Say what you like about the French – well, go on – but the stereotypes are not true. The snooty Frenchman. The rude Frenchman. The Gallic snob who refuses to speak English even though he or she clearly can.
Those clichés are not true. Maybe they used to be, but not any more.
I notice this every time I visit France. I noticed it on my first trip there, and I noticed it on my last. Still it comes as a shock every time, so deeply ingrained are these preconceived ideas.
Paris, 2010. I'm in the city to stay with a friend of a friend, and I've been invited to a dinner with people I don't really know. I need a bottle of wine, something within my budget that will still impress my no doubt wine-savvy hosts.
A Parisian wine shop is an intimidating place for a rookie. All those rows of bottles, all with labels that give very little away to someone who knows nothing about French wine. What's the grape? You don't know. What sort of food will each wine suit? Which bottle will be most impressive? What's the difference between a vin de pays and a grande cru? Dunno, dunno, dunno.
And so there I was, standing in front of this wall of wine, completely baffled, when the shop assistant approached me. "Hello," she ventured, "can I help explain any of the wine to you?"
Flawless English. A dazzling smile. Genuine assistance.
And, I have to say, that has mostly been my experience of France and its good citizens: friendly people who go out of their way to help you; funny people who relate well to the Australian sense of humour; casually stylish people who at the very least have managed to hide their disdain for my schlubbish Antipodean sense of fashion.
I really like the French. I've only just departed the country and I miss it already. I've spent the last few days staying near St Emilion, in tourist-soaked French wine country, and the local people I met there couldn't have been friendlier or more welcoming.
Strangers smiled and said "bonjour" to me as they walked into the bakery. Shop assistants did their best with English that ranged from limited to perfect to help me out. Our hosts in our little holiday cottage showed generosity and kindness.
When you live in the Basque Country of Spain, as I do, these things come as a surprise. The people of northern Spain don't do niceties. No one is particularly polite or immediately friendly. And then you cross the border and suddenly everyone couldn't be more charming.
Part of the shock is that it goes so strongly against the stereotype. We're brought up as Anglo-Saxons to believe that the French are arrogant, that they're snobby and they're intolerant. Those stereotypes are often brought up in jest, but many a true word is spoken, right?
It shows the danger of accepting foreign stereotypes as truth. These cliches guide expectations and they colour experiences. If, for example, you're expecting loud, brash Americans, you will find loud, brash Americans. You'll also miss their innate kindness and generosity.
And so it goes with France. People are so busy looking out for the stereotypes – which, of course, do exist out there somewhere if you try hard enough to find them – that they miss what's in front of them.
Most French people will speak English to you if they can. If you greet them in French, if you smile and ask – in French – if they speak English, there's a very good chance you'll find that they can and they will. "Un petit peu," they'll say, before dazzling you with perfect anglais.
If, however, you just speak loudly at someone in English and expect them to respond in kind, they probably won't. But that's on you. Show a little courtesy in France and it will be repaid immediately. Make an effort and it will be appreciated.
You will notice there are some Gallic stereotypes that do seem to be true. French people always seem to be on strike or protesting about something. They drink a lot of wine. They smoke a lot of cigarettes. They wear berets (in the Basque south). They eat baguettes. They dress well. They like rugby and football and shrugging their shoulders.
You will even find some of the more insidious clichés if you go looking for them. I'm sure there are snooty waiters in Paris. I'm sure there are locals in the big cities who can't abide the sight of another bumbling tourist. I have no doubt there are people who won't give you the time of day just because you're a foreigner.
But in my experience these citizens are in the minority. France is a big place, multicultural and modern. Its people mostly welcome visitors, particularly those who make an effort to fit in. They're polite people and friendly people, effortlessly flirtatious and charmingly happy.
And those, to me, are the stereotypes they deserve.
Have you been to France? Did people there surprise you? Did they fit the stereotypes? What have we got wrong about the French?
See also: The world's most hated tourists revealed
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