity to reach out to this foreign gentleman and let him know how much I appreciated his kindness and generosity.
'Multumesc! (Thank-you)', I said, with a broad wink to let him know that I was in on the deception.
'What?' said our host.
'Multumesc,' which I followed up with 'Cum va numiti? (What is your name?)'.
'I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're saying; are you perhaps from .. Romania?', said the host.
'No', said the ever-helpful S., 'He thinks you're all Romanians.'
'Romanians!? Us!?' shouted our host. He and his wife laughed for five minutes. Wiping the tears from their eyes they confessed the truth.
'Every year we have to go to the immense trouble of spreading the rumor that all the workers in the French tourist industry are Romanians - '
'Lithuanians', corrected his wife.
'Lithuanians, Romanians, Pomeranians! It doesn't matter. We even have to take out 'help-wanted' ads in Romanian in the tourist-trade magazines; all phony of course.'
I was staggered. 'But..but, why?' I managed to say.
'We just can't let it get out that the French tourist industry is actually run by the French. If we did that no Americans would ever come to France.'
'Really', said his wife, 'Americans have the most terrible ideas about us. They think that we're always on strike...'
'...that we're too bureaucratic...', said her husband.
'...and that we're unfriendly, lazy and always on vacation!', continued the wife.
'That's a scandal', said S. 'who would think such a thing?'
'Who indeed?', I asked innocently.
The host was still chuckling. He said to us, 'Our new American friends; welcome to our hotel. Can I offer you some champagne and brie (Appellation d'origine contrôlée)?'
Postscript to The Honorable François Hollande, President of the Republic of France:
Just kidding, mon vieux.