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Aug 16, 1997
Vive L'Amerique! Vive Budweiser! Vive Mickey! - Forbes
I opened my bank account in Paris with a bank representative whose last name was, reassuringly enough, Million. Returning to my office after interminable form filling I was promptly called by Monsieur Million who invited me to his family's home that evening for dinner. Fearing that I may have somehow misled Monsieur Million as to the size of my expected deposits at his bank, I quickly commenced explaining that my salary, the modest size of which he was quite aware of by now, was the only thing going into the account. He laughed: "Oh no, this is not for any professional reason. I just thought it would be fun to have an American at the table."

Paris has been like that for a little while. As everyone knows, the French have a love/hate relationship with Americans. It works in cycles. Right now it's love.

But they're still more interested in seeing Annette than Mickey

Whereas five years ago Disneyland Paris was loudly sniffed at by the local intelligentsia in the press and ignored by French visitors, the posh Michelin Guide now gives it a three star rating as a "must see attraction" and French-accented mouseketeers have made it the country's #1 tourist attraction.

The reverse baseball cap rules the boulevards from Cannes to Calais. "La Roue de Fortune" and "Baywatch" dominate the airwaves. Pseudo US college town bars and restaurants, which have opened on virtually every major street, are currently packed, not to mention my local Chili's, on the Champs Elysees, where, when I can elbow my way to the bar, I find a trendy Frenchman to my left and a trendy Frenchman to my right poring over complimentary copies of USA TODAY while downing icy Budweisers. The hottest sweater last winter, sold by the chic Chevignon chain, featured a large fluffy US flag on the front.

Pledging allegiance was never easier.

The iconographic power of the American language is also in full effect here. Parisian sidewalks are a virtual parade of sweatshirts featuring non-existent universities and extraordinary phrases ("SERIOUS COOL FUNKY" "BIG DIP WOW!") making strolling an exercise in U.S. Dadaism.

Make no mistake. This is not the English language being celebrated. This is an American-specific event. The English, for reasons too numerous to be articulated here, do not get to ride the love/hate cycle. Their status seems to be permanently parked on hate. Perhaps the most heart-breaking romance in the long sad history of unrequited love is the one between the English and the French. Though the Brits swarm over this country in their annual pilgrimages to cherished summer homes, vineyards and cooking pots, their cheery enthusiasm inevitably sours by the cold reception they receive here. In fact, for yours truly, several moments of impending rudeness have been instantly averted the moment I clarified that my foreign accent is American, not English.

A recent visit to Avignon in the South of France revealed a regional expression which is currently popular. If something is "good," i.e. the day is sunny, a meal especially delicious, a cheese unusually pungent, it is "c'est comme l'Amerique." France's tiny and semi-permanent political class which chatters endlessly about replacing U.S. control of the Mediterranean Sixth Fleet, resisting US initiatives in Francophone Africa, and defending French soil from the likes of Sly Stallone, Ronald McDonald and Daffy Duck, chatters mostly to itself. The government's recent trouncing in the national election reveals that it has been as close to the man on the street as a Quarter Pounder is to a Croque Monsieur. A workable plan addressing real national woes such as 12.8% unemployment, crippling taxes and innumerable strikes would be, to the vast majority, "comme l'Amerique."

It's true that for years the French embraced certain aspects of American culture. But it was usually the aspects that embarrassed us the most. How else can you explain the Gallic passion for Jerry Lewis? But until recently any discussion of American culture was tinged with more than a soupcon of irony, the ingredient that is to French intellectual thought what garlic is to their cuisine. Today, however, the younger generation is going American with a completely straight face. When they go to EuroDisneyland, they are not making some grand existential gesture. They just want to have fun.

Thanks to the movie "Fargo," which garnished two Palme D'Ors at last year's Cannes Film Festival, my Minnesota roots play quite well with the locals. A brief mention of my home state has several times elicited an enthusiastic "Ah, Minnesota, mais c'est Super," as if the Cohen brothers' bland vision of the frozen tundra of the North was the most exotic place on earth. This is nothing compared to what happens when my Texas-born wife elbows her way into my act with her boots and ten-gallon hat.

You could always tell them they smell bad

All in all, the current affection towards our homeland have made things pretty easy for us over here. We get invitations out of the blue, and when we really ham it up, drinks sometimes end up on the house. Frankly, I am a bit disappointed that my current sojourn has not been rewarded with any of the classic rude Parisian stories that are always such a hit at stateside cocktail parties. For the moment, I remain condemned to return virtually empty-handed, armed only with tales of politeness, grace, and forced conversations in my native language by strangers who Want Their MTV.

Why? It would be tempting to say the heated US economy, the emergence of the US as the world's only superpower and the compelling cultural attributes of "Baywatch" have finally won over French hearts and minds. Anyone who has been over here for a longer period of time will tell you that this is nonsense.

America's cultural prestige in this country is like the mandated ideal skirt length: One period it is up, another it is down. And no one can tell you what dictates it other than the fact that it provides a welcome contrast to last season's fashion.

I fully expect to return to the US in years to come with blood-curdling tales of Parisian atrocities. For now, I have to content myself with merely being fashionable.
   
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