Americans afar touched by war

France: Living abroad, U.S. citizens note some changes in the way their hosts relate to them as tensions with Iraq grow.

March 01, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - Peter Jones sounds like a bright 19-year-old American college student living the dream of studying in France, which he is. He says he is here not only to broaden his mind but also to add depth to his soul. He relishes languages and music. He sees architecture, not buildings. He is in love with romance.

"The magic experience, the Parisian experience, whatever you want to call it," he says, "really is magic."

When Jones is finished with a day of practicing singing in Italian, when he breaks from his studies at the American University in Paris and takes part in the time-honored French custom of lingering in a cafe, he sometimes runs into another side of being an American abroad: When some French hear his American accent, they go quiet, like people talking unfavorably about a man who unexpectedly enters a room. Or they ask him, What on earth is going on in your country?

"I can't say I particularly like that side of things because I want to experience people as they really are, and when they find I'm American I know in a lot of cases they're censoring themselves or just acting differently," he says. "But that's how it is. What can you do?"

For some Americans in Paris, the answer is to wear a thick skin, apologize when it seems warranted, explain when it is possible and understand that there is a difference between French attitudes toward the U.S. government and French feelings about Americans as individuals.

Public opinion in France is overwhelmingly against President Bush's stance on Iraq. The view is that he is dead-set on removing Saddam Hussein, as opposed to merely disarming him; that the president's willingness, so far, to wait for United Nations inspectors to do their job is not a skillful tactic to avoid war but a transparent cover to wage it.

Americans here know the French have been offended by remarks from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld casting their country as "Old Europe."

They know the French are aware of the sentiment among many Americans that they are ungrateful for the lives of U.S. soldiers lost liberating France from the Germans in World War II. They can laugh with the French at jokes made at France's expense, but realize there is a serious side to those words, that they are pop-culture reflections of how many Americans have personalized the dispute over Iraq.

In Indonesia, in the Middle East and parts of Africa, U.S. embassies have been sending home the families of diplomats and staff members not considered essential.

In France, though, threats to individual Americans are considered remote, as they are throughout Europe.

That does not mean matters have been entirely comfortable for many of the 200,000 or so Americans living in France or the 5 million living elsewhere outside the United States.

`They don't ask'

"Nobody has come up and accosted me because I'm American," says Roberta Beardsley, who is 66 and moved from Los Angeles to France, for the second time, in 1976, when her husband took a job here.

"At the same time, people used to hear my accent and it'd become a way to meet people because people were instantly more interested in me. Now they hear the accent and they don't ask if I'm an American. They don't say anything at all. I think they want to avoid all these delicate subjects.

"I'm amazed at the unanimity here. The French really are speaking with one voice now, and it's an anti-Bush, anti-war voice, a real sense that this war is wrong and the American president is to blame. But I don't get the sense from people that they blame me."

Americans decide to live abroad for a variety of reasons, for college, like Jones, or jobs, like Beardsley, or love, like any number of Americans who found their perfect spouse did not necessarily have to hail from the United States. Some Americans settle in another part of the world for adventure, some simply for romantic notions.

And, while their ties to the United States often remain strong, many Americans living here cringe when Bush or Rumsfeld or even Bart Simpson expresses a view considered insulting on this side of the Atlantic Ocean - when there is criticism of the French, for example, rather than French policy.

For all of the sudden silences here and the intensity of anti-war protests, Americans in Paris say the French have not been retaliatory, have not personalized what is essentially a high-stakes policy dispute.

"There are intellectual disagreements, but it hasn't gotten personal. At least I've never been attacked personally for being American," says Tom Evans, who is 33 and from Maine and who has worked in Paris in advertising for nearly two years.

"I think there's an emotional debate going on in the United States, and here it's more centered on policy."

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