The Great American Reach Around - The Midwest & France
Cyril "Dr. Fred" Kowaliski
Let's be honest: France probably isn't the most popular tourist destination in the United States at the moment. However, the feeling of irrational antagonism is very much mutual: many French people will gladly rant on about America's cultural imperialism and maverick military endeavors until they're blue in the face. It's a shame, really, because our two countries have every reason in the world to be best buddies. We all love eating, democracy, being staunchly nationalistic, eating, looking down on other countries, our respective stockpiles of deadly nuclear weapons, and of course eating.
We Frenchmen do have a few traits that differentiate us from Americans, though. We're really laid back, we enjoy cushy socialism a little too much for our own good, and we love to complain about anything and everything. Over two centuries of ever-changing government systems, from empires to monarchies and republics, have also made us more cynical about politics than most, and we will go on strike anytime the government pisses us off in the slightest. Lastly, most of us couldn't care less about religion-even though the average French city seems to have a church roughly every 20 square meters.
One such city is Nantes, which is where I live. Nantes has something like 30 churches, but you'll be hard pressed to see anyone attend them regularly. Instead, the locals-les Nantais-would rather sit at one of the city's many cafés, buy pastries at a local old-style bakery, or make me feel underdressed for going shopping in jeans and a t-shirt. (Yes, people here dress really well for some reason I still haven't figured out.)
One of Nantes' main attractions is the local university, and so the city harbors a pretty healthy population of college students. It's not unusual to hear people playing loud music, drunkenly yelling in the street, and partaking in other excesses at 1AM on a Wednesday night, for example. Otherwise, Nantes isn't particularly exciting. It does have a few landmarks-Jules Verne's birth place, the old LU biscuit factory, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, among others-but it's not really the type of place you'd see one of those coaches full of old tourists stop by.
As unexceptional as it may be, Nantes is definitely a pleasant city to live in. I don't even own a car, because more or less everything I need is within walking distance. For everything else, there are trams and buses. The city center is admittedly a maze of small streets, alleys, cul-de-sacs, and unnecessary roundabouts, though, so driving here probably isn't the best idea. Overall, Nantes looks like a strange mish-mash of different epochs, from the Renaissance-era castle to the city's lone skyscraper, with imperial public buildings and early 20th century apartment blocks thrown in here and there. The people are friendly and carefree, though, and staying here is a blast.
To go back to my original point, France really isn't the bastion of cowardly, unshowered, America-hating proto-commies that Fox News would have one believe. The French share most of the same values as Americans, and while we may be more left-leaning, most of us are laid back enough to not make a big deal out of it. So let's just shake hands, make up, and all have a glass of wine-or we'll set your car on fire.