No one wants to be the loud, obnoxious, Ugly American who confirms every single negative stereotype that every single European has ever had about us. The idea is to blend in, not to attract attention. However, despite our best efforts, at every turn at the cartoon festival in St-Just-al-Martel in France, our small contingent of American cartoonists couldn’t disguise our heritage.
The leader of our group, Daryl Cagle, was the best at projecting a certain Continental sophistication. He had been to the Festival the year before and had learned the trick to appearing world-weary. He knew how to say “bastards!” in French.
The French would tease, and say, “Dare-eel, what do you zink of zee shut down of American government?”
“Dare-eel, what of zee NSA spy-eeng?”
It covered about half of Daryl’s conversational requirements over the festival’s three days.
The rest of us, however, were unfamiliar with this trick. We had to communicate with our French colleagues through grins, pantomime, and embarrassing silences following what, we thought, were clever Bon mots. Curiously, there was little resort to drawing as a means to bridge the gap.
There were also the times when we loudly proclaimed our rube-ness. Bob Engelhart, a cartoonist from Connecticut, was there with his wife, Pat. A dead ringer for Walter White from “Breaking Bad”, Bob and I spent the first meal served us in St. Just (all the meals are communal over the course of the festival, sometimes serving over 300 at a time) praising the quality of the chicken.
“This is real chicken!” I assured my son, Alec, about the flavorful and reddish thighs we were eating. “Not like those from factory farms.” I was seconded by Bob, who had grown up, he told us, in the country. “Yep, that’s the real deal!”
Through gestures and making loud, “mmm-mmm!” sounds we asked our hosts what kind of chicken it was.
“Canard Limosine”, they told us.
We nodded our appreciation at this fine variety of chicken. Then one of the few French words I actually knew passed through some especially atrophied neural connections into consciousness. “Limosine” referred to the region of France we were in, but “canard” . . .
The next night we were dropped off at our hotel around midnight only to find there was no one at the front desk to let us in. We pushed the button which should have roused someone, to no effect. We pounded on the door and groused at the inefficiency of the European service economy.
A group of French people also arrived a few minutes later and we gestured and pantomimed our conviction that nothing worked. They called the emergency phone number listed on the door (despite having made arrangements with our phone carriers, none of the American cell phones worked as advertised). After a few “ouis” and an eye-roll, our French savior pulled out his room card key and flashed the bold numbers printed under the bold word: CODE. We looked at our card keys. We also had the word CODE followed by the same numbers.
Which worked just dandy on the front door key punch.