JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I've never been one to believe another culture is superior to ours. I mean, I like German food and Italian leather and English comedy, but Merica! Right?
Friends, my view has been changed. Last month, we hosted a young Frenchman for almost two weeks. Jean-Claude(1) is fourteen, in his last year in the college, roughly equivalent to our thirteen-year-old Youngest's eighth grade. Jean-Claude was here to practice his English and immerse himself in American culture, which, I like to think, he did. But I can assure you, we learned as much if not more than our exchange student.
1. There is no free refill in France. One Friday evening, I took Jean-Claude and Youngest to the Portland Museum of Art (3) and followed it up with dinner at the most Maine-centric, American spot I could think of: Becky's Diner. Jean-Claude ordered le hamburger (4) et les frites and un Coca. We were half-way through the dinner, chatting, when the waitress came by, swept up his glass, and returned with the free refill. His amazement was epic. "Yes," I said. "America is a magic land." Youngest thought his bemusement was quite funny until he informed us there were no doggy bags in France. She could not have been more horrified if he had told her they served actual dogs pour le diner.
2. The French way with fashion is real. I suspect Jean-Claude was a pretty typical fourteen-year-old French boy. (5) So it was interesting to compare him to our neighbor's son, a pretty typical fourteen-year-old American. Each morning, they stood together at the end of our driveway, waiting for the bus. Jayden (6) wore baggy shorts (7), a T-shirt and a huge down parka. Jean-Claude wore impossibly slim jeans, sweater I'm pretty sure was cashmere, a sporty, trim ski jacket and a skinny scarf that he tossed and twisted in a way that I couldn't have replicated without the help of a How-to video on YouTube. Jayden looked like he had rolled out of bed on his way to audition for a role in BREAKING BAD. Jean-Claude looked like a Ralph Lauren model. (8)
3. French children have beautiful manners. I knew that Jean-Claude would be used to sitting down and eating his meals en famille. We eat together when we can (9) but we made the effort to do so every night and for breakfast and lunch on le weekend. I discovered the first night that Jean-Claude wouldn't touch his food until I had sat down and picked up my fork. Ross and Youngest would be chowing away, but he sat there, despite urging, until I was at my place. He asked politely for everything. He didn't ask to be excused until everyone had finished eating. He cleared his plate away and loaded his things in the dishwasher every time. (10) He and Youngest spent a lot of evenings at the kitchen table - the warmest spot in the house - and when she got up to do something Jean-Claude stood up as well. I always thought I had done a pretty good job with my children, but if they go to France, people are going to think they were reared by feral weasels.
4. There are no cheerleaders in France. In our attempt to be typical Americans and to interest a sportif fourteen-year-old boy, we took Jean-Claude to a Portland Red Claws basketball game. There we discovered the French do not have giant mascots, mid-game contests to win a car (11), fifty-fifty raffles and cheerleaders. This last seemed to be something Jean-Claude would not have been adverse to importing. We also taught Jean-Paul to say, "Merica! Yeah!"
5. France is a socialist hell-hole. We discovered this during a discussion of higher education. Jean-Claude's older sister is planning to study engineering, which will set her family back a cool $1000 a year. Jean-Claude would like to study medicine, however, so his tuition will be free. At this point, Ross announced his willingness to live under the dread specter of socialism for his childrens' sake. Somehow, Jean-Claude's parents, despite struggling with this oppressive system of theft-by-taxation, manage to have a nice home in Amiens, ski regularly in the French Alps, and travel to India and Morocco. (12) But no free refills! So there is that.
(1) Not his real name (2)
(2) But it's totally the name of our friend Katja's husband from Normandy!
(3) Free admission on Fridays!
(4) Youngest and I discovered that in France, the polite way to eat a burger in a restaurant is with your knife and fork. We figured this out when Jean-Claude tried to use his utensils to tackle a typical American hamburger (ie, a 5"x5" cylinder of meat, cheese, toppings and sauces.) One must assume les hamburgers are a great dealt smaller in France.
(5) Except for bearing a striking resemblance to that boy in ONE DIRECTION all the teenyboppers are crazy about. Seriously, Jean-Claude had middle-school girls literally following him around giving him notes.
(6) Also not his name, but you have to admit, it's becoming increasingly typical. When you're a senior citizen, your lawyer, nurse, accountant and garage mechanic will be named Aiden, Brayden, Jayden and Caiden, respectively.
(7) Yes, shorts. In Maine. In February. It's a thing.
(8) In addition to handing him notes, he had five girls texting him at all hours.
(9) Okay, we eat together maybe once a week. I'm sorry, Mom, I know you raised me better than that.
(10) Seriously. My 55-year-old husband can't manage that trick.
(11) Not to mention the mid-quarter little-kid ball-shooting contest and the magic act at half-time.
(12) Perhaps the government saves somehow by not having cheerleaders?