Inside the old stone farmhouse in Normandy, a small Buddha statue sits on the sideboard in the dining room. Photographs depict people from various cultures--Cambodian, Malaysian, Thai. The host and hostess of this chambre d'hôte, have traveled widely. She is fluent in English and he, the photographer, slightly less confident in the 2nd language.
My husband Ken knows only a few words of French and I remember a bit from college. We are seated at the dinner table with eight French guests, only one of whom can communicate at all in English. I think of him as Monsieur Traveler, because he lists all the places he has visited in the United States.
After serving a hand-made paté and the bread whose homey aroma has been teasing me since we arrived after our tour of World War II sites, our hostess introduces the guests. Ken and I eat the entreé of local Camembert cheese baked in a flaky crust as the enthusiastic conversation in French flows around us. I can catch a word here and there, but am frustrated not to understand--particularly the obviously entertaining tales of Monsieur One-Arm who is seated three people away from me on my right.
Madam Traveler watches Monsieur One-Arm, her eyes open wide. From time to time, as he speaks with gusto, she gasps or puts her thin hand to her mouth and says “Oh-h-h” as he tells his tale, which has to do with his being in Vietnam in 1960. Monsieur Traveler synopsizes the long story. “He lost his arm in Vietnam.” It is a reminder that the “American War” was first the “French War.”
At some point after the serving of the delicately cooked fish, Monsieur One-Arm looks at me and speaks to Monsieur Traveler, who replies to him and then turns to me. “He asked if you could understand. I said I speak slowly to you and you understand.”
Mustering my courage, I say, nodding toward the right end of the table, “Monsieur parle tres vite, mais j'ecoute lentement.” The French vacationers laugh at my “speaks very fast/listen slowly,” and Monsieur is off to the races again. But this time, it is a question for me.
“He wants to know,” says Monsieur Traveler, ”what you think of the mosque in New York City.”
He is referring to the hub-bub surrounding the plans to build a high rise Muslim community center in Manhattan, not very far away from the site of the 9-11 attacks. The issue has become enormously divisive in my own country.
Well! I am expecting perhaps the standard, “How long do you stay in our country?” or “How do you like France?” but not a question about a current controversial issue in America. When I travel, I prefer to observe and learn, not proclaim political beliefs. Above all, I don't want to be the know-it-all American, assuming the right to lecture. I shake my head, trying to make a joke of it, covering my ears, generally indicating that I don't really want to talk about it.
But they do. The chatter broils around us as everyone enthusiastically jumps on this conversational thread, and I hear the word Arab used frequently.
Knowing that Muslim and other immigration issues stir up emotion in France just as in America (that very week President Sarkozy was at an EU meeting defying the wishes of the other members that France open their borders to Roma, sometimes called gypsies), I decide to tease a bit. I say, in English, “I am worried that if the mosque is built in New York, all the French Muslims will want to come to America.” My statement, certainly non p.c., delights these 8 French citizens when it is translated for them. They hoot and cry “Bon!” I have my doubts about playing to the crowd, because the joke does not reflect the confusion that I feel about both the American and the French debate about relations with Muslim citizens and immigrants.
Yes, the New York Muslims have a constitutional right to build a building. But does that make it the right thing to do? And because I think the problem of immigration of Muslims in France has been vastly exaggerated, I am surprised at the vehemence of these people's response to my feeble joke. Whatever the reality, I have suddenly learned that at least among some people, the French anti-Muslim sentiment runs strong. Furthermore, there is no reticence about expressing it in front of outsiders. Not only are Ken and I foreigners, only four of these people knew each other before they arrived at this hotel.
When the hostess returns, she and I have a side discussion about the difficulties of discussing such a complex issue with the language barrier. After all, freedom of religion is a basic and important principle in our America, and we cannot simply say NO--you cannot build a religious institution. On the other hand, I believe that common sense says you must consider how your actions affect others. Because the proposal draws so much emotional response, it becomes a provocation. To the French people at this table, the proposed building is simply wrong.
I ask the hostess if their fervor stems from their own concerns about immigration in France and the fear of being overwhelmed by Muslims in their country. She does not think that is why they are opposed to the New York City building. She thinks that what they are saying is an expression of concern about the shock of 9-1-1 and a sympathy for America.
As I have visited other countries, it has frequently struck me how people in other places know everything that is happening in the United States--from drug sprees of Hollywood Stars to Wall Street fluctuations--while Americans only hear about other countries if they are at war, holding elections or victims of natural disasters. Which leads me to ask if these eight French people, who are so involved with the debate over the Muslim building in New York City, also know about the minister who threatened to burn Korans. The hostess asks and all the guests of course were well informed. I am appalled. A non-person, who deserved no attention has been so inflated by media coverage that not only do Americans know him, but people around the world know him.
It was reassuring however, to learn that the people at this table in Normandy did not confuse his grandstanding intolerance with the general attitude of Americans.
After we have polished off the dessert course, a heavenly tarte tatin, we return to our room, decorated with pictures of Buddhist temples and people from Cambodia. The French language rings in our ears. We ponder the effect of the world wide reach of information, and misinformation. We think about the World War II beaches we visited that day and the many lives lost to protect basic freedoms--including the freedom of proclaiming one's own opinion--in France and in America.
Vera Marie Badertscher is a freelance writer, who travels and reads about travel. She shares her love of both at A Traveler's Library. The Normandy conversation took place at Les Chaufourniers, near Bayeux, a charming country stay with gourmet meals.
Photo © Vera Marie Badertscher