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112 Gripes (Our friends, the French), part 1
At the end of the second world war, United States forces stationed in France experienced what might be diplomatically called “tensions” with their hosts. It’s not really hard to see why; even in the best of circumstances, different cultural values are going to make life complicated. And then throw in the minor detail of France’s general weariness at having been invaded and occupied, American soldiers’ general post-war fatigue and likely under-reported PTSD, and you have a recipe for a lot of gripes.
But the US military couldn’t let tensions boil over, so they took 112 of these gripes and made a pamphlet, the most effective morale-corrector known to man. The document was circulated in France among enlisted Americans starting in 1945, and you’re in luck: this priceless document has been scanned and is available to read right here.
Here are a couple highlights, in case you were on the fence about clicking on that link (which is a lot of effort, to be fair). I’ll be making editor’s notes in [square brackets], too.
Gripe #20: “The French aren’t friendly.”
Uncle Sam’s rebuttal: “Some Frenchman are; other Frenchmen are not.
The French as a whole are not as “hail fellow well met” as we Americans are. [‘Cause that’s totally how I greet friends and strangers. Hailing them, and the like.] Neither are the British, the Swedes, the Greeks, the Mexicans.
Frenchmen don’t get personal or confidential quickly.
They don’t “open up” as quickly as we do in the States.
The French are very polite; they are also more formal than we are about personal relationships. (So are the Chinese.) The French respect another person’s privacy, and they like to have their own privacy respected too.
It is natural for anyone to think the people of another nation are not as friendly as his own people. It’s hard to be friendly in a foreign language. It’s hard to be friendly when you’re hungry, cold, and have gone through six years of war – as the French have. Yet the Americans who came into Normandy, or who came into Paris right after the liberation, still talk about the astonishing outburst of gratitude, generosity and friendliness which the French displayed toward us.
Back in the States, many of our troops complained that the people in the towns near the training camps were not friendly. People from our South often complain that the people in the North are not friendly. A Texan in Vermont finds New Englanders “cold” and “snobbish”. [As they should be!] Do we then say that all Americans are unfriendly?
Friendship, said a wise man, lies in this: “To desire the same things and to reject the same things.” [What wise man was that? I’d sure hate to spend time with most of the people that statement describes.] On this basis, the United States has never had a better friend than France.”
Gripe #45: “The French don’t bathe.”
“The French don’t bathe often enough. They can’t. They don’t have real soap. They they had no soap worthy of the name since 1940. The Germans took the soap, for four years. [WWII will forever be remembered as Europe’s war for soap.] That’s a long time.
The ration for Frenchman today, four months after the war is over, is two cakes of poor ersatz soap per month – 20 grams every two months. Most real soap can only he obtained on the black market, where it costs around 125 francs for 310 grams. [This explanation doesn’t do anything for us in 2014, unfortunately.]“
Gripe #53: “The French are primitive. French farmers still wear wooden shoes.” [First of all, how is that a gripe? “I just refuse to occupy the same landmass as people who wear wooden shoes,” said no one ever.]
“The French farmer is more sensible than you think. The French farmer wears wooden shoes because they insulate his feet against mud and damp much better than leather can. [You know what, as much as I don’t care about wooden shoes, I’m finding the prospect of defending them even less intellectually appealing. And I still don’t see how that makes them primitive.]
France does not have the very hot summer days and nights we get in the Middle West. The landscape of France is not deforested because for centuries the French have been careful to re-plant the trees they’ve cut down. [Buncha hippies. I knew there was a reason we didn’t like ’em.] And so the rivers of France run deep all year round, and the French soil is cool and moist, and wooden shoes come in mighty handy. The French farmer finds them more practical than leather shoes.”
As fun as it is to see what annoyed Americans about the French in 1945, this pamphlet is also a pretty interesting look at an important time period in the relationship between two countries with a really complicated past. What kind of gripes would you put in a 2014 edition? And what kind would they put in a version about Americans? I’d read that in a heartbeat.