Leave your baggage at the door

Over the last week, our group has spent an incredible amount of time talking about stereotypes: What we think the stereotypes of the French are, and what we think the French think of us. In beginners’ French, some of our standard ideas surprised our teacher.  Likewise, some of his ideas of Americans definitely surprised me.

But some of the main thoughts that we all shared seemed standard. Stereotypically, the French don’t like Americans. They think we’re lazy, fat, and obsessed with money. We think the French are rude, elitist, and thus don’t like having us around.

I can’t always argue with their opinions. Many of us are lazy, when it comes to exercise at least, fat for sure. Obsessed with money? Absolutely. However, while our stereotypes may be standard for tourist-filled Paris, in Perpignan I have found almost everyone to be kind, generous and excited about teaching us their culture, habits, and language.

In my ten days here, only one woman called my friends and I “Americans” in a derogatory tone. While shopping among the various boutiques in the winding Perpignan streets, one woman ordered us out of her shop. We loved a hat she had, a wide brimmed beauty. My friend tried it on and wanted us to take a picture of her in it. Giggling like girls do when on a shopping trip, we acquiesced and readied our zoom. Immediately the owner pounced.

“That’s enough now,” she said. “You take that off. You gone too far. You may be able to make joke like that in America, but here you are in a tres chic boutique. You do not do that here.” We didn’t bother attempting to explain that we were thinking of buying the hat because we loved it so much.

After apologizing profusely, we shook our heads and entered the shop next door. There the shopkeeper greeted us happily, tried to communicate in her broken English and we in our very limited French. There was no sign of the confrontational tone we received from the previous shopkeeper. In fact, there were no more negative experiences the rest of the day, and none before or since.

Instead, I have a mental list of the people I have come to know and love in only 10 days. The cute little old lady at the fruit stand that corrects our French, only giving us fruit when we correctly pronounce the names, (cherries are “sur-rees,” with the ‘R’ deep in the back of the throat). The woman at the bakery who smiled when I finally told her what I wanted in a full sentence in French and told me “trés bien.” The waiters at every restaurant who laugh good-naturedly at our pronunciation mistakes and put up with our loud American ways. The ALFMED interns who invite us out dancing and have dinner with us on weekends.

Other than one isolated incident, the citizens of Perpignan have done nothing but prove my French stereotypes incorrect. Boys yell out of cars just as they do at home, girls swarm the stores on Friday afternoons, and little old ladies are happy to help a silly kid when they feel it’s needed.

If these last 10 days have taught me anything, it’s to throw away my prejudice and snap judgments. I just hope that I can bring this lesson into my daily life, and remember to take it home.