Before going to France for the first time, I had been warned, in a broad sweeping generalization that, “the French”, were not always tolerant of Americans who did not speak any French. And in some cases, of Americans in general. Despite being warned, I was caught off guard when it happened.

One Saturday, shortly after arriving in France, I was shopping in the local health food store with one of the hosts from the farm I was volunteering on, through a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (better known for it’s acronym WWOOF). I followed my host, I will call him F, through the aisles, pushing the cart while he picked out coffee, pasta, and lentils.

The store had a welcome atmosphere, feeling rugged and intimate. It reminded me of the organic health food co-ops I shopped in at home, with aisles of enticing and expensive things to eat. I felt comfortable and at home among the wooden shelves of organic, or “bio” (the French abbreviation for organic) food and large  bins of bulk grain. Most of these aisles had shelves that were no taller then my shoulders, allowing customers an easy view of the whole store. The front of the store had a corner with a couch and chairs and pots of coffee and tea. I noticed a woman sitting on the couch staring at me, as I walked through the aisles, her gaze following me as I moved back into her view, winding my way through the aisles.

The faint hum of French being spoken ricocheted off the walls, circulating throughout the store from the customers chatting with each other and the check out clerks. Not understanding the words being spoken, they turned into abstract sounds, becoming a creative noise floating past my ears.

I wandered down the toiletries aisle, looking at the shelves of organic French toiletries with fancy French names. I tried to say some of the names, gently rolling the syllables through my mouth unsuccessfully, stumbling over their pronunciation. I paused, taking some of the sample from the French lavender lotion, bringing my hand to my nose to inhale the intoxicating aroma. It smelled French.

F and I made our way to the produce section, stopping by the brilliantly colored apples and the oranges that looked like little suns. I walked over to the bins with the pears, inspecting their French-ness. I looked up to see the woman who had been watching me from the front of the store approaching me. She was pushing a cart and came to a stop beside the pears. She looked and me, and spoke in rapid French.  My mind went blank, as I searched for the phrase “Je ne parle pas Français” (I don’t speak French), which I had memorized for  such occasions. She repeated what she had said, or at least I think she did, looking at me expectantly.

F, noticing my inability to produce any words, having observed our interaction from the other side of the pear bin, came over and presumably explained I did not speak French. The woman shifted her piercing gaze back to me and said in perfect English “Oh you speak English then?”. I nodded and said, “Yes”.

Are you from England?”,  she asked?
“No. The United States”, I said.
“Oh”,  she said, looking down her nose at me (that’s how I remember it anyway) saying scornfully, “That’s too bad”, with more attitude then I was prepared for. I stared back at her incredulously, my mind spinning, trying to think of a snappy retort.
“I’ve got some problems with the U.S. too. And I didn’t vote for the President”, I said throwing back some of the same attitude she had used with me, and walked away.

Over by F and the plantains, stilling bristling, I wondered if I should have been more defensive of my country, saying something like  “My country’s not perfect but neither is yours. Your president isn’t that great either”. Or instead of following my later instinct to attack back, perhaps I could have said, “Please don’t make snap judgments about me or my country based on stereotypes”.

This woman’s verbal attack on me based on where I was from, made me think about how quickly people make snap judgments about others and where they are from based on stereotypes. That was the only time I have been judged to my face for being an American, in France or anywhere else in Europe. Since then, I have been in situations at home where I have checked myself so as to not make an assumption about someone based on a stereotype of where they are from, knowing how frustrating it is to be reduced to a blanket stereotype.

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