FRENCH LESSON: IT’S POLITICIANS, NOT THE PEOPLE

Here is what I think about France: I am in high school. My parents have a surprise. I have never been to Europe before. I get a passport. I board a plane. I speak to a cab driver, for the first time, in a foreign language. I see the Eiffel Tower, at night, in the winter, with the French words for
“Happy New Year” illuminated on its side.

Here is what I think about France: I am a college student. I visit a friend. She is living in Paris, in a “flat” — the first time I have heard the word — and she is reading paperbacks and wearing sweaters for warmth and she knows the difference between the breads in the bakery where she shops each morning. I shop with her and the storekeeper smiles and asks where I am from.

Here is what I think about France: I am a young man on a bicycle trip. We pedal through the green and amber countryside of the Provence region. We stop at gardens and at caves and at old farmhouses and, one afternoon, at a roadside fruit stand. Sweaty and hungry, I buy a peach the size of a softball. I take a bite and it drips down my chin. The vendor laughs. I laugh, too.

By this point, I have been there many times. I have never met a politician.

A wonderful place to visit?

Here is what I think about France: I am in my 20s. I am walking the seashores near Cannes and St. Tropez. The houses look like the words of that song, little boxes on the hillside, and the beaches gleam and teenagers ride on scooters. In the mornings, there are old women walking dogs. We exchange
“bonjours.”

Here is what I think about France: I am on assignment, at the French Open, where the clay is red and its dust colors the tennis players’ socks. I hear the stadium crowd go wild for Jimmy Connors, an aging warrior fighting against time. Connors is American. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Here is what I think about France: I am in my 30s, and my young niece is with me. She has never seen Paris, and I guide her and some cousins through the underground Metro and the steps of Montmarte. Near the Arc de Triomphe, a man in the park talks about the day the Americans came down the Champs Elysees, liberating the country. He smiles when he tells it.

At one point, we stop in a sweater shop for directions. The people draw a map. They point out lefts and rights. They wave good-bye.

By this point, I have been to France many more times. I have never met a politician.

Why not agree to disagree?

Last week, members of Congress, my elected officials, chose to change the menu in the Congressional cafeterias, so that French fries are now “Freedom” fries and French toast is now “Freedom” toast. This was done, we were told, to show the French what we think of their lack of support for our war against Iraq.

I think about the people I have met in France, the students, the waiters, the shop owners, the jazz club workers. I wonder what they think when they hear that story.

I know what I think. I think the more we sink toward hating other people, the more we are like the people we are fighting. If a country wants to disagree with us, so what? Must we hate them and all their people, too, even their food? Do we want every country that disagrees with us hating our populace, too?

If so, we’re on our way. I may not like France’s politicians or policies, but then, the French probably don’t like ours, either. I would hope they still might smile when I dripped a peach or asked for directions.

Here is what I think about France, and any other country: You ought to go there a few times before cursing it. Politicians don’t speak for everybody. Anyone living in America knows that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read Albom’s most recent columns, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.htm.

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